The murder of human empathy

Published: March 15, 2013
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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

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.

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Reader Comments (32)

  • BlackJack
    Mar 15, 2013 - 9:43PM

    A reasonable piece that unfortunately skirts the key issue that it seeks to address. 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. The writer needs to answer why this happens so frequently with one particular religion and not with others. Are these despicable, crazed, fanatical elements all reading something different from you or is there something in the faith and its reference material that can be interpreted as validation for their actions? How are thousands of devout momins across muslim lands moved to jihad – there has to be some supporting literature for acts of terrorism to be misrepresented as holy war. Why can no muslim face up to these questions with a direct answer?
    @ET – this is relevant to the issue being discussed – pls allow.

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  • Mar 15, 2013 - 11:17PM

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion, The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
    http://CultureOfEmpathy.com

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  • oracle
    Mar 16, 2013 - 12:10AM

    religion has caused more suffering and strife than any other thing in human history.

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  • ET lover
    Mar 16, 2013 - 2:02AM

    @BlackJack:
    maybe you have only none lens to look through! How conveniently you ignored the fact that there are reports of political patronage, economic interests in eviction of people from that town, and also the fact that clergy did show up to calm down the people and explain to them that this not the right way. Maybe mob psychology is unknown to you, illiteracy has no place in the argument for you or its just a matter of convenience to dump it on Islam (ignoring the facts that mob lynchings occur across the globe)

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  • Arifq
    Mar 16, 2013 - 2:30AM

    Hats off to the writer, very well written, balanced, introspective piece. I would like to add the problems raised by ‘Takfiri’ philosophy and fascist tendencies promoted by Salafi fundamentalists responsible for most of our problems.

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  • MK
    Mar 16, 2013 - 2:55AM

    @oracle:

    Some of the biggest conquers and murderers who have committed large scale killing have done for power, nationality reasons other than religion. Chengez Khan, Alexander of Macedonia, and Hitler killed for reasons other than religion. Temur(Tamerlane) killed more fellow Muslims than others, all he wanted was power. Massacre in Rwanda and Burundi was ethnic and not religious.Japanese occupation and massacres during World War 2 were nationalist in nature. Although religion has contributed a lot to the misery, it will be unfair to put blame on religion alone.

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  • wonderer
    Mar 16, 2013 - 8:27AM

    @MK:
    @oracle:

    Has not religion, any religion, only divided humanity? It was assumed that Islam will be the glue that will keep Pakistan united. We can see what actually it did. That is why religion should not be treated as anything other than a personal matter.

    I would go to the extent of suggesting that Humanity will be more united without Religion. A day will come when we will be living in such a world; the process has already begun.

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  • Proletarian
    Mar 16, 2013 - 9:24AM

    @wonderer
    You’re correct to a large extent, comrade

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  • Historian 1
    Mar 16, 2013 - 10:51AM

    @ wonderer
    you are right. In my opinion, color of skin, language, culture, education, financial status and interests can unite people but not religions. This fact is proven in pakistan many a times.

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  • wonderer
    Mar 16, 2013 - 12:00PM

    @Historian 1:
    @Proletarian:
    s
    It is very kind of you to appreciate my point of view, and I thank you for that.

    I discarded religion from all aspects of my life at the age of fifty after much thought and study when I came to the conclusion that humanity needs ONLY good education. I have been a much happier person for the last twenty-seven years since then.

    We Pakistanis need to not only learn how to live peacefully among ourselves and our neighbors, but also with all humanity in this fast shrinking and interdependent world.

    Thanks again. Please spread the word.

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  • Genius
    Mar 16, 2013 - 3:05PM

