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Past event

Pre-conference Meeting on Fear and Polarisation


The pre-conference Expert Meeting on "Fear and Polarization; What can we learn from Europe” hosted by the ICCT, in cooperation with Public Safety Canada, took place 28 February 2012, preceding the 14th National Metropolis Conference in Toronto. Its aim was to provide an in-depth examination of fear in relation to polarisation and resilience and the European experience in this field.

The event’s first speaker, Dr. Catherine Fieschi, Counterpoint, UK, dealt with the question: why fear polarisation? She argued that, in addition to the dividing lines between violent and non-violent extremism, there is also a divide between extremism and populism. The problem of extremism has shifted over the past few years and she sought to highlight how society is becoming increasingly polarised. Fieschi referenced the London Riots, Occupy London, and Marine Le Pen as part of a three year comparative project into the dynamics of polarisation across Europe. She argued that polarisation should be viewed not just as an outcome, but as a process.

Dr. Fieschi continued her argument by mentioning that ‘Populism is the politics of polarization, based on an “us versus them” mentality’. “Them” in this instance denotes the political elite, policymakers or people who have reserved positions. The discourse is that the elite is selling out to multicultural failure. Therefore, why fear polarisation? Because it sets the stage for institutions where they cannot deliver legitimate policy, this in turn is fuelling a sense that people are in power despite institutional failure, thus resulting in a cycle of institutional failure. With the increased danger of polarisation, there is an increased danger of populism, on both sides of the political spectrum.

Concluding her lecture, Dr. Fieschi provided several indicators and markers for populism. System indicators may include a foundational promise of radical egalitarianism (not delivering on this is seen as betrayal), post-colonial politics, a generous and entrenched welfare state, a tradition of agrarian politics or a protected agrarian sector, power-sharing institutions, presidential politics, and technocratic politics. Circumstantial indicators include growing economic inequality, convergence of left and right parties, and public spending cuts. None of these indicators pose sufficient nor necessary conditions, but they show a correlation to polarisation.

The second speaker, Dr. Sandra Bucerius, who conducted extensive ethnographic research among young male second-generation Turkish, Moroccan, and Albanian immigrants involved in drug trafficking in Frankfurt, Germany, discussed the manifestation of fear within processes of polarization.

Dr. Bucerius focused on the question of identity politics: Why do they matter in society? The discussion focused upon identity politics, and the occurrence of social exclusion as a consequences of a dominant group or class oppressing others. Because of her case-studies, Dr. Bucerius concluded that exclusion of citizens led them to become more attached to their ethnic identity. In combination with second-level exclusion experienced when their own ethnic society, were not accepting of them either, led the youngsters in her sample to establish their own identity. Dr. Bucerius concluded by saying that, from a national security perspective, the reaction of groups to social exclusion by looking for a cause and purpose they feel is lacking in their lives, can lead to radicalism. Therefore, it is important for future research and policy making that more attention is given to the way immigrants perceive their social exclusion.

Approaching the issues at hand from a more practical perspective, ICCT Research Fellow Prof. Dr. Edwin Bakker discussed several European incidents of terrorism and societal and government responses. Prof. Dr. Bakker focused on how polarisation, fear and resilience are related and provided recommendations for potential measures that could be taken in the long and short term to lessen fear and improve societal resilience. Resilience was defined as “bouncing back” by Prof. Dr. Bakker, and should as such be used as a positive term for the ability to constructively deal with events.

Bakker pointed out the danger of overreacting to incidents, by mentioning that “Fear might invite terrorism”. Furthermore, polarisation does not need to lead to conflict. Stereotypes and groups could also lead to the establishment of a middle ground for dialogue. By mentioning this Prof. Dr. Bakker posed a question for discussion; Is polarization necessarily a bad thing?

The conference was chaired by Ms. Larisa Galadza from Public Safety Canada, who commented upon the negative effects of fear and polarisation when it comes to reaching objectives of counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation and stressed that, although the focus of this meeting would be Europe, conclusions gathered could be relevant for future research and all policymakers in the audience.

The expert meeting that followed from the conference covered three broad areas from the European perspective; why would we fear polarization?; How do fear and exclusion occur within polarization? and; How can we channel fear and polarization?