Fundamentalism, Radicalization and Terrorism. Part 1: terrorism as dissolution in a complex system
In the first of two papers in this Special Issue, Lord Alderdice draws on his personal experience of living and working in Northern Ireland and other countries that have suffered from terrorism, and describes from a psychoanalytic and systemic perspective the history of national, cultural and political conflicts which form the backdrop to the struggles against fundamentalism, radicalization and terrorism in current times. By examining and understanding the group dynamics and collective experiences of minority populations that have suffered generations of subjugation, humiliation and injustice at the hands of others, Lord Alderdice demonstrates how terrorism is not an individual but a group phenomenon and that any successful intervention aimed at reducing fundamentalism, radicalization and terrorism needs to identify and take into account the complex relational processes and experiences in all parties involved in the current global conflict.
When many people, including policy-makers and political leaders, in the United States of America were suddenly confronted with terrorism in a new way, they found it difficult to know how to react to the four co-ordinated and catastrophic terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda in the US on the morning of Tuesday 11 September 2001. There was naturally profound shock and anger at the first major attack on American soil since Pearl Harbour, and it was regarded as a declaration of war and an unjustified and evil assault. It also punctured the sense of security of those who over many generations had come to the United States fleeing wars, revolutions, pogroms and persecution. Now they felt vulnerable in a way that they had not experienced since they or their forebears had arrived. This vulnerability was accompanied by something new. It was not just the fundamentalist way of thinking of these Islamist attackers that seemed so alien to Americans, and indeed to most Europeans too, but also the feelings of hate that were so strong that they drove people not only to kill others but to sacrifice their own lives for a politico-religious purpose, and to feel justified in engaging in terrorist actions that were in contravention of any normal rule of law. In those parts of the world that regard themselves as progressive and secular, at least in the public sphere, where the focus is on improving the individual social and economic well-being of oneself and one’s family, where the rule of law is the perceived set of rules for societal behaviour, and where the advancements in science, technology, medicine and communications seem to demonstrate the success of Western thinking, it seemed hard to understand the fundamentalist religious thinking, the radical anti-western impulses and the murderous actions of these terrorist attackers who wanted to wreck and destroy rather than emulate democratic progress.
In such circumstances, in addition to the natural wish to hit back with a hard physical response, people search for a way of making sense of what is happening. It was quickly assumed that there was a linear path connecting these three phenomena. It was described to me by an official in the FBI.
These people were persuaded of an extreme way of thinking, a distortion of Muslim teachings which we call Islamic fundamentalism. They then became radicalized, probably by some kind of indoctrination by extremists who were anti-West and anti-American, and then they were persuaded to get involved in terrorism.
The outcome of this analysis of a linear trajectory from religious fundamentalism through radicalization to terrorism, was that the authorities believed that if they were going to stop terrorism, in addition to a hard security response, it was necessary to turn this ‘extreme thinking’ into a more moderate form of religion that stayed safely in the private sphere and contented itself with peaceable relations and thinking more of another world, rather than acting violently in this one. This general analysis has persisted through the various phases of the ‘War on Terror’, ‘Combating Violent Extremism’, and now ‘Countering or Preventing Extremism’. As the evidence mounted that each phase of this approach was not working and in addition was alienating many moderate Muslims, the tactics changed but they were still informed by the same linear analysis despite it being known that the vast majority of those who hold to their religious faith and practice in a fundamentalist way, do not support the politically motivated violence of Islamist terrorists. The strategy of terrorism, which has been spelt out clearly in written documents from the time of Bakunin and the Russian anarchists through to modern Islamist terrorism is to provoke the state to an overreaction which will split and alienate the community (Naji, 2004 Naji, A. B. (2004). The management of savagery: The most critical phase through which the Umma will pass. (W. McCants (2006), Trans.). Cambridge, MA: John M Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University.
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The Irish Peace Process
Having grown up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s there was something familiar about this mistaken approach to terrorism. When my home community broke down again into violence at that time the natural, and in many ways appropriate, response of the Government was to treat the street violence and the subsequent terrorist and paramilitary activity as subversion and a challenge to law and order that needed to be put down with vigorous police and military interventions. However the outcome was not a resolution of the problem but an escalation of it. In the same way, the military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere have not resolved the problem of terrorism. Instead the whole of the wider Middle East and North Africa has descended into chaotic violence and massive social destruction, and international relations in the rest of the world are now worse than at any time since the Second World War.
