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Human Needs and the Lure of Extremism

For years, academics in the social sciences looked to socio-economics in their attempt to find an explanation for the powerful appeal of political and religious extremist groups in the Middle East. The idea soon emerged that disenchanted individuals – people with little education and/or few or no means to financially support themselves - were those most easily lured by militants, and made up the majority of their rank and file.

To many, this explanation seemed logical enough. The solution, according to its proponents, was for governments to address the root economic causes of the disenchantment - including unemployment, poverty, and lack of access to education - that led to people embracing extremist ideologies.

But then something happened to muddy the waters.

Other academics, and people working in the security services, started pointing to exceptions to this purely socio-economical approach. Many people, they claimed, who joined militant groups were in fact educated professionals from the middle or upper classes. Lack of education and economic opportunity - although a factor in many cases of extremist recruitment - did not fully account for the large numbers of others who were clearly not lacking in schooling, jobs or money. These others had been suddenly magnetized to “the cause” for some other reason or reasons. Something else had to be at play.

We now know that human beings have a set of clearly defined emotional needs that are as equally important to their well-being as their physical needs. Much of our behaviour in life is influenced by the compulsion to meet those needs - regardless of our stated motives for doing what we do. This is the key to understanding the powerful motive to join an extremist group.

Some of these needs, including the need for a sense of status within social groupings and the need for a sense of competence and achievement, reflects the view by some social scientists that socio-economic issues including unemployment, poverty and lack of education do in fact play a role in the appeal of extremist groups. The inability to fulfill these needs on their own compel people to connect with others who can offer them the means to realize those needs, but in another way.

For instance, a person who can’t derive a sense of competence and status through his or her work, simply because they are unable to find work, will be easily lured by a group or organization that can offer to meet those needs.

But it doesn’t end there.

One could have an education, status, and money but still be vulnerable to the appeal of militancy – as demonstrated by privileged individuals who are a part of these organizations. Why would this be the case?

The appeal to join an extremist movement may also derive from a lack of other unmet needs including the need for security, attention, a feeling of control, friendships, community, and meaning and purpose because any such grouping will almost inevitably provide just those things for the would-be member. Being handed a gun and given a mandate to combat “evildoers” can provide a very powerful sense of social cohesion, control over one’s destiny, and meaning to those who previously lacked those things, regardless of how well-off they may have previously been.

If people have their needs met through the healthy outlets of daily life, in a healthy society, by way of a good job, a sufficient income, a safe environment, a social network of family and friends, and a sense of meaning, they would not need to look elsewhere for them. People will think twice about joining with others whose outward goals don’t gel with their own. This has always been the fundamental, subconscious, appeal of cults, who in addition to offering to meet certain needs also appeal to a person’s sense of dependency on others, especially authority figures.

Educating people about their needs and the necessity to meet them in a healthy fashion, combined with efforts on the part of governments to foster policies that meet people's needs, would go a long way in reducing the appeal of extremist groups. It would also have the effect of reducing conflicts and ameliorating core issues that provide the raison d’etre for these groups in the first place.

John Zada