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September 27, 2020

Culture of power and violence

Opinion

September 27, 2020

When discussing violence and power, it’s striking to note how some of the bloodiest rivalries in history have been between groups of people who are more similar than different. In 1917, Freud coined the term ‘narcissism of minor differences’.

His thesis stated that individuals living as neighbours in close communities, sharing ancestry, and holding similar customs engage in feuds because of hypersensitivity to details of differentiation. Underpinning this concept was the understanding that humans, by nature, like to have a distinct sense of identity.

Uniformity can sometimes cause a desire in individuals to create an identity that sets them apart; emphasizing their differences helps develop a sense of superiority over others. The idea of narcissism of minor differences is an interesting vantage point through which to examine individual behaviors but it is equally important to be applied to ethnic and religious conflicts worldwide.

In the context of Pakistan, it is a revealing prism to see and understand the increasing polarization and religious stratification of society. With sectarian tensions making the headlines these days, the hatred being meted out to minority sects by the majority is a cause for national concern.

But while an old one, the sectarian divide today – both in Pakistan and globally – is more about politics than religion. To make sense of any sudden upsurge in sectarian violence, it merits a grasp of the reality that certain sections stand to gain from amplifying dissimilarities between the two sects.

This is not to say that sect-based distinction is not relevant to Pakistanis on a personal level; if anything it is a significant marker of identity for most people. Which is exactly why some in society are able to exploit their divergence to antagonize the two, fulfilling some vested interests.

By leveraging religious differences, sectarian forces try to consolidate power and political influence, or reap economic benefits. Other times, creating divisions by highlighting trivialities has been a method for diverting attention from bigger issues plaguing society – economic and social injustices, poor health and education facilities and so on. Jason Springs and Atalia Omer, in their book, ‘Religious nationalism’ explore the breakup of Yugoslavia as a case study in narcissism of minor differences. People lived together peacefully for decades as friends, neighbors and relatives, spoke the same language and frequently inter-married.

Then suddenly they engaged in brutal acts of violence against each other in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Political forces magnified the differences in their ethnic and national identities through retrieval of mythical accounts of historical grievances, which were then manipulated in ways that led to ethnic cleansing. All this helped push forward the agenda of Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, in justifying the creation of a Greater Serbia. In retrospect, the incident demonstrates that those in authority or social power can artificially inflate the significance of minor differences to achieve their own political ends.

Similarities can be drawn with what the British colonizers did in the Subcontinent before independence. It served the rulers’ interest to fuel the fire of hatred between the two main communities in India: Muslims and Hindus. Using religious differences as a tool to create division, the British played with the sentiments of the local people who had been united in their struggle for freedom from the British. As Muslims and Hindus turned against each other, Muslims demanded a separate country and their collective struggle against the British took a backseat.

Since independence, religious bigotry has been on the rise in Pakistan. It is not surprising considering the bitter feelings in the aftermath of communal riots. When national boundaries and identity markers are framed based on religion, the language of ethnic or religious purity often gains momentum.

Our legal trajectory has been central in promoting cultural and structural violence against non-Muslims or dissenting Muslims in the last few years. Those accusing others of not being devout or reverent – on one pretext or another – tend to feel they are the moral guardians of piety and derive a sense of superiority from ‘correcting’ others.

Their creed or sect becomes a point of manifestation of narcissism. We may call these people the ‘narcissists of minor differences’. This was also seen in the case of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, which resulted in the massacre of thousands of Tutsis at the hands of Hutus, the two major tribal groups. It was precisely the minor differences between otherwise alike communities, being manipulated by the propagandists that formed the basis for hostilities and resulted in one of the darkest chapters in recent history. Diversity education can be crucial to combat violence and religious conflicts.

To enable people to live together peacefully, education in religious tolerance can play an instrumental role in helping people focus on their similarities as opposed to differences. In the context of Pakistan, the youth, and particularly those in schools, colleges, and universities should be exposed to different forms of religious practices in the country to encourage toleration of other traditions. Living in harmony is a right of all communities irrespective of their caste, colour, or creed anywhere in the world.

And it is not only Pakistan that is suffering from a lack of harmony. Countries such as America, China, or India all manifest such tendencies with which their non-state and state actors target certain segments of society who different from the majority. Be it the Black and Hispanic populations in America, Uighurs in China, or Muslims and Christians in India, most of them become victims of highhandedness.

Essentially this is the failure of the state to ensure equal rights and treatment for all its citizens. There is a need to challenge the culture of power and violence at all levels.

The writer is a graduate from Istanbul, Turkey, and works as a communication expert in Islamabad.