The Murder of Human Empathy

Mar 10th, 2013 | By | Category: Latest, Pakistan, Religion

Following the reprehensible attack on Christian homes in Lahore, a spine-chilling, grotesque image of an arsonist cheering over the burning flames went viral. One wonders what sort of man thumps his chest over destroying innocent lives and how human beings can become capable of such naked, audacious sadism that seeks justification in a faith that decrees

‘Whosoever harms a non Muslim citizen of a Muslim state, I shall be the complainant against him on the Day of Judgement.’ (Sahih Bukhari)

Throughout history human beings have shown themselves to be capable of wreaking terrible destruction and causing great suffering- from burning ‘witches’ at the stake, crucifying God’s noble messengers, butchering refugees in sacred precincts, gassing Jews at Auschwitz, to the nationalistic wars of the twentieth century, the liquidation of millions in nuclear destruction and poisoning of the biosphere through relentless commercial-industrial activity.

Yet Jeremy Rifkins in his phenomenal book ‘The Empathic Civilization’ insists that human beings are ‘Homo Empathica’, that is, defined and distinguished for the ability to empathize. He writes,

‘Human beings are soft-wired to experience others’ plight as if we were experiencing it ourselves.’

Empathy allows us to stretch our sensibility to another so we can cohere into larger social groups. It is curbed and limited by defining these social groups through narrow, parochial banners of ethnicity, nationalism, race and creed so that the empathic drive does not extend to the out-group. The Prophet (SAW) said:

“He is not one us who calls for `Asabiyah’, (prejudiced, parochial association)” (Abu Daud.)

The out-group is then ‘otherized’, made out of the reach of our empathy. This creates indifference and apathy towards the suffering of people belonging to a different classification. However, a more severe form of limiting and deflecting the empathic impulse is dehumanization of the other ‘as flies to the wanton boys’, often institutionalized by the social superstructure: state and government, media, education, religion. Through stereotyping, essential-ism,  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 dehumanized  and even demonized to appear less than human despicable, lower-order bestial ‘others’ whose eradication may not be of any great loss to human civilization. In the process we forget that as members of the human family, we all share a common, precarious existential predicament- our ‘little lives rounded with a sleep’- on a little finite planet in the mystifying universe.

Der Spiegel carried a report last year on the psychology of American drone operators whose button-clicking while reclining in plush chairs in air-conditioned offices decrees death to anonymous distant targets. The method of 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 they 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’)

Gitta Sereny writes of Fratz Stangl, the annihilator of thousands at a Nazi camp:

“Prisoners were simply objects. Goods. “That was my profession,” he said. “I enjoyed it. It fulfilled me. And yes, I was ambitious about that, I won’t deny it.” When Sereny asked Stangl how as a father he could kill children, he answered, “I rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass. … [T]hey were naked, packed together, running, being driven with whips. …” (Chris Hedges: The Careerist)

Few and far between, there may be those whose empathy grows militant and unkillable. Brandon Bryant was able to humanize his victims in his drone operations_ he noticed the details of their lives and patterns of behaviour akin to his own. “I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot.” He felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. “They were good daddies,” he says. He felt ‘disconnected from humanity’ while at his job, going through terrible unease and remorse. Having quit his job, he wrote in his diary, On the battlefield there are no sides, just bloodshed. Total war. Every horror witnessed. I wish my eyes would rot.” (Nicola Abe: ‘Dreams in Infrared’)   

Perhaps the most integral parts of this institutionalized dehumanization embedded in the superstructure of modern industrial society are the ‘Careerists’- the good men and women efficient at their jobs that make the system function. Chris Hedges describes them as

‘…armies of bureaucrats serving a corporate system that will quite literally kill us. They are as cold and disconnected… They carry out minute tasks. They are docile. Compliant. They obey. They find their self-worth in the prestige and power of the corporation, in the status of their positions and in their career promotions. It is moral schizophrenia. They erect walls to create an isolated consciousness. They destroy the ecosystem, the economy and the body politic… They feel nothing. And the system rolls forward. The polar ice caps melt. The droughts rage over cropland. The drones deliver death from the sky. The state moves inexorably forward to place us in chains. The sick die. The poor starve. The prisons fill. And the careerist, plodding forward, does his or her job.’

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 resistance, rejection, counter-narrative and healing that ought to have come from the representatives of religion in this part of the world has been inadequate, half-hearted, ambiguous 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 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 organizations 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 inability to draw a line between despicable, crazed fanatical elements and the faith itself, but it increases the onus on spokespeople of religion to address the burning issues that blur the lines.

Going to college in Pakistan shortly after the U.S declared all-out ‘war on terror’ and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, I witnessed scores of young people around me turning to Islam, primarily out of empathy for the Muslim victim, the underdog. In this country, the Islamist persona has now understandably metamorphosed into a perpetrator devoid of compassion, rationality and empathy, and this has alienated and repelled hundreds of thousands, resulting in a completely opposite trend that I, now an educator, see around me: a clear de-Islamization of Pakistan’s urban educated youth. While there also is a swing in the opposite direction, but the de-Islamization trend is clearly on the rise, understandably fuelled by the aforementioned.

Islamists in Pakistan are not cognizant 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 ‘Westernized’, ‘secularized’, ‘liberalized,’ hence misguided and insincere, unworthy of serious consideration.

