Friday, November 10

A different perspective

The first thing that comes to our mind when we hear the word radical Islam, is terrorism. It brings to mind the picture of an AK47 sporting Muslim guy who kills for religious reasons. The media has fed us with so much of ‘jihad' that it is difficult to think of radical groups as anything but driven by and killing for a religion. However, today I heard a talk by Eli Berman that gave me an economic and sociological perspective into the motives behind the formation and development of a radical group.

Berman’s mainly argued that ‘God’ or ‘religion’ is not the central motive of a member of a radical* group**. Instead the motives are altruistic. Ariel Morari, an Israeli psychiatrist studied suicide bombers and their families to conclude that they do not mention religion and heaven/afterlife as their motives. Neither is the primary motive seeking revenge for a personal attack nor economic deprivation. These people do not show any suicidal tendencies and are not depressed. Instead they have altruistic motives along with delusions about self-importance. They generally aim to change the status-quo or the current government they are unhappy with.

According to Berman every person tries to be a part of that group which provides him resources and benefits to run his family. Generally it is the government. But it could also be the radical group. These groups are involved in providing basic services like schools (even if in the form of mercenary schools), hospitals or health services, loan facilities and the like. The person will be a part of whichever of the two he thinks provides him better facilities. This to me has two implications. One, a country with a weak and inefficient government has a greater risk of strong radical groups. Two, a country/region afflicted by presence of violent radical groups can be treated by creating a strong government that efficiently provides the social services. However creating a strong government is difficult and external intervention for the same can be disastrous as seen in the Afghanistan and Iraq cases.

One of the important characteristic of a radical group is the restrictions it places on its members’ behavior. They have to follow a certain dress code, refrain from certain foods, pray according to schedules, etc. These restrictions leave the member with nothing better to do with his time but do that what the group wants. They are pulled away from the mainstream and the bonding gets stronger. The restrictions make them better participants by concentrating their energies and time on the goals of the group. However this raises the question why at a time when the overall consumption power of individuals is increasing would someone want to opt for the restrictions? Berman says that these groups are like close knit communities that have their own system of mutual aid and insurance where everyone’s needs are fulfilled. When the market in a region grows, benefits of better education, employment and other alternatives increase the fear of selective attrition of the talented young. The members fear that these young earning members would leave their community, country, or group and decrease the supply for mutual aid and insurance. In an effort to keep them within the community they become a part of such radical groups that limit their outside options. By restricting options the radical groups make the members into workers with contained desires and demands. This further makes them stay back in the group and not stray out attracted by the alternatives available. As the available alternatives grow, the restrictions become stricter.

Along with a strong mutual aid system, these groups are also good at coordinate violence. The aid system, restriction, and bonding lead to mutual trust amongst members. A terrorist organization builds upon this trust that it builds up through its benign activities of providing social services. A terrorist organization is, according to Berman, structurally same as the benign organization of a radical group mentioned earlier. The mutual trust helps them carry out terrorist acts, as the leaders are assured of the loyalty of the members they entrust to carry out the activities. As they are cut off from the mainstream, wish to change the status quo, are comfortable within the services and opportunities provided by the group and completely dependent and loyal upon the group they see it as their task to carry out the terrorist acts that they are asked to.

This theory is appealing. But it seems too simplistic an explanation of the existence of terrorist and radical groups. It does not explain exactly when a radical group turns into a terrorist group. There are numerous radical groups in the world (churches, Jewish groups, RSS) which are not terrorist groups. Why are they not violent (terrorists) and why are the ones in the Middle East that he was talking about violent? It creates a lot of questions, but also provides a different perspective into the motives of a radical group, which could help in dealing with terrorist organizations and afflicted regions.

*Used such as to mean away from the mainstream.

**He was talking mostly about radical Islamic groups in the Middle East.

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