What turns ordinary people into extremists? Researching radicalisation

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Life is sacred, according to religious belief – yet since time immemorial people have been abused and killed, their places of worship burnt down and acts of terror carried out in the name of religion. So what is it that turns ordinary pious individuals into fundamentalists – and in extreme cases into suicide bombers who kill others and are willing to sacrifice their own lives? Sociologist of religion Detlef Pollack from the University of Münster has no doubt: "This willingness to engage in violence not only has political reasons and is not only a consequence of marginalisation and discrimination; it is also religiously motivated."

Parallels between religiously and politically motivated radicalisation

What turns ordinary people into extremists? Researching radicalisation
Radicalisation is one of the issues addressed in religious research.

Nonetheless, researchers do observe parallels between religiously and politically motivated radicalisation. This is illustrated by the research carried out by the experts involved in the "Extreme Society" network of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), a member of the Leibniz Association, in Frankfurt am Main. Humanities scholars and social scientists from six partner institutions in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and the USA are therefore asking in general how individuals, groups and entire societies become radicalised.

Psychological disposition

"In people who sign up to radical ideas or groups, we often see a rigidity in their thinking – they think in extremely black-and-white, binary terms", explains the psychologist Katharina Seemann. However, Andreas Zick from the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence (IKG) at Bielefeld University emphasises that the relationship between this kind of individual disposition and a person’s social environment and society plays a key role in radicalisation. For example, young people are more likely to embrace extremist ideologies if they feel that they are not appreciated – at school, among their friends or in their family.

Marginalising narratives used by radical groups

The researchers see commonalities not only at the individual level but also between groups. One thing extremist groups have in common are the arguments they use to marginalise others. The social scientist Naika Foroutan, who is the director of the Institut für empirische Integrations- und Migrationsforschung (BIM) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, talks of "bridging narratives" that she has found among Islamist as well as among right- and left-wing extremist groups in Germany. "The key narratives we have identified revolve around anti-Semitism, anti-feminism, anti-modernism and the idea of self-empowerment leading to autonomy, rather than handing all power over to the state", explains Foroutan. This is why she believes it is important for preventive activities to focus not only on individual groups but also on the marginalising narratives, and to debunk them.

Similarities and differences between extremist groups

No matter how comparable the various processes of radicalisation may be, Julian Junk nonetheless points out that Islamism, left-wing and right-wing extremism are distinct social phenomena. A political scientist, Junk is the project leader of the "Extreme Society" research network that was established in 2017. "For example, Germany has seen far fewer acts of violence in recent years that have their roots in Islamism than violent acts stemming from right-wing extremism. And right-wing extremism, as compared with left-wing extremism, is directed to a greater extent against the principle of equality and our basic democratic order", says Junk. It is interdisciplinary research findings such as these that make the broad-ranging field of religious research so fascinating.



Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence (IKG)

Established at Bielefeld University in 1996, the IKG is one of the leading German institutions in the field of conflict research. Its academic work, which comprises both interdisciplinary theory development and empirical research, concentrates on the conditions, forms of expression and consequences of conflicts and violence within societies. The IKG’s empirical research projects aim to understand the dynamics and mechanisms of radicalisation, discrimination and integration. On this basis, the institute also draws up proposals for politicians and practitioners, for example so that preventive measures can be improved or reconciliation can be achieved following conflicts.

www.uni-bielefeld.de > Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence