Constructing Fear: The Politics of Moral Panics

Constructing Fear: The Politics of Moral Panics
Folk Devils

A moral panic is a widespread fear — most often an irrational one. The fear is about someone or something that is a ‘threat’ to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by the news media, fueled by politicians, and often results in actions that target the source of the panic (A. Crossman, ThoughtCo. July 14, 2019).

The phrase ‘moral panic’ is credited to the late South African sociologist Stanley Cohen (1942–2013). Cohen introduced the social theory of moral panic in his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. His theory outlines five stages of moral panics:

  • Something or someone is perceived and defined as a threat.

  • The news media depicts the threat in simplistic, symbolic ways that quickly become recognizable to the greater public.

  • Widespread public concern is aroused by the way news media portrays the symbolic representation of the threat.

  • The authorities and policymakers respond to the threat, be it real or perceived.

  • The moral panic and the subsequent actions of those in power lead to social change.

Moral panics often revolve around social issues. Drugs, rock music, gangs, pornography, street crime, sex, etc. But the beneficiaries of moral panics are almost always state or religious institutions, or largely right-wing politicians who (as a consequence of moral panics) are able to exercise intensified ways of social control through legislation and/or policies. These are often draconian in nature. But they get the nod from a large section of society that is in the grip of fear.

According to Cohen, victims of moral panics are largely marginalised segments of a society who are systematically demonised to generate irrational fears against them, and to instigate those in power to target them. Cohen calls these targets ‘folk devils’ — or people whose ‘evilness’ is constructed through lies, rumours, myths and gross exaggerations.

In late 17th century, parts of North America and Europe were gripped by a fear of ‘witches’ and witchcraft. Women who were seen to act outside of their gender roles were targeted as witches.

They were accused of conducting dark magic, and of having pacts with the devil. In Massachusetts alone, almost two hundred people were accused of practicing black magic. Nineteen were executed. Fourteen of these were women (V.Saxon in JSTOR Daily, Oct. 27, 2015).

A witch trial in 17th-century Massachusetts

The communities that were most impacted by this moral panic were facing economic crises. Those in charge of navigating the religious, political and economic bearings of the communities, had begun to feel that they were losing control. A sense of desperation set in, and a scapegoat was sculpted in the shape of women who were not behaving like ‘proper women.’ The wild notion that such women must be witches, soon mutated into becoming a widespread belief that they were witches!

In the 1950s, an increase in juvenile crimes in the US saw certain communities accuse the popularity of comic books among children and teens as the reason behind juvenile delinquency. Some newspapers began to highlight this assumption, enough for thousands of parents to stop allowing their children to purchase comic books, especially those that contained crime stories and if the the plots revolved around the supernatural. The panic was largely triggered when a noted Christian cleric, Reverend Thomas J. Fitzgerald, claimed that comics glorified crime, disrespect for law, rape, infidelity and perversion.

Fearing a drastic drop in sales, the American comic books industry established the Comics Code Authority (CCA) that had certain rules. Every comic book had to follow these rules, if it wanted to be approved. These rules suggested that there should be no crime, and no words or themes that would be considered crude. This moral panic forced comic book companies to institutionalise self-censorship.

In the last hundred years, there have been numerous moral panics. Panics about godless communists infiltrating god-fearing societies; jazz, blues and rock music being spawns of the devil; and satanic cults running wild and practicing human sacrifice. Populist media has played a major role in magnifying unfounded fears and turning them in to moral panics. For example, when cases of HIV/AIDS first began to be reported in the early 1980s, many news outlets described the disease as ‘the gay plague.’ The fact was, the virus was not restricted to homosexuals alone. But gays were stigmatised for being the main carriers of the disease (P. Aggleton, P. Davies, G. Hart, AIDS: Rights, Risk, and Reason, 1992). To the more religious folk, this was punishment from God because he was unhappy about man’s sexual deviancies.

