Why Do Young Western Muslims Join Groups Like ISIS?

The early, formative years of human development set the stage for what our perception of morality will be later on in life. The first thing we teach young infants is the rule of ‘do and do not’. If you have ever been around toddlers you will be familiar with this phase of development, it’s when the majority of what you say sounds like this: “don’t touch that… stop licking the floor.. don’t talk to strangers.. take your finger out of your nose… don’t run in front of cars… do eat your vegetables, do share your toys.. etc. etc”. Psychoanalytical theory suggests that this, along with a number of other developmental and sociological variables, is why in adulthood we see a lot of things categorised into ‘good’ and ‘bad’; ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; ‘noble’ and ‘evil’; ‘things are either right, or they are wrong… I see no grey area.’ Keep this in mind while you read the following. Radical extremism does not just happen by chance. A number of societal and individual facets play their part, including, but not limited to: The need to belong to a community; perceived marginalisation and injustice; violent war rhetoric; the period of existential confusion we call adolescence; and unregulated media outlets.

Some of these unregulated media outlets contain the following:

A Polish Magazine depicting fair haired, white ’Europe’ draped in the European flag, being clearly sexually assaulted by hairy brown hands. The caption reads “The Islamic Rape of Europe”.
Nazi Propoganda from 1939, depicting a stereotypically looking Jewish person, luring an innocent fair haired European.

Let us now take a hypothetical member of ISIS; the scariest type: the homegrown terrorist. The young, radicalised Muslim we are so used to hearing about on almost a daily basis that he needs little introduction. The young male, Muslim, born and raised in the West, disenfranchised and looking for something to turn to. Let us then examine the five facets mentioned earlier and draw some judgements on why, on a psycho-social level, the phenomenon of radicalisation and violent extremism occurs.

The need to belong to a community

For those looking for it, ISIS creates a sense of belonging, and sells this to prospective terrorists. Connectedness, being part of a ‘brotherhood’, affiliation with a type of society that appears to accept you as you are, and scriptural, political and societal rhetoric give the idea that ISIS will fill all the gaps and needs a young person may face. Interestingly, a 2008 paper exploring the psychological process of jihadi radicalisation in Britain found that British Muslims who didn’t ‘feel British’ were more likely to be in sympathy with political jihad, martyrdom and the need for violent extremism. A 2013 paper in the Journal of Social issues explored this in some considerable detail, and it is worth a read – if you can get access to it*. In it, ‘uncertainty’ is discussed as a precondition for extremism, where extremist groups and ideologies help individuals cope with their uncertainty about themselves and the world, by offering an erudite, believable, desirable alternative.


A 2006 report by Edwin Bakker found that a large majority of western people turning to radical Islam were males in their teens and twenties. According to neuroscientist and brainwashing expert, Kathleen Taylor, adolescents are more privy to brainwashing, and display passionate, risky and impulsive behaviours. Neurologically this is because adolescence is a period where reasoning and cognition are established, when the brain’s intricate system of neural pathways made up of axons and dendrons and other such complicated sinew go from ‘flexible’ to ‘rigid’. Put it this way: children have ‘flexible’ pathways, adults have ‘rigid’, adolescents have ‘almost rigid’. To make a neural pathway ‘rigid’ you must throw at it new information and creative stimuli. Rigidity of neural pathways makes it unlikely that individuals rethink situations or be able to later reorganise these pathways. Frequent and intense repetition of stimuli during the creation of neural pathways means that adolescents are more susceptible to persuasion. Additionally, the quest for personal significance, the search for excitement, danger and meaning in life become motivational forces, particularly to young disenfranchised men. A 2008 study by Andrew Silke quoted a former IRA soldier who talked about his time as a terrorist: “I lived each day in a heightened state of alertness. Everything I did, however trivial, could seem meaningful.”

Marginalisation and injustice.

