On the (Ir)rationality of Mobs

Mar 2014

Issue 6  Essay


Photo credit: Asadullah Tahir

The image of the violent mob is deeply associated with narratives of public life in Pakistan. In the last decade, we have increasingly witnessed anti-blasphemy protests, sectarian attacks, riots, damages to public property, and systematic lynchings of minorities (Muslim and non-Muslim). The video mobilizations of 2012, the destruction of Badaami Bagh in Lahore in 2013, and the burning of a mosque and several shops during an Ashura procession in Rawalpindi this year, are just a handful of the potent manifestations of the ubiquitous mob in Pakistan. Dwelling on the irrationality of such mob violence, or discarding participating foot soldiers as borderline crazies is, however, rather pointless. Public protests are outcomes of more systemic, historically embedded processes, ones that emanate from everyday associational life in the country.

For the past month or so, a group of traders and auto-mechanics have been maintaining a hunger strike camp, and holding daily protestson Ferozepur Road in Pakistani Punjab’s provincial capital of Lahore. The protests are in response to the government’s plans to ease traffic congestion by constructing two large flyovers on commercial land near Chungi Amer Sidhu. According to the protestors, the project will impact 6000 households in the area—either through displacement from residential land, or through the shop foreclosures, and hence livelihoods, facing the main road. Similar protests are underway against large-scale infrastructure projects in Badami Bagh and Azadi Chowk, on the opposite side of the city.


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A cursory look at the Pakistan’s local press indicates that the protests are in no way unique. In fact, a number of small protests, strikes, sit-ins, camps, are set up on a host of different issues across the country.

Traders protesting forceful land acquisition, or clerks mobilizing against wage freezes, or farmers staging a roadblock in response to an unfriendly agricultural policy, are all frequent facets of public protest culture and civic life in Pakistan. In line with trends seen in countries like Brazil or India, middle or low-middle income groups and causes have taken up the primary space for public protest. This is not only a result of gradual de-unionization, and the fragmentation of the working class movement after the manufacturing industry has stagnated, but also of processes of gentrification and spatial re-mapping. Middle-class civic life, embodied in trader associations and suburban clubs, have begun to flourish, in turn creating obstacles for, for example, labor collectivization.

For a country with a checkered history of free association, protesting is, surprisingly, a much-preferred part of everyday civic action. Most of these take place as reactions to–or what appear to be spontaneous outbursts against—particular actions or events. Just like so many other subjects, the issue of public protests and mobilization in Pakistan hasn’t been dealt with in any rigorous detail. Instead, the bulk of focus, in academia and in journalism, has been allocated to the notions of violent, foaming-at-the-mouth, religious mobs.

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In most writings on Pakistan, these two forms of public protests are separately imagined. On the one side stand accounts rendered news-worthy, of religious fanatics spouting vitriolic hatred, and on the other side sit the more benign public protestors, who at best limit the mobility of Pakistan’s elite, and at worst manage to steal a column or two in the metro section of Pakistani papers. There is no systematic study of these forms of public protests, or ‘uncivil publics’. There are, however, slivers of evidence indicating that more benign civic protest—of lawyers, traders, and government officials—are intertwined with the ‘spontaneous’ eruption of religious violence.

In September, 2012, the then PPP-led government declared a national holiday to celebrate love for the Prophet Muhammad, and to signal a protest against an allegedly blasphemous video published somewhere in the US. The immediate policy intervention was to ban Youtube—the platform hosting the video—while the political idea was to allow peaceful processions signifying righteous indignation at the film. The processions ultimately became violent, as far-right Islamist groups ransacked a couple of cinemas, and other participants burnt down shops and looted banks.

What’s most telling is that the protesting coalition for the 2012 demonstration—as announced on large banners in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Karachi—consisted of traders, ulema, lawyers, welfare organizations, journalists and students—basically urban Pakistan’s civil society.

This is where violence and regressive political behavior has actually been embedded, i.e. in the space that exists between the formal political process and society in general. The idea that ‘mobs’ are mere aberrations in public behavior does not hold, especially when we explore the linkages between mob violence and regular associational life. Take for example the attack last November during Ashura processions in Rawalpindi.  The Shia religious holiday was marred by attacks and clashes which killed eight and led to the torching of shops and a mosque. In the aftermath, traders joined hands with Sunni extremist groups to protest against the violence, drawing support from other associational actors like lawyers as well. Similarly, when Badami Bagh, a Christian neighborhood in Lahore was attacked and burned last year, rumors circulated that the steel-mill owners association had systematically perpetuated the riots there to clear out the Christian colony for a new steel storage warehouse.

Although a systematic analysis of the subject is required, the analytical merit of placing spontaneous mobilization within the larger framework of associational life in Pakistan is increasingly obvious. The fact that religious groups are able to mobilize seminary students against alleged blasphemers, or that traders gather mosque goers for a strike against heavy taxation, point to a deeper, systemic monopolization within public space. It also indicates that the everyday forms of violence against minority groups are deeply embedded within the political economy evolution of the country. This is linked not only to cultural relationships (Islam and commerce) constructed under a specific kind of capitalism, but also to the state-sanctioned exclusion of working class politics.

This leads to the second point, which concerns political strategy. In terms of constructing a praxis, it is useful to remember two things: the first is that theoretically speaking, political parties, and voluntary associations hailing from a wide variety of ideological positions carry out the task of organizing public space, and consequently influence the people who occupy it. The second fact is that part of this is now only theoretically true: while we do have a number of actors, and a number of causes, the ideological underpinnings of most protests are from the same side of the political spectrum.


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The obvious political strategy, hence, points towards building new coalitions that can challenge retrograde mobilization of the kind seen fairly often in the country. Naturally, this does not simply mean resorting to textbook ideas of leftist praxis, which often run into the brick wall of reality, but to assess the way oppression and disadvantage has been generated by Pakistan’s experience of capitalism. Industrial labor, the bedrock of the working class movement, in so many countries, can only be one form of an associational public now. Other groups, like street vendors, slum-dwellers, and daily wage-laborers, will have to be engaged with and organized for the purpose of generating an effective politics.

The odds are, quite obviously, stacked against any such praxis. The state of Pakistan has been a willing instigator of associational homogeneity, and continues to play its part in creating conducive conditions for everyday violence—by mobs or other actors—and this is precisely why the need for alternative, socially embedded praxis is greatest right now.

Umair Javed writer is a freelance columnist.

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One Response to On the (Ir)rationality of Mobs

  1. Issue 6: Mobs and Movements | Tanqeed on Mar 2014 at 10:39 AM

    […] at the liberal narratives about “mob violence” in Pakistan along with Umair Javed who queries the “irrationality” of the “mob.” Evelyn P maps the history of Golden Dawn, […]