In a House of Commons debate held before the vote to join a coalition to fight Daesh in Iraq in September 2014, there was some grumbling from the government benches when Labour MP David Winnick used the word ‘psychopaths’ to describe members of the ISIS network. Interestingly, there was no such grumbling moments later when Prime Minister David Cameron also used the term.
Following a point by Cameron about the dangers of inaction and a reminder of atrocities carried out by Daesh, Winnick had said this: “ISIS, indeed, is made up of murderous psychopaths—that is not the issue. We know that. The question is ‘will what the Prime Minister and the Government are proposing be effective in destroying ISIS?’ Look at what the House of Commons agreed to: Iraq; Afghanistan; and, under this Government, Libya. None are success stories.”
Here is Cameron’s reply: “I will come on to why this is different to the decision the House made in 2003 about Iraq, but the fact is that this is about psychopathic terrorists who are trying to kill us and we have to realise that, whether we like it or not, they have already declared war on us.” Later in the debate he used the ‘P’ word again, stating: “This is not a bunch of people acting on behalf of a religion, but a bunch of psychopaths who have perverted a religion.”
Having taken a long-standing professional interest in psychopaths and apocalyptic movements, I found these interactions both interesting and troubling. Characterising those who attach themselves to Daesh as psychopaths can be a useful route into debates about the nature of the network and how best to confront it—by illuminating the deeper, emotional and psychological issues in play.
But it is clearly simplistic: while it is likely that some psychopaths are drawn to the power, violence and apparent excitement of Daesh, it is important to recognise that, as an apocalyptic movement, it also attracts vulnerable and fanatical ‘true believers.’ Others will have been pushed into Daesh groups by fear for themselves or their loved ones, so categorising everyone involved in Daesh as psychopaths could actually hinder efforts to divert people from the network.
More useful, in my view, is to analyse Daesh as a psychopathic culture. Though such cultures reflect and are driven by psychopathic attributes, they are often composed of people who are conformist, fearful and trapped, but who are not psychopaths themselves. Broadening the analysis in this way therefore helps to clarify what’s really going on.
Both psychopathy and sociopathy are ‘antisocial personality disorders,’ but whereas sociopaths develop their condition through life experience psychopaths are generally thought to be born with their condition. Psychopathy is not a true mental illness but a brain abnormality that shapes the individual’s character. Diagnostic imaging has shown that psychopaths have less grey matter in those parts of the brain that are associated with empathy and remorse.
Indicators of psychopathy include the following: deriving one’s self-esteem from personal gain, power and pleasure; a lack of concern for the feelings, needs and suffering of others; and a tendency to exploit, deceive and coerce. As a consequence of these characteristics, psychopaths are drawn to positions where their power and rewards are maximised. They are not hindered by compassion.
Building from these individual characteristics, psychopathic cultures are found in many different contexts including families, abuse networks, politics, corporations, gangs, security services and certain religious organisations. In all of these cases, the majority of people within a given psychopathic culture are not psychopaths but individuals caught up in a system that is pathological i.e. harmful to them as well as to those outside the culture.
If we take examples of abuse in care homes or illegal practices in the banking sector we can see that some people were actively involved while others within the system were too afraid to speak out. However, in both cases whistle-blowers ultimately did speak out at great risk to themselves, and they exposed the rot at the heart of these institutions.
From the perspective of the public, the systems themselves looked corrupt and criminal, but not everybody working within them could be classified in this way. These examples illustrate that it only takes a small number of toxic individuals to have a devastating impact on systems that we are meant to be able to trust.
This model fits Daesh very well, in that the power-hungry callousness, sadism and drive for exploitation that characterise the movement have a toxic impact on all the human systems that surround it. However, given that some who are drawn to Daesh are exploited ‘true believers,’ we have to acknowledge that the same psychopathic culture is also harmful to those who become ensnared in it and are manipulated by its warped ideologies.
It seems likely that genuine psychopaths who wield power within the network use religiosity as a cloak to justify the expression of their disorder—as has been the case with abusive Catholic priests and other religious leaders who are more concerned with the pursuit of power than with their spiritual trajectory. But true believers who are ensnared by a psychopathic culture have more in common with those who blindly follow charismatic cults than with their leaders.
Nevertheless, the bombs that fall on Syria and elsewhere cannot distinguish between psychopathic manipulators and deluded followers. Good intelligence may help to target the ringleaders of Daesh, but if the network is to be eroded it is the psychopathic culture itself that has to be weakened—along with the forces that nurture and sustain it.
Daesh does not exist in isolation, and it didn’t appear out of nowhere. It appears to have had backing from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. The ideologies it uses stem from the puritanical 18th Century Wahhabi movement, and it is a reaction against historical and contemporary realities including the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US, UK and others. Ignoring its own oppression of Muslim people, it uses narratives about the oppression of Muslims and the corruption of the secular world as tools to attract and manipulate followers.
Daesh, therefore, is one pathological culture operating within a broader system of such cultures. Some overtly support one another, but even those that exist in apparent opposition may ultimately provide support by nurturing the overall habitat of conflict. Islamophobic narratives of far-right groups such as Britain First, for example, assist and echo the divisive Daesh narrative of ‘us versus them.’
Just as those caught up in Daesh can have their judgement clouded by religious ideologies, it is also easy for westerners fearful of Daesh to confuse a very particular form of cultish activity with Islam more generally. By doing so, key political and economic realities can be obscured. For Daesh to be weakened there has to be a sharper focus on who supports and benefits from this particular psychopathic culture.
The global media is always keen to focus on executions, but this is exactly what Daesh wants because it amplifies terror and perpetuates an ‘us and them’ narrative. Historically, the media has been less keen to focus on the context in which Daesh emerged. However, only by doing so can we recognise Daesh as one psychopathic culture that is fed and watered by larger and more powerful systems that could be described as equally pathological.
While David Cameron and other western politicians are happy to characterise Daesh fighters as psychopathic, they seem less willing to characterise their backers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar in similar terms, much less acknowledge the insincerity and deviousness of politicians—like themselves—who shake the hands of Sheiks while shaking their fists at the killers they have nurtured.
The reach of psychopathic cultures stretches far beyond the killing fields of Syria and Iraq. It infects everyone involved in conflict in the Middle East. Cleansing ourselves and all our systems of these pathological tendencies is the only route to peace.