On the mass psychology of fascism

February 20, 2022

The lynching incident in Khanewal district is the second in 10 weeks after Sialkot. A reflection on the disturbing pattern of mob lynchings that is showing no signs of abating

Image source: Unbumf.com
Image source: Unbumf.com

Is it just a coincidence that Pakistan and India are witnessing incidents of lynching with more similar and less dissimilar patterns and reasons? Can we trace this similarity in post-colonial social structures? Didn’t the experts of post-colonial legacies convincingly identify the acrimonious tendencies of creating the other in the colonial cultures? Is it a coincidence again that this other is someone without who the lynching is not possible? Is it by chance that the other targetted in lynching is an unreal and indefensible enemy craftily created to generate new fault lines in post-colonial societies?

A Pakistani researcher tabulated lynching incidents of four years (2014-2017) and drew the average of more than five in a year. India witnessed more incidents than Pakistan, with an average of more than eight incidents in a year. Another report calculated an average of more than twenty-four incidents of lynching (2009-2019).

The incident in Khanewaldistrict is the second in ten weeks after Sialkot. Only two days after the Khanewal incident, the police were successful in protecting the accused in two more incidents on consecutive days, one in Faisalabad and the other in Muzaffargarh. In the last three incidents of mob lynching, the accused allegedly burned the pages of the Quran and reportedly had a mental illness.

Is this something new in our society? Obviously, not. One such incident happened in Gujranwala in 1995 when a Hafiz-i-Quran was burnt alive by a mob. The allegation was the burning of some pages of the Quran. However, most of the incidents in Pakistan involved allegations of blasphemy against the victim.

India is witnessing lynching due to similar reason. Instead of desecrating Quran, the accused in 91percent of the incidents were slaughtering cows. On the other hand, dissimilarities between lynching in India and Pakistan are quite notable, as well. In India, the attackers belonged to identifiable extremist groups, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and local GauRakshakDals or Samitis. In Pakistan, the attackers are not regular members of any group, though they may use the slogans crafted by the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). However, the leaders of the TLP neither own nor condemn them. The attackers in Pakistan belong to a spontaneously formed group to attack within a few moments, instead of seemingly a very well-planned attack, which is the case in India.

A survey revealed that every third Indian police officer considers the mob’s retaliation to cow slaughter natural. Similarly, most Pakistanis may not agree to do what the crowd does, but they see the lynching as a natural retaliation to the blasphemous conduct of someone.

The worldwide trends of lynching indicate that only marginalised groups are targetted in these attacks. Historically, people with different races, religions, genders and sexual orientations remained the consistent targets. In America, African-Americans remained the targets of white supremacists for centuries. The Muslims in the West, particularly after 9/11 and members of LGBT communities, are still targets, though the incidents are less frequent now. One factor makes both Pakistan and India a little unique in this regard. Here, petty criminals become the target of lynching, unlike other world regions.

Though the incidents in Pakistan look unprompted and without meticulous planning, the divide that helps identify the target has been generated over decades by identifiable people and for an identifiable reason. This divide then needs the hate mongers to fan the flame, who happen to be firebrand orators.

Even a cursory review of lynching incidents in various regions of the world, however, reveals a lot of commonalities. This review confirms that we cannot examine lynching separately from other violent spectrums of society. The lynching will become a notable and frequent phenomenon in a society with violent divisions based on anything. The weak minority becomes a likely target of the violence either by lynching or other ways. The lynching would be at the far end of the violent spectrum and reflective of the width and depth of the gulf created by the dividers.

Though the incidents in Pakistan look unprompted and without meticulous planning, the divide that helps identify the target has been generated over decades by identifiable people and for an identifiable reason. This divide then needs the hate mongers to fan the flame, who happen to be firebrand orators. They need a rhetoric, a narrative, which provokes the emotions to a degree where obliviousness to reason and consequences becomes normal. The dividers have to create a sense of self-righteousness among the masses to create the other. This other is always wrong and precarious, a threat to the life or identity of a decisive majority. Due to this very threat, the weak and meek minority becomes inexcusable.

The powerful majority starts feeling a self-generated fear of marginalised minorities. This fear is taken to a level of either/or, where the survival of either the attacker or the target remains the only option. That is something that turns the target into an object. The target does not remain human any longer and becomes an object. Objectification of the target shuns all the empathetic avenues of the attacker, the fear mobilises the aggressiveness, and annihilation and extermination of the fearful object become the only relief from fear. The fear of the powerful deters aggression but the illusive fear, in this case, of the weak encourages violence. The targets being picked in Pakistan don’t even belong to any marginalised group. They are mentally deranged people who cannot be punished even if they commit a crime. This majority inclination is known as majoritarianism, which is goaded in people of lower socio-economic strata, as their deprivations make them vulnerable to forming a lynching mob.

In a lynching mob only a few are active members. The rest are bystanders. They observe numbly or make videos but do not intervene. A crowd of hundreds is amassed within a few minutes of starting the gory drama. They are either convinced of the justifications of the perpetrators or too cowardly to form an opinion. This is the mass psychology of fascism.

The author is a clinical psychologist and   psychotherapist. He can be    contacted at    akhtaralisyed@gmail.com

On the mass psychology of fascism