    The humankind, today, is paying a very heavy price for its disobedience to Lord Almighty (swt) so do those who claim to be Muslims. Did Lord Almighty not invite Muslims to come together to join hands with each other to rally round no man but Him, so that they can unite? Unite to do good work for all, bringing PEACE, and thus be strong enough to keep the tyrants and slave takers away. Do we see anyone responding to Lord’s invitation to come to unite, today? No we do not. We do see those claiming to be Muslims rallying round this man or that man, thus causing divisions among Muslims. So why such disobedient and hence disunited bunch of people not endure what they are enduring today?
    When all the Muslims rallied round one Allah they were united and thus strong. Strong to keep the slave takers away. For as long as people calling themselves Muslims shall remain hesitant and inert in coming out of their homes, to join hands with each other, in the locality where they live, to organise themselves into their own self reliant, self helping, vigilant, just, caring and responsible society, exactly as did the early Muslims, they shall continue to endure slavery and tyranny as they do today. The way forward for all of Muslims is to organise their self helping co-operatives in the localities where they live in obedience to Allah. Organise to bring about the just system which Lord Almighty has made each of the Muslim responsible for and establish collectively the Authority of Lord Almighty’s Laws. No soul shall carry the burden of another soul on the day of Judgement. The burden to create and maintain PEACE by upholding JUSTICE is that of every Muslim soul. Every soul shall be answerable to Allah on the day of Judgement, for what they are doing today in this world.

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  • Parvez
    Mar 16, 2013 - 3:30PM

    What a thought provoking read this was. You have so correctly touched upon the issue, that what these self styled Islamists are doing is in no way beneficial to Islam……but why ?
    The enemies of Pakistan ( and they are external and internal ) have realised that the easiest way to harm is to employ Pakistan’s own weaknesses ( mindlessly reacting to religious issues ) against itself and the beauty of this is in its success. It kills two birds with one stone, the state and religion.
    @Blackjack in his first comment has raised a point that I feel possibly the author or someone with a sound knowledge of the subject should respond and it would be interesting to read.
    Digressing a bit, suggest read Ed Hussain’s excellent true story ‘ The Islamist ‘, a truly interesting read.

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  • shabir muhammad
    Mar 16, 2013 - 3:50PM

    @wonderer
    i strongly agree with you.
    you know what i think is, religion only teaches us the humanity, nothing else. if you are a good human being, than there is no need of religion.

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Mar 16, 2013 - 5:28PM

    @black jack
    give me one example how is gonna others react if one say about jesus (a.s) and what is the reaction gonna be if one say somthing about Sri Ram, or u say about Holocoust of europe by the hands of christians with jews think again and answer me one small example is if one say something bad about our parents how we reacts …..

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  • American Coup
    Mar 16, 2013 - 6:24PM

    There are reasons.

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  • Historian 1
    Mar 16, 2013 - 6:31PM

    @ Ali Tanoli: Why do you believe that when someone says bad about your parents that he must be wrong, particularly if your father is a religious leader, a politician or a beaurocrat etc.
    Being a rational human being would you investigate OR would you retort to violence immediately. Why do you believe that a religious figure cannot be questioned or criticized??

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  • wonderer
    Mar 16, 2013 - 6:34PM

    @Ali Tanoli:

    An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind. (M.K.Gandhi) Just learn to laugh at fools.

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Mar 16, 2013 - 7:06PM

    @wonderer,
    An eye for eye does not make the world blind but safer on the cost of few crimnals and ifs wrong then stop striking for punishment of those dehli rapists. just learn and understand.
    @Historian 1,
    for no reason if one curst my parents i will give him a lesson because ghairath says that.

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  • Muhammed Usama Aziz
    Mar 16, 2013 - 7:09PM

    @blackjack
    I think you have short memory. You are forgetting about Adolf Hitler. Also for your information, read history how Muslims were brutally slaughtered in spain around 15th century.
    Your arrogance and perjudice towards Islam is clearly visible in your comments in this website

    @wonderer
    Go through the pre-Islamic Arab history when people would kill each other even in the slightest pretext but after Islam, these same people became united under one flag. Just like people disobeying a law does not mean that law is bad, in the same sense people disobeying Islamic teachings does not mean there is something wrong with Islam as a relegion. If follwed in TOTALITY, it produces miracles!!

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Mar 16, 2013 - 7:25PM

    @wonderer
    whole world cant be crimnal at a time is not it …..

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  • wonderer
    Mar 16, 2013 - 8:08PM

    @Ali Tanoli:

    Please do not bother about what M.K.Gandhi said. Go ahead with what you believe in.

    @Muhammed Usama Aziz:

    “If follwed in TOTALITY, it produces miracles!!”

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I too shall wait along with you for the “miracles”. Any idea how long it will be?

