Radical Ideologies, Deadly Ways of Thinking

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The cognitive-behavioral revolution taught us that meaningful behavioral change generally can’t occur in the absence of a change of heart and attitude, and the only way to stem the rising tide of violence among various militant political groups is to confront their driving ideology directly.

A few decades ago, a revolution of perspective began taking hold within the behavioral health professional community. Therapists gradually moved away from working with clients to uncover unconscious fears and emotional conflicts and moved toward helping them discern the various ways they tended to think about things. The reason? Research was telling us that the way we think (e.g., the attitudes we harbor most fervently and the beliefs we hold most ardently) is inextricably tied to how we act. And the research was also telling us that if we really wanted to change behavior, it would be incumbent upon us to reflect upon, challenge, and modify the ways of thinking that might predispose us to act in dysfunctional ways. (For more on this topic see “An Introduction to Cognitive Therapy & Cognitive Behavioural Approaches” and my two earlier articles “CBT and the Thinking Patterns of Disturbed Characters”, and “Dealing With Character Disturbance is All a Matter of Perspective”.)

Not a week goes by where we don’t hear some news about a terror attack carried out somewhere in the world, the most recent example being the mass slaying carried out by the Somalia-based terror group Al-Shabaab at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Violent behavior, it appears, has become quite rampant. And the individuals and groups who perpetrate these terror attacks are not only happy to claim credit for their actions most of the time but also quick to justify those actions by espousing their particular religious or political convictions. Sometimes, they’re even willing to admit that they consider their espoused beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives superior to beliefs, attitudes and values they ascribe to the designated targets of their violence. A great potential danger and daunting challenge facing the modern world is this new breed of fascism masquerading as devout religious adherence, the ages-old will to dominate under the pretense of submission to a greater cause or set of principles. And because it’s becoming clearer every day how the various perpetrators of this new fascism think about themselves, others, and the world around them, we can predict with a fair degree of certainty the kinds of ruthless actions they’re likely to engage in both now and in the foreseeable future.

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It’s probably erroneous to assume that the actions of all members of radical groups is driven by their ideology. Many times the leaders of these groups are simply archetypal warlords, harboring deep desires within their hearts to hold power and dominate others. (For more on this see the “Series on Aggressive Personalities“, and the descriptions of aggressive personality types in Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing.) But these would-be tyrants often secure the blind submission of their compatriots by promoting a particular religious ideology. Their underlings might find the ideology attractive not only because it calls attention to and purportedly seeks a redress of injustices that might be prevalent in a particular culture but also because it gives those who have long felt disadvantaged, disenfranchised, or demeaned to feel powerful and in control. Many psychopathic “gurus” (e.g., Jim Jones) have ideological attraction to recruit followers willing put their own lives on the line to defend what they’ve come to believe is their leader’s noble cause. But sometimes recruiting doesn’t go so smoothly and other more sinister, manipulative means must be employed. The Somali group that calls itself Al-Shabaab has been generally successful in recruiting new members — even Americans — through strictly ideological means. But during times when recruiting has been difficult, leaders have been known to lure potential recruits with the promise of doing charitable work or protecting the welfare of family and friends, only to subject them to sleep deprivation, relentless indoctrination, etc. until their will is broken and the only path to safety and security they can fathom is in blind affiliation and total submission.

Just as the cognitive-behavioral revolution has taught us that meaningful behavioral change generally can’t occur in the absence of a change of heart and attitude, the only way to stem the rising tide of violence among the various militant political groups is to confront their driving ideology directly. Yet, ironically, the world seems hesitant to do so. As has been so aptly stated before (in an often improperly quoted admonition from the essayist George Santayana), when we don’t remember the lessons of the past we’re much more likely to repeat past mistakes. One can only wonder how much of the horrors of the holocaust might possibly have been averted had folks universally called out and condemned the supremacist ideology being so openly promulgated in the days preceding World War II. Still many are hesitant to call out, confront, and unequivocally condemn the deadly ways of thinking espoused by so many of the groups that conduct campaigns of terror today. Perhaps some fear that in firmly condemning the radical interpretations of a religious philosophy, the sensibilities of more moderate adherents to a religion might also be offended, possibly provoking a backlash. Perhaps others are overly sensitive about “political correctness” and not wanting to pass judgment on anyone’s purported beliefs. But history seems to be telling us that the time for timidness and complacency is over. A deadly philosophy is being embraced ever more frequently and widely by loosely allied terror groups everywhere. And as government after government in various places teeter on the brink, it’s become quite evident they have a specific agenda. While some worry we might be headed toward war, the facts suggest we’re already in one, whether or not we like it or are in the frame of mind to accept it. And the ideology driving the principals waging this war is no different from any other totalitarian ideology that’s ever been promoted in history. Further, the end goal is also the same: domination. The terror warlords won’t be satisfied until everyone else sees things their way and submits to their vision. We have it within our power to possibly head off greater disaster at the pass. But to do so there will have to be a more universal calling-out of the inherently problematic ideology driving terror as well as a more universal condemnation and holding to account of the governments, political groups, religious leaders, and even citizens and religious adherents who promote, passively support, or in any other way “enable” it to prosper.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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