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Understanding mob psychology and how to inoculate yourself against religious bigotry

Understanding mob psychology and how to inoculate yourself against religious bigotry
May 19
08:19 2022

BY FRANCIS ADEWALE

There goes the mob, and I must follow, for I am their leader.”- Anon. Possibly apocryphal words of Comte de Mirabeau, the French revolutionary leader.

A very simplistic explanation for the tragedy we are witnessing in Nigeria is the one that posits that all Nigeria needs is leadership and that if we had good leadership, some of the problems we face today would not be happening. I beg to differ. Followers may lack authority, but they do not necessarily lack power. Leaders are essential in every society, but Nigeria is not dysfunctional because of a lack of leadership alone. In some respects, all leaders are followers; to retain their influence, those in positions of authority have no choice but to “track, to follow their followers if only to be sure that they stay in line”. In sum, we are who we are because of how we follow one another. Just look at the sickening video of the lynching of Deborah Yakubu.

Do you see any leaders among the mob? They each walked up to do the sordid acts. They might have been misled by bad teaching, but they had to reflect before engaging in this despicable extra-judicial killing. You don’t see any Saul later as Paul standing by, directing the persecution? Nope! They are there as followers following other followers to kill a fellow human being based on a rumour of a taunt of the Holy Prophet. Don’t get me wrong, our leaders in Nigeria, secular and sectarian, are all guilty of the gory show going on in Nigeria.

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But our needs and wants as individuals are met by playing the part of followers, at least most of the time. We go along because we consciously or unconsciously determine our interest in doing so. Those who judged and executed Deborah Yakubu extra-judicially do so as followers of their faith. The three reasons why followers follow leaders are the same reasons why followers follow other followers sheepishly.
Safety, security, community, and collective work make followers sometimes comply involuntarily or voluntarily with leadership directives.

So, followers follow not only because it’s in their interest to conform to their leaders but also because it is in their interest to conform to their fellow followers. Many followers of the two big Abrahamic faiths in Nigeria have little respect for their church leaders or imams but still, go along because they fear what others may say if they quit going or challenge the orthodoxy.

Followers provide each other with a crucial reference point. “Alhaji, I hope nothing is going on; we didn’t see you at mosques”. “Madam, I hope all is well we didn’t see you at the church night vigil”. No one cares if Alhaji or Madam can provide food for the family or pay school fees, we are all focused on rituals and rites de passage of our faith. Alhaji may have assaulted Alhaja all night in a domestic violence rage, but no one called law enforcement or intervened. Some even justify such assaults on women. It was when Alhaji missed the call for prayer we got worried. Same deal with Madam, whose son or daughter could not continue with higher education because she cannot afford school fees but will readily pay tithe and donate her entire salary to a church led by a jet setting pastor.

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The most fundamental crucial point in Nigerian dynamics is how we imitate and lead each other in negativity. Followers go along with other followers because they lend stability and security, provide order and meaning, and constitute the group they want to belong to. In short, we are responsible for where we are, and if we keep putting our failings on leaders, we will never look inwards and examine ourselves. What’s more, as psychologists such as Sigmund Freud had long ago concluded, human beings behave differently-worse- as members of groups than we do as individuals.

In groups, our “unconscious instinctual impulses” trump what turns out to be the fragile veneer of civilization. “By the mere fact that he forms part of an organized group,” Freud wrote, “a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian- a creature acting by instinct, capable of committing acts in “utter contradiction with his character and habits”.

No matter how you look at it, the tragedy in Sokoto is damning. It is as if the gruesome murder of Deborah Yakubu is not enough satiety for the fiendish bloodhounds’ youth masquerading as religious crusaders. We learned Sokoto youths are burning Igbo owned building materials shops and Catholic Churches. What’s the connection?

Many Muslims are quick to quote the immortal words of Sheikh Ahmed Deedat, an Islamic scholar renowned for his quick wit and intellect: “The biggest enemy of Islam is the ignorant Muslim, whose ignorance leads him to intolerance, whose actions destroy the true image of Islam, and when the people look at him, they think Islam is what he is”. Actual words and we say that about followers of Christ who know little about the person of Christ. What I found missing, however, is that many of the youth involved in this murderous rage may never have evidence of what Deborah Yakubu did or did not do. She stands condemned because the mob they followed told them she had committed blasphemy.

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The idea of subservience to leadership authority and mob group think is common to Islam and all Abrahamic faith and creed. Christians may not have participated in the killings and fiendish rage in Sokoto, but the unknown gunmen decimating lives in the south-east have many Christians among them. This week someone unearthed a message by a prominent Pentecostal pastor urging Christians to vote in the church’s interest and ethnicity. He ended by saying this country is not a Fulani nation. This type of Us vs Them led to bloodshed in Rwanda and the death of Deborah Yakubu. What is the interest of the church? Peace? And why does that exclude Fulani? Does it mean Fulani Christians are not part of kingdom blessings?

I agree we must avoid false equivalence. The fiendish murderous rage in Sokoto should be condemned. We must prepare our youth to prevent wilful ignorant obedience to authority, particularly by clerics from any creed or faith. Below are ways suggested by psychologists Phillip Zimbardo and Michael Lieppe on how we can inoculate ourselves against automatic obedience:

  1. Remain engaged with alternative systems of authority, such as those deriving from one’s religious, spiritual, political, or philosophical commitments. Jesus never asked his followers to reject the teachings of Judaism; instead, he said he came to fulfil the law. Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) equally admonished his followers to be tolerant of peoples of other faiths, including those who taunted him at Mecca. In other words, the leaders of these two great faiths are examples of moderation and not fanaticism.
  2. Trust your intuition when you think, “something is wrong here”; donating your entire salary to a mega-church whose pastor rides a jet will not make you a millionaire. It might turn you into a kidnapper or unknown gunman out of frustration. Ditto, those who listen to a passionate message by a cleric on Friday jumat service who urges you to hate peoples of other faith to the point of murdering them even whilst his kids is in London or New York eating caviar.
  3. When in doubt, seek out a knowledgeable but independent person to give you an “obedience check”;
  4. Mentally rehearse disobedience strategies and techniques for various situations;
  5. Be particularly vigilant when you notice people using a euphemism to describe harmful behaviours or the people they harm; Burundi and Rwanda genocide has been traced to statements comparing other ethnic groups to cockroaches that must be exterminated. Hitler compared Jews to vermin and lice and killed 6 million fellow human beings.
  6. Don’t expect to suffer adverse consequences when refusing to obey an authority figure. Consider the worst-case scenario and act on that possibility; you may lose a promotion or job when you stand on principle. Please choose carefully the organization and situations in which you place yourself because it’s all too easy to overestimate your powers to resist.

In conclusion, my primary point is this: we are followers. Followers are us. This does not mean we always think and act like the mobs who killed Deborah Yakubu, but then ask any murderers who did these heinous acts. They might not have conceived themselves perpetrating such evil last week. Not all of us follow all of the time-sometimes we lead. But all of us follow some of the time. Know who you are following and why.

Stay safe and be reflective, folks.

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Adewale is an attorney in Spokane, WA, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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