Individuals have to learn how to manage their emotions in the face of provocation, and collectives have to work out their ways of resolving differences through non-violent methods
Targeted violence against Shia Muslims came home to me recently. I was catching up with a close relative (let’s call him Zain) who has himself been a victim of such violence a few years ago. He was shot and injured, but thankfully recovered. We were at a family gathering and I urged him to take another helping of food when he said that he needed to watch his diet because he had "restricted his mobility" and was not getting enough exercise.
It turned out that there had been a spate of shootings, culminating in the attack on a majlis at a home in the North Nazimabad locality of Karachi, and many of those incidents directly affected his social circles. Zain felt that he needed to be cautious. The almost normal way in which we spoke about these threats was, on reflection, shocking. Perhaps, being a survivor had made him stoical and stronger.
While deeply affected, Zain is one of those people who is able to see the human dimension of such incidents. Yes, these were sectarian attacks, hence political by their very nature, but the individuals and families who had been targeted needed the support any victims of violence needed. Practical matters, such as the safe and sensitive conveyance of dead bodies from the morgue to their homes for funerals took priority. He had recently been for pilgrimage to Iraq where what he expected to be a deeply spiritual experience was marred by reminders of a violent struggle -- an entire generation of young men was preparing itself or being prepared to become soldiers and martyrs.
I could see that in Zain’s worldview retributive violence was as disturbing as the initial act itself. We got talking about violence in general, and not just sectarian violence. How there is so much violence in action and in speech all around us. Yes, between religious persuasions, but also in virtually every other field of human interaction. The rich routinely and almost unthinkingly conduct their relations with the poor through violence -- violent thoughts and violent speech. And then they are paranoid that the poor will one day pay back in kind, so they deploy even more means of violence to protect themselves.
Small disputes can escalate into violence conflagrations -- between ethnic groups, factions and even among relatives. Even the normal flow of traffic is punctuated by violent sounds and gestures which can escalate into something more terrible.
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How do individuals and collectives deal with violence? One way of answering this question is to see violence not as an event but a trajectory. Individuals, communities and entire countries can go up and down the scale. But most people, even those who believe that violence can be productive, say that they ultimately want peace. Hardly anyone accepts that they initiated violence, and it is virtually impossible to prove this one way or another.
Those who are seen to be very aggressive say that their violence is a way for ultimately ending violence and creating peace. This is, of course, a slippery slope. If every act of violence is met with another, even bigger one, how long do we carry on until one side or the other submits? And is submission just or sustainable?
Another common response is to say that there is nothing to fight over. Those of different religious, ideological, political and ethnic affiliations are in reality one people and do not really have any serious disputes. Being in the middle of violence, this can be a soothing thought. Leaders who hold out hope that differences might be trivial are seen as working for a de-escalation of violence.
We seek out those religious leaders who preach inter-sect harmony to counter those who emphasise differences. This response, however, is not radically different from the violent response to violence. It works, when it does, in tandem with the strategy of the big stick. In nearly all cases it is a balm that accompanies a violent crackdown. Saying that there are no differences is not all that much better, in my opinion, than assuming that any difference should be articulated violently.
When disputes arise, as they will, we have not done the work to prepare non-violent ways for dealing with them. Individuals have not learnt how to manage their emotions in the face of provocation, and collectives have not worked out their ways of resolving differences through the pursuit of non-violent methods of action.
Tolerance, of course, is an essential condition for de-escalating levels of violence. It can give us space and time to think and act non-violently. But merely tolerating differences in the hope that they will not, ultimately, provoke a violent reaction in ourselves or others, is betting too much on chance. What is needed are individual, social and political practices and methods of action which will empower good people like Zain to anticipate and pre-empt differences from escalating into violence.