SMOKERS’ CORNER: THE MADNESS OF CROWDS

Published June 23, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In November 1979, around 600 armed men seized the Grand Mosque in Makkah. The group was led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, who wished to kick-start an apocalypse prophesied in certain obscure Islamic traditions. The prophecy foretells the arrival of the ‘Mahdi’, a figure who will emerge at the ‘end of time’ to rid the world of sin. 

Otaybi didn’t have to wait for a Mahdi, though. Apparently, the Mahdi was already with him in the shape of one Abdullah al-Qahtani. Qahtani had claimed to be the Mahdi before the mosque’s seizure. During the fighting that ensued, Qahtani announced that modern weapons can’t kill him. So, when Saudi and French commandos stormed the mosque, Qahtani rushed out to pick up a grenade thrown by a Saudi soldier. But when the grenade went off in his hand, the clearly delusional Qahtani was blown to bits. 

The archaeologist Sam Challis calls such delusions the “bullets to water belief complex.” This ‘complex’ has been rather common among African tribes. According to Challis, during uprisings against European colonialists in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many tribes believed that certain traditional medicines and magic could render bullets impotent. Hundreds of African tribal warriors were cut down after they put themselves in the line of fire, believing magic spells and traditional medicines would turn bullets to water. 

Such beliefs are still prevalent in various societies. In their examination of superstitions and magic associated with conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, political economists Nathan Nunn and Raul Sanchez de la Sierra wrote that, despite the fact that fighters ‘protected by magic’ die, their deaths are blamed on the fighters because, supposedly, they did not properly follow the set of conditions required by the magic/medicine to work.

Irrational beliefs and existential anxieties have not only fuelled destructive acts by individuals but have also been exploited by leaders to present themselves as messianic saviours

Nunn and Sierra noted that fake accounts of bullets bouncing off after hitting the fighters’ bodies encouraged more and more young men to join militias formed by villages to ward off armed intruders. 

Similar strategies were used in the 1980s by some groups who were assigned to recruit fighters for the ‘jihad’ against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. For example, many militant and mainstream Islamist outfits in Pakistan published pamphlets that spoke of incidents in which Islamic insurgents, after running out of ammunition, blew up Soviet tanks by simply jumping in front of them and shouting “God is great!” 

All this is the outcome of ‘magical thinking.’ Magical thinking is when a person believes their thoughts, feelings or rituals can influence events in the material world. Magical thinking is naturally prevalent in children. But in adults, it is often triggered by fear, feelings of vulnerability, or even by an inferiority complex.

It provides them an imagined sense of power, conjured up from irrational beliefs. It can be harmless if it momentarily eases a person’s anxieties and doesn’t lead to disruptive behaviour or serious self-harm. ‘Life coaches’, for example, often shape innocuous forms of magical thinking to increase the self-esteem of their clients. 

But, of course, if it leads to people believing that bullets and grenades can’t harm them because they have certain magical or divine powers, magical thinking can then mutate into becoming a more disconcerting delusion.

On a collective level, it can also lead to “the madness of crowds.” This phrase was first popularised by the 19th century Scottish journalist Charles Mackay. In his 1881 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Mackay explored various examples of mass hysteria or ‘collective madness’, to demonstrate that the human mind can be susceptible to irrational beliefs and deception.

In 2023’s Decoding Delusions, the clinical psychologist Richard Bentall explains the ‘madness of crowds’ as the outcome of “national delusions.” Such delusions can become viral and make whole societies start believing in “absurdities.” One of the examples given by Mackay was the 16th and 17th century witch-hunts in Europe.

Bentall provides other examples, which include a belief in the pseudo-histories that gave rise to Nazi ideology, or the belief that the 1969 moon landing was fake, and the widespread belief in an assortment of conspiracy theories on the internet. 

To Bentall, national delusions are triggered by “existential anxieties”. He calls forces that exploit these anxieties “belief entrepreneurs”. The exploitation can be done to achieve certain political goals as well. In this regard, ‘belief entrepreneurs’ compound existential anxieties in a society, ‘foreseeing’ the coming of a collapse and chaos.

They present themselves as leaders who will save society from the coming apocalypse, but only if they are allowed to rule as they please. If they succeed in bagging enough followers, they then begin to be seen by their followers (and maybe by themselves) as the figurative bulletproof folk on a messianic mission. 

In a TV ad funded by India’s Congress Party just days before this year’s parliamentary elections in the country, a kid is shown bursting a large balloon with a pin. On the balloon is the image of Narendra Modi’s face. After the anti-climatic performance by Modi’s BJP in the elections, an Indian re-posted the ad on X and wrote, “Alas, he’s human.”

The message in this was that Modi is no messiah, nor a deity who cannot bleed. A simple pin can deflate his larger-than-life image — an image shaped by magical thinking that had eventually led to the ‘madness of crowds’ syndrome. 

Pakistan’s Imran Khan is also viewed as a kind of a messiah. He’s a brilliant ‘belief entrepreneur’, who had convinced a large number of people that the country was on the verge of a collapse due to the ‘corruption’ of his opponents. However, Khan’s bubble finally burst in April 2022, when he was ousted from power through an act of parliament. But he bounced back.

The economic downslide which, ironically, his own government had set off, gave his belief-entrepreneurial skills the material to once again exploit existential anxieties and rekindle his messianic connection with his supporters. 

Khan’s bulletproof image is as symbolic as Modi’s was. Khan’s most recent ‘enemies’, the military establishment, tried to spoil his ‘messianic aura’ by exposing a series of sexual scandals he was allegedly involved in. But what they don’t understand is that populist political messiahs are often a surreal mix of piety and partying.

The ‘madness of crowds’ in this regard means feeling protected by the messiah’s displays of piety, and enthralled by his sexual/romantic escapades. No wonder then that many of Khan’s admirers are often heard saying that, even at 71, he’s still ‘handsome’.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 23rd, 2024

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