Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

Rise of the apes— Daily Times, 24 Sep, 2011

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OVER A COFFEE: Rise of the apes —Dr Haider Shah

A significant proportion of the population derives pleasure by depriving others of life when they are found to be in disagreement in matters of communal belief

“Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all,” said Aristotle. In the recent past, video coverage of certain incidents shocked all and sundry in society as the worst of animalism was evident. From the barbaric lynching of two brothers in Sialkot to the heartless killing of Shia pilgrims in Mastung, recurring incidents at both the social and state levels are indicative of the malaise of dehumanisation that has taken deep roots in this society.

The topic of dehumanisation brings to my mind the animal kingdom where survival wars run all the time. Sir David Attenborough, a living legend of evolutionary biology, has devoted almost 40 years to making documentaries on the wonders of nature. One of his documentaries on the life of primates is worth watching and is available on YouTube. The part that I find interesting and educative shows a group of chimps making a surprise attack on a rival group to seize their land and females. During the attack, they make loud yells aimed at motivating their own group members while terrifying the opponents. The short video clip provides us with the opportunity to compare, contrast and understand our own human behaviour.

The mob-led summary execution of two brothers in Sialkot, the killing of a young man by Rangers in Karachi, the brutal torture and murder of abducted Karachiites on ethnic grounds and the killing of Shia pilgrims by a firing squad are incidents that have occurred in different parts of the country and, apparently, for a variety of reasons. One common fact is easily discernible though. In all these cases, the murderers treated the victims not as humans but mere objects of hatred. This is the major symptom of dehumanisation as humans no longer remain persons but are viewed as objects. The act of killing was not due to a sudden loss of sanity nor was it on account of instinctive self-defence. In all these cases, the perpetrators seemed to be committing the crime as an act of social obligation approved by their peer group. We can see that the mob in the Sialkot case watched the whole act with active or tacit approval. In Mastung, the assailants lined up the victims before opening fire on them. The abducted Karachiites were questioned for their ethnic identities before being executed. It is not that acts of brutality are only committed in Pakistan, as gory incidents happen all over the world, including western countries. What distinguishes the dehumanisation trend in Pakistan from common crimes is the social approval or indifference to such occurrences. Mumtaz Qadri was garlanded by a section of lawyers and one can see numerous support sites on the net as well. A significant proportion of the population derives pleasure by depriving others of life when they are found to be in disagreement in matters of communal belief. ‘Ilyas Kashmiris’ are projected as national heroes till they turn their venom against their handlers. While acts of brutality are tragic, the more worrying fact is the lack of social indignation against the perpetrators.

The process of dehumanisation in a society does not happen overnight. According to one author, organised and bureaucratic state mechanisms can also give rise to a dehumanisation process that results in groups of humans being regarded as sub- or semi-human creatures, or perceived as not being human at all. Just about 70 years ago, we witnessed the mass scale killing of the Jews by the Nazis in Europe. The greatest worry in the context of Pakistan is that the state, instead of arresting the dehumanisation trend, is actively complicit in promoting it. The killing of a young man in Karachi by uniformed Rangers is indicative of the institutional disregard for human life, which is rampant in all security institutions. This particular incident made headlines only because it was by chance recorded and shown on the electronic media. The cases of Umer Cheema and Saleem Shahzad betray the deep rooted dehumanisation in the state apparatus as a dissenter is treated not as a human but as an annoyance that is removed with no remorse.

Latest archaeological discoveries have convinced anthropologists that the first humans originated in Africa and all differences in appearances of various races resulted from environmental adaptations. Speaking rationally and scientifically, there is a growing consensus that we must view all humans as belonging to one race, which should not be divided on the basis of appearances or beliefs. By raising the slogan of Pakistan on the basis of a religious divide, the founders of the country committed the first sin. In the heat of the moment they forgot that viewing the world as ‘they and us’ sows the seeds of hatred and thus can become the driver of the dehumanisation process. Though one is wiser after the event, many of us are still unable to realise that once the genie was released from the bottle of hatred, later exhortations by the Quaid-e-Azam for a secular country proved little more than wishful thinking as the genie could not be sent back into the jar again.

As descendants of apes, what humans have done is elevate the war cries of attacking chimps to the jingoistic discourse of warmongering. Using various religious or nationalistic phrases we have glorified the motive and act of killing other humans. Various belief systems, both divine and secular, have provided imaginative symbolism to their members so that they have little restraint or compassion towards rival humans and thus they are facilitated in the act of seizing the belongings of rival groups and getting rid of them. Humans and chimps share 98 percent of their DNA and humanism is the minor difference between the two. By dehumanisation the difference is eliminated and we return to the prehistoric world of apes. It seems that at least in Pakistan we are witnessing the rise of the apes who are shedding the human skin that they had been wearing since their evolution a few million years ago. The only redeeming hope is the possibility that the resulting society might turn out to be more compassionate as chimps are known to show greater compassion towards their children.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com


Author: Dr. Haider Shah

Academic, Researcher and Writer

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