In the mid and late 1980s, newspapers in Pakistan began to report killings of homeless men sleeping on the streets of Karachi. One newspaper informed that the random murders were being committed by a ‘hathora gang’ (the hammer gang). Indeed, some homeless men were killed by a blow from a hard and heavy object. But the cops investigating the murders could never link these to a single, organised group. Panic struck the hearts of poor men who had nowhere to sleep but on footpaths, pavements and in parks.

Then, a tabloid (Daily News) ran an interview of a survivor who claimed that he had seen some men get out of a car in the middle of the night and try to smash his head. Another tabloid quoted someone as saying that he had witnessed a group of twelve men in robes, carrying hammers, and partaking in a satanic ritual at a deserted beach in Karachi.

Some Urdu newspapers alluded that the gang was actually made up of members of the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, and Afghan agents (KHAD), who were terrorising Pakistanis due to Pakistan’s logistical and political support to the Afghan insurgents fighting the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. Others were of the view that the mysterious killings were the handiwork of the General Zia dictatorship that wanted to spread fear and distract the media’s attention away from the ethnic turmoil that had engulfed Karachi in the 1980s.

In a 1985 survey, a majority of people believed there was no such thing as 'hathora gang.' But by the next year, it had turned into a moral paere of the view that the mysterious killings were the handiwork of the General Zia dictatorship that wanted to spread fear and distract the media’s attention away from the ethnic turmoil that had engulfed Karachi in the 1980s.

No one was ever officially arrested, charged or punished for the murders. Apparently, seven homeless men were killed by the so-called hathora gang between 1985 and 1987, even though, at the time, one felt that the ‘gang’ was on a frantic killing spree. One cleric was quoted as claiming that an angry angel had descended to punish Karachiites for becoming decedent and sinful. But since only homeless men were killed, one wonders was being homeless a sin?


The Alarmists

In the late 1970s, when one of my cousins was a grade 9 student at a private school in Karachi, two of his classmates ‘A’ and ‘B’ (who were good friends) fell in love with a fellow girl student, ‘C.’ ‘C’ was more friendly towards ‘A.’ By no means had she ever thought of him as a boyfriend. But ‘B’ was sure that she had rejected him because she was in love with ‘A.’ So, ‘B’ started to claim that ‘A’ seduced innocent girls and took naked pictures of them to blackmail them. He insisted that ‘A’ had shown him the photos. The ‘news’ spread like wildfire, and some other students started naming girls that ‘A’ had seduced and then blackmailed. The named girls had switched schools, and it was now alleged that they had done so due to this reason.
Fears of becoming victims of the ‘immoralities’ of the Bhutto regime that were exaggerated and magnified by the right-wing press, created a sense of persistent insecurity among many shopkeepers, traders and their families. This resulted in the emergence of various religious movements

The school administration got alarmed by the ‘wild talk,’ and summoned 'A.’ 'B’ was shocked, and insisted he had done no such thing. But by then, ‘C’ had already stopped talking to him. The school administration asked the weekly school newsletter to encourage any girl student who had been blackmailed by A to come forward. None did, because he had done no such thing. The school administration then summoned A’s parents who were equally shocked. They said that they were a common middle-class family who lived in a small apartment. They had never seen their son with a girl and that he was well liked in the neighborhood that they lived in. They told the school principal that if anyone had any evidence against their son, they will themselves get him thrown in prison.

But the school administration decided to suspend A. He consequently suffered a nervous breakdown after watching his father frantically go through his bedroom drawers and cupboard looking for the photos that his son had supposedly taken of ‘naked girls.’ He found none. The father then requested the school administration to ask ‘B’ whether he knew where A had hidden the photos. ‘B’ suddenly changed his story. He now said that he hadn’t seen the photos but had only heard A talking about them.

The administration told A’s father that B might be lying. But it did not bother to tell this to the parents of other students who had started to show concern. Instead, A’s father was ‘advised’ to get their son admitted to another school. Then, on the insistence of the other parents, the administration slapped a ban on interaction between boy and girl students, and a few months later, created different sections for both. B remained at the school. And even though he eventually confessed that he had made up the story, no one was interested anymore. My cousin never saw ‘A’ again. C was pulled out of the school and married off at the age of 16! Today that school is an all-boys institution.

