Examining the psychology of violent jihad

Keith Loveard
18 min readJul 31, 2017

We cannot fight violent jihad unless we understand its roots and motivations. In this article, Keith Loveard, with input from Yan Ramadhan and Bastiaan Scherpen, fellow analysts at Jakarta-based Concord Consulting, examines some of the historical roots of jihadism and the entirely different narrative that drives jihad in Indonesia.

Many Muslim populations across the world have genuine reasons for grievance. Palestinians are increasingly under pressure in their homeland, with many millions forced to endure bleak existences in refugee camps. In Iraq, years of warfare have followed the intervention beginning in 2003 that brought the overthrow of Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein, with the rise of Islamist militias in the years that followed spreading into and devastating Syria.

Economically, many of the nations of the Middle East that have not shared in the massive oil reserves enjoyed by countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states scratch a difficult subsistence. Exacerbating the problem of poverty, for many Muslims in the region it is easy to see the continuing strife in the region as the result of intervention by the US and its allies, motivating a search for solutions that could free the region from Western meddling.

These solutions include a return to the dream of a new caliphate, replicating its rule by shariah and the primacy of the region over other nations. The impossibility of recreating a world order that triumphed a millenium ago under radically changed circumstances does not for many dissipate the message that there must be an alternative, and that only jihad can move toward it.

For some, achieving this dream requires violent opposition to the status quo. Young people with time on their hands are tired of watching their countries being split apart by foreign meddling, and as a result respond with equal violence in a bid to overthrow the current systems of government. Unsurprisingly, many recruits to the cause have come from Western nations where Muslim minorities have suffered deep discrimination, often turning to crime for want of any other means of support.

In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, the political and social systems are entirely different. Yet Islamic radicalism has an equally strong appeal to people who see that they are being cheated by elites who grab all the resources for their own benefit. Indonesia’s steady growth over the past 15 years has failed to improve the lives of many of the poor, creating resentment and a search for alternatives, among which shariah law and the vision of a caliphate have become prominent.

Unlike the Middle East, where resentment can be argued to have a sound basis, in Indonesia much of the resentment driving jihadism is manufactured, the product of a skilfil propaganda machine driven by the current generation of a movement to declare the country an Islamic state that predates independence. The Indonesian experience suggests that grievance can be created and is in fact being created as part of the wider process of Islamic exclusivism.

To understand the terrorist violence currently impacting the world, it is essential to understand the roots of the anger that has led to that violence. In the Middle East, this is real, in Indonesia less real and more manufactured. Indonesian Islamist terrorism and cultural domination has not emerged out of nowhere. It breeds in a fertile soil, albeit a largely manufactured one, of oppression and victimization.

History can only teach us so much

This discussion looks at some of the historical roots of violence in the Middle East in particular, together with the very different experience of Indonesian Islam, which nevertheless remains under pressure from jihadist discourse.

The problem with psychological arguments rooted in history is that they fail to explain why some people resist and others do not. Many people in the Middle East probably accept largely predictable life under a dictator, realizing that the alternative is total chaos, murder and the disintegration of society.

Resentment of foreign interference, especially in the Middle East, is undoubtedly part of the reason why some are willing to take up arms even though the vast majority are not. ISIS itself consists of large numbers of foreign fighters and is seen by many locals as a foreign occupation force, suggesting that the nation-building project by various Arab dictators over the past decades were quite successful.

Readings of history and geopolitical worldviews will have different impacts in different locales, so in that sense discussing the entire Middle East or even the entire Muslim world may be too broad-brush. Overall these ideas certainly play a role in triggering unrest — understandably so — but the way they influence behavior varies considerably depending on local circumstances.

A legacy of betrayal

Hatred between Arab and Western populations is hardly anything new. Incursions into Europe by Arabs date back centuries, when Arab forces controlled much of Spain, Sicily and threatened the gates of Vienna after conquering the Balkans. In response, the Crusades launched vengeful bloodlust on Arab communities in the Middle East. And while the hatred was mutual for many centuries, over the past hundred years the Arab peoples have had the worst of the bargain.

This year marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, in which the government of Britain stated that it would “view with favor the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people.” While this was by no means the first statement of intent to divide up the territory of the Ottoman Empire, it was the first to be made public after a long period of cautious tolerance between the Western powers and the empire.

