Monday, July 21, 2014

Bullying in Religion’s name



Today I am very pleased to introduce you to the delightful Susan Froetschel, who will take MIE readers to a brand new location--Afghanistan.  I met Susan because we shared a panel together at Malice Domestic.  She is the author of five mystery books. Her Fear of Beauty – about a fictional Afghan village bullied by a band of extremists and the woman who resists – was a nominee for the 2014 Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award, Mystery Writers of America. Her next book, Allure of Deceit, will be published by Seventh Street Books in February. Based in Michigan, she writes for YaleGlobal Online, based at Yale University’s MacMillan Center. A review in Calliope noted: “For readers numbed by a decade of news reports from war-torn Afghanistan, Froetschel provides a fascinating glimpse into life in a humble village… The magic of reading this book is that we become Sofi, and we leave better for the experience.”  Here is her take on a plight of women in a place that has been wartorn for decades.



In countries like Afghanistan or Nigeria, it takes only a few to terrorize entire communities with brutal attacks on schools, police, or courts. The victims, so often women or children, cannot follow the old advice to ignore bullies and walk away.   

Research on religious bullying tends to focus on varying beliefs among religions or sects. One definition describes religious bullying as “repeated acts of aggression in which the power of institutional religion is used to mock, humiliate, or threaten others who do not share the same religious beliefs or practices.”

Nations dominated by one religion are not immune from such bullying. Competition for power turns into a self-righteous effort to be “holier than the rest” and insistence that no alternative points of view exist. Adult bullies may take on the role of teacher, “disguising demeaning and cruel behavior as appropriate disciplinary responses,” suggests David R. Dupper in School Bullying: New Perspectives on a Growing Problem.

Women in Afghanistan must worry about the Taliban and other extremists having any role in government. “The Taliban has turned into Frankenstein’s monster; a few crumbs will not satiate it,” writes Kamila Hyat for the News International in Pakistan.  “Perhaps this is why those who are ‘pro-talks’ have not said what their formula for a compromise would be or how they plan to tame a monster which is growing stronger as we hum and haw over what to do with it.” She warns that communities that don’t speak out against bullying can expect to see their communities weakened.

Without zero tolerance, bullying spreads.    

In their quest for power, bullies target both the weak and successful. Bullying is repeated, intentional and can escalate, warns a National Centre Against Bullying in Australia brochure, printed in several languages. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry describes some warning signs: Bullies thrive on controlling others with physical or verbal responses. The bullies are insecure and often have a history of being bullied themselves. Many claim they are under attack even as they bully others, trying to achieve power.  

Unfortunately, experts such as those at BullyingStatistics.org admit that little can be done about adult bullies even in the West: The bullies “are not interested in working things out and they are not interested in compromise. Rather, adult bullies are more interested in power and domination. They want to feel as though they are important and preferred, and they accomplish this by bringing others down. There is very little you can do to change an adult bully, beyond working within the confines of laws…”

Rule of law is shaky in Afghanistan. About 80 percent of criminal and civil disputes in Afghanistan are resolved by small and informal community forums rather than official courts, the U.S. Institute of Peace has reported, and the track record of protecting the vulnerable can be hit or miss. In hostile communities, the vulnerable cannot count on enforcement or justice.

Research suggests that influencing the onlookers to speak up and resist may be more effective than containing the bullies. There is increasing agreement among researchers and policymakers that interventions against bullying should be targeted at the peer group level rather than at individual bullies and victims,” notes Christina Salmivalli for Education.com. The professor of psychology at the University of Turku, Finland, writes about children but the principles apply to the marginalized adults, often insecure, who also try to control through bullying. When onlookers don’t speak up, the bullies view that as acceptance of their behavior. “Converting their already existing attitudes into behaviour is a challenging task, but it might nevertheless be a more realistic goal,” Salmivalli explains.

Those who oppose the bullying culture must resist, finding supportive bystanders and speaking out together. Parents must raise their children to detest the swaggering tendencies, in others and themselves. Fortunately, members of the Taliban may number no more than 75,000, relatively few in a country of more than 30 million people. Many join the Taliban movement for economic rather than ideological reasons or are coerced.  

Unless communities identify the controlling behavior and resist it together, spreading courage and support, bullying can become entrenched among some adults. A recent Duke University linked bullying with risk of psychological disorders in adulthood. A 2006 Canadian study of adolescents suggests that identification of the bullies and awareness can ease the reinforcing dynamics.

