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What Draws Youth To Political Violence?


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.

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  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    I linked to the a comprehensive study on Madrasas, anecdotal video evidence doesn’t amount to much verse scientific studies.

  • OldBoris

    “But those immigration policies were set by Western leaders, not by Muslims.”

    That is partially true. It’s true that western leaders set these migration policies. But it’s not just their naive idealism that has led to Muslims infesting Europe. Muslims, who are always quick to speak of the superiority of their faith and who love to hold on to their own culture when they migrate, decided to come to a land populated by people they hated. And, of course, the Saudi, Emirati, Kuwaiti and Qatari governments threatened in diplomatic discussions behind closed doors during the oil crisis of 1973 to cut off all oil if Europe would not allow Muslim migrants in by the hundreds of thousands a year.

    “Also, if you want to stem the tide, then it’s even more important NOT to destroy and plunder other people’s country.”

    And we come to a full circle. Those who are always first to scream that the attacks of terrorist Muslims do not represent Muslims, are now accusing your average westerner who is without political power of being behind ‘destroying and plundering countries’. If I read that book of yours correctly, Allah hates hypocrites most of all (and that’s no small feat considering the sheer amount of people on this planet at the moment who belong to groups entirely hated by Allah according to the Quran).

  • OldBoris

    What of the woman and little child in England who now have to miss their husband and father because Muslims beheaded him? What of the fourteen hundred families who had their little daughters raped by Muslim gangs? What of the thousands upon thousands of Christian, Jewish and Yezidi families who have been subjected to violence so horrible that I can’t repeat it without it bringing a tear to my eye, in the name of that ghastly prophet of yours?

    What of them? Do they have the right to fight those who fight them?

  • 1DrM

    He thought he was being clever. This is TYPICAL Hindutva troll behavior : changing names, lying, endorsing violence and terrorism, engaged in conspiracy theories, pretending to be “humanitarians” and other such shenanigans online. Compare his first and latest post, and see the quick metamorphosis from a vegan extremist humanitarian to hate spewing saffron simian i.e. from ignorant moron to being a..well a more bigoted ignorant moron. He doesn’t even know his own religion but will still eat RSS, VHP, Sang Parivar, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena feces.

    Ask yourself who are the most extreme bigots who have ever posted on this site supporting rape and terrorism? Answer : Hindu extremists. These saffron simians are unaccomplished, uncouth losers with no redeemable qualities whatsoever, the product of failed culture. Check out this tough guy :

  • 1DrM

    LoL come on, let it out, primate. The stupidity, ignorance, hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance amongst India’s fecal fascists is beyond pathetic. There’s nothing more amusing then watching a Hindu extremist hemorrhage online. You’re the one with a “personal vendetta,” with all the bigotry you’ve displayed against Muslims. You continue to prove my point that you’re a Hindu extremist but are you’re high on your stench if you think you can make ludicrous remarks and not get called on them.

    I can smell a saffron simians like you a mile away…

  • Trishank

    I’m an Indian and seen with my own eyes the condition of Madrasas in India, so if you think that you are giving enlightenment about their conditions and practices in India to me then I can’t say much about your ignorance.
    Regarding the example you quoting, it’s quite possible to have other religion followers as its students in a Madrasa. Since we have thousands of places where means of education is non-existent, people do frequent whatever place of education which is near to them. It’s just like Christian Missionary School which usually have students following different religions.
    Regarding my own experience, most of the Madrasa that I have visited didn’t have any facility for teaching any other subjects. Only have the Book Qu’ran with a teacher who didn’t know the Arabic. And about the teaching standards, the less said the better it would be. And about the students, they were used to be convinced day-after-day that they are some kinda juvenile criminals the day they were born, so they better be punished in living hell by insertion of Quran in their throats.

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