Monday, 27 October 2014

The psychology of violent extremism - digested

Today the UK and its allies are at war with an extremist group based in Syria and Iraq that calls itself the Islamic State (IS; a name rejected by mainstream Muslim organisations). The group declared a caliphate in June this year and is seeking to expand its territory.

Amnesty International has accused IS of war crimes including ethnic cleansing, torture, abductions, sexual violence and the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Prime Minister Cameron has branded the group "evil" and says they "pervert the Islamic faith as a way of justifying their warped and barbaric ideology."

Many of the fighters of the Islamic State are Western citizens. Indeed, this week there were reports that a fourth jihadist from Portsmouth, England, has died fighting for the Islamic State.

Never has it been more urgent that we understand why people are drawn to extremist beliefs and to violent extremist organisations. Here the Research Digest provides a brief overview of the psychological research and theories that help explain the lure of extremism.

The Need to Belong
A  2006 survey and interviews with British Muslims (cited by Andrew Silke 2008) uncovered an important finding - people who felt their primary identity was Muslim, rather than British, held more sympathetic views towards the concept of jihad and martyrdom. Indeed, according to Randy Borum (2014) writing in Behavioural Sciences and the Law, a key psychological vulnerability of those drawn to extremism is their need to feel they belong. "In radical movements and extremist groups, many prospective terrorists find not only a sense of meaning," he writes, "but also a sense of belonging, connectedness and affiliation." A related idea is that extremist groups and their ideologies help people cope with uncertainty about themselves and the world.

Who Becomes an Extremist?
In 2006 Edwin Bakker published a review of hundreds of jihadi terrorists in Europe based on media and court reports. Of the 242 people Bakker identified, most were in their late teens or twenties, and just five were women. According to Silke 2008, most Islamist extremists are also from upper or middle-class backgrounds and tend to be well educated (see also).

Most Extremists Are Not Mentally Ill
According Borum (2014) "research suggests that knowledge of mental illness has little to offer professionals with operational responsibilities for preventing and dealing with terrorism." Silke (2008) agrees: "... the vast majority of research on terrorists has concluded that the perpetrators are not psychologically abnormal."

Extremism is Fuelled By a Group Process Known as "Risky Shift"
Many people are originally introduced to extremist ideologies through close-knit groups of friends. Within small groups of this kind, a classic psychological effect known as "risky shift" (or "group polarisation") frequently occurs. This is the tendency for groups to arrive at more extreme positions than any individual members would have done on their own.

Marginalisation and Perceived Injustice
Many would-be violent extremists bear grievances, sometimes a sense of humiliation (either personally or on behalf of their in-group) and a desire for revenge. At the same time, they feel that their needs and interests are not recognised by mainstream authorities. It's notable that in the UK and other Western countries, the Muslim population are massively under-represented in national parliaments. A 2009 paper "Patterns of Thinking in Militant Extremism" analysed the mindset of many extremist groups around the world (based on internet and printed material), including the IRA and the Muslim Brotherhood, and two key beliefs were the illegitimacy of the established authorities and that change can only be achieved through extreme and unconventional means.  

Dehumanisation of Enemies
A shocking feature of the behaviour of many violent extremists is their total disregard for the value of other human lives. A relevant concept here is the way that people are able to "dehumanise" their enemies or those they see as unimportant - that is, to see them as somehow less than human. This ugly feature of human psychology has been shown in the context of brain responses to homeless people and drug addicts, and in connection with gang violence.

Existential Influences
For many people, extremist religious movements offer existential comfort. "... [E]xtremists and many so-called fundamentalists in all religions, use one of the most basic and often most destructive forms of defense," writes Gibbs (2005) "they repress the anxiety of nonbeing, splitting the self and filling the void with self-protective belief systems and structures ..." Also relevant here is "Terror Management Theory" - this states that we respond to reminders of our mortality by entrenching our beliefs and deepening our cultural allegiances. A 2006 study found that Muslim Iranian students reminded of their own mortality subsequently expressed more support for their peers who believed in the legitimacy of suicide attacks against the US.

Violent Scriptures
It's well known that passages of the Koran and the Bible contain calls for violence. Theologians explain that these passages are not meant to be taken literally and need to be considered in context. Nonetheless, there remains the possibility that violent scripture incites aggression. A 2007 study put this to the test. Bushman and his colleagues found that students exposed to violent scripture subsequently exhibited more aggression, especially if they were religious believers.

Excitement, Danger and the Search for Meaning
"...the quest for personal significance constitutes a major motivational force that may push individuals toward violent extremism," write Arie W. Kruglanski et al in a 2014 paper. Silke (2008) similarly points out that in many communities, "joining a terrorist group increases the standing of a teenager or youth considerably." It's also important to recognise the lure of danger and excitement, especially to young disenfranchised men. Silke quotes a former IRA member reminiscing about his time as a terrorist: "I lived each day in a heightened state of alertness. Everything I did, however trivial, could seem meaningful."
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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

4 comments:

  1. So the recipe for violent extremism is:


    Awareness of inequality + awareness of injustice + sense of powerlessness + authoritarian mindset (highly probably genetically determined, as per various studies) + congregating with like-minded others.


    It seems to me, having read the studies on the lack of link between religion and violence, that the major parts here are the inequality, injustice, sense of powerlessness and authoritarian personality.


    As we can't stop people being born with authoritarian or liberal personalities, we need to make our societies fairer and ensure that people feel socially and politically engaged. Certainly in the UK, we're seeing huge levels of social inequality and a real sense of hostility towards politicians. That kind of social instability sets the stage for extremism.

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  2. The dehumanization of enemies - making them "less than human", although here carefully phrased, usually means making enemies into "animals" "vermin", "beasts.. "LESS than human" - is meaningless unless there is a category of animal life which you can - or even should - kill guiltlessly for your own ends. I would suggest that those who persist in believing that other species can be non-criminally killed for human purposes: food, experiment, clothing, entertainment etc examine their own attitudes - one need look no further to understand human violence, the human tendency to create killable categories.

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  3. This is how an outsider would see it - very superficially. If you were to get a Muslim psychologist's opinion they would tell you a much more deeper story.

    Here are factors as Muslim sociologist I have picked up on:



    -Massive population displacements due to war
    -Anomie for immigrants / homesickness / isolation and loneliness
    -Utopianism in post-colonial political Islam + dictatorships sponsored by West
    -Siege mentality fueled by media Islamophobia
    -Powerlessness in geopolitics / failure of Muslim political leadership
    -Decline in masculinity and few healthy outlets for it
    -Lack of Muslim knowledge of their own histories
    -Ignorance of Muslim diversity and Muslim cultures
    -Inaccessibility of traditional Islamic teachings of spirituality/mercy/compassion - and the spread of literalist Madhkhali Salafism/Wahabbism
    -Vicarious traumatization Muslims have with their brethren overseas through imagery - they pray 5 times a day shoulder to shoulder with Muslims, you don't think they'll feel each others pain?
    -Lack of discussion on ethics of war in Islam, for fear of being targetted by governments, which prohibited from day 1 all of the acts extremists carry out


    That's a few things...

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  4. Your list seems (as a non Muslim) to make a great deal of sense and it is one that makes me realise how easy a confused displaced person could slide into the clutches of a terrorist organisation. The point that resonated was the lack of awareness of muslin history. As an ancient historian I have often pondered during quiet moments how a world with such a proud history could have let itself slide into the present morass

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