The power (and the staying power) of the myth of desecration
Ever since I heard about the violent reaction to the Newsweek Koran story, a little bell has been going off in the back of my head. One of those things that says, "This is familiar. This reminds me of something. What could it be?" You know how it is; you think and you think, but nothing specific comes up, just this general feeling.
This morning, though, it finally came to me, in that state of half-consciousness between sleep and wakening. The blood libel. The host desecration. Of course.
For those of you unfamiliar with the myth of the blood libel and the host desecration, please go here. These are two ancient and false accusations that seem utterly preposterous today, but were believed at the time by many Christians, and have caused widespread violence against Jews--for centuries, and in many parts of the world.
Please read the entire link to learn about it. But here's a short summary:
In 1144 CE, an unfounded rumor began in eastern England, that Jews had kidnapped a Christian child, tied him to a cross, stabbed his head to simulate Jesus' crown of thorns, killed him, drained his body completely of blood, and mixed the blood into matzos (unleavened bread) at time of Passover. The rumor arose from a former Jew, Theobald, who had become a Christian monk...
The host is a wafer used during the Roman Catholic mass...the church teaches that it is converted into the actual body of Jesus Christ, just as the wine becomes Jesus' actual blood. These elements of the mass are then eaten by the believers....A variation of the blood libel myth developed in Europe early in the 11th century. Instead of accusing the Jews of killing an innocent child, they were accused of desecrating the host. Sometimes they were accused stabbing pins into the host, or of stepping on it. Other times, they were accused of stabbing the host with a knife until Jesus' blood leaked out. Sometimes, they were accused of nailing the host, in a symbolic replay of the crucifixion.
The elements are very similar, particularly in the host desecration myth. In each case, we have believers in the sanctity of the object itself (for medieval Catholics, the host; for present day Moslem fundamentalists, the Koran), and a belief that another group showed lack of respect for the sanctity of said object and violated it in a terrible way. In the case of the blood libel, we also have allegations of an actual murder of an innocent for purposes of ritual desecration.
As in the present situation, we have a fundamentalist group deeply enraged that another group is said to have desecrated its most holy object. Just as many medieval Christians believed the blood libel and the host desecration to be just cause for killing Jews, so some Moslems of today think the penalty for the current charges should be death. In the case of the former, the Church tried to do damage control and say the rumor was a lie, just as Newsweek is attempting to do today. (Unlike Newsweek, though, the Church was not itself responsible for originally spreading the libel). And, as is true today, it is very difficult to clear the record once these things are in the public domain. In fact, it is amazing that, in an age of fairly primitive communications in terms of technology, these myths still had the power to get so far, to have such staying power, and to cause so much damage.
Of course, Christianity has changed a lot since those days. The blood libel and host desecration myths no longer have any traction for Christians, and haven't for a long while. But the world of Moslem fundamentalism is still very susceptible to this type of thinking.
One very big difference, though--at least so far--is that the scope of the damage in the present case has been relatively small compared to its historical precedent. I sincerely hope it stays that way.
ADDENDUM: I wanted to add once again that I do not think this rumor was promulgated by Newsweek with any appreciation of its meaning in the Moslem world, or the severity of the possible consequences. Whether Newsweek ought to have foreseen these things is a question discussed here, including the comments section.