Friday June 21, 2024

Mobs, morality and ‘justice’

By Hussain H Zaidi
December 06, 2021

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Over the years, Sialkot has earned a name for itself for its bustling medical equipment and sports goods industries. Supplying to more than fifty countries, the two industries contribute over half a billion dollars annually to export revenue. The city has also the distinction of being the birthplace of celebrated poet-philosopher Allama Iqbal, who was an ardent advocate of a progressive, forward-looking interpretation of Islam.

But the horrifying 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, has put the reputation of not only Sialkot but the entire country on the line. The beleaguered economy of Pakistan needs hefty inflows of foreign capital. In a world in which a good national image is as important as a quality product, such deplorable incidents may discourage, to say the least, international businesses from entering or otherwise doing business with Pakistan.

The Sialkot incident is not one of its kind. Nor is it reprehensible only, or mainly, because of its possible adverse economic repercussions. More important than the economy is our society. If the social order is relatively stable, there is the hope that the economy will be put back on track. But in case the social order crumbles, even a remarkably sound economy will irretrievably go to pot.

As the Sialkot lynching brings out, mobocracy has established a strong foothold in Pakistan society. Every now and then a band of self-styled guardians of the faith go berserk and take to arson or homicide to punish an allegedly blasphemous act. Not to be left behind, lawyers also resort to vandalism from time to time, ransacking courts and setting ablaze public assets, when their sense of justice isn’t satisfied.

In the mid of 2014, the PTI-PAT duo cultivated the crop of mob politics. Towards the end of 2017, the TLY, which was subsequently renamed the TLP, reaped it for the first time by stampeding the then government into conceding to its demands on the highly sensitive matter of blasphemy. The state’s surrender to the TLP was an unmistakable sign that Pakistan's democracy, no more than a house of cards as it has always been, was degenerating into a mobocracy. In recent months, the TLP, which has now carved out a niche itself for agitating on sensitive religious issues, was again on the streets. Generating a sense of deja vu, it brought the state to its knees yet another time.

In such a scenario, the capability of both polity and society to stem the emerging social disorder has become a matter of primary concern. The paramount need to prevent the social order from falling apart can be understood in the light of yin-yang, which is one of the most famous symbols of all times.

Originating in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, yin-yang is represented by a circle consisting of two parts: a black portion encapsulating a white dot – called yin – and a white portion containing a black dot, which is known as yang. The yin-yang dialectically describes how in both natural and social orders opposite forces balance each other.

Two classic validations of the yin-yang philosophy are the ascendency of capitalism in the 20th century and the resounding success of the Chinese development model. When faced with the communist threat, capitalism responded by incorporating some elements of its adversary. The capitalist response to the changing circumstances started with pro-worker legislation and culminated in the welfare state. Beginning with the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the end, it was communism that was wiped out.

China overcame the state-market contradiction by adopting the philosophy of ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,’ under which a closed and socialist economy was gradually and carefully opened to both the market forces and foreign competition without giving away the overall state authority. The experiment converted an agrarian and impoverished economy into an industrial powerhouse.

The yin-yang balance is also vital to the success of democracy. As pointed out by Plato centuries ago, freedom, which lies at the root of democracy, is potentially constructive as well as destructive. The freedom of expression and of assembly can be used to keep the government on the right track. Alternatively, it can be abused to destabilise the system itself. Herein lies one of democracy's potentially fatal contradictions, which we are finding it arduous to overcome.

Coming back to mob behaviour, American psychologist Neil Smelser has outlined some critical conditions for its development: (a) the social structure must be peculiarly conducive to the behaviour in question; (b) a group of people must experience strain; (c) a distinctive type of belief must be present to interpret the situation; (d) there must be a precipitating event – real or imagined; and (e) the group must be mobilised for action on the basis of the belief.

Mob behaviour is thus an expression of both cultural conflict and organisational failure. It lays bare the cleavages and schisms present in a society. That’s why the action at the same time earns both approval and disapproval, admiration and condemnation. One side regards the perpetrators as heroes serving a ‘just’ cause; for the other they are despicable villains.

The most critical condition for the outburst of mob violence is conducive social structure. A society putting its trust mainly in force is a fertile ground for mob behaviour. Such a society exhibits a strong tendency for sanctifying killings and other forms of violence in the name of a collective cause pursued with frantic fervour.

As well as targeting the object, mob violence has two apparently mutually contradictory outcomes: One, it erodes the faith of a considerable segment of the people in the government’s ability or willingness to protect their life, property and cultural symbols – the very raison d’etre of the state. Thus, it sets in motion a chain of events, which posits mob violence as the only way to get ‘justice.’

Two, a large section of society looks upon even peaceful protests and assemblies, which are essential to a democratic order, with disapproval, believing such gatherings may also become violent. On both counts, the result is a shrinking space for peaceful conflict resolution.

Thus, mob justice clashes with the principle of rule of law, which is the lifeblood of the body politic. It’s not for a mob but for formal public institutions to prosecute, convict and punish an offender. The mob is neither a reliable judge of what is fair; nor is it interested in doing justice per se. It’s only actuated by the desire to revenge upon a convenient target for its allegedly mischievous actions.

In recent years, the injection of self-serving morality into politics has done much to popularise mob ‘justice,’ which forms the basis of mobocracy. We are all familiar with the alluring, yet dangerous, narrative that the cancer of corruption is eating into the vitals of the body politic; and that if a thorough surgery is not performed by hanging the corrupt lot in one go, the entire social edifice will collapse. Injection of even more potent doses of religion into politics has added to the toxicity of the narrative.

It’s high time to pull up the horse before the precipice. If a national consensus is needed on any matter, it’s on countering this toxic narrative.


Twitter: @hussainhzaidi