Politics of fear

Published October 1, 2014

PEOPLE anywhere in the world who claim not be profoundly disturbed by the self-publicised actions of the group of combatants that calls itself Islamic State (IS) provide considerable cause for concern. It seems inhumane not to be horrified. But is it necessary, at the same time, to be petrified?

I guess it depends on where you live. In areas contiguous to IS’s substantial domain, immunity to fear would be unnatural. But does it make a lot of sense to be cowering thousands of miles away?

Well, it probably does if you take at face value the purported likelihood of IS recruits or sympathisers indulging in terrorist acts over there. In countries such as the UK, Belgium and Australia, which appear to proportionately have provided more recruits for IS than comparable Western nations, the received wisdom appears to be that some of the volunteers will be inclined to wreak havoc locally when they return.

Fear is an invaluable political device.

That possibility certainly cannot be ruled out. Its likelihood, though, is tempered by several factors. Media reports suggest, for instance, that plenty of idiots who end up knocking on IS’s door are obliged to destroy their Western passports as a gesture of commitment to the ‘caliphate’. That obviously makes it rather difficult to return.

Hundreds of volunteers, at the same time, are believed to indeed have returned to countries such as Britain and Belgium. None of them is claimed to have attempted any terrorist act; in fact some organisations believe that most of those who return disillusioned are disinclined to disturb the peace.

Now that Western air strikes have been launched against IS in Iraq and Syria, there is yet another angle: will those who were previously inclined to travel from the West to the ‘caliphate’ zone now decide to stay home and do their worst over there? Again, it’s possible. Judging the probability, though, involves venturing into the realm of pure conjecture.

But fear is an invaluable political device. It has been deployed by rulers since time immemorial to manipulate public opinion. A fairly egregious recent example was the final few weeks of the Scottish referendum campaign, when a broad range of politicians, bankers, captains of industry and the media strove in tandem to create the impression that a vote for independence would presage an unmitigated economic disaster.

The tactic appeared to work. It’s by no means a one-way street, though. The eleventh-hour flurry of activity on the Scottish referendum front was itself driven by apprehension, once it belatedly became clear that a rejection of the independence option could no longer be taken for granted. In patently undemocratic societies, meanwhile, what repressive regimes fear above all is the evaporation of fear among segments of the populace. Experience tells them it’s an infectious disorder, with unpredictable consequences.

A striking manifestation of this was observed during the ‘Arab Spring’, when unrest in Tunisia, rapidly followed by regime change, was being echoed within weeks in uprisings across the region. There’s inevitably a degree of irony in the fact that since then a new palette of fears has emerged.

The ongoing protests in Hong Kong, meanwhile, also reflect a casting off of fear, albeit by no means to the same extent as the gatherings that culminated so tragically in the Tiananmen Square massacre a quarter of a century ago. Back then, Beijing’s reaction succeeded in restoring order as well as fear; no comparable expression of popular dissent has occurred in the interim. There is little risk that repression in Hong Kong will follow a similar trajectory. It’s instructive to note, though, that one of Beijing’s primary motives in thwarting the democratic aspirations of Hong Kong’s residents is the fear of possible repercussions on the mainland.

Tiananmen Square was sandwiched between a pair of intriguing occurrences. The 1988 protests in Myanmar prompted a ruthless reaction from that country’s military rulers and eventually led to the restoration of fear. In the case of the thankfully short-lived Soviet coup attempt of 1991, though, it was the would-be purveyors of fear who panicked as Muscovites, emboldened by the transformative political processes of the previous five years, emerged en masse on the streets, and, crucially, military units refused to open fire.

It didn’t take all that long, however, for fear to be reintroduced as an instrument of rule in the post-Soviet era. Today, Vladimir Putin has no qualms about deploying it at will, while his adversaries in the neighbourhood feel free to use it for their own ends.

History shows that fear is a particularly potent part of the political arsenal when it comes to whipping up war hysteria. That’s unlikely to change. But its routine use for manipulative purposes in societies that lay claim to democracy and transparency is disturbing and deserves to be far more widely questioned than has thus far generally been the case.


Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2014


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