Factors behind Extremism and Violence

By Zaima Abdul Hameed

The technological advancement has connected humans across the globe, allowing better opportunities to learn about diverse cultures and societies. However, instead of better intercultural harmony, the current era has seen growing terrorism and violence. With extremism and violence rising, it is pertinent to search for factors causing it. The casual factors enable identification of risk populations, which is the first step toward countering violent extremism in any country.

A large volume of research has identified the psychological factors behind violent extremism. Recent studies have also suggested a series of social and environmental factors inducing psychological distress that eventually lead to violent attitude. These factors can serve as risk indicators of growing likelihood of violence, and on its basis, the population at risk of violent extremism.

Individual socio-psychological factors focus on single individual interacting with their environment and their resulting perception regarding the said environment. Under this domain, the factors causing extremism include frustration on how society is functioning, feeling of alienation, a rigid inflexible manner of thinking and others.

Social factors arise out of the social norms and practices that are specifically discriminatory towards certain individuals or communities. In members belonging to such discriminated groups, group thinking and desire of conformity can lead to extremism and violence. The role of thinkers and charismatic leaders in a society is also important in promoting (or preventing) extremism.

Cultural factors that contribute to violent extremism include inability of an individual to fit in the family or society. This cultural alienation causes anxiety and results in an identity crisis. Radicalizers often targets such individual giving them an identity and a grand purpose.

Political factors that fuel extreme behaviors can include a country’s radicalized foreign policy towards other countries or discriminatory policies towards certain groups. In particular, the policies fueled by Islamophobia not only cause people to discriminate Muslims in public but also induces xenophobia in society and alienation for that specific community. A specific political sub-factor like waging war in another’s country also induces insecurity for the locals of the attacked country and triggers feelings of victimhood. These locals can retaliate to protect their land and sovereignty, often through violent means.

Ideological or religious factors promote violence by obligating the members of that group to protect their people and lands or religious identity. As many Muslim countries are involved in conflicts, there is a rise of religious groups involved in terrorist activities. However, the role of ideology or religion might just be on the surface. A study analyzing the patterns of behavior, thoughts, and intentions adopted by suicide bombers concluded:

“…there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world's religions. ... Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”

Freedom of media is another key factor whereby radicalizers have found an easily accessible medium to spread their ideological beliefs to a global audience. The avid use of social media by radical groups have paved way for the online recruitment of terrorists. In addition, as social media does not require verification of news before broadcasting it, radicalizers also use fake news and manipulated data to spread a message of hatred.

While this typology of factors causing extremism simplifies the analysis, the policymakers need to understand that one factor cannot sufficiently explain any act of extremism. Hence, the policies should pay attention to all these factors that can trigger extremism. The governments should implement a systematic, “level-based” target plan to create an environment capable of inducing less distress.