It is well known that in Northern Ireland, after decades of communal violence, and the failure of many political interventions, a peace process was developed that led to a cessation of violence and the creation of new political institutions, and although these structures are not working as well as they should, no-one expects a return to the campaigns of terrorist violence. We have still substantial political disagreements, but at least we have found a way of disagreeing without killing each other. A good deal has been written about this Irish Peace Process, most of it focusing on the particular history, politics, economics, and religious divisions in Ireland, as well as the new constitutional and institutional arrangements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the work that was done since then on resolving the problems of policing and the administration of justice. These observations tend to point to the particularities of the Irish experience and lead many observers to assume, or even insist, that while it is interesting, it has little relevance for the very different challenges presented by the global Islamist jihadists. There are indeed profound differences in the two contexts, however all such situations involve communities of human beings that cannot get along together. As groups they think, feel and behave in ways that seem impenetrable to outsiders from peaceful stable societies and these disturbances of large group relationships have resulted in apparently intractable violence.
One of the key reasons for the relative success of the Irish Peace Process was that instead of focusing only on the long-lasting divisions of religion and politics and the historic abuses and discrimination, we found new ways of thinking and understanding our problems. This was made possible by changes in the wider context as well as by creativity in the thinking of some of the political leaders. It had become clear that the use of the police, the military and the administration of justice could contain, but not resolve the situation. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) also realized that while they would not be defeated, they could not defeat the British authorities. This led all sides to rethinking at a fundamental level.
The law generally operates at the level of the individual rather than the group. If a crime has been committed the approach of law is to try to identify who was responsible and to take that person through due process to conviction and appropriate sanctions. If the rule of law was not working, could this be because the problem was not essentially one of individuals who broke the law, but was instead a group phenomenon? When we are confronted with lung cancer we do not try to identify why a particular cell has become uncontrollably mitotic rather than any other cell. Instead we deal with the problem at a different systemic level with surgery, radio- and chemo-therapy, and most importantly persuading the population not to smoke. To use another analogy, we cannot understand the operation of an ant colony simply by analysing how each individual ant functions because as a large group new ‘emergent’ phenomena appear that can only be observed at that ‘large group’ level. In a similar way, while still implementing the law, we moved away from asking why any particular individual became a terrorist and began to see our troubles as the results of historic disturbed relationships between communities of people. Instead of looking for blame we began to analyse the key sets of disturbed relationships – between Protestants and Catholics within Northern Ireland; between the people of Ireland, North and South; and between Britain and Ireland. The whole of the Irish Peace Process was then built on this analysis, with three strands of talks addressing the three key sets of relationships, involving only those political representatives in each strand of negotiations that were relevant to that set of relationships, and focusing on those issues that related to that set of relationships. This language of relationships was a central feature of the public discourse about the process at that time, though it has tended to be overlooked since. The language of ‘relationships’ mirrored the systemic ideas that were developing in some approaches to family therapy at that time, but the way that I have found easiest to convey this to people who are not familiar with systems theory or the complexity of large group processes is to tell stories about relationships, because everyone has a sense that this is something they understand, even though in reality there is great complexity involved.
As we had increasing success in this approach to thinking about violent political conflict in the Irish Peace Process, I also explored its application to intractable conflict in other places and worked with colleagues who conducted scientific research by gathering evidence directly from people involved in conflict in various trouble spots (Atran, 2016 Atran, S. (2016, June). The devoted actor: Unconditional commitment and intractable conflict across cultures. Current Anthropology, 57, S192–S203. doi: 10.1086/685495
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A new paradigm has begun to develop from this work and experience that makes sense of fundamentalism, radicalization and terrorism in terms of what might be called large group psychology.
What makes a terrorist?
Let us go back to that first question people ask when terrorism explodes into their community – ‘Why are these people attacking us with this horrible violence?’
