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Stockholm syndrome

August 19, 2013

IN 1973 two robbers held four bank employees hostage for five days during the robbery of Kreditbanken in Stockholm. During this period the hostages shared a vault with their captors and became so emotionally bonded that they ended up defending the captors after their ordeal was over.

Stockholm syndrome has been explained as the psychological response of hostages who empathise with the captors and see them as benevolent for not inflicting excessive harm in a dangerous situation when they have the ability to do so.

A survival instinct as opposed to a conscious or rational choice to befriend the captors is believed to induce within the hostage empathy or support for the perpetrator.

The positivity towards the captors is combined with negativity and anger towards state authorities that are deemed blameworthy for the condition of the hostages (as well as that of the captors). Someone pointed out the other day that the collective response of the Pakistani nation towards murderous militants seems indicative of the Stockholm syndrome.

Can there be any rational explanation for our lack of collective anger against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) and other militant groups that form part of our terror syndicate? Is not speaking up against throat-slitting bearded bigots a manifestation of our subconscious survival instinct?

Are we as a society unsure if the state will ward off religion-inspired terror and are thus eager to hedge our bets? Or do we genuinely empathise with terrorists because they claim to be acting in the name of Islam, even if we apologise for their use of terror as means?

What should one make of the claim that the TTP and LJ slaughtering civilians and religious minorities are not Muslim because Islam is a religion of peace? How is this enterprise in principle any different from that of the Taliban who have also appropriated to themselves the authority to determine who is a Muslim and who isn’t and what type of Islamic state ought to be acceptable?

This is not a debate about the true nature and essence of Islam. It is about understanding the cause of our confusion in face of terror undermining state legitimacy.

Defining oneself in order to distinguish from the ‘other’ comes naturally when we find the acts of the other loathsome.

Those who genuinely believe in Islam as a religion of peace are at pains to distinguish the Taliban as the ‘other’ for TTP’s cruelty brings their faith into disrepute. But does that change the fact that Allah-o-Akbar is the mobilising slogan for both the terrorist and the soldier? Wouldn’t a soldier fighting for the state in the name of Islam be confused and consumed by emotions if the one he is fighting is also calling on Allah for inspiration, strength and victory?

Just the perusal of names of terror outfits legally identified as proscribed organisations is enough to realise that they act in the name of Islam. If the TTP and LJ are abusing and dishonouring our religion, why are the flag-bearers of Islam in the political realm — the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) and other religious parties — most reluctant to condemn them?

If Islam doesn’t allow suicide attacks and killing of innocent civilians, are such acts less heinous because their perpetrators genuinely believe that they are doing Islam a service? Do such misguided religious zealots deserve special treatment?

JI is blaming the government for not seriously pursuing talks with the TTP and has offered to help out. What is the primary argument of those supporting talks with the TTP and the terror syndicate? Is it about survival: TTP and its cousins are holding the nation hostage and so we should speak with them to let us be without further bloodshed? Is it a product of empathy: TTP is angry at the evil that the US stands for and rightly so and so let us speak to them and join hands so we can combine our resources and energies to fight the world instead of fighting amongst ourselves?

No functional state can have multiple sources of legitimacy placed in a non-hierarchical order. Legitimacy can either follow from rule of law or from religion, backed by the threat of use of force.

The problem with religion as a basis for legitimacy is that no individual or institution is endowed with the authority to speak in God’s name and hence there will never be a consensus over interpretation of the letter or the spirit of divine scriptures. If a consensus is indeed possible why have religious sects been growing with the passage of time?

There is nothing wrong with the urge to understand the true meaning of revealed truth and to act accordingly. The problem starts when a group decides to use its understanding of religion as a gauge to accept or reject legitimacy of state action, while forcing others to order their lives in accordance with such understanding.

In this enterprise, our JIs and JUIs are only steps removed from the TTPs and LJs. Their means might differ but the end is the same: they believe the state should be in the business of ‘forcing’ citizens to be the kind of Muslims they approve of.

Our Stockholm syndrome is then explained partly due to our collective confusion over the role of religion in the state and partly due to lack of state resolve to defend its legitimacy. The symbols of state legitimacy and authority are not those sitting atop echelons of power, but the lowly officials, the soldier who mans the border, the constable who roams the street.

If uniform becomes a source of danger for the soldier and the cop himself, would the survival instinct of the hapless citizen not goad him into conforming to the terrorists’ whims?

To be effective any anti-terror policy will need to be backed by a national narrative that states unequivocally that no one will be allowed to undermine state authority and legitimacy in the name of religion. Such narrative will not be the product of any consensus, but will need to be forged despite our JIs and JUIs.

The writer is a lawyer.

sattar@post.harvard.edu