Lynch mobs and assassins are on a rampage across South Asia. Days after a Muslim man was murdered in India, for allegedly eating beef, a Baptist pastor was stabbed in Bangladesh. It isn’t just religious minorities that are under assault. In recent months, bloggers, atheists and rationalist intellectuals have been assassinated.

In India, three activists and scholars have been shot dead amid a Hindu supremacist campaign against “Hindu-baiters.” In their homicidal quest for blasphemers and dissenters, fanatics balk at no ethical limits. In Pakistan last December, the Taliban shot schoolchildren in the face at close range.

As always, the temptation to blame religious fundamentalists is strong. And it seems well-founded: Self-proclaimed Hindu and Muslim chauvinists, after all, lead and cheerlead the violence. (In Myanmar, even Buddhist monks have fallen victim to the contagion of hate and violence.)

But religious extremism, in South Asia and indeed elsewhere in Asia and Africa, is symptomatic of a larger and more complex phenomenon: the shattering of the postcolonial order under the stresses of a massive economic and demographic transition.

In South Asia, the earliest consensus of nation-building, and the social contract built upon promises of general welfare, has broken down. It was first undone in fragile Pakistan, where a crisis of governability lured elites into a cynical program of “Islamization.” It’s now rapidly unraveling in India and Bangladesh, where the promise of collective uplift has given way to the ideology of private self-interest.

Hundreds of millions of South Asians have finally entered the modern world that for two centuries has been defined by the interplay of what Tocqueville called “refined and intelligent egotism” — “the pivot on which the whole machine turns.” Tocqueville was, of course, writing about the first country to be modern: the United States, where a weak state wasn’t the “reliever of misery” and where compassion for the “sufferings of others” could relieve the likely excesses of individualism.

The problem for overwhelmingly poor countries that came too late to modernity is that while the weakened state is no longer the reliever of misery, egotism is often neither refined nor intelligent, and fails to add up to a common good. Many among the millions forced to abandon rural lives for the squalor of cities find themselves plunged into a war of all against all.

For these toilers on the fringes of South Asia’s overwhelmingly informal economies, the state, tainted by venality and prone to capture by special interests, has lost its legitimacy — hence, the increasing temptation to take the law in one’s own hands.

For many among the marginalized masses, the injuries of poverty, social exclusion and sexual frustration seem to be healed by fantasies of a new social unity and harmony — one that both liberal capitalism and socialism have failed to provide.

Fascism first achieved traction in precisely such circumstances in late 19th century France. Masses in urban slums confronted the contradiction between the economic ideology of liberal individualism and actually prevailing Social Darwinism, and became angrily politicized. Demagogues stood ready to identify the “enemy of the people”: the anti-national, cosmopolitan, intellectual and secular-rationalist Jew.

It should not be forgotten that anti-Semitism, notwithstanding its long historical roots, served a desperate need to find and malign “others” in the 19th century; it acquired its vicious edge in conditions of traumatic socioeconomic modernization, among social groups most deeply damaged by technical progress and capitalist exploitation.

These alienated and confused men could best define their hope for material improvement and comforting solidarity by identifying and persecuting its apparent disrupter. By inventing a mythical evil in the form of the Jew, the anti-Semites managed to transcend all manner of social conflicts and ideological contradictions.

This kind of cunning transposition of targets was evident during the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, when mobs of poor unemployed Dalits (once known as “untouchables”), led by high-caste Hindus, murdered middle-class Muslims. Hindu supremacists are now helping frustrated young men to find another sinister foe: poor beef eaters.

Such free-floating hatred in South Asia is likely to intensify as more “new” individuals become aware of their powerlessness amid cruel hierarchies of income and social status. Indeed, as the social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai argues, abhorrence of the designated “other” helps stave off anxieties among even many recent beneficiaries of the current economic order about “their own minority or marginality (real or imagined).”

There’s no easy way out of the spiral of hate and paranoia. One can only hope that in South Asian societies condemned to crude egotism, political movements with compassion at their core will emerge. For the state, originally conceived as the embodiment of compassion and empathy, is now itself complicit in the oppression of innocent men and women.

It was a government that initiated the persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan. Members of Narendra Modi’s government, one of whom recently called Muslims “bastards,” now routinely abuse religious minorities and secular, or “Westernized,” Indians. At this bleak moment, the virulent South Asian variants on European anti-Semitism look unstoppable.

Writer Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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