Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Psychological Explanation of Extremism and Terrorism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page
Media ID: 55375753

Police officers in Manchester as investigations into the May 22 terrorist attack continue. (AFP)

Cairo – At a time when Egypt witnessed the horrific terrorist attack in al-Minya and when Britain’s Manchester was still reeling from its own terror assault, Bibliotheca Alexandrina released a very important book that tackles terrorism.

In his book, “The Psychological Explanation of Extremism and Terrorism,” psychologist and former Egyptian Minister of Culture Dr. Shaker Abdul Hamid seeks to understand the roots of extremism and its effect on the world.

Shaker concludes his book with a hope that the culture of creativity will confront the culture of fundamentalism and terrorism. I will focus on the fourth chapter, terrorism and political violence, a phenomenon that has been paining the globe, from Manchester to al-Minya, in an attempt to understand the hellish developments of the modern world.

The image that the two attacks projected is that terrorism works on spreading fear, terror and the constant sense of being threatened. This is because it is difficult to predict as no one knows when and where such attacks may take place.

This crisis, says Shaker, pushes us towards finding the causes of terrorism This includes the environment that produces it and the political and symbolic messages that it is trying to deliver through its narratives that ceaselessly appear here and there.

The Problem of defining fundamentalism

Shaker goes deep in searching for the definition of terrorism that has become problem of the theorists tackling this global “plague”. This problem emerges in the varying interpretations of what constitutes a terrorist act. What some groups deem to be legitimate resistance others deem to be terrorism.

Despite these difficulties, most observers have agreed that terrorism is the methodical use of violence to achieve political goals by a group or organization. These groups or organizations usually target state symbols in their pursuit of their goals.

Difficulties remain however in attempting to reach a convincing definition of terrorism, one which distinguishes between terror and violent behavior. The agreement that has so far been reached is that terrorism “is the deliberate and systematic use of violence, carried out by a small number of individuals. Or it could be social violence that is marked by spontaneous and unorganized behavior that requires the participation of great numbers.”

The extent of terrorism’s reach has prompted thinkers to go beyond tackling it through security and intelligence measures, important as they are. They are looking at the source of terror and ways to dry them up.

Reasons for the spread of violence and terror

Antonius C. G. M. Robben and Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco ask in their 2000 book, “Cultures under Siege: Collective Violence and Trauma”, deep questions about terrorism and violence. They are questions we seek to answer in our attempt to understand and explain the spread of violence in some human societies. These questions include:

1. What are the usual motives of political violence that is linked to extremism and terrorism in particular?

2. What culture usually harbors and produces violence more than others?

3. What cultural narratives are connected to violence and aggression? How are the codes of social violence encoded into these narratives?

4. What is the role of the “basic trust”, a term coined by Erik Erikson? What is the role of trust or mistrust in the social institution and cultural practices that give meaning to human life?

At this, Shaker cited some researchers who said that violence and terrorism could be traced back to the “basic mistrust”, as Erikson described it, in these institutions and practices.

Other researchers said that political violence is a product of disappointment among the young and old. The motives of violence and aggression have differed throughout history. Some modern ideologies have developed major general ideas on the cultural lowliness of others in contrast to their cultural superiority. This is demonstrated in the anti-immigrant wave, as well as Nazism, racial movements in Europe and the United States, hate-filled protests and even genocide, similar to what happened in the former Yugoslavia.

Shaker for his part underlines ideological hatred towards the other and how it is linked to killing, as seen in Stalinism in the Soviet Union and several anti-Communist states during the latter part of the 20th century.

Some researchers also say that religious texts have played a role in feeding political ideologies with hatred. They gave the example of how Jews were portrayed as the killers of Jesus.

Who is terrorism attributed to?

Shaker tackles a very sensitive issue and it is some attempts, especially by enlightened western circles, to attach terrorism to Islam and Muslims as if the world has been emptied of all extremist Hindus, Buddhists, Christians or Jews.

He noted that even though extremism exists in all other religions, the current terrifying and bloody image is unfortunately always being linked to Islam alone. Muslims themselves, through their actions and behavior, have shockingly cemented this image in the eyes of the world.

Shaker asks central and sensitive questions that represent the highest level of self-criticism, not self-flagellation. He asks:

“When his asylum request to a European country is rejected, what prompts the Syrian refugee to blow himself up at a restaurant?”

“Why is it that when Muslims feel marginalized in European countries, they commit explosive acts of terror instead of setting an example of good behavior?”

The truth that the author asserts is that terrorism does not belong to one country and not another. Terrorism does not belong to a certain social or economic class. It does not belong to a certain ideology or political approach.

Do ideologies promote terrorism?

They say that “under the skin of every ideologue is a terrorist.” How much truth is there in this statement? Does it necessarily mean that ideologies are the main cause of terrorism?

Shaker says that ideologies that are being referred to here are political, scientific and social ideas and theories. One of the most powerful ideologies is nationalism, where people believe that their countries are superior to others, as seen by the United States.

In this context, terror is employed as a strategy that is linked to violent rhetoric in order to support left and right ideologies. Terrorism can therefore be explained as “a violent strategy whose orchestrators seek to create fear.” Those behind terrorism want to provoke a reaction against it so that hostility is created, which will serve their goals.

As opposed to regular criminals, terrorist ideology believes that its violent actions are right, justified and necessary against oppressive authorities. Its political aspect then emerges in that terrorists attack the very legitimacy that the identity of the modern state is based upon.

‘Jihadist’ thought and the crisis of violence

Perhaps in order to understand the al-Minya and Manchester attacks, one must refer to the book, “The Youth and Violent Groups … Youth Visions”, said Shaker. The book summarizes the motives of religious violence as seen in the Islamic Jihad, Jamaa al-Islamiya and Muslim Brotherhood groups in Egypt and other countries.

The Islamic Jihad called for waging a holy war against secularism because it separated religion from the state, its laws, education and media. It deemed such systems as legitimizing the rule of the devil instead of the rule of God.

This has led to the division in the world between the secular, who are governed by those who do not apply God’s rule. They are represented by different religious foes, such as the Copts or Marxists, as well as cultural figures, artists, foreign tourists and others.

If they are secular, then they are inevitably infidels. This is a discrepancy that should be clarified.

Secularism does not oppose religion, but it opposes including some religious matters in all aspects of life.

On the other side of this divide lie those who believe that they have the absolute truth and faith. They label others as infidels and turn them into the devil, who should be destroyed. This is where the killing machine started.