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  • faheema
    Mar 16, 2013 - 8:51PM

    Excellent analysis rather surgical analysis but of a carcass. To us religion is bigger than life and we Muslims of this so-called ‘land of pure’ are born to kill and die for religion to restore glory of past (which was never our past). Empathy, human values like words have no room in our lives as we are collectively reckoning our days and desperately looking for opportunity to ensure seat in heaven either as ‘Ghazi or Shaheed’, most convenient approach in this context is condemning India, Israel, USA or west for their conspiracies/atrocities against Muslims and avenging them by killing local Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis or any community we believe could be their agents.

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  • Historian 1
    Mar 16, 2013 - 9:38PM

    @ Ali Tanoli
    A sane person will never curse your parents without a reason. When majority of humankind has apprehensions towards one particular religious beliefs/ actions, they cannot be all wrong. When majority of people in your area start criticizing your parent/s you have to sit and think rationally ( once your ghairath has pacified). Cheers

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  • Rakib
    Mar 16, 2013 - 10:19PM

    @wonderer:

    It was assumed that Islam will be the glue that will keep Pakistan united. We can see what actually it did.

    (I fully agree that religion should be treated only a personal matter). In my humble opinion: The basic premise (Islam will be the glue) itself was, as you have rightly said, an assumption. Of certain men. Events have proved that it was a faulty assumption. That does not mean religion was wrong; expectations from it were faulty. Or it was cynically politicised. To make yet another assumption that ‘religion divides’ may be fraught with same danger of fallacious thinking. Nations have tried to circumvent, if not suppress altogether, religion as a matter of State policy but that has not prevented its own disintegration (Tito’s Yugoslavia or Stalin’s USSR). It stands to reason then that the Men be blamed rather than religion, Men that make a cynical “use” of religion are also capable of using any other non-religious devices (language, ethnicity, historical injustices etc) to strategically unite or divide peoples.

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  • pmbm
    Mar 17, 2013 - 7:30AM

    @author
    Who among Muslims are spokespeople of religion?
    As a teacher of Islamic studies do you really think Islam teaches what so called muslims did to the Christian locality? Why should you and every right thinking Muslim should not be spokesperson of Islam?

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  • Muhammed Usama Aziz
    Mar 17, 2013 - 3:12PM

    @wonderer:
    As soon as you start following it in TOTALITY, not according to your wishes!
    If you have any doubt, then just answer me a simple question. Why there is not a single country in the world which is truly a welfare state? By welfare means where there is equality, justice for all, not Only where a country’s economy is good

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  • wonderer
    Mar 17, 2013 - 5:25PM

    @Muhammed Usama Aziz:

    I am extremely sorry Sir, I do not follow your question and the connection it has with my reply to your comment. I had said I agree with you, didn’t I? It was with a bit of humour of course.

    I wanted to know from you how long the wait will be, but you have not answered that.

    I do not wish to get into an argument with you, for that would be pointless. Do excuse me please.

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  • wonderer
    Mar 17, 2013 - 9:15PM

    @Rakib:

    You do have a point Sir, but has religion not actually divided mankind? Just imagine a world without any religion and good education for all. Don’t you think that would be immensely better than the present day world? Humanity would still be divided by other factors, but it would be easy to solve the problems of division due to good education. Religion makes us so rigid in our views; so much so that we cease to have an open mind. I rest my case thus.

    If you do not agree with me I shall agree to disagree.

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  • Pmbm
    Mar 17, 2013 - 11:53PM

    @wonderer
    My experience is opposite of yours. I learnt my religion thru Muhammad Asad (convert fr Judaism) 25 yrs ago, that it can produce a moderate, honest and just society if practiced properly, not like what passes for religion in Pak surzameen.

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  • wonderer
    Mar 18, 2013 - 6:48AM

    @Pmbm:

    “….. that it can produce a moderate, honest and just society if practiced properly,…… “

    I respect your views Sir, but the portion highlighted by me in your statement (bold) is the main operative part. And, that is a very big “if”.

    I have yet to come across a single person of any religion who satisfies that condition. If Jinnah could be the father of our nation without being a practicing Muslim, why do the rest of us in this ‘surzameen’ need Islam? In any case, it should be no more than a matter of personal choice.

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  • Rakib
    Mar 18, 2013 - 8:01AM

    @wonderer:

    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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  • wonderer
    Mar 18, 2013 - 11:40AM

    @Rakib:

    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.

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