Today's date:
Spring 2006

The Global Ideology of Fear

Tariq Ramadan, Europe’s most controversial Muslim leader, is currently a visiting professor at Oxford’s St. Antony’s College and a senior research fellow at the Lokahi Foundation in London.

London — Global terrorism and the global war against terrorism both fuel, in equal and pernicious ways, the global ideology of fear.

When we examine the countries of the West or those of the South, particularly where the population is primarily Muslim, we can only conclude that fear is omnipresent and deeply ingrained. It is having an unmistakable impact on the way human beings perceive the world. We can observe at street level three principal effects:

First, fear, naturally and often unconsciously, breeds mistrust and potential conflict with the “Other.” A binary vision of reality begins to impose the outlines of a protective “us” and of a threatening “them.”

The second effect derives from the absolute domination of emotions in our relationships with the Other and of emotional responses to events. When fear rules, emotions undermine rational analysis. In such a state, we condemn the consequences of some action and reject the individuals who commit it, but we don’t seek to understand what led to such action.

Our “good reasons” and our “just causes” are praised by the general public without critical examination, while at the same time their “bad reasons” and their “evil intentions” are indiscriminately condemned. Fear authorizes us to forgo all explanations, all understanding, all analysis that might allow us to understand the Other, his world, his hopes.

In the new regime of fear and suspicion, to understand the Other is to justify him; to seek out his reasons is to agree with him. A curious—and dangerous—reductionism transforms reality into a series of discreet, disconnected facts, and the Other into a series of acts without cause, without history or historic depth, without reason and rationality. Emotion does not understand but rather appreciates or condemns; one’s “feelings” determine everything.

The third consequence is as paradoxical as it is startling: We may well live in the communication age, but human beings seem to be increasingly less informed. We have witnessed the multiplication of “communication superhighways” that diffuse a dizzying excess of information in real time, saturating the intelligence and making it impossible to place facts in perspective. The communication age is an age of non-information. We are passive receptors of reality and of facts; it is as if we have no grasp on how they come to be. Swept away by our emotions; trapped in binary, reductive logical structures; and lost in the rising tide of “as it happens” events and politics, it has become impossible for us to see, to understand or even to hear the Other.

In short, the ideology of fear has produced a devastating deafness: The Other’s world and the reasons he behaves as he does are inaudible; to attempt to hear them more clearly is to reveal one’s own ill-being, or, at worst, the vilest of treacheries. Between “us” and “them” a virtual wall has been thrown up, marking out the borderlines of our new identities and connections, protected within, threatened from without.

The upkeep and feeding of the “ideology of fear” has become a political weapon, particularly as part of the opportunistic strategies of the great economic powers of the day. Far from true political debate and shielded from objective criticism of the consequences of the world economic order, they perpetuate a state of fear and vulnerability. This in turn grants a license for security policies of the most dangerous and discriminatory kind—exceptional measures that are most inimical to freedom (particularly with regard to human and citizen’s rights) and often include extremist, racist concepts. The ideology of fear confirms the definitive, intrinsic guilt of the Other and the overriding necessity to protect oneself by increased security precautions or by force of arms—a condition made to order for the multinational arms industry.

The Globalization of the Israeli Syndrome | An observer of Israeli society and of its successive governments cannot but be struck by the similarity between the logical premises that inform that society and what is now taking place on a global scale. Since the 1940s, the history of the state of Israel has been shaped by fear, by the imperative of self-protection and by mistrust of the Other.

After the Nazi horrors and the extermination camps, after the painful European experience, Israel appealed to many both as refuge and as possible self-reconciliation in the eyes of history. Years have passed, but the same logic has perpetuated itself in the form of deep feelings of mistrust; the perception of self as victim; the reality of insecurity; the continued inflation of security policy measures; and the perception of the permanent hostility, unavowed or not, of the world around it.

In the end, however, roles and perspectives have been reversed: Israeli society is much richer than those that surround it, incomparably better armed than all the Arab countries combined, at the pinnacle of scientific and military technology, a true regional and international economic power. Yet it still sees itself as a victim of the destructive intentions of its neighbors, or their age-old opposition—of “Palestinian terrorism” or, in broader terms, of Muslim extremism.

The superior regional power has become a “victim,” of the Other’s “horror,” of his “madness,” of his “hatred,” of his “irrationality,” of his “murderous insanity,” of his “nihilism.” These are but a few of the terms utilized to justify a security policy that accepts “of necessity” violations of the principles of international law or of respect for the lives of civilians and of the innocent. They are used to authorize “moderate” recourse to torture and for the adoption of distinctive and openly discriminatory legislation toward certain citizens still considered too “Arab” or too committed as Christians or Muslims. The victim protects and defends himself. Could anything be more normal?

If we broaden our focus, we see a world that reflects these same considerations and postures. The “war” that has been unleashed to destroy terrorism is now founded on the same logical bases, but on a global scale.

Don’t get me wrong. Terror is a fact, not an ideology, and the killing of innocent people must be condemned with no exception. It is the ideological use of its consequences that is problematic.

The American neo-conservatives and their European imitators instigate and nurture a permanent sense of fear, which they wield as though it were an ideology. Their policies are based on a feeling of insecurity and a binary vision of the world. The imperative is one of self-protection, sometimes through draconian security policies that are hostile to freedom and, for some, openly unjust and discriminatory. After all, the West has become the “principal victim of terrorism.”

