Responding to findings of a recent study on what motivates both ISIS fighters and those who combat them, Arie W. Kruglanski -- distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and former co-director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism -- said:
"The ideology component addresses individuals' need to matter and feel significant. ... It tells people what to do, such as fight and make sacrifices, in order to gain respect and admiration from others."
Kruglanski, whose 2014 article, "Psychology Not Theology: Overcoming ISIS' Secret Appeal," argues that religion (in this instance, Islam) plays a smaller part in what makes terrorists tick than "the [human] need for ... personal significance." He added:
"Especially when it comes to violence that is shunned by most religions and most cultures, you need validation from a group of people that would then become your reference group. So the group component is very important, particularly when it comes to antisocial activities that are forbidden or shunned."
Kruglanski is one of many Western professionals who attempt -- through science -- to gloss over the very real distinction between people who become jihadists in the name of Islam and those who do not. It seems as if many analysts gloss over the role of Islamic teachings -- the Quran, the Sunna, and fatwas -- by minimizing them while highlighting matters such as the need for personal significance and validation. By minimizing the content of the Islamic literature, what they overlook is that Islamic teachings actually justify many activities that they would label antisocial. Many analysts also ignore that the validation jihadists get from their reference group is mainly Islamic in words and meanings and that reference group has no significance without referring to the Islamic texts. It often seems as if political correctness -- trying to persuade the readers that jihadists are no different from other terrorists and Islamic teachings have no connection to terrorism -- is substituted ignoring and minimizing the Islamic texts. the Islamic. What are the roles played by Islam and its group dynamics?
What seems a universal dismissal or whitewashing -- intentionally or not -- of what is written in the texts, has become so prevalent, that it undermines our ability to recognize, let alone rectify, it.
There also seems to be a tendency often to put a finger in the Petrie dish to compel the evidence toward a desired result, rather than to follow the scientific evidence where it would lead. As Nathan Cofnas, a doctoral student of philosophy at the University of Oxford, wrote in the journal Foundations of Science:
"Some prominent scientists and philosophers have stated openly that moral and political considerations should influence whether we accept or promulgate scientific theories... [M]isrepresenting findings in science to achieve desirable social goals will ultimately harm both science and society."
Where radical Islamism is concerned, this practice of political correctness has proven deadly, literally and figuratively. Out of fear of being labelled by their peers as "Islamophobic," many of the people engaged in research on Islamic terrorism overlook or understate certain facts – such as the call on the part of jihadists to obliterate Western civilization [see Sayyid Qutb's Social Justice in Islam] -- and justify evil through moral equivalence. This is done, in part, by equating the teachings of the Koran with the Bible, and by claiming that no culture is superior to, or more violent than, another.
Contrary to politically correct psychological assessments, there is abundant empirical evidence to suggest that Islamic teachings are central to the radicalization of Muslims. Highlighting terrorists' situational factors and universal human tendencies fails to include actually looking at the texts themselves and, but downplaying what is there, makes the solution even more elusive.
There are many variables that work together to make a Muslim believe, for instance, that they love death more than unbelievers love this 'donya,' -- this inferior life. Even relatively "moderate" Muslims, as hard as it is for a Westerner to comprehend it, deeply believe that we are here just for an insignificant instant, and that the really important life is yet to come in the afterlife.
Many young Muslims might be possessed by their sadistic impulses and welcome the thrill of being given permission to act on them, being told that they are actually obligatory and good; that the person committing them is, in the view of the texts, heroic and will receive lavish rewards.
Other people, who feel dependent and need structure, might be relieved by having every activity proscribed for them and might be pleased to be possessed by their highly persuasive and controlling Islamist leaders.
Confronting and defeating global terrorism is noble and necessary. Scientific study of its roots, triggers, recruitment methods and geographical ambitions is a crucial tool in the endeavor. Unless such a study is completely insulated from the devastating effects of political correctness – rather than by knowledge of what Islam actually says and conclusions based on that evidence – the results will be based misrepresenting the facts in order to continue obfuscating the true origins and nature of Islamic terrorism.
A.Z. Mohamed is a Muslim born and raised in the Middle East.