And while the declaration went on to state that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” consequent events have demonstrated to the eyes of the Muslim communities of the Middle East just how little commitment was made to that part of the British government’s statement.

A year before the Balfour Declaration, the French and British governments obtained the agreement of the Russian Czarist government to a plan to carve up the entirety of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Russia’s part in the agreement was negated by the revolution that brought the communists to power. Known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement after the British and French diplomats who negotiated it, the agreement “defined areas of colonial domination in Syria and Mesopotamia in which France and Britain were free ‘to establish such direct or indirect adminstration or control as they desire(d),” according to Oxford University historian Eugene Rogan.

This sequence of historical events, which finalized earlier schemes hatched by diplomats in the region, arguably set in chain a process of domination of Middle Eastern affairs and interference in the region that has continued until this day. Even Russia is back in the game with its support for the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad.

Any native of the Middle East grows to maturity amid the knowledge that his or her part of the world is a cake to be cut up in any way the Great Powers of the day deem beneficial to their own interests. Governments in the region have been also-rans in world affairs, a situation that creates a natural sense of frustration and impotence. For those who have time to consider their situation and position in the greater world order, it is only natural that a sense of injustice prevails.

The end of Ottoman rule

The Middle East, and particularly the Arab lands, has been in decline as a political force for centuries. The last Arab Caliph fell from power as far back as 1258, when the Mongol hordes captured Baghdad. Since then, the mantle of the caliphate was assumed by non-Arabic rulers. Persian and Turkic invaders used the prestige of the caliph to reinforce their powers. Of most substance in recent history was the domination of the caliphate by the sultans of Turkey, centered on Istanbul.

One hundred years ago, the Ottoman Empire was stumbling under the weight of an assault by Allied forces on multiple fronts. While 1917 brought the collapse of the Russian alliance with France and Britain, and with it the threat to eastern Anatolia that had resulted in the loss of wide swathes of territory, the Ottoman Empire’s possessions in Arabia, Mesopotamia and North Africa had also been under great pressure.

According to Rogan, author of The Fall of the Ottomans, both sides in the Great War believed that jihad was a potent factor in the military equation. The declaration of jihad in support of the Axis powers in November 1914, declared in the name of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV, was supposedly the voice of the caliph and therefore an order that every Muslim should obey by taking up arms against the Allies.

That the call to jihad was largely ignored by most of the Sultan’s Arab constituency and the South Asian Muslims who Britain had so feared might be influenced by it recognizes the essential decay of the Ottoman Empire that had been for so long chipping away at its physical and moral authority. Rogan argues that the Ottoman Empire was in effect a Turkish colonial endeavor, albeit an extremely successful one for many centuries. Its rule of the Arab regions was not contested, but it was resented, creating the seeds for the defection of many Arab rulers to the British side in the First World War.

Among the defectors was the Sharif Hussein, ruler of the Hijaz and an important figure because of his control of Mecca and Medina. He was seen by the Allies, as the ruler of the Holy Places, as a critical player who could deny the Sultan’s authority in declaring jihad. He was persuaded to rebel against the Ottomans during the course of the war on the promise of independence for the Arab states, under his leadership. He and his sons led the Arab revolt that ended Ottoman rule in Mesopotamia and the wider Arab lands, right up to the capture of Jerusalem. Then he was betrayed by the British, leaving even his own tribal lands under attack by the Saud dynasty from further east. The Sharif’s only legacy in the patchwork of Arab states today is Jordan, still ruled by a member of his family.

After initially refusing to take part in the carve-up of the Middle East, the United States began to get deeply involved in the region in the 1950s, conspiring with the British to push Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh from power in 1953. Then as now, it was all about oil.

Regime change has since become almost an American sport. The 2003 invasion of Iraq failed to consider who would lead a government following the overthrow of the brutal Saddam Hussein. For all its aversion to Iran, the US encouraged the formation of a government led by Iraqi Shias, to the extreme distaste of the Sunni majority. Then they walked out and left Iraq to its own devices. Unsurprisingly resentful of foreign interference in their affairs once again, elements of the Sunni population in Iraq turned to terrorism to destroy the fabric of society in a downward spiral of vengeance and destruction.

