Edmund Burke wrote prior to the American Revolution that: “No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning as fear.” The United States experienced irrational fear of German Lutherans in the 1890’s, fear of communism in the 1950’s Cold War, and fear today of Muslims in the American War on Terror. Fear is not unnatural. It can save one’s life by heightening response-time during a threat at-the-moment. But there are different forms of fear. Fear as unchecked anxiety in the public square is a caldron of irrationality, which anticipates awful events by awful people. There is no doubt that attacks by terrorist cells in Brussels, Pakistan, Mogadishu, Iraq, Egypt, Bangladesh, and more, provide significant cause for existential alarm to the cause of civilization itself. After all, no person has the right to kill his neighbor out of an ideological conviction. This is the labor of demagogues, stupidity and hate, that must have no legitimate place in the human future.
Even as this is the case, the world is infused with anxiety today. Heightened anxiety has a strange effect on us. Using Burke’s words, the “passion of fear” can make human beings seek out some person or group that we perceive will free us from the fear we are experiencing. The process works like this: We choose a scapegoat who we brand as both the source of our fear and, as Rene Girard points out, is also our salvation from our fear.
Apply this logic to the treatment of Muslims in the United States. If Muslims are assumed by popular consensus to be a legitimate source of fear then we can call congressional hearings that question their civic allegiances, or we can ban them from entering the country based on religious disposition. These and additional practices assist us in resting assured that we are safe once more. See the logic? And yet, here is a serious problem: Unmitigated fear identifies a source and offers a way to alleviate it, and simultaneously “robs the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning.” It robs a public of its faith in the power of its U.S. Constitution, or steals away a confidence in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, which are artifacts of a Western civic pride and global luster. It replaces these with bigotry. And what is bigotry? Bigotry is the agency of irrational fear that finds an object upon which to exercise power, as was the case in the United States against Native Americans, African-Americans, the Irish, Germans, Mexicans, and now Muslims.
Today, in this U.S. presidential election, we have candidates who are endorsing irrational fear and giving license to American bigotry. A recent reporter in a reputable news source apologized on behalf of his entire guild for fomenting this fear, which generated free exposure to Donald Trump that was over 190% what the candidate spent in marketing his own campaign. We know who these merchants of fear are, who would ask a listening public to choke down hate as public discourse, and betray both the Constitution and the universal command to not bear false witness against your neighbor. Muslims are not the enemy. Even the candidates are not the enemy. They only gain power because we cede our collective will to them. And, no candidate is responsible for the fear Americans feel today. Fear is the enemy; it always was.
And the truth is, the world is enduring cycles of violence that are bound up with ideologies and religious affiliation, extremism and sectarian allegiances, that are tangled to terrible effect. But this is not a Muslim problem alone. The United Nations is marking a rise in sectarian violence that is leading to unprecedented numbers of displaced persons, human trafficking, and the abuse of women and children in the world. Ours is a human problem in the 21st century, and it is going to take all of our resources in the decades to come, to outsmart our own human proclivities toward locating scapegoats. Bigotry is a weak excuse for a rational mind. This election year, choose bright and aspiring messages that make the most of your mind, and those of your children. We’ll roll up our sleeves and deal with these problems in the world together. But not as agents of fear. Never that.