The usual answers given in public discourse are that they are either psychologically disturbed, or that they are evil people. However, direct engagement and explorations as a psychiatrist and politician, both inside and outside the therapeutic context in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, has demonstrated to me that most of the people who become involved in terrorism have no prior neurotic or psychotic disorder. Some people develop PTSD and other reactions as a result of their experiences of violence but that is a different matter. Many have grown up in communities where over time the tradition of using physical force to address political problems had developed and their fathers and grandfathers were honoured for their participation in a historic struggle. As a result their involvement in terrorism was an identification with these significant figures. It was ego-syntonic and not an expression of internal conflict. They often described experiences of major trauma where friends or family members were killed or badly injured in bombings, shootings and other violence episodes, and felt that the official institutions – the police, the army and the justice system – gave them and their community inadequate protection or were indeed the instigators of the violence. Others who did not come from parts of the community with a family history of political violence may nevertheless have experienced the same kinds of trauma and found themselves reacting by joining a terrorist or paramilitary organization. This was consciously seen both as a way of joining with others to protect their community and also of satisfying the wish for revenge for their own hurt or the death or injury of their loved one.
These two groups – those who were following a significant tradition (identification with an admired person), and those who joined in a violent response to loss and injury (identification with the aggressor) – often despised another group who appeared to have joined primarily to benefit from the culture of organized crime through which terrorist organizations survive and exert control in their own communities. The largely criminal element seeks to gain personally from extortion, racketeering, drugs and illegal businesses such as the sale of stolen tobacco, alcohol or laundered fuel. These activities are needed by a terrorist organization to raise the substantial funds necessary to conduct an illegal campaign, but the more committed terrorist has a political cause for which they gave up family and financial security and risked their lives. They did not seek personal financial benefit through these illegal activities and resent their political cause being used as a flag of convenience by those whose agenda is crude personal material gain.
After years of active terrorist activity, some of the leaders of the major terrorist organization called the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) became elected politicians and even ministers in government, and others became community leaders and activists. They acted appropriately, showing care and sensitivity to the needs of the community, and sometimes even of the ‘other’ community and its leaders. In short, the evidence from the work of those who have actually engaged with people and groups engaged in terrorism is clear. There is no evidential basis for the view that either mental or emotional disturbance or a particular or malign personality type can provide an explanation for why these particular individuals became involved in terrorism.
The political roots of Irish terrorism: a group phenomenon
What then is terrorism, and how and when does it appear? Terrorism usually only breaks out after a lengthy gestation, but once released has its own terrible dynamic as communities begin to think in different ways than when they live in stable peaceful prosperous societies. In Ireland there was a long history of colonial government by Britain, and this not only involved socio-economic disadvantage for Irish people and oppressive political control, but also religious and cultural conflicts. The Anglo-Saxon culture of Britain, and its approach to state and church governance diverged historically from that of Celtic Catholic Ireland which identified more with continental Europe. In the United Kingdom there has recently been a referendum in which England and Wales voted to leave the European Union and Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. It is worth recalling that this is something of a historic repetition of Henry VIII’s decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church, risking not just serious economic consequences, as is the case now, but eternal damnation. The British state survived, as did Anglicanism, but Scotland retained its history of the ‘auld alliance’ with France, its different legal system and its Presbyterianism, all of which linked it with continental Europe. Ireland as a whole also maintained a more pro-European culture. Ulster identified more with Scotland in its Presbyterianism, which traced its origins to the Low Countries and Switzerland, rather than with England and Anglicanism, and while their loyalty to Britain was intense, it was premised on fact that the same person who wore the Scottish crown also wore the English crown. The Ulster Scots Presbyterians were discriminated against and persecuted by the Anglicans, but the long history of violence in the period of the reformation and counter-reformation and the later merging of Irish Nationalism and Irish Catholicism left Ulster Protestants feeling that there would be greater tolerance for their beliefs and way of life if they remained in the United Kingdom than if they joined in an independent Catholic Ireland.
We know that with individuals we are dealing with personalities that have a persistent way of being-in-the-world. This is not just a set of beliefs about the world, or memories of good or bad experiences. It is a way of perceiving reality and living in relationships. Culture is a large group equivalent of personality. It is the persistent way of ‘being-in-the-world’ of a large group. It expresses how that community experiences reality and engages in relationships with other large groups. It does not change easily in the face of new experiences and often results in responses to current events that do not make much sense in terms of the ‘here-and-now’ and are not really appropriate to it. If terrorism is a group phenomenon rather than one of separate individuals how is it similar to and different from the psychology of individuals?
