When all forms of control are taken away from an individual, when he has nothing to lose, the only way to reinstate the sense of being in control, of shaping his surroundings, of having an impact is that of destruction.
A recent study of the UN Development Programme (pdf) attempted to shed some light on the role bad governance plays in radicalisation. When economic efforts are frustrated or when people are treated violently by government, the only path left to change anything about their environment is negative change. Destruction.
The UNDP paper can be written off as an attempt to whitewash religious factors, but the role economic and political helplessness play in radicalisation must not be overlooked. Just take economic helplessness: Religious fanaticism doesn’t gain such impetus among wealthy, middle-class people with a home and a family, and a nice car they trade in every two years. Or among people who have something to strive for in their own lives.
The sense of economic security or at least that of control over one’s own economic standing makes one preoccupied with improving his own circumstances – not leaving much space for the desire to control others – let alone trying to cause damage to them. While repeated frustration in his ambitions can make him lose faith in the possibility to achieve positive change in his own, private life – turning him towards a public and negative course of action.
The UNDP report found that “a frustrated individual, marginalised and neglected over the course of his life, starting in childhood” will turn to radicalisation – but the justification is almost irrelevant. With few economic or job prospects and little trust in the government to provide opportunities, particularly in remote, border areas, people are ripe for harvest by any group that takes them and is available.
People frustrated in their efforts to make a living they expected, thwarted from even the most basic achievements by having the tools of economic (and security) control over their lives taken away from them – often turn to violent and angry narratives to supply psychological relief and point out something to blame. But the target is rarely the government or warlord that caused their frustration by taking away control. Just as people turn to empowering strongmen to “take back control” by proxy, fundamentalist try to take back control – but into their own hands. The motivation is similar: escaping the suffocating sense of being helpless and not being in control.
When choosing whichever group identity and goal is available for them, there seem to be only two conditions: 1) the group they join must voice or match their own anger in intensity, and 2) it must provide an outlet for the desire to do something. Anything.
And when a large enough group of people feel disempowered in their own lives, their stake in society and the status quo is radically reduced.
Destruction is as good a form of control as anything when there is no other channel for them to alter their environment constructively. Whether it is “shaking things up” by voting for extremist parties or turning to active, physical violence, the desire to finally to something is tangible.
The priority is getting rid of the sense of being helpless. To finally do something. Not to improve anything. That path has been closed before them.