A 60-YEAR-OLD man was beaten up on a train the other day by seven youths, who taunted him for wearing an anti-Brexit T-shirt. Mindless violence on public transport is nothing new, of course. But the assault vividly illustrates the new fury that has entered our increasingly polarised political discourse.
The incident came back to my mind this week during a screening of Michael Moore’s hair-raising new film Fahrenheit 11/9, which tells the behind-the-scenes story of how Donald Trump came to win the 2016 presidential election. At one point, the filmmaker puts together a montage of Trump supporters spewing out vitriol against a variety of non-white Americans. The violence of the verbal attacks is frightening. What comes next, one wonders.
To receive a chilling answer to that question, you have only to look to Pakistan, a nation convulsed by the rage of Deobandi Muslims calling for the hanging of Asia Bibi, the Catholic mother-of-five accused of blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad. After eight years in prison, she was last month acquitted by that country’s Supreme Court (News, 2 November). But that has only increased the fundamentalists’ fury: one extremist leader has told his followers to find the judges in the case and kill them.
This is not an idle threat. No one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan since 1990, but 62 people charged with that offence have been murdered while awaiting trial. When the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, called for a pardon for Mrs Bibi in 2010, he was murdered by his bodyguard soon after (News, 5 January 2011). Two months later, Pakistan’s minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who also supported the jailed woman, was also killed (News, 4 March 2011).
When the case came up for hearing in the Supreme Court in 2016, one of the three judges on the bench recused himself and later resigned. At the weekend, Mrs Bibi’s lawyer fled the country, fearing a mob attack against him and his family.
Fury breeds fear. A few have the courage to stand out against it, like those three judges who ruled that the evidence against the Christian woman was woefully weak and contradictory. Others make compromises. The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, told the nation that the judgment had to be respected, and condemned the threats against the judges. But then he did a deal with the religious extremists, forbidding Mrs Bibi to leave the country until the Supreme Court hears a petition to overturn its decision.
Worst of all, however, are those politicians who do not simply ride this public fury but feed it. The final days of President Trump’s campaign in the mid-term elections this week was characterised by the same admixture of fury and fear-mongering with which he began his presidential campaign in 2016. Then it was Mexicans denigrated as drug-dealers, criminals, and rapists. This time, it is a rag-tag caravan of refugees that President Trump has branded a “migrant invasion”; he has dispatched 5000 US troops to the border with Mexico, in what Barack Obama has called a political stunt.
“Why is it,” asked the former President, “that the folks that won the last election are so mad all the time?” Because it works, that’s why; it’s frightening because demagoguery works.