Tag Archives: Extremism

Violent Islamism: Many Are Called, Few Are “Chosen”, Fewer Defect

A new online article on the role of religious belief among Islamists supporting violence (an overlapping theme of these posts). The article by specialists in the field draws the some of the same comparisons I have been making between the appeal of religious cults and political extremist movements:

The Cult of Jihad: A Practical Theology Perspective on ISIS, a scholarly guest post by Joel Day and Scott Kleinmann in Political Violence @ a Glance (Expert Analysis on Violence and Its Alternatives).

Of particular interest to me is another article cited in “The Cult of Jihad”, and that is “The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-Grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue” by Lorne L. Dawson in Terrorism and Political Violence, 22:1, 2009. From the abstract:

This article examines:

(1) the obvious reasons for, and curious absence of, a dialogue between scholars studying new religious movements (NRMs), particularly those responsible for acts of mass violence, and those studying processes of radicalization in home-grown terrorist groups;

(2) the substantial parallels between established understandings of who joins NRMs, how, and why and recent findings about who joins terrorist groups in a Western context, how, and why; and

(3) the ways in which explanations of the causes of violent behaviour in NRMs are pertinent to securing a more systematic and complete grasp of the process of radicalization in terrorist cells.

The latter discussion focuses on the role of apocalyptic belief systems and charis- matic forms of authority, highlighting the behavioural consequences of this danger- ous combination and their possible strategic significance. . . . 

Another new article of related interest is What Does It Mean If An Attack Is ‘ISIS-Inspired’?

H/T http://intelwire.egoplex.com/ (J. M. Berger, co-author of ISIS: the State of Terror)

We have seen the process by which some people are attracted to extremist groups and have reached the point of examining how a subset of those individuals are drawn to cross the line from intellectual sympathy to committing themselves to the high risks of active support for violence. (The argument that we have been presenting is from Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising. Wiktorowicz takes the now-banned jihadist group in Great Britain, al-Muhajiroun, as a case-study.)

To recap:

  • Many people at some time face a crisis that leads them to question their life-long assumptions and beliefs and opens them to a willingness to seriously consider radically new world-view perspectives. Crises can vary from death in a family to a feeling of not belonging in one’s “homeland”, a result of the combination of experiencing racial discrimination and alienation from the foreign culture of one’s migrant parents.
  • Seekers are more likely to respond to groups with the following factors:
    • the trained representatives of the group are able to discuss questions of interest to the seekers (not only political questions; literature of the group covers a wide range of topics);
    • the extremist group conveys a sense of credibility and spiritual authority by means of
      • the charismatic personality of the leader
      • its ability to convey a depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding of questions of interest to the seeker and of the alternative answers (Wiktorowicz’s notes that the more devout Muslims have a deeper knowledge of how their religion relates to such questions and are not attracted to the simplistic idiosyncratic interpretations of the extremists; those who are most often attracted have had very little prior religious interest.)
      • the rationality of its arguments
      • the tactic of giving the seeker a sense of being in control of his journey towards the extremist’s point of view (e.g. the seeker will be encouraged to investigate rival groups)
    • the extremist group hides its extremist views through front organisations and strategically planned discussions/messages

The relative few who are led to intellectual agreement with extremist views through this process are still a long way from turning their backs on society to the extent that they are potential suicidal mass murderers.

That’s where “culturing” enters the picture.

Through regular classes “seekers” are socialized into the movements ideology. We have seen how these classes and related activities increasingly consume so much of the individual’s time that there is little room left for serious arms-length reflection on the direction into which the path is leading. And it certainly helps when the seeker has had little or no serious religious engagement prior to encountering the new movement and against which they would otherwise be more capable of assessing the new teachings.

The Islamist extremist (and the member of other religious cults as well) sees him or herself as belonging to a pioneering vanguard of a new way of life that with the authority of Heaven is destined to replace all “human systems”. In the case of the Islamist (the term refers to one who believes in politically imposing Islamic law over society) that new way of life or ideology is destined to replace Capitalism and Democracy (the two go together in Islamist thinking). Democracy is interpreted as an anti-godly effort to replace God as the law-giver and ruler of society.

