Using Social Psychology to Counter Terrorism

Given recent terrorist attacks in France, Canada, and Australia, a number of Western thinkers argue that in order to defeat Islamic extremism, we must not only confront their ideological foundations but also provide younger followers of Islam with alternative ways of being good Muslims without killing Westerners. With no attractive alternative, as social psychologists have found for other marginalized groups, our ad-hoc efforts at countering violent extremists will continue to fail.

The roots of the conflict between Islam and the West go back more than a millennium to the birth of Islam. Within the short span of a decade after the death of prophet Muhammad, all the major Christian centers of the Middle East – Antioch, Damascus, Alexandria, Carthage – had come under Muslim rule. There were repeated Muslim attacks against the headquarters of the Eastern Church, Constantinople, which finally succumbed to this onslaught in 1453. It was in the wake of the meteoric rise in Muslims fortunes that an Islamic myth of invincibility became widespread. “If you faithfully follow Allah and his path, Allah will make you victorious” became a cry firmly embedded in Muslim identity.

To counter this lightning-fast expansion, Pope Gregory declared a Crusade against Muslim heresy in 996. For the next 300 years, the two civilizations fought against each other in a broad front extending from Spain in the west to Syria in the east. The fatal blow against the Muslim expansion came from an unexpected quarter: The Mongol invasion of the 13th century. The Mongols were so ferocious that they broke through the Islamic narrative of invincibility and forced Muslims to ask themselves: “What went wrong?” The 13th century cleric Ibn-e-Tamiyya provided the narrative that became dominant. Allah had taken victory away from Muslims, he said, because they had stopped following Islam faithfully enough. The only way to restore the glory of the golden era of Islam was to go back to faithfully following Islamic tenets Jihad in particular.

This narrative follows the powerful arcing pattern identified by psychologists. It reminds group members of their glorious past and promises that if they make the changes suggested, they can restore their past glory. This narrative was so successful that when the biggest blow to Muslim prestige came with military defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the disbanding of the caliphate, and the colonial occupation of Muslim countries, socially creative Muslims leaders revived this narrative.

We need a counter-narrative effort that does not just defensively challenge small fringe elements of the dominant Islamic narrative but goes on the offensive by offering Muslims around the world an attractive alternative, a narrative that satisfies their social psychological needs for positive self-esteem.

A legacy of this long history of mutual adversity is that Western countries are seen negatively as a hostile out-group by most Muslims. When asked to provide the greatest danger to their nation, Indonesians, Pakistanis, and Malaysians – all Muslim-majority populations – chose United States as the biggest danger to their survival. A 2014 Pew Global Survey also found that while “a global median of 65% voice an affirmative opinion about America. This includes a median of 74% in Africa, 66% in Western Europe, 66% in Asia, 65% in Latin America, but just 30% in the Middle East.” The lowest favorability ratings for the U.S. were found in the Islamic world.

Out-Group Influences

Social Identity Theory (SIT) is one of the most well-developed social psychological models of group interactions including inter-group violence. Group members, according to the theory, engage in violent collective action as well as non-violent strategies such as social creativity to enhance their status. One of the social creativity strategies is to reinterpret the dimensions of comparison between groups so that the status of the in-group looks better relative to out-group. In-group members can elevate the importance of positive in-group characteristics and downgrade those dimensions on which an out-group looks better than the in-group.

For instance, in comparison with dominant white Americans, black American status looks lower when status is computed using the dimensions of wealth and educational achievements. Some social psychologists argue that black social empowerment movements of the 1960s shifted dimensions of comparison to street toughness and physical prowess because these dimensions made black Americans from the ghetto look better relative to white Americans. Such re-definitions are necessary to allow members of a stigmatized group to maintain a positive self-esteem, which is needed for their mental well being. Social psychologists also contrast social creativity – largely viewing it as positive – with violent collective action against an out-group (largely viewing it as negative). However, cultural scientists studying strategies used by minorities to cope with their marginalization have observed that social creativity strategies often work hand in glove with violent collective action. A study of African American social movements shows that social creativity strategies that result in development and propagation of myths of black ghetto males as hyper-masculine tough guys who fearlessly confront an oppressive and unjust police can also promote and perpetuate collective violence against the police.

A similar dynamic can be seen at work among Muslim social and religious movements. Many of these movements have their roots in the anti-colonial struggle against Western occupiers. During the colonial period, dominance of the West in material wealth and military technology became hard to deny even for the most chauvinist Muslims. Most of the creative Muslims thinkers argued that spirituality and family values count for more than material wealth and individual freedom and that while the West has material wealth and individual freedom, Muslims have spiritual wealth and strong family bonds. As a result of these efforts, in most of the Muslim world, Westerners are perceived to be irreligious and too focused on their pursuit of individual desires at the expense of their family’s needs. Thus, it is no surprise that a 2011 Pew Global survey found that when Muslims were asked about their perceptions of Westerners, they listed selfish, violent, greedy, and immoral as their top choices.

