Radical Fear Meets Radical Empathy

One Australian Muslim’s surprising response to calls for a Muslim ban

A man prays during Ramadan in Sydney, Australia. (Daniel Munoz / Reuters)

Franklin Roosevelt’s famous advice, amid the Great Depression, must be turned on its head, according to Donald Trump: Far from having nothing to fear but fear itself, we have everything to fear. Crime, terrorism, illegal immigrants with criminal records “roaming free,” made-in-the-U.S.A. catastrophes around the world—all this, and much more, has brought America to the brink of apocalypse. No U.S. institution—government, the media, big business—can be trusted; faith must be placed in Donald J. Trump alone. The country has never been worse off, and yet within five months it could be better than ever. Walls will be built. Immigration will be halted from “any nation that has been compromised by terrorism.” The “crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end,” Trump pledged on Thursday, in accepting the Republican nomination for president. “Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.” Fear will flee the advance of Trump.

Fear is a transformative political force in many countries right now, and, like Americans, people all over the world are struggling with how to respond to it. A radical suggestion came this week from the opposite side of the globe, in Australia, in the course of a debate over a Trump-like call to ban Muslim immigrants. In response, one Muslim called for extreme compassion. It seemed like a genuinely new proposal for breaking out of an old and agonizing cycle. But is it a real solution to fear itself?

The controversy in Australia began on Sunday when, in response to the terrorist attack in Nice, the journalist Andrew Bolt published a column with an incendiary claim: The more Muslim immigrants a country has, the more likely it is to experience terrorism. He wrote that France was plagued by terrorist attacks because it had let too many Muslims into the country, that nations like Japan don’t suffer jihadist violence because they have small Muslim populations, and that Australia should restrict Muslim immigration. In an attempt to preempt criticism of his position, he singled out the TV presenter Waleed Aly as an example of a “prominent” Australian Muslim who turns “almost every discussion on Islamic terrorism into a criticism of the West.”

Then Sonia Kruger, the co-host of a morning talk show, backed Bolt, urging a ban on Muslim migration to Australia—the “Donald Trump approach,” a fellow host observed. “I want to feel safe, as all of our citizens do,” Kruger said. Her comments produced a firestorm online.

And then something surprising happened: Waleed Aly came to Kruger’s defense, sort of. Aly is a bit like John Oliver in the United States—a charismatic, politically liberal host whose indignant, impassioned segments often go viral on social media and get giddily regurgitated by news websites (whereas American headline-writers tend to marvel at Oliver “eviscerating” this or that subject, their Australian counterparts typically assure us that Aly has “nailed it”).

In a widely shared segment this week, Aly argues that we live in scary times, and “how we deal with our fear is becoming the defining measure that determines us as a people.”

Too often, Aly says, we deal with fear destructively rather than constructively: “Awful news leads to fear, which leads to an outrageous statement, which leads to a pile-on, which leads to a hardening of positions. I kind of feel like we’re on a Gravitron: We’re spinning round and round. … We’re all pushed to the edges and it becomes harder and harder—like it takes superhuman strength—for us to meet in the middle.”

Sonia Kruger said what she said because she’s fearful of the carnage on display in Nice and around the world, Aly contends. And he’s fearful too—of a climate in Australia that fosters calls to ban and even intern Muslims. He suggests a way to exit the Gravitron: “When we’re presented with something that we perceive to be an outrageous opinion, we can consider what motivated that person, try to understand their fear, and then empathize with how they came to their conclusion.”

Aly is right, in my view, to stress the role empathy can play in constructive debate on divisive issues, and to lament the cyclical dynamics that are currently sapping public discourse of such understanding. It’s remarkable that Aly is able to empathize with someone who says people like him should be banned from the country. Most people in such a situation, understandably, wouldn’t be able to. And, just maybe, that unexpected stance might make Kruger rethink her position—or at least stand a better chance of doing so than attacking her comments would.

I don’t agree with Aly when he says he would just be spinning the Gravitron of Outrage by telling Kruger that the “UN has attributed Japan’s low crime rate to low inequality and low gun ownership,” not a small Muslim population, and that “as a woman in Australia, she has a much higher chance of being murdered by a man she knows than a Muslim from another country.” I see value in that kind of earnest, substantive back-and-forth. But Aly has a point in arguing that you might accomplish more by first trying to understand why Kruger and her supporters are calling for an immigration ban, and then presenting the relevant facts and figures.

And yet Aly’s idea of radical empathy looks weaker on closer inspection. He ends the segment with a call to “send forgiveness viral,” hashtag and all, which is pretty flimsy advice. What concretely does that mean, besides sharing the video itself? And how exactly would that make things better?

Aly also doesn’t dwell on the nature of the fear expressed by Kruger. Fear comes in many forms—prejudiced and unprejudiced, rational, irrational, and cynically manufactured. Over at Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy, Rodger Shanahan writes that the media, Aly included, have devalued the “currency of fear” and failed to place the terrorist threat in proper perspective. He wonders what Australian soldiers who survived bloody wars “would have thought of television personalities describing their fears as a result of a terrorist attack that occurred over 10,000 km away,” in Nice, France.

Then there’s Aly’s suggestion that those who are outraged by outrageous opinions—who stand up to bigots and public figures who prey on people’s fears—are somehow part of the problem. As the Australian lawyer Lydia Shelly put it on Thursday, in a rebuttal to Aly:

As an Australian Muslim Woman, I am expected to protest passively: wearing a ribbon on my blazer, offering cups of tea and luncheons with those who preach hate against me, whispering quietly in private spaces. In essence, I am allowed to protest as long as I do not offend those who peddle the erroneous and toxic narratives and discourses which affect me the most.

Voicing outrage on social media is especially important for minority groups, argues the Australian writer Omar Sakr:

People of colour, and people from marginalised communities, have too few avenues of power in society today, and social media has proven itself to be one of our most dependable and effective tools to be heard. This is not a “cycle of outrage”, Waleed, it’s a cycle of abuse, and while the stakes for media personalities and politicians are ratings and job placement, the stakes for the rest of us are too often life and death.

The truth of the matter is that we’re all afraid, some of us with more reason than others, but fear cannot, in and of itself, be legitimate or illegitimate. What matters is what comes after it, how it informs our speech and our behaviour, and it is precisely this which has been criticised as far as Kruger is concerned.

“Anger and outrage is a natural response to injustice,” Shelly writes. “Anger is not necessarily destructive. It can be as constructive as forgiveness,” particularly when it’s channeled toward changing society’s power structures.

“[F]raming forgiveness as the only appropriate response ... unwittingly contributes to the normalisation of the sentiments behind Kruger’s views,” Shelly adds. A policy that would be unthinkable in ordinary times, she says, shouldn’t be excused or explained away in extraordinary times.