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Existential threat or undue security talk?

Maha Abdallah

Two years after the unrest started in Syria started, more than one hundred Dutch citizens chose to travel to the battlefield in 2013. Although the Dutch government initially regarded these citizens as fighting against the Syrian regime’s oppression, this stance soon changed: these citizens were coined ‘foreign fighters’, and now came to be perceived as ‘ticking time bombs and therefore a grave threat to Dutch society’.

As the definition of this threat changed, how did the general public react to this?

This question is important because it is in in interaction with audiences such as the general public, that governments construct what should be perceived as an existential threat. Although the general public seems to be a self-explanatory concept, it is actually not clear-cut at all, and many discussions exist on how this heterogenous group should be defined. In this study I have taken the general public to consist of people like you and me – people without any direct (policy-making) power on the issue of foreign fighters.

Scholars studying crises have conceptualized how issues, like the issue of foreign fighters, become defined as existential threats. According to ‘securitization theory’, threats do not pop up by themselves. This theory and what it means for the ‘real’ world has been studied extensively, mainly through examination of politicians’ speeches in which they defined an issue as a major threat (a so-called securitizing act). Even though it can provide us with interesting insights, the problem with such an approach is that we miss out on something very important: someone needs to agree with this definition for it to have any effect. Indeed, I can tell you that returning foreign fighters are a major threat to us, but if you do not agree with me, or even make fun of me, my redefinition of the issue will have had no impact at all. I therefore focus on this missing piece of the puzzle: how the general public reacts to the redefinition of issues as existential threats.

How to study general public reactions?

To understand better how audiences reacts to the securitization process, I looked at one audience, namely the “general public”. The general public is a very unique audience. Its acceptance of the redefinition of issues is not directly necessary to take measures, but politicians still go to great lengths to obtain the support of this audience since it can influence them indirectly, e.g., through elections.

To gain insights into the reactions of the general public to securitizing moves, I chose to study these reactions by looking at more than 1000 Facebook reactions to news messages posted by the Dutch NOS nieuws. Facebook is the most widely used platform in the Netherlands on which it is possible to place comments. Moreover, Facebook is used across different age groups, although the age group of 20-39 years is somewhat overrepresented. Although the use of Facebook to study the general public, a note should be made about the representativity of these comments for the general public. Indeed, it may be the case that some groups are more likely to react on Facebook than others, for example people with more extreme opinions. In spite of this limitation, the study provides a good start of the way in which (some parts of) the general public react to securitization of the issue of foreign fighters.

My choice of NOS Nieuws was based on similar considerations, since it is the largest news organization in the Netherlands, and I expected to find most comments to their news messages for this reason. To analyze all these comments, I applied Qualitative Content Analysis (QCA), and based on this method coded the reactions and looked for patterns. For those interested in the precise coding scheme that was used, feel free to contact me in the e-mail provided below.

Finding 1: Many reactions relate to collective memories, the zeitgeist, and/or national identity

Based on the literature, I expected that reactions would relate to collective memories, the zeitgeist, and/or national identity. This was indeed the case. For example, reactions[1] compared the issue of the foreign fighters to the situation of collaborators during the Second World War. One person argues that

When it comes to reactions involving the zeitgeist, many people expressed fear of but also opposition to (what they perceived of as) ‘Islam’:

Another type of reaction related the issue of foreign fighters to ‘Dutch national identity’. Consider the following reaction:

What can we conclude based on the findings? The reference of foreign fighters as an existential threat is often, namely in 48.6% of the studied cases, accepted or rejected based on the association people make between this issue and collective memories, the zeitgeist or national identity. It is in reference to these things that the general public recognizes that foreign fighters are (not) a threat to them. Notable is also the at best thinly disguised racism that is used in these comments and many others! This aspect of the reactions was one that was not discussed by any of scholars of securitization theory, and therefore very interesting.

Finding 2: Accepting the threat does not mean accepting the solution

Although the literature proposes that securitization consists of four stages, in my research I identified only two stages, namely the stage in which an issue is defined as an existential threat, and a stage in which extraordinary solutions are proposed. This finding also implies that even if the general public may accept that a specific issue constitutes a grave threat, they do not necessarily agree with non-democratic measures to deal with the issue. The reactions below illustrate this clearly:

Finding 3: When people get scared, they want strong measures

Scholars have argued that when people experience times of crisis, they will call for more invasive policies. This expectation was confirmed in my study. Many people called upon the government to deport the foreign fighters, or for even more far-reaching measures:

This finding may mean two things. On the one hand, it may imply that people are literally calling for the deportation of (potential) foreign fighters. On the other hand, it may be that they do not care about this particular policy, but rather wish to express, in an aggressive and dehumanizing manner, the feeling that some harsh extra-measures are needed.

Finding 4: Opposition voices are not welcome

The final finding of this study concerns that the general public does not allow any space for counter-voices that are not accepting of the definition of foreign fighters as existential threat, or that are not accepting of far-reaching measures proposed to deal with this issue. When an issue is pushed in the realm of crisis it seems that the notion of democratic decision-making is soon abandoned. The following comment is a great example:

Comments like this discredit any counter-voices, thereby narrowing the space of discussion on the topic of foreign fighters. Think about it yourself: do you feel that you can argue, without being labelled as morally despicable, that foreign fighters who went to Syria made a mistake and should be given the right to return and a fair trial?

What does this study teach us?

I have shown the relevance of studying the general public and its reactions to securitizing acts. Evidently, the ‘general public’ is neither a united nor silent front. Some findings are worrisome, for example that voices critical of anti-democratic measures are often discredited in times of perceived crisis, but also that many people called for inhumane measures to deal with the issue at stake. Further research into the reactions of the general public to securitization is necessary to understand its perception of and relation to democracy. The way this audience reacts to perceived crises may indicate worrisome, apparently far-right, sentiments that can in turn be mobilized for far-right populist politics. Understanding these reactions and the reasoning behind them better, then, may be crucial for both scholars and policymakers alike, and may invite securitizing actors to think twice before calling something ‘an existential threat’

[1] All names of commenters here cited are fictional. Furthermore, their reactions were translated from Dutch and sometimes adapted to make clear the context in which the comment was made, but also to improve readability. I did stay as close as possible to the original reaction when translating.