How Minds Are Opened to Extremist Views

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by Neil Godfrey

radicalIslamRisingWhy do people join religious cults and extremist groups? What turns some people into “mindless fanatics”?

In the previous post we were introduced to Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (2005) that explores the reasons people in Britain joined the now banned extremist group, Al-Muhajiroun. As I read his work I was struck by the overlaps with the experiences of many who join religious cults, including my own experience with the Worldwide Church of God.

At the time of writing the above news came through of a swathe of terrorist attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia. Having visited Indonesia fairly regularly over the past seven years, including the city of Solo that is regularly associated with concentrations of jihadist extremists, I have no problem agreeing with those specialist commentators who point out that most Indonesians have no time for Islamist extremism and violence. (Keep in mind that though Indonesia contains the world’s largest Muslim population it is the world’s third largest democracy.) But that’s no defence against the tiny handful who are drawn to terrorist organisations. So why are a tiny few drawn to what most people deplore?

Here is the question Wiktorowicz asks:

So why participate in the [extremist] movement? On the surface, the choice seems irrational: the risks are high and the guarantee of spiritual salvation is intangible and nonverifiable (i.e., there is no way to know whether those who follow al-Muhajiroun’s interpretation and die actually make it to Paradise). And there are plenty of less risky alternatives that guarantee the same spiritual outcome. This includes a plethora of less risky Islamic fundamentalist groups that share many of al-Muhajiroun’s ideological precepts. Is participation in the movement, then, the choice of the irrational?

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 206). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Wiktorowicz’s answers are covered in chapters under the headings of

  • Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking
  • Credibility and Sacred Authority
  • Culturing and Commitment

Breaking those headings down a little . . . .

  • “Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking” addresses a range of factors that act as wedges to open people’s minds to radical alternatives to their world views. Most people say “What? Get real!” Why do a few say “Mmm… Interesting…. Let me think a moment”?
    • Most of those who go this far come to their senses and quickly realize that the message they are confronting is bizarre or “wrong” after all. Only a few of the few take the next step and embark on a journey of “religious seeking” or other form of follow-up.
  • “Credibility and Sacred Authority” digs a little deeper and explores why some alternative world views are more enticing than others.
    • What extent of knowledge is demonstrated by the radically new source? How does the “character” of the new source stack up against alternatives? How does personality tilt the scales? What of the public persona of a key channeller of the new ideas?
  • “Culturing and Commitment” looks at why certain individuals go the final step and commit to dangerous or “fanatical” groups.

Of the few persons who take an interest in what most regard as “fanatical ideas” even fewer actually take the leap from intellectual agreement to jumping in knowing the sacrifice they are making and the world they are leaving behind. That final step is of particular interest but first things first. Why do a few of us become sincerely interested in the radical fringe ideas in the first place?

I won’t address all of those in this post. Let’s focus on some of the wedges that prise “cognitive openings” for now.

Just as a triggering experience opens the door for persons to question their long-held beliefs and assumptions, so certain types of experiences have the potential to lead the most committed members of extremist groups to question their group’s validity. Here lies the key to “deprogramming” or countering the initial attraction of extremist and fringe groups — a topic requiring separate treatment.

Experiences that trigger questioning of one’s beliefs

Wiktorowicz argues that a trigger of some sort is need to shake an individual’s confidence in previously accepted beliefs and to open them up to an openness to new world-views. The triggers can vary widely: experiences with discrimination, a socioeconomic crisis, political repression, a loss in the family, being exposed to a newly challenging awareness of the sufferings of others. For some persons such triggers can lead to a new religious quest.

Recall also earlier posts about one such trigger found very often among those who embrace terrorist violence: How Terrorists Are Made: 1 – Personal Grievance and How Terrorists Are Made: 2 — Group Grievance.

We’ve seen this often enough throughout history and among our contemporaries. We also know that not everyone who experiences such dislocations in their lives embraces a fringe movement.

