How the extremist mind is cultivated; a psychological analysis

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Dr. S. Zulfiqar Gilani |

Ordinarily, mention of the word ‘extremist’ brings to mind a terrorist and/or a suicide bomber. However, there are many extremists who do not engage in suicide bombings or violent terrorism, but exhibit an extremist mindset through their views and behaviors; and these include fanatics, bigots, sectarians, misogynists and the like. They personify, breed and preach extremist views, and many are also associated with terrorism and suicide bombings. Regardless of the apparent differences in their overt actions, all extremists have notable similarities in their psychological makeup.

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However, one needs to keep in mind that like all psychological phenomena, the extremist mindset is also a continuum, and an individual extremist may lie anywhere along that. So, no one is a ‘perfect’ extremist, and that most ordinary individuals also have some aspects of the extremism.

The extremist is highly passionate about his/her own views and denounces the ‘different’ with equal passion and zeal. They have very strong feelings for or against persons, issues, or ideas. They either demonize or idealize. To them, things are either perfectly good or totally evil.

In no particular order, the psychological profile of an extremist includes the following: The extremist lacks the quality of empathy. That is, they are unable to recognize the other person’s feelings and views, let alone acknowledge or accept them. Further, the extremist feels that the other/s have no right to hold different views. They are convinced that those with different views are misguided, ignorant, or evil. To them, theirs are the only true and right feelings and views. So, the differing ones need to be shown the right path, and/or punished or eliminated.

The extremist is highly passionate about his/her own views and denounces the ‘different’ with equal passion and zeal. They have very strong feelings for or against persons, issues, or ideas. They either demonize or idealize. To them, things are either perfectly good or totally evil. The unstated assumption is that they and their like are perfect, and all others a lost cause. They cannot recognize the reality that there are shades of gray in most things, and all humans have some combination of good and bad.

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The extremist is incapable of dispassionately examining the basis of his/her own views and beliefs. They deny concrete evidence or information that contradicts their views and beliefs and only accept that information which confirms and reinforces them. As they are convinced of the absolute correctness of their views and incapable of accepting evidence to the contrary, there is a very little scope of a change in their views.

It seems that the preaching of extreme views and engagement in extreme behavior becomes addictive. Whenever the extremist indulges in such behavior, positive (pleasurable) emotions are experienced. As their extremist behaviors are emotionally rewarding, it results in an addiction to them. Thus, over time the certainty of their beliefs gets stronger, as does their conviction in the rightness of their actions.

Although unconscious psychological processes influence everyone’s behavior, they are far more powerful in the psyche of the extremist, and the primary determinant of their behavior.

In a nutshell, the extremist mind includes some combination of the following. Absolute certainty of the correctness of one’s views, religious or otherwise; complete unwillingness to compromise with those who disagree; powerful denunciation of people with different lifestyles; idealisation of some past era combined with the belief that the world has gone awry; devaluation of events in this world and an intense focus on life after death; assuming the role of God’s ‘hit man’, and defending the deity and his representatives against all perceived insults; extreme veneration of some religious leader or leaders; disconcerting lack of concern for earthly evidence; acceptance of the desired ends as justification for unsavoury means; strong preference for keeping women in traditional, subordinate roles; dehumanising imagery of nonbelievers and religious out-groups; and adoption of numerous defensive methods for avoiding serious encounters with differing systems of belief and their adherents.

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This mindset is not consciously adopted, but an outcome of dynamic unconscious processes. Although unconscious psychological processes influence everyone’s behavior, they are far more powerful in the psyche of the extremist, and the primary determinant of their behavior.

The extremist also projects onto others those of their own thoughts and feeling that, if acknowledged, would cause severe guilt. So, if deep down I hate my brother, then regardless of any evidence, I will be convinced that instead, my brother hates me.

Some combination of the following unconscious processes is likely determining the extremist’s behavior. The extremist is likely repressing such disturbing or threatening thoughts and feelings which would cause severe guilt if they became conscious. So, a tight lid is unconsciously kept on those ‘unwanted’ feelings, and the individual remains consciously unaware of their existence.  However, the repressed thoughts and desires continue to generate anxiety, and, as discussed below, other unconscious mechanisms come into play to cope with that anxiety.

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Many of the extremist’s conscious views and beliefs are the opposite of their unconscious feelings and desires. So, if inwardly I hate an authority figure, outwardly I will show great love for such a figure. The hallmarks of such reactive behaviors are that they are invested with high passion and zeal; there is a show-off quality to them, and they are compulsive in nature.

Like all of us, extremists are also social beings, and the sustenance of their extremist psyche is linked with the social group/s to which they belong. As groups tend to arrive at more extreme positions than any individual members would on their own, the individual extremist’s position becomes stronger and more extreme due to membership of an extremist group or groups. 

The extremist also projects onto others those of their own thoughts and feeling that, if acknowledged, would cause severe guilt. So, if deep down I hate my brother, then regardless of any evidence, I will be convinced that instead, my brother hates me. The mind of an extremist also blocks such concrete evidence from awareness which could contradict or raise questions about their views and beliefs. Finally, unconscious impulses, usual aggression, are redirected onto a powerless substitute target.

Like all of us, extremists are also social beings, and the sustenance of their extremist psyche is linked with the social group/s to which they belong. As groups tend to arrive at more extreme positions than any individual members would on their own, the individual extremist’s position becomes stronger and more extreme due to membership of an extremist group or groups. Groups also tend to become less similar to other groups, which leads to dehumanizing members of other groups leading to an us-and-them mentality, and the conviction that acts of violence against ‘others’ are quite justified.

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The mind of an extremist develops in the same manner as that of any other individual: The differences in the mind of an extremist and an ordinary individual are due to differences in the psychosocial conditions in which they are raised and live. And the psychosocial milieu that breeds and nourishes the extremist mind needs separate examination.

Dr. S. Zulfiqar Gilani is a Clinical Psychologist and Educationist, based in Islamabad. He is the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Peshawar; Rector Foundation University, Islamabad; Director Centre for Higher Education Transformation, Islamabad; and recipient of the prestigious Fulbright New Century Scholars award. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I would like to point out 3 statements made by the author. I observe that these statements can be easily be regarded as a similarity between a practicing muslim and an extremist.
    1) is the adherence to a religious personality
    2) focus on life after death
    3) strong preference for keeping women in traditional subordinate roles.

    Does that mean a practising muslim is partly extremist ?

    • Sir! If there is a scientifically written data about a practical muslim, then one is unable to relate these statesments to a practicing muslim for instance If some one contradicts about teachings of Islam, a practical muslim is advised by Quran not to argue with that person but to say your belief is for you and my belief is for me. Hence a practical muslim don’t try to impose his/ her opinion upon others. So is the case with many other issues. So, a practical muslim is not regarded partially an extremist.

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