I wonder which comes first: Does a bigoted society influence the government and the state; or does a bigoted state and government influence a society?
Some experts suggest that (in a democracy) no matter how tolerant and enlightened a government wants to behave, it will always be a hostage to the whims of certain not very enlightened constituencies which are not seen as bigoted men and women, but as potential votes.
A 23-year-old student of Mardan University was mercilessly beaten and then shot to death for allegedly posting ‘blasphemous content’ on social media. No such content has been found. And the fact is, even a murderer is granted a trial before a judgment is delivered.
If mobs and vigilantes are so casually and rather haplessly allowed to become judge, jury and executioners, why have a government at all?
What’s more, as we have seen over and over again, governments and the state have actually reinforced the perception that one is free to become judge, jury and executioner in matters of faith.
Mad mobs have been used to gain cheap political mileage and ‘strategic’ gains - until the mob mindset begins to threaten the state itself. It has happened repeatedly.
Another question which began being asked after the student’s killing was, ‘how can young men from a university behave in such a beastly manner?’ They are supposed to be ‘educated,’ and ‘rational’, no? Aren’t such mobs often made up of uneducated and uncouth men driven by economic and social frustrations and falling upon a scapegoat as some psychotic act of catharsis?
According to a recent feature in Scientific American, the US Homeland Department has dished out $12 million to a research facility which investigates the origins, dynamics and psychological impact of terrorism.
The facility, staffed by more than 30 experienced scientists, is called Study of Terrorism & Response to Terrorism (START).
According to Scientific American: “Whereas earlier researchers focused on the political roots of terrorism, many of today’s investigators are probing the psychological factors that drive adherents to commit deadly deeds …”
START is now concentrating on trying to figure out the minds of persons who are willing to cause indiscriminate carnage and maximum deaths (including their own) for what they believe is a cause close to their faith. Such a person does not see it as an act of terror, but, rather, an expression of their theological conviction.
In the past, a majority of studies in this context have been more inclined to treat such men and women as consequences of systematic brainwashing, economic disparities and even mental illness.
Recent studies suggest that terrorist outfits usually tend to screen out mentally unstable recruits and volunteers because their instability is likely to compromise the mission and expose their handlers.
Even though these two factors are still being investigated, the most recent studies on the issue emanating from research facilities such as START suggest that most of the terrorists might actually be mentally stable; even rational.
Summarising the results of the recent studies, Scientific American informs that “the vast majority of terrorists are not mentally ill but are essentially rational people who weigh the costs and benefits of terrorist acts, concluding that terrorism is profitable.”
By profitable they mean an act of terror which, in addition to being financially favourable to the perpetrator (or to his or her family which gets looked after if the person is killed); is also an act which is perceived by the person to be beneficial to his or her sense and perception of their spiritual disposition.
As has been reported on numerous occasions in Pakistan (and now even in India), there is the possibility of gaining or safeguarding some economic and political benefit behind attacks perpetrated in the name of religion.
The studies also propose that even though economic disadvantages do play a role in pushing a person to join a terror outfit out of anger or desperation, this is not always the case.
Forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman of the University of Pennsylvania, carried out an extensive survey of media reports and court records on 400 ‘extremists.’ He determined that “these individuals were far from being brainwashed, socially isolated, hopeless fighters; 90 per cent of them actually came from caring, intact families; and 63 per cent of these had gone to college.”
There is another interesting query that the researchers are trying to investigate: why were terrorists during the Cold War more constrained in their acts than the ones which emerged after the end of that conflict?
Studies suggest that a majority of significant terror groups during the Cold War were driven by nationalistic or communist impulses. Modern religious terrorism largely emerged from the 1990s onward.
Interestingly, despite the fact that Cold War terrorists did not hesitate to kill perceived enemies, they were, however, overtly conscious of how their acts would be perceived by popular opinion and the media.
For example, militant left-wing outfits in Europe, and even some factions of Palestinian guerrilla organisations (in the late 1960s and 1970s), would often abort attacks in which they feared casualties of innocent bystanders could mount.
This is not the case anymore. It seems, today, the old concern of being perceived as an indiscriminately brutal outfit has actually become the purpose. Terrorists now actually want to be perceived in this manner.
This changing mindset reminds me of a man who once ran a small roadside tea stall a few streets away from the offices of an English weekly I used to work for as a reporter in the early 1990s.
People called him Anju Bhai and he was in his 40s. He was famous for his doodh pati which he used to serve in transparent teacups. But there was something else about him which was far more intriguing.
Long before some young Pakistanis began to pour into Afghanistan to fight in the 1980s, and before men began travelling to Syria, only to return and wanting to destroy the whole concept of society as we know it. Anju Bhai travelled to Egypt to fight in a war against Israel.
Travelling across Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Algeria, he made his way to Egypt on buses. This was during the 1967 Arab-Israel War. Anju Bhai was just 20 and had quit college to go fight against the Israelis.
Anju was a passionate admirer of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, and also equally passionate about the Palestinian cause.
Arab Nationalism was all the rage in those days — a fusion of nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism. It was also vehemently opposed to conservative Arab monarchies. Nasser was one of its main architects.
The war lasted for just six days. Egypt was decimated and so was the charm and influence of Arab Nationalism. Anju lost four of his fingers when a grenade exploded in his right hand. He was part of a rag-tag brigade mostly made up of Syrian, Algerian and Palestinian volunteers.
A month after the war, Anju joined Yasser Arafat’s PLO. He travelled to a PLO camp in Jordan and got trained in guerrilla warfare. In early 1968, he was selected to join a group of four Palestinians and two Syrians in Beirut.
The group was to attack an Israeli military convoy on a road near the Lebanon-Israel border. But suddenly, three members of the group changed the plan and decided to attack a bus carrying Israeli labourers on the same road. The rest of the group, including Anju, refused, saying they would not target civilians.
Anju told me this split was symptomatic of the major split that would divide Arafat’s PLO in 1974 between Arafat’s faction and the faction headed by the notorious Abu Nidal.
Anju returned to Pakistan in late 1968 — broken and bitter. His father, a cashier at a bank, refused to talk to him. Anju could not complete his education. In 1974, he found employment as a copy-maker at the PPP-backed progressive Urdu monthly, Al-Fatah.
He was still there when the ZA Bhutto regime was overthrown in the 1977 reactionary coup. Anju remained unemployed till 1980 when one day he borrowed 2,500 rupees from a friend and set up a small tea stall on I.I. Chundrigar Road.
The stall kept him afloat and he got married in 1987. I last met him in 1998. A few years ago I went looking for him again, but was told he had folded his stall in 2001 and had moved to Bahrain with his wife and kids.
Nevertheless, in the context of this piece, I must relate here what he said when once I asked him a pointed question. Being an ‘angry young man’ myself in those days, I had asked him, wasn’t he angry and vengeful towards a society that had rejected him twice and turned his life upside-down?
After listening to my question, a wry smile had cut across his aging face and he just said: “Scene ulta tha, chotay bhai (It was the other way round, little brother). Society ko mein ne reject kiya tha (It was I who had rejected society) …”
This piece was first published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 7th, 2016. It has now been updated with a new introduction.