Analysis - Socio-Cultural Interactions

Exploiting Danger

How the “globalization of fear” increases extremism within society

Writer : Mohammed Ezzat Rohiem

Monday, January 16, 2017

Exploiting Danger

The fluidity and the uncertainty that prevails domestically and globally have led to a rise in the culture of fear among communities facing seemingly never-ending threats. More than ever before, these are threats  have touched individuals’ personal security and well-being. With the rise of the “risk society” and the general climate of fear, the boundaries between real and imagined fears have fused, due to the interconnectedness of threats and the multiple causes of fear.

Arguably, the complexity of global interconnectedness has raised concerns among diverse countries, including those in Western Europe, Latin America, East Asia, Middle East, and Africa. Most of the citizens of the world today share common concerns about multiple issues. At the forefront of these are violence, unemployment, corruption, poverty, social injustice, crime and health care.

A map of global concerns

In this context, the Ipsos MORI Foundation released an empirical study entitled “What Worries the World.” From results based on polling in September 2016 across 35 countries, the concerns can be divided as follows:

1. Common concerns: These comprise a number of issues that have become an increasing source of worry for residents of countries of diverse political, economic, social and cultural backgrounds. This emphasizes the notion of globalized concerns in today's world. Among such concerns are unemployment, corruption, poverty, inequality, and terrorism. The issue of corruption took the top spot among the things that give residents of various countries a cause for worry. However, for citizens of Spain, South Africa, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, unemployment was of greatest concern.

The same applies to financial and political corruption and inflation, which are concerns shared by a diverse and broad spread of countries, such as South Africa, Bulgaria, Spain, South Korea, India, Mexico, and Russia. On the other hand, fears of terrorism worry countries all over the world, due to an increase in transnational attacks that do not differentiate between African, European or Asian countries. This is on top of the presence of criminal-terrorist organizations across the world acting as sleeper cells activated at the time of need.

2. Regional issues: These issues concern certain regions more than others do. For example, there is the fear of immigrants and refugees influx that now worries countries such as Britain, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Belgium and France, all of which belong to the same region.

Linked to this issue is also the fear of escalating extremism in those countries. This gives an indication of the fear experienced by those nations’ residents of the spread of radical extremist movements, which in their mind may be associated with flows of migrants and refugees from other regions and countries. Fear of crime and violence is widespread among Latin American countries more than any others, due to the long-standing prevalence of organized crime and drug trade in the region.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that issues that concern some areas more than others were reported as concerns for citizens in other countries in significant numbers. This shows that humans today share similar concerns, irrespective of their region, nationality, and culture and raises questions about the “globalization of fear” and its consequences.

Exploiting fear

A few questions about those fears stand out: Whether they are real causes for worry. Or are such concerns manufactured or imagined? These issues have led some observers to discuss the role of some groups and interest networks in overemphasizing and exaggerating some of the threats to achieving certain ends.

On the one hand, one cannot deny the fact that many of these concerns are real, and demonstrable in everyday life. For example, any person can experience unemployment - the most significant global concern. Thus, anxiety about unemployment today has become a global concern shared equally by citizens of Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Perhaps this is because of poor economic policies adopted by many governments around the world, which has resulted in the rise of extreme right-wing movements across various countries. Another reason may be escalating security threats, with many governments spending large amounts on armaments and security, and thus reducing their ability to spend on investment and employment.

Meanwhile, some concerns are imaginary but have been inculcated by the media and propaganda for various ends, to achieve mainly political and electoral gain. The fear of immigrants and refugees and concerns about the spread of extremist movements and militancy in Europe is a perfect example of this. These issues have been exploited by right-wing parties to make gains at elections, such as the German far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has made steady gains since 2013, the National Front in France and the Freedom Party of Austria whose candidate almost won the presidential election in April 2016.

The same applies to other countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Britain. In Britain, a majority of citizens voted to leave the European Union as a sign of support or response to right-wing and populist movements. It also applies to the United States, which witnessed Donald Trump win the presidency despite extreme statements against foreigners and immigrants. Hence, we can say that these extremist parties and movements have taken the issues of immigration and fear of foreigners as a means to deepen the worries of their fellow citizens, thereby achieving a political and electoral advantage.

Consequences of the globalization of fear

Some politicians may believe that stoking people’s fears may lead to a sense of constant threat, thereby increasing their attachment to state institutions. While this may be true in some cases, a citizen may instead look for alternatives or change, along with the following lines:

1. The rise of the extreme right: The first outcome of an increase in those fears is the continued growth of extremist and populist trends in Europe and other countries. As the field of economics has it, the demand for populist and nationalist policies can be found in the vast majority of countries because of discontent among citizens. According to the Ipsos study, two-thirds of citizens polled were dissatisfied with the current state of their country. Moreover, they believed that things are deteriorating. These are conditions that form the ideal environment for the growth of extreme populist and right-wing movements.

It is noteworthy that in France nearly 90% of citizens believe things are not heading in the right direction. This makes France a prime candidate for an ascent to power by the far right, especially with the coming presidential election. The same applies to countries such as Italy, Germany, Belgium, Sweden and the United States. Hence, growing fears and dissatisfaction bolster illiberal approaches to governance, which has become clearer today than any time since World War II.

2. The legitimacy of political institutions: This condition cannot be separated from the previous one: the growth of extremist thought has contributed significantly to dual-faced political practices and blame of the other. This has, in turn, led to high levels of political and ideological polarization and skepticism concerning national political institutions.

On the other hand, the surge of isolationist movements and return to the politics of “homeland-first” have called into question the legitimacy of international political and economic institutions, whether they function properly and whether it is better to get out or even get rid of them for good. This is manifested in right-wing movements’ skepticism about regional institutions, for example, the British right wing’s advocacy to leave the European Union. Similar calls are made by France's far-right as well as the Alternative for Germany party, which represents the right-wing at present though it began as a movement against Germany’s policies in the Eurozone.

Growing fears reinforce skepticism in national, regional and international political institutions, as a result strengthening the inclination towards unilateral policy-making that favors the homeland first and diminishes the importance of cooperation and integration. Such policies may end up having unintended impacts on global peace and security.

3. A revolution in expectations: Finally, due to fears of unemployment, inflation, and corruption, citizens of the Global South are demanding social protection and welfare state policies. These require extensive economic reforms, a reevaluation of the tax collection system and then an increase in public spending on education, health and unemployment support. The goal is to reduce poverty and inequality, especially since all of these issues occupy a prominent position in the list of the growing concerns.

This applies to countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America where unemployment, education, health, corruption and social injustice were of greatest concern. However, the incompatibility of these expectations with the politics of austerity pursued by the governments of these countries may result in continued if not growing instability in those countries.

You can view the full Ipsos survey via the following link: 

Ipsos Public Affairs, what worries the world, Ipsos Public Affairs, September 2016

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