Fear, fragility, and hope

Khaled Hanafi Ali
Tuesday 6 Oct 2020

Often used as a way of strengthening social control by playing on people’s anxieties, could the politics of fear also help to bring about positive change

Whereas Democratic Party supporters in the US criticise US President Donald Trump for using a “rhetoric of fear” when he tells voters that he is the only one protecting the American Dream against the threat of chaos, they themselves also tend to use that same policy of fear when they aim to dissuade voters from re-electing Trump, claiming that he is “a threat to the United States”.

Likewise, some analysts explain the recent normalisation of relations between Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates with Israel in the context of fears of “the Iranian threat”. Fear of the current Covid-19 pandemic has also impacted the economies of many countries and has reshaped priorities regarding consumption at a time of sometimes near panic.

The significance of these examples is that an individual’s fear or anticipation of a certain risk can grow from just an individual emotional state to become part of a wider social and political context and impact societies and state policies. This impact has two sides, as it can either reveal the inner weak points of nations or their resilience — or at least this is what scientists suggest when they say that fear also takes a toll on a person’s immune system.

Novelists, likewise, have tended to depict fear as a test of a person’s resilience and inner strength, as was the case for the 19th-century Russian short-story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov, for example, who in his masterpiece The Ninny depicts the governess Yulia as a symbol of submissiveness who gives in to the manipulations of her master. In contrast, the mother of the Prophet Moses is depicted in the Quran as showing inner resilience in the face of danger when she listens to the divine inspiration telling her to “cast him [the baby Moses] into the river and not fear,” helping her to overcome any fear that she might have that the soldiers of the Pharaoh could kill her baby son.

Since danger and fear are intertwined, any rise in danger in our contemporary world can result in weakness in some societies and even develop into absolute fragility — what we might call “a loss of national immunity” — if these societies do not adapt quickly by changing that state of fear into an inspiration for hope.

 Fear may either result from a known actual danger or from an imagined or ambiguous one. But in almost all societies clear and actual dangers are usually related to individuals’ fears for personal safety or at the possible loss of a job or income in a way that could jeopardise family finances. People may also have fears that they will not be able to attain a certain position or social status, or that they will not be able to express themselves freely or reveal their identities.

Such risks provoke different degrees of anxiety that may vary from one person to the next, but they are all rooted in a larger social, political, and security context that may either reduce or boost such fears. Those living amid the armed conflict in Syria, for instance, are probably more fearful than the inhabitants of stable countries. But in our contemporary globalised world, fear can also easily cross borders and penetrate different societies: both Syrians and the inhabitants of more stable countries have been facing similar risks since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fears of instability in Syria have also been transmitted to Germany, almost at the other end of the spectrum as far as fear is concerned, as a result of an influx of Syrian refugees fleeing armed conflict in their homeland for Europe. This has raised the level of anxiety among some Europeans, giving rise to Islamophobia and boosting far-right extremists. This also perhaps bears out German sociologist Ulrich Beck’s theory of “global risk community”, which explains how dangers today cannot be confined to one state in our globalised and neoliberal world.

Individual and personal fears are also now associated with such global risks as terrorism, climate change, migration, and other challenges. As the late Polish-British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman put it, we are now facing “fluid fear” in the light of impending uncertainty and a lack of knowledge of danger and what to do about it.

The fact that fear has become more contagious and pervasive in the world today, growing from an individual sense of risk to a social issue and further affecting countries and crossing borders to ultimately become a global issue, has resulted in its being more heavily exploited, whether consciously or unconsciously, in both the political and social spheres.

Fear is being extensively manipulated to attain certain political gains, even if this leads to the weakening of nations or wreaking havoc.


The politics of fear has been traditionally associated with autocratic regimes that have manipulated public anxiety in order to remain in power, as has been the case in North Korea and as is depicted in the British writer George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, which shows how fear can be used to help the authorities tighten their grip on society.

But authoritarian regimes are not the only ones using the politics of fear today. In fact, politicising fear has not abated since the spread of the democratic model, and it has instead been manipulated by authoritarian regimes that have used democratic tools to attain hegemony. Idris Deby Itno, president of Chad since 1990, is a case in point. He has amended the country’s constitution in such a way as to ensure that he remains in power, while also using fear and repressive policies to support his regime.