Moral panics mushroom quickly and can trigger social change. But such changes are rooted in irrational or concocted fears. They serve the goals of particular social groups. It is during the fourth stage of Cohen’s five stages of moral panics, that those holding political power enter the fray. For instance, the so-called ‘Ahmadiyya question’ in South Asia had emerged as a socio-political issue. However, non-Ahmadiyya Muslim political circles were least bothered by it. The Ahmadiyya had emerged as a distinct Muslim sect in the 19th century. By the early 20th century, certain Sunni Muslim clerics began to perceive the sect as a threat because the Ahmadiyya community had begun to grow through preaching and inter-sectarian conversions. Some political groups did enter the fray, demanding the expulsion of the Ahmadiyya from the fold of Islam. But these groups, such as the Islamist Ahrar, were not conventional political parties. They were radical activist outfits with little or no electoral pull.

When such outfits and some small conventional Islamist parties managed to kick-start an anti-Ahmadiyya movement in Pakistan in 1953, the movement was crushed by the state. Those who orchestrated the movement largely used polemical theological literature to sustain their narrative (of the Ahmadiyya being a heretical sect). This was challenged and negated by state/government narrative weaved from writings on Islam by the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal and the modernist Muslim scholar Dr. Khalifa Abdul Hakim. 21 years later, another anti-Ahmadiyya movement was launched. Even though, this time, larger Islamist parties were involved, the narrative remained the same. However, this time, it was fattened with some outrageous claims. The goal was to create a moral panic. A popular Urdu newspaper Chatan, owned by Agha Shorish Kashmiri -- a poet, journalist and firebrand Islamist – claimed that Ahmadiyya were actually Zionists who had aided Jinnah to create Pakistan because they wanted an Ahmadiyya-majority state. Chatan’s editorials also claimed that the Ahmadiyya were ‘poisoning the minds of Pakistan’s armed forces.’ (Herald, Nov. 3, 2018). In 1971, Chatan blamed the creation of Bangladesh on Ahmadiyya ‘conspiracies’.

When the 1974 anti-Ahmadiyya movement was peaking, the Urdu daily Nawa-e-Waqt reported that the house-cum-clinic of a well-known Ahmadiyya doctor had been attacked in Sargodha. The doctor was a respected resident of the city until a mob turned up at his clinic. The doctor managed to escape from the backdoor with his family just before the mob set the clinic on fire. A nearby house was also attacked. It was owned by a Sunni Muslim family who had rented the clinic to the doctor. The family pleaded that it had no idea that the doctor was Ahmadiyya. The family’s house, though wrecked, was not set on fire.

Anti-Ahmadiyya graffiti during the 1974 movement

The attack on the clinic had taken place due to a rumour triggered by a pamphlet distributed by anti-Ahmadiyya activists in the city. The rumour was that the doctor was kidnapping Muslim children and converting them into becoming Ahmadiyya. The rumour then mutated and became about an Ahmadiyya doctor who was performing ‘shameful’ medical experiments on Muslim children. The moral panic that such absurd claims generated, gave momentum (and support) to the movement. The first stage (i.e. something or someone is perceived and defined as a threat) had already been in play since the 1930s. The second stage (i.e. the news media depicts the threat in simplistic, symbolic ways that quickly become recognizable to the greater public), had begun to emerge from the 1950s onwards, leading to the third stage (i.e. widespread public concern is aroused by the way news media portrays the symbolic representation of the threat).

The fourth stage (i.e. the authorities and policymakers respond to the threat, be it real or perceived) arose when the government intervened as demanded by the Islamist parties. This stage then flowed into the fifth stage (i.e. the moral panic and the subsequent actions of those in power lead to social change in the community) when the government allowed the parliament to table a bill declaring the Ahmadiyya non-Muslim.