The mind-set that is inculcated as part of the “culturing” into the extremist movement’s revolves around its own sectarian interpretation of tawhid, or the “oneness of God”. Since God is the only lawgiver then anyone who supports democracy or even follows the wisdom of mainstream imams is said to be worshiping authorities other than God. We saw how some of this works out in detail in the previous post. — Recall that Islamic regimes in the Middle East are judged to be apostate because they countenance some form of democracy and enforce laws that are inconsistent with pure Sharia.

Other Muslims, moreover, argue that judging others as apostate is akin to murdering them since without the utmost stringent proofs only God can know the mind of another.

We look now at the ideology into which Islamist extremists are “cultured”. The ideology into which they are ever more deeply immersed through regular meetings, classes and activities, Wiktorowicz argues, is what leads them ever closer to the point of believing that their own personal salvation depends on a willingness to lose everything in this life and even to make others pay with their own lives, too.

We begin by looking at the source of the extremist’s ideology. The Quran is not enough for their ideological needs.

Preparations for an Islamic State

The Islamists look to the life of Muhammad (not found in the Quran) for guidance in or rationalisation of their program. There is a difficulty, not insurmountable, however. The Prophet’s life spanned many years through different environments — exile and conquest, for example. Islamist leaders therefore select what they believe to be the period in Mohammed’s life that is analogous to today’s situation for the radicals and make a judgement on how to apply the analogous act today. read more »

How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill

H/t J.M. Berger‘s intelwire.com, a new article on time.com by William McCants (author of The ISIS Apocalypse),

How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill

McCants begins

Although I have studied jihadist culture for a decade, I am still astounded and dismayed by its ability to inspire individuals to take innocent life. The husband and wife team who slaughtered 14 and wounded 21 in San Bernardino were just the latest in a long line of killers who have embraced a violent version of ultraconservative Sunni Islam.

He notes that we can understand States killing innocents since the people at the top aren’t usually the ones doing the actual killing, and the more remote, the easier it is to do. And those who do do the executions generally undergo long-term training to overcome their natural aversion to killing.

But how did sane people like the San Bernardino assassins, independent of experience in a militia and without years of organized training, manage to overcome this natural aversion on their own? How did they convince themselves that the slaughter of innocents was necessary and right?

The answer, in brief:

Culture. Our brain may be wired to love our own group and dislike outsiders, but culture is the software that helps us determine who’s in and who’s out. The less we empathize with someone, the easier it is to kill them.

Jihadist culture is exceptionally good at decreasing empathy for outsiders, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, as the Norwegian political scientist Thomas Hegghammer shows in a forthcoming volume. Jihadists use scripture, stories, songs, art, and poetry to foster group solidarity and encourage violence against a wide circle of enemies. Individuals who adopt the culture make sense of the world through its prism and seek to convince others of its truth. Even the most isolated can connect over social media to find likeminded people who will encourage them and goad them to action.

Is it going to get any better if/when the Islamic State is destroyed? The State is “teaching its vile ideology to children on an industrial scale and ordering them to carry out attacks and execute prisoners” — and those children will be with us a long time to come.

And what of our reactions? It’s not a long article. It can be read very quickly: How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill

“Who is William McCants?” you ask. From the time.com site:

William McCants directs the project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, and the author of The ISIS Apocalypse. He is adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University and a former U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism.

The futility of teaching moderation to young extremists

From Scott Atran’s Talking to the Enemy, pp. 482. 484

Besides, the data show that most young people who join the jihad had a moderate and mostly secular education to begin with, rather than a radical religious one. And where in modern society do you find young people who hang on the words of older educators and “moderates”? Youth generally favors actions, not words, and challenge, not calm. That’s a big reason so many who are bored, underemployed, overqualified, and underwhelmed by hopes for the future turn on to jihad with their friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer (well, at least for boys, but girls are Web-surfing into the act): fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool. Anyone is welcome to try his hand at slicing off the head of Goliath with a paper cutter. . . .

