The murder of human empathy

Islamists in Pakistan celebrate terrible losses, as they perceive themselves to be locked up in crusade against West.

Maryam Sakeenah March 15, 2013
The writer teaches Literature, Islamic Studies and Sociology in Lahore. She is also a social worker leading a project for virtual education for underprivileged schoolchildren

Following the reprehensible attack on Christian homes in Lahore, a spine-chilling image of an arsonist cheering over the burning flames went viral. One wonders how human beings can become capable of such naked, audacious sadism.

Throughout history, human beings have shown themselves to be capable of wreaking terrible destruction and causing great suffering. Yet, Jeremy Rifkins, in The empathic civilisation, insists that human beings are “Homo Empathica”, which is defined and distinguished as the ability to empathise.

Empathy is curbed and limited through narrow, parochial banners of ethnicity, nationalism, race and creed, so that the empathic drive does not extend to the out-group. The out-group is then “otherised.” However, a more severe form of this is dehumanisation of the other, often institutionalised by the social superstructure: state, media, education, religion. Through stereotyping, essentialism, ethnocentrism, prejudice and propaganda, as well as censorship and selective relaying of information to the public, minority groups and those whose interests clash with, or threaten one’s own, are systematically dehumanised and even demonised to appear less than human — despicable, lower-order ‘others’, whose eradication may not be of any great loss to human civilisation. Modern technological warfare seems to be designed to keep empathy at bay — the victim is invisible and remote, represented by a red dot on a laser screen, annihilated by a light, single click. Drone pilot Vanessa Meyer said, “When the decision had been made, and we saw that this was an enemy, a hostile person, a legal target that was worthy of being destroyed, I had no problem with taking the shot.” (Nicola Abe: Dreams in Infrared)

In Pakistan, religion is increasingly used as one of the most powerful means of deflecting empathy from those outside the faith and sectarian affiliation. Religious intolerance in a culture of violence and anger is a fatal mix and has gone on a bloody rampage. While the causes, factors and agents responsible for the ongoing madness are complexly intertwined, the counter-narrative and healing that ought to have come from the representatives of religion has been inadequate, half-hearted and equivocal. The voice of condemnation from the pulpit is faltering and this has been extremely damaging in a number of ways. The contemporary discourse of political Islam in Pakistan is heavily lopsided, selectively highlighting the plight of victims of American, Israeli and Indian misdemeanours (which certainly are important human rights issues), while keeping mum or issuing periodic enfeebled and rhetorical statements of condemnation over the plight of minorities and other innocent victims of those committing violence in the name of religion.

For Islamist groups, the cost of this silence has been, and will be, crushingly enormous. The disappointment felt by members of the civil society and educated youth over a criminal silence and the inability of the religious leaders and scholars to rise to the occasion and give clarity to the public with a single voice has been shattering. This has not only alienated scores of good, intelligent people belonging to Pakistan’s educated urban middle and upper classes from Islamic groups and organisations but in many cases, from the faith itself. A colleague posted the picture of the gleeful arsonist with the comment, “Happy mob rightfully burns down Christian homes. Another great day for Islam. Another victory against the forces of evil.” While this is an extreme reaction, showing an inability to draw a line between despicable, crazed fanatical elements and the faith itself, it increases the onus on spokespeople of religion to address the burning issues that blur the lines.

Islamists in Pakistan are not cognisant of this terrible loss, as they perceive themselves to be locked up in a crusade against the onslaught of the West, the secularists, the Zionists et al. Any voice, calling for the need to provide clarity, answers and solutions is dismissed as “Westernised”, “secularised”, and hence misguided and insincere, unworthy of serious consideration. Empathy humanises and civilises. Its suppression intensifies secondary drives like narcissism, materialism, violence and aggression. The task of religion, education and the media must be to bring out the empathic sociability stretching out to all of humanity and prepare the groundwork for what Rifkins has called an “empathic civilisation”.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 16th, 2013.


wonderer | 8 years ago | Reply


There is not a word in your reply that I could disagree with. Thanks for writing.

Religions, to a large extent, are products of brilliant minds endowed with uncommon wisdom. Most of those who practice any of those religions do not possess such qualities. Religion in their hands becomes dangerous for that reason, and the problems multiply when they insist on preaching their own interpretation. The reason why I feel religion is not for the masses, and is best avoided, is that there is nothing that religion brings to the masses that cannot be brought by good education. At least education is not that dangerous.

Rakib | 8 years ago | Reply


I thank you for the kind response. I do not participate to seek agreement. Quite the contrary. And being disagreed with by someone like you is an honour. Following is merely to share thoughts (by no means original) rather than join issues or debate:-. If State patronage is not given to religion at least some of the damage can be avoided. I think religion is both an instigator & a moderator. I think conflict, like greed,is ingrained in to group behaviour if not human nature itself. Religion is one of the justifications for it while paradoxically same religion may be preaching abjuration of violence too. Discrimination (colour/race, gender,language) may be expected group conduct & religiously approved social construct in some cases but same religion may preach virtue of tolerance & brotherhood to congregation too. And so on. It is individual or group behaviour that determines what use religion is put to.

In such cases adoption of a particular religion/sect by the State makes matter more complex since State machinery may favour one over the other.. Practically speaking religion can not be got rid of but its influence can be limited provided State does not mix its role in the Here with its citizen's Hereafter. Indian experiment in that regard is a very interesting one despite grave lapses at times.. Yes, religions do cause conflict but a wise nation or society or group does try to keep their respective followers in a state of permanent truce, despite occasional breaches.

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