In the Academy Award winning documentary The Act of Killing, as well as the recently released The Look of Silence, director Joshua Oppenheimer met with and interviewed members of the state-backed civilian militias that murdered more than half a million suspected communists in 1965-66 after the Suharto coup in Indonesia. One of the most striking things that emerges from both films is the sheer ordinariness of the lives of the individuals who perpetrated these killings; men who were personally responsible for butchering dozens, if not hundreds, of people simply continued to go about their lives once the massacres came to an end. They pursued careers, cared for their families, ate, laughed, and went about their business undisturbed and unperturbed by the past. Similar stories emerge from other sites of mass killing; in Cambodia, for instance, or in Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands of Hutus participated in the genocide of the Tutsis. After months of violence and savagery, killers, rapists, and looters simply went back to their communities and continued with life as usual.

When the Rwandan genocide first started in April 1994, radio stations played a central role in whipping up anti-Tutsi sentiment, helping to organize and enrage the frenzied mobs that initiated the bloodshed. In Pakistan, another week has brought with it the usual, unfortunate litany of grief and despair; a man accused of blasphemy killed by the police while in their custody, and a young Christian couple mercilessly beaten and burnt to death by a mob for allegedly desecrating the Quran. All set to sounds of hatred blaring from the loudspeakers of nearby mosques.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term ‘banality of evil’ to describe the systematic, everyday way in which members of the Nazi government, even at the lowest levels, went about facilitating the Holocaust without even thinking about, or questioning, the implications of the orders they were following. For Arendt, one of the most important features of the Holocaust was the fact that it was made possible through the cooperation and support of otherwise ordinary men and women whose complicity with this inhumane atrocity had less to do with a burning hatred for Jews than it did with a failure to properly consider or reflect on the consequences of their actions. The notion that ‘normal’ people could so easily participate in acts of such tremendous evil was, and is, both shocking and frightening.

Life has long been cheap in Pakistan, a country where the children of tenants are killed by wealthy landowners, the police routinely murder suspects in staged ‘encounters’, and people simply disappear without a trace if they happen to be suspected of supporting the wrong cause. In the past decade, little has been done to punish the people who have relentlessly and implacably targeted the countries non-Sunni populations; thousands of Shias, Ahmedis, Christians, Hindus, and other have suffered at the hands of a discriminatory state tacitly supporting and condoning the actions of an increasingly intolerant society. Extremists and militants freely roam the streets of Pakistan, sometimes with official escorts and ‘protocol’, simply because ‘strategic depth’ and the state’s acquisition of legitimacy through the use of religion is of greater value than the lives of this country’s citizens. Each new atrocity brings renewed outrage and disbelief, even as it remains clear that nothing is going to change.

It is easy to blame the military, the government, and extremist organizations for the unending religious violence in Pakistan, and they certainly deserve all of the opprobrium they get and more. However, focusing solely on these actors obscures the fact that there is a ‘banal’ aspect to the bigotry and hatred that we are witnessing around us. While seven decades of jingoistic religious nationalism might have created the context in which the perpetrators of sectarian violence and communal hatred could operate with impunity, it is ‘normal’ people who are increasingly complicit in these unspeakable acts of evil. Shahbaz and his wife Shama were not burnt alive by Taliban fighters or sectarian extremists; they were tortured and killed by the people who lived and worked around them. The mobs that attacked Gojra and Joseph Colony were not comprised of foreign fighters sent to Pakistan by Al-Qaeda; they were ordinary villagers and citizens who presumably went back to their families and homes once their dark deeds were done.

It is abundantly clear that allegations of blasphemy in Pakistan are little more than tools through which people target powerless minority communities to settle old scores or pursue material benefits. Yet, serious thought needs to be given to the fact that for every opportunistic charlatan levelling accusations in the first place, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people who unthinkingly heed calls for mob violence even though these very same people might condemn acts of cruelty and evil in other contexts. The fact that people can go from minding their own business to wantonly killing those they disagree with following the switching on of a loudspeaker demonstrates the true extent of the challenge Pakistan faces when it comes to dealing with the beliefs and ideas that make such acts of inhumanity possible.

Religious extremism in Pakistan is not going to be dealt with by raining bombs on the people of FATA or by appeasing the militants responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistani citizens. Even if the Taliban and Pakistan’s various sectarian outfits were to simply disappear, the task of changing minds shaped by decades of dogma and bigotry will remain. At a time when land reform is deemed to be forbidden by Islam, child marriage and polygamy are justified in the name of religion, and non-Muslims are often barred from drinking the same water or using the same utensils as the people who live around them, it is clear that much work will need to be done to defeat the forces of obscurantism that have monopolized the public discourse in Pakistan. The widespread belief in violence as a legitimate means through which to propagate a parochial interpretation of Islam is something that can only be understood by recognizing the power of ideology, and the way in which the different powers-that-be in Pakistan have consistently used religion to protect their interests and agendas. It is only by challenging this at an ideological level that we can hope to bring about progressive change in Pakistan.

 The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk