The Fear Algorithm

A guest post by Yusuf Toropov.

When I started work on my debut novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY in the autumn of 2007, I had no idea what dark measures the real world would take in its attempts to bring forth, as reality, the uncomfortable story emerging in my manuscript.

The novel has since come out in the UK and Ireland, published by Orenda Books. And now, with the physical book finally in my hands, I find that something strange has happened to my online New York Times subscription. Every morning, the news I find on my screen seems intent to confirm, as hard fact, passages in my story: plot lines that I had imagined were exaggerated — wholly fictional (I thought) depictions of paranoia, dysfunctionality, religious extremism, bigotry, and xenophic rage.

The Fear Algorithm

For example. Before there was an ISIS, before anyone at the New York Times had even considered that something like ISIS might somehow come to exist, I created in my novel a fictionalized movement to proclaim a twenty-first century caliphate. In my novel, this movement is centered in a nonexistent “Islamic Republic” whose corrupt government and despised American military presence vaguely evokes Iraq and/or Afghanistan. In the novel, the leaders of the movement I created demand the allegiance of all Muslims on earth to its leader, a man of distinctly dubious moral principles. It takes as its founding principle an ever-deepening hatred of America and Americans, and it fast-forwards blithely over centuries of Islamic jurisprudence in its diverse, crowd-pleasing attempts to provoke a distinctive “Islamic” nationalism in the region. (Please note those quote marks. They’re quite important to me.)

This extremist group – the one I made up in my own little head years ago — inclined toward beheadings, and its rank and file consisted (in the words of my female lead) of “loudmouths, rapists, and sycophants.” Today’s New York Times tells me: “(M)ilitants led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, declared a caliphate that stretches across eastern Syria and much of northern and western Iraq. It also demanded that all Muslims swear allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS, which calls itself Islamic State, has seized the world’s attention — most recently with the beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steven J. Sotloff.” News reports too sickening to detail here link the ISIS zombies to sexual predations that every responsible Sunni scholar has condemned as un-Islamic.


Before there was a Donald Trump presidential campaign, before anyone at the New York Times had even considered the prospect that a Donald Trump presidential campaign might attract significant support, I created in my novel two fictionalized American extremists.  Between them, these two individuals advocated positions that I naively imagined would remain firmly outside of mainstream American political dialogue for years to come, including: the moral acceptability of torture, the advisability of murdering the family members of suspected terrorists, and the necessity of finding ways to exclude various Muslims – or, what the hell, maybe all Muslims — from US soil.

Mr. Trump, now his party’s frontrunner for the presidential nomination, has advocated his own distinctive, appalling variations on all three of these obscenities … and been roundly and repeatedly cheered by (overwhelmingly white) crowds for doing so.


Did this happen because I had some subconscious or semi-conscious access to future news events? I don’t think so. I think it happened because, in each of these plot threads, I was writing about something that I eventually came to know as the Fear Algorithm.

This term, coined by the author Safie Maken Finlay, refers to the process by which politicians, intelligence officials, and others subvert public opinion to their own purposes by engaging in ever-scarier, ever-more polarizing rhetoric to win support. It’s the Big Lie, forever creating newer and bigger lies. The fear inspired by this kind of rhetoric must always find some way to top the previous fear evoked.

In other words: This kind of rhetoric self-accelerates. It is designed to convince its audience that an existential threat, a threat to “our way of life,” is not only at hand. It is gathering force with every passing second.

Mr. Trump has opined, onstage and to great and viral, acclaim, that unless we “start using our heads” and get “tough,” we’re “not going to have a country anymore, folks.” That’s the Fear Algorithm at work. Expect it to become more outrageous, and expect it to draw bigger, more agitated crowds as we get closer to the November election in the United States.

Abu Bakr al-Bagdhdadi has insisted that he is leading a war that pits “the people of faith against the people of disbelief.” No one knows how many Muslims have devoted their lives to the pursuit of “victory” in such a global cataclysm, but however many they are, however many they may end up being, I invite you to consider the possibility that the Fear Algorithm, not the Quran, is driving their decisions.

I realize you may have gotten used to the idea of Trump and al-Baghdadi occupying opposite ends of the geopolitical spectrum. In fact, they are allies, whether they realize it or not. They are mutually dependent upon one another. The only way I could possibly have written about them as I did, without knowing, as I wrote, anything about the vast scale and seemingly incurable sickness of the crowds they would each draw in the real world, is to have been writing, in JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, about the danger of accelerating, in our cursed century, our universal loathing of the Other. The Fear Algorithm is real, it is lethal, and we have a moral duty to notice when human beings are being victimized by it.

Yusuf Toropov

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Yusuf Toropov is a U.S. author and playwright who currently lives in Ireland. His debut novel, Jihadi: A Love Story, is out now from Orenda Books.

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