The psychological roots of Islamic radicalism

It is not Islam we need to fear but the the underlying social conditions which alienate individuals and drive them to seek meaning in extreme political beliefs.

One explanation of how proponents of political violence are able to attract followers is that individuals with nothing to lose but themselves are drawn to causes that offer them hope and a sense of belonging.

As we all try come to grips with the tragedy of the recent attacks in Paris, we once again ask ourselves the logical question of what is going on here. Such attacks seem almost inexplicable, as they are so far removed from our own day-to-day experience. We struggle to make sense of these assaults and look for patterns to help us understand the nature of what we are seeing. Equally as perplexing is the utter disregard of the attackers for their own safety. Indeed, many seek out their own ‘martyrdom’ and the promise of paradise.

Nor can we understand the appeal of ISIS which is drawing in thousands of young men from around the world and which is launching them forward with such zeal that more traditional armies are melting before them. Even American air strikes have yet to fully stop them.

Some say that such incidents are reflective of the nature of Islam. Others say that they are examples of the clash of civilizations, as the great sociologist Samuel Huntington referred to it.

Yet neither of these answers is terribly satisfying. We know that the vast majority of Muslims around the world are peaceful, pious individuals just trying to live their lives. By the same token, most of the casualties in the waves of attacks are themselves Muslims. Indeed, Muslims have overwhelmingly borne the brunt of the suffering in the violence of the last fifteen years.

But it is increasingly clear that all of these attacks are almost always perpetrated by highly marginalized individuals, young men like the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston or the Kouachi brothers in Paris. Yes, militant Islam is a common pattern. But one senses that there is something deeper at work here.

For me, as someone who grew up in the Middle East surrounded by Muslims, the most compelling explanation for this tragic phenomenon was, ironically, offered up in the 1950s, well before terrorism was one of our daily concerns.

Dwight Eisenhower was not a man to incessantly offer up books to his associates, but there was one thin volume that he was so taken with that he bought numerous copies of with his own funds and distributed them to his cabinet and friends. The elegantly written book was the work of an obscure, self taught political philosopher named Eric Hoffer and was entitled the True Believer.

For Hoffer, the ‘true believers’ are highly frustrated individuals who -- driven by guilt, failure and self-disgust -- attempt to bury their own identity in a cause much bigger then themselves which is oriented to some future goal. The nature of the goal is almost irrelevant, be it religious, political, nationalistic, or ideological. Over time we have seen true believers arise in many countries and in many different guises, be it communism, fascism, ethnic or religious identity, etc. Mass movements have appealed to such individuals throughout history and around the world and are thus nothing new. It is a recurring phenomenon.

The most important element of this condition, however, is that it requires faith. This is because the frustrated man can not stand his reality and faith protects him from the facts of the day and his place in the world. It must emphasize hope, because hope allows the frustrated individual to escape from the intolerable present. He achieves self-sacrifice (i.e. self destruction) and loses his individuality in the unity of the movement and the group. The true believer holds fast to total solutions, however radical.

Certainly, the present day conditions in the Middle East and many Muslim countries have given the youth of those regions much to be frustrated about. Their oppressive governments have stifled free thought, crushed hope and suppressed self-expression. Those countries are awash with young men with no jobs, no aspirations, no future and thus no families of their own. They have nothing to lose but themselves.

Having destroyed all institutions, the Mosque is the one and only institution that the state has had difficulty suppressing, despite having worked hard to so, as in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, Islam is the only remaining refuge for the young.

In Europe, Christian societies have marginalised immigrants from the Middle East who find themselves relegated to the ghettos. Worse yet, they are islands of poverty in seas of relative prosperity. Education often makes the matter worse as was the case with Mohamed Atta and his followers.

Indeed, we are also seeing the simultaneous surge of both radical right wing and left wing political parties across Europe. Syriza has just won the Greek election while the National Front is attracting record membership in France. They to, are driven by the same conditions and forces.

In the end, it is not Islam we need to fear. It should be clear that until the underlying economic, social and political conditions which are motivating such passions and actions are addressed, radical politics of all stripes will be with us.

Robert Bestani is a Professor and a Faculty Chair at the National Defense University in the US.