The Social Psychology of Terrorism

By Evangelos Ntontis

The Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, and the bombings of Syria from the West have caused people to abandon their houses and become refugees in order to survive. The attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, gave rise to this specific rhetoric which wants all Muslims to be terrorists, while the state of emergency in France gave the authorities the right to interfere freely and inspect whoever they consider to be a threat. In USA, a clown called Donald Trump is becoming more dangerous over time, since he characterized Muslims as a threat to American cohesion, and asked for their deportation and the prohibition of them freely travelling to the country.

In an attempt to interpret and explain the psychology of people who join ISIS, one can notice the appearance of psychoanalytic explanations. In a recent published article from a professor of Social Psychiatry addressing the inner psychological world of the terrorists, we read that “fanaticism, similarly to evil, is that which comprises the most familiar and unfamiliar part of ourselves” as well as that “fanaticism dislikes the look into its inner world, dislikes thought, criticism, self-reflexivity, change”. Moving on, the author mentions that “the fundamental Islamic ideology finds fertile ground for proselytism in personalities who are weak and dysfunctional, similar to men and women who suffer from borderline or antisocial personality disorder”.

Thus, fanaticism is defined as a personal characteristic and integral part of the self, which transforms logical people into irrational beings who despise logical thought, criticism and self-reflexivity on their own actions. Accordingly, joining ISIS is defined in terms of psychopathology, where participants are described as suffering from some psychological disorder that renders them dysfunctional and dangerous, while at the same time the political context that motivates such behaviours is largely ignored.

In contrast to interpersonal and individualistic explanations of terrorism, we also have social psychological research which turns its gaze in the surface and offers more promising explanations for terrorism and radicalization, while at the same time acknowledging the relevant political context.

Social Identity Theory states that people can define themselves on the basis of the groups in which they belong, while Self-Categorization Theory adds that the behaviour followed will be in line with the one followed by other group members. Thus, one can be German, Muslim, and a football fan, and the behaviour followed depends on the identity that is salient at any one time; when watching football in a stadium, one is more likely to see themselves as football fans rather than Christians, while also adopting behaviours that fit into that of a football fan. Furthermore, our identities can be narrow or broader – the Greek national identity contains all Greeks but excludes all non-Greeks, while identifying as a human being includes all humans, regardless of their nationality.

It is in this exact part where politics and political rhetoric play a major role in the ways they represent and construct reality. Political rhetoric has the power of dividing the world into “Us” and “Them”, attributing positive or negative characteristics to each identity respectively. When the Muslim identity is equated with terrorism, Muslims are rhetorically constructed as “Others”, dangerous for “Us” and the common good, while at the same time behaviours to contain the threat are mobilized, similar to Donald Trump’s demands and the fascist pogroms of Golden Dawn against refugees in Greece. On the contrary, categorizing people as parts of “Us” has the potential to mobilize support and solidarity behaviours, since help is offered to members of our own group.

Returning to the initial question, one might wonder about the relationship between the above, membership in ISIS, and radicalization. The ex-general Stanly McChrystal said that “If the West treats the Islamic State as a stereotypical group of psychopath murderers, then there is a great danger of underestimating them”. At the same time, anthropologist Scott Atran stated that “there are no irrational terrorists, but the truth is much worse”. Contrary to psychoanalytic explanations, social and psychological findings have shown that rather than having deviant personalities, terrorists usually are much healthier than the average, and the explanation is pretty simple; to be a good terrorist, one should be logical, disciplined, self-contained, and mentally healthy, in order to finish his/her mission. Thus, analysis should focus on the factors that lead psychologically health persons to join terrorist organizations and perform terrorist attacks, with the explanation being impossible outside of the relevant political context.

Research has shown that the factors that affect radicalization are the personal uncertainty – especially during sociopolitical tension – perceived injustice for one’s group, the targeting of innocent people and groups, as well as discrimination and marginalization in the host countries. Moreover, radicalization can be affected by the lack of recognition of one’s value, lack of respect and humiliation. In certain occasions, the above factors (which are by no means exhaustive) can strengthen the bonds between people who belong in the same marginalized group, urging them to take up extremist action for the changing of the current status quo by no means, since it appears to be the last option.

With its wars, the Western world creates refugees that it then refuses to accept and integrate in its countries, and excludes them as “Others”. A usual natural outcome is the refugees’ disapproval and negative attitudes towards the Western countries because of the behaviours received. On the contrary, what ISIS offers is a sense of community and belonging, acceptance and unity towards a common cause. It is not the Quran and religious teachings, but the identification with a group whose purpose is to go against the West, which deprived them from a viable future and excluded them, not recognizing their values. Thus, the West is identified as the common enemy, whose destruction becomes the terrorists’ main aim.

For the reasons mentioned above, it becomes obvious that the participation in a terrorist organization is not a sign of psychopathology, but an action with a political context. As bombings continue, the chance increases that more people will join ISIS. It will be a rational behaviour, since exclusion and discrimination will cause further dissatisfaction and might end up in strengthening the Islamic State. One of the basic ways of preventing the rise of ISIS is to stop the bombings, recognize refugees as parts of “Us” and support their assimilation. Another crucial element is the critical thought and opposition towards rhetoric and practices that target certain groups and divide the world into “Us” and “Them” in terms that support and justify the Western policies.

By justifying eugenics and slavery in the USA of the 18th century, psychology has done enough damage in the past. Thus, it would be wise if the field abstained from explaining terrorism in terms of personal characteristics that could potentially target whole groups and identities, but considered and treated behaviours as embedded within their political context. The actions and reactions that share our world usually have a political background, thus it would be wise to consider it before attempting to interpret social phenomena.

This article is an edited version of an article published in “Efimerida ton Sintakton” (“The Editors’ Newspaper”) in Greece. The Greek version was edited by Nikos Bozatzis.

Some of the ideas developed in this text were discussed with Anne Templeton and Khalifah Alfadhli from the school of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

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  1. […] to detect due to their social isolation and relative lack of communication (Spaaij, 2010). The social psychological explanations of group terrorism do not apply to the lone wolf, they can self-radicalise and even act in […]

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