Why Do We Keep Talking about Ideology?

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Image from ISIS propaganda
Image from ISIS propaganda

Why do terrorists carry out attacks? Some people blame toxic masculinity, saying that there is a dark form of maleness which drives mass violence. Others (not many) blame economic disenfranchisement or a simple criminal desire for notoriety.

As the Brennan Center for Justice (to name just one example) points out, there is no one clearly defined track to terrorism. Instead, radicalization is a complex and highly individualized process. Even if an individual holds extreme views, they may remain non-violent. Therefore it is extremely difficult to tell ahead of time if someone is genuinely at risk of carrying out an attack or not.

It is often argued on this basis that government programs and civil society alike should stop trying to focus on delegitimizing the ideology of jihadi terrorism. Instead, they argue, governments should leave counter-terror as a strictly policing matter and stop getting involved in ideological disputes.

This is short-sighted.

Yes, it is vital to tackle the contributory factors that might push a person towards terrorism. This may include promoting better examples of positive masculinity, tackling drug abuse in inner city areas, reducing alienation by running youth basketball clubs and so on. Many of these programs are good ideas independent of any counter-terror result they may or may not produce (others are wastes of time and money).

But taking these measures alone will leave the ideology that pulls in terrorists intact. Why is the ideology for powerful? First, it creates a psychological framework for justifying extreme acts of violence. It also provides a network of like-minded people offering support and validation. Finally, it offers an opportunity for the terrorist to frame themselves as the good guy and those they are hurting as villains.

Islamism is not the only ideology that does this. Communism, Nazism and many others also serve this function of allowing mankind to act out their most savage instincts in the name of a better tomorrow.

But jihadism is one of the primary ideologies doing this today. It draws in vulnerable people who are predisposed to be attracted to this sort of apocalyptic redemption like moths to a flame.

If the flame is put out, those it recruits are unlikely to just find another ideology to kill for. Even if the pre-existing tendency is there, a person needs to be encouraged and primed to carry out an attack. Far more likely they will take another direction in life.

Shutting down the ideology is therefore of paramount importance. It is unlikely we can isolate what in the human psyche predisposes people to act violently, teach everyone how to deal with those tendencies using perfect conflict resolution skills and eliminate killing entirely. It is feasible, however, that the ideology of Islamism can be shown to be bankrupt and consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

The way to do that is to educate on exactly what it is, why it is dangerous and what can be done to stop it. And where that includes related factors like toxic masculinity, disenfranchisement or a desire for notoriety, we are only too happy to talk about how those things intersect with and support the warped ideology of Islamism.  



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.