Take a look back at the two pictures mentioned earlier, and imagine yourself in the shoes of someone from the community that is being vilified. I do not use the term vilification lightly, but in these two pictures, we can clearly see it. Pictures like these are humiliating, provocative and hurtful for entire communities. They scare susceptible people into believing generalised statements based on the rhetoric of ‘good’ vs ‘evil’ which in turn become normative thinking. A 2009 paper called “Patterns of Thinking in Militant Extremism” analysed the mindset of a number of extremist groups including the IRA (Irish Republican Army, legit the villains of 90s England) and the Muslim brotherhood: two key beliefs that reoccured were the illegitimacy of established authorities, and that any change would only be possible through extreme and unconventional means. Major political figures that display insensitive and unpleasant views on Islam and media outlets that refer to scaremongering tactics to sell copies, will eventually filter down into society, until individuals such as Gavin Boby,the “Mosque-Buster” of Bristol, England, start appearing among us, valiantly busting mosques like some xenophobic town-planning superhero. This is where perceived marginalisation and injustice comes from, it is institutional as well as individual, and remains a crucial factor in the creation of homegrown terrorism.

Violent war rhetoric:

One shocking feature of violent extremism is the ability to ‘dehumanise’ enemies and those considered as unimportant. Such disregard for human life can be seen in human psychology when analysing brain responses to people perceived as different. A social neuroscientific study by Susan Fiske in 2009 offered an insight into the mental origins of empathy. In order to empathise, people must first consider the other as human, and will consequently socially categorise them. Those amongst the lowest and most outcast perceived social categories – poor people, homeless people and drug addicts – are more likely to be denied help, for example if they fall over in the street, than a man in a suit and tie. Violent rhetoric can be found in both the Western and ISIS media, both of which dehumanise the ‘other’. Like many holy books that were written several thousand years ago, there are violent passages in the Quran. A 2007 study by Bushman and colleagues explored this, finding that students that believed in God (as opposed to a control group of atheist/ agnostic students) were more likely to react violently to violent scripture and immediately exhibit more aggression than their non-believing peers. Theologians explain that these passages are meant to be taken metaphorically and need to be considered in context, and we see many people moving towards the more traditional Islamic teachings of spirituality, mercy, charity, compassion, science and exploration.

Unregulated media outlets

This is a huge topic to just skim across, but to end with, let’s go back to the theory I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Why look to categorise things into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, somehow like life and its complex analysis can be boiled down to the narrative of Star Wars? Muslims, like the communists during the cold war, like the Jewish of the early twentieth century, like the Irish during the IRA conflicts, currently find themselves at the behest of the media giant, which without formal regulation has the ability to say and accuse, to sway public opinion and even win elections (“Its The Sun Wot Won It” is famous 1992 UK tabloid headline, claiming that the general election campaign won by the Conservative Party, was due to its favourable press coverage). The role of the media should be to cover news stories responsibly, but unfortunately we live in a world where this is not the case. Yes, terrorism is real and dangerous. And of course, there is a desire to examine the intricate and subtle details of the politics of migration, war, group factions, dictatorships, tribal conflict, political Islam, the rise of the Syrian Caliphate, etc. However the mass consumption of the media is not the desire for reasoned and lengthy discussions on the role of declining oil prices on tariff quotas in the Middle East, but the immediate gratification of drama, tumult, fear. We need ‘the villain’. We need to know that we’re the good guys, and that they’re the bad guys. So repeatedly we are fed manipulative – and as you can see from the pictures above – racist and provocative messages that are designed to shock, and appeal to those who subscribe wholeheartedly – and unknowingly – to the ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘us’ versus ‘them’ rhetoric.

Remember that it works both ways – where the Muslims are the bad guys in the Western narrative, the West is just as legitimately the bad guy in the Eastern. It’s just that there happen to be a lot of young Western Muslims that get caught in the crossfire. * Please watch ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’ on Netflix to see why the institution of privatised academic literature is disgraceful, but that’s another story for another day.

Written by Rabya Mughal

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Rabya Mughal is a teacher living in London. She is passionate about politics, education, philosophy and design.