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    HomeFeatured ArticlesFrom Virtual To Violent: Preliminary Conceptual Explorations Of Religious Radicalisation In Youth
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From Virtual To Violent: Preliminary Conceptual Explorations Of Religious Radicalisation In Youth

Kumar Ramakrishna

It has been said that the world is currently experiencing a wave of terrorism that is religiously motivated in its origins. The September 11, 2001 attacks in New York  City and Washington D.C., the 7 July 2005 London Underground attacks as well as the various bombings in Indonesia since the first Bali attacks in October 2002 were all perpetrated by religiously motivated terrorist networks. In this respect, radicalisation is an important related subject for study. As the authors of a well-known New York Police Department (NYPD) study of religiously-motivated radicalisation in the West suggest, terrorism is the ultimate consequence of the radicalisation process. Against this wider backdrop, it is has been clear for years that youth are prone to violent radicalisation processes that lead to such religiouslymotivated terrorist acts.

This brief essay seeks to make some preliminary observations on why this may be the case, drawing upon insights from several disciplines such as social psychology and cross-cultural psychology. Two key themes run through this essay. First, in essence, the politics of identity – in particular, the perceived need to defend one’s religious “Group Tent” – sheds important light on why young people could become violently radicalised to a point at which they could commit terrorist atrocities in the name of religion. Second, a mental or cognitive radicalisation in the minds of affected youth necessarily precedes the shift to violence. In short, to fully understand violent religious radicalisation, one must understand how a young person goes from being a “Virtual” to a “Violent Radical”. 

Violent Religious Radicalisation: A Brief Survey

While there have been many definitions of the term “violent radicalization”, a common broad definition is that it “means the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change.” More specifically, individual religious radicalisation occurs when a young person is exposed to a “radical religious services provider or charismatic person espousing radical ideas” and becomes a “lone-wolf ” terrorist pursuing violent action on his own, though later he may seek out a supporting like-minded violent network. In addition, there is also organised religious radicalisation, which is a “process supported by external groups who seek to influence” vulnerable youth. Groups like Al Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiyah “create opportunities for radical religious services providers to supply individuals with reading materials that include non-traditional or extremist interpretations” of holy texts. They also direct youths to supportive groups that espouse violence, such as radical mosques. Organised radicalisation is in effect a process of top-down recruiting in which promising youth with valuable skills are scouted and “recruited to carry out specific actions in support of the group’s agenda.” The aforementioned NYPD Report also points out that there are roughly four phases of radicalisation: a “pre-radicalization” stage; a “self-identification” stage, where youth first become attracted to violent religious ideologies through a “cognitive opening caused by some personal, socio-economic or political crisis; an “indoctrination” stage, in which there occurs a gradual intensification of violent beliefs principally through contact with a “spiritual sanctioner” and a small group of “like-minded” individuals; and finally the action-oriented jihadisation stage, where the youth reframes his self-identity as a religious combatant willing to engage in violent terrorist acts. In short, “the progression of searching, finding, adopting, nurturing, and developing” this extreme religious belief system “to the point where it acts as a catalyst for a terrorist act” characterises the process of violent religious radicalisation.

