*This is a guest post from Marc-André Argentino and Dalia Sabra of Concordia University in Montreal, Canada whom I met at the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture (ISSRNC) conference in January 2016 at UF.
In December 2015, a young man of 16 years of age was the first to be convicted under the new terrorism laws in Canada. The young man robbed a corner store, with the intent of using the money to travel abroad and fight in Syria. Depending on whether he will be sentenced as a youth or an adult, the 16 year old is facing anywhere from 10 years to life in prison. Currently, Canada has no system or plan in place to deal with such an individual.
More than simple prison time is needed for this youth, and this is what the long term project will be: to identify how an individual was radicalized and then implement proper cognitive behaviour therapy, amongst other treatments and interventions, ultimately to deradicalize individuals. Part and parcel of this plan is to better understand the role played by religion and ideology in violent behaviours and actions.
This is what Marc-André Argentino and Dalia Sabra have decided to tackle since 2014 from a multidisciplinary perspective. Radicalization and terrorism is a multifaceted problem that must be faced from the perspective of the hard and social sciences. Therefore, they have decided to tackle this problem together by offering their expertise in their respective fields of Neuroscience (Dalia) and of Psychology of Religion (Marc-André).
The goal of their research is to develop a model of de-radicalization based on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to help those who are at risk of being radicalized and decondition those who have been radicalized.
Their project for this conference was a neurological and psychological study of traits and behaviours associated to radicalization. From a neuropsychological perspective, ideologies are perceived as emotionally-laden systems of ideas and values that are highly relevant to group decisions and negotiations. When members of a group face a decision, they often have to deal with how ideologies held by various group members impede movement toward consensus.
Negotiations among group members and between members of different groups can be hindered by misunderstandings and blockages resulting from the possession of conflicting ideologies. According to the theory of emotional coherence, people make decisions and other inferences based on how well competing alternatives fit overall with their beliefs and goals. Decision making is not a mathematically careful calculation of probabilities and utilities, but rather an emotional assessment of how well opposing actions might accomplish valued goals. Research on the role of ideology in the radicalization process has been performed in both the social sciences as well as the hard sciences; however these studies fail to provide a complete image as they leave out important elements from their counterparts.
As embodied creatures, human beings are victims of their genetic and neurological makeup as well as their environmental interactions. The brain is designed to generate behaviour appropriate to environmental circumstances. Consequentially, when considering the role of ideologies and their impacts, scholars and clinicians need to navigate this through a multidisciplinary lens.
As their survey concluded, neither of these approaches provide definitive answers, for the scientific or the social scientific approach alone cannot provide us with a complete picture. In light of this, they propose that gene and environment interplay can provide a more complete picture of what religion has to do with violence and the radicalization process and what our brain and genes have to do with this behaviour. What this implies is that the expression of genes in an individual can be influenced by the environment they inhabit.
For instance, an individual may have a genetic predisposition to violent behaviors, but may not show this trait unless he or she experiences environmental risk factors at an early age. Some environments can serve as a protective factor and prevent future behavioral problems whereas others can amplify the risk of acting on those behaviors. Therefore, they argue that gene and environment interplay provides the best of both worlds and provides them with the most complete picture of the problem of radicalization.
They further argue for the importance of neuroplasticity, as the human brain is constantly changing and being moulded by the environment in which we are living. Consequentially, the importance of psychological elements that can lead to violent behaviour cannot be denied. In particular, when examining the psychological effect of religious beliefs, they found that religion provided similar environmental elements, which impacts the process of recruitment and terrorist action. Factors such as: group psychology (group polarization, group competition, group isolation), identity construct (in-group out-group structures), victimization and humiliation (personal grievance, slippery slope), the psychological effect of ideology, etc. are all elements that will effect neuroplasticity.
There are plenty forms of interventions that exist, from pharmaceutical to behavioral therapies. Nonetheless, some interventions tend to be short term whereas other tend to be long term. Dalia and Marc-André propose that cognitive behavioral therapy be used as a long term solution. This type of intervention holds that maladaptive cognitions contribute to the maintenance of emotional distress and behavioral problems. Basically, maladaptive cognitions include general beliefs or schemas about the world or the self. The main goal of this therapy is cognitive reconstructing, helping a person learn to recognize negative patterns of thought, evaluate their validity and replace them with healthier ways of thinking.
Ultimately, they conclude that religious ideologies are but one of the environmental factors that can interact with genetic and neurological factors, others have yet to be fully explored as they construct a full mapping of the radicalization process. Ultimately, once their model is complete, their goal would be to work with psychiatrists and other therapists to create the necessary diagnostic tools, as well as implement cognitive behavioral therapy to prevent and decondition these individuals that have been radicalized, which would be applicable to a multiplicity of radicals and terrorists.
This project in Montreal has been growing and the researchers will be founding an interdisciplinary "violence, radicalization and terrorism research group" in the fall at Concordia. Their hope is to break down barriers between academic silos and provide fresh research from multiple perspectives. If you are interested in learning more, send an e-mail.