Psychology behind terrorism

Terrorism is a universal problem that has been on the news for a long time. There have been conferences held and protests lead against this kind of violence, but nothing has worked effectively enough to eradicate it completely. This, in summary, is because terrorism is not necessarily linked to psychopathology, religion or lack of education, but rather a strong sense of injustice. Terrorism will be an incredibly difficult problem to fix.

According to a textbook called Human Motivation written by Robert Franken, terrorism is defined as “politically motivated violence, perpetuated by individuals, groups, or state sponsored agents, intended to instill feelings of terror and helplessness in a population in order to influence decision making and to change behavior.”

It is no surprise IS, also known as ISIS, fits this definition and has been labeled a terrorist organization. They have occupied parts of the Middle East, primarily parts of Syria and Iraq, and also have large areas of support.

Although this way of thinking is hard for most of us to understand, according to the BBC, ISIS has about 30,000 members. To put things in perspective there are about 23,500 students currently studying here at EMU. This begs the question, “How could this many people join an organization like this, and why?”

According to Fathali Moghaddam, a psychologist born in Iran who has worked with the UN and researched many aspects of terrorism, there is a Staircase Model to explain why people join groups like ISIS.

In his essay called The Staircase to Terrorism: A Psychological Exploration, he explains that everyone starts at the ground level of the ladder, and as perceived injustice increases, the level a person climbs does as well. The first floor is for those who believe an injustice has been done but don’t know what to do about it. The fifth and last floor is for those who are willing to commit violent crimes against civilians believing it’s the only way to get their message across.

When dealing with terrorism, violence will not solve the problem in the long term. Perceived injustice of these groups will only increase, causing members to grow in violence and in numbers. Getting rid of the leaders of terrorist organizations will only lead to the creation of new ones.

So what are we to do about this? How do we solve problems terrorism creates? If anyone had the definitive answer to these questions, IS would no longer exist. There are, however, some good points brought up by Franken. He suggests that if members of terrorist organizations are taught against a “Them vs. Us” mindset, some progress can be made. Moghaddam believes that if the underlying code of the terrorist organization is addressed, progress can be made as well.

To conclude, I would like to stress how important it is to understand that ISIS is a terrorist organization and does not in any way reflect the views of the majority of people of the Islamic Faith.

Amal Farah, a Muslim EMU student, gives her input on the subject.

“ISIS does not represent Islam in any way,” Farah said. “If you look at what they’re doing, they are hurting Muslims as well as people of other faiths. Not only are they killing people of our religion, but they are doing it in a way that is also forbidden in Islam. The burning of the bodies is not allowed whatsoever; and in Islam it is said that the killing of one person is like the killing of all humanity.”

“ISIS is not a Muslim group. They are a political group trying to gain power in a completely inappropriate way.”

Disclaimer – I am not a psychologist. I am a student studying psychology at the undergraduate level.


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