Good Muslims, on the other hand, are perceived to be highly religious and family people. A 2001 British Home Office Citizenship Survey found that for British Muslims, family is the most important factor followed by religion while for British Christians, religion ranked seventh.  A 2011 Pew Global Surveyfound that unlike Christians who consider themselves French (90%), Germans (70%), Russians (68%), British (63%), Spanish (53%), and Americans (46%) first, most Muslims around the world consider themselves to be Muslims first. Thus, instead of comparing themselves with the West on per-capita income or individual rights, they compare themselves with the West on the degree of devotion to Islam and on the strength of their social ties with family and friends.

While social creativity is often seen through the lens of an underprivileged minority group as the group’s valiant struggle to construct a positive image for their marginalized group, it can also be seen as an attempt by an out-group to affect core social identity beliefs of another group. Thus, by collectively stereotyping blacks as brutes, white Americans were able to influence blacks to redefine their core social identity beliefs in what it means to be a good black American. This suggests that by understanding social identity dynamics, a dominant group can affect core social identity beliefs of a marginalized group. This is contrary to the argument often offered as a definitive conclusion by some social scientists that it is not possible for the West to positively affect core social identity beliefs of Muslims, and that only other Muslims can engage in the battle of ideas against jihadists. It suggests that the West can actually play an active role in positively affecting the social identity beliefs of Muslims.


Finding Alternatives

The columnist Fareed Zakaria recently noted that “no matter what the U.S. has done, Islamic radicalism has been on the rise for two decades.” What we sorely need today is a counter-narrative effort that does not just defensively challenge small fringe elements of the dominant Islamic narrative but goes on the offensive by offering Muslims around the world an attractive alternative, a narrative that satisfies their social psychological needs for a positive self-esteem by telling them how they are better than others yet not feel the need to violently confront those they consider their out-groups. It must satisfactorily answer the “what went wrong” question and offer Muslims a non-violent course of action they can follow to overcome their lower socioeconomic status. We also need strategies that allow the West to play an active role in promoting our interests.

While this is a challenging task, a focused effort can succeed in developing such a narrative. The reason for this optimism is that over the last century there have been numerous social movements in various parts of the Islamic world that have successfully challenged the traditional Islamic narrative. Such movements succeeded in making their narrative as the dominant view in their part of the world. This includes, for instance, the socialist movements in various Arab and non-Arab countries, which sought to use social creativity by arguing that the reason for Muslim decline was to be found in Western Capitalist oppression of the poor. They argued that Islam’s message at its core is about egalitarianism and equality. They traced the roots of their movement back to the prophet Muhammad who, along with his family, lived a life of poverty.

Islamic socialism became the dominant narrative in many Muslims countries in the 1970s, including Libya, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. These countries’ leaders realized that in order for their ideology to succeed, they had to adopt the arcing narrative pattern used by the dominant Islamic narrative. They had to get Muslims to believe that Islamic socialism went all the back to the start of their religion and was responsible for their glorious past. They also had to sell the idea that social welfare and egalitarianism are Muslim values and not Western values. In order for Muslims to adopt social welfare and egalitarianism as their values (and hence good dimensions of comparison with the West) the West had to look worse on those values. As the chant of “if you are Charlie then we are Kouachi” by Muslim counter-demonstrators in Karachi, Istanbul, Amman, Algiers, Khartoum, and Zinder illustrates, if we look good on a value, it cannot be their value.

During the Cold War, the West fought against the socialist narratives around the world. In Islamic countries this often meant supporting Islamists. For example, the West supported Islamists militarily in their civil war against Soviet communists in Afghanistan. Our anti-socialism efforts succeeded a little too well in the Islamic world, wiping out the Islamic socialist narrative and leaving the Islamic narrative as the dominant worldview in much of the Muslim world.

We do not have to invent a time machine and go back to the 1970s and revive Islamic socialism. We can work to unite the efforts by isolated Muslims offering alternatives to Muslims. These include the narrative proposed by the first Muslim scientist to win a Nobel Prize, Dr. Abdus Salam. Muslim scientists have argued that while the Quran does emphasize worship, it also repeatedly exhorts its readers to think. Can you not see how the earth is laid flat? Can you not see how the moon and sun obey their orbits so perfectly? In fact, thinking and reflecting are among the most frequently mentioned commands in the Quran. Similarly, a much more plausible reason for the decline of Islamic civilization is the decline of free thinking and its accompanying scientific and technological output. If Muslims want to regain the glory of their early years then they must educate themselves in modern science and technology. The benefit of this alternative narrative is that it also admits an active role for the West. For instance, we can acknowledge the huge role that Islamic played in the renaissance of science in Europe. This will allow the Muslims to claim free thinking and science as inherent strengths of the Islamic civilization.

To reverse their negative out-group impression of the West, we must not only remind them of their glorious past, but also their potential for a prosperous future.


Dr. Afzal Upal is a cognitive scientist of religion with expertise in Islamic movements, countering violent extremism (CVE), and narrative-based messaging. He has published over sixty articles in peer reviewed journals and conferences.


1 comment

  1. Jonn Tyler 2 February, 2015 at 16:50 Reply

    An insightful and eye opening analysis. We need theoretically informed approaches like this to rid ourselves of this death cult. Thanks for writing.

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