The narrative in Pakistan needs a rethink: the ethos of the Qur’an is the extension of identity to embrace the human race as fellow sojourners held together by a common human nature and destiny:

‘Mankind is but a single nation, yet they disagree.’ (2:213)

Secondarily, we are taught to understand our responsibility towards those outside the faith fraternity not merely through divine directive but lived example and established paradigm.

In 628 C.E. Prophet Muhammad (s) granted a Charter of Privileges to the monks of St. Catherine Monastery in Mt. Sinai:

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.
Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
No compulsion is to be on them.
Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses.
Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.
No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight.
The Muslims are to fight for them.
If a female Christian is married to a Muslim it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.
Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.
No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

Empathy humanizes and civilizes. 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 civilization.’

Mercy and gentleness, said the Prophet (SAW), are defining traits of believers:

Allah is gentle, and He loves those who are gentle.’ (Sahih Muslim)  

 Mercy and gentleness beautify the spirit:

“Whenever kindness is in a thing, it adorns it, and whenever it is removed from anything, it disfigures it.” [Muslim]

Empathy is engraved into the core of our consciousness as human beings- that softest part inspired from the Divine Ruh (Spirit). Those who confine or deflect it are on the wrong side of humanity and history. In the long run, their narrative will lose out and history’s merciless verdict against them shall be ineradicable.

Maryam Sakeenah

About the author

Maryam Sakeenah teaches Sociology, Literature and Islamic Studies in Lahore, Pakistan. She authored a book documenting Islamic and Oriental responses to the Clash of Civilizations thesis. Maryam is also a social worker running an organization providing free virtual primary education for the poor.

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  1. Definately my article of the day. A moving exploration of the road to prejudice and violence which eloquently addresses the importance of staying human…

  2. Absolutely brilliant article!

  3. Greetings,

    This is an article that is both powerful and exceptionally written.

    Thank you for it!

    All good wishes,


  4. A well written article focusing on an issue very much needed in this ERA!…Empathy is something which is generally lacking in every strata of our society specially the educated urban elite……their inability to understand the problems of the masses………inability to understand their suffering………internationaly speaking there is no empathy for the suffering muslim…….My point is that in a country ruled by the most corrupt of all governments…this event of the christian colony burning was not actually directly an issue of empathy less human beings burning minority houses and not feeling their pain it was more of a political stunt by the ruling party to underminethe position of the majority opposition inpunjab before the upcoming elections by creating a bad situation for the CM to handle(the most despicable of all kinds of techniques)……..Maybe the islamist groups havent been able to play an effective role in creating empathy among masses but seriously none of them has ever remained completely silent either……….every islamist group condemns such actions……….during the episode of the blasphemous cartoons and then the video all sensible islamic groups condemened the burning and destruction of public property (it was all state sponsored even then!)…………even now every islamic and political group has said that the blasphemy issue was falsely created for political reasons……i am not sure that this is actually taking people farther away from the faith itself!…….the urban educated youth isjust a tiny part of the masses their percentage is less and even in them a lot of factions are working and dispersing any wrong impressions about the faith itself created out of such events……….the results of such efforts are usually slow to show but work has always been going on such factors and one cannot expect radical results the process has to be slow and steady! and while passing judgments on islamic groups ………..i think their aim and vision and the efforts they are puttting into that vision should be kept inmind…………its easy to form an opinion becuase of the reaction of the few we have around us but a lot has gone into bringing out the real islamic thought and reformative avenues opening up for the youth all around pakistan these days and the islamic groups have a played a vital role in that……..i think their is hope for empathy and i think this hope is there because of these islamic groups who can actually practically make a difference!

  5. also all these ghundas and jahils who gathered for a day of thrill and fun by doing such despicable acts would do it even if it werent in the name of islam and they were given a chance……….i am sure they were paid to do it all and had no love for the prophet or respect for islam at all . A planned programme to corrupt the peaceful and tolerent image of islam and on the other hand gain political ends!

  6. […] to discuss and debate critically are all essential to the health of a given society. A politics of empathy is the need of the hour. Unfortunately, Muslim majority societies are plagued by a clash of […]

  7. sure Islamists need to rise up I commented on fb group of JI 3 days back that JI needs to condemn TTP more vigilantly as its terrorism is damaging Islam and Islamists like Jamaat e Islami more than anything. it may have disowned attack on church but it has killed thousands of Pakistanis of all ages,religions and ethnic groups in last 10 same period interest and following of Islam of Islam increased but at same time its taking those Pakistanis and specially youth which doesn’t understand Islam or have weak faith away from Islam creating disdain for it. because of terrorism in the name of Islam.but as far as attack on minorities is concerned blaming Islamists or saying they havent done enough is wrong because major religious organization not only condemned vehemently condemned the attacks on Christian houses in Lahore and Peshawar Church but their NGO’s like Al-khidmat were 1st to help them. religious party leaders even visited Churches and protested on streets with Christian community. while the educated Urban elite which make Islamists accountable for what they havent done and complain about them don’t know what they or secular parties practically did for Christian victims in Lahore or Peshawar. in Peshawar instead of Government it was Al-Khidmat foundation which provided Coffins and ambulance service to victims such thing can’t be ignored though I believe more needs to be done against fanatics who are damaging or faith. and taking people away from Islam. good read as always. Jazak’Allah Khair.

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