The world’s most prosperous, heaviest-armed countries are threatened. Citizens have to understand that they must revise the laws that govern them, and their rights, in more restrictive terms...for their own security. To confront the threat, and to calm their fears, citizens must be more closely monitored, intensively video-recorded, kept under constant surveillance. The Israel Syndrome, whose characteristics are the state of siege and of the reversal of the power equation on the level of perception and symbolism, has come fully into play: The Other is no longer criticizing our policies, he is negating our existence; he detests our values, our very civilization. He must no longer be held responsible for his acts alone but for his hatred, his nihilism, his madness and “why not?” his beliefs and his religion.

With Fear We Are All Victims | The first tragic consequence of the ideology of fear is to transform all societies and their members into victims. While in the West the idea of a civilization under threat gains currency, we can observe the same emotional reflexes, shaped by fear and victimhood, in majority Muslim societies, and even in the Muslim communities established in Europe and in the United States: “They” do not like Islam and Muslims; “they” have singled us out, discriminate against us; “they” are openly racist and xenophobic. “Their” war against “Islamic terrorism” is nothing but a “pretext for lashing out at Islam and at all Muslims.”

Everywhere we find the same feelings, everywhere the same attitudes. Before our eyes an ideology is emerging, one that transforms us into “victims” incapable of viewing the Other except as a potential threat. Because we are colonized by fear, it has become impossible for us to enter into the Other’s reasoning, even to hear him or, in the most humane sense, understand his distress and frustration. We are all, each and every one of us, caught up in the same web—a web woven of narrow-mindedness and sectarianism.

We must break the bonds of our fear, master our impulse to see things only in black and white and recapture our critical spirit and our ability to listen. We must once more become thinking “subjects”—that and nothing else. And yet, to do so seems so difficult.

Muslims, whether they live in the West or in primarily Muslim countries, cannot under any circumstances endorse the ideology of fear, nor can they fall into the trap of a polarized, simplistic and caricatured reading of the world. By perpetuating the idea, which has now become an obsession, that they are either dominated (or members of a minority) and unappreciated or singled out and marginalized, they unconsciously accept the premises of those who propagate this emotion-based ideology, of those who seek to build walls and dig trenches, of those who promote prejudices, fuel insecurity and fan the fires of conflict. These propagandists of fear tirelessly spread the idea that Islam and Muslims are threatened by the future; by allowing themselves to be swept into a vicious circle of self-justification and defensiveness, Muslims confirm and lend credence to a debate whose terms have been deliberately skewed.

Our very conception of humanity and life is at stake. Far more than simple politics, this new ideology is the challenge of our times. It raises issues of conviction, faith, understanding, ethics and behavior. If a vision is to emerge as a response to the ideology of fear, it must be one of self-liberation. This “act of self-liberation” is located precisely at the core of spiritual experience, for when the emotions urge us to let ourselves go, spirituality requires of us that we educate ourselves.

The American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., following the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, understood that it was all too easy to see one’s own community or cause as the universal value. He constantly warned his followers not to use the excuse of injustice done to them to abdicate responsibility for their lives and their obligations to others, calling for “spiritual discipline” against resentment or self-righteousness.

We must make a similar effort to educate ourselves in order to bring together the search for meaning and for God and respect for the principles of justice, freedom and human fraternity. Against the temptation to close ourselves off, to see reality in black and white, we need an “intellectual jihad.” We need to resist (jihad means, literally, effort and resistance), to strive for the universality of a message that transcends the particular and allows us to understand the common universal values that make up our horizon.

This enterprise of critical intelligence and understanding alone will make it possible for us Muslims to return to the Islamic concepts that contextualized or specialized historical definitions have often diminished, restricted or even amputated. Notions such as the Shari’a (Islamic code), “fiqh” (Islamic jurisprudence) and “ulum islamiyya” (Islamic sciences) must be reviewed and redefined in the light of the Islamic principles that call us to the universal, not through the narrow prism of the attitudes of “the dominated,” of “minorities” or of “immigrants to be assimilated.”

This is the reform—and it is a literally revolutionary one—that we must undertake in order to resist the ideology of fear. Some of our readings of the Islamic sources are a godsend for the propagators of the ideology that promotes fear to justify war, policies destructive of freedom and institutionalized discrimination. The reform we need does not negate a single one of the principles of Islam, its fundamentals and its practice, but it reinvigorates self-confidence. In so doing, this reform helps us overcome our fear of the Other, the obsession with adversity and the promotion of closed, reactive, petrified identities.

The original spirit of the message of Islam is an invitation to us; it teaches us to open ourselves to the world, to make ours what is good (whatever its origin). It teaches us to understand that each of us has multiple, fluctuating identities, that diversity is a school for humility and respect, and that humanity is one, just as God is One.

Fears, like fractures, cut crosswise. In Western society, we can observe signs of tension between those who define themselves in relation to others and have no desire whatsoever to acknowledge the fact, and those who understand that there exist values to be held in common, partnerships to be created.

The same fault lines exist in Muslim societies and communities. We must counsel those who lay claim to, and who accept, the principle of common values and are prepared to put fear behind them and not be deceived by the extremism of the “other side.” If they do, then extremism will have prevailed.

Today’s most urgent task is to bring together women and men from all backgrounds, from all convictions and religions, in the name of the common universal principles of the dignity of human beings and of the critical spirit. To overcome the ideology of fear, to loosen the grip of the emotions, requires a demanding critical intelligence and a sense of the ethics of debate, of receptivity. Some will identify these qualities with belief and spirituality, others with their conscience alone. But each one will understand them as the necessary, imperative qualities of his or her humanity.