As a prison psychologist I have dealt with more than a hundred criminal Muslims. Based on my professional experiences and conclusions, I have written extensively about the psychology of the Muslim mentality and violence, including being involved in the court case against the killer and Guantanamo prisoner Omar Khadr.
It is no secret that the Islamic texts, the Quran and the hadiths, are the main source of Islamic terror and crime: Islam teaches Muslims to hate, attack and kill non-Muslims, and it uses the same psychological tools to remove psychological hindrances to violence, as in all other kinds of warfare, by devaluing and demonizing the enemy. Combining mind-numbing repetition of hateful texts with a humiliating and violent upbringing in the family and in the Muslim madrassa schools is the ancient two-step recipe on how to break down human beings and make them submit to criminal doctrines and commit inhuman acts. Even the most cruel terrorist has also been an innocent child once, until he or she met with this classical method of brainwashing that has been integrated into many Muslim families, societies and schools.
But how to make a violent Muslim peaceful? This is probably one of the most important questions of our time, especially among people and authorities working with anti-terrorism.
Realizing the lack of and need for knowledge in this important area, I will here share my experience from working as a professional psychologist with more than hundred aggressive and violent Muslims.
As a psychologist I have not worked with convicted Muslim terrorists, so the advice that I give here is based on working with Muslims who have committed less radical types of crimes, including murder, attempted murder, arson and rape.
Violent behaviour, Islam and Muslim culture
Based on my experience, I found eight emotional indicators that are important when determining whether a Muslim may use violence or even turn to terror: anger, honor culture, victim mentality, identity, religiosity, responsibility for oneself, ability to regret and tolerance. Thus deradicalizing Muslims should aim to reduce the first five and increase the last three. Unfortunately, Islam and Muslim culture has a tendency to do the exact opposite. Deradicalizing Muslims is therefore not just about changing a political mindset, but to a large extent about limiting the influence of the culture and religion that fuels and partly constitutes their political mindset.
I have described several of these aspects in previous articles, such as “Report from the therapy room: Why are Muslims more violent and criminal?“.
Understanding and working with the eight emotional factors
Based on my work with criminal and violent Muslims, I will here describe eight psychological factors that contribute to violent behaviour among Muslims. Many of the factors are also typical for non-Muslim criminals brought up in a family with dysfunctional patterns. I will mention them here with three subdivisions: a) describing the mental factor. b) describing how Islam and/or Muslim culture enhances this factor. c) describing the sign.
a) Anger is a driving force behind most types of violence, including terror. Other emotions and ideas might be involved as well, but anger is almost always present, often as the most dominant emotion.
b) Muslims and anger. During therapy with violent Muslims it became clear that anger and aggression is much more accepted among Muslims. Contrary to Western culture, people brought up in Muslim societies see anger less as a sign of weakness than non-Muslims do. Anger is seen as a sign of strength and source of respect — not a reason for ridicule and loss of social status as in Western culture. Therefore Muslims do not limit their aggressive emotions to the same degree as we do, and they see non-aggressive responses to aggression as a sign of cowardice and a weakness that can be exploited further.
c) Indicator. Signs of anger is a indicator when looking for risk of violent behaviour.
a) Cultures that build on the clan cultural concept of honor have a tendency to create aggressive and insecure individuals ready to use violence to protect the inherent fragility of honor.
b) Honor has an essential place in Muslim culture, and Muslims are expected by both themselves and their Muslim surroundings to react aggressively if they or whatever they identify themselves with or represent (family, clan, area, culture, religion) is criticised or under (perceived) attack.
c) A strong concept of honor increases the risk of violent behaviour.
a) A driving force among most types of terrorists, including Muslim terrorists, is victim mentality. People seeing themselves as victims being treated unfairly by hostile powers often see their situation as an excuse for going beyond the law, generally accepted social behaviour and responsibility for ones own actions (one is “forced” by the enemy to act violently).
b) Experiencing oneself as being under the influence of outer imagined or real forces, whether it is Allah, conspiring non-Muslims or religious rules and cultural traditions, is a mindset pervading Muslim culture. A large German study showed “a distinct victim mentality and heightened acceptance of violence among [Muslim] youth” and that among “Muslim youth who maintain Muslim religious affiliation, one finds that a greater amount of violence is acceptable.”
c) Sign of victim mentality is an indicator for violent behaviour.
a) Identification with a religion increases the tendency to take it personally when one perceives the religion as being under attack.
b) My experience from working with criminal Muslims, even though many of them were not practising their religion actively, is that Muslims identify themselves very strongly with Islam and the Muslim community worldwide. This is why criminal Muslims almost never — unless it concerns rivaling gangs or women — attack other Muslims.
c) Identification with the Muslim community increases the tendency to take it personally and react when one perceives Islam or Muslims as being under attack.
