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What Causes Terrorism?

Ville Kokko

Posted on March 17, 2019 13:44

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The answer is not Islam.

Our brains are wonderful instruments for perceiving and understanding the outside world. However, they can also be extremely persistent in seeing a motivated fantasy version instead of reality.

"Not every Muslim is a terrorist, but every terrorist is a Muslim." I tried to find the origins of this quote, but all I could find were writings that didn't know either. I guess it's just a meme that lives its own life rather than having been famously said by someone. (Knowing how these things usually work, it's weird that I didn't even see it being falsely attributed to Winston Churchill or Einstein or something.)

It seems that humans possess some evolved instincts – biases, in practice – that have to do with how we used to live in small tribes and it was important to know who was an enemy and who was an ally. Pascal Boyer explains in Religion Explained how this may explain some of the features of fundamentalist religious movements.

Even if these evolutionary psychological explanations aren't correct, it's clear such a bias exists. I've written about it before.

That's why people are willing to make such ludicrous declarations as that all terrorists are Muslims. There are plenty of examples of non-Muslims committing mass murder for ideological reasons, but they don't count. They're just lone psychos that don't exemplify the traits of any group. Meanwhile, every Muslim is thought suspect, because that's how your brain wants to think about the out-groups.

It's not just that these are rare exceptions among a sea of Islamic terrorism. There's research showing that "a total of 73.3 percent of all extremist-related fatalities can be linked to domestic right-wing extremists, while 23.4 percent can be attributed to Islamic extremists."

Seriously, a large majority. But apart from the majority, all terrorists are Muslims.

What do all these terrorists and terrorist organizations have in common? If you said terrorism is linked to Islam specifically, you'd just be ignoring most of the examples. Your brain would be doing its crude tribal sorting of allies and enemies and tricking you into not seeing what's right in front of you.

An article on The Guardian listed some things that Islamist and right-wing terrorists have in common. I have no space to go into detail about it all here, but some of the commonalities mentioned included a belief that the terrorists are fighting back against tyranny and a sense of existential threat. Those others are going to wipe us out and we have to fight back.

Pretty human motives, really. That's probably why they're found on every side. But also having terrible implications.

It's a very dangerous illusion that there are clearly defined groups of people – religions, races, nations, political parties – some of which are good and some of which are bad. People don't become terrorists because they belong to the wrong group, it's because they're dangerously extreme about being in whatever group they're in.

Ville Kokko

Posted on March 17, 2019 13:44

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Source: TIME

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