The Uses of Fear

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
Page 1 of 1

Brussels, ISIS, and the death of moral leadership in the free world

FEAR IS THE WEAPON of the last revolutionary who has god on his lips and blood on his hands. He has been here with us for a while. On the next table in the café. On the beach among holidaymakers, waiting. In the stadium, watching the game—and us. In the street. In the mall. He is the most familiar stranger of our time, invisible but a disembodied invocation rising from the ruins. He is not afraid to kill or to be killed; it is the fear of god, his submission to the Book, that aggravates his bloodlust.

Somewhere in the sandy remoteness of Syria, he, the man in a black balaclava, wielding a knife, hovers over his victim, a figure on his knees, covered in orange robes, and the grotesquery of the colour symbolism a reminder of Guantánamo. In the editorial office of a magazine in Paris, he demands silence from all those blasphemers and satirists. He breaks into the theatre and calls off the performance. When you kill for god, for a perfumed alternative to the wretchedness of here-and-now, you suffer no remorse. You hate yourself to be in this land without justice; you kill your way into paradise.

It is a war against the pleasures and pursuits of others. It is a rejoinder to the ideas and attitudes of those for whom this world is good enough, and this life is preferable to afterlife. That is why the killer is provoked by the possibilities of laughter, the transgressions of imagination, the threat of cartoons… His faith is built on paranoia and hate; his god requires a kingdom where fear is the religion. And where the perversions and pathologies of believers are prerequisites for the preservation of the idyll.

Now we pause in Brussels, in the helpless awareness that tomorrow is not different, not distant. It is easy to be distracted by the journalistic refrain of ‘Why Brussels?’ It is convenient to be consoled by the inevitability of Europe’s guilt-ridden multiculturalism. It is easy to see Brussels, as it happens in the wake of the arrest of a Paris attacker, as a footnote to the larger tragedy of France. The episodic horror of jihad is no longer a surprise. What is surprising is our attitude towards evil, the absence of the kind of idealism that powered the struggle against communism, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was the moral idealism of a few brave men in Washington, London, Moscow and the Vatican that made it easier for the suppressed streets of East Europe to erupt. We owe them for the end of the lie.

If the evil empire is still a geographical truth, it tells the story of a world without leadership. It tells the story of leaders who evade reality by mouthing pious banalities such as ‘terror has no religion.’ Terror has religion, and the killer has no raison d’être other than his faith, his god. A Reagan did realise that his fight was against an idea that was incompatible with freedom, with the instincts and interests of humanity. A pope did realise that even the church could help the street in the fight against the jackboots of ideology. A communist in Moscow made himself redundant as he choreographed the fall of an artificial empire. There was a moral urgency.

In this age of expediency, there are only evasions and triangulations. The so-called Islamic State, carved out of countries at war with themselves, exists as a ‘model’ state of faith because leaders of Western liberalism are ‘cautious’, ‘pragmatic’, and cannot afford a ‘backlash.’ These are meaningful, and even useful, words if you are dealing with a legitimate entity. You are not even dealing with a traditional dictatorship, or even with a state, in spite of the nomenclature. The Islamic State is a faceless—literally—system of dehumanisation.

Behind every apparatus of horror there is a grievance, which invariably originates from the hazy region between history and mythology. The Islamic State too markets victimhood; it has created its own literature of war, suppression and subjugation. And any terror state has its own fairy tale of an idyllic tomorrow, too. The Caliphate of ISIS is steeped in the fantasy of an Islamic order of justice. It requires a permanent supply of enemies to keep the fantasy alive. To keep the reign of fear.

Powers with a frozen conscience can never win the war of ideas. Winners are not leaders who are swept aside by history but men who dare the worst instincts of the present. And look how fear is winning the street.