When people talk about Islamist terror and extremism in Europe, there is a tendency to psychologize the problem. There were lone perpetrators who had psychological problems, Islamist influence by hate preachers, but internet postings by Islamists played no role in the crime.
Declaring radicalization as a disease and extremists as well as Islamists as “crazy” not only underestimates the danger posed by ideologized people, but also stigmatizes mentally ill people who are dependent on professional help.
For years and decades, left-wing and right-wing extremists have organized themselves into fixed networks with a clear political objective, unambiguous language and a tendency to use various symbols in order to see themselves as a unit within a group and to achieve unity in action on the outside. So far, you could also classify them directly based on their group membership: together they wanted to fight an enemy.
However, this was an extremism that, by definition, is a thing of the past. This becomes particularly clear when looking at Islamist extremism and terrorism. The security authorities in Europe can be credited with the fact that they have broken up numerous groups in recent years: Hardly anyone is talking about al-Qaeda anymore, and even the so-called Islamic State (IS) now seems only a shadow of itself. The problem has changed since then, extremism has adapted to new circumstances and evolved, and is now using other means. The previous goal of causing as much physical damage as possible through elaborately prepared terrorist attacks in order – so the Islamists hope – to achieve political change was expanded to include the use of individual perpetrators.
The Islamists’ new goal is now to form “soldiers in spirit” who, independent of organizational structures, stand up for their ideologized understanding of religion and who, through numerous individual acts, create ongoing social unrest and uncertainty. The decision for an extremist individual perpetrator is no longer the word of a sheikh or leader, but the basic dissatisfaction and rejection of democratic societies and the individual pain threshold felt by the individual. It is therefore the fight of each individual against liberal democracies.
According to the credo “need creates suitability”, a new type of Islamist or jihadist emerged: the “mentally conspicuous”, “mentally disturbed” or “mentally ill” lone perpetrator who moves beyond the classic spaces of radicalization (e.g. clubs, mosques) and with the help of the Internet radicalized himself and without any recognizable warning, attacked out of nowhere, i.e. without organizational affiliation, anonymously and seemingly uncontrollably. For these reasons, the misconception arises that a lone perpetrator’s attack is primarily the result of a mental disorder rather than the tragic culmination of ideological radicalization, as if Islamism is an illness best dealt with medically and therapeutically.
Science certainly recognizes that the psyche of a person plays an important role in one’s own development, especially in radicalization processes. As a consequence, however, this does not mean that people with mental health problems or even mental disorders automatically tend towards more violence or terrorist acts. Accordingly, experienced forensic psychologists, psychotherapists and scientists rightly point out that there is no causal connection here, but that many factors favor radicalization.
Therefore, the view must also be directed to the ideological character. In other words, on the respective worldview, which is shaped in the course of personal development by upbringing, socialization and certain role models and consists of certain values and beliefs that justify one’s own actions. The treatment of depression or addiction may stabilize an individual’s life and thus put it back on track. However, this usually does not change attitudes towards democratic values such as equality and equal rights for women, sexual self-determination or anti-Semitism. Thus, an ideological breeding ground remains, which Islamists then cleverly use for their own purposes.
Especially in the context of Islamist radicalization processes, we must also consider the consequences of patriarchal educational patterns and religious structures in combination with ideological beliefs. We have to understand that people who grow up in such hierarchical realities of life shaped by fear pedagogy and literal faith are often brought up to be uncritical, underage and dependent people who do not question authorities and can therefore become susceptible to Islamism and jihadism.
This is precisely why Europe needs an interdisciplinary approach and networking in de-radicalization in order to improve professionalization in understanding the problem and thus in diagnostics. In this way, treatment and (preventive as well as repressive) countermeasures could then be implemented in a more targeted and consequently more effective manner. We also need more language skills in order to be able to initiate necessary therapeutic offers, especially for refugees, and to prevent radicalization processes as early as possible.
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