The struggle in Ireland against English hegemony was characterized from at least the eighteenth century on by the adoption and refinement of the tactic of terrorism and by the early part of the twentieth century it enabled the twenty-six southern counties of Ireland to defeat British rule in that part of Ireland and secede from the United Kingdom. Predictably the economic consequences for the Ireland as a whole were not good over the next few generations up until Ireland joined the European Community in 1973, but this never produced any regret about the move to independence. There are some things that cannot be measured in socio-economic terms, and when people engage in terrorism they know that they are not personally likely to be better off, but they are driven by different values, so-called ‘sacred values’, and believe that their community will benefit by having control of its own affairs and a better sense of esteem. This is why my colleague, Scott Atran calls them ‘devoted actors’ who operate on the basis of sacred values in contrast to the so-called ‘rational actors’ of ‘realpolitik’ who operate on the basis of socio-economic and power benefits.
While the term ‘terror’ is used to describe how some authoritarian regimes of both the left and right have tried to control their own people, the term ‘terrorism’ is usually and most appropriately applied today to the triangular tactic used by those who are less militarily powerful as they struggle against a powerful establishment. Unable to engage in open warfare they attack victims who are entirely innocent, though they may have symbolic significance, because the more powerful government is seen as responsible for their welfare and defence. It is not the victims who are their target, therefore, but rather the responsible government, who the terrorists can show as being unable to defend their own people. The government is then provoked to attack back and often to over-react, both losing their own moral authority and also alienating further the community from which the terrorists have emerged. The power of this tactic may be seen in Ireland where Britain had emerged victorious from the First World War in 1918, but was driven from most of the neighbouring island of Ireland less than four years later, by the IRA led by the utterly committed and tactically shrewd Michael Collins. When he and his colleagues accepted the partition of Ireland as a step towards full independence for the whole island, the anger of those who refused to accept the compromise with Britain resulted in a bitter civil war, and in the newly created entity of Northern Ireland the Catholic nationalists who remained as a permanent minority felt a deep sense of betrayal by their southern co-religionists. They felt no loyalty to the Northern state and the government of Northern Ireland in turn was suspicious of them with the result that the Catholic nationalist community did not integrate and there was discrimination in housing and jobs and unfair treatment of that section of the community.
In the late 1960s when the civil rights marches in the USA offered a new model for effecting change, Northern Irish Catholics came out on to the streets to demand civil rights, and were joined by Protestant liberals and socialists, but there was a violent reaction from the Protestant unionist majority who saw this not just as a demand for civil rights but as an attempt to bring down the Northern Ireland state and force the re-unification of Ireland. This reaction to the civil rights marches blocked the route for potentially peaceful change and opened the path of regression into street riots which quickly deteriorated into vigilantism and then to terrorism with the reappearance and reinvigoration of the IRA which had been dormant since the end of their last unsuccessful terrorist campaign in the late 1950s.
On the Protestant unionist side militias quickly established themselves as defenders of the constitutional status quo, The two largest were known as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and by the early 1970s there was widespread bombing of buildings, and huge numbers of fatal shootings by the PIRA, and the UDA and UVF, while the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the Northern Ireland police force) were tasked with maintaining law and order and defeating the terrorist campaigns. The IRA’s bombing and shooting campaign was followed in the 1980s with the hunger strikes, the ‘armalite and ballot paper’ strategy, which combined terrorism with an entry into elected politics, and then came more targeted assassinations and car bombings. By the 1990s there had been a widening of the range of those people who were regarded as ‘legitimate targets’ for killings, and the strategy of bombing mainland Britain developed. There was deep hatred and division in the community and Northern Ireland politics became ever more polarized. The failure of all of these destructive tactics to bring about a resolution eventually led to the development of a Peace Process involving negotiations amongst all the parties. After the Belfast Agreement in 1998 attacks on security forces and the ‘other’ side of the community were replaced by attacks on elements in their own side of the community as a way of maintaining control. This too settled as the new agreed political arrangements were gradually put in place and a new way of structuring the community evolved.
How had the rest of the community and the responsible sovereign government in London responded to the regression into terrorist and reactive violence? In the early years of breakdown into gross chaos and mayhem the gruesome and relatively random attacks created widespread acute terror. In the areas of actual street violence the levels of suicide and depression went down, but in the penumbra – the areas around the scenes of violence, which heard the news, and feared what could happen – anxiety mounted and the prescription of benzodiazepines and other psychotropic medication rose considerably. There were demands for a robust security response, resulting in executive detention without trial and vigorous army activity alongside the police. The number of prisoners, soldiers and policemen grew exponentially. Soon there was trouble inside as well as outside the growing prison estate. The prisoners inside, like the community outside, became ever more divided along religious lines and there were major movements of population reflecting this. The communal divisions extended beyond the traditional apartheid in schools and sports activities. People increasingly tended to live, work and socialize only with co-religionists. The territory controlled by each group was clearly marked out by flags and sectarian murals painted on the gable walls of houses. The kerb stones at the edge of pavements were painted red, white and blue in Protestant Unionist areas, and green, white and orange in Catholic Nationalist areas.
This acute phase was gradually replaced by a period of chronic disturbance. 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, and was reflected in control of territory. This was physically maintained by attacks on those who crossed the community divide in their personal life, and by regular marches by partisan community groups which marked out the geographical boundaries of the two sections of the community. Only after about thirty years did the many attempts at an exploratory healing process begin to make significant advances towards peace when the British Government came together with the Irish Government and all the parties including Sinn Fein, the political wing of Irish Republicanism (the PIRA being the ‘military wing’).
From the individual to the group
It will not be difficult to discern in these references to the process of acute dissolution and regression, emergence of primitive phenomena, chronicity, containment (with security containment measures rather than medication or in-patient care) and a slow resistance-bedevilled healing process, something analogous to the breakdown and repair of mental health in an individual. While the way large groups function is not simply a direct read-across from the psychology of the individual, I began to explore how far it was possible to translate the evolutionary or developmental psychoanalytical approach beyond the arena of individual intra-psychic conflict and mental illness into the field of intra- and inter-communal conflict.
While I was doing this from my perspective as a psychoanalytical psychiatrist, some others were using different language to express the same thing. John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, a largely Catholic nationalist party which was fervently against the use of violence for political ends, had closely observed the process of European integration after the Second World War, and understood that while social and economic cooperation were the tools of the European project its purpose was to ensure peace in Europe after the terrible experiences of repeated and devastating wars. He also appreciated that the question was not whether individual people had good relationships, but whether the large groups to which they belonged had good relationships with each other. The violence was therefore seen by us and people like us as a disturbance of relationships between these large groups and that these disturbed relationships needed to be understood and addressed.
The notion that we should try to achieve some understanding of people and groups involved in politically motivated violence is a challenge to the simple law and order approach. The immediate emotional response to a terrorist campaign of splitting the community into bad (the terrorists who are outside the pale) and good (law-abiding citizens who need protected from them) was clearly observable in Northern Ireland where it deepened divisions between Protestants and Catholics, less over the acceptability of terrorism than about whether the government attempts to deal with it were justified, proportionate and appropriate. Similarly in the global ‘War on Terror’ after 9/11, while the terrorists were partially isolated, those who proclaimed the war against them also increasingly experienced antagonism from erstwhile allies because of their military reaction to the terrorist campaign. The result was that instead of being seen as successful defenders of their people from the evils of terrorism most of the political leaders of the ‘War on Terror’ departed the political scene with the mark of failure and with their reputations for moral leadership damaged and permanently stained. Meanwhile those terrorist leaders who have not been killed are unmoved in their determination, and the strength and depth of the hatred involved on all sides continues to overcome any rational appreciation of the damage of the constantly expanding war which is self-evidently not in the interests of either individuals or society. Rational argument is a weak lever in the face of profound violence and hate, and in any case splitting into good and bad and making the struggle into a moral one of good against evil is the exercise of a psychological defence mechanism against profound anxiety rather than a result of rational psychologically-informed analysis. It is also a very particular way of thinking which does not engage with the complexity involved.
