29 April 2017
THE mental state of men ready and poised to
kill has long fascinated scientists. The Nobel Prize winning ethologist, Konrad
Lorenz, says such persons experience the ‘Holy Shiver’ (called Heiliger Schauer
in German) just moments before performing the deed. In his famous book On
Aggression, Lorenz describes it as a tingling of the spine prior to performing
a heroic act in defence of their communities.
This feeling, he says, is akin to the
pre-human reflex that raises hair on an animal’s back as it zeroes in for the
kill. He writes: “A shiver runs down the back and along the outside of both
arms. All obstacles become unimportant … instinctive inhibitions against
hurting or killing disappear … Men enjoy the feeling of absolute righteousness
even as they commit atrocities.”
While they stripped naked and beat their
colleague Mashal Khan with sticks and bricks, the 20-25 students of the Mardan
University enjoyed precisely this feeling of righteousness. They said Khan had
posted content disrespectful of Islam on his Facebook page and so they took it
upon themselves to punish him. Finally, one student took out his pistol and
shot him dead. Hundreds of others watched approvingly and, with their
Smartphone cameras, video-recorded the killing for distribution on their
Facebook pages. A meeting of this self-congratulatory group resolved to hide
the identity of the shooter.
Much of the Pakistani public, tacitly or
openly, endorses violent punishment of suspected blasphemers.
Khan had blasphemed! Until this was finally
shown to be false, no proper funeral was possible in his home village. Sympathy
messages from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and opposition leaders such as
Bilawal Bhutto came only after it had been established that Khan performed
Namaz fairly regularly.
Significantly, no protests of significance
followed. University campuses were silent and meetings discussing the murder
were disallowed. A demonstration at the Islamabad Press Club drew about 450, a
miniscule figure against the estimated 200,000 who attended Mumtaz Qadri’s last
This suggests that much of the Pakistani public,
whether tacitly or openly, endorses violent punishment of suspected
blasphemers. Why? How did so many Pakistanis become bloodthirsty vigilantes?
Evening TV talk shows — at least those I have either seen or participated in —
circle around two basic explanations.
One, favoured by the liberal-minded, blames
the blasphemy law and implicitly demands its repeal (an explicit call would
endanger one’s life). The other, voiced by the religiously orthodox, says
vigilantism occurs only because our courts act too slowly against accused
Both claims are not just wrong, they are
farcical. Subsequent to Khan’s killing, at least two other incidents show that
gut reactions — not what some law says — is really what counts. In one, three
armed Burqa-clad sisters shot dead a man near Sialkot who had been accused of
committing blasphemy 13 years ago. In the other, a visibly mentally ill man in
Chitral uttered remarks inside a mosque and escaped lynching only upon the
imam’s intervention. The mob subsequently burned the imam’s car. Heiliger
While searching for a real explanation,
let’s first note that religiously charged mobs are also in motion across the
border. As more people flock to Mandirs or Masjids, the outcomes are strikingly
similar. In an India that is now rapidly Hinduising, crowds are cheering
enraged Gau Rakshaks who smash the
skulls of Muslims suspected of consuming or transporting cows. In fact India
has its own Khan — Pehlu Khan.
Accused of cattle-smuggling, Pehlu Khan was
lynched and killed by cow vigilantes earlier this month before a cheering crowd
in Alwar, with the episode also video-recorded. Minister Gulab Chand Kataria
declared that Khan belonged to a family of cow smugglers and he had no reason
to feel sorry. Now that cow slaughter has been hyped as the most heinous of
crimes, no law passed in India can reverse vigilantism.
Vigilantism is best explained by
evolutionary biology and sociology. A fundamental principle there says only
actions and thoughts that help strengthen group identity are well received,
others are not. In common with our ape ancestors, we humans instinctively band
together in groups because strength lies in unity. The benefits of group
membership are immense — access to social networks, enhanced trust, recognition,
etc. Of course, as in a club, membership carries a price tag. Punishing
cow-eaters or blasphemers (even alleged ones will do) can be part payment. You
become a real hero by slaying a villain — ie someone who challenges your
group’s ethos. Your membership dues are also payable by defending or eulogising
Celebration of such ‘heroes’ precedes
Qadri. The 19-year old illiterate who killed Raj Pal, the Hindu publisher of a
controversial book on the Prophet (PBUH), was subsequently executed by the
British but the youth was held in the highest esteem. Ghazi Ilm Din is
venerated by a mausoleum over his grave in Lahore. An 8th grade KP textbook
chapter eulogising him tells us that Ilm Din’s body remained fresh days after
In recent times, backed by the formidable
power of the state, Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan have vigorously injected
religion into both politics and society. The result is their rapid
re-tribalisation through ‘meme transmission’ of primal values. A concept
invented by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the meme is a ‘piece of
thought’ transferrable from person to person by imitation. Like computer
viruses, memes can jump from mind to mind.
Memes containing notions of religious or
cultural superiority have been ‘cut-and-pasted’ into millions of young minds.
Consequently, more than ever before, today’s youth uncritically accepts the
inherent morality of their particular group, engages in self-censorship,
rationalises the group’s decisions, and engages in moral policing.
Groupthink and deadly memes caused the
lynching and murder of the two Khans. Is a defence against such viral
afflictions ever possible? Can the subcontinent move away from its barbaric
present to a civilised future? One can so hope. After all, like fleas, memes
and thought packages can jump from person to person. But they don’t bite
everybody! A robust defence can be built by educating people into the spirit of
critical inquiry, helping them become individuals rather than groupies, and
encouraging them to introspect. A sense of humour, and maybe poetry, would also
Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.