So we have to ask more questions to find out why some of those who are opened to perspectives they once would never have given a moment’s notice are attracted to radical Islamic activism or an unpopular religious sect.

Extremist groups come to the attention of potential seekers as a result of the group’s own outreach program and/or through social networks. Exposure is one thing but more than a polite intellectual interest is quite another.

“Very rational lines of reasoning”

Persons who are likely to be the first contacts a seeker will have with the group, whether leading spokespersons or lower-ranking individuals willing to engage in social interaction such as through the distribution of literature, are especially trained for their task. They know not to introduce the most controversial or radical beliefs of their group in their early meetings. A process of trust and gradual easing into the hot topics is the typical pattern.

Potential recruits are engaged with issues that they themselves are most interested in. Someone suffering a tragic family loss will be engaged in discussions that revolve around relationships, loss, meaning in life. Another may be troubled by racist taunts from the dominant culture where one lives but also sense an inability to relate to the the foreign culture of their parents: such a person will be more likely open to discussions that explore a questions of personal identity.

The activists or cult members will usually work at informing themselves about specialist topics as part of their engagement strategy in order to sound well-informed.

The Worldwide Church of God, like other religious cults, published literature on a wide range of topics — marriage problems, dealing with teenagers, financial stresses, political issues, social issues, natural calamities — all different baits for a wide range of potential catches.

Activists are taught to present very rational lines of reasoning to ensure that their argument is comprehensive, agrees with reality, and is a verifiable fact. . . . 

Although established relationships are a common focus of facilitated cognitive openings, activists also propagate to strangers and acquaintances. In these cases, trust has yet to be established. As a result, activists do not immediately leap to challenge beliefs. They instead begin slowly through casual conversations about the individual and his or her life. The objective is to learn about the particular concerns of targeted individuals so that conversations can be shaped to address issues of interest. . . . 

The style of interaction is to take each individual on a case-by-case basis and identify the most relevant concerns and issues. The activists are, in essence, trying to find a comfortable entry into a conversation that can eventually be tied to Islam as a solution.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 96). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Fringe groups will often work though front organisations to lessen risks of immediate rejection. Some Islamist groups have had special “charities” set up as their fronts.  Al-Muhajiroun’s fronts included Islamic Cultural Society, Society of Muslim Parents, Association of London Muslims, Kosovo Support Council and many others. The Worldwide Church of God publicly hid behind “Ambassador College”, presenting itself as an educational institution rather than a church. The would generally even hire school-halls for their meetings. Later its leadership established the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation as another front.

I found it interesting to compare the comments of an Islamist Vridar reader going under the “name” of “anon” made to posts such as Debating Islam and ISIS — though I have no reason at all to think that anon approves of violence.

The conversation, or message preached, will usually follow a common pattern. The problems facing the individual will be explored, elaborated, and made to seem insoluble. Alternative solutions will also be raised, and in each case the target seeker will be encouraged to check out the alternatives for him or her self. The target is always made to feel in control of the process and to feel that he or she is the one searching freely and openly all the available alternatives and thereby is coming to the group’s views independently and without pressure. Here is an account of the reflections of one young person (named Islam) on how he came to join al-Muhajiroun:

In retrospect, he characterizes his past self as “quite corrupted,” a common retrospective biographical narrative for converts to strict religious sects.  “I didn’t feel like I was getting what I wanted in my life,” Islam explains. “Something wasn’t right. It wasn’t taking me anywhere. I mean I didn’t come here to do nothing, there must be a reason for me to be here.”  