That government was headed by ZA Bhutto, the chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The PPP had won the 1970 election (in the erstwhile West Pakistan) as a populist ‘socialist’ party. But after 1974, the right-wing press was hailing Bhutto as the man who had ‘justly’ resolved the ‘Ahmadiyya question.’ However, in 1977, Bhutto’s regime became the target of a moral panic when the same press began to run ‘stories’ about the ‘decadent’ and ‘obscene’ nature of Bhutto’s government. Months before the 1977 election, the right-wing press continued to publish ‘reports’ about Bhutto’s sexual escapades and how his ministers were forcibly abducting young college women and exploiting them sexually.

PM Bhutto had had a terrible relationship with the press. During his tenure, his government closed down a number of newspapers and magazines. But he mostly did this due to the manner in which they were criticising his economic policies and his so-called ‘civilian dictatorship.’ Interestingly, pulp magazines and newspapers that were only interested in publishing sensational (and mostly concocted) reports on ‘the spread’ of obscenity, alcoholism and drugs, were allowed to operate. Most probably Bhutto did not take them seriously. He may have believed that even those who bought these publications, took the stories published in them with a pinch of salt? No action was taken against them even when they began to print lured tales about the PM and his ministers.

Urdu newspapers such as AsarMujahid and Jasarat often ran such tales. Among these, only Jasarat faced bans between 1972 and 1976. As mentioned, most other newspapers that were forced to stop publication were not tabloids. They mostly faced the wrath of the Bhutto regime due their attacks on the government’s economic performance. Urdu tabloids, on the other hand, would sneak in stories about ‘wild drinking parties at the PM’s home,’ and ministers picking up female college students. The frequency of these stories increased from 1976 onwards.

For example, in the June 1976 issue of the now defunct Urdu weekly Tarana, a ‘report’ claimed that its reporter had managed to snap a photograph of a sitting minister who was dancing at a gathering at PM Bhutto’s home with a bottle of whisky on his head! The weekly stated that it would publish the photo in the next issue. It didn’t. There was no such photo.

But such imagery did fire the imagination of Urdu film directors. Most of them came from rural or lower-middle-class backgrounds. But they weren’t conservative. Yet, the manner in which they portrayed ‘powerful’ folk or build sets for nightclub scenes, it seems that these were inspired by the way they were crafted by tabloids. During research for my forthcoming book on the history of popular culture in Pakistan, I found that the kind of houses owned by rich men and the nightclubs shown in most Urdu films of the 1970s, were really nothing like they were outside the film studios.

For example, in Urdu films, rich men were often shown residing in large palace-like houses that looked as if they were built in the 18th/19th century. The fact was, architects building homes for rich folk in Pakistan in the 1970s, were using slicker and more ‘experimental’ designs as they were in other countries as well (Apartment Therapy, Feb. 11, 2022). But in the mind of Urdu filmmakers, being rich still meant being a nawab residing in a palace of sorts. More outlandish, though, were the nightclub scenes. During my research I spoke to two businessmen who owned nightclubs in Karachi. They told me their clubs were nothing like how they were shown in Urdu films.

One of them said, "I used one of the finest architects to design my club in the early 1960s. It was designed like a famous nightclub that I had visited in Beirut." Film sets of nightclubs looked more like glorified canteens with a bar. Even more absurd was the manner in which the directors showed how people behaved in nightclubs. For example, often, young women would get tipsy there and end up in the owner’s bed who would then proceed to rape them!

The 1977 anti-Bhutto protests

But the way Urdu films and tabloids concocted scenarios of decadence, obscenity and vulgarity, aided Islamist parties to trigger a moral panic when they came together to challenge Bhutto in the 1977 election. The slogan of Nizam-e-Mustafa (Sharia law) coined by the Islamist parties was able to gain traction from urban middle-and lower-middle-income groups. Bhutto’s populist policies left a majority of (middle/lower-middle-class) Pakistanis believing that the traditional basis of authority relationships, such as those between teacher and student, tenant and landlord, worker and capitalist, women and men had eroded. The erosion of the traditional authority structure regulating these relationships left a social vacuum. It were the Islamist parties and latter Zia, who succeeded in offering Islam as the new basis to replace the vacuum created by the attrition of traditional authority and power in society (R.Hassan in Middle Eastern Studies, July 1985).

