About 3,000 people from Western Europe have travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State terrorist group, and authorities are worried that young people in the West might increasingly become converts to extremist Islamic ideology.
Last week U.S. authorities arrested six young men from Minneapolis’s Somali community who were planning to join the terrorist group. The number of U.S. recruits to the Islamic State remains small compared with Europe, yet the threat here of increasing recruitment is worrisome.
Experts are struggling to determine why, psychologically, many young Westerners are tempted to identify with terrorist mayhem and brutality. Finding answers is challenging because the recruits, many of whom are college educated and come from middle-class families, don’t fit a typical profile.
I explored this subject in an earlier post, What Warps the Mind of Domestic Terrorists. That post explained how some individuals are drawn to violent rebellion in order to cover up or defend against their underlying self-doubt and passivity. Recruits to terrorism, I wrote, embrace an ideology that idealizes aggression and defiance in order to deny (cover up or defend against) their emotional entanglement in feelings of being a person of limited value and significance. As a defense against their own readiness to feel devalued, they begin to experience anger and hatred toward those who allegedly discount their value.
To get another perspective on the subject, I explore the same basic theme in this post, though with an emphasis on psychological identifications. Deep in their psyche, these recruits to fatalistic rebellion are not necessarily different from the millions of troubled young Westerners who, mired in anxiety and depression, act out with drugs, fail at school, and display either bold defiance or abject apathy. Recruits to the Islamic State chose their particular form of acting-out because, as immigrants or children of immigrants from Muslim countries, they possess cultural and religious identifications that draw them in that direction of self-defeat.
Their identifications with Islam and its cultures tend to eclipse their bonds with Western culture. As they see many Westerners being scornful of Islam or indifferent to its values, they feel personally insulted and belittled. Because of their identifications—as well as their own personal self-doubt and emotional immaturity—they experience rejection and scorn at this personal level. The more painfully they experience these negative emotions, the greater their need (as a psychological defense) to reject in return, either verbally or violently, Western culture and its values.
It’s important to understand that they experience the real or alleged rejection and scorn in a painful manner because of the weakness inherent in human nature, not because they’re actually or allegedly being rejected, scorned, or victimized by others. If they were stronger emotionally, they wouldn’t take personally the cold indifference or foolish disparagements of others. When emotionally weak, we all can be quick to feel unjustly treated.
At this point, let me ramble on here for a bit before returning to the subject of terrorism’s appeal to certain young Westerners. Identification is a powerful psychological force in human life. Everyday people identify with parents, children, political parties, religions, cultures, occupations, characters in a book or movie, and secular beliefs. We can also identify, to varying degrees, with objects such as guns, cars, homes, wealth, and sports teams—or places such as home towns, states, and nations.
While we may need these secondary identifications for a sense of belonging, it pays to be aware to what degree we might be using them as emotional props. By keeping them in perspective, we can better regulate our emotional life.
Our identifications can produce both positive and negative feelings. Often we identify with the helplessness, criticism, rejection, guilt, or shame that others are experiencing (or that we imagine they are experiencing) for the unconscious purpose of painfully recycling our own corresponding emotional issues. As we grow stronger, we’re able to establish an identification with our authentic self and all the goodness and value inherent in the self.
We’re also under the influence of identifications associated with inner conflict, particularly in reference to the passive and aggressive sides of our nature. These two identifications shape our personality, character, and integrity, and they can restrict our intelligence. For instance, many people, experiencing a conflict or apparent injustice from a passive perspective, are quick to identify with real or alleged victims. Others can also instinctively identify with aggression and aggressors. This happens, for instance, when they quickly side with the police or the military when police misconduct or military wrongdoings are alleged or identified. In a different context, however, these individuals can quickly identify with the passive side (e.g., when confronted by the police).
People often live, like petrified wood, through the identifications they have assumed. Some passivity is inherent in the need to belong to some group or belief system, or to need external props for self-validation. To grow beyond our identification with passivity, we become aware that it is maintained through inner conflict, primarily the standoff in our psyche between inner passivity and inner aggression. The degree or intensity of this inner conflict determines whether an individual is healthy or neurotic—or, worse, has mood or personality disorders, or is psychotic.
It’s important to understand that inner passivity is a powerful identification in the human psyche. Inappropriate or reactive aggression—along with fantasies of such aggression—is simply an unconscious defense against acknowledgement of this passive side. This passivity is a factor, for instance, in the process whereby all young people absorb inner accusations concerning “forbidden” sexual desires.
At this point, I need to say more about inner passivity. To understand why young people in the West might crave the terrorist experience, we have to understand inner passivity. It is the driving force—the primary identification—behind both the terrorist and the criminal mentality. While recruits to terrorism don’t have, as mentioned, a typical personality profile, they do have at a deeper level a typical unconscious profile, namely an identification based on inner passivity. Varied personality and character traits can be reduced to this common denominator, as I have illustrated numerous times in posts at this website.