We also find that both the far-right and the far-left in Europe have been resorting to the politics of fear to rally public support. Whereas far-right politicians have been demonising immigrants and Islam, left-wing ones have been warning voters against the threat of a far-right rise to power.  

Western modernity, globalisation, and the emergence of cross-border societies seem to have all taken their toll on social control, which is defined by sociologists as the way that the norms, rules, laws and structures of society regulate human behaviour. This reduction in social control in turn has given the authorities more possibilities to expand their grip and punitive measures in societies.

On the one hand, the rise of individual affiliations in the light of the decline of major ideologies has led to the erosion of social structures, in turn weakening social solidarity. On the other hand, the role of the state in the public sphere has been dwarfed by neoliberalism, turning governments into the mere guardians of market policies.

These two developments have resulted in two dilemmas: first, the social structures that individuals used to resort to when they sensed fear or danger have become weaker, and so they now turn to family or friends as an alternative for protection. Second, the reduction of the role of the state in providing jobs, security, and welfare has increased public fears, since individuals now have to pay for their own protection in a largely neoliberal system. The protection against fear has been privatised in the sense that people now often hire private security personnel or live in gated communities in the search for safety.

This has not only widened social gaps, but more seriously perhaps it has also shrunk the middle class, which now faces double fears in the light of a declining role for the state in a globalised system, as was seen during the 2008 global financial crisis. The shrinking of the middle class has affected social control since it is the largest segment of society and thus is important for stability.  

In order to protect societies against disintegration, which would in turn affect the legitimacy of the state authorities, fear has appeared to be the only alternative narrative to keep society intact in the face of dangers. This was seen when the US “war on terror” was announced following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, when a narrative of fear was used to keep the US intact and rally support for the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.


Whenever fear increases among individuals and societies, countries tend to increase their quest for safety by spreading counter-fears among other societies.

Some countries, for instance, make alliances with other countries or seek to possess nuclear weapons to deter external threats. The fact that Iran has been accused of seeking to possess nuclear weapons to protect itself against western threats is a case in point. Individuals and groups may also resort to the same counter-fear strategy, using of course different tools, trying to attain more power and influence to secure themselves against potential threats that should have otherwise diminished in the presence of the rule of law and social equity.

This may explain the growing number of clientelist and elite networks in chaotic areas suffering from high levels of fear. The 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, published by the NGO Transparency International, designated four Arab countries, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Sudan, as being among the top ten most corrupt countries in the world, where escalating fears and insecurity have paved the way for corrupt networks to penetrate deeper into their societies.

Real risks, on the other hand, are known dangers involving potential harms that can be defined and measured in reality. In such cases, countries can adopt preventive policies to curb these dangers. States, for instance, may amass weapons on the borders of another country in case they anticipate a threat that requires military action.

The real problem, however, resides in imagined risks, which are more complicated and are bogged down in ambiguity. Imagined risks are simply the damage that individuals, groups, or authorities may perceive in their minds, but such harms cannot be measured or defined in reality. Such ambiguities may also help those fears penetrate deeper into society.

A case in point of such an imagined danger can be seen in ethnic-cleansing conflicts where a certain ethnic group attempts to destroy another out of fears of some assumed threat to its existence. This was the case in the conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsi in Rwanda in the 1990s. Such perceived dangers are sometimes rooted in cultural misconceptions of the other, or are spread by an elite authority seeking political gains. In all such cases, these fears are overblown to the extent that no one can differentiate the real from the unreal, and they may lead to exaggerated preemptive policies that are largely unfounded or unjustified. The US assessment of the “Chinese threat” and the European phobia of immigrants may serve as cases in point.

The discourse used by former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld to justify US military interventions is yet another example of imagined fears. In a statement that Rumsfeld made in answer to a question at a news briefing about the lack of evidence of Iraq’s supplying terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, he used the idea of “known knowns” and other ideas that were rather more ambiguous.

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know,” Rumsfeld said. “We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

The last ones may generate exaggerated fears. In the same vein, the failure to make accurate predictions of the coronavirus pandemic has similarly opened the door to news reports of other potential pandemics that no one knows when or how they could infect the world.

As a way of restoring balance to today’s divided and exhausted societies, the idea of an “immunity balance” may be useful. This in the political and social context means the ability of state institutions to perform in such a way as to meet the aspirations of their citizens, such as by providing security, justice, equity, and freedom within the larger framework of social solidarity and a sense of trust, together with the belonging and mutual respect that can keep society intact in the face of dangers.