a) All through history religions have proven to be able to make people do what they would not have done without their religion — positive or negative.
b) Since the Quran and the culture in most Muslim societies preaches aversion and in some cases even violence against non-Muslims, the degree of religiosity among Muslims is an important factor when deciding the risk of violent behaviour. A German study involving intense interviews with more than 40,000 people concluded that practising Islam increases anger and risk of violent behavior.
c) Strong religious feelings and the strong influence of a traditional Muslim upbringing is thus an important indicator when trying to identify and discover the tendency to use violence among Muslims and protect Islam against criticism and attacks.
a) The ability to feel responsibility for oneself is important for the ability to display positive behaviour. The less people feel responsible for their own actions, the more they are likely to act unacceptably, since they do not feel that they themselves deserve to face the consequences and do not feel guilty.
b) A defining characteristic of Islam and Muslim culture is the lack of responsibility for oneself. According to Islam everything happens inshallah (Allah willing) and individual freedom is substituted by religious rules, cultural traditions and the authority of the family and clan. Muslims to a large extend obey the expectations of their religion, culture, family and clan. As a result inner locus of control (experiencing oneself as being in control of one’s life) is very weak while outer locus of control (experiencing outer factors as being in control of one’s life) is strong.
c) Lack of responsibility for oneself is important when determining risk of criminal behaviour.
a) Being able to feel and express regret for one’s own negative words and actions is crucial, especially when trying to determine the risk of recidivism (committing crime again after having served a sentence or being trained to abide by the law).
b) Since a victim mentality and a low amount of responsibility for oneself is characteristic of people brought up in the Muslim culture, regret is not characteristic. If one does not take responsibility for one’s own actions, one simply can not fully regret them, as sincere regret includes insight into one’s own role in the harm done.
c) Expression of regret based on insight into one’s own role in the situation is an important indicator when trying to determine the risk of recidivism.
a) Tolerance is important when it comes to respect for others. Low tolerance often decreases respect and increases the likelihood of harming people. A classical psychological maneuver to make soldiers more able to harm the enemy is to lower their respect towards the enemy by spreading derogatory propaganda about him.
b) Islam and Muslim culture preaches intolerance towards non-Muslims, both in writing and as a way of living. Non-Muslims are categorized as inferior, and the Quran orders Muslims to suppress, attack and kill non-Muslims. Terrorists often act because of intolerance towards otherwise legal statements and actions.
c) The degree of tolerance is an important indicator when trying to determine the risk of violent behaviour.
Working with the eight emotional factors
A necessary basis for human change is the realisation of the benefits of changing. Since many assailants by experience know that threats and violence can be much more effective in achieving one’s goal — and even feel the right to act threatening or violent — this it not always an easy task.
Everybody knows that changing one’s views and habits does not happen by itself. It takes a conscious effort, and normally no radical and lasting changes happen unless we want to and make the necessary and often demanding effort. Often people are not always ready or willing to change. In these cases it is by doing — or being tricked into doing — things that maybe only indirectly point to the goal that one gets closer to the point where one can work on changing oneself more consciously, in a targeted manner and voluntarily.
Here are some of the things that I have worked with and would advise using for treatment of convicted Muslim criminals and terrorists.
Even though the psychological factors are clearly defined, my estimation is that even with very competent therapists, only few attempts of deradicalization are successful. This is because radical Muslims both have to want it, dare to go against the their own radical network and be able to go through the hard and extensive psychological and practical processes of abandoning psychological, cultural and religious factors deeply rooted in their upbringing and lifestyle, in order to deradicalize.
My experience from working with Muslims is that many have a heightened readiness to react to perceived threats. This includes the unpleasant bodily and mental feelings that often accompany anger, such as stress, anxiety, restlessness, lowered mood and unpleasant feelings in the head, heart area, stomach and other places. Throughout the therapy, I also managed to make many of the Muslim clients aware of the negative personal consequences that stem from angry behaviour, such as loss of friends, problems with the authorities, and the lack of ability to communicate the way one wants when angry.
Mindfulness exercises that relax the body (lying on a mattress, listening to relaxing music and being guided to tighten and relax the different muscle groups from toes to face) helped the clients to become more aware of their tensions and the unpleasant feelings that come from anger. The immediate benefits of relaxing by being less angry thus became evident to many of them — they fell asleep, in spite of normally having great difficulties falling asleep.
Some of the Muslim clients were also open to learning ways of handling conflicts and irritation other than using threats and physical violence through psychoeducation.
I would not be surprised if anger-reducing medicine is one day be used on violent extremists — individually or as a non-lethal weapon dropped on violent masses from airplanes.
Protecting honor is a defining characteristic of Muslim culture and has been the cause of countless killings of women, non-Muslims and Muslims from other families, clans and sects.
