Feature: The Tragic Ingredients of Radical Islam


Some believe militant Islamists are motivated by a hatred of freedom. But actually, acts of terrorism are a concoction of historical, social and psychological factors, according to those who study the issue.

In order to really understand Islamic terrorism, we should first look at things that damage the quality of life in Muslim places, says a new study by Richard Estes, a social researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and M. Joseph Sirgy, a psychologist at Virginia Tech.

For example, a common feature of developing Muslim countries is the personal or collective “anomie” – feelings of lawlessness, exclusion and frustration – in their populations. Studies show that people in these regions report feeling “trapped,” unable to find ways to improve their lives or to hold their governments accountable. They see their societies as corrupt and their freedoms absent.

There are many reasons why such feelings are prevalent in these countries and not in others, Estes said. Much of them begin with the colonization of the Muslim world by the West:

A Turkish woman wearing the niqab. Image: Steve Evans.

A Turkish woman wearing the niqab. Image: Steve Evans.

“If we go back 1000 years, Muslims occupied and colonized a good part of Europe. In the period before the Crusades, we had Moorish Spain and Moorish Portugal. You had North African and Arab influences in Europe. Then the Crusades came along, pushed the Muslims out of Europe and continued on to the Holy Lands. So we had this business of colonization back and forth. At the turn of the 19th century and up into the 20th century, European countries colonized large parts of Africa and Asia.”

Most Islamic countries were colonies of France, Britain and Belgium among others, and around the late 1950s, early 60s, they began to achieve independence.

“The problem is, they didn’t have any administrative skills at that point to govern themselves, because they were never in any positions of authority when it was a colony,” Estes said. “Colonization denied people access to their own development because the European powers were mostly interested in extracting resources.”

Most of the decolonization took place through liberation movements and their leaders often became dictators in their own right. These educated men took advantage of the lack of administrative skills and the lack of institutions to maximize their own power. In the Arab world in particular, nationalist movements failed to be socially inclusive and left many people politically frustrated, said Habib Tiliouine, a social scientist at the University of Oran in Algeria. Such movements weren’t helped by Arab armies’ losses to Israel, nor the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Rather, political Islam became more attractive.

Fast-forward to today, you’ll see the resulting absence of political freedom is psychologically crippling.

“Remember what it felt like living under parental control?” Estes asked. “We joke about adolescent behavior when they try to become free and independent with aggressiveness, the things kids engage in, but it’s similar with societies. People take on a lot of crazy stuff to find freedom. The problem is that the freedom fighters eventually get killed. They get sacrificed to the cause. But another generation comes along and picks up the mantle.”

That feeling of being crushed by one’s circumstances is complicated by the lack of jobs available in many of these countries. With no real way of holding leaders accountable, dictators feel no pressure to enrich their economies. Rather, they see their own coffers as more worthy of enrichment.

For the new study, the researchers looked for data that spoke to many of these concerns. The number of years since colonization, the amount of political freedoms, and how corrupt people perceived their governments to be were among the data they looked at. They found that more negative results on these factors – like less political freedom – predicted which countries had more acts of terrorism.

"Afghan Freedom Fighter Aboard C-141" by John Thompson, January 1989.

“Afghan Freedom Fighter Aboard C-141” by John Thompson, January 1989.

Add in populations that have a lot of very young people and the idealism of radical Islam becomes attractive.

“You have a lot of young people who are basically on their own, Estes said. “They are caring for younger siblings and of course have to provide for their own needs. You have a lot of people who are poorly educated who make up the majority. And then you have another cluster of young people who are very well educated, they’ve done everything that society has told them to do to be successful. But after doing what’s required of them, getting an education, there is no opportunity for them. There’s no jobs, and if there are, they don’t pay very well.

“It’s a constant source of frustration. For those on the opposite end, who don’t have basic education, who live in conditions of social deprivation, this is just a continuing malaise they are caught in.”

The leadership comes from the frustrated educated, the followers are the frustrated uneducated – the disenfranchised, he said. Radical Islam quickly offers them acceptance, belonging, brotherhood and purpose. The psychological allure in these circumstances can be very strong.

The situation is not unlike that of poor, disaffected youth in many developed nations. In impoverished areas where gangs are prevalent and opportunities are few, a gang promises an impressionable youth, for once, opportunity, community and prestige. Like gangs, the victims of terrorists are almost always the surrounding people, communities and territories. But there are important differences. Radical Islamists guarantee entrance to heaven for their attacks. A militant’s family gets welfare benefits after their death. And there is the strong wish to help reestablish an Islamic Caliphate, which portends to return Islam to a time when the Muslim world engendered great respect.

The Umayyad Caliphate at its greatest extent, c. 750. Image: Gabagool.

The Umayyad Caliphate at its greatest extent, c. 750. Image: Gabagool.

“For some, the past is not the past and the future cannot begin until past grievances and injustices are resolved,” concludes the study. “For an even smaller number of the tortured few, the resolution of these injustices can only be brought about through the dismantling, and ultimate destruction (i.e., ‘purification’) of those societies and peoples that are judged to be at the root of Islam’s sense of individual and collective ‘disease.’”

All is not lost, however. With knowledge comes understanding, and with understanding come solutions. Keeping these ingredients in mind, Estes and his coauthors suggest five ideas that could improve the relationship between the West and the Muslim world, and improve the well-being of Muslims:

A Mauritanian family. Image: Magharebia.

A Mauritanian family. Image: Magharebia.

1. A commitment to mutual historical understanding and respect.

2. Conflict resolution based on peaceful means rather than conflict.

3. A new approach to governance that gives voice to grievances.

4. Increased commerce, trade and the creation of economies based on mutual benefit rather than greed.

5. Sharing the natural and man-made resources of the developing “Islamic South” with the people of these regions.

During the Golden Age of Islam, Muslims were at the epicenter of science, education, art, philosophy and tolerance, and at the same time as Europe’s Dark Ages. History hasn’t displayed an inherent demand for terrorism in Islam. Instead, it shows how desperate men and women of any faith can be stymied by the system and be capable of very tragic things.

The study, “Radical Islamic Militancy and Acts of Terrorism: A Quality-of-Life Analysis,” was published with Estes and Sirgy in the journal Social Indicators Research.

An earlier study, “Development Trends in Islamic Societies: From Collective Wishes to Concerted Actions,” was published with Estes and Tiliouine.

Featured Image: The Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s morphed into today’s Taliban. Credit: Erwin Franzen.