Collective hysteria can take many forms. One of the first examples I was ever exposed to was ultimately benign and came in October 1973. I was watching ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ covering the chaos that accompanied The Osmonds as they touched down on UK soil and attempted to tour the country, despite hundreds of screaming teenage girls besieging the outside of every hotel and venue they set foot in. Beatlemania being before my time, I couldn’t understand how a pop group could provoke what seemed to me such inexplicable madness. A BBC series, ‘The Dimbleby Talk-In’, debated the issue and included a representative of the medical profession who described the process of the chain reaction when one girl in an audience of thousands releases her adolescent energy and triggers off a wave of identical responses throughout the hormonal cauldron.
If the reaction of female teens to Donny Osmond baffled me, I was no wiser when the male equivalent was sharing TV airtime – the football hooligan. Young men a dozen strong, thinking and acting as one, following the lead of an instigator in the manner of ducklings trailing behind their mother. Why had they succumbed to collective behaviour, responding to a situation in unison and sacrificing their individuality to a Bovver-Boot chorus line, as though choreographed by a Special Brew-fuelled Busby Berkley? I wasn’t then aware that when people are absorbed into a mob, the mob quickly ceases to be a collection of individuals and becomes almost a sentient being in itself. As I grew up, television transmitted the 1981 Riots, the 1984 Miners’ Strike and the 1990 London Poll Tax Riot; and I got it.
Anyone who lived through the tail-end of the Northern Ireland Troubles will recall the barbaric spectacle of two off-duty British soldiers unwisely gate-crashing an IRA funeral in Belfast, where they were immediately assumed to be Loyalist terrorists by the Republican crowd. This appalling 1988 incident, in which the soldiers’ car was surrounded as the pair were then dragged out by the mob, viciously beaten before being taken to nearby waste-ground and executed, lingers as one of the most graphically gruesome tragedies in the shameful annals of Ulster atrocities.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of it this week when I saw footage of an even more harrowing example of mob mentality on TV. It took place in Afghanistan just five months ago and concerned a 27-year-old woman called Farkhunda Malikzada, an apparently devout Muslim who was studying Islamic law as part of her intention to become a judge. En route to the location of her studies, she stopped off at a shrine outside a mosque in her home corner of Kabul to say her prayers and then encountered the mosque caretaker selling cheap charms bearing verse from the Quran. In an evident demonstration of her devoutness, she remonstrated with him for cashing-in on sacred text, a claim to which he responded by loudly accusing her of being an American spy; when that attracted the attention of others present, he added to it by accusing her of having burned a copy of the Quran.
Within seconds she was surrounded by a crowd of men who utterly believed the unfounded accusation, as though they were primed to want to believe it. No matter how much Farkhunda denied it, they had already decided en masse she was indisputably guilty. It took the blink of an eye for this judgement to be reached; the mob doesn’t take time to consider a situation; it responds with spontaneous immediacy, dispensing with human reason and adopting an animalistic instinct that reacts with attack. Her denials fell on deaf ears and she was pulled to the ground, whereupon the pack incensed by the false accusation began to kick her repeatedly, an action suspended by the intervention of policemen, who fired shots above their heads. Clad in full niqaab when the mob descended, the images taken from the mobile phone footage shot as the horrific events unfolded show a dazed and bloodied Farkhunda at the feet of the policemen, her head exposed and her features barely visible behind the scarlet sheen coating her countenance. A couple helped Farkhunda to her feet and took her to the inner courtyard of the shrine, but the mob hadn’t finished. With utterly inept policing either incapable or unwilling to prevent her pursuers gaining access, Farkhunda was grabbed again by the mob, who hauled her onto the roof of the shrine, where one member of the mob hit her so hard with what looked like a large branch from a tree that she fell from the roof and straight into the centre of the crowd.
For a brief moment, Farkhunda was captured on camera holding out her hands, an image as chillingly representative of man’s inhumanity to man as the 1972 photo of the Vietnamese girl with her clothes and skin incinerated by napalm; then she disappeared from view as the swarm – yes, a proper f***ing swarm – rained kicks and punches down on her. This wasn’t enough to satisfy the bloodlust of fanaticism, however; next up, they ran over her with a car, dragging her down the road before stoning her with heavy rocks. They topped off this litany of stomach-churning acts of unimaginable brutality by setting her on fire. One only hopes Farkhunda was already dead by this point.
Despite the condemnation by the Afghan President of the murder, several of those involved uploaded their videos of the sickening incident onto social media sites and their actions were applauded by some Imams. The authorities’ response was to parade the arrested suspects on TV, prompting an about-turn in public opinion. Thousands attending Farkhunda’s funeral included women’s rights activists who broke with Islamic tradition to carry her coffin and angrily reacted to men trying to prevent this brave act by asking them where they were when Farkhunda was being murdered. Mass revulsion at Farkhunda’s murder galvanised a protest movement, uniting the two sexes in unprecedented scenes on the streets of Kabul, whilst 29 (including 19 policemen) were charged with involvement in her death. Amongst the verdicts reached were four death sentences, although these have been subsequently commuted to prison sentences. The location where Farkhunda’s body was set alight has now become a unique shrine and Farkhunda herself has been awarded martyr status, a posthumous honour rarely reserved for women in Islam.
It would be easy to condemn the terrible events in Kabul that day in March as an example of the intolerance of Islam and how it is rooted in primitive superstition that the sophisticated west long ago left behind. Yet, lest we forget, this ‘civilised’ nation of ours is currently drowning in an irreligious wave of collective hysteria regarding child sexual abuse, one that resulted in a murder by a mob of a man wrongly accused of being a paedophile, whose body – like that of Farkhunda Malikzada – was set on fire as the culmination of vigilante justice. Strip away the excuse or motivation for either of these two repulsive murders and we are left with the same result – a crowd attacking an individual on the basis of an unfounded accusation, one person’s word against another with no evidence required and the will of the mob to believe the worst. It doesn’t matter if they think the individual has burned a copy of the Quran or has interfered with neighbourhood children; when mob mania on this scale strikes, there can be only one eventual outcome.
In a climate of heightened hysteria generated (in this country) by financial gain, the furthering of careers and the deep-seated desire for an urban bogeyman when the Devil is exluded by secularism, anyone who encourages this reversion to the law of the jungle, knowingly whipping-up the mob by making provocative public statements that tap into the chosen obsession, is playing with fire and will eventually end up with blood on their hands. And these hatemongers know who they are.