Another kind of ‘good/bad split’ that has been adopted by some analysts proposes that terrorism is a result of inequality and post-colonial poverty. Of course there is a moral imperative to address the painful inequalities of education, health and economic well-being in the world, however it is generally not when societies are at their poorest that they fall victim to the tactic of terrorism. Northern Ireland began to experience terrorism as Catholic grievances were actually being addressed by a more progressive Protestant unionist government in the late 1960s. The Middle East became more unstable after oil was discovered there. Mr Osama bin Laden was not a poor man, indeed he came from an element in the more wealthy Saudi elite. What he did demonstrate in his personal life was much of the experience of humiliation and disrespect which I have found to be the emotional driving forces in the group dynamic behind the involvement in terrorism (Robinson, 2001 Robinson, A. (2001). Bin Laden – Behind the mask of the terrorist. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing.
That it is not in the depths of deprivation, but at the point of improvement that things become most vulnerable to breakdown suggests that the link with socio-economic disadvantage and emotional reaction comes from a sense that the relative disadvantage is experienced as unfair. This is not just a reaction to current experiences, but may be a sustained and historic sense of injustice which survives long after the actual period of traumatic unfairness is past and the context has completely changed. As we found out in Northern Ireland, simply improving current socio-economic conditions does not resolve the problem. Where people believe that their relative disadvantage is the result of poor education or social or cultural differences they may even accept these as unhappy but justifiable causes of their disadvantage. When their educational opportunities improve and they feel as capable as the next person, they begin to see their disadvantage more in terms of historic cultural, racial or political discrimination. The next step is to try to change this by peaceful political means, but when non-violent options are exhausted the use of physical force comes on to the agenda. This relatively rational explanation for the emergence of violence as a last resort could be seen as a ‘realpolitik’ of the left.
Those on the right who espouse what is more commonly referred to as ‘realpolitik’ attempt to give a rational analysis of what national leaders or their countries perceive to be in their own best interests, and propose responses of a simple behavioural kind, giving economic and political favours as encouragement, and embarking on punitive operations and war to discourage negative behaviour. The approach of the Bush administration to the wider Middle East, and Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank could be seen as being characterized by this approach to the problem. This will not work as an explanation nor have the actions that have flowed from it been successful in putting down the violent threat, and this should not be surprising to us since we know from our clinical experience that individuals and groups often act against their own best interests, especially when their emotions are high.
Disrespect, humiliation and injustice
As I came to develop personal relationships with those who represented the different strands of group life in the politics of Ireland, North and South I was struck by how the strength of their feelings was associated with powerful communal memories of times when their group, or they as representative individuals of their group, had been disrespected or humiliated. These experiences provoked deep anger and created a capacity for responses at least as violent as those that had been experienced. When these problems of institutionalized humiliation and unfairness were not able to be resolved by democratic politics because of the inbuilt majority of Protestant unionists and when the civil rights marches of the 1960s failed to make the necessary changes, there was a breakdown again into terrorism.
Subsequently I have explored whether this triad of the sense of unfairness/injustice, humiliation/disrespect and the failure of peaceful democratic attempts to right the perceived wrongs, was only related to the outbreak of terrorism in Northern Ireland, or whether there are similar underlying patterns in other countries that have experienced violent insurgencies. Let me briefly give a few examples.
In Peru there is a historic and, despite recent elections, a current failure by the descendants of the Spanish conquistadors to integrate the majority native population into the mainstream of establishment life. They remain generally poor, but also disrespected and excluded from positions of power. This was borne in on me some years ago as I participated in a ceremony when the remains of seven of the tens of thousands of those ‘disappeared’ during the Sendero Luminosa (Shining Path, Maoist) terrorist insurgency were returned to their families. As I walked with the families through the streets of Ayacucho following the coffins, few people paid any attention. They just went about their business ignoring this multiple funeral. These grieving people and their dead relatives seemed to be of no import; they were split off and disregarded. It is worth noting that despite the defeat of Sendero Luminso, the politics of Peru remain disturbed.
In Nepal – the last Hindu kingdom – the upper castes in power excluded the lower castes from positions of respect, and split the community into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, with the same toxic humiliation I had identified previously. When the limited moves to democracy were abandoned the representatives of the ordinary people then espoused a violent Maoist strategy, but only after any democratic prospect was removed. They subsequently engaged in a peace process which brought an end to the monarchy and Prachandra the leader of the Maoists became Prime Minister of the new republic.