Although born into a Bangladeshi Muslim family, he never practiced and did not go to the mosque. One year during Ramadan, however, his uncle pushed him to go, in one case actually grabbing his arm and forcing him out of the house. Islam relates the story:

I didn’t want to go, because we were supposed to pray. And I sat down, forced there. A young brother, quite young, about fifteen, clever, intellectual, and he started giving me da‘wa. I didn’t know. The funny thing was, every time I would sit down, and I used to be very ignorant and stubborn, I didn’t want to hear what he had to say. And the next day he would come back and sit down in the same place. I was saying, “Listen man, I don’t want to hear it.” So then what happened is he asked me a few questions about freedom in this country and democracy, and Marxists, and all these different ideologies, and he started to make this comparative analysis of these three ideologies. And after that, it stimulated my brain, and I started asking questions. He gave me some leaflets. At that time I was more emotional than anything else because I inherited my beliefs [a Muslim by birth rather than conviction]. And I was convinced in the heart, but in the mind, I needed to be freed and have it explained.

The fifteen-year-old in this story was a young al-Muhajiroun activist. During the initial conversations, he hid his affiliation with the movement because he wanted Islam to come to his own conclusions.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 98). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

A key selling point of the Worldwide Church of God was the way the preacher would stress, “Don’t believe me! Prove it for yourself!” Prospective members would dedicate themselves to research and study but of course the curriculum and questioning was ultimately guided by the contact person.

The message presented in conversations or in public addresses typically followed the structure of:

  1. Problems — just how dire they are;
  2. “Man’s solutions” — why they have all failed;
  3. “God’s solution” — prove it for yourself.

It is interesting to compare those who go on to join such groups with those who do not. In the case of Wiktorowicz’s study of Islamist extremists it was found that those with a stronger identification as Muslims were less likely to take up an interest in the radicals. The explanation proposed is that the more religiously illiterate are more likely to think they have covered all bases and “proved” to themselves the truth of the radical option — not realizing the extent of their ignorance of the larger picture.

Comparing those who do not join

I have set out Wiktoriwicz’s findings (p. 102) in table outline form:

al-Muhajiroun activists Non-joiners in the Muslim community
Most were irreligious prior to their seeking and involvement in the movement. Prior to joining they identified primarily as secular and British. Most saw religion as extremely important in their lives, and most said they were not completely closed to alternative religious views.  They identified primarily as Muslims.
Racism is considered a very severe problem in British society. Hostile polemics regularly address it. Agreed racism was a problem in Britain but on a scale of 1 (not a problem) to 10 (a most severe problem) most pointed to around 6.
Felt most strongly about blocked social mobility and stressed by their financial situation. Most were generally satisfied with their lives and financial situations (e.g. those unemployed rated financial satisfaction at 6.1 compared with employed at 6.7 on a scale of 1 to 10)
No confidence in the political system; high confidence that the radical group or movement offered solutions where the British political system and Muslim community had failed. Appear to have more confidence in the British political system and more likely to believe improvements can be achieved by working through the system.
Cognitive-opening experiences often coincided with the exposure to the radical movement. Most had experienced a “cognitive opening” experience (most often death of a family member) that led them to examine their faith more deeply. No indication of any involvement with an activist from al-Muhajiroun.
Social connections common. No evidence of social ties to al-Muhajiroun.

Interestingly Wiktoriwicz’s research raises questions about the common Western perception of the links between the Muslim religion and terrorism. The more religious or devout the Muslim the less likely he or she is to be attracted to extremist violence.


Credibility of the source

Those persons who represent the movement, who introduce the seeker to its ideas, must come across as credible sources. The movement itself must be seen as a conveyor of legitimate interpretations and viewpoints and to seem more authentic than alternatives.

The Worldwide Church of God that attracted my interest many years ago invested heavily in producing quality publications, public speaking training, and in engaging professional public relations firms — and advertising agencies — to enhance their look of authority and legitimacy. Its main avenue of preaching was radio at a time when radio still had the power to act as a one-to-one personal engagement with listeners. Recall the power and influence of Roosevelt’s fireside chats.

