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Fear and loathing

One of the most powerful currencies in political life is fear. Whether it is avian flu or terrorism, when we are fearful we listen more closely to politicians. We expect them to reassure us. In this respect we are still deeply dependent on politicians, despite our cynicism towards political life.



In the weeks since the London bombings, we can trace how fear is shaping our political culture - and distorting it. The danger is that the imperative to satisfy the emotional needs posed by fear and its close associate, anger, will end up crippling our capacity to respond effectively to the threat of Islamist terrorism. The “what works” British pragmatism is in danger of being junked for emotionally satisfying but irrelevant symbolism - a few individuals are banned or deported but the websites they run will penetrate just as deeply into the hearts and minds of some British Muslims.



There are three key ways in which fear shapes politics. The first is that politicians provide a narrative structure that can satisfy the “why” question: why us, why now and why here? That involves a clear plot and a plausible cast of goodies and baddies. The scale of the plot must be big enough to provide a large enough description of our fear, which usually means the threat is greatly inflated. And the goodies, of course, must win. The aim of the narrative is to offer emotional reassurance on several levels. It has to say it’s understandable you’re so afraid; we’re on the side of good against evil; we will vanquish our enemies.



Recently, it was the turn of David Cameron, the shadow education secretary to demonstrate how he has mastered the new orthodoxy - the politics of fear - in a widely reported speech in London. Like many others on both sides of the Atlantic, Cameron had been rummaging for props in 20th-century history to find familiar analogies that can meet all of the above criteria.



For a growing number in the Anglo-American political establishment, Nazism fits the bill best. Here was an epic struggle of Britain and America against an evil system in which we were victorious - our proudest hour and all that. So Cameron duly framed his understanding of Islamist terrorism within the context of Nazism. He mentioned two points they have in common: their use of violence and their hatred of cosmopolitan influences.



What he overlooks, along with many others who use the term Islamo-fascism, is how little relevance these mass political movements and their capture of the state have to Islamist terrorism - let alone the enormous exaggeration required to liken the threat of a few hundred potential terrorists in the UK with a sustained world war in which hundreds of thousands of Britons died fighting a hugely powerful, highly organised nation state.



The real beauty of the Nazi analogy is that it provides a valuable political opportunity to define yourself and ensure a damaging definition of your opponent. Positioning in an argument is key, and the Islamo-fascism analogy enables the appeasement slur to be used against any “who try to explain jihadist violence”, as Cameron put it.



Fear is now shaping all political debate and redefining political allegiances. Throughout the British media, such references to appeasement, and similarly to the wilful blindness of the “Auden generation” towards the atrocities of Stalin, have become common over the summer.



On the right, it’s now an unquestioned chorus; on the left, the self-styled “hard” liberals have declared civil war on their former fellow political travellers. Classics in this latter genre have been penned repeatedly in the past few weeks. For example, the author Tim Lott recently wrote of how enraged he was not just by “passive Muslims” but by the “self-hating, intellectually and morally moribund response of the British liberal left”. Columnist John Rentoul talked last week of the “ideological succour” provided by “half-apologists” on the left.



This reflects the second way fear shapes political life: the desire for uncompromising clarity. When people are fearful, they want to know who’s on their side and who’s not - everyone has to be assigned as goodies or baddies, good or evil. Anyone who introduces complexity or context blurs that clarity and must be bullied into silence.



So there is now a growing constituency that no longer distinguishes between the analysis and the justification of an atrocity. The result is a willed ignorance - people don’t want to understand. There’s a blanket rejection of how understanding is the crucial underpinning for effective policy. They want only a politics of symbolism to meet their emotional responses of fear and anger.



Finally, the third impact of fear is that it, understandably, prompts a great desire for solidarity. There has been much talk of standing together and uniting around shared values. But the quest for a meaningful national identity around which we can all rally is at risk of buckling under the weight of its contradictions.



For example, there have been two parallel debates about national identity this summer. One has talked patriotically of British values of tolerance and fair play (values of recent coinage, incidentally, which weren’t much in evidence in either the acquisition or disposal of our empire). The other, based on the insight of our holiday comparative study in national behaviours, is full of self-loathing due to our propensity for binge drinking and sexual debauchery. How do we convince sceptical Muslims that signing up to the first doesn’t involve the second? How do we explain which bit of “our way of life” we want everyone to rally around?



“Pulling together” is emotionally reassuring, but it is the most contested territory in this new politics of fear. For example, what does loyalty or patriotism mean when an increasing number of people across the globe live where they don’t want to belong? In a thought- provoking article in Prospect, the philosopher Bhikhu Parekh says it is incumbent on migrants to develop an emotional and moral commitment to their host country. But if they don’t, how is such a thing to be engineered? The politics of fear will drive a frenzied policy spree on community cohesion in coming months.



The most troubling aspect of how fear is distorting our political life is that it is crippling our grasp of two crucial truths: Islamist terrorism is vicious but it will not destroy our country - it can kill hundreds but it will not take over our government and impose sharia law. We need to be much calmer about the nature of the threat, and more sophisticated about the scale of risk. What’s happened to that British virtue of prosaic good sense so much in evidence on the evening of July 7 and so little in evidence since?



Second, our biggest ally in tracking down the perpetrators and our only chance of defeating Islamist terrorism is the Muslim community itself. That’s why the willed ignorance is so dangerous. A sophisticated understanding is vital if we are to identify and nurture the processes of development and thinking among Muslims that are already struggling to defeat Islamist extremism and chart another future for the faith.



Extracts of an comment originally published on August 29, 2005