Social media has taken a lead in identifying and labeling religious bullying for what it is – cruel power grabs. A swell of global support for any one community helps all under attack by bullies.     


Young women train as midwifes in Nigeria, with support from Great Britain




Students share books in Helmand.



Annamaria - Monday

11 comments:

  1. Thanks, Susan. The battle against bullying seems to be a never ending effort in every culture, although the stronger the rule of law, as you mentioned, the harder it is for 'organized' bullies to operate effectively. That's one reason that the current conservative movement in the U.S. bothers me.

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    1. Dear Everett,

      it does seem a never-ending effort for every community. No community is immune. It's amazing how many are cowed when bullying against one group starts. Thank you for writing.

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  2. A very poignant and timely piece, Susan. The bullying phenomenon--which puts 75,000 ru(i)nning the lives of 30 million (in your example)--and your suggestion on how to address it--reminds me of advice I received from my father when he saw me being bullied by a older boy in the neighborhood. He said, "You've got a choice. Get beaten up every day or make him think twice about picking on you. Do what everyone else in the neighborhood would like to do, hit him as hard as you can and keep hitting him until he runs away." Then he paused. "But once he starts running, don't chase him. You might just catch him."

    There's a lot of what he said in what you wrote.

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    1. My mother told me never to start a fight, Jeff

      But always to finish one ...

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    2. I think it's even more effective when we stand up for others. And shouting or asking what do you think you are doing? or Do you think that is nice? can often put a stop to bullying in our society. We are fortunate.

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  3. Great piece, Susan, One of the things that originally inspired me to write my series and give Charlie her failed military background was the scandal of the hazing and bullying that had taken place at a UK army training camp called Deep Cut. Your comment about bullying by teachers -- “disguising demeaning and cruel behavior as appropriate disciplinary responses,” -- struck a particular chord.

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    1. Our writing lets us explore the issues and behaviors that bother us. Like you, Zoe, my second book emerged after a teacher bullied my son in elementary school.

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  4. I liked your article, and as with most people can identify with bullying examples in my personal life - from religion, school, work, parenting,politics etc. It is appropriate to link bullying to religion especially in the case of the Taliban. However, I wonder about religion in general as being a cause and if bullying associated with religion is occurring as it is an ingrained aspect of life. Bullying likely has some biological basis related to passing on ones genes and it will be difficult to correct. It is good that the subject has become mainstream and recently some corrective measures are being taken. However, from my experience the victims of bullying have to become bullies themselves to make change. Unfortunately, in our society, we respond to bullying because of legal ramifications and then we end up isolating the victims. This may end the conflict but does not stop the problem or its negative consequences. It makes you wonder if those are right who say you have to fight for yourself to stop bullying. Also if we would only follow the main religious doctrine related to caring for our fellow man over our own material advancement - perhaps bullying would not be a problem. I think the main problem with religion is few actually practice what they preach.

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    1. Thank you for this thoughtful and do not mean to imply that all religion is cause of bullying but bullies can certainly use it as one of their tools - as one of the unfortunate consequences of religious beliefs is that one way is the right way and the other paths are wrong. A few take these beliefs to extreme, by imposing them on others, pressuring them and threatening, and rationalizing this imposition as "saving" a community or individuals. The notion of free will frightens these bullies as a force of temptation. I agree that most people are both bullies and bullied throughout life, and we tend to rationalize or forget when we were the bullies. And that is the joy of writing mystery stories - creating both protagonists and villains! And I must point out that a conflict is put into pause when ordinary bystanders to a conflict - political, religious, street fights, or playground matters - speak up to the bullies.

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  5. Thank you for using your writing to bring attention to what we can do as global neighbors to keep the few from terrorizing the many.

    I came to yoga to learn skills to be more calm at work and home, and am encouraged to see its spread into school curriculum: such as the Calming Kids program http://www.calmingkidsyoga.org/
    Yoga teaches us that the key to addressing relationships, be it intra-personal or inter-personal is to start with a calm body and mind. Additionally, a strong body helps to build inner strength and confidence, thereby laying the groundwork for teaching effective communication skills and healthy boundary setting.

    Through non-violent communication techniques and role-playing with common bully scenarios,students learn how to effectively and compassionately respond to conflict, and decipher when to walk away or to seek help. Moreover, as an effective stress-management tool, yoga provides an alternative for students who bully to release their aggression in a healthy manner, reducing their need to take it out on others.

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    1. Thank you for this reminder that we constantly make choices on how to respond to others and how a calm approach may work best. So often, bullying stems from anxiety, insecurity, fear.

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