Today, with the assaults on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Mosul and Raqqa, aid workers say far too little has been done to prepare for reconstruction of the two devastated cities. ISIS, many residents say, did a better job of basic municipal functions like rubbish collection. Resentment is reported to be building once more against the Western-backed forces that encouraged the destruction of a regime without much care about what might replace it.

The Arab and Iranian peoples have little reason to trust the Western powers. Deep-rooted cultural memories recall the atrocities of the Crusades. British schoolboys grew up in the first half of the 20th century on tales of Richard the Lionheart and the brave exploits of the Crusaders, which conveniently forgot to mention the rape and pillage that had accompanied the Crusades and had in fact been one of the major motivators for many who joined them.

ISIS aims to restore the caliphate

It is no coincidence that the Allied alliance against Islamic State is often referred to as Crusaders. For those directing the doomed endeavor that Arabs prefer to call Daesh, the attempt to re-establish a caliphate is an attempt to rewrite Arab history and restore the ‘golden age’ of rule by shariah law. That it is striving to do so by the murder of those it considers apostates and the enslavement of groups such as the Yazidi does not negate the appeal to those who wish to rewrite the history of the region.

This answers the desire of Muslims to put a full stop to the centuries of victimization at the hands of one great power or another. And while the historical record of victimization is one that is mainly an Arab one — and particularly a Palestinian one — Muslims everywhere, who are constantly reminded that their religion is a ‘brotherhood’ (ummah) cannot help but be influenced by the suffering of their brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews in the Middle East of today.

The writer Roger Hardy, in The Poisoned Well, sums up the legacy of the centuries of colonial aspirations for control of the Middle East and North Africa. Despite citing mainly Western sources, his work as Middle East analyst for the BBC has given him a balanced perspective.

“Of all the problems bequeathed from the colonial era, the Palestine issue has proved the most enduring and the most toxic. By sponsoring Zionist settlement in Palestine and then failing to resolve the conflict between Arab and Jew which this provoked, Britain bears a direct and inescapable responsibility for creating the Palestine problem — which, despite claims to the contrary, remains one of the principal root causes of the region’s malaise.”

Hardy devotes a chapter of his book to the legacy of the British colonization of Aden, which without much doubt has contributed to the disaster that is Yemen today. And in so many other areas, the toxic legacy of colonialism has left continuing open sores: Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and more.

Attempts to cultivate democracy ended with the hijacking of the experiment by wily local leaders: “Too many political parties had been artificial; too many parliamentarians had been corrupt. Moreover the British were not above manipulating these pseudo-democracies — in Iran no less than the Arab countries — in order to promote their interests, thereby undermining the very principles they aimed to profess.” Much the same might be said of the Americans.

Hardy cites historian L. Carl Brown: “For roughly the last two centuries the Middle East has been more consistently and more thoroughly ensnarled in great power politics than any other part of the non-Western world … No other area has remained so unremittingly caught up in multilateral great power politics.”

Both what Hardy refers to as Islamo-nationalism — typified by the Muslim Brotherhood — and universalism as espoused by the Arab Spring, have in his opinion failed, only to give way to “a movement of violent jihadist internationalism, set on destroying regimes, eradicating frontiers, and reviving a borderless caliphate.”

Media bias

Then there is the issue of deaths and how they are accounted. Ryan Williams, who describes himself as “a liberal arts student in the middle of the American Heartland,” commented in an article on Medium.com on the killing of eight-year-old Nawar al Awlaki in a recent drone strike in Yemen. “The controversy over how many people at the inauguration (of US President Donald Trump) was worth hours of attention; the deaths of children is only worth a passing mention.”

Williams ends by stating: “Very rarely (in the mainstream media) does anyone even stop to question whether we should be engaged in endless wars, or whether dropping bombs on children in impoverished nations is a good way to stop terrorism.” Logic would seem to be on the side of the argument that dropping bombs on children in places like Yemen is the reverse: a good way to encourage terrorism.

A bombing that injured one player in the Borussia Dortmund football team on April 11 (and had only a tenuous link to Islamist terrorism) generated hundreds of hours of news coverage. On the same day, a report headlined “Yemen clashes kill more than 40 in 24 hours” generated virtually no coverage beyond yet another day-in-life-of-a-disaster-zone update.