[O]nce individuals are exposed to the movement and express initial interest, how are they persuaded that a radical group like al-Muhajiroun is a credible source of Islamic interpretation? If a movement is not seen as legitimate, initial interest will dissipate, and a seeker will either look into other groups or end the search for religious meaning entirely. Given the decentralized nature of sacred authority in Islam, a movement must convince seekers that its scholarly interpretation is not only legitimate but also more authentic than alternatives. A seeker must trust the credibility of the interpreter in order to trust the reliability of the interpretation. Once an individual accepts this credibility, he or she is more willing to experience religious education through the movement.

Of the leader of al-Muhajiroun, Omar Bakri Muhammad, Wiktorowicz writes:

For al-Muhajiroun activists, Omar Bakri Mohammed’s reputation, stature as a scholar, and personality were the principle reasons they attended religious lessons with al-Muhajiroun after their initial exposure to the movement. In detailing why they were drawn to al-Muhajiroun rather than other Islamic groups or movements, respondents consistently emphasized their first encounters with Omar, which were both intellectual and emotional. To them, he epitomized what a scholar should be: a knowledgeable, independent-minded truth seeker who spoke out regardless of the consequences. Although most Muslims in the United Kingdom dismiss Omar Bakri as a “loony” or “clown,” movement activists recall an entirely different impression during their first interactions with the movement. They believed they had found a “rare gem”— a true Islamic scholar in the midst of a Christian country.

This evaluation was not produced in a vacuum; it represented the product of religious seeking. Seekers who later became activists sought expert insights about issues such as the struggle in Kashmir, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and September 11. They yearned for guidance about how to be a Muslim in a predominantly Christian country in the West where the concerns of the umma are tangential to the priorities of society and government. As a result, part of the process of religious seeking included a search for scholars who actually addressed controversial political and social issues and could speak with authority to the pressing concerns of young British Muslims. They wanted someone who was knowledgeable and seemed to understand their plight and worries.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 138). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Taking the plunge

It’s one thing to enjoy listening to an impressive speaker and going along with everything he teaches, but taking the next step of personal sacrifice and committing to the way of the life of the group is another step entirely. Recall in my previous post I spoke of the difference between outside supporters called “coworkers” and inside members. The number of “cognitive radicals” far exceeds the “behavioural radicals”. Why do some cross the line between the two?

The key to answering this question is the process of socialization. Religious education exposes individuals to deliberate “culturing” intended to inculcate the movement ideology. Through lessons and other activities, the movement tries to shift individual understandings of self-interest in a manner that facilitates progression to risky activism. Potential participants are taught that salvation is an individual’s primary self-interest. The question is then, How does an individual ensure acceptance in Paradise in the hereafter? The movement offers its ideology as a heuristic device or strategy for conforming to God’s will and guaranteeing salvation. In this ideological template, high-risk activism, such as support for violence, is a necessary condition for fulfilling divine commands. For individuals who accept the ideology, risky activism conforms to the logic of self-interest and inspires participation regardless of the corporeal consequences in this life.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (pp. 5-6). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

This topic requires a separate post.


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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “How Minds Are Opened to Extremist Views”

  1. You point out the convergence of methods between the islamists and your experience with a Christian cultic group. I’d like to point to a convergence too with the methods of a radical marxist group I belonged to in my youth, a branch of Trotskists known as the Lambertists. It’s even more interesting because this group was strictly atheist, but was apocalyptic too, in making every militant prepare and welcome the imminent revolution.

    1. Interesting. Not quite the same, but after I left the cult there was a time when I found myself with a very loosely organised Marxist group and I could not avoid being a bit concerned over the similarity to what I had left. The “fellowship” sessions or camaraderie, the sense of belonging to a vanguard, pioneers, the “chosen few” who carried the lights in the dark world until the new day dawned. The deja vu alerted me to the possibility that my life-choices had more to do with something about the hidden way my brain worked than with objective choices.

      1. David )son of Sam) Aaronovitch’s recent biography throws more light on Communist Party membership in Britain in this respect, notably in continually reinforced possession of the “truth” and immunity to contradiction by “capitalist lies” (not always completely wrong however).

