The Roots of Terrorism Start With Divided Communities

4 min read

I was in Jordan, just a half-day drive from the Israel–Gaza border when Hamas attacked and Israel responded. As I fearfully watched the events unfold, I was reminded once again of work I had been doing with my colleague, Dr. Michelle Grossman, from Deakin University in Australia.

Dr. Grossman and I have been trying to understand what makes a person more or less susceptible to violent extremism and why many people, despite histories of injustice, show the resilience necessary to resist violence while still pursuing social justice. Our research has identified 14 questions we can ask that assess a person’s likelihood of using terror to address oppression, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, as many communities across the world have lately become fractured like never before by political rhetoric and hate speech.

To use these questions, think about a person you know (or imagine one on either side of the Israel–Gaza border) who is feeling the sting of social injustice. If you want to know whether they might consider violence, then consider whether they would agree or disagree with each of these 14 statements:

  1. It’s important to me to maintain cultural traditions.
  2. Being violent helps me earn the respect of others.
  3. I am familiar with my cultural traditions, beliefs, practices, and values.
  4. Being violent helps show how strong I am.
  5. My cultural identity guides the way I live my life.
  6. I trust authorities/law enforcement agencies.
  7. In general, I trust people from other communities.
  8. My community accepts that young people may use violence to solve problems.
  9. I am willing to speak out publicly against violence in my community.
  10. I feel supported by people from other communities.
  11. I regularly engage in conversations with people of multiple religions/cultures and beliefs.
  12. I am willing to challenge the violent behavior of others in my community.
  13. I feel confident when dealing with the government and authorities.
  14. I feel that my voice is heard when dealing with the government and authorities.

The answers that predict resilience to violent extremism (meaning that a person will resist becoming violent and instead choose other means to achieve social justice) tend to follow a pattern, with individuals agreeing with all the statements except for numbers 2, 4, and 8 (those questions should be answered with a “disagree”).

When we do actual research with these statements, we use a 5-point scale to tease out a person’s more nuanced responses, but for my purpose here, a simple agree/disagree answer does the trick. How someone responds is a pretty good predictor of whether they would consider behavior that, on the surface, seems incomprehensibly brutal.

Each of these statements also suggests a solution to violent extremism. When people experience structural violence that seems unsolvable, and they become isolated from their enemies in their everyday activities, then it is much too easy to sow the seeds for violence, no matter which side of a political struggle one is on.

Sadly, the world is now witnessing a series of wars being fuelled by a breakdown in empathy and connection between those fighting these conflicts. Enemies are dehumanized. In-groups and out-groups assume each is different from the other. It’s the same locally in our cities, workplaces, and schools. If we want to prevent more hate-motivated violence, we will have to break the cycle of exclusion. Indeed, the only way out of this mess is to ensure people become far more connected to those they don’t understand.

Note: If you want to learn more about the science behind these 14 statements, check out a paper I co-authored that was published in Terrorism and Political Violence, which describes how we developed the Building Resilience to Violent Extremism (BRAVE) measure and what it can tell us about preventing violent extremism.

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