Digging Deeper: The Sources of Violent Religious Radicalisation in Youth

In recent years, a Social Identity theory has emerged as one useful social psychological paradigm for understanding religiously-motivated violence. Briefly and broadly, the theory starts off from the basic premise that all human beings need positive self-esteem for emotional and psychological health. However, our individual esteem is always tied to that of a wider group, whether nationalistic, ethnic or religious. In short there can be no individual authenticity without collective authenticity. Following Moghaddam, we could say that all youth seek to belong to a high-status and secure group with a positive and distinct group identity. This is to ensure that they would enjoy dignity, distinctiveness and self-respect – something essential to identity formation. From a complementary psychoanalytic perspective, the respected conflict scholar Vamik Volkan draws attention to the importance of the so-called “Group Tent”, arguing that we “all wear, from childhood on, two layers of clothing”, the first snugly-fitting garment, representing personal identity, and the second set of looser outer clothes representing “the fabric of the large group’s ethnic (or religious or ideological) tent.” Volkan argues that “each member of the large group is cloaked by a piece of the same cloth, and it protects the person like a parent or caregiver”. Importantly, Volkan warns that when the “shared identity” of members of “large ethnic or religious groups” is “threatened,” and the “canvas of the tent is shaken or torn” during periods of “shared helplessness and humiliation” caused by “others”, then “ethnic or religious group members would quite willingly “humiliate, cripple, burn, and kill ‘others’” in response even “when our own physical survival is not threatened.” To put it another way, the perception that their religious group is being subjected to systematic political, social and economic marginalisation by some dominant group can be a powerful driver of radicalisation. More than that, the perception that their group is being threatened by physical annihilation leading to, possibly, group extinction – as illustrated by the horrific ethnic cleansing campaigns in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s – can be a catalyst for violent radicalisation in perceived defense of the endangered Group Tent. Interestingly, this perception that the so-called Group Tent is under metaphysical or physical threat does not have to be directly experienced by youth. Reading or hearing about the acute marginalisation and suffering, or worse, watching DVDs of the physical slaughter of co-religionists in far-away places – what has been termed “secondary trauma” – can also ultimately trigger violent religious radicalisation leading to terrorism against the perceived enemies of the Group Tent.

The Reality of “Cognitive” Radicalisation

In a mental or cognitive sense, when youth perceive that their Group Tent is under attack, especially physical attack, a drastic identity simplification dynamic kicks in. In normal situations, as the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen memorably puts it: 

The same person can, for example, be a British citizen, of Malaysian origin, with Chinese racial characteristics, a stockbroker, a non-vegetarian, an asthmatic, a linguist, a bodybuilder, a poet, an opponent of abortion, a bird-watcher, an astrologer, and one who believes that God created Darwin to test the gullible.

However, when the young people of a particular religious community perceive that they are being attacked by a powerful enemy – “Them” – all these various social identities get thrown out the window in favor of one single dimension of collective identification. The writer Slavenka Drakulic talks about this in her poignant description of the psychological and cognitive impact on Croats of brutal Serbian attacks in the early 1990s:

Along with millions of other Croats, I was pinned to the wall of nationhood – not only by outside pressure from Serbia and the Federal Army but by national homogenization within Croatia itself. That is what the war is doing to us, reducing us to one dimension: the Nation. The trouble with this nationhood, however, is that whereas before, I was defined by my education, my job, my ideas, my character – and yes, my nationality too - now I feel stripped of all that.

In like vein, Lord Alderdice, a trained psychiatrist and politician who was involved in brokering the Good Friday peace deal between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in 1998, pointed out that during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, “the community had regressed from a myriad of individual differences maintained in a broad mosaic of relationships, to a narrower frame of reference where the single difference between Protestant Unionist and Catholic Nationalist assumed pre-eminence” (my emphasis). In short, both communities in Ulster had been, what we may call, “cognitively radicalized”.

In a state of cognitive radicalisation, the multiple identities in a community are reduced to a single overarching in-group: “Us.” Similarly the multiple affiliations and self-identifications in the other community are reduced to a single overarching, adversarial: “Them,” the out-group. In short, existential identity anxiety over the fate of one’s Group Tent prompts defensive, dualistic and paranoid thinking where everything tends to be simplified to “Us and Them”. Hence, whether we are talking about young Irish Catholics and Protestants in Ulster of the Troubles; young Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims in rapidly dissolving Yugoslavia, young Tamils and Sinhalese in conflict-torn Sri Lanka; young Shia and Sunni in post-Saddam Iraq, and closer to home, young Christians and Muslims in conflict-prone Poso and Maluku – what ties them together despite their different circumstances is the fact that these are cognitive radicalised communities. More to the point, it is from such communities of mental haters that the violent haters emerge. Or to put it more technically, it is from such cognitively radicalised communities that the violently radicalised terrorists emerge. The upshot of this discussion is that radicalisation occurs in the mind long before an extremist belief system justifying violence in pursuit of anti-social, subversive political aims is consciously adopted and violence is even resorted to in the real world. This suggests that perhaps in understanding the process of violent religious radicalisation amongst youth, one must move one’s analytical lens further upstream ... to understand how one becomes a Virtual Religious Radical first … before one ever becomes a Violent Religious Radical. 