  2. My Marxist experience was not loose at all. They had an extremely tight control upon the lives of the militants and huge exigences on their time, resources and lifestyle. The very long weekly cell reunions and other kinds of reunions were a way of policing everyone’s thoughts, to “correct deviations” or periodically persecute someone denounced like a deviant. All joined in the which hunt until the dissident was forced to an abject apology or expelled, or both. Then the turn would come for another unsuspecting scapegoat. I was given the task, with others, just after the Portuguese Carnation Revolution, of infiltrating the Portuguese Socialist Party to manage a left split in a future situation of crisis and use it to boost the ranks of the Trotskist group, a maneuver devised by Trotsky himself and called entrism. So I lived a double life for four years, and in the end, when the crisis came and the left split happened, we bungled it. By then I had come to two growing suspicions: that we had no idea about what was really happening, our Marxism no more than a cultic ideology; and the dynamics of the group could be described not by class fight concepts but by anthropological ideas of internal control and power. But most frightening was the knowledge that this was a Trotskyst group, opposed to Stalinism, but it was copying Stalin’s methods in a little scale. I left in the end of the entrism, in 1979, just when the few scattered militants we managed to bring from the PS joined the core group.

    In a few weeks, without the almost daily mind control of the group, a came to think by myself and, for example, discover that, having read almost all Marx’s Capital, I still had no useful knowledge of economy. In six months I decided I was no longer a Marxist.

    I suppose the feeling of emptiness one gets on leaving, facing the fact of one’s smallness as a simple individual with no heroic or epic participation in the grand drama of the coming revolution is shared by religious people, who lose their connection with the cosmic epics and a personal relationship with a god. In both cases, the involvement in the epic Advent of history or the divine relationship, would be awesome if they were ever real, but hélas…

    1. Fascinating (though that’s hardly the right word for people like you who experienced it). My group was really little more than a social club, a Marxist reading group, but it evolved into an activist group. What you describe reminds me of my dismay on learning how some of the group — those who had been associated with other radical socialist groups in years past — were so doctrinaire or ideological in their thinking. I gradually learned that it was impossible to have a genuinely open ended discussion on certain topics where they had ideological beliefs. Science, research studies, meant nothing — the science was “ideologically incorrect” — when it related to certain questions of gender, human behaviour, evolutionary developments.

      What you describe is what I could imagine some of these friends turning into in another circumstance.

      That was when I started to distance myself from some of them. They were not open to free intellectual inquiry but committed to ideologies.

      The judgmentalism that goes with that had the potential to cause real pain. I once had the audacity to compliment a bargirl on her hair and was immediately trounced by my friend for ideologically incorrect behaviour. Your experience sounds similar to the religious cult — though there most people remain largely unaware of some of the worst of it for much of the time. It is those who step out of line for a moment who soon learn what it’s all about.

      Thanks for explaining. Anything more that you recall that relates to this cultish thing would be most welcome.

      Oh yes — leaving the group was for me traumatic. Discovering that one had believed in nothing but a fairy tale all those years, sacrificed everything for make-believe — and then finding one no longer had a sky above or ground beneath, feeling rootless, no bearings, for a while …. it was for me traumatic for a while.

    1. Since that principle can apply to any number of affiliations and movements it is not particularly helpful as an explanation of why certain persons embrace extremist views. It is part of a wider complex of factors. At the same time, there are also strong similarities between the Nazi movement and modern Salafi jihadism — and religious cults generally.

      1. [comment deleted because of yet another attempt to slip in ongoing harping about the Quran. Recommend a read of the opening chapter by Marc Sageman in “Understanding Terror Networks” where Salafism is explained in some depth.]

  3. Though published a decade ago, focusing significantly on Al-Quaeda and Qutb, this remains one of several informative books contributing to our overall knowledge (including pp.116-7 & 161). Studies of recent network developments take us further than some noted in my own book-list submitted previously. How to prevent death and destruction is the big question.

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