How Radicalization Develops: Not Lone Wolves
Harvard Law School
In the article "Extremism Loves Company" (Bloomberg, September 1, 2014), Professor Cass R. Sunstein reports on the radicalization of small enclaves:
Why do people become violent extremists? You might speculate that the answer is poverty . . . . Or you might think a lack of education explains it . . . . Neither of these answers is correct . . . . Most extremists, including those who commit violence, are not poor and do not lack education.Why then do people become violent extremists?
Princeton economist Alan Krueger says: "To understand who joins terrorist organizations, instead of asking who has a low salary and few opportunities, we should ask: Who holds strong political views and is confident enough to try to impose an extremist vision by violent means?"As Professor Sunstein notes, "That's the right question." It is in fact so right, let's make sure we heard: "Who holds strong political views and is confident enough to try to impose an extremist vision by violent means?" Good question. What's the answer? Those who become radicalized. But why do groups become radicalized?
And at least part of the answer comes from social dynamics, as illuminated by some old, and seemingly far afield, experiments in group psychology . . . . [P]articipation in group decision-making . . . [makes] people more inclined to take such risks . . . . [W]hen people act in groups, they experience . . . a "risky shift."Groups thus take more risks. But not all groups:
[However,] . . . . many of the same questions on which Americans displayed a risky shift, citizens of Taiwan displayed a shift toward greater caution . . . . Everything depends on the group members' original inclinations. When people are initially disposed toward risk-taking, their discussions lead them further in that direction. When people are initially disposed toward caution, their discussions make them more cautious still. While the Americans started out risk-inclined, the Taiwanese started out risk-averse, and that simple difference explained the opposing shifts.Sunstein therefore asks, "Why does group polarization [i.e., radicalization,] occur?" He offers two reasons:
The first answer involves information. Suppose that most group members begin by thinking that some religious group, leader or nation is evil. If so, they will hear a lot of arguments to that effect. As they absorb them, they will be inclined to move toward a more extreme version of their initial judgment . . . . [The second answer reminds us that p]eople also care about their reputations, so some group members will adjust their positions in the direction of the dominant view. A disturbing implication is that if group members listen only to one another, and if most of them have extremist tendencies, the whole group might well march toward greater radicalism and even brutality.Limited knowledge and peer pressure thus play roles. Extremists are thereby very well misinformed, another way of saying that they know very little:
Writing in 1998, Russell Hardin, a political scientist at New York University, drew attention to the "crippled epistemology of extremism," by which he meant to emphasize how little extremists know. Focused on Islamic fundamentalists, Hardin was concerned about what happens "when the fanatic is in a group of like-minded people, and especially when the group isolates itself from others."What can we do?
[T]he international effort to combat violent extremism will sometimes require force, and it will sometimes require economic pressure. But it will succeed only if it disrupts recruitment and radicalization by enclaves of like-minded people.How do we do that? I don't know, but we need to know why Islam seems so easily to give rise to Islamism. Sunstein notes that "Everything depends on the group members' original inclinations." This implies that something fundamental in Islamic civilization encourages risk-taking of a very dangerous kind since there are so many Islamists. They are the ones who possess "strong political views" and are "confident enough to try to impose an extremist vision by violent means."
We ought to be careful, however, in thinking that Islamists suffer from a "crippled epistemology" across the board, for they know a lot about their own textual sources. To oppose Islamists, we need to learn more about Islam. Only then can we point to its inconsistencies and argue for separating mosque from state.