A Google search of “the politics of fear” turns up hundreds of articles, books, blogs, video, and mainstream media entries. How does one begin to really gain an understanding of this issue? The global enthusiasm for the Rally to Restore Sanity and the accompanying Rally to Keep Fear Alive held in Washington, DC this weekend, coupled with recent candid conversations with Palestinian women from the West Bank, has me convinced that fear is an extraordinarily effective political tactic, especially when used alongside the victim narrative.
It is obvious that fear can work as a mobilizing force. A direct, immediate threat to a nation can unite a population around a cause that would otherwise be debated. A perceived existential threat to a population can join even the most conservative and liberal members of a society. And a threat to the status quo, or “our way of life,” can mobilize somewhat like-minded groups as they join to identify the source of that threat. It is these survival dynamics that provide a source of power for interest groups and leaders who realize an easy strategy by riding on society’s emotions. Just as terrorists rely on fear in order to disrupt society’s comforts and way of life, so do legitimate political representatives in order to more easily carry out decisions and policies on the basis of the protection of the nation – fear helps politicians secure people’s support.
One can see, then, that fear as a political tactic can also be activated to pit groups against each other, often for political gain, and sometimes with very evil consequences (Nazi Germany, the Rwandan genocide, and the Balkan wars of the 1990s). At more regional or local levels, groups of citizens unite under a perceived fear of the other – the other who is homosexual, or the other who is Muslim, or the other who is an immigrant or foreigner.
Abeer Qasim of Bethlehem, offers her candid explanation about how leaders in both Israel and Palestine want each side to keep hating the other, to “be afraid.”
“The leaders, they want us, the Israelis and the Palestinians, to just keep this hating, hating, hating . . . to be afraid.”
Now, it would be naive of me to think that one woman’s view or opinion represents everyone in her society. But I do believe that one young woman’s opinion, when articulated to a stranger so candidly, is representative of some or many elements in society. Or, as my Iraqi friend artfully expressed it during a recent conversation,
“One opinion doesn’t represent no one.”
So, since we know the mainstream media often reflexively portrays most if not all Palestinians as supporters of Hamas, if not Hamas itself, — keeping fear alive — then why would we not strive to find average voices within Palestinian society, especially of women, and offer them, at a minimum, a modest platform to provide a very local, honest view? That’s what In Women’s Hands is striving to do.
Our next feature will address the issue of Islamic dress, since it is an easy tool in political fear tactics in the West. The debate often seems to be around whether a Muslim woman’s “garb” is imposed by men, or whether it’s a woman’s self-expression of her modesty. One cannot or should not rely on Google for the answer to such complex and intimate questions. So, we asked Muslim women directly about their choices, and whether traditional wardrobe is a form of oppression, freedom of expression, or simply a kind of traditional social custom that publicly affirms a women’s commitment to her religion and her family.