One thing that is striking about Nepal, Peru and Northern Ireland is that despite their angry, violent promotion of the cause of the oppressed, the terrorist treatment and abuse of their own people during the struggle was appalling. Their lack of humanity in the treatment of those in whose cause they fought, powerfully points up that it is not merely a rational, sympathetic response to the socio-economic plight of the poor. I had been very much aware of this at home where the Roman Catholic nationalist community suffered more from the PIRA campaign than did the Protestant unionist community, and when I became involved in the Arab/Israel conflict and especially with the problems for Palestinians, I found all the same things. Here was a community that felt humiliated and unfairly treated, and that came to believe that there was no peaceful way of resolving their problems. The result of them turning to violence certainly inconvenienced their Israeli enemies, but the people who suffered most from their violent struggle were their own people. I should say that it was also very clear to me that Jewish Israelis also carried with them a profound sense of historic humiliation, disrespect and unjust and profoundly unfair treatment and a belief that only the use of force could protect them in the future, so this triad can affect more than one community in any conflict.
Although the situations in Northern Ireland, Peru, Nepal and Israel/Palestine are widely divergent when assessed on economic, historical and political grounds, all experienced violent terrorist campaigns which had emerged in the context of a long-standing sense of injustice and humiliation felt by a significant section of the population. There was also a deep feeling of shame connected to a sense of the failure to protect, repair or resolve the injustice and unfairness of their circumstances. These feelings were personal but also communal, and experienced as a loss of power or agency, with the terrible feeling of being wiped out. However, adopting the tactic of terrorism can hardly been seen as a simple rational choice of strategy since it has been tried in many parts of the world and while it has only been successful in a few situations, it has inevitably been much more destructive of the community from which it emanates that of the community that they see as the enemy. A rational individual reaction model is much less helpful in explaining this self-damaging outcome than one which would take account of the processes of evolution and dissolution in the group and the power of emotions in the causation of political terrorism.
Is it the case that young people have espoused Islamist terrorism because they have adopted extreme religious ideas that provoke them to engage in terrorism? Research interviews conducted by my colleagues with young people in the Middle East and North Africa show that they had little intellectual understanding of Islamic theology, and much of what they did know they had absorbed after their involvement in terrorist groups, or even after their imprisonment for terrorist offences. This suggests that their engagement was not a result of a primary cognitive commitment to a religious-political programme. Indeed for many it was not so much recruitment by the godfathers of terrorism but, as Sageman (2004 Sageman, M. (2004). Understanding terror networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 10.9783/9780812206791 [Crossref], [Google Scholar]
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Analysts of terrorism have often attempted to differentiate between the kind of terrorist insurgencies associated with nationalistic struggles and the conflict between Islamists and the West which is seen as more irrational, fundamentalist and not open to engagement. However in my own experience of meeting and talking extensively with leading figures in Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East over a number of years it has been clear that as far as they are concerned the same key problems are present – severe relative deprivation, a deep sense of injustice especially (but not only) on the question of land, experiences of humiliation and disrespect and a belief that all non-violent options have been exhausted. In that sense those movements in Palestine, Lebanon and the surrounding region are movements whose purpose is to right perceived wrongs on behalf of their own people. In so far as they have turned to co-religionists for help it is in the service of this primary purpose rather than their being primarily instruments of a wider malign conspiracy or a result of their fundamentalist theology. However the more they see no peaceful route to resolving the historic as well as the current hurt and grievance of their people and instead experience sanctions and exclusion, the more their people regress into destructive and self-destructive thinking and actions and see their difficulties as being not only a problem of their own local community but as they fuse with the wider Muslim world they see their problems as a local version of a global humiliation and injustice against Muslims.
In the early days of my engaging with Hamas and Hezbollah it seemed possible that if an alternative route could be opened up, an evolution towards a peaceful outcome could slowly be found, as had been the case in South Africa and Ireland. However all attempts to achieve this were frustrated by other forces and now I am not optimistic that there is any intention of opening up a route for the peaceful resolution of this conflict. What is certain is that the mere passage of time, attempts to destroy the extremist ideology of such groups, and the killing of individual leaders have not been successful and will not be successful in expunging their feelings of humiliation and injustice. The reasons behind the adoption of the tactic of terrorism are the failure to deal with the disturbed historic relationships between groups of people, as well as the resultant feelings and memories that are passed from generation to generation and the power differentials that ensure that more open confrontation is not viable. This suggests that terrorism is not a result of extremist thinking but a reaction to extreme emotions, specifically the feelings association with humiliation and profound unfairness, and the obstruction of their resolution through peaceful democratic engagement.
