The Psychology of Radicalization
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Fathali M. Moghaddam is a professor, Department of Psychology, and a Director, Interdisciplinary Program in Cognitive Science, at Georgetown University. For six years, he directed the Georgetown Conflict Resolution Program. He is the editor of Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology1 (a quarterly journal published by the American Psychological Association, APA). Dr. Moghaddam was born in Iran, educated from an early age in England, and worked for the United Nations and for McGill University before joining Georgetown in 1990. He returned to Iran in the 'spring of revolution' in 1979 and was researching there during the hostage crisis and the early years of the Iran-Iraq war. He has conducted experimental and field research in numerous cultural contexts and published extensively on radicalization, intergroup conflict, human rights and duties, and the psychology of dictatorship and democracy. His most recent book is Treat to Democracy: The Appeal of Authoritarianism in an Age of Uncertainty (2019). Other recent books include: and Mutual Radicalization: How Groups and Nations Drive Each Other to Extremes (2018), The Encyclopedia of Political Behavior, vol. 1 and vol. 2 (2017), The Psychology of Democracy (2016), and The Psychology of Dictatorship (2013). Dr. Moghaddam has received a number of recognitions for his scholarly contributions, including the Outstanding International Psychologist Award for 2012 from the American Psychological Association, Division of International Psychology.
About the Conversation
This conversation grew out of an e-mail invitation to prof Fathali Moghaddam for an interview on radicalization and violent extremism. It was carried out in July 2019 by Skype and followed up by e-mail.
Cognitive Processes and Social Interactions
Mitja Sardoč (MS): The voluminous literature on radicalization, violent extremism and terrorism in disciplines as diverse as psychology, political science, criminology, sociology, cultural studies, anthropology, education as well as philosophy, is a testament to the complexity of these phenomena. What are psychology’s main contributions to these discussions?
Fathali M. Moghaddam (FMM): Psychology can best contribute by exploring the subjective elements of radicalization and terrorism. For example, what is in the mind of the terrorist when he or she attacks? What is in the mind of the person who radicalizes? What is in the mind of the population as they think about terrorism and feel fear? What is in the mind of political activists and politicians as they make policies about terrorism? Of course, the context is of the greatest importance to psychologists, but it is subjective interpretations of the context that matter most for us. Psychologists are going to be concerned with the perception of terrorism and the cognitive processes that both lead to terrorism and lead people to retract to terrorism. These cognitive processes are therefore central because we know that everything depends on the mind and on our subjective interpretations. I would argue that psychology is the most important element in discussions about radicalization and terrorism. At the same time, we must avoid reductionism. Subjectivity arises out of social interactions, it does not evolve in a vacuum. Cognitive processes begin in social interactions – Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and Rom Harrè taught us that.
MS: Psychological research on terrorism, as you write in your article ‘The “New Global American Dilemma” and Terrorism’, suffers primarily from ‘a lack of powerful conceptual frameworks’ (Moghaddam 2019). What are the most pressing conceptual problems associated with radicalization, violent extremism and terrorism in general?
FMM: It’s good to step back and think about not just the issue of terrorism and radicalization but broadly of the challenge psychology faces in trying to explain human thinking and behavior. We now produce thousands and thousands of empirical studies each month, never mind each year. Editing an American Psychological Association (APA) journal, I get a glimpse of how many empirical studies we generate. I edit only one of hundreds of psychology journals… And the challenge right now, as I see it, is not just to collect more data. In fact, we have so much data that it is difficult to grapple with it. Our challenge is that we don’t have conceptual frameworks that are broad and powerful enough. Specialization has resulted in thousands of different perspectives in narrow conceptual lines. For example, in the APA we have more than 50 divisions and within each division there are subdivisions. What I find is that often researchers are doing the same kind of research asking the same questions and they don’t even know about each other’s specializations. So when I say that we have a lack of conceptual framework, this isn’t just in radicalization and terrorism but in psychology broadly.
We actually do not have powerful enough conceptual frameworks that encompass a lot of the research we are doing. So we have ended up with hundreds or perhaps thousands mini theories or mini concepts within narrow specializations. And this is a problem because it leads to fragmentation in the field and this is linked to a lack of practical power. We are not impacting the world we inhabit the way we should. We must always remember the motto: the most practical tool is a good theory.
MS: You have written on issues as diverse as the psychology of democracy, radical social change, the psychological social contract, social distance etc. How have you become interested in radicalization, violent extremism and terrorism? What triggered your interest in this area of scholarly research?
FMM: I was a student in England when the anti-Shah movement was mobilizing in the 1970s. I rushed back to Iran during the revolution of 1979 when Khomeini came. That was a very exciting time for both Iranians as well as many around the world who are pro-democracy. This seemed to be a real opportunity to develop democracy because the Shah was a dictator and this was truly an opportunity to develop a democratic society. Unfortunately, within a year after the revolution, the fundamentalists took over so Iran was back in a dictatorship and continues to be in a dictatorship. How did the radicals take over in Iran? I would argue that they used terrorist tactics: they used force and violence to instill fear in the population. At the same time, they used violence to push the masses out of politics, in particular women. They basically pushed women back into the home. They forced the Iranian population to accept a dictatorship again.
My interest in radicalization and terrorism really started there, because I saw terrorist tactics work. At the same time, I realized that the challenge of developing a democratic society is much larger than I had imagined. I had naively imagined that all you needed to do was to topple a dictatorship. What I have come to realize over decades of studying this problem is that the biggest challenge in developing open democratic societies is really transforming the cognitions and actions of both individuals and groups, teaching new skills both cognitively and action wise. For me the issue of terrorism is therefore very much connected with the broader issue of democratization. I became interested in radicalization and terrorism because these issues are very closely tied to the challenge of developing an open society. The cognitive processes leading to radicalization and terrorism are the exact opposite of the cognitive processes leading to democracy.
The Staircase to Terrorism
MS: Your article ‘The staircase to terrorism: a psychological exploration’ (Moghaddam 2005) is one of the most influential articles in this area of scholarly research. Following its lead, several other ‘models’ have been developed. Is there any element of your ‘staircase to terrorism’ model that you would consider revising or developing further? If ‘yes’, which one(s)? Have either the advocates or critics misinterpreted any element of your ‘staircase to terrorism’ model?
FMM: I have been very pleased that the model has had both applied and research influence. Perhaps if I was to rewrite the model I would try to position it slightly differently so that the main goal would be more obvious. First, my work is really in the tradition of Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo and Muzafer Sherif who have emphasized the power of context. I believe that context is more powerful than the individual and to understand individual behavior we have first to understand the context. The staircase model is a contextual model as it is arguing that once the staircase is in place, then there will always be some individuals who have the personality characteristics to become terrorists and who will move up the staircase. Just as in my ‘Springboard to Dictatorship’ model (Moghaddam 2012), I argue that once the springboard is in place there are always individuals who have the personality characteristics to become dictators. The question for psychologists is working out the characteristics of the context in how can we avoid them. A second point regarding the influence of the staircase model is that the interactional nature of radicalization has been neglected. I tried to remedy this by publishing work on ‘mutual radicalization,’ emphasizing the point that radicalization always takes place through an interactional process.
MS: Despite the consensus that radicalization, violent extremism and terrorism represent a major threat to security and stability of contemporary societies, the question ‘what is radicalization’ opens a range of additional challenges. What are the major obstacles in providing a plausible answer to this question?
FMM: In a nutshell, these are the three components associated with radicalization, including the development of a cognitive tunnel vision, the making of a categorical moral judgment and, third, the willingness to take action based on categorical perceptions. A first step involves a cognitive process of seeing the world in black and white terms. This categorization is not based on objective facts and science, but on highly biased perceptions (a common feature of radicalized groups of various types is their rejection of scientific objectivity). Second, there is a moral change leading to a perception of the world as ‘us’ (the ones who are right, good, divine etc.,) and ‘them’ (the ones who are sinful, evil etc.). This is a moral judgment. There is also the action part where you say: ‘the world is black and white, the world is we vs. them, we are good and they are bad and it is justified to attack and even destroy them’.
You can see this in wider societal processes and in politics with populism. You can see this with ‘strongman’ leadership in the US and other parts of the world where strongman politicians present the world as black and white, (i.e. we are right and they are wrong) sending their supporters the message that we have to do whatever it takes to win. We are seeing this in populist movements and radicalization of political groups around the world right now.
MS: It therefore seems that violence is not only the final option but the only available option to a radicalized individual as part of the transition from cognitive to behavioral radicalization. What is your view on this?
FMM: Violence is the only option for individuals who reach the final level of the staircase; the only alternative at this level is to commit a terrorist act. Nevertheless, we have to keep in mind that in the framework that I have presented (especially in the book From the Terrorists' Point of View: What They Experience and Why They Come to Destroy (Moghaddam 2006)), I discussed nine different specializations in terrorist networks. These nine different specializations are spread on the different levels of the staircase. Only one out of the nine specializations of terrorism reaches the highest level of staircase and commits a terrorist act. There are many other specializations who remain on lower levels including networkers, technical specialists, financial organizers, as well as other people who do all kinds of jobs in support of terrorism but they do not commit a terrorist act.
MS: Is radicalization problematic only when coupled with violence or is there any other issue that makes it puzzling (e.g. the use of indoctrination in the process of radicalization, the role of religion in fueling violence etc.)?
FMM: From a broad perspective, radicalization is a problem in itself not only when it leads to violence. It’s a problem in itself because it is a way of weakening democracy. When you have a society which has multiple radicalized groups in it, it becomes more difficult to have democratic discussions and democratic processes in general. Right now, we can see this in the US where democratic processes have been attacked and put under severe pressure. In fact, I believe that some of them are being pressured to the extent of breaking down because of radicalization. We have radicalization within different political factions, between political groups. We can also see this in other countries, e.g. in Turkey, where there was some movement towards democracy but radicalization has weakened democratic processes. We can actually see this in the UK on the Brexit issue in how democracy has weakened. Radicalization is anti-democratic and tends to support authoritarian governance.
Radicalization Against Democracy
MS: One of your latest books, Mutual Radicalization: How Groups and Nations Drive Each Other to Extremes (Moghaddam 2018), advances an interesting thesis that radicalization is a two-way process that may ultimately spiral out of control leading to all sorts of dystopian scenarios (e.g. social fragmentation, conflicting diversity, etc.). How have you developed this thesis?
FMM: My latest book, Threat to Democracy: The Appeal of Authoritarianism in an Age of Uncertainty (Moghaddam 2019), is about the relationship between threat and the populist attraction of authoritarian leaders that we are witnessing right now in the USA, in Europe, and in some other parts of the world. The main thesis of this new book is very much related to radicalization.
The issue of mutual radicalization links us back to your other question on the possible modifications of the staircase model that I have developed. I think I should have emphasized more in the staircase model the fact that radicalization up the staircase is always in reaction to some other group or phenomenon. Radicalization does not happen in a vacuum. I should have therefore emphasized more the interactive nature of radicalization. For example, the white nationalists in Europe and in the USA are radicalizing against what they see to be an invasion of Muslims, Mexicans, etc. Their radicalization is a reaction against ‘outsiders’ who represent a threat. Perceived threat also plays a central role in the radicalization of Muslims. Islamic radicalization is taking place against a West they see to be invading them.
Radicalization has to be always seen in relational terms, and this is why I worked on mutual radicalization. I think that the staircase model should have emphasized more this interactive feature of radicalization. In the staircase model, I was focusing too much on individuals’ cognitive change while going up the staircase. I should have also emphasized the interactive nature of radicalization as the individual moving up the staircase is moving up because he or she is reacting to something. I think mutual radicalization is a more comprehensive way of looking at radicalization. I am also a bit worried because recently I’ve seen a number of studies looking at individuals radicalizing as if that individual is in a vacuum. It is essential to understand radicalization as a social and interactive process, not confined to what happens within isolated individuals.
MS: Various ‘collateral’ problems associated with radicalization and violent extremism, e.g. islamophobia, ‘moral panic’, right-wing populism together with other forms of political extremism have brought to the forefront problems previously either compartmentalized in specialized courses on intelligence and security studies or at the very fringes of scholarly interest. Which of these ‘collateral’ problems you see as being most problematic?
FMM: It depends primarily on which part of the world we are talking about. At the moment, in Europe and North America as well as other parts of the world, e.g. Turkey, I see populism problematic in the way it is being played out. Populism is emerging in relation to strongman leadership and authoritarianism. The springboard model of dictatorship suggests that when a strongman authoritarian gets the right opportunity to spring to power, even in a country that seems solidly democratic for now, we are likely to arrive at another Hitler or Mussolini. We have to remember that Germany was an advanced democratic nation when Hitler became popular. Hitler and Mussolini were extremely popular at one time, with the business sector backing them because they thought they would be good for profits.
I think in the West right now the combination of authoritarian leadership and populism could lead to a weakening of democracy and its possible collapse. I tell Americans that the supremacy of the USA will not last forever and many of them find this shocking. Historically, every civilization or empire has had its downturn. For example, the Roman Empire lasted for some 700 years, the British Empire for about a 100 years. It is not clear how long the USA is to remain a superpower. By the end of the 21st century China might have taken overtaken the USA and Russia may come up again. With a fragmented Europe, we could be facing a situation where democracy has lost its dominance.
The Islamic world faces different problems. I am Iranian by origin and closely follow events in Iran and other Muslim societies. The challenge in the Islamic world is that we have an identity crisis. Muslims feel that their societies are far behind, that they are second or third-rate, particularly compared to Western countries. This identity crisis has led some Muslims to go back to what they think is original Islam and its roots. But as things stand going back to Islam is problematic, because Islam has not had a Reformation. The Islam they are trying to go back to is not in line with 21st century life – just look at the backward treatment of women in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Changes are taking place within the Islamic world, but reform is painful and full of conflict. These conflicts within the Islamic world are leading to all kinds of radicalizations. However, unless there is an Islamic Reformation, Islamic societies are not going to make serious progress.
You can see this reality in some of the largest Islamic countries such as Indonesia, Egypt, and Iran as well as the richest Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We are not making real progress. You cannot name a single major Islamic country that has made real progress in the last 50 years and now stands among the advanced countries of the world. We have had very poor performance. Of course the fundamentalists blame the backwardness of Islamic countries on the USA, on Israel, and on other outsiders, but they refuse to accept the role of their own inept and corrupt governments acting under the name of Islam. I think this is partly an identity challenge that will play out over this century. Fundamentalists will defend their interests and try to resist reforms, but technological, economic, and other factors will push for changes - in reaction to the pressure to reform there will be radicalization and violence on the part of fundamentalists.
MS: Discussions over radicalization, violent extremism, and terrorism have been dominated by many well-known slogans (e.g. ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’), metaphors (e.g. ‘hearts and minds’) as well as various thought-terminating clichés (e.g. ‘what goes on before the bomb goes off’). Are these rhetorical ‘devices’ of any help in making sense of radicalization, violent extremism, and terrorism?
FMM: These ‘devices’ seem to be inevitable given the power of the 21st century media. I do not believe they are of much help to researchers or practitioners. When you look at what either practitioners’ or researchers’ face, you see that the popular slogans don’t summarize any of the realities in an accurate way. I disagree with the slogan ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,’ because we can define terrorism in a way that makes it clear what it is irrespective of the context.
MS: Are there any shortcomings in the analysis of phenomena as complex as radicalization, violent extremism, and terrorism? Are there any issues that contemporary discussions have either neglected or even ignored?
FMM: The biggest challenge I see right now is making a bridge between the people who need to make immediate decisions and the people who are thinking and planning more long-term. Putting it in the context of the staircase model, first there are people who need to make quick decisions about individuals who reach the final staircase and are carrying out terrorist acts. For example, consider a security official or a politician who is having to make split-second decisions about a bomb attack. This is at the highest level of the staircase where the terrorist attack is taking place or is about to take place. And then there are policy-makers, researchers, planners, and others who are more concerned with the long-term issues. This second group are concerned with changes taking place at the lower levels of the staircase to terrorism. We need to develop between communications and collaboration between these two groups, who are making decisions concerned with the different levels of the staircase.
- Moghaddam, F. M. (2006). From the terrorists’ point of view: what they experience and why they come to destroy. Westport: Praeger Security International.Google Scholar