Psychologist Discusses ‘Mutual Radicalization’ in Groups and Nation-States

By: Andrew Johnian, Reporter

Photo Credit: National Communication Association

At Georgetown’s Communication, Culture & Technology Center, Professor Fathali Moghaddam discussed the “mutual radicalization” of groups and nations. The topic is the basis for his forthcoming book, “Mutual Radicalization: The Psychology of How Groups and Nations Drive Each Other to Extremes.”

Moghaddam’s work on radicalization was inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Not long after Moghaddam moved back to Iran, a group of Iranian pro-Khomeini extremists invaded the US Embassy in Tehran, leading to the capture of over 50 US diplomats and staff. According to Moghaddam, the hostage crisis helped the extremists take control in Iran, and set Iran and America on the road to mutual radicalization.

Moghaddam’s latest research identifies major cognitive processes behind social movements and “macro-level phenomena.” He argues that nation-states radicalize in similar ways to non-state actors. While each may have different resources, instruments, and means, similar psychological processes shape behavior.

He refers to this concept as mutual radicalization whereby the “actions of one group triggers a more extreme response in a second group” that further radicalizes the first group. One can think of this process as reciprocal extremism driven, in part, by group messaging and historical narratives. Dangerously, mutual radicalization often leads to pathological hatred—where one group feels they can only achieve victory by degrading, damaging, or destroying another group.

Moghaddam touched on historical examples where nation-states devised communications strategies based on words of conflict and war. He argues such choices and actions have driven discourse and policy-making toward irrationality. He highlighted as examples the decades-long conflicts between Pakistan and India, North and South Korea, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He proclaims rhetorical and communications strategies have driven radicalization at the individual, societal, national, and international level—leading to negative impacts on conflict resolution. The enculturation process can be extremely difficult to break. “Cultural carriers” such as customs and traditions have large symbolic value and provide individuals, groups, and nations with something to identify with. As such, the search for collective meaning and belonging creates an “identity formation.” This process has both a unifying and stigmatizing effect such is the case in India-Pakistan, North Korea-South Korea, and Israeli-Palestine relations.

Optimistically, radical voices do not always prevail. In 1990s South Africa, the Apartheid regime was abolished with much less bloodshed than had been predicted. In the post-conflict environment, civil society and democracy has been fairly robust. According to Moghaddam, the success of South Africa is largely due to moderates’ effectively countering extremists’ ideologies and messages. More recently, moderate voices prevailed over extremist ideology in Tunisia in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Here, several socio-political factions, including Islamists, accepted representation of mainstream ideologies and parties in parliament.

Moghaddam identifies three stages of mutual radicalization: group mobilization, extreme in-group cohesion, and antagonistic identity transformation. In the first stage, groups mobilize around internal identities in response to perceived injustice or deprivation. The in-group denigrates the out-group, distancing themselves from society at large. Moghaddam used the example of jihadi violent extremism. Muslims from disaffected communities and Western society are at higher risk of falling into the trap of jihadist ideology. Their plight of finding identity or significance leads individuals to join groups that share common struggles. Some unite around a radical extremist interpretation of Islam. On the opposing side, ultra-nationalist groups who are unhappy with changing demographics in society repeat a similar process of radical mobilization. They view the solidification of Muslim identity as a threat to individual and state identity.

In stage two, extreme identities and aggressive leadership styles create in-group cohesion. Group leaders often practice followership that demands conformity and obedience from members. From a psychological standpoint, this practice reinforces “cognitive convergence” and strengthens the group’s ideological purity. Although terrorist organizations in the West have become more decentralized, followership is still used despite the lack of formal structures and institutions. Individual cells can still organize, hold members accountable, and strengthen cohesion. For example, the cells responsible for launching the November 2015 attacks in France, and most recently the August 2017 attacks in Spain adhered to these principles.

In stage three, antagonistic identity transformation breeds a cycle of increasingly hostile responses. Antagonistic identity transformation is when groups on opposite sides of a political matter exaggerate grievances by antagonizing the opposition. This process frequently leads to “pathological hatred.” Jihadi extremists may elevate grievances disproportionate to otherwise legitimate concerns. The same is true for the opposition or “out-group.” For example, violent jihadis argue that the death of Westerners is a proportionate response to American and European wars on Muslim lands. Similarly, Western governments may seek to prevent terrorism by adopting laws that restrict civil liberties—potentially exacerbating divisions in society that formed extremist identities. Both may have legitimate grievances but disproportionate responses lead to heightened animosity and antagonism.

Such an escalatory cycle is particularly worrisome when radicalized identities and extremism becomes commonplace. Normalized extremism can create a situation where jihadist violence or governmental policy can trigger direct and indirect violent conflicts. Radicalization of disaffected populations can lead to mutual radicalization of the out-group such as nation-states that make policy to respond to problems in society. Likewise, regardless of good intentions, nation-state policy can indirectly be the driving force of jihadi radicalization. This relationship can reinforce overtime by creating antagonism between individuals, groups, societies, and countries.

Professor Moghaddam concluded by observing that he would like to see more researchers and practitioners focus on collective radicalism and extremism. Mutual radicalization has had severe consequences in the lives of individuals, groups, societies, and nation-states. The current national and international security community may need to become more engaged with the challenge of mutual radicalization if they wish to solve many of today’s pressing issues, such as terrorism, escalation on the Korean Peninsula, or tension in South Asia.

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