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.
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.
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.”