Since the dawn of civilisation, ideas about demons and evil forces have occupied the human mind. It is this preoccupation with demonic forces that has given birth to magic, theology, ideology, cultural practices and perception about the other.
Demonisation gave birth to practices like dehumanisation, witch-hunting, scapegoating, torture and violence. Strangely, the propensity of humans for demonisation hasn’t diminished despite the progress made in material and intellectual realms. What have changed are the characters of the concocted story of demons. But the essential script has remained unaltered.
Hence, we have witch trials in early modern Europe, Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist ‘witch hunts’ in the US after World War II and current religious frenzy of mobs in Pakistan against Aasia Bibi’s acquittal from a blasphemy case.
The concept of a ‘demon’ is found in all cultures around the world. Historically, the idea of a demon is translated into an instrument of persecution in a particular social milieu, with a dangerous brew of politics, religion, ignorance, hysteria and personal interest. The worst manifestation of demonisation occurred in the shape of the European witch craze during the period between the 15th to 17th centuries.
The sudden burst of witch-hunt practice in European societies baffled historians and sociologists. They tried to explain the phenomenon by looking into religious ideas espoused by the guardians of religion and the practices of devout followers. Any ideology or idea of the divine reflects itself through its followers. The divine assumes the traits of the personality of its follower. So, it can be said that a particular idea filters through the psychology or mindset of society to manifest itself in a particular time and space.
In pre-modern Europe, the obsession with demons took a new turn in the 15th century when Pope Innocent VIII, in the Bull of 1488, declared war against witches. It unleashed a new reign of terror, torture and persecution of women, thinkers, apostates and others who refuse to toe the line dictated by the church. Owing to the rewards for the people who identify and hunt witches, new types of professions emerged in every part of Europe to benefit from the witch business. It is estimated that Europeans executed between 200,000 and 500,000 witches during the witch-hunt frenzy in the pre-modern period.
The modern research into history of witch-hunts documented a harrowing picture of torture and killing. This turned Europe into a hunting ground of witches. In his book ‘The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark’, Carl Sagan refers to the persecution of the 16th century scholar William Tyndale. Tyndale dared to translate the Bible into English. For this ‘crime’, he was hounded, “captured, garroted, and then for good measure, burned at the stake”. After his death, his copies were searched and burnt to protect Christians from the contamination of the mind and soul. Carl Sagan thinks that such cast of mind rewards knowledge by torture and death.
The aforementioned events show that a society that wallows in obedience and relies on received knowledge rewards atrocity rather than scholarship. What we have recently witnessed in the protests of TLP followers is a symptom of a deep malaise in our society. This malady has burst forth into public spaces to burn everything opposite to their worldview at stake.
The same factors and actors who beget the disease cannot cure a society. Khadim Rizvi and his ilk are a part of the disease, not the cure. So, it is imperative to diagnose the disease before prescribing a cure for it. We become what repertoire of words we gather and use to explain our self, society, the world and ideas. These are words that form the conception about entities, ideas, and processes. A scientist explains the processes of a phenomenon through the agreed nomenclature of her discipline. This helps build the paradigm of a scientific discipline. Similarly, a social fact becomes comprehensible by employing the conceptual categories formulated by theorists in light of emerging realities.
When it comes to discussions about sacred entities, language takes a different form than normal language by becoming metaphoric and artistic. The aesthetics in sacred language emerges because of the impossibility of representing an ineffable mystical experience. That is why language hints in a symbolic way. A study of the poetics of aesthetics in mystical Islam testifies to the fact that mystics and thinkers have enriched religious vocabulary by expanding the metaphor. Hence, the expansion of a metaphor is a sign of the enrichment of the mind. On the contrary, a static metaphor signifies the closure of the mind.
Foul words create filthy souls. Unlike, the aesthetics of mystical Islam, Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s semantics of Islam are a dirty brew of foul language and religion. Compare his sordid language in defense of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) with that of Khuwaja Himamuddin Ila Tabrezi who thinks that despite washing his mouth a thousand times with musk and rose, it is still blasphemous on his part to speak about the Holy Prophet (pbuh).
The descent of a certain section of Muslims into chaos and the bottom of the blind pit of filth and ignorance is a result of dread. A state of dread is different from fear. Unlike fear, where the object of fear is actual or perceived, in the state of dread the object of fear remains unknown. So, dread can be seen as subjective sentiment that stems from within. When dread lurks at the core of a society as a formative element of its mindset or worldview, it plagues not only the inner world, but also fills everything outside the world with trepidation.
Dread becomes more palpable when a society faces drastic changes under the influence of forces that aren’t under its control. In the modern period, the Muslim mind manifested dread by opposing printing presses, loudspeakers, telephones, televisions, knowledge, internet, democracy, modernity and knowledge. Such a dreadful mind deems all modern innovations, institutions, entities, women, knowledge, ideas and practices as ‘demonic’.
One of the consequences of a terrified mind is that it gives birth to more demons within. As a result, the demons within Muslims have devoured more Muslims than non-Muslims. Actually, dread is the outcome of a realisation at the unconscious level of one’s inability to change life for the better. This nagging realisation of paralysis propels society on the path of madness. Since society lacks the courage to look into demons within, it makes ‘others’ scapegoats to compensate for one’s impotency.
Opening the closed horizons of the mind enables a society to extricate itself from the morass of dread. Evicting ghosts, demons and witches from our social and religious imagination can do this. Their eviction will clear the ground for a rational and scientific worldview to prevail. But instead of evicting demons within, we are expelling rational minds and voices from our society. To fill in the lacuna come the souls infested with demons and mind dreading everything. Such a mind treats Dr Abdul Salam and Dr Atif Mian as demons, and deems demagogues like Khadim Rizvi as messiahs.
Khadim Rizvi’s demonisation and witch-hunting campaign against Aasia Bibi is a desperate act to provide him a reason for existence. To legitimise his narrative, he feeds ignorance, rejects modernity and whips up hysteria. None of these are signs of a healthy mind. Instead, they are symptoms of a fearful mind and a demon-haunted society.
Referring to demonisation in different cultures, Carl Sagan writes: “In an epoch of demon hysteria, it was easy enough to demonise those we feared or hated”. The wind of hysteria under the purported protectors of the divine will extinguish the candle of enlightenment, and push the nation into another epoch of darkness where divine demons will rule.
The writer is a social scientist with a background in philosophy and social science.