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Joining the Cosmic Struggle

In a previous post entitled 'Human Needs and the Lure of Extremism,' we asserted that the appeal of militant groups (like ISIS) stems from their ability to provide for the unmet needs of prospective recruits.

The idea that human beings are innately guided towards meeting intangible emotional needs, is gaining greater currency among those doing social research on the behaviour of violent extremists.

In 2010, American anthropologist, Scott Atran, presented some findings from his research into violent extremist groups to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

In his presentation, entitled, “Pathways to and From Violent Extremism: The Case for Science-Based Field Research”, Atran stated the following:

“Entry into the jihadi brotherhood is from the bottom up: from alienated and marginalized youth seeking out companionship, esteem, and meaning, but also the thrill of action, sense of empowerment, and glory in fighting the world’s most powerful nation and army.”

“…What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy.”

“…Many who are bored, underemployed, overqualified, and underwhelmed by hopes for the future turn on to jihad with their friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal opportunity employer (at least for boys, but girls are web-surfing into the act): fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool. Anyone is welcome to try his hand at slicing off the head of Goliath with a paper cutter.”

We believe that Atran has succeeded in distilling the essence here.

For those living in countries whose governments are either partially or completely non-existent, or who cannot otherwise properly provide for their citizens, and where, consequently, basic needs are not met, one of the fast-tracks to meeting one’s needs is to join or create a militant group and enlist in the cosmic war.

The attraction to take part can be so powerful, if only because such groups promise to meet - in one fell swoop - all of the individual’s unmet needs, especially the basic need for meaning and a sense of mission in life.

Learning combat and other skills, carrying a gun, being given responsibility, experiencing a sense of personal importance, receiving money, taking part in international travel, meeting new people from other cultures, sharing friendships, and being a part of a historical cosmic struggle, all go a long way in making the recruit feel that his or her life has meaning, where previously they may have had little or none.

A sense of status, competency, control, and a feeling that one’s horizons and potential are being stretched make it very hard for some to ever look back. Indeed, if this is available in quantity from radical groups, and dressed in religious language, it may be hard to refuse, unless other serious alternatives are on offer.

Because all humans share the same innate needs, the deeper motives compelling the would-be extremist are not unlike those of say, a recruit attending police academy in the West, a student signing up for an exciting international career out of university, or a frustrated youth who is orphaned from his adoptive parents and who joins the fight against an Empire "in a galaxy far, far away."

The differences lie in the degree to which our needs are unmet and in the value and goals of those pursuits. 

Making available healthy and meaningful alternatives to joining a “cosmic struggle” is key to diminishing the ranks of extremists.

John Zada