SMOKERS’ CORNER: FIERY SWORDS AND MESSIAHS

Published October 10, 2021
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

According to a report in the December 19, 1971 edition of the now defunct English language periodical The Sun (published from Karachi), numerous residents of Karachi and Lahore claimed seeing ‘a sword made of light’ in the night sky.

The report quoted a group of Lahorites saying that what they saw was “the sword of faith” that had appeared to vanquish the enemies of Pakistan. The alleged sighting took place two days after the country had lost its eastern wing. The loss of the erstwhile East Pakistan had come as a shock to a majority of those living in the country’s western wing. 

State media had convinced many West Pakistanis that the country’s armed forces were winning major battles against East Pakistan’s militant Bengali separatists and their Indian backers. Then, as if out of nowhere, on December 16, came the news that Pakistani troops had been defeated and East Pakistan had separated to become Bangladesh. 

In her book A Demon-Haunted Land, the British historian Monica Black writes that, in 1944, when it became increasingly apparent that Germany was on the verge of being defeated in World War II, some Germans reported seeing “a fiery sword in the sky” over the German side of the mountain range called the Bohemian Forest. The same year, in Germany’s Lower Silesia region, people claimed to have seen “the sun dance as though it would collide with the earth.” 

For over a decade, the Nazis under Adolf Hitler had mesmerised millions of Germans into believing that they were a superior and indestructible race and nation. But soon, that nation was about to lose a major war and, with it, its indestructibility. 

Irrational and elaborate eruptions of ‘magical thinking’ often accompany periods of extreme political upheaval in societies, as much for sublimating guilt as psychological healing

The indestructibility was an illusion that seemed very real to many Germans. As ‘real’ as the fiery sword over the Bohemian Forest and the dancing sun in Lower Silesia. This meant a lot of Germans were still not willing to accept the inevitable demolition of the illusion. In duress, they were now imagining other, albeit more apocalyptic, manifestations of it. 

In an October 29, 2020 essay for the Boston Review, the American historian Samuel Huneke writes that such irrational manifestations are escape valves for things that could not be admitted. 

Black explains these manifestations as “magical thinking.” She writes that “it is likely to surface in moments of instability, insecurity, and malaise.” Even though magical thinking is often associated with how people had understood the world before the emergence of modernity and its emphasis on rational thought, modernity wasn’t really able to entirely overwhelm such a mode of thinking. 

To Black, in a world in which almost every aspect of life has been demystified, magical thinking serves a psychological purpose when rational means to understand a social or political malaise fail to placate a stressed society. In times of deep existential crises, many societies look for more mystified explanations and the possibility of miraculous interventions by mystical, otherworldly forces — especially when facts suggest that society as a whole was responsible for ignoring or even supporting the factors that had led to a rupture. 

Therefore, magical thinking also serves as a collective healing exercise. According to Black, ‘miracle workers’ appeared in immediate post-War Germany. They held mass healing sermons “as a way of refracting responsibility, either by seeking spiritual salvation or by sublimating guilt into a mysterious and demonic other.”

According to Huneke, sometimes people prefer to believe in conspiracy theories and apocalyptic prophecies rather than confront their country’s troubling attitudes towards race, religion, etc. Perhaps it is easier for them to believe in magic than to accept that they live in an unjust society.

We saw this happening in the US especially during the Trump presidency. When Trump was defeated in the 2020 presidential elections, thousands of his supporters preferred to believe in the diabolical conspiratorial nonsense of groups such as QAnon, instead of willing to understand his ouster through more rational means. Trump had squarely put American democracy in a spin, and Huneke writes, “when democracy ails, magic thrives.” 

The same is happening in another established democracy: India. A hotchpotch of Hindu mythology, political demagoguery and the glorification of pseudosciences have aided Indian Prime Minister Modi to shape himself as a messiah of Hindu nationalism. His supporters are now out to vanquish anyone who disagrees. 

In August 1988, PTV televised the mass funeral of Pakistan’s military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq. The broadcast was hosted by newscaster Azhar Lodhi. Zia had ruled the country as a stern authoritarian. His dictatorship is still considered by many as the country’s ‘darkest era.’ Yet, a majority of Pakistanis went along with the charade of ‘Islamic rule’ and prosperity that he was able to construct. Days after the funeral, reports in some tabloids claimed that a mysterious white light appeared over his grave in the evenings. 

This, and his funeral, during which Azhar Lodhi hysterically kept repeating the words “forgive us”, can be understood as collective exercises in deflecting the guilt of being accomplices in the destructive dictatorship, by portraying the dictator as a man who was guided by mystical forces. 

During the turbulent last years of Gen Musharraf’s dictatorship, various articulate men started to appear on some private TV channels, armed with a narrative that explained the anti-Musharraf protests, the collapsing economy and rising incidents of terrorism and natural calamities as signs of a power grab by mortal agents of Satan.

The ironic bit was that, throughout his dictatorship, Musharraf had posed as a modernist. Yet, men masquerading as security experts, but conjuring narratives that were a potpourri of populist Islamism and debunked conspiracy theories nicked from various equally suspect 19th and 20th century sources, were the ones unleashed by the regime to reverse its eroding existence. 

In another twist of irony, urban lifestyle liberals and ‘moderates’ who were the general’s core constituency, immediately fell for such reactionary balderdash. Interestingly, this core constituency of his soon shifted to adopting another ‘messiah’: Imran Khan.

Because of economic downturns, severe polarisation, and an alarming increase in heinous crimes and incidents of Islamist terrorism during the ‘hybrid regime’ that Khan now heads with more-than-generous support from the military, society is now beginning to echo various expressions of dissent. 

There are those demanding a rational political solution to the increasing malaise. But then there are also those who have fallen back to magical thinking.

On the one hand are mass Barelvi Sunni outfits such as the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, which excel in expressing political ideas through mystical symbols and imaginations, and militant outfits such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, who deal in entirely apocalyptic and cosmic ideas of a war between good and evil. 

On the other hand are moderates and lifestyle liberals who support Khan. Instead of being willing to admit that he is failing (and turning increasingly to the right), they have become a strange brew of lifestyle liberalism, convoluted Islamism and ‘new age spiritualism’, quite like the messiah himself.

They are refusing to admit what reality is exhibiting and instead sliding even deeper into a realm of illusions.

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 10th, 2021

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