Tribalism run amok
The murder of a young couple supporting the Argentine football team by supporters of Brazil -- in faraway Bangladesh -- would be a piece of news that falls between bizarre and amusing, even as it is tragic as any loss of innocent life is.
The quadrennial FIFA World Cup fever is a factor in the bizarre over-the-top fandom that washes over distant Bangladesh to a level that is undecipherable to any outsider, and most insiders. There is more at play, though.
Human beings, by innate instinct, are tribal beings even as they are cooperative sometimes. The sorting out in teams, groups, and parties is natural starting from the time we fight as siblings and gang up with one set of cousins on the other, and the permutations change regularly.
That instinct to belong to something bigger, greater, weightier than self doesn’t go away as we step into adulthood and middle age and beyond. It is a strength of the human DNA that civilized societies harness for good, and a weakness of the same DNA that tyrants suppress in the service of evil.
In civilized societies, sporting rivalries are but one expression of mostly healthy tribalism; in the 1980s and 1990s, Bangladesh had a version of this in the perennial Mohammedan and Abahani rivalry. Sure, some people got hurt sometimes, but at the end of the football and cricket seasons, we had expended our pent up energies of “my team good, your team bad.”
Modern democratic countries channel this volatile human trait in a myriad of constructive ways to involve the mass of citizenry in finding solutions to political problems. Four such civic “stadiums” of civilized rivalry stand out.
Firstly, regular free and fair elections are an obvious example of such tribalism working in peaceful ways to give voice to different “teams” in a way that even the losing side has faith that “umpires” and the “pitches” were not rigged against them, and that there is a shot at glory in another four or five years.
Secondly, independent courts with impartial judges allow a forum for the various “tribes” to duke out their rivalries in a set of heated-yet-non-fatal arguments to win or lose the day.
Thirdly, a vibrant free press is another arena where raw differences of opinion are often marshalled out in fashions that range from colourful to cerebral, but again, rarely deadly.
Finally, universities are yet another pit where antagonists, arguably of the scholarly and intellectual kind, carry on their tribal warfare over freely researched evidence, empirical data, and conclusions reached from such evidence and data.
The importance of these four playgrounds of civilized tribalism is not just good public policy that results from letting the best idea of the thousands find its way to the front by dint of logic and evidence. Equally important is the outlet these avenues provide to let off the very human steam of rivalry and competition without succumbing to the violence that often results from pent up tribal emotions.
For reasons that are too well known and too dangerous to articulate directly, Bangladesh does not have any of these four playgrounds left intact; in fact, the first two are dead, and the last two in a state of decrepitude that beggars belief for a nation which once prided itself on its intellectual vanguard of pluralism.
So where is the outlet for healthy competition that is a vital safety valve for peaceful societies? There isn’t, for most part, in Bangladesh. In fact, it is valid to wonder if we are moving in a direction where those valves are being replaced by ugly seals like the countries of former Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe once did, one disappearance, one phony election, one arrested journal author at a time.
In a society without those safety valves to channel civic tribalism, don’t be surprised to see something as bizarre as deaths over a football rivalry between two countries that stand tens of thousands of miles away with whom there is very little cultural or historical connection.
And when the FIFA football season ends, some other excuse -- hopefully not that bizarre -- will be the pivot of more tribalism run amok; heck, I have already seen “hatahati” between people from Noakhali versus people from Sylhet on a couple of occasions … abroad!
Someone wise once remarked that the Ganges delta, with so many people and so little land, is indeed like a pressure cooker. Sealing of pressure cookers and blocking its safety valve, as any chef knows, is rarely a good idea, whether it is World Cup season or not.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA.