The following article is an expanded version of a feature article titled “What draws youth to political violence? that Razainc. wrote for York University’s newspaper, Excalibur. Razainc. will expand upon it here at LoonWatch in more depth over the coming weeks.
Guest post by Razainc.
Terrorism involves spectacular and often unexpected killings in order to destabilize the social order and promote a greater cause, and as professor Scott Atran describes it, publicity is the oxygen of terrorism.(1)
But what drives youth who turn to political violence?
Is it religion? The Qur’an? Do they hate “Western” freedoms? Do they just want to die?
Noam Chomsky, when asked by Excalibur about the role Islam plays in political violence says,
“It [Islam] plays a role, but there are [other] reasons. Tribal cultures, the extreme Islamophobia in the West, and the many direct attacks on the Muslim world. It’s [political violence] by no means unique to Islam.”
The evidence from experts like Scott Atran (a French and American anthropologist), Robert Pape (an American political scientist), Graham E. Fuller (Former CIA Station chief), and Marc Sageman (former CIA Operations Officer) backs him up.
How terror cells form has a lot to do with how humans form bonds and groups. It’s important to discard the notion that because of the horrible things they did they are different from us. Terrorists are human. This may come as an uncomfortable realization but is an accurate and necessary one.
“A sense of moral outrage at apparent crimes against Muslims both globally and locally is a common theme among the terrorist. The outrage is interpreted in a specific way, namely that this moral violation is part of a larger war against Islam. The ideology appeals to certain people it resonates with their own personal experience of discrimination, making them feel they are also victims of this wider war. A few individuals are then mobilized through networks both face to face and now commonly online to become terrorists” Sageman wrote in Leaderless Jihad.
Sageman emphasizes the need to look at terrorists humanely. He points to the example of the sexual frustration theory, which suggests suicide bombers want to die to have sex in paradise, a common theory that’s floated around but has no evidence.
Religious commitment alone is not enough to determine whether you will join a violent group but rather the dynamics with friends or family, “given religious commitment then action-oriented group participation is the best predictor of who will actually make costly sacrifices for their beliefs” says Atran in an interview with Excalibur.
“What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool … Western volunteers for ISIS are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives. For the most part, they have no traditional religious education and are ‘born again’ to religion. They are self-seekers who have found their way to jihad in myriad ways,” says Atran.
Professor Atran in an interview about ISIS told me that the “first wave of foreign fighters was tightly linked to a humanitarian concern.” But now, Atran continued, “current volunteers … believe that they are part of a great historical movement that has reestablished the Islamic Caliphate,” and they believe they must fight to secure and expand it.
However there is usually no active recruitment. These are usually kids hooking up on the internet with like-minded individuals. Most so-called “Jihadists,” sometimes up to 90 per cent, are not very knowledgeable about religion. They tend to come to religion later in life and become self-radicalized.
But what about the role of religious education? Are these horrible atrocities happening because young Muslims read and study the Qu’ran?
In fact young Muslims tend to have a limited background in Islam making them more vulnerable to extreme interpretations says Sageman in a lecture on terrorism.
Atran in his lecture on terrorism also echoes this point,
“Religious education is a negative predictor of being involved in violence and the Jihad, it is a negative predictor of being radicalized in prison.”
Atran says in Talking to The Enemy, that the common myth that youth are radicalized at fundamentalist madrasas (Qur’an learning schools) has no basis. Fundamentalists generally do not support terrorism, they are more concerned with salvation. Mainline Salafists are usually involved in efforts to prevent people from being terrorists. Less than 1% of madrasas studied in South and Southeast Asia support violent extremism, and of those that do they tend to emphasize the secular sciences. Simply knowing and reciting the Qur’an will not be a stepping stone to becoming a “Jihadist” in these organizations because they need someone who has the social skills they are looking for and is adept at using technology.
This profile of self-radicalizing cells with little structure and no central organization coordinating everything is similar to a late 19th, early 20th century Western movement that caused a similar reaction to today’s “Jihadists”; violent Anarchists.
Anarchist assassins killed the president of France, the empress of Austria, the king of Italy and U.S. president William McKinley. Anarchists set off the world’s first car bomb on Wall Street in retaliation for the Nicola and Bart trial. WWI was kicked off by the assassination, of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, blamed on an anarchist.
These actions caused far more harm, destruction and political impact than even some of the worst modern day terrorist movements.
Atran concluded in his book by writing,
“The world community of nations considered anarchism to pose the greatest threat to the internal political and economic order and to international stability…The anarchist threat was used to justify international adventurism, state reaction to anarchism played a formative role in creating national police and intelligence.”
Presidents, Terrorism and the Erosion of Rights
“The cause of his criminality is to be found in his own evil passions and in the evil conduct of those who urge him on, not in any failure by others or by the state to do justice to him or his” said President Theodore Roosevelt in first annual message in 1901.
In 1908, while proposing a law, Roosevelt returned to the topic of anarchist violence, “The anarchist is the enemy of humanity, the enemy of all mankind; and his is a deeper degree of criminality than any other.”
“We’re fighting for the cause of humanity against those who seek to impose the darkness of tyranny and terror upon the entire world” said George W Bush in his speech on terrorism.
“Our own security depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold … timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.” –President Barack Obama’s speech on ISIS
The similarity of government rhetoric and response to violent extremism is striking. Not only is the terrorism discourse both repetitive and tiring, but it also comes at the cost of civil liberties.
Government spying programs expanded as a response to 9/11, with the creation of the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security in the USA. Canada introduced the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act in 2001, Bill C-44 Protection of Canada from Terror Act in 2014 and Bill S-7, which amends the Criminal Code, Canada Evidence Act, and Security of Information Act, in 2013.
Noam Chomsky, when asked about how governments should respond to violent extremism says, “In the case of all crime, it’s of crucial importance to discover the cause and to deal with it as well as what can be done, which often means attending to just concerns.”
Michael Scheuer(2), former CIA officer and head of the Bin Laden Unit, concluded 9/11 happened because of US policies in the Muslim world.
Robert Pape’s work, most illustratively documented in his book Cutting The Fuse, points out that from 1980- 2003 suicide bombing and terrorism campaigns were dominated by secular groups, and the primary cause was resistance to occupation not Islamic fundamentalism.
In conclusion, you don’t need religion for terrorism. The idea that there would be nothing like 9/11 without Islam is a naive belief at best. In light of all the evidence and studies, the suggestion that religion is the cause of terrorism is not only uncritical but ignorant. It’s become far too easy to blame a broad group of humanity and to make sweeping assumptions of a third of humanity. This is morally wrong and counterproductive; leading us down a dangerous path of ignoring the evidence for why terrorism occurs and making perpetual never-ending war.
1-Here I am using professor Atran’s definition and description from his book Talking To The Enemy although I recognize other definitions exist.
2-Michael Scheuer, former CIA head of Bin Laden Unit I did not get a chance to clarify this on the original article.