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The science behind the mob

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Pakistan has seen its share of mob violence. In the past month alone, we witnessed another frenzied protest, put together by a tsunami of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan workers that took to the streets, wielding sticks and stones, angry and full of vengeance. The TLP has long exercised its influence with street power to oblige any sitting government to accede to its demands.

As an Election Commission-approved political party, sitting in the Sindh Assembly, the party has adopted agitational politics as its method of choice, a method that has gone onto revealing violent tendencies. This puts the state’s writ alarmingly into question, especially when the devotees of the TLP march in mobs and clog main arteries of Pakistan’s major cities, splattered in blood, hurling abuses to anyone that crosses their path. The price of the latest TLP saga was a heavy one, paid by the police, who suffered both deaths and injuries.

Over the decades, there have been many attempts to understand mobs and their tendency to turn violent. Some have followed the line of Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century philosopher who argued that society drives towards chaos and destruction. By that logic, just because society is the way that it is, protests would inevitably lead to restlessness—riots, looting, and other forms of violence.

Some find merit in the ‘Mad Mob’ theory, which postulates that people lose their own sense of identity and self in a crowd, and so they will behave in ways they would otherwise not have, had they been alone. Others suggest that mob behaviour is simply a product of criminal and bad individuals who act in coherence. In essence, this means bad people who come together will naturally create chaos.

All of the abovementioned theories lend support to the opinion that mob behaviour is…well, mindless. But, is it really? On the contrary, more intricate readings of social psychology would reveal that mobs are not necessarily irrational. In fact, there is a science behind mob behaviour, one underpinned with meaning and conscious intent. While it can be criminal, and instigated for all the wrong reasons, there is a method—a method to the madness.

In understanding the method behind crowd mentality, social identification is a key factor. That means the way a crowd behaves is largely governed by the individuals’ shared sense of social identity. The people that make up a mob know how alike they are, know what they stand for, and most of all, know who they are against.

For them, a legitimate target is someone who is an outsider; they become vehemently opposed to anyone who they perceive as different from their own groups’ shared identity. What can intensify this opposition is the opinion of their in-groups’ members.

So, are the same mechanics at play with the TLP mobs?

Yes. The individuals that make up the TLP mobs are heavily influenced by their in-group members, like their leader the late Khadim Rizvi, and in heavy opposition to the out-group members. At the beck and call of Rizvi, pools of people would come to the streets, priding themselves of being his loyal foot-soldiers.

Even when Rizvi was no longer, his mammoth funeral in Lahore served as a reminder of his sheer popularity. What Rizvi had tactfully done was something that religious right had failed in doing for years: he connected with the poor—the young and the poor.

They thought of him as one of their own, as he struck a chord with them—through his fluent Punjabi and readings of Sufi poetry. Projecting himself as a mere servant of Islam and not a politician, Rizvi made himself relatable and connectable.

Everything he did—the language he used, the clothes he wore, and the way he tirelessly churned out proses of Iqbal, raised his image as someone who knew what their problems were, someone who understood why they were angry. For them, people on the outside simply would not be able to connect to them, yet alone secure them a life of dignity.

Rizvi played it smart too, strategically almost—he filled the void of a Barelvi mass movement. The failure of other Barelvi groups to achieve their political goals through peaceful activism created a power vacuum exploited by the TLP to assert its presence. What’s more, he began the process of othering, differentiating between those that were on the righteous path and those who were in league with the enemy.

If someone were to align their beliefs with that of the TLP, they were surely on the righteous path, and if they did not, they were what he referred to as soft and weak Muslims. Such a categorisation galvanised his supporters into becoming more physically and vocally active in their show of devotion and faith. While some were quick to question the extent to which Saad Rizvi, the son of the late Khadim Rizvi, would retain TLP’s support base once senior Rizvi passed away, the swelling numbers on the streets last week only reveal that he too is popular. He too is connectable and he too can bring mobs to the streets. After all, it was Saad Rizvi who manned and regularly updated the social media channels of the TLP.

Alas, when the TLP calls, the mobs respond, even if it turns ugly. As a rule, impulsive violence is less likely to occur in crowds that have some sort of social structure and internal organization. The TLP does not have any structure as such. People often give the example of protests of the civil rights movements in the United States, where there were scattered incidents of disruption, but nothing that resulted in chaos.

Many of those protests included tactics, strategy and training. Training like the kind that was dispensed by Martin Luther King Jr who personally saw to it that groups of Freedom Riders were taught how best to respond to police provocation and what (not) to say if arrested.

These lessons helped in ensuring the protest remained peaceful. With TLP, there is absolutely no structure. The crowds that come in support of Khadim Rizvi simply are not organised; no individual is given a special role, be it to help shuttle people around, to take the responsibility of a medic, or even be assigned to provoke.

In other protests, there is often an assemblance of who does what, which individual has a special skill and role to play in the protest.

Here is not the case. The mob can go anywhere, the mob can do anything—angry, loud, and vengeful. Madness, but not mindless.

Note: This article appeared in The Nation, 5 May 2021.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.

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IPRI is one of the oldest non-partisan think-tanks on all facets of National Security including international relations & law, strategic studies, governance & public policy and economic security in Pakistan. Established in 1999, IPRI is affiliated with the National Security Division (NSD), Government of Pakistan.


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