Mobs, morality and ‘justice’

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Over the years, Sialkot has made a name for itself for its vibrant medical equipment and sporting goods industries. Serving more than fifty countries, the two industries contribute more than half a billion dollars a year to export earnings. The city also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the famous poet-philosopher Allama Iqbal, who was a strong advocate of a progressive and forward-looking interpretation of Islam.

But the horrific incident last week in which a foreigner (a Sri Lankan), who worked in one of these export-oriented industries, was lynched by a mob for alleged blasphemy, put the reputation no only from Sialkot, but from the whole country on the line. Pakistan’s besieged economy needs a large influx of foreign capital. In a world where a good national image is as important as a quality product, such deplorable incidents can, at the very least, discourage international companies from entering or doing business with Pakistan.

The Sialkot incident is not one of a kind. Nor is it reprehensible solely or mainly because of its possible negative economic repercussions. Our society is more important than the economy. If the social order is relatively stable, we can hope that the economy will get back on track. But in the event that the social order crumbles, even a remarkably healthy economy will go to the pot irreparably.

As the lynching of Sialkot shows, the mobocracy has firmly established itself in Pakistani society. Every now and then a group of so-called Faith Keepers go berserk and engage in arson or homicide to punish an allegedly blasphemous act. Not to be outdone, lawyers also occasionally resort to vandalism, ransacking courts and burning public property, when their sense of justice is not satisfied.

In mid-2014, the PTI-PAT duo cultivated the harvest of Mafia politics. Towards the end of 2017, the TLY, which was later renamed TLP, harvested it for the first time by pushing the government of the day to give in to its demands on the very sensitive subject of blasphemy. The state’s surrender to the TLP was an unmistakable sign that Pakistani democracy, which was no more than a house of cards as it always has been, is degenerating into mobocracy. In recent months, the TLP, which has now carved out a niche for itself to agitate on sensitive religious issues, has once again been on the streets. Generating a feeling of déjà vu, this brought the state to its knees once again.

In such a scenario, the ability of the political regime and society to stem the emerging social disorder has become a major concern. The overriding need to prevent the social order from collapsing can be understood in the light of yin-yang, which is one of the most famous symbols of all time.

From the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, yin-yang is represented by a circle made up of two parts: a black part encapsulating a white point – called yin – and a white part containing a black point, called yang. Yin-yang dialectically describes how, in natural and social orders, opposing forces balance each other out.

Two classic validations of yin-yang philosophy are the ascendancy of capitalism in the 20th century and the resounding success of the Chinese development model. Faced with the communist threat, capitalism responded by incorporating certain elements of its adversary. The capitalist response to changing circumstances began with pro-worker legislation and culminated in the welfare state. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, communism was finally wiped out.

China overcame the contradiction between state and market by adopting the philosophy of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, according to which a closed and socialist economy was gradually and carefully opened up to market forces and foreign competition without giving up the overall authority of the state. The experience converted an agrarian and impoverished economy into an industrial power.

The yin-yang balance is also vital for the success of democracy. As Plato pointed out centuries ago, freedom, which is at the root of democracy, is potentially constructive as well as destructive. Freedom of speech and assembly can be used to keep the government on track. Alternatively, it can be abused to destabilize the system itself. This is one of the potentially fatal contradictions of democracy, which we are struggling to overcome.

Returning to the behavior of the crowd, the American psychologist Neil Smelser underlined some critical conditions for its development: (a) the social structure must be particularly favorable to the behavior in question; (b) a group of people must be under stress; (c) a distinct type of belief must be present to interpret the situation; (d) there must be a triggering event – real or imagined; and (e) the group must be mobilized for action on the basis of belief.

Crowd behavior is therefore the expression of both cultural conflict and organizational failure. It lays bare the divisions and schisms present in a society. This is why the action deserves both approval and disapproval, admiration and condemnation. One side sees authors as heroes in the service of a “just” cause; for the other, they are despicable villains.

The most critical condition for the explosion of crowd violence is a conducive social structure. A society that relies above all on force is fertile ground for crowd behavior. Such a society shows a strong tendency to sanctify murders and other forms of violence in the name of a collective cause pursued with unbridled fervor.

In addition to targeting the object, collective violence has two seemingly contradictory consequences: first, it erodes the confidence of a considerable segment of the population in the government’s ability or willingness to protect their lives, property and cultural symbols. – the very reason for being of the state. Thus, this sets off a chain of events, which poses mob violence as the only way to get “justice.”

Second, much of society even views peaceful demonstrations and gatherings, which are essential to a democratic order, with disapproval, believing that such gatherings can turn violent as well. In either case, the result is reduced space for peaceful conflict resolution.

Thus, popular justice comes up against the principle of the rule of law, which is the cornerstone of the body politic. It is not for a crowd but for formal public institutions to prosecute, convict and punish an offender. The crowd is also not a reliable judge of what is right; nor is he interested in doing justice per se. He is motivated only by the desire to take revenge on a convenient target for his allegedly malicious actions.

In recent years, the injection of selfish morality into politics has done much to popularize popular “justice”, which forms the basis of mobocracy. We all know the alluring but dangerous tale that the cancer of corruption eats away at the vital organs of the body politic; and that if a complete surgery is not performed by suspending the corrupt batch all at once, the whole social edifice will collapse. The injection of even more potent doses of religion into politics added to the toxicity of the narrative.

It is high time to pull the horse over the precipice. If a national consensus is needed on one issue, it is to counter this toxic narrative.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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