Fourteen civilians and two security officers have now died in Kashmir in violence related to rumors about the “Burn a Koran Day” in Florida. When added to the death in Afghanistan, this brings the total number of deaths to seventeen so far. Many more will die in the coming weeks and months even though the Koran burning was called off. Rumors will resurface that the burning has gone ahead even though such rumors will have no basis in reality. Why is this likely? Paul Brass’ groundbreaking work on institutionalized systems to produce riots may help us to better understand what is happening and what will continue to ripple outward.

Riots in the South Asian context (and maybe also in Southwest Asia) are usually highly organized and meticulously preplanned. Institutionalized riot systems are often activated prior to elections or as a mechanism to sustain/revive political mobilization. Often times the core object which mobilizes the masses to riot is an object which has disappeared (e.g. a holy relic, an idol, or a child). Another major mechanism for mobilizing rioters is a purported or actual desecration of a sacred space (e.g. blood hurled into a temple; pig carcass thrown into a mosque) or a sacred text/symbol.

The threat by a fringe group to burn the Koran plays conveniently into the standard play book of an institutionalized riot system. Once the threat has been made and publicized it is very difficult to verify that the sacred object/text has not been desecrated. The Koran (the referent) disappears and rumors (or in the fashion of Baudrillard – the simulation) can circulate freely. The hyper-real Koran is far more useful to a riot system than the real one anyway. Now that a measure of plausibility has been (stupidly and maliciously) supplied by Dove World Outreach, it can be easily manipulated.

The riot system plays on an emotive politics of group humiliation. The symbols favored by a riot system make politics legible even to the least educated (or I should say — particularly to the least educated). Of course, this analysis is not meant to deny that many rioters do have quite legitimate grievances. However, the manner in which those grievances are expressed is channeled towards collective violence by an institutionalized riot system.

From an empirical standpoint, one can usually only infer the presence of a riot system. While some criminal investigations have revealed the existence of organized riot systems at particular points in time (e.g. evidence of coordination of rioters via cell phones or published lists of the address of members of minority communities to be targeted in a pogrom), this evidence is not always readily available. However, the existence of riot system may be a good working hypothesis in any location which has been witnessing spasm of riot related violence like the Vale of Kashmir or particular parts of Afghanistan. As Brass originally argued, the only way to prove the hypothesis is through careful ethnographic analysis, which will be quite difficult in both Afghanistan and Indian Administered Kashmir. (It is statistically probable that areas which have a history of riots are more “riot prone” than areas which do not. However, this empirical observation lacks a causal explanatory mechanism since mass mobilization and collective violence do not happen with any measure of predictability from day to day or month to month — years may pass in some areas before another major riot).

There is a long standing debate in South Asian politics as to whether civic engagement or criminal investigation is the best route for dampening and disrupting a riot system which has become institutionalized. I cannot weigh into that debate here. I will only conclude by recounting that an institutionalized riot system is designed to serve the interests of particular local actors. Different actors will activate riot systems in their locales for their own particular reasons. A particular mullah may see activation of the riot system as a way of amassing influence; a politician may see it as an easy way to distract attention or rally voters to a particular party or cause. Only careful and detailed reporting will help us to understand this story as it re-emerges in different local spaces around the world.

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