OVER A COFFEE : Sociology of violence — Dr Haider Shah
Is violence a legitimate arbiter of justice? Young and juvenile minds find answer to this question in various stages
With a remote control in hand, we often keep changing TV channels in quick succession. Moving through numerous Pakistani channels to Indian and European channels, we come across a flurry of images and news items of the day. One theme is very conspicuously noticeable. On Pakistani channels, you see almost all possible shades of violence. From domestic violence-led injuries to incessant target killings, and from genocidal murders of various sectarian communities to the mayhem caused by bomb blasts, there seems to be no dearth of blood and tears. This stands in stark contrast to what we see on the channels of other countries where we get entertained by display of festive celebrations amid music and dance. I have long been discussing the sociological sources of violence on our forum, and I was thus delighted to see one famous Pakistani pop singer raising similar questions in his recent programme on education.
Is violence a legitimate arbiter of justice? Young and juvenile minds find answer to this question in various stages. The first impression of legitimacy of violence is cast when we teach them morality with the help of a concept of God who uses the threat of violence to force humans to worship him. The clerics enjoy propagating this central notion of religious dogma while underplaying the mercifulness attribute of God, as the concept of a revengeful deity serves their own purpose of social control much better. A lesson in legitimacy is again learnt when young children see their mothers and other vulnerable members of the family physically thrashed by the muscular men of the house. After seeing fathers using violence at home, they then see their ‘spiritual’ fathers at schools using violence as a necessary tool of pedagogy. As they reach adulthood, they find violence being used as a pervasive tool of getting desired results everywhere — from settling business disputes to extracting information from the accused in police stations.
We generally associate violence with physical attacks resulting in noticeable harm to the body of the victim. We need to expand our notion of violence by viewing its manifestation at three levels. In its most brutal and shocking form it causes severe harm to those who are attacked. We see this form of violence on account of various motivations. One major promoter of this violence is militant religious extremism, which has used suicide bomb attacks and daredevil well-planned ambushes to demoralise and dent the law enforcement apparatus of the state. Violence has also become more visible due to some gory attacks on sectarian grounds. The deadly attacks on Hazara Shia community in Balochistan demonstrated the ugly side of religious extremism. Religious dogma, however, is not the only cause of this form of violence. Ethnic tensions in Balochistan and Karachi have also stoked the fires of violence.
Second form of violence is shown by society in general towards its minorities or less privileged sections. In Nazi era, the German society as a whole was complicit in the commission of crimes against vulnerable groups as it turned a blind eye when such programmes were being officially implemented. Similarly, the ruling elite class of Europe actively promoted violence against black slaves when with shiploads of slaves it did brisk transatlantic business and benefitted from the abominable trade. In Pakistan, we have seen in certain incidents houses of Christians were burnt by enraged Muslim sections of population. Muslim clerics and scholars are often heard issuing death verdicts against members of the Ahmedi faith community. The internet is full of video lectures of clerics who declare the use of violence in matters of faith a religious duty. The impact of such hate literature upon impressionist minds of our youth is not hard to imagine.
Third form of violence is inflicted in a society through its social norms or formal laws. In the Marxist literature, the powerful class of a society is said to use social structure for justifying its exploitation of the ruled classes. This kind of violence continues over many generations because the victims are encouraged to extend voluntary compliance to the violence perpetrated by the powerful social groups. For instance, the American black slaves were taught that obeying the master was essential for being a good Christian. Similarly, women in Pakistan are taught that God has ordained them to accept their secondary position and never question their unequal position in matters of substantive rights like inheritance and crimes such as rape. Popes used their power of excommunication to punish non-conformists. Our clerics are also quick in issuing verdicts of apostasy against anyone that takes a rationalist view of the state of affairs.
The three forms of violence interbreed. By putting up with discriminatory laws and social norms of a bygone tribal era that place one social group in a disadvantageous position, we create an environment in which more visible forms of violence also grow exponentially. If we are keen on tackling the problem of ever-growing violence, we need to address the underlying determinants first. The first change must happen in the initial teaching of our infants and toddlers. Our religious teachings should not contain any traces of violence and instead should promote more mystical and humanitarian virtues. Then we must review our laws and bring them in conformity with the morality of the 21st century world today. We should also begin discouraging communal level atrocities against any smaller community. Without tackling violence emanating from these two sources, our chances of eradicating violence caused by militant extremists will remain slim.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org