Strong social immunity is largely rooted in a harmonious and balanced state-society relationship, as has been shown by US sociologist Joel Migdal’s “state-in-society” approach. This says that the strength of any state is measured by its ability to build strong ties with its society, which then supports its institutions and work.  

In the meantime, the immunity of any country weakens when either the state or the society seeks to overpower the other or both lose power, as is the case in armed-conflict countries like Yemen where the state fails to fulfil its duties and the society is exhausted by social rifts. In such cases, fear spreads among nations and societies, making them increasingly vulnerable.


This erosion of immunity can be highlighted in a number of ways, including by growing hatred, public reluctance, the erosion of trust, deepening divisions, and false bets.

Growing hatred: In an atmosphere of escalating fear, the other may be seen as a source of danger and may be demonised and excluded in an attempt to reach a state of pseudo-peace. This, in turn, weakens trust, being the sense of belonging and the social solidarity of any political system or social fabric.

The spreading of overblown fears of Islam and immigrants on the part of far-right parties, particularly in Europe, seems to have made societies more prone to violence. In Germany, for instance, far-right policies appear to pose a threat to German society, giving rise to an increase in discrimination and hate crimes. Likewise, Trump’s excessive use of fear policies has been a catalyst for an environment of racism and hatred in the United States. This was manifested when the African-American man George Floyd was killed at the hands of the US police earlier this year, provoking a public outcry and demonstrations in American cities.


Escalating fears may also make people more reluctant to participate in elections or in the public sphere. People may fear that those in the opposition could be punished for their anti-government views and that the political scene could be dominated by a political elite that owns the tools of the democratic game.

This public reluctance gives rise to a sense of powerlessness in the absence of an alternative, which may result in an at best fragile stability that could be broken in the face of any sudden danger. Prior to the Arab Spring Revolutions in 2011, for instance, many Arab citizens were reluctant to participate in elections. Likewise, when the Arab Spring Revolutions faltered, turned chaotic, or were sometimes dominated by extreme religious groups, many people again felt reluctant to participate in politics since they now felt more sceptical about the possibility of positive change. They may also have been apprehensive about the heavy cost of change and of possible chaotic scenarios such as those that have taken over Syria, Libya, and Yemen.


Although the authorities may succeed in using fear to mobilise people and unite them against a certain danger, this may not always last. They may lose their credibility once people realise that the dangers were not real, or that they were overblown or were at least ambiguous.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the US, for instance, the fear of terrorism was successfully used to rally support for the war-on-terror policies of former US president George W Bush. But then public debate erupted over the US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and over the misleading information that had been given out regarding these two countries’ alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. The Republican Party lost much credibility, and it was defeated by the Democrats in the subsequent presidential elections.

Public alarm over alleged Russian interference in the US presidential elections in 2016 has similarly uncovered the fragility of the US democratic model, which seems to have lost much of its global influence.


Since fear is usually manipulated as a tool in the hands of conflicting parties, especially in armed conflicts, the policy of fear usually creates deep rifts in societies, where each party seeks to get the support of certain groups to make gains over the others.

This has been particularly evident in armed conflicts in the Arab countries. The transition in Libya following the fall of the Gaddafi regime has stumbled largely due to the fact that armed militias have been exploiting public fears to make financial and economic gains by deepening tribal and regional divisions.

This means that the country’s social cohesion has been suffering under the double onslaught of the weakness of the state and of social ruptures. Such social divisions may push people to choose extreme options when they cast their ballots in elections, assuming that such choices could provide security. This also seems to be the case regarding the rise of far-right parties in European elections.


The use of the narrative of fear by states in their attempts to impose social order and political hegemony may trap them into making false bets and miscalculating the social changes that may occur.

In Algeria, for example, whereas the narrative of fear remained dominant in the decades after the 1990s and was a main factor singling out Algeria from the Arab Spring Revolutions, these fears soon shrank with the advent of a younger generation less apprehensive about political change and resulting in the 2019 Algerian protests that demanded an end to the regime of former Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Such examples show how fear has been widely used to weaken nations, but today it is perhaps time for the world to regard fear as a catalyst for hope. The fears that have erupted over the human and economic losses resulting from the coronavirus pandemic have also been an eye-opener for many countries, allowing them to revisit their policies and give priority to the healthcare and education sectors.

Perhaps fear can thus also help to incur positive change.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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