Three Key Factors That Influence How a Virtual Radical Becomes a Violent Radical: Culture, Ideology and Small Group Dynamics

It is suggested tentatively that three key factors mediate the transition of the young Virtual Religious Radical to the Violent Religious Radical: culture, ideology and small group dynamics.

Culture. Following the seminal work of the eminent Dutch social psychologist Hofstede, we define culture as learned ways of thinking, feeling and acting. It is suggested that a certain type of cultural landscape is conducive to the transmutation of the Virtual Radical to the Violent Radical, namely, a collectivist, large power-distance, and uncertainty-intolerant culture. But first, an elaboration is in order. Collectivism refers to the organising principle of societies in which “people from birth onward are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which throughout people’s lifetimes continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” Power distance on the other hand refers to the extent to which the less powerful members of social collectivities within a society “expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.” Finally, uncertainty avoidance refers to “the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations” – such as the cultural and moral dislocations brought about by globalisation and urbanisation – and seek leaders and groups that can offer them existential and religious certainty.

Societies can be considered as collectivist in orientation if the children in these societies grow up learning to conceive of themselves as part of a “we” group – that is, a “relationship that is not voluntary but is given by nature.” In collectivist societies, the individual grows up deeply enmeshed within social networks built around respected elders who provide cues in terms of appropriate attitudes, beliefs and values and who insist on the preservation of harmony. In the collectivist society, therefore, personal opinions are subordinated to the collective will of the group and its senior elders and leaders. Collectivist societies also tend to be large power-distance societies in which the lower classes rely on the power elites for preserving social security, harmony and public order; Parents teach children obedience; respect for parents and older relatives is a lifelong basic virtue, and teachers are respected as “gurus who transfer personal wisdom” and who actively shape students’ “intellectual paths.”

In large power-distance societies, moreover, there “is a pattern of dependence on seniors that pervades all human contacts, and the mental software that people carry contains a strong need for such dependence.” Finally in strong uncertainty-avoidance societies – that is, societies which are relatively uncomfortable with, and fear, uncertainty and ambiguity – children are socialised into firm rules of what is dirty and taboo; at school, students prefer structured learning situations and seek “the right answers” which teachers are expected to have; in the workplace there is an emphasis on precision and formalisation while experts and technical solutions are sought after and society as a whole prefers numerous, precise rules for regulating social behavior. In fact, there is an emotional need for rules and regulations. 

The importance of uncertainty-avoidance as a cultural dimension cannot be overemphasised. It arguably creates fallow psychological ground for religious extremism and radicalisation to fester. For example, as Hofstede argues, sentiments of dirt and danger can also be held about people, and racism is bred in families. Children learn that persons from a particular category are dirty and dangerous. They thus learn to avoid children from other social, ethnic, religious, or political out-groups as playmates. In addition, children in these families learn that some ideas are good and others taboo. Insightfully, Hofstede argues that in some cultures the distinction between “good” and “evil” ideas is sharp. There is a concern “about Truth with a capital T” and ideas that differ from this Truth are “dangerous and polluting”. In short, doubt or relativism is frowned upon. This is precisely why strong uncertainty-avoidance cultures tend to display xenophobic tendencies, greater levels of ethnic prejudice, the conviction that in “religion, there is only one Truth and we have it,” and that this Truth should be imposed on others. Thus it is the strong uncertainty-avoidance cultures that produce disproportionately, “religious, political, and ideological intolerance and fundamentalisms,” seeking to remake entire societies according to some preferred vision of a religiously prescribed moral and sociopolitical order. In effect, countries that are home to diverse “ethnic, linguistic, or religious groups” whose respective outlooks are characterised by collectivism and strong uncertainty avoidance tend to be prone to “violent intergroup strife.” In a nutshell, culture – as “learned ways of thinking feeling and acting” – can help transform cognitive radicalisation into full-blown violent religious radicalisation.

