Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Radicalisation, Belief, and Violence

An awfully popular and depressingly always-relevant topic discussion these days is the relationship between radicalisation, violence, and ideological or religious belief. One of the most salient questions people seem to want to answer is on the connection between scriptural or textual interpretation (i.e. what it says in the holy book) and the motives that members of radical groups have for committing violent acts. This post is my attempt to introduce some of the academic literature on radicalisation to the discussion. In it I will tackle several key questions by reviewing several of the most well-regarded scholars and articles:

  • What is radicalisation?
  • Who becomes a radical?
  • How does one become a radical?
  • What is the role of religion or ideological belief?

Specifically, I will rely as much as possible on four articles. They are ‘Mechanisms of Political Radicalization‘ (2005), by McCauley and Moskalenko [pdf], ‘The Staircase to Terrorism‘ (2005), by Mohaddam [pdf], ‘The Role of Religious Fundamentalism in Terrorist Violence‘ (2007), by Rogers et al [pdf], and ‘The Trouble with Radicalization‘ (2013), by Neumann [pdf]. There are two reasons for this. The first is that it lets me defer as much as possible to scholars whose expertise on this issue vastly exceeds my own. Peter Neumann, for example, is among the world’s foremost authorities on radicalisation, and has co-directed the ICSR for many years. The second is that it allows anyone who finds my claims contentious to easily check my sources and confirm for themselves that I am accurately representing the opinion of these experts. To facilitate this, I will be detailed in my citations.

What is radicalisation?

As Neumann points out, the word ‘radical’ has no meaning outside of a larger social context in which certain views are viewed as more extreme than others (876). Nevertheless, he suggests some basic definitions. ‘Radicalization’, he writes, ‘is the process whereby people become extremists’ (874). He identifies a conceptual divide between ‘between notions of radicalization that emphasize extremist beliefs (‘cognitive radicalization’) and those that focus on extremist behaviour (‘behavioural radicalization’)’ (873). He uses this divide to examine a debate within the scholarly literature on radicalisation between those who focus on the way in which individuals develop extremist beliefs and then decide, for whatever reason, to engage in violence based on those beliefs, and those who believe attention should be directed primarily at behaviour alone. Neumann’s conclusion, however, is that both the substantive beliefs that actors hold and the social mechanisms by which extremists engage in violence (the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’) are essential to the picture, and suggests that social movement theory provides a way forward in thinking about radicalisation and violence (884).

The conceptual distinction between cognitive and behavioural extremism is paralleled in how McCauley and Moskalenko approach the nature of radicalisation: ‘Functionally, political radicalization is increased preparation for and commitment to intergroup conflict. Descriptively, radicalization means change in beliefs, feelings, and behaviors in directions that increasingly justify intergroup violence and demand sacrifice in defense of the ingroup’ (416). As this shows, they are interested specifically in what leads to violence.

Fathali Moghaddam takes the more practical approach of looking at what moves people to engage in terrorism, defined as ‘politically motivated violence, perpetrated by individuals, groups, or state-sponsored agents, intended to instill feelings of terror and helplessness in a population in order to influence decision making and to change behavior’ (161). By extension, an extremist or a radical is someone willing to engage in such actions. Rogers et al, meanwhile, seem interested in whatever will make a person from a religious group willing to kill and die for a cause, as they are both casting their net wide and looking mainly at religious radicalism, as opposed to other forms (254).

For what it’s worth, I prefer the definition proposed by McCauley and Moskalenko, as I think it is the most flexible and unproblematic, while taking into account some of the normative concerns that Neumann brings up regarding cultural context.

Who becomes a radical?

It is evident simply from a brief consideration of the wide range of violent ideological and religious groups that have popped up around the world over the past century that many types of people can become a radical. In addition to Islamist groups, which surely need no listing, there have been Jewish groups (such as IZL and the Stern Gang), Buddhist groups (see the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Muslims by Buddhists in Burma), Sikh groups (such as those responsible for the Air India bombing), Hindu groups (such as the LTTE, who were until 2000 responsible for more suicide bombings than every other group in the world combined), Christian groups and individuals (such as the Phalangists or, arguably, Anders Breivik), Marxist-Leninist groups (such as the Red Army Faction), purely nationalist groups (such as the IRA),  and anarchists (such as Action Directe).

Psychologists and psychiatrists have consistently found that individuals who become terrorists are not, as a rule, psychopathic or otherwise psychologically abnormal (Rogers et al 2007, 254 citing a long list of other experts). Neumann, Moghaddam, McCauley and Moskalenko, and Rogers et al all find that radical or terrorist violence is a ‘last resort’ for most people, coming only after they have gone through a long process of increasing individual radicalisation and commitment to radical activities and groups.

How does one become a radical?

While Neumann in the article of his that I’m citing here does not really discuss this issue, instead reviewing major debates in the literature, he has elsewhere offered a model of radicalisation claiming that individuals begin with sets of social/political grievances, develop an ideology that explains the origins of these grievances and proposes possible solutions for them, and finally mobilise through various social mechanisms to engage in extremist or violent actions.

Moghaddam uses the metaphor of a staircase to explain how individuals move through increasing levels of radicalisation until the point that they are finally ready to engage in violent actions. Each of the steps represents an individual’s progress towards more radical values and activity, and while many people may climb the lower steps, only a few ascend all the way. The mechanisms that drive radicalisation, in his model, differ per ‘step’ of the staircase, but include such things as the displacement of aggression, the solidification of categorical thinking, and the sidestepping of inhibitions (164-166).