If we can discredit their vicious idols (show how these bring murder and mayhem to their own people) and give these youth new heroes who speak to their hopes rather than just to ours, then we’ve got a much better shot at slowing the spread of jihad to the next generation than we do just with bullets and bombs. And if we can desensationalize terrorist actions, like suicide bombings, and reduce their fame (don’t help advertise them or broadcast our hysterical response, for publicity is the oxygen of terrorism), the thrill will die down. Then the terrorist agenda will likely extinguish itself altogether, doused by its own cold raw truth: It has no life to offer. This path to glory leads only to ashes and rot.

I highlighted the need to discredit their vicious idols because that ties in neatly with a 2014 article by Neil Van Leeuwen, Religious credence is not factual belief, that sets out the differences between religious beliefs and other kinds of beliefs. “Vulnerability to special authority” is one of the significant characteristics of religious belief systems. Hope to discuss in a future post.

 

 

Exploring the Links between Beliefs and Behaviour

Recent discussions here arising from responses to Dan Jones’ article, “On how to be completely wrong about radicalisation: the curious case of Jerry Coyne” and another post Who are the true Muslims in these scenarios? I have been spurred into fast tracking and updating reading on the psychology of religious belief, extremism, ISIS in particular, terrorism more generally, and the background articles to the current exchange between Coyne, Maarten Boudry and Neil Van Leeuwen as well as refreshing old reading that had become a little faded over recent years. It’s a most interesting little exercise. Here is one small snippet that I choose to post here for no reason other than it is easy to copy and makes sense apart from its larger context.

Opinions and attitudes are not always good predictors of action. Of all those who might say they want to help starving children, how many would actually donate to UNICEF or work in a local soup kitchen? But for the Russian students of the 1870s, radicalization in opinion was often associated with radicalization in action. How are we to understand this unusually high consistency between opinion and behavior?

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 2217-2219). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

One answer is offered:

Social psychologist Robert Abelson advanced a similar perspective in relation to student activism in the United States. Abelson reviewed evidence that beliefs are not automatically translated into feelings, and feelings are not automatically translated into behavior. He then identified three kinds of encouragement for acting on beliefs: seeing a model perform the behavior; seeing oneself as a “doer,” the kind of person who translates feelings into action; and unusual emotional investment that overcomes uncertainties about what to do and fear of looking foolish. Abelson brought these ideas to focus on 1970s student activism in the United States:

. . . it is interesting to note that certain forms of activism, for example, campus activism, combine all three of the above types of encouragement cues. Typically, the campus activist has at least a vague ideology that pictures the student as aggrieved, and provides both social support and self-images as doers to the participants in the group. A great deal of the zest and excitement accompanying the activities of student radicals, whether or not such activities are misplaced, thus may be due to the satisfaction provided the participants in uniting a set of attitudes with a set of behaviors.3

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 2222-2231). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

That led me to find Abelsons’ chapter online. It’s an early chapter in Attitudes, Conflict, and Social Change, ed by King and McGinnies (see bookzz). Obviously such statements need unpacking and Abelson’s chapter is indeed only an introduction. That’s the sort of question I hope to delve further into in the coming weeks.

How Religious Cults and Terrorist Groups Attract Members

frictionThere are interesting parallels between the processes that lead some people to join both religious cults and terrorist groups. If you once joined a cult you will very likely recognize some of the pathway others have walked to become members of a group responsible for violent terror attacks.

If you joined a religious cult you knew that others thought you were a bit weird. Numerous accounts of those who joined terrorist organizations show that those becoming interested in an extremist group were aware their families and wider society would try to talk them out of it so they kept their interest secret from everyone except others, if any, whom they knew shared their views.

Joining either means turning one’s back on society and immersing oneself totally in an alien way of life.

Jerrold Post appears to have been the first to recognize that cult recruiting can provide a useful model of terrorist recruiting. The analogy begins by noting that individuals who join either a cult or a terrorist group are likely to be characterized as “crazy.” Both a cult and a terrorist group require a level of commitment that most people find difficult to comprehend.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1709-1711). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. — (My bolding and formatting in all quotations)

McCauley and Moskalenko in Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us take up this comparison.

Here we focus on recruitment to the Unification Church (UC) of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The UC is generally regarded as a cult, and, more important, there is an unparalleled research literature for this group. A 1965 report by Lofland and Stark titled “Becoming a World Saver” chronicled the beginnings of the UC in America, and the surprise value of the report was its emphasis on the importance of social networks in religious conversion.

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