Ideology. However, as Hofstede points out, culture consists of the “unwritten rules of the social game”. In a similar vein, Ervin Staub argues that culture consists of beliefs, meanings, values, valuation, symbols, myths, and perspectives that are shared largely without awareness. Hence the inchoate and free-floating beliefs, myths and perhaps prejudices of the wider culture by themselves need to be intensified and focused into an action-oriented ideology in order to generate terrorist action. In this respect, while Staub considers ideology as primarily a consciously-held set of beliefs and values, C.J.M. Drake defines ideology to mean those “beliefs, values, principles and objectives” by which a group “defines itself and justifies its course of action”. In short ideology is action-oriented: while it draws upon its content and authenticity from the wider culture, it deliberately intensifies and focuses the random and unstructured emotional and cultural sentiments of targeted youth by diagnosing the problem they are purportedly facing, identifies the “enemies” of their religious Group Tent, and finally suggests courses of action, namely armed struggle to “defend” the Group Tent against those “evil” enemies. 

Small Group Dynamics. Finally, the process by which certain elements of the wider culture become intensified and focused into an action-oriented ideology – and cognitive radicalisation turns violent – cannot but occur within a small group context. It is within the small group that individual psychology interacts with wider cultural and social psychological forces. Individual psychology cannot be excluded from any examination of how youth become religiously-motivated terrorists. Individually, studies have shown that it does not matter who a person is, or how outwardly independent, a child’s wish for a powerful, protective parent waits in the depths of the psyche and seeks expression. In fact such an unconscious longing to belong persists into adulthood and results in the cult behavior that pervades normal society. The dynamics of cult behavior and thinking are so pervasive in normal society that we do not realise we are all likely members of invisible cults. As psychiatrist and cult expert Arthur Deikman suggests, there is a lot of hidden cult thinking operating unnoticed daily in our lives. It is suggested here that in extreme situations – such as a widely perceived existential threat to one’s religious Group Tent – violent extremist cults can form that are dangerous mutations of the informal cults (or more conventionally, social networks) that pre-exist in society. A small group functioning as a religious cult in essence possesses four distinguishing characteristics that generate powerful social psychological pressures on its young members: dependence on a leader; compliance with the group; suppression of dissent; and finally, devaluation of outsiders. Under the sheer “power of the situational context” of immersion in such a cult-like environment in which dissent is suppressed and there is total dependence on a charismatic leader – or “spiritual sanctioner,” as the aforementioned NYPD Report puts it – impressionable young minds can well be manipulated to hurt others. It is within the cultlike milieu of the charismatic and dominant Imam Samudra’s small Team Lima group, for instance, that the young and impressionable Javanese Arnasan was transformed into one of the suicide bombers that struck Bali in October 2002. It is thus within the small cult-like group that the freefloating, inchoate prejudices of the wider culture are intensified and focused into a consciously held violent ideology – and cognitive radicalisation becomes transformed into violent religious radicalisation.