The barbaric aggression of terrorists has its counterpoint in extreme passivity recessed deep in their psyche. As evidence, fledgling terrorists often succumb passively to the influence of their peers, recruiters, and emotionally fueled ideological irrationality. The Islamic State itself fits the definition of a cult, and members of cults are notoriously passive. Recruits to terrorism are often persuaded to amplify a sense of humiliation at having (allegedly) been victimized by Western colonialism and discrimination. This is a passive way to interpret or experience Western civilization. In the past century, Western intrusions into Muslim-majority countries have been relatively civilized (with distinctive exceptions such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq).
Inner passivity is a universal aspect of human nature that applies across class, gender, cultural, and racial barriers. Because of it, Muslims can easily feel overpowered and overwhelmed by the might of the West. When acting out of emotional weakness, they can produce death cults. In contrast, they respond with diplomacy and skillful self-representation when acting from inner strength.
Inner passivity is a universal aspect of human nature. When it becomes entangled in inner conflict, it can bind people to negativity and emotional weakness and trap them in painful emotional and behavioral situations. Often this passive sense of self is barely registered as an anomaly. Instead, it can feel normal, familiar, and integral to one’s sense of self.
Inner passivity is an inner default position, a limiting sense of being that’s determined to be experienced, however painful and self-defeating that is. Having a high IQ doesn’t necessarily help us to detect it. As mentioned, many college students and graduates in Western Europe have joined the Islamic State. People who behave stupidly can have very high IQs. Throughout the West, many politicians and celebrities, for instance, have committed foolish acts of self-sabotage, especially concerning sexual and financial matters. This occurs because people are frequently compelled to experience emotional issues—guilt, shame, failure, and self-condemnation—that arise out of the inner conflict between inner passivity (centered in the unconscious, subordinate ego) and inner aggression (centered in the inner critic or superego).
The passive person unconsciously allows the stern, severe aggression of the superego to penetrate his mental-emotional life, producing distortions of reality. The individual can now alleviate inner fear, self-doubt, and self-criticism by identifying with the stern outlook of the inner critic or superego. The inner critic, however, is primitive and punishing—an illegitimate inner authority—and in aligning with it the individual acquires some of its bluster and insensitivity.
Most people, of course, do not allow their identifications to plunge them into irrationality. A teenager whose heroes are successful musicians or technology innovators can be inspired by them. Identifications often serve to alleviate inner fear and inner conflict, allowing inner dynamics to stabilize and to produce a socially acceptable personality.
Regular teenagers and young adults easily identify with rebels (as I remember doing with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause) because they themselves are trying to navigate their own rebellion against parental authority. Society supports this self-development through peer friendships, music, clothing styles, and other cultural connections. Young people who become recruits to the Islamic State can face more intense inner conflict and self-alienation when they don’t share the same cultural identifications and don’t achieve sufficient bonding with young Westerners.
When inner conflict is more intense, socially acceptable forms of rebellion no longer suffice. The stakes are raised. A young man might feel the need to display more dynamic expressions of aggression to counter inner accusations that he is self-identified as a weakling and a disappointment to himself and others. To bolster his defense, his identifications are now made with extreme forms of rebellion. This is the dynamic that produces common criminals.
Now the recruit to terrorism might defend at an inner level by claiming, “No, I am not a passive nobody! I’m a brave adventurer who seeks to travel to the Middle East and to align himself with defiance and aggression.”
Potential terrorists living in North America and Europe can harbor secret contempt and hatred for the society and people around them. This hatred is a spinoff of the self-condemnation they experience when, through inner passivity, they allow their inner critic to mock and harass them for their emotional attachments to feeling unworthy and inferior. Now, once again their inner critic torments them, this time objecting to their hatred, claiming it is more evidence of their flawed and unworthy existence.
Their unconscious defense is then to claim, “My hatred is shared by others. The people I want to join up with in the Middle East also hate these Westerners. That makes my hatred legitimate and authentic. These Westerners deserve to be hated.” These conflicted youths, in employing this defense, deepen their sense of alienation and hatred as they identify emotionally with Islamic insurgents and their hate-filled cause. In employing this aggressive defense, these youths are more obligated to act out their hateful passion (frequently under the guise of righteousness) in order to maintain the defense’s effectiveness.
They are failing to connect with their authentic self and the goodness and value inherent within. Inner passivity stands in the way. We have to see inner passivity as a clinical entity—as the expression of our subordinate, unconscious ego—so we can disengage from our identification with it. Becoming aware of its existence enables us to begin to occupy that inner space with more consciousness. Doing this involves our personal, experiential encounter with the many ways we have been stumbling and tripping over this passivity.
This theory of inner passivity and its relationship to violence needs to be presented to young people in schools throughout the West. Let them decide if this knowledge is helpful.