The Constants of Scapegoating


Nadeem F. Paracha Published September 19, 2021 

Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The word ‘scapegoat’ is derived from the Book of Leviticus which is the third book of the Torah and of the Old Testament. In one of its stories, all the sins of Israel are put on the head of a goat, which is then driven out, even though the goat is not guilty of any sin.

Scapegoating is particularly disconcerting when used by a large community against a smaller one, especially for political or ideological purposes. The scapegoated community is often weaker and therefore less able to defend itself. In fact, this is one of the reasons why it is used as a scapegoat. 

After the humiliation of defeat during World War I, a large number of Germans began to accuse Germany’s Jewish citizens of being behind Germany’s loss. Within a decade after the War, this sentiment was institutionalised by the Nazis. They offered confused, angry and disoriented Germans scapegoats to vent their frustrations at. Topping the scapegoats list were Jews, followed by communists, liberals, gypsies, the mentally ill and the disabled. 

Most Germans saw themselves as good, hardworking people who had no role to play in their country’s downfall. Yet, during Nazi rule, when the German state cast a minority community as the villain, millions of the same good, hardworking Germans had no qualms in accepting that, indeed, it were Jewish people who had been plotting the downfall of Germany. 

The same happened to the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan after the country lost its eastern wing in 1971. The humiliation of the defeat at the hands of Bengali nationalists backed by forces of arch-enemy India, saw the scapegoating of the tiny Ahmadiyya community — first by the Islamist parties, then by the government and an elected parliament, and finally by society as a whole. The Ahmadiyya were ousted from the fold of Islam.

Read | The 1974 ouster of the ‘heretics’: What really happened?

The motives and methodology of scapegoating minority communities have remained pretty much the same across history. Privileged sections of society use it as a ‘safety valve’ when the continuation of their own power is threatened by social strife

Indeed, decades of theological tensions between the Ahmadiyya and the more mainstream Islamic sects contributed to the commotion that caused the ouster of the Ahmadiyya. However, in a 2018 essay The Clarion Call (FWU Journal of Social Sciences, Summer 2018), Z. Ahmad writes that when the situation in 1969 had greatly deteriorated in East Pakistan, a leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan, Shah Ahmad Noorani, told Gen Yahya Khan that the trouble in East Pakistan “was being created by the Ahmadiyya community.” 

This way the dominant West Pakistan establishment was absolved of any discriminatory attitude towards the Bengalis. The Ahmadiyya were singled out as working with ‘anti-Pakistan’ forces to dismantle the country. But to what end? This question was conveniently ignored. 

In The Oldest Trick in the Book, the Australian historian Ben Debney writes that scapegoating is largely a ploy of the privileged/ opulent segments. They use it as a ‘safety valve’ when the continuation of their power is threatened by social strife. A scapegoat is identified, systematically demonised and the society’s anger and frustrations are diverted from the opulent segments towards the scapegoat.

According to Debney, in essence, the narrative used to achieve this hasn’t deviated much from the one used in mediaeval Europe, when the energies of troubled societies were diverted towards ‘witches’, who were apparently undermining the morality of good, wholesome people.

These ‘witches’ were mostly women who did not fully conform to the social and political paradigms created by the clergy and other instruments of authority. According to the British historian Norman Cohen, in his book Europe’s Inner Demons, the narrative in this regard was, “there existed, somewhere in the midst of the great society, another society, small and clandestine, which not only threatens the existence of the great society but was also addicted to practices which were wholly abominable.”

If in pre-modern times, such ‘clandestine societies’ were signalled out for being tools of non-conforming women (witches), then in modern times power through these diabolical societies has supposedly been wielded by sinister ethnic and religious minorities that are to be identified and ousted. Of course, in most cases, the ills that they are singled out and blamed for, are largely the doing of those ousting them. 

The opulent segments, to safeguard their positions, trigger old ethnic and religious prejudices. Once these come to the surface, the opulent segments begin to shape them according to their needs, and claim that they are one with the masses.

According to Debney a “moral disengagement mechanism” has been evolved to justify the more discriminatory and violent acts of scapegoating. This include rationales such as the displacement of responsibility (‘I was just following orders’), defusing of responsibility (‘everyone does it’), misrepresenting injurious consequences as beneficial to the victim, and the dehumanisation of the victim.

This way, those scapegoating disengage themselves from the moral questions that it often throws up. They pretend they and not the scapegoated were the victims. 

Germans saw themselves as hapless victims of Jewish conspiracies. Pakistanis still see the Ahmadiyya as a tiny but powerful minority out to destroy every Pakistani Muslim’s incorruptible spiritual disposition. The right-wing in Europe sees their region’s once pristine and dominant way of life being usurped and polluted by immigrants and refugees from backward races and faiths. Many Hindus in India are now out to avenge the ‘humiliation’ that their ancestors faced from Muslim marauders centuries ago. They are doing this by persecuting and scapegoating Indian Muslims of this century. 

When visible powerful cliques can’t control increasing social anger aimed at their political, economic and religious monopolies, they point the finger at a minority community and weave together a fiendish narrative that puts all the blame of whatever is going wrong in the society at the community’s feet.

This way, the clique too begins to pose as a victim. To reassert its influence among the masses, it explains itself as a victim (just like them) but one that can vanquish the demonised community. Society soon follows.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 19th, 2021


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