As we step into the 16th year of the 21st century, the world is never more disparate than this. While we are more advanced and integrated than ever, endowed by the leaps in our technologies and discoveries, we are also reverting to more subversive ways of the barbaric past. 2015 was a year filled with violence and fear perpetrated by religious revolutionaries and preening politicians. The former spawned headlines with all the same subtext; they were all acts of crimes against humanity. And the latter engendered new ways of advocacy and propagandising. After all, politicians often campaign in poetry and govern in prose. They do know what’s best for the people.
The road to hell is often paved with good intentions and there are many roads that lead to political disasters: greed, hubris, charisma and perhaps most dangerous of all, fear. Fear leads to ignorance, ignorance leads to panic, and panic often leads to violence. Lately in America and Europe, when it comes to the people, politicians tend to play the “us or them” card in the battlescape of life or death. Not so long ago in a country not too far away, a young German by the name of Adolf Hitler rose to power and forever reshaped the world through his use of greed, hubris, charisma, and the idea that the “Aryans” and Jews were locked in a struggle for survival.
Fast forward to the Western demagogues of today and you’ll find the not too dissimilar types of Donald Trump from the United States or Marine Le Pen of France. Like Hitler two generations ago, these modern day demagogue tropes are definitely serving up the politics of fear on a silver platter. Trump promotes greed by openly boasting of his wealth achievements and somehow managed to refine his unbridled hubris and contradictory posturing into a comical form of charisma. Le Pen is a preening demagogue surfing on discontent and fear whose nationalistic political party preaches identity politics – the realm of fundamentalism, not reasoned debate – in venomous populist tones beseeching the French people to embrace the ethnic definition of the nation. But of course the comparison to Hitler ends there as neither character has promoted dictatorship or genocide.
In the run up to the next presidential primaries, the message from Trump and his Republican colleagues is contradictorily clear. While they promise the American people to fix all the problems of the world and to adopt a hardline approach on the likes of China, Russia, and even the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to show them who is the boss, they claim that their vast and powerful country is unable and unwilling to receive the desperate Syrian refugees, even going so far as to engender Islamophobia by saying Muslims should be barred from entering the US.
Yet, when it comes to the 30,000 people who die in the US each year due to gun violence, the Republican candidates have no compunctions against gun control. In fact, they oppose it. They have no issues with people carrying concealed weapons into schools or public areas. Trump even went so far as to say if the Parisians were allowed to carry guns, the November attacks would not have taken place so easily. However, they perceive a handful of Muslim refugees as too big a threat to even consider. It isn’t about whether horrific acts of Islamist terror could or could not happen in the US or other parts of the world – because they have before and they will again so long as the Middle East is in turmoil and radical and revolutionary Islam appeals to disaffected and marginalised youths – but the nuance of the threat here is hardly existential.
Despite all these common senses, Trump is still in the lead for the Republican nomination as he trumpets his way to the Oval Office with fear. At this rate, the Americans might just be one terrorist act away from a Trump presidency, galvanising the general American populace into voting for the greatest fear-monger the US has ever known in recent history. The possibility is likely but the intelligence and common sense of the American majority prevailing is likelier. There’s a reason why the anagram of the word leader is dealer. Because a leader is a dealer of hope and people vote their hopes, not their fears.
As the politics of fear propagates unchecked, mainstream politicians succumb to the rabid rhetoric of the demagogues. The French President François Hollande, whom despite his unpopularity, has always been a sensible leader to the French people. But even sensible leaders are not immune to the popular opinions of the public when the fabric of their leadership is being shredded by the far right political adversaries. Thus, he issued a national state of emergency immediately after the Paris attacks last November and declared war on ISIS.
The former decision revealed a potential landscape of a Western democracy in the near future where the military takes over law enforcement, where people are arrested without warrants, and where public properties are taken over with armed force for “national security”. The military and the police are separate for a reason. While one fights the enemy of the state, the other serves and protects its people. But when the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.
So, the latter decision is not going to stem the tide of the Islamist revolution for young, frustrated and marginalised people in French slums. If anything, it is generating fear and resentment among Muslims in Europe and America. There’s an expression that says the old believe in everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; and the young know everything. As the West and ISIS play out this reflexive psychological plot, the old reacts with fear and the younger ones with resentment. The result of this mutually self-reinforcing exercise is a breeding ground for potential terrorists and revolutionaries.
Furthermore, a war can only be declared between states, not on a network of radicals and revolutionaries. By declaring war on ISIS, France is indirectly acknowledging ISIS as a state when the purpose of the United Nation’s recent resolution against ISIS is to dismantle the radical organisation and derail its goal of forming a caliphate state from the illegally seized territories of Iraq and Syria. When the wolf attacks the sheep herd, it is drive for the sheep to run and duty for the shepherd to stand ground.
