The Psychology of Terrorism


British Muslim convert Abdul-Hakim Murad, narrates the following story of a leader of radical Islamic group in Egypt;

“I used to know, quite well, a leader of the radical 'Islamic' group, the Jama'at Islamiya, at the Egyptian university of Assiut. His name was Hamdi. He grew a luxuriant beard, was constantly scrubbing his teeth with his miswak, and spent his time preaching hatred of the Coptic Christians, a number of whom were actually attacked and beaten up as a result of his khutbas. He had hundreds of followers; in fact, Assiut today remains a citadel of hardline, Wahhabi-style activism.

The moral of the story is that some five years after this acquaintance, providence again brought me face to face with Shaikh Hamdi. This time, chancing to see him on a Cairo street, I almost failed to recognise him. The beard was gone. He was in trousers and a sweater. More astonishing still was that he was walking with a young Western girl who turned out to be an Australian, whom, as he sheepishly explained to me, he was intending to marry. I talked to him, and it became clear that he was no longer even a minimally observant Muslim, no longer prayed, and that his ambition in life was to leave Egypt, live in Australia, and make money. What was extraordinary was that his experiences in Islamic activism had made no impression on him - he was once again the same distracted, ordinary Egyptian youth he had been before his conversion to 'radical Islam'.

This phenomenon, which we might label 'salafi burnout', is a recognised feature of many modern Muslim cultures. An initial enthusiasm, gained usually in one's early twenties, loses steam some seven to ten years later. Prison and torture - the frequent lot of the Islamic radical - may serve to prolong commitment, but ultimately, a majority of these neo-Muslims relapse, seemingly no better or worse for their experience in the cult-like universe of the salafi mindset.”

What’s best way to deal with this ‘salafi burnout’. Psychologist Jerrold Post explains;

“You don't have terrorism where you have a prosperous society where a bright, educated kid can succeed. And we have for the terrorists all too often a feeling of shame and humiliation, which the act of terrorism gives them a sense of power. Power as opposed to powerlessness, pride as opposed to shame. So it is necessary to create pathways where within society they can succeed rather than being blocked, as is currently the case. And this argues for much more funding to help these societies open up, to reform educational systems. Also the role of parents is critical here. In many Muslim societies the parents are supposed to be proud of 'my son the martyr', so to speak. Yet no one wants to lose a child. Nasra Hassan, a Pakistani Muslim woman who works for the UN, has interviewed what she called 250 human bombs and their families. And one of the mothers who lost her first son to a martyrdom operation and her second son was on the way said, 'If I could, I would take this scalpel, cut open my heart and sew my son inside to protect him'. How can we mobilise families to not encourage or to inhibit their children from moving in this pathway?

The main thing I would like to leave with your audience is that when hatred has been bred in the bone, I have a picture of a three-year-old girl holding a hand grenade, of an eleven-month-old infant with a toy suicide bomb belt, when you're starting at this age, it's very hard to do this. Everything we know about culture change and attitude change says it takes a long time. So I don't see any quick solutions here.”

The road ahead is not an easy one.

Related Links:

- The Psychology of Terrorism; Radio National podcast discussing the historical roots of terrorism with two experts in the field, Anne Speckhard and Jerrold Post. Here is the transcript.

- Martyrdom and murder

- The rational response to terrorism

- Genocide and Terrorism: Probing the Mind of the Perpetrator, article by Juan Cole.

- The Global Ideology of Fear

- Earlier related blog posts; Bin Laden Studied Economics and Amartya Sen and the War on Terrorism

- Blogs covering terrorism; Terrorism Unveiled and Counterterrorism Blog


A terrific, and sprightly summation of the issue.

The prospects born from economic liberalisation of Arabic economies, the rise in private ownership of assets, and accompanying rise in freedom of speech liberties are long over due, and in time will overcome the negative, destructive nature of Islamic-literalism.

it might be worthwhile to this UN initiative as well;
The Alliance of Civilizations; The Secretary-General of the United Nations has launched an initiative, co-sponsored by the Prime Ministers of Spain and Turkey, for an Alliance of Civilizations.


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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on April 22, 2006 7:54 PM.

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