Published April 23, 2017
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Some of the earliest well-known incidents of mob violence fueled by extreme religious sentiments occurred in the late 17th century in the town of Salem.

Salem is situated in present-day Massachusetts in the US. The area was a British colony at the time.

Over a dozen people, mostly women, were accused by the town’s people of indulging in witchcraft. They were soon mobbed before being arrested and then executed.

The frenzy was sparked by the publication of a book by a Latitudinarian Christian writer and Puritan, Joseph Glanville.

Published in 1663, the book claimed that a denial in the belief of spirits and demons was a denial of belief in Christianity. Glanville tried to prove the existence of witches and demons.

It must be added that ‘witch-burnings’ had already taken place across Europe before the epidemic reached Salem.

Well-known American medievalist and writer, Sandra Mielsel, wrote in an article ‘Who Burned the Witches?’ that witch-hunts were largely the outcome of theological and even economic tensions between different Christian sects.

What motivates mob violence? And is South Asia unique in indulging in it?

In the same essay she wrote that witch-burnings by mobs were often facilitated by judges and government officials.

However, by the 18th century, mob violence triggered by religious beliefs came to an end. The Salem incident is important because as historian, George L. Burr, wrote in his 1914 book Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases: “The Salem witch-hunt was the rock on which theocracy shattered.”

Burr was suggesting that such events across Europe and in Salem triggered a backlash against theology and monarchism and heralded epochs such as the ‘Age of Reason’ and/or the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ — 18th century movements in Europe which promoted intellectual, social and economic progress through reason, science, tolerance and democracy.

Even though from the 18th century onwards, violent mobs driven by religious sentiments vanished from Europe and the US, mob violence did not.

The ideological motivation behind such mobs changed. It mutated from being religious to becoming racial or ethnic.

In fact, in a reversal of fortunes, during the late 18th century French Revolution, mobs even attacked the churches. In the United States, race riots involving white mobs attacking blacks became common across the 19th and 20th centuries.

While mob violence driven by religious sentiments was withering away in Europe, it was emerging in South Asia — a region which is now considered to be a hotbed of religiously-motivated mob frenzies.

All the chief academic sources which are used to document this region’s history speak very little of any major religiously-motivated mob action before the 19th century.

In a 2016 feature in Germany’s academic journal, Springer, historian Sunthar Visuvalingam places the emergence of religiously-motivated mob-violence in South Asia in 1809, in the city of Banaras.

Hindu and Muslim mobs began to attack members and properties of each other’s communities over the felling of a pillar considered sacred by the Hindus.

According to Visuvalingam, before 1809, there is no mention of religiously-motivated mob action in the region.

This incident took place during a period when the 500-year-old Muslim rule in India was collapsing and British colonialists were consolidating their dominance in India.

It was in the 1920s that religiously-motivated mob violence emerged in the region in a much fuller manner.

So much so that in 1919, Muslim leader (and future founder of Pakistan), Muhammad Ali Jinnah wrote a letter to his Hindu counterpart, Mahatma Gandhi, in which he warned that the Muslim and Hindu communities should be kept away from religious movements because such movements would unleash untapped violent emotions that could destroy them both.

By the 1940s, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim mobs were attacking the perceived enemies of their respective faiths, a phenomenon which began being called ‘communal violence.’

This violence continues to haunt India — now more than ever — despite the creation of Muslim-majority Pakistan in 1947.

In Pakistan, only two major incidents of religiously-motivated mob violence took place between 1947 and 1981. Both were against the Ahmadiyya community (1953 and 1974).

The 1953 mobs were crushed by the military while the 1974 ones led to the constitutional ouster of the community from the fold of Islam.

Mob frenzies driven by religious motivations saw a manifold increase in the 1980s, mainly involving ‘sectarian strife’ between the country’s Sunni majority and Shia minority.

In the 1980s the country’s Blasphemy Laws had also been strengthened. From 1990, incidents of mobs falling upon alleged blasphemers saw a drastic increase.

Interestingly, the whole concept of such a law was first introduced by British colonialists in India in 1860, as the intensity of polemical treatises between Hindus and Muslims grew.

This law was further strengthened in 1927, during an increase in Hindu-Muslim riots.

Pakistan adopted this law as is in 1947 but it was never made an important part of the 1956 and the 1962 constitutions or in the initial version of the 1973 constitution.

Till 1990, only 14 people were accused of committing blasphemy.

The number of accusations and mob attacks on alleged blasphemers saw an almost tenfold increase after additional clauses were introduced by the Zia regime in the 1980s.

Various theories have explained religiously-motivated mob violence.

Renowned psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud and psychologist William Dougall described mobs as ‘primordial hordes’ led by ‘horde leaders’ who exploit simplistic emotions about faith found in the masses.

To Freud, the mob mindset could be addressed by neutralising horde leaders. This can be done by encouraging the pursuit of individuality among citizens.

Professor Phillip G. Zimbardo believes that participating in mob violence frees the participant ‘from the necessity of normal social behaviour’ because personal controls such as guilt, shame and self-evaluating behaviour dissolves in a charged crowd.

American psychologist, F. Hennery Allport suggested that mobs are comprised of like-minded individuals who get the chance to express their beliefs in a more intensified manner than they would in more normal circumstances.

Violent impulses associated with one’s idea of morality and faith which are rejected and discouraged in a more rational and controlled setting, come alive in mobs.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 23rd, 2017


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