LONDON – It is easy to look to religion for an explanation of why young men — and some women — become radicalized. But it is psychology, not theology, that offers the best tools for understanding radicalization — and how best to undo it.
The appeal of Islamic State rests on individuals’ quest for what psychologists call “personal significance,” which the militant group’s extremist propaganda cleverly exploits. The quest for significance is the desire to matter, to be respected, to be somebody in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others.
A person’s sense of significance may be lost for many reasons, such as a personal failure or a stigma that comes from transgressing the norms of one’s society. We are reminded of this when we examine the backgrounds of female suicide-bombers in Israel. The first female suicide-bomber in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was divorced by her husband after she was found to be infertile. Another would-be bomber had been disfigured by burns, believed to have been caused by her family, after she had an affair. These women suffered from personal stigma and went on to volunteer for suicidal missions against the Israelis.
Loss of significance can also be caused by hopeless economic conditions. It can grow out of a sense of disparagement and discrimination, a not uncommon experience of many immigrants. And it can come from a sense that one’s brethren in faith are being humiliated and disgraced around the world.
Ideological extremists like those leading Islamic State deliberately employ the ideas of collective hardship and victimization of Muslims worldwide to galvanize and recruit potential jihadists. In a 1997 interview with CNN, Osama bin Laden fulminated: “The mention of the U.S. reminds us before everything else of those innocent children who were dismembered, their heads and arms cut off . …” Another senior al-Qaida leader, Yehia Al Libi, stoked anger and indignation by saying: “Jihad in Algeria … is your hope … from the hell of the unjust ruling regimes whose prisons are congested with your youths and children, if not with your women.”
The appeal to one’s trampled identity, combined with the depiction of one’s group’s degradation, can have a profound visceral effect, incensing and redirecting individuals who are otherwise well-adjusted and on their way to a seemingly bright personal future.
According to reports, Nasser Muthana, a 20-year-old volunteer in Islamic State, had acceptance offers from four medical schools. Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, who died in August while fighting in Syria, was employed at a Primark store in the coastal city of Portsmouth, England, and had a father who owned a restaurant. His personal future thus appeared assured, yet it could not undo the pain and humiliation he saw his Muslim community facing.
Extremist ideology is effective in such circumstances because it offers a quick-fix remedy to a perceived loss of significance and an assured way to regain it. It accomplishes this by exploiting humans’ primordial instincts for aggression and sex.
Consider the latter. Sex is the most primitive assertion of one’s significance; it’s a means to perpetuate one’s name — and genes into — the future. Islamic State strategically uses it as a reward for aggression.
The militant group has set up marriage centers where women register to be wed to its fighters. Captured Iraqi women and girls are forced into sex slavery, living in brothels run by female jihadists. Rape of nonbelievers is considered legitimate, while fatwas proclaiming a “sexual jihad” encourage brutality against females.
Lastly martyrdom is associated with sexual bliss in paradise.
Understanding the magnetic appeal of Islamic State’s extremism is a prerequisite to developing a suitable, psychologically sensitive counter-narrative. For example, an appeal to moderation and a life of patient struggle seems ill-suited to win over the hearts and minds of jihadists. Instead, the glamour of jihad must be countered by an alternative glamour; the charisma of martyrdom pitted against a different kind of charisma, the appeal to primitive drives redirected, jiu jitsu style, against the brutality of the enemy, turning the psychological tables on Islamic State as it were.
For example, young men vulnerable to the appeal of extremist ideology might be persuaded to fight the desecration of their religion and promised a place in history by defeating the satanic evil that soils their faith. Social media may need to be turned abuzz with the glory of standing up to evil, encouraging the bravery needed to undertake personal risks for “breaking bad.” This message should not be presented in faint pastels but in bright, bold colors.
Measured arguments against Islamic State wouldn’t do the job. Countering it requires fiery, impassioned appeals.
Arie W. Kruglanski is a senior researcher at START, the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism, at the University of Maryland. The opinions expressed are his own.
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