Muslim radicalism: the power of friendship

Why do some Muslims join radical groups? Theories abound but their analytic capacity remains low as they tend to focus on only a single aspect of this complex issue. Something they miss is why new recruits consider joining these groups a positive thing: they find good friends there.

1 April 2012

Why do some Muslims join radical groups? As we shall see, theories abound, most of them underlining social factors contributing to this process. However, there is one key aspect to radicalization which has so far been overlooked:  the role played by bonds of friendship in increasing the ideological appeal of radical groups and the progressive acceptance of new members into them.

Psychological explanations

Do individuals attracted to Islamic radicalism share a common psychological make-up? This explanation borrows from Freudian psychodynamic psychology. Lifton argues that Muslims are likely to be disposed to what therapists in this tradition call a “severe superego”: radicalism would emerge from a “vulnerable self and rage at a bad object”. This pathology of personality and narcissism derive from “narcissistic wounds at an early age [which] split the self into a grandiose “me” and a hated and devalued “not me” projected onto outside specific targets, which are blamed and transformed into scapegoats”. According to this theory, radicals conceptualize “bad objects” as ones which encroach upon their units of belonging and identification: for example, common schemes in the context of Muslim radicalization involve viewing the Anglo-American-Israeli occupation of Muslim land as “bad objects”. The radicalization process may be the result of some trauma, causing a fragmentation of identity. A problem with such explanations is that it lacks an empirical basis. Even if radicalism is indeed rooted in a pathology of the personality or is explained as a trend appealing to “action-oriented, aggressive people, who are stimulus hungry and seek excitement” as Sageman puts it, these mental propensities are not accessible to introspection.

Socio-economic explanations

Known as ‘Strain Theory’, this approach views political mobilization leading to radicalism as a response to grievances where political and economic pressures can “…create strains in society and lead to the emergence of social protest movements”. The social and economic exclusion of Muslims in Britain, as assessed by their high levels of unemployment and lack of social and economic enterprise, may therefore contribute to their alienation and isolation, thereby making them more vulnerable to radical ideologies and possible recruitment into radical groups. This explanation derives from a stereotype that sees radicalism as the byproduct of structural factors like economic marginalization and blocked social mobility, implying that radicals emerge from the lowest socio-economic strata. This is not always true: when one looks outside Britain, one finds enough research to suggest that there is a significant representation of middle and upper classes among the Salafi mujahideen. Another flaw in this conventional wisdom that radicalism is fuelled by poverty lies in the fact that it cannot explain why some Muslims in this predicament join radical groups and dedicate time and effort for radical causes, whereas others do not.

Cognitive explanations

Some studies of Islamic radicalism have borrowed from sociologist Erving Goffman his theory of “frames”, the name he gave to schemata of interpretation which in the course of his or her life assists in guiding an individual to action. According to this theory, analytical frames provide cognitive tools for interpreting experiences. Recruitment into a radical Islamic group requires that an “alignment” takes place between the individual’s frames and those of the group ideology. In other words, participation is made possible once a group’s worldviews match with an individual’s interpretive framework. Wiktorowicz points to the role of “cognitive openings” in this process, where prior experiences “heavily influence a priori views of radical groups and thus the likelihood of conscious exposure”. People already holding beliefs in the supernatural and familiar with concepts characteristic of this faith will therefore be more receptive to religious appeals and their corresponding frames. The progressive acceptance of new beliefs is conditioned to the extent to which they conform to the individual’s sense of Self. Although framing theory may explain why radical groups are able to effectively tap into the feelings of those already sharing an ideological basis with them, it falls short in explaining specific pathways to radicalism at the individual level or the variety of movement types.

What conventional explanations miss: the power of affective links

Accounts of radicalization cited thus far seem to omit the instrumental role of social networks in consolidating radical sensibilities. Marc Sageman’s research on Afghan Jihadis during the Soviet occupation and his case study of terrorist cells both reveal the importance of companionship between individuals as a precursor to radicalization. Similarly, the role of social networks and of face-to-face interactions was noted in a study by the Change Institute of the European Commission. Like Sageman, this study also depicts how personal piety may transform into active engagement in a specific group, attributing this radical transformation to intense face-to-face interactions in the group.

The uniqueness of the friendship thesis is that it does not restrict its focus on the broader dynamics and processes of political mobilization. Socialization with potential recruits encourages participation, and pathways to radicalism may emerge from affinity between individuals. Although Sageman’s account of  the potency of friendship ties is based on observations made amongst Moroccan and Yemeni Jihadis, we may infer that bonds of friendship act as a critical component in how radical movements in general form and expand in other contexts. One should however be wary  of reducing explanations to this single factor, as other studies of how individuals join radical Islamic group hint at the peculiarities of their prior social milieu or at their distinctive Islamic mentality. It is no causal model, but what it has revelaed so far signals nonetheless to scholars of religious movements that studying friendship may be a useful step in understanding recurring patterns of radicalization.

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