Many hundreds have died in recent months in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Syria as a result of bombings. Nowhere is the reaction even a fraction of that given to the deaths of seven people in London or 22 people in Manchester, nor the deaths in Paris, Marseilles, Brussels and elsewhere in the Western world. Muslims logically will conclude that the difference in public concern equates to an innate belief in Western societies that Muslim lives do not matter nearly as much as Western lives. It should not be a surprise that many young Muslims are deeply angered by their relegation to the also-rans of the species.

ISIS’s call to jihad resonates with young men and women living in the banlieues of Paris, in the Muslim quarters of Brussels and Manchester. They too have experienced discrimination and alienation. It should be no surprise that many of the perpetrators of terrorist violence have been petty criminals, individuals who have resorted to illegal means to avoid being trapped in poverty. Desperation, combined with the seductive call of revenge from ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, has produced a plague of blood-letting.

The Southeast Asian experience

With the imminent destruction of ISIS in Iraq and Syria at hand, jihadist radicalism is establishing new foundations in Southeast Asia. The siege of Marawi in the southern Philippines is now in its second month as this is written, with a handful of jihadists making the Philippines army and the local population pay dearly for every meter of space taken from them.

The fight of the jihadists in Marawi has become a potent new rallying call for concerned Muslims in much of Southeast Asia. Yet while the region also has its complaints about the legacies of colonialism, it has not been touched by the violence that has been so much part of life in the Middle East for so long. Where violence has occurred and regimes changed, it has largely been the work of local elites, albeit with occasional encouragement from the great powers.

In none of the countries of Southeast Asia is it forbidden to be a Muslim. Any government attempting to remove religion from the face of society would be immediately overturned. Determined hard-liners within Muslim populations across the region, however, continue to insist that being allowed to practice your religion is not enough: the state, too, must be subordinated to religion.

Nationalists, who have been consistently in the majority, have refused to accept this position but while the radicals have little real electoral support, they insist with the certainty of religious fanatics everywhere that their view must prevail. In large part, achieving that end requires a greater part of the public to be persuaded that their view is correct.

That process is underway in many countries in the region, spurred by ISIS’ call for a caliphate for Southeast Asia. Local jihadist groups have been vying to back their candidacy for the status of a wilayat of the caliphate. Marawi to this point seems to make the southern Philippines the most likely contender.

The ‘heat’ of exclusivist ideology

While convinced jihadists view for positions of influence and power, others are busy proselytizing. Many are driven by a sense that they are being cheated in their own land. Alissa Wahid, a psychologist and the daughter of the late President Abdurrahman Wahid, himself a moderate Muslim leader, says that a narrative among Indonesian Muslims of the economic oppression of the Muslim majority by non-Muslim minorities is being concocted by the main actors behind the Islamist movement to create a populist movement.

“Is there any inequality? Yes, of course. Are the Muslim majority being economically oppressed by the non-Muslim minority? Debatable,” says Wahid, adding that no data is available which categorizes inequality in correlation with race and religion.

Facts aside, the framing of a narrative of economic oppression is appealing to the masses, says Wahid. “All narration which comes in the form of victimization will always be taken as something ‘pure’ as it touches the aspects of humanity, justice and identity of a certain group of people,” she adds.

In Indonesia, local politics has conveniently provided a rallying point on which stronger foundations can be built for the radical community. The ouster of the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent, amid claims of blasphemy provided long-awaited momentum for the return of racial and religious sentiments within the mainstream population of the Indonesian capital.

Wahid says the sentiment first emerged in the 1980s with the popularization of religious exclusivism, the concept that Muslims have a right to inherit the world while those who reject Islam deserve to be eradicated.

“What I perceive from the sentiment is a more imminent threat when the religious exclusivism turns into populism. Religious exclusivism brings intolerance and it will turn worse into discrimination with the help of populism,” Wahid says.

Populism assumes more dangerous proportions when local administrations, driven by a desire to appear Islamic, act to discriminate against certain groups of people without any consideration of their constitutional rights. Many people, she argues, including regional administrations, have yet to understand the true concept of democracy.

“They think that as the winners of the election they automatically acquire absolute authority. They think that as the majority — those who hold the majority of votes — they are allowed to make policy in accordance with their own interests.”

Globalization, Wahid continues, plays a role since those who stand to benefit from the sense of exclusivism are threatened by the increasing heterogeneity of a globalized society.

At the Wahid Institute, formed to pursue her father’s defense of tolerance, research has identified the areas of the country most influenced by the belief in exclusivism: with Jakarta and the province of West Java the most prominent, demonstrating the highest level of ‘heat’.

“The heat ranking (of Jakarta and West Jakarta) was followed by areas in the western part of Sumatra, South Kalimantan, South Sulawesi and East Java, especially areas near Pasuruan.”

The heat map was based on online observation between October and November 2016 that identified different narratives and sentiment expressed in social media platforms. On Twitter, the narrative was dominated by the view that the world has been divided into two sides: Muslims and infidels, those who fight for Islam and the enemies of Islam.

On Facebook, discourse is dominated by the issue of secular capitalism, the failures of democracy as a system, environmental damage and the deterioration of public order as an impact of capitalism, attacks by Western ideology, aided by the stupidity of the masses.

“The social media findings lead us to the second narrative that is the purification of Islam where there is only one true Islam — pure Islam — which refers to the teaching of Wahhabism,” Wahid notes, adding that the failure of many Indonesians to think critically is aiding the onward march of hard-line views of Islam.

What occurs is a brain-washing of society to assume that Wahhabi Islam is the only true religion and that those who oppose its domination are therefore enemies of Islam. While Wahid has hopes that responses by members of the social media public demonstrate that not everyone has been fooled, she admits that the message is spreading.

Video footage showing children in a convoy shouting “Bunuh Ahok! (the nickname of ousted and jailed Jakarta governor Purnama) Bunuh Ahok!” (“Kill Ahok! Kill Ahok!”) went viral on social media, demonstrating the pollution of society by the hard-line message.

“It signifies how easy it was for a mere child to show such aggressive response without even knowing the whole context of the situation,” Wahid says. In the face of such pervasive propaganda, the Indonesian government needs to crack down on ‘hate speech’, she says.

The Indonesian experience suggests that the problem of radical Islam is by no means limited to the extreme represented by ISIS. Muslim communities in a traditionally tolerant society like Indonesia are also being dragged into a quagmire of hatred of others.

How to change

First, it needs to be stressed that lives matter. Not Western lives, but all lives, including Muslim lives. This will not be achieved by trying to persuade the mainstream media to stop reporting victims in their own constituency; the media just doesn’t work that way. What is needed — but still may have only limited success — is a global campaign to stress that lives matter, whoever they may belong to. We need to learn to respect humanity in all of its forms.

Second, the public must restrain governments from embarking on regime change and murderous wars that are of no direct concern. Nor will this be achieved easily: far too many vested interests, not least the energy lobby, have powerful influence of governments. If people do not speak out, they will carry on as they always have.

Third, agencies such as the United Nations and NGOs must be empowered to play a role in reconstruction at the earliest possible time. To leave people to scrabble for their own survival after the destruction of their homes and livelihoods is to create the incubator for future hatred.

Fourth, listen to each other. There are plenty of examples of how information and the sharing of experiences can be cathartic, shrinking long-held biases based on cultural suspicion but not on facts.

Fifth, development. Muslim communities wherever they are will tend to resent any situation where inequality is embedded within the social structure. However even in the ‘developed’ West, inequalities exist at all levels, and are only now being recognized as a problem with long-term implications for social order.

Can this happen? Realism suggests the chances are very low. Yet if humanity is to find some way out of the pit of hatred that the West’s policies in the Middle East have created over hundreds of years, there is no other way.

The alternative, and indeed the more likely outcome, is an increasing polarization of the global social order, with Muslims expressing hatred for non-Muslims and, in response, non-Muslims expressing hatred and hardening their discrimination and domination of Muslim communities.

Quite clearly, counter-terrorism efforts need to continue to take out the active threats to security. But these are inevitably a response that does not impact the causes of jihadist thought and action. Finding a means of mediating the deep divisions in global communities is perhaps an impossible goal, but that does not mean that the problems should be simply ignored or confronted only with essentially violent reactions that will tend to beget more violence.

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