When Hollande confused duty with drive, he drove the French people into fright and fanned the flames of Islamophobia such that prejudicial measures like this became widely supported. Decisions based on emotion aren’t decisions at all any more than conclusions based on intellect aren’t conclusions either. They’re both just instincts and logic which can be of value. But the rational and the irrational complement each other. Individually they’re far less potent.
Hence, a hardline approach such as this has only made it easier for ISIS to convince Muslim youths worldwide that there is no alternative to terrorism. The prejudice, misconception and fear bred from this worldview will only allow ISIS to win over more European recruits. Most Muslims are not violent revolutionaries who condone acts of violence or mass murders. So the more the West feeds fear into the frenzy of young disenfranchised Muslims by persecuting them in the name of security, the more they will rally to the siren song of ISIS singing the tunes of true Muslims engaged in an existential war with the West and the infidels as their mortal enemies. For ISIS no less than for Trump and all the other demagogues, fear is an effective weapon in their abysmal arsenal, the kind of apocalyptic “us or them” worldview adopted by both camps.
Ironically, the flaw and foible of Western society is the fear of death and ISIS knows this. When that fear is stoked by horrific acts of terror and gruesome execution videos, it leads sensible people in an otherwise free and open society to abandon their reason. To understand why these demagogues can think and behave irrationally is to understand that emotion and intellect are essential components of human reasoning. When hardliner politicians like Trump uses our fear of death to peddle violent revolutionaries as an existential threat to our society, emotions overcome intellect, and instinct overcomes logic to activate the primitive part of our brains that upholds the values and principles of a free and open society.
We all belong to the untested generation; a group who inherited a free and open society from their parents. Compared to the previous generations before us, we’ve had it easier so far. And so long as we remain untested and do not learn how to keep our fear from corrupting reason, we will never understand what it takes to preserve and protect the freedom and openness of this society. Just like how the fear of fascism and communism tested our grandparents’ generation, and how the fear of nuclear fallout tested our parents’ generation, we will be defined by how we face the issues surrounding violent revolutionaries in this generation much like how climate change will test the next generation. There is a common theme to be found in all of this; all societies are always at risk from the threat posed by their response to fear which will then ultimately define that generation.
17 lives from the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris as the world ushered in the new year of 2015. 102 lives in the Ankara central railway station bombings on a Saturday morning at Turkey’s capital in October. 224 lives from the bombing of a Russian Metrojet commercial airliner over Sinai in Egypt on another early Saturday morning in October. 130 lives from the recent Paris attacks in November. And finally, the recent 14 lives from the San Bernadino attack in California just last month. Unfortunately, the count will not stop here or in the Middle East. There is a very real need in the world right now to fight the revolutionary Islamist violence that ISIS is spreading. Arbitrary persecution on a targeted group of people is not the way to go and will only fan the flames of radicalisation even further. Gaining the trust of the majority of law-abiding Muslims living in the West will be a good start.
For the past 30 years, the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia have been brewing and raging as the West employed foreign policies that adopted barely restrained strategies to this day resulting in hasty military intervention driven by domestic fear. Following the recent murder sprees in Paris and San Bernadino, Republican candidates in the US renewed their political attacks on President Barack Obama and laid further blame on the Democratic Party for being weak. To show strength and make America great again, Trump promised the American people to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”. There is no shortage of bellicosity coming from Trump and his supporters. This militant attitude has had the effect of causing Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, into distancing herself from Obama. Like Hollande’s situation in France, she has had to promise more military response with hardline talks to ease the fear of the American public, all in the name of demagoguery. And the cycle continues.
While Obama’s foreign policy record may have been inconsistent and irresolute in the past, his consistency in resisting the temptation to intervene militarily in the Middle East has become the hallmark resolution of his administration. It is very easy to mistake his caution for fear and deliberation for indecisiveness. But in his refusal to relent to the politics of fear, he has shown to be far braver than all the braggarts and trumpeters who accuse him of being a weakling.
At the end of the day, the politics of fear are about controlling our reality and pretense. The message between their ravings reads like hypocrisy. These demagogues will claim to know and not to know. They’re constantly aware of the transparent truthfulness of their words while in chorus with their carefully conceived lies, holding two opinions that cancel out in parallel at any one time. Theirs is the subconscious that embraces their own opinions as contradictions yet believing in both of them enough to use logic against logic and achieve superiority over morality while laying claim to it. And their ultimate subtlety of all is to believe that democracy is impossible without heeding their siren calls – the lies always one note ahead of the truth – yet believing their party is the guardian of democracy.