The continuation of the complex I have described will lead to deepening regression. As Khaled Mashal, the leader of Hamas at the time, put it to me, ‘Israel and the West does not have to engage with us, but they should understand that we are prepared to work the system and to stand for elections. If we are unsuccessful we will be in opposition and if we are elected to government we will govern. You may not like how we will govern, but it will be the way approved democratically by our people. If the US and Israel do not engage with us there are others coming after us who do not want to work the system; they want to burn the system’. This was the first clear indication to me of the rise of ISIS and others of that kind, and the subsequent course of events proved him right. Failure to engage with the concerns of the Palestinian people, led to the rise of the PLO. Failure to create real progress with the PLO led to the rise of Hamas. Failure to engage with Hamas leads to the rise of other more extreme and regressed manifestations.
Group processes and globalization: the current picture
This leads us to the large group psychological processes at work in the emergence of the global jihadist networks of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and others. At one level one could observe that a combination of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ‘stable instability’ of the Cold War led to regression, with the re-appearance of old nationalisms and religious divisions that had been kept under wraps for many years. In particular, the long-standing resentments of the Muslim world at the defeat and destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the ending of the Caliphate in the early years of the twentieth century had been simmering for decades and all attempts to build more progressive democratic structures had been frustrated by Western interventions and support for authoritarian regimes in the region. In addition, since humanity has not yet found a way of living without an enemy, the collapse of ‘the familiar enemy’, the Soviet Union, led to the emergence of Islamism not only sui generis, but also, one could argue, as an unconscious result of the need of the West for a new enemy.
Added to these challenges, globalization, consequent on technological developments in communication, travel, and weapons of mass effect has produced profound group anxiety and a regression in societal thinking towards religious and non-religious fundamentalism and culturally to old societal themes and structures that appeared to provide people with some reassurance of certainty. The reaction is complex because of the deep ambivalence to the West where, mixed with antipathy towards its dominance and intrusion, there is a wish to possess some of the benefits of education, healthcare and economic prosperity represented by Europe and more especially its offspring, the United States of America. There is also the haunting puzzle of why their Islamic society which was once fertile in ideas and innovation has suffered such reversals and humiliation. Part of the political answer given by Islamists is that it is not just western imperialism, but what they see as Muslim betrayal in the form of the Arab royal families and the regimes in Egypt and elsewhere holding on to and enjoying the oil wealth and power from their alliance with the West rather than sharing these resources with their own people. The hypocrisy, as it is seen, of Western powers proclaiming an attachment to democracy and human rights while allying themselves with undemocratic governments and disregarding the results of free and fair elections, adds to the sense of shame, humiliation, injustice and deep anger and the dangerous possibility of a regression beyond the split between Islam and the West into the communal split and sectarian bitterness of Shiite against Sunni.
It is important to note that the regression into fundamentalism, and the sense of humiliation and injustice are also present in Europe and the United States of America. Some of the same angry feelings are felt in their populations too, and fundamentalism on the right and the left is also an increasing characteristic of thinking in those regions. A key difference is that in the West democracy gives an opportunity to express those frustrations by changing the government and shape of the polity, as evidenced by Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as President in the USA. As much as these events provoke extremes of outrage, jubilation and adulation, such emotive responses, albeit involving significant proportions of the population, have not degenerated into the large group regressive processes that result in violence. In less contained parts of the world, where populations differentiated by ethnicity, religion or ideology are marginalized or persecuted, and change through peaceful democratic means is blocked and frustrated, violent conflict becomes the only language that is heard, and is often more a communication of angry despair, than a considered strategy for change. It is only through attempts to understand and address their collective history of traumas, injustices, humiliations and grievances that continue to be so strongly felt, that another language of more peaceful engagement may emerge and prevent the ongoing intergenerational transmission of fundamentalism, radicalization and terrorism.
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