Fears of becoming victims of the ‘immoralities’ of the Bhutto regime that were exaggerated and magnified by the right-wing press, created a sense of persistent insecurity among many shopkeepers, traders and their families. This resulted in the emergence of various religious movements. The number of mosques in the cities multiplied and, through them, religious influence permeated social life (R.Hassan, ibid). Bhutto’s regime thus, became as much of a moral issue as a political and economic one.

The controversial disqualification of former PM Nawaz Sharif in July 2017 and the rise of Imran Khan can also be explored in the context of moral panics. Let’s see how it panned out across Cohen’s five stages.


  • Stage 1: Something or someone is perceived and defined as a threat. 

In 2011, Khan with the backing of some prominent members of the country’s intelligence agencies, ‘alerted’ the nation that the PPP regime was implementing the American agenda to undermine Pakistan’s armed forces and regional interests. He claimed that the then Ambassador of Pakistan in the US, Husain Haqqani, had requested the US regime to intervene and safeguard the PPP regime from a possible military coup. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N agreed and demanded a judicial inquiry.


  • Stage 2: The news media depicts the threat in simplistic, symbolic ways that quickly become recognizable to the greater public.

Two leading (private) news channels, Geo and ARY, framed the ‘scandal’ as an attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty, its armed forces, and on its interests in Afghanistan. Islamist terrorism that had increased manifold in the country from 2008 onwards was squarely blamed on the American policy of funding pro-US governments that were willing to fight America’s ‘war on terror.’


  • Stage 3: Widespread public concern is aroused by the way news media portrays the symbolic representation of the threat.

Both Khan and Nawaz insisted that Islamist terrorists were not terrorists, but ‘misunderstood brothers.’ GEO and ARY often invited apologists who claimed that the American funding dished out to the state and government of Pakistan to eliminate the terrorists, were actually a conspiracy to eradicate Islam in Pakistan. Anti-US rallies began to emerge. Some of these were tacitly organized by the military-establishment, such as the Defa-e-Pakistan rallies. Their coverage on TV gave the impression that the majority of Pakistanis saw the US as an anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan force.  Khan added to these the matter of ‘corruption.’ According to him, corruption was at the heart of making poor young men become militants. Khan then took to the streets as a way to topple the Nawaz Sharif regime (that had come to power in 2013).

The alarmist

Khan (and the establishment) now turned their guns on the Sharif government. He was turned into a ‘folk devil’ that embodied corruption, US interests/agenda, and a pro-India mindset. A whole new constituency was built for Khan which began to see the Sharifs and the Bhuttos as threats to Pakistan’s sovereignty, and as usurpers of the political and economic interests of the ‘hardworking’ middle-classes. Khan also claimed that the Sharif regime was trying to alter the Islamic character of Pakistan’s constitution.


  • Stage 4: The authorities and policymakers respond to the threat, be it real or perceived.

Nawaz was in power. But state institutions such as the military and the judiciary responded to the ‘threat’ by moving against him.


  • Stage 5: The moral panic and the subsequent actions of those in power lead to social change in the community.


He was first asked to quit by the military as Khan’s rallies against him intensified. He refused. Then, the Supreme Court, after equating him with a mafia boss, disqualified him for life.

The folk devil had been gotten rid of and the moral panic resolved with the controversial election of Khan who claimed he was the only one who was not corrupt and unwilling to compromise the sovereignty of the country and the ‘Islamic principles’ that it was built on.

The ‘crisis’ were entirely artificial. The frequency of Islamist terrorist attacks had drastically dipped. By 2017, suicide attacks had gone down by 70%. No major corruption scandal had brokne out, and the growth rate of the economy had increased from 1.7% in 2008 to 5.6% in 2017. Therefore, as happens in a moral panic, the change that it ushered in was almost entirely rooted in exaggerations, irrational fears and downright lies.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.