Educated terrorists and 'victimhood'

Unless we understand the problem, the solution will remain a pipe dream and we will always be playing catch up

Published: 22nd July 2016 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd July 2016 10:19 AM   |  A+A-


The recent spurt in terror attacks the world over has once again resulted in huge loss of innocent lives. A common thread running in all these attacks is that perpetrators are radicalised terrorists with many of them pledging loyalty to ISIS. Recently, a number of ISIS sympathisers and potential recruits have also been arrested in India while some have already gone to take part in jihad.

It shocks many that the Dhaka terrorists were from elite schools and rich families, or Burhan Wani was educated and adept in use of social media. The critical issue agitating the minds is why young kids from privileged backgrounds fall prey to radicalisation and become terrorists. Unless we understand the problem, the solution will remain a pipe dream and we will always be playing catch up.

Radicalisation does not happen in a vacuum. Although fringe preachers of hate like Zakir Naik and his ilk have been propounding their distorted versions since long, the seeds of extremism however need the fertile soil of a supportive narrative to bloom. How is a narrative shaped? It is a complex construct which needs to be examined dispassionately if we are to understand and counter it. Individuals as well as groups have beliefs which shape their world view. If a fairly large number of people hold a similar worldview it slowly develops as a narrative. There is a large body of research in Psychology, Sociology and other social sciences on how and why individuals and groups come to hold certain beliefs which sustain over long periods despite evidence to the contrary. We all have our world views and hold on to some beliefs & ideas which may or may not be rational. A seminal research by Eidelson(2003) identifies five such important beliefs or ideas which when come together can lead to a dangerous and violent narrative.

  • Superiority: It’s a belief in superiority of one’s cultural heritage over another. They are the “chosen ones” and have a monopoly over truth. Nazi ideology of Aryans as Master race is a chilling example.
  • Injustice: This worldview reflects a perception of significant and legitimate grievances against other group(s). It leads to subjective distortion, self-whitewashing and a tendency to treat as unfair that which is unfortunate. It is also not uncommon for both sides of a conflict to hold contradictory, mirror-image views of their past relationship, each highlighting its grievances against the other. The Israel-Palestine conflict is a glaring example of “chosen traumas”.
  • Vulnerability: A worldview which revolves around a conviction that they are perpetually living in harm’s way. It leads to heightened anxiety about future and fosters “ghettoised existence”
  • Distrust: This worldview focuses specifically on perceptions of out-groups and revolves around beliefs that the world at large is untrustworthy and harbours malign intentions toward the in-group. 
  • Helplessness: It describes a collective mindset of powerlessness and dependency and resignation to their fate. A case in point is the prolonged subjugation of black majority in South Africa.

As a broad-brush simplification, four out of five worldviews appear to operate primarily as triggers — A narrative that reflects the confluence of these four mindsets might look something like this: “We are a special people deserving of high stature (superiority), but we have been unjustly denied our rightful place (injustice). Our situation is precarious; we are staggering toward an abyss (vulnerability). Why is this the case? Because other groups have repeatedly acted against us and betrayed us (distrust). We must pull together and take action now.” In contrast, the helplessness worldview (“But there is nothing we can do about it, we can only accept our fate”) may instead serve as a critical constraint on mobilisation in such cases. Education and economic empowerment reduce helplessness and may help release other triggers leading to extremism.

It should not then come as a surprise that so many terrorists are educated. Osama, Zawahiri, Omer Sheikh all had college degrees as did most of 9/11 hijackers. We know now that rich educated kids are vulnerable to radicalisation; that universities are recruiting grounds. A recent research by Graeme Blair (2012) in Pakistan found higher support for militancy in middle classes than among poor.

Terrorists also find them more useful as they are tech savvy, assimilate better and can be projected as poster boys to attract others.   This framework can be employed usefully to explain the spread of Radical Islam out of this narrative of victimhood in large parts of Muslim world. Surveys indicate anger against Western world in general and America in particular for injustices against Muslim Umma. Many still hold that 9/11 was a Jewish/American conspiracy to attack and capture Muslim lands. There is a marked tendency to blame “external forces” for all their problems. The Wahabi/Salafi indoctrination provides the fig leaf of pseudo religious justification and promise of paradise to reap the harvest of suicide bombers raised out of this narrative. 

And what are we to make of the social media phenomenon? It is just an enabler, a multiplier which helps to extend the reach of that worldview. There is always a disgruntled fringe in any society holding extreme views but earlier they could only spout their venomous views and pollute their immediate surroundings whereas now, using the social media, the whole world is their spitting ground where they can spread hatred.

Add the cloak of anonymity and its a deadly combination. Extremists on both sides of an issue often dominate the social media space and feed on each other.

The need of the hour is to challenge this worldview and counter it. Narratives are neither built in a day nor can be changed overnight. But confront it we must, for without this change neither education nor prosperity is likely to make much difference. Treating radicalisation as just a security issue is like putting a Band-Aid on cancer. It won’t work.

Manoj  Chhabra is an IPS officer & ADG of Odisha and is also a PhD scholar at IIT Delhi 



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