Disdain for Law and Democracy: A Red Flag in Radicalization Processes

psychologyRadicalization and associated issues such as extremism and terrorism are important problems in our world. Various radical belief systems are associated with the problems of radicalization, extremism, and terrorism. These belief systems include extreme Muslim beliefs as well as radical right-wing and left-wing beliefs. Due to its importance and complexity, I am currently writing a book on why people radicalize. The book, to be published in 2018 by Oxford University Press, aims to provide an accessible, advanced, and up-to-date assessment of what is going on inside people’s heads with respect to fairness issues and radicalization. The book reviews several instances of radicalization and theories of radicalization. The book also introduces a framework to understand radicalization. In developing this framework I propose that perceived unfairness is a key antecedent of various radicalization processes, especially when these perceptions are combined with uncertainty or other threats and with insufficient correction of self-centered impulses.

In the book I note that understanding perceptions in general, and perceptions of unfairness in particular, can be complex, in part because these perceptions can be biased in important ways. What is unfair is really in the eye of the beholder, but because these perceptions are deeply felt as real and genuine they tend to have real consequences and can fuel radical beliefs and extremist and terrorist behaviors in important ways.

Furthermore, in exploring core components that characterize how radical people think, feel, and behave I observe that adherence to law and democratic principles serve a pivotal role in radicalization that may ultimately end in violent extremism and terrorism. In fact, I propose that it is the process of delegitimization and rejection of democratic principles and law that actually constitutes a turning point in the radicalization process of many people. In other words, the rejection of law and democratic principles and the process of delegitimization may serve as red flags for those interested in the prevention of violent extremism.

Delegitimization is the psychological withdrawal of legitimacy, which can take various forms. For example, it could be the withdrawal of legitimacy from some institution such as a state, from judges in the constitutional democracy in which one lives, or from important principles of democracy in constitutional states. There is evidence that delegitimization of government, law, and other societal institutions plays a crucial role in the radicalization of Muslims, right-wing groups, and left-wing individuals. I discuss this evidence at length in the forthcoming book, “Why People Radicalize.”

I also conclude that key to understanding the ontogenesis of violent extremism and terrorism is people’s rejection of constitutional democracy and law. After all, when it is hard or impossible for you to work within principles of constitutional democracy then you might easily get frustrated that your wishes and opinions are not put into action. Related to this, when you cannot really force yourself to be open-minded about different opinions and at least be willing to tolerate them to such a degree that you try to make your case heard through majority rule or other democratic rules, then you are more likely to take action yourself to ensure that things will go your way. Furthermore, violent extremism and terrorism constitute illegal acts and when one does not care about what the law says or when one even sympathizes with illegal behavior it is easier to prepare or prompt oneself to engage in illegal actions.

It is very difficult to predict in advance people’s intentions to break the law and whether they will actually break the law. This noted, modern social psychological insights can be used to account for people’s intentions to commit legal violations. Results discused in the book showed that when people perceived that it is easy or doable for them to perform the illegal behavior and when they believe that other important people positively evaluate the behavior, then people are likely to form the intention to break the law. This indicates the relevance of behavioral control and what others think of the behavior in question can be key variables predicting when people will actually engage in illegal behavior, such as violent extremism.

I hasten to note that violation of the law does not need to imply violent breaking of the law. For example, radicals such as the militant feminist Fadela Amara adhere to extreme ideas, uphold conflictual and militant visions, and break the law, but they do not do so in a violent manner. Related to this, radicals who engage in civil disobedience and as a result of this break the law also provide an interesting example in this respect.

I argue that the task of understanding and predicting the actual onset of violent extremism and terrorism is very difficult. This noted, the psychology of unfairness judgments, how people respond to uncertainty and other threats and how and when they engage in insufficient correction of self-centered impulses can work together to delineate violent rejection of law and democratic principles. These processes can ultimately lead to violent extremism and perhaps even terrorism. In the book I also suggest normative recommendations on the prevention of radicalism and I propose that prevention may be best achieved by trying to nourish agreement with democratic values.

To conclude, when people involved in processes of radicalization start to reject the law in democratic states and open societies this is a pivotal signal that something is going seriously wrong, especially when this disdain for the law and democracy is coupled with violent behavioral intentions. Thus, a key issue for understanding the psychology of violent extremism and terrorism may be the psychological rejection of law and democratic principles. This might be even more important, psychologically speaking, than is often realized in the current research literature or in policy decision making.

Prof. dr. Kees van den Bos


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Kees van den Bos

About Kees van den Bos

Kees van den Bos is Professor of Social Psychology Including the Social Psychology of Organizations (since 2001) and Professor of Empirical Legal Science (since 2013). His main research interests focus on experienced fair and unfair treatment, morality, cultural worldviews, trust, prosocial behavior, and radicalization, extremism, and terrorism. Insights that follow from this basic research are applied in important societal contexts, especially in the domain of law, human behavior, and society. Topics that he studies include the issue of fair processes in government-citizen interactions, the role of group threat and deprivation in terrorism and radical behavior, and the psychological processes that lead people to trust government and important societal institutions.