Taking Stock – and a Policy Question

In this essay we have discussed how young people may become violently radicalised to the point of committing terrorist atrocities in the name of religion. We have argued that young people seek dignity, distinctiveness and self-respect and a major pathway to attain this is one’s Group Tent, which could be for example one’s religion. We have surveyed research that suggests that when young people perceive that their religious Group Tent is under threat, especially physical threat, there is an automatic psychological tendency to rally around that Group Tent to such an extent that the other social identities that one possesses in normal times are drastically overshadowed. The point at which the only social identity that matters is one’s religion – in the face of the perceived threat from another “evil” religious community – is the point at which cognitive radicalisation sets in. Cognitive radicalisation, in which the world is divided into a “Good Us” and an “Evil Them” then paves the way for the adoption of extremist belief systems that legitimate violence for religio-political goals and ultimately, the turn to violence, including terrorism. We also identified the ways in which xenophobic sentiments and beliefs encouraged by the cultural dimensions of collectivism, large power distance, and strong uncertainty avoidance, could become intensified and focused within a cult-like small group into an action-oriented and violent ideology that – in the hearts and minds of impressionable young people – religiously legitimates the killing of the perceived enemies of one’s religious Group Tent.

If we accept the preceding analysis then a key policy question arises: should governments and civil societies worry only about Violent Radicals? Or should more attention be focused also on Virtual – that is physically nonviolent but rhetorically aggressive individuals and groups? In this connection it is worth noting that an allegedly non-violent (but certainly rhetorically aggressive) Indonesian cleric once called upon young Muslims in Indonesia to beat up non-Muslim tourists in Bali as they were “snakes, worms and maggots”. In addition, a journalist recalled his consternation when on seeing violent terrorism-glorifying graffiti in and around the confines of a religious boarding school in Central Java associated with the Jemaah Islamiyah network, he was assured about the school’s students: “They are radicals in their heads only, not in action”. Should we not however be concerned that at some point the cognitively radicalised young Virtual Radicals in that school will become – through perhaps some of the processes described in this essay – Violent Radicals? That some of the graduates of that school have indeed gone from Virtual to Violent suggests that more thought should be put into this issue.

Selected References

Berreby, David. (2008). Us and Them: The Science of Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cilluffo, Frank and Gregory Saathoff. (2007). Out of the Shadows: Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalization. Washington D.C.: George Washington University/Homeland Security Policy Institute.

Cozzens, Jeffrey B. (2006). Identifying Entry Points of Action in Counter-Radicalization: Countering Salafi-Jihadi Ideology through Development Initiatives – Strategic Openings. Working Paper 2006/6. Copenhagen: Danish Institute of International Studies.

Goh, Chee Leong. (2011, May). How, What and Why: Understanding Them: A Psychological Overview of Youth. Presentation at the Symposium on the Dynamics of Youth and Terrorism, 8-11 May 2011, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, organised by Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT), Japan- ASEAN Integration Fund (JAIF) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Herriott, Peter. (2007). Religious Fundamentalism and Social Identity. London: Routledge.

Hofstede, Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede. (2005). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival, revised and expanded 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Jones, James W. (2008). Blood that Cries Out from the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Laqueur, Walter. (2003). No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Continuum.

Moghaddam, F. (2005). The Staircase to Terrorism: A Psychological Exploration. American Psychologist, Vol. 60, No. 2, pp. 161-169.

Ramakrishna, Kumar. (2009). Radical Pathways: Understanding Muslim Radicalization in Indonesia. Westport and London: Praeger Security International.

Ramakrishna, Kumar. (2005, September). It’s the Story, Stupid: Developing a Counter-Strategy for Neutralizing Radical Islamism in Southeast Asia. CSRC Discussion Paper 05/48.

Rapoport, David. (2001). The Fourth Wave: September 11 in the History of Terrorism. Current History, Vol. 100, pp. 419-424.

Robinson, Natasha. (2008, March 24). Bashir Urges Attacks On ‘Infidel’ Australians. The Australian.

Samuel, Thomas Koruth. (2011). The Lure of Youth into Terrorism. SEARCCT’s Selection of Articles, Vol. 2, pp. 107-119.

Sen, Amartya. (2006). Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. London: Allen Lane.

Silber, Mitchell and Arvin Bhatt. (2007). Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. New York: NYPD Intelligence Division.

Volkan, Vamik D. (2006). Killing in the Name of Identity: A Study of Bloody Conflicts. Pitchstone Publishing.

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