Since a fragile sense of honor is closely related to low self-esteem, improving peoples’ self-esteem is vital to make them less emotionally vulnerable to criticism. Of course, Muslim culture itself has a strong tendency to instill its world-famous fragile sense of honor in Muslims, but unsolved childhood traumas can be an important key. Learning social behaviour that increases positive feedback and healthy pride can also help.
Victim mentality and responsibility:
During my work with violent Muslims I realized the need for developing a therapeutic tool that decreases victim mentality and increases responsibility. For the tool to be useful it had to be simple and structured, because people brought up in cultures or families less familiar with psychology and the benefits of expressing inner states often find normal therapy meaningless or even confusing. I developed a four-step model that can also be visualized on a piece of paper or a white board. The four steps show how experiences awaken emotions, which motivate actions that have consequences that are experienced — etc.
The steps are drawn and written in a circle, with step 1 at the top (12 o’clock), step 2 at 3 o’clock, step 3 at 6 o’clock and step 4 at 9 o’clock.
Step 1: The client is presented with a timeline on a paper or white board, going from birth until now. Above the timeline positive experiences are written, and below it, the negative.
Step 2: The client is asked to describe the emotions connected with the experiences. These are all listed below step 2 on the paper.
Step 3: The client is then asked what he did and normally does when he has the different emotions mentioned at step 2.
Step 4: The client is asked to describe what emotional and practical consequences these actions had and generally have.
This model makes it possible — also visually — for the client to see the connection between the way that he reacts to experiences and what he experiences. Depending on the client, this can help him to get insight into the mechanisms of responsibility for himself.
Identity is one of the deepest rooted psychological phenomena, and changing this is not easy. The problem with radical Muslims is that they identify with Islam and the Muslim ummah to such an extent that they perceive themselves as being under attack, no matter how and where Islam or Muslims are criticised or attacked. This includes a very strong loyalty that makes them prone to react violently when this happens.
I do not have any useful suggestions at this point except for maybe showing Muslim extremists that the biggest enemies of Muslims are other Muslims: nobody kills more Muslims than Muslims, and nobody oppresses Muslims more than the Muslim rulers of Muslim countries. The “one ummah, one body” slogan put forward by the self-proclaimed defenders of Islam against the West must be seen in light of the fact that Muslims are far from being one single unit protecting each others’ back.
Muslim terrorists are most often very well versed in the Islamic scriptures, and trying to make them think that certain parts of the Quran should be seen from a historical perspective and not as guidelines in the modern world is futile. Since leaving Islam is punishable by death, one has to be able to present very convincing protection programmes to whoever considers leaving this religion.
Decreasing religiosity in Muslims who take the Quran literally is impossible as long as they are able to indoctrinate themselves and each other with the Islamic texts and practises. It can be necessary to deprive them of the source that fuels their hate and political ideas.
Making it so difficult to practise orthodox and therefore illegal Islam in our countries that they need to go elsewhere if they want to continue their way of life is a solution.
Ability to regret:
The ability to regret is necessary in order to change one’s habits and feel empathy with others. The victim mentality and a lowered sense of responsibility for oneself decrease the ability to feel regret.
In many countries around the world, victims and offenders are offered a chance to meet, and in many cases it has a healing effect on both parties. Realizing the harm that one has done makes one able to regret and apologize, which is psychologically healthy. I think everybody knows the relief that follows when one has finally gotten oneself together and given an honest apology to somebody we hurt.
Again a four-step procedure can be helpful.
1) Realizing. First one has to realize that what one has done is wrong. Meeting with victims or survivors, reading about their suffering and that of their families, and knowing that innocent people were harmed is helpful to realize one’s wrongdoing.
2) Admitting. Having reached a point where one can give an honest acknowledgment of one’s actions, one simply does so. If one is not able to meet the victim in person, one can write a letter or give a public statement.
3) Regretting. After having admitted one’s fault, one is ready to make the important step of deciding to never repeat one’s mistake.
4) Opposite. In leaving one’s habits behind, the last thing that has to be done to finalize the psychological process of regretting is to do the opposite. If one has previously harmed or hated a certain group of people, one starts helping them — etc.
Going through these four steps may not feel very honorable or pleasant for the ego, but if one makes it through all four steps, one is truly reborn as a better citizen.
Tolerance is important because Muslim terrorism if fueled by intolerance toward non-Muslims and non-Islamic values and societies. Since intolerance are often created by misunderstanding, creating understanding is a very effective way to tolerance.
I wish I had had movies showing normal non-Muslims’ way of life in their families’ daily lives when working with criminal Muslims’ anger against non-Muslims. Showing the innocent, happy and constructive lives of normal Danish children and parents would have been an eye-opener for them. There are so many lies and myths in the Muslim communities about Westerners, and removing them will surely increase Muslims’ tolerance towards us.