|President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte (Photo from New Mandala)|
12:18 AM June 1st, 2016
After admitting in a recent press conference that he is no longer a Catholic, Rodrigo Duterte remarked that he had a new religion: “Iglesia ni Duterte.”
He invited people to join it, presumably after leaving the Catholic Church, which he has called “the most hypocritical institution.”
Many will dismiss the invitation as just another joke. But I think the idea of a religion with Duterte as its deity is not as far from the truth as you’d expect.
For starters, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call some of Duterte’s followers fanatical, even cultist. Teachers at the high school where Duterte recently cast his vote plan on preserving the chair he sat on as he voted in a museum. In at least one sortie, supporters braved crowds for a chance to get a towel graced with his sweat—a scene that evokes the Black Nazarene procession. A Facebook page called “Duterte Savior of the Philippines” has over 27,000 fans.
Duterte is without fault for this fanaticism. In a speech he delivered at an assembly of the Makati Business Club, he said that to understand his mind, we must “forget about the laws of men” and “imagine the… justice of the Lord.”
In a program hosted by Apollo Quiboloy, the leader of a sect that believes him, Quiboloy, to be the actual Son of God, Duterte recalled how the evangelist’s prophecy gave him the idea to seek the presidency. He said that despite his initial reluctance, God made it his destiny to become president.
Many #DearPresidentDigong posts on social media sound less like requests and more like prayers. And who can blame them for expecting this much from someone who originally promised to eliminate crime in three to six months?
Some would argue that such strong support for the incoming President can only be a good thing, a much welcome sign of unity after a divisive election. But unity in and of itself is not necessarily a good thing. What’s necessary is to ask the question: To what end?
The Crusades and the Inquisition, World Wars I and II—history provides enough examples of people doing terrible things in the name of unity. In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to learn about the responsibility of those involved in one of these infamous atrocities: the Holocaust. He conducted the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures.
The experiments have been repeated many times in many places, and the results are relatively the same. When people are told by an authority to do terrible things, few people can resist. A variation of the experiment found that when a person sees others obeying the same authority, their capacity to resist becomes even less.
But what if, in addition to having authority, the one wearing the mantle had the power of charisma as well? A 2010 study led by neuroscientist Uffe Schjodt showed that when Christians who believe in faith healing listen to a faith healer, the executive function of their brains turns off, as if in hypnosis.
Taken together, these two studies show the danger of someone with both authority and charisma—someone like Duterte. Consider how he captivates crowds in a way that none of the other presidential candidates could. When he says sexist, homophobic, and even barbaric things— such as wishing he had been first to rape a dead victim of gang rape—people could be less critical, not just because they would normally condone such statements but also because they’ve been hypnotized. Someone has weakened or even turned off the critical capacities of their brains.
Those who defend Duterte’s style of talking argue that these are just words that don’t really harm anyone. When the Commission on Human Rights found Duterte guilty of violating the Magna Carta of Women with his rape remarks, his response was to call the CHR chair naive and tell him to shut up. But words are actions, and Duterte himself has signed an antidiscrimination ordinance that prohibits “ridicule and insult… by verbal or written word.”
What’s actually naive is to think that words, especially when these come from a charismatic authority figure, do not have the power to influence behavior. Many of Duterte’s supporters have resorted to threatening his critics—advocates and activists, bloggers and celebrities, even children and students—with rape and death. No other presidential candidate has been associated with supporters making such threats. Is it tenable to think that Duterte’s callous statements on women and human rights have nothing at all to do with this level of fanaticism?
In a similar way, some people defend Duterte’s innocence of or involvement in the case of the Davao Death Squad. Do his statements on murdering criminals have nothing at all to do with the hundreds of summary executions that have been happening under his watch?
Recently, Tanauan held a “Flores de Pusher,” parading suspected criminals, including a 14-year-old girl and two 17-year-olds, in what a CHR officer called “mental torture.” Cebu is now offering P5,000 for wounding a criminal and P50,000 for killing one. Since Duterte won the presidential election, there have been reports of suspected criminals being summarily executed before they could be brought to legal justice. Is it such a stretch to think that his words have inspired this righteous anger toward wrongdoers?
Duterte’s apologists defend their idol, saying it’s not he who told supporters to make death threats. Neither was he the one who told the DDS to commit extrajudicial killings, nor did he tell the Tanauan mayor to organize “Flores de Pusher.” But there is no doubt in my mind that if he does actually command such things in the future, many of his supporters would be more than willing to follow.
Whether Duterte uses (or abuses) this power to commit even worse atrocities is something we’ll just have to take on faith.
Red Tani is the founder and president of the Filipino Freethinkers.