The scourge of mob violence

August 21, 2022

What motivates violent mobs? Who are the perpetrators and victims of vigilante violence?

The scourge of mob violence


ob attacks have risen exponentially in Pakistan.Compared to a mere seven cases from late 19th Century (when the blasphemy law was instituted by the British colonial administration) till the late 1980s, rights watchdogs have reported at least 1,800 cases in the post-1986 period where mobs or vigilantes targetted racialised neighbors, religious and sectarian minorities, liberal academics, bloggers and workplace superiors.

From a policy standpoint, mob or vigilante action is often seen as a problem of law and order, i.e. there is a state apparatus that ideally ought to prevent such action from occurring in the first place (by producing law abiding citizens) or come into action against mobs and vigilantes post facto (involving the capacities of the judicial and policing apparatuses). Those of us who wouldn’t mind entering into a Hobbesian social contract with the state would much rather have the first course of action prevail. In the absence of ideal circumstances, one would also settle for the second as the next best option.

The problem with such a policy-centred perspective is that it operates at an abstract level, whereby a normative citizenry needs state protection against proverbial mobs or vigilantes. From a sociological perspective, however, we must reckon with questions like what issues lead to violent mobs or vigilantism; what kind of actors are involved in such action as perpetrators and victims; how do the perpetrators and victims relate to the state and its nationalism on the one hand and the global economic and political order, on the other; and, last but not the least, why violent mobs and vigilantism became more pronounced in the post-1986 context compared to earlier years.

Asking such questions helps demystify violent mobs and vigilante action and frame it in more accurate and useful terms. For instance, looking into the social composition of mobs and personal biographies of vigilantes and comparing those to the rest of the society reveals that such action is neither irrational nor spontaneous. Also, there is no necessary evolutionary path along which one can trace mob or vigilantism as lagging behind purportedly more modern and, as framed in some narratives, ‘civilised’ forms of collective action like peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, legally-sanctioned forms of labour strikes or work stoppages and petitioning etc.

Where early research in sociology of collective behaviour had analysed mobs and vigilantes as irrational, undisciplined, spontaneous and fundamentally opposed to civil action, subsequently, these categorisations have been dismissed and attributed either to the elitism of those studying mobs and vigilantes or to the limitations of their analytical frameworks. Thus, mobs and vigilantes are not irrational per se, it is just that they demonstrate a kind of rationality that does not sit well with the sensibilities of the researcher or analyst. Similarly, in early scholarly analyses and in much of the public discourse around mobs and vigilantes to date, the prevailing analytical framework continues to be informed by assumptions of modernisation theory.

Within such a framework, liberal democratic values and political secularism are considered the norm against which all other kinds of public values and actions – that flow from such values – are to be studied. The drawback is that such a framework mostly sees and recognises purportedly modern forms of social and political organisation associated with liberal democratic values. Thus, peaceful assemblies and demonstrations are recognisable not only because they’re peaceful and within constitutionally prescribed parameters but also because they are organised by ‘legitimate’ actors like political parties, NGOs, charities and professional associations etc.

Mobs and vigilantes appear spontaneous not because they lack any organisational or disciplinary mechanisms per se, but because those mechanisms mostly aren’t taken into account in the prevailing frameworks. Overtime, however, scholars of collective action have developed a range of concepts like ‘weapons of the weak’ or ‘subaltern consciousness’ to explicate such mechanisms. These scholars have demonstrated that the purportedly irrational or spontaneous types of action (mobs, crowds, vigilantes etc) are just another kind of civil action, with their specific forms of organisation and discipline, undertaken mostly (but not always) by actors lacking the resources or capacity to undertake the purportedly rational forms of action. These works have also highlighted that those not able to access or form archetypical modern organisations like parties, unions or professional associations, etc, engage in collective action through kin-, friendship- or space-based networks.

These networks are based on specific organising logics which may not always be legible from the standpoint of distant observers whether those are researchers, public officials, elite politicians or media pundits. It is also important to not exceptionalise mobs or vigilantes as always distinct from familiar and normatively desirable forms of collective action associated with political parties, electoral politics, professional associations etc. The two may be symbiotically linked.

How do these observations fit the Pakistani case? Firstly, we must take into account that while mob violence and vigilantism around blasphemy have increased exponentially in the post-1980s context, contentious and violent forms of collective action are neither specific to the issue of blasphemy nor irrelevant to the political order in the country in the pre-1980s.

The scourge of mob violence

Asking such questions helps demystify mobs and vigilante action and frame it in more accurate and useful terms. Looking into the social composition of mobs and personal biographies of vigilantes and comparing those to the rest of the society, reveals that such action is neither irrational nor spontaneous.

From the anti-Ahmadiyya riots of the 1950s to the labour unrest in the ’60s and early ’70s and the jalao, gherao and pahya jam (burn, siege and suspension of movement), contentious forms of action were endemic to the pre-1980s political order in Pakistan. The one constant that stands out in all these episodes but isn’t often factored in adequately in analyses of mobs or vigilantes is the role of the state. State apparatus cannot always meet the Weberian ideal type of having complete monopoly over violence. Most state apparatuses in the post-colonial contexts operate less as Hobbesian leviathans and more like the description presented by political sociologist Charles Tilly – that of organised racketeers who produce the threats against whom they then offer protection.

That said, the periods of relative calm and their disruption with episodic collective violence in the form of riots, mobs and vigilante action highlight the importance of the conditions under which the need arises for coercive state institutions like police and paramilitary forces to assert their control over means of collective violence.