McCauley and Moskalenko use the metaphor of a pyramid, with a wide range of mechanisms spanning the very personal/individual to the broadly social all having the power to tug people towards the apex, although, like Moghaddam, they observe that an ever diminishing number of people reach that apex and engage in radical violence. Their mechanisms are helpfully laid out in this table here.

mechanisms of radicalisation
Rogers et al conclude based on an extensive literature review that radicals are usually ‘rational, psychologically healthy individuals’ (256) and are drawn into engaging in violent activity by a range of social drivers, such as ‘the loss of parents or loved ones (fragmented families), severe conflict, especially with parents, and the existence of a criminal record’ (Ibid.). While they affirm the importance of cultural values validating self-sacrifice or struggle, they find these values wholly inadequate for explaining why terrorism happens (257), preferring to focus on the role of group social dynamics and the ways in which personal identity becomes subordinated to group identity and violence becomes a necessary action for an individual to take in order to affirm their sense of self (258-259). In this they draw upon the literature in social identity theory,  from social psychology.

What is the role of religion and ideological belief?

As Neumann points out, looking at the substance of radical beliefs is essential to understanding why some radical individuals engage in violence and others do not (880). However, in many cases the substance of religious belief has been found to be less important than tactical or strategic pressures. As Rogers et al note, a near consensus has formed that religious beliefs poorly explain suicide bombing, and that other situational factors are far more significant, such as concrete grievances and self-esteem issues on the part of the bomber (254). Furthermore, while LTTE represents a primarily Hindu ethnic group, its aspirations and organisational institutions are for the most part secular, but they have made extensive use of suicide bombing.

None of the models describing the process of radicalisation that I have cited make much reference to the substance of belief. They refer instead to the power of interpersonal dynamics, such as peer pressures, or socio-economic dynamics such as competition for resources or state use of repression, to explain why individuals come to the conclusion that extremist beliefs and actions are justified. This suggests, I think, that while looking at such things as religion is important, both because it helps us to understand the rhetoric and vocabulary with which extremists express their grievances and demands, and because it helps us to understanding the historical basis of certain social identities and groups, it is less helpful to look at theology or ideology as an explanation for radical violence.

Instead, as these various radicalisation experts show, it is more productive to look at psychological and social mechanisms that drive increased involvement in radical activities and which progressively limit the options available to individuals until they feel like violence is the only thing left to them.


3 responses to “Radicalisation, Belief, and Violence

  1. Dan Linford August 29, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    “This suggests, I think, that while looking at such things as religion is important, both because it helps us to understand the rhetoric and vocabulary with which extremists express their grievances and demands, and because it helps us to understanding the historical basis of certain social identities and groups, it is less helpful to look at theology or ideology as an explanation for radical violence.”

    I suspect that this is the claim that would be most controversial among members of the Freethought community. I already knew that this claim — that theology is not the most significant factor in understanding radicalized groups — was widely supported by sociologists. However, I am also aware that there are a few dissenters from this view — Mark Juergensmeyer’s “sociotheology”, for example, and the associated notion of “cosmic war” — according to which theology does have a significant role to play. I would also question the extent to which we can successfully distinguish between theological (or ideological) concerns on the one hand and (political?) grievances on the other. After all, is it not the case that our grievances are enabled by whatever we think to be true of the world? Don’t we have to believe that we are being threatened, maligned, abused, or otherwise mistreated to have a grievance?

    While I agree that much of the popular writing on this subject is woefully naive (I’m thinking of Sam Harris in particular), I think that there is an intuition such writings speak to: 1. there is a relationship between belief and our actions and that this implies that 2. the degree to which our actions are reasonable (or not) is somehow tied to how reasonable (or unreasonable) the associated beliefs might be. I’m not sure that your article addressed this intuition at all, since you placed the categories of “grievances and demands” (certainly strongly related to belief) as totally distinct from ideology and theology. I worry that this misses the point.

    Though it may not be universally true of radicalization, I think that one can identify instances of violence in which theology (or ideology) had a significant role to play. For example, the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate Cult, the murders committed by the Manson family, and the events in Waco, Texas, in 1993 all seem to be cases in which belief was a significant motivator. The first group seems to have committed suicide because they believed that it was a necessary step in accessing a messianic group of aliens that had arrived with the Hale Bopp comet. The second because Manson believed, among other things, that the murders would initiate a race war. And the last was due to a combination of two beliefs/ideology: a. the claim made by Vernon Howell to be “David Koresh” (the anointed one in the line of David) and b. a flawed understanding had by the FBI as to who or what the Branch Davidians were and what sort of forces they would respond to.

    There is a fascinating sociological literature on ostension: a phenomenon in which people commit ritualized actions that originally appeared in folklore or mythology. Most of us are familiar with the idea of teenagers who chant “Bloody Mary” in front of a mirror (as an interesting sidenote, the Bloody Mary folklore seems to originate in the ease with which visual hallucinations can occur when looking in a mirror under dim lighting conditions). Sometimes, however, such rituals involve violence (as happened this past year when two teenagers attempted to murder a friend in order to summon Slender Man). See this paper: I have a difficult time understanding how theology could be understood as playing no role in this kind of violence. I am not sure that acts of ostension — even those which are profoundly violent — should be understood as instances of radicalization. All the same, I think that any theory which attempts to explain “religious violence” should be capable of explaining “murder by ostension” (to use Bill Ellis’s words).

  2. sincerekirabo January 8, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    Reblogged this on The Annals of a Secular Writer and commented:
    Good material to review on radicalization, belief and violence.

  3. Pingback: Reza Aslan’s theory of religion and politics | Said Simon

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