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Intergroup Relations, Extremist Leaders and Terrorism

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 7, 2016

Extinction of the "Grey Zone"


Terrorism is all about polarization.  It is about reconfiguring intergroup relationships so that extreme leadership appears to offer the most sensible way of engaging with an extreme world, prominent social scientists say. It is, in effect, a design for co-creation of opposing groups in continuing cycles of contention and peril.

Psychologists S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher, both scholars of radicalization, say while we usually think of terrorists as sadists and psychopaths,  studies show that most are ordinary people driven by group dynamics to commit violence for causes they believe to be just and noble.  Reicher, a professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and Haslam, professor and Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland describe their research in a Scientific American issue on terrorism.  

“Although we tend to think of Islamic extremists and Islamophobes as being diametrically opposed,” they write, “the two are inextricably entwined. And this realization means that solutions to the scourge of terror will lie as much with ‘us’ as with ‘them.’”


Solutions are urgently needed. The According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, terror related deaths have increased from 3,329 in 2000 to  32,85 in 2014.  Between 2013 and 2014, deaths from terrorism rose 80 percent.

The authors cite experiments by Stanley Milgram in which subjects inflected apparently painful electric shocks on others, and the Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo, which show that under the right circumstances ordinary people are capable of being quite cruel. They cite more recent social research that explores the impact of marginalization, shared identity, and misrecognition, which they describe as the experience of having others misunderstand or deny a valued identity.      

In studies of how people choose leaders, Haslam and Ilka Gleibs of the London School of Economics, found that people are most likely to support bellicose leaders if their group is in competition with another belligerent group. They say, for example, that ISIS feeds off immoderate attacks from Western politicians just as immoderate Western politicians draw support for themselves with bellicose attacks on ISIS. The real power of terrorism, the researchers say, is that it can be used to provoke other groups into treating one’s own group as dangerous. That helps extremist leaders consolidate their followers with a narrative of their own group’s righteousness threatened by enemies.      

University of Arizona journalism professor Shahiran Fahmy studied volumes of ISIS propaganda and found that most promotes visions of an “idealistic caliphate” in which Muslims live in propriety and harmony. Only five percent showed the gruesome brutality ISIS itself often provides for Western newscasts. 

ISIS puts out a slick magazine called Dabiq, which last year ran an editorialcalled “The Extinction of the Grey Zone.”   In Dabiq’s view, the world should be divided into two opposing camps, an idealistic caliphate and a demonized West of non-believers.  The grey zone that ISIS considers intolerably ambiguous and wants to eliminate has been defined as the places in the Western world where Muslims coexist comfortably and productively with others.  Haslam and Reicher say terrorism is a conscious strategy to promote enmity between polarized groups and help the most confrontational leaders attract more followers into their orbits.  Extreme leaders welcome extreme reactions to their violent acts and heated rhetoric, they say, because it helps them in their work.  The issue also has articles on what social science says about how to defeat of terrorism.      

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