Secondly, where blasphemy mobs and vigilantism have increased exponentially in the post-1980s, we must also contextualise this rise in the broader political and social changes that transpired during the period. Arguably the most important of these changes has to do with the transformation of the civil society – the analytical space between the state and the family where associational life proliferates and individuals join and identify with various collectives that aren’t prescribed to them at birth like their nationality or their sub-national identities. The state repression against the organic struggles of workers, peasants, and ethno-nationalist minorities and the state facilitation of the religious right in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, are well documented. These two processes laid the foundation for the post-1980s civil society dominated by religious identities and affiliations on the one hand and religiously-informed forms of organisations (religious parties, seminary- and mosque-based networks and associations, philanthropies and charities etc). The post-80s economic changes must also be factored in to get to the social whole from which mob or vigilante action emerges. Coincidentally, the decade that marked the passage of reforms targetting the religious minorities was also the decade when the Pakistani state signed on to the IMF-WB funded Structural Adjustment Programmes that continue to be the linchpin of our macro-economic ‘stability’ to this day.

The Pakistani state had been reliant upon foreign loans and aid from day one, but the ’80s programme was qualitatively different since it came as part of the Washington Consensus around neoliberal economic policies under which formerly Third World states like Pakistan were pushed to ‘reconfigure.’ Reconfigure here mostly being a euphemism for active withdrawal of state-led developmental or social protection and welfare-based policies in favour of greater role of the market in managing social life through trade liberalisation, deregulation of key sectors like media, banking, telecommunications and privatisation of major state-owned enterprises as well as provisioning of public good. The consequences of these policies have been wide-ranging. The neoliberal economic mantra has led to unprecedented economic inequalities, concentration of extreme wealth at the top and fiscal tightening for the rest, including not just those on the bottom of the hierarchy (the urban poor, landless rural labour etc) but also the proverbial middle classes who had prospered across the globe in the post-World War II era all the way till the fall of the Berlin Wall as a result of what Marxist geographer David Harvey categorised as “a web of political and social constraints” on the free and, more often than not, destructive forces of market and capital.

Thus, in the post-1980s environment in which mobs and vigilantes have gained an oversized public presence, there have occurred two kinds of reconfigurations in Pakistan. The reconfiguration of the civil society, making religious identities and organisations into the glue that binds together the social life. This is evident not just insofar as we have religious political parties, most recent of whom was formed singularly on the issue of blasphemy, but also in the sense that all mainstream parties in the country now situate their politics with reference to religious belonging, in one form or the other (Islam ka qila, Islami riasat, muashara, nizam, are some of the most generic phrases and ideals). It is evident also on multiple occasions when blasphemy mobs have included men affiliated with non-religious parties (Mashal Khan case).

The parallel reconfiguration of the economy has made the formal state and its regulatory apparatuses into a relatively minor player among market interests of the economic elites that operate as cartels and oligopolies. This is evident in the state’s inability to manage the economy without reliance upon transnational financial institutions and the state’s various foreign patrons. The result has been widespread economic precarity, among not just the income- and asset-poor households but also those previously safely cushioned into middle class professions.

The first reconfiguration has made religious identity and its associated communal solidarities into the master signifier that orients the sense of self and of the other for the perpetrators of vigilantism, the victims as well as many bystanders. However, borrowing from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the master signifier of religion in the Pakistani case is in itself primarily an empty signifier, insofar as it doesn’t have any essential content of its own to which the people in question relate to. It is the second reconfiguration, that of the economy, that provides the material content to fill the emptiness of the master signifier insofar as religious identities, values and the accompanying forms of collective action are shaped by as they then shape the actually existing social and economic relations.

For instance, a database of media reports on blasphemy cases maintained by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan shows that at least half the cases documented in 2014 through 2016 occurred in informally-developed urban and peri-urban neighborhoods in north and central Punjab districts. One such neighborhood in the periphery of Lahore where this author conducted fieldwork in the summer of 2021 had been the site of significant demographic shifts in the post-1980s period, bringing together people from different kin-, communal- and (middle- to lower- middle and working) class- backgrounds. The social geography of the neighborhood suggests an overbearing presence of communal organisations (there were five mosques and four churches in the immediate vicinity of the street where the blasphemy mob action took place against Christian teenager Patras Masih in 2018), and an underwhelming presence of the formal state: the nearest police station is away on the Shahdara main road and the lone higher-secondary public school is overshadowed by the various private schools and tuition centres.

The two major political parties (the PML-N and the PTI) were operational in the neighborhood not through any formal organisational structure, but through economically influential patrons. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of the 2018 mob violence had been organising in the neighborhood under the banner of the TLP. Based on a series of interviews, the mob action of 2018 could be reconstructed as follows: it took place not immediately but after about a month of the original incident (sharing on Facebook of an image deemed blasphemous). When the ‘trigger’ incident took place, the mob did not have unanimity, as one would expect based on the accounts that present mobs as irrational collectives. On the contrary, there were those (mostly shopkeepers from nearby streets) who insisted on immediate reparations in the form of expulsion and threatened with lynching if their demand wasn’t complied with. There were also those (a prayer leader and an MPhil student at a major public university) who preferred appeal to legal and juridical apparatuses of the state.

This single case corroborates the framing of mob action in recent sociological literature discussed above as organised, albeit under its own specific form of rationality. It also shows that the kind of organiaation and rationality one witnesses in Pakistani blasphemy mobs has less to do with the issue of blasphemy per se, and much more to do with the way in which the state and the economy have reconfigured in the post-1980s environment and have shaped social life in urban- and urbanising settings.

The writer is a sociology PhD student at    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

The scourge of mob violence