It is popular—and easy—to formulate a view of humanity that says we have evolved by surviving conflicts with other humans. Therefore, we possess an innate tendency towards violence that is barely contained by the constraints placed upon us by our need to live within social groups. There are certainly enough conflicts recorded in history to support that hypothesis.
But what if that picture has it backwards, and the dominant tendency derived from evolution is not conflict, but rather the need to live within social groups, and violence is merely a response necessary to protect the group from harm? Such a nuance would not be easily detected since most conflicts are at least claimed by the participants to arise as a counter to a threat. However, the significance is critical to understanding the sources of violence and learning how to deal with them.
In a recent post, Humanity and Violence, we discussed these issues within the context of soldiers and their ability to perform violently during warfare. Using World War II and the barbarity experienced on the Eastern Front in Europe, it was possible to postulate that it was the dynamics of existing in threatened battlefield groups that allowed individuals to behave violently in ways they never would have as isolated individuals. Groups provide both peer pressure and authority figures to which humans have developed a tendency to acquiesce. The critical dynamic is not violence being constrained by social interaction, but violence being approved and encouraged via social interaction.
Recent references have been encountered that support the notion that group interactions are important in understanding why people might choose to commit violent and even suicidal acts. The main topic now is not battlefields and organized warfare, but the reasons why people—particularly young people—will associate with terrorist organizations and put their lives at risk, even agreeing to participate in suicide bombings. Are they driven by adherence to radical religious ideologies—or is there something more subtle involved?
An article in the New York Review of Books by Mark Lilla, France:Is There a Way Out, discussed an array of problems France was facing including the constant threat from home-grown terrorism. Included was this comment questioning radical religious beliefs as the main motivator for the terrorists who have done so much damage in France.
“Olivier Roy, a somewhat idiosyncratic French specialist on Islam, published a much-discussed article shortly after the Bataclan massacres arguing that jihadism has nothing to do with Muslim institutions and little to do with Muslim life. He noted that the large majority of French jihadists are second-generation Muslims who, unlike their parents, speak French, grew up with little to no contact with mosques or Muslim organizations, and before their conversions drank, took drugs, and had girlfriends. They are estranged from their parents and don’t know where to fit in. Or they are recent converts, largely from rural areas and many from divorced families. Why is that, Roy asks? If Islam or social conditions are essentially to blame for breeding terrorism, why do such structural problems affect only this very narrowly defined group? Why does it not attract first- or third-generation French Muslims, or those whose Islamic culture is the deepest? And why does its appeal extend to children of the successful middle class? His answer: jihadism is a nihilistic generational revolt, not a religiously inspired utopianism.”
Roy’s “nihilistic generational revolt” may perhaps be an overly slick simplification of a complex phenomenon. However, the notion that young people turn to jihad for reasons that have little to do with religious extremism rang a bell.
Scott Atran produced a book in 2010 titled Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. Atran seems to agree with Olivier Roy on the social situations from which these conversions to terrorism emerge.
“….the data show that most young people who join the jihad had a moderate and mostly secular education to begin with, rather than a radical religious one. And where in modern society do you find young people who hang on the words of older educators and ‘moderates’?”
Atran spent considerable time learning what had motivated those who had joined terrorist groups.
“Youth generally favors actions, not words, and challenge, not calm. That’s a big reason so many who are bored, underemployed, overqualified, and underwhelmed by hopes for the future turn on to jihad with their friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer….fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool.”
Atran emphasizes the importance of being a member—a respected member— of a group to young jihadist converts.
“When you look at young people like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, carried out the slaughter on the London Underground in 2005, and hoped to blast airliners out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006 and 2009, when you look at whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them, then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or the teachings of religion as it is a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy.”
When asked to summarize his thoughts on what motivates terrorists, Atran came up with this simple reply.
“People, including terrorists, don’t simply die for a cause; they die for each other, especially their friends.”
In other words, membership in a group, and the dynamics of that group, are critical in providing motivation for violent and suicidal actions.
George Packer provided a detailed look at Tunisia, the country that seems to be exporting the most fighters to ISIS, in an article in The New Yorker: Exporting Jihad. He reaches conclusions similar to those of Atran.
“Democracy didn’t turn Tunisian youths into jihadis, but it gave them the freedom to act on their unhappiness. By raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive….Educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones, because the economy creates so few professional jobs. A third of recent college graduates can’t find work. Frustration led young people to take to the streets in 2011; a similar desperate impulse is now driving other young people toward jihad. ‘You have a lot of people who have aspirations and can’t meet them,’ Monica Marks, an American doctoral candidate who studies Islamist movements in the Middle East, said.”
And again, group interactions are important in generating movement toward action.
“In Tunisia, leaving to wage jihad has become a social phenomenon. Recruitment spreads like a contagion through informal networks of friends and family members, and the country is small enough so that everyone knows of someone who has disappeared.”
Harvey Whitehouse, an Oxford professor, produced the article What Motivates Extreme Self-Sacrifice? for Pacific-Southern magazine. He begins with this claim:
“New work in the field of anthropology says violent extremism isn’t really motivated by religion—but by fusion within the group.”
Whitehouse has long investigated the factors that enable soldiers and others who find themselves in threatening situations to risk their lives. The evidence he has acquired points to this conclusion:
“….fighters don’t put their lives on the line for abstract values like ‘king and country’ or ‘God, freedom, and democracy.’ They do it for each other.”
Psychologists have discovered that there are extreme forms of group bonding referred to as “identity fusion.”
Modern military leaders may or may not be conscious of this concept, but it is the basis of military training. Recruits are passed through a period of basic training that is extremely difficult, and is a shared experience. The recruits are also indoctrinated to think of themselves as part of a fighting group, not as individuals. The goal is to act instinctively in a way that protects the group.
“Our research suggests that, when you believe others have gone through the same self-defining experiences, it makes the boundary between you and others more porous. This is the essence of fusion with a group. Once fused, people start to treat the group as part of themselves—and to feel empowered by that sensation. When you attack the group, it feels, to the fused person, like a personal attack. The urge to defend the group becomes as primal as the urge to defend the self.”
Whitehouse was moved to formulate this hypothesis:
“….the reason people willingly walk into the jaws of death (e.g. by carrying out suicide attacks) is because they think that in doing so they are defending themselves and their group—which are really the same thing—against an outgroup threat.”
If that position seems extreme or unlikely, Whitehouse suggests considering the most common example of identity fusion: the family.
“How many of us would lay down our lives for our closest family members if there were no other way to save them? I suspect rather a lot of us would….almost as a natural, inescapable expression of the bonds of kinship.”
The various claims reported here are highly suggestive—but not conclusive. However, what is suggested is much more positive and encouraging than the usual assumption that Islam is a radicalizing religion that will generate unending conflict with nonbelievers. While there may always be psychotic religious fanatics among us, there may be practical steps that can be taken to reduce recruitment of young people to their causes.
What has been reported here also supports the contentions made at the beginning of this article:
“But what if….the dominant tendency derived from evolution is not conflict, but rather the need to live within social groups, and violence is merely a response necessary to protect the group from harm?”
“The critical dynamic is not violence being constrained by social interaction, but violence being approved and encouraged via social interaction.”
That casts humanity in a better light—and provides hope for a stable, nonviolent future.
The interested reader might find these articles of value: