Dec 20, 2015

Can brain science tell us more than the Quran about why young, non-religious Somali Americans would want to kill and die in Syria for ISIS?

December 20, 2015 

What do Tylenol, schoolyard bullies, chocolate and our self-image have to do with young Somali-Americans from Minnesota ending up in Syria fighting for ISIS, or our ability to prevent a Paris-like terrorist attack from happening in the U.S.? According to social psychology and the brain science that supports it, the answer is, quite a lot.

Until the terrorist attacks in Paris, and the more recent killings in San Bernardino, California, shifted media and law enforcement attention away from the Somali-American community in Minnesota, this Muslim enclave received by far the most scrutiny of any Islamic population in the U.S. In 2013, the FBI stated that for several years, preventing the potential radicalization of Somali-American youth has been its highest priority in Minnesota. Given the continued marginalization of Somali-Americans in the U.S., this community remains a bellwether for trends in Islamic radicalization and how to prevent ISIS from fomenting terrorism in the U.S.

But why would mostly non-religious Somali-American adolescents and young adults want to kill and die in Syria for ISIS? Many pundits and politicians in the U.S. have posited that it is fundamentally the fault of the Islamic faith. They claim that the apparently violent teachings of the Quran have led directly to Somali-Americans becoming terrorists. But despite these assertions, a look at the human brain through the lens of social psychology, and the supporting brain science, can probably provide us with a much better understanding of why young Somali-Americans would want to become jihadists than the pages of the Quran.

What social psychology tells us is that the problem that we face in the Somali-American community in Minnesota is largely an issue of disconnected youth in the midst of an acute crisis of social identity rather than one of widespread religious fanaticism or economic frustration. In their search for identity and a group that will accept them, young Somali-Americans have been falling prey to sophisticated recruiters who have been selling them a lie about their religion.

Social psychology also makes clear that our sense of self is largely a product of our social and cultural groups, which gives us as a society more power than we might think to remedy the problem of homegrown Islamic terrorism in the United States and to prevent a repeat of the Paris attacks on American soil.

So what is social psychology? It is the study of how our thoughts, feelings and, ultimately, our actions and identities, are influenced by our social interactions and the people around us. Within this field, the supporting brain science looks at the actual functioning of the brain to provide a more complete understanding of how it chemically responds to the same inputs.

Social psychology and the supporting brain science show us that over millions of years, the human brain has been hard-wired for contact and connection with other people, not as a luxury, but as an absolute necessity for survival. In effect, the human brain has developed to become a social organ. The connection between mother and infant forms the basis for our social bonds, and it all grows from there.

As humans evolved, our brains developed certain mechanisms and survival strategies that prompt us to form and maintain social connections and to try to avoid their loss. In terms of our brain chemistry, we are programmed to feel discomfort and distress when we lose social connections and to experience contentment, happiness and security when we have positive interactions or form new bonds.

Almost all of us know the sorrow, pain and grief that we feel when an important person in our lives passes away, or a relationship ends. This is nature’s way of letting us know that social loss is potentially dangerous to us. It is also meant to motivate us to try to form new social connections and bonds to replace the ones that have been broken. But it isn’t just the loss of a loved one, or a failed relationship, that can hurt. As we all know, a condescending glance from a stranger — real or imagined — is often enough to ruin the day.

Why would the perception of rejection by a stranger upset anyone? It isn’t because we are being oversensitive or immature; it is because our social brains are programmed to respond to even meaningless instances of real or imagined rejection as a significant threat to our place in the group, and therefore as a painful event. This is how important social connections are to us on a biological level, and have historically been for our survival. The pain and happiness that we feel because of positive or negative social interactions is evolution at work, making sure that we are safe within our group and are not left to fend for ourselves.

Given that we are designed to experience pain as a result of even minor negative interactions, it should come as no surprise that our response to much more direct and potentially threatening instances of rejection can leave us with deep and lasting trauma. Schoolyard bullying is one of the most studied and best understood examples of direct social threat. This kind of attack represents a grave danger to our place in our group and our sense of self because our brains perceive the non-intervention of others as a rejection by them.

For creatures that are built to connect and to develop an identity through our interactions with others, an attack of this kind can be incredibly painful and potentially devastating for our self-image. On a repeated basis, this type of negative feedback about a person’s identity can have tremendous repercussions. This is why, as social psychologist Matthew Lieberman notes, children who are routinely bullied are seven times more likely to be depressed as adults and four times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

But perhaps the most important point that social psychology makes about how our brains register positive or negative interactions with others is that they aren’t just experienced as passing or illusory emotional responses. Social interactions and signals about our standing in our group are experienced in a real, physical and lasting way. Research has proven that on a chemical level, positive social interactions register in the brain in the same manner as eating chocolate and that negative social interactions are experienced in the same way as physical pain. The corollaries for our brains are so strong between social and physical experiences that taking Tylenol can actually relieve social pain, such as rejection or loss. In effect, the same medicine that helps us get over a headache can also help us get over a broken heart and that bar of chocolate really can make us feel better.

But social experiences don’t just cause pain or happiness, they actually help form our identities. To a greater extent than we might like to admit, we use what other people think about us to develop our self-image. Reflected Appraisal Generation, as this phenomenon is known, is one of nature’s ways of ensuring our survival. It uses our very sense of self, along with the pain and happiness that we experience through our social interactions, to ensure that we maintain good standing in our group. Whether we like it or not, we are social, group-oriented creatures by design.

If we apply what we have learned from social psychology to the situation that young Somali-Americans face in this country, we can start to form some valuable and useful insights that can potentially help us stop their radicalization, and by extension, possibly prevent a Paris attack on our soil.

We know from their families and friends, that for the most part, the Somali-Americans who tried to join ISIS were fairly normal adolescents and young adults. But something made them embrace radical Islam. What was it? Looking at the current environment that Muslim-Americans face in the U.S., along with what we have learned about the brain from social psychology, can help answer this question.

On an almost daily basis, religious, political and cultural leaders across the spectrum openly state, or tacitly imply, that they view Islam as a backward and potentially dangerous religion, and that most Muslim-Americans are probably potential suicide bombers.

Recent statements like those by Republican presidential candidates, Ben Carson and Donald Trump, that Muslims are not fit for the presidency, or that we should “look into” expelling them from the United States, have raised many eyebrows. But this kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric has been a mainstay in our political discourse for close to 15 years and has only increased in amplitude and ugliness.

Long before Trump or Carson’s anti-Muslim statements, many Republican politicians were attacking or questioning the loyalty of Muslim-Americans. In 2001, Rep. Peter King of N.Y. claimed that fundamentalists controlled 85 percent of mosques in the U.S. In 2011, he effectively implied that Muslim-Americans cannot be considered American during times of war. The same year, former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich advocated treating Muslims in the U.S. like Nazis or Communists of bygone years in an effort to stop would-be saboteurs and bombers. Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain stated during the 2012 race for the GOP nomination that he believed that the majority of Muslim-Americans were extremists and that he would institute a loyalty test for any Muslim serving in his administration. The next year, former governor of Arkansas and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee claimed that that Muslim-Americans wanted to see their Christian neighbors “obliterated.”

Statements and claims of this nature by Republican leaders have been given a certain moral credence and authority by conservative religious leaders, such as Franklin Graham, who said in an interview with Fox News “we have to be careful of the Muslims in this country,” and that for them, “there is no hope outside of jihad.”

While anti-Islamic rhetoric is more pronounced on the right of the political and cultural divide, the left tends to be little more hospitable toward Muslim-Americans. Led by New Atheists, such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris, liberal political commentators have condemned Islam just as harshly as have conservatives. Maher has basically implied that Islam is the root cause of terrorist acts committed by Muslims while Sam Harris has unabashedly called for profiling of anyone who even looks Muslim.

What little may have been left unsaid within the political arena about Muslims has almost certainly been covered by professional Islamophobes, such as Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes who have created a business out of maligning Islam and Muslims with articles, books, billboards, bus ads, rallies and “draw Mohammed” contests.

But perhaps more damaging than anything said or done by politicians, commentators or professional agitators are the portrayals of Muslims in television and film. Some of the highest-rated television programs and most popular films of the last two decades, such as “24,” “Homeland,” “Lost,” “Taken,” “The Siege,” “Executive Decision,” “Rules of Engagement” and “American Sniper” raise questions about Muslim sleepers and the loyalty of Muslim-Americans or play to base stereotypes about Muslims being inherently violent.

News coverage of Muslims only exacerbates an already bad situation. Studies by groups such as MediaTenor show that news programming about Muslims and Islam is almost exclusively negative and has become much more so in the past few years. More disturbing is MediaTenor’s finding that negative news coverage of Muslims garnered much higher ratings than positive stories about Islam and its adherents.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the constant barrage of negative images and statements about Muslim-Americans and Islam, the data show that we tend to hold fairly unflattering views about our Muslim neighbors. The Pew Research Center’s Warmth Thermometer, which measures positive feelings toward different religious groups by political party affiliation, shows that Muslims rank dead last for Republicans and third from the bottom for Democrats who hold atheists and Mormons in slightly lower esteem.

The Pew findings make clear that to some degree the “schoolyard bullies” like Trump, Carson, Maher, Harris, Geller and others really do speak for the rest of us. We know from the brain science research that this type of societal, or group rejection, is deeply painful and can have a devastating impact on a person’s sense of self when it is experienced on a repeated basis, which is what we see happening to young Somali-Americans.

Devaluing of this kind, or identity destruction of the type that is occurring in the U.S., represents one of the gravest threats to an individual´s social brain, which interprets these signals as meaning that he or she has no group or identity, and has been left alone in a dangerous world. This is the very situation that millions of years of evolution have programmed us to avoid. When society is telling young Somali-Americans that they have no place in our country and to go away, what are they to do besides reach for the Tylenol?

The answer is that they will most likely seek to develop new connections and to find groups where they will be accepted and valued. In other words, they will look for a community that will give them a new, positive, social identity. Driven by our social brains, this is what we, as humans, are hard-wired to do.

But why would young Somali-Americans seek connections within the fold of jihadists when Islam wasn’t really that important to most of them? The answer, again, lies in part in the science of the brain as a social organ. With remarkable consistency, we see the same response in young, secular Muslims who have been drawn from across Europe and other parts of the developed world to radical Islam and jihad.

One of the best records of how a young, disaffected, secular Muslim can be seduced by extremist Islamism is Maajid Nawaz’s autobiography, “Radical.” Nawaz makes clear in his story that his initial embrace of Islamism was not because of any religious conviction, but more out of a desire for identity and respect within the world of suburban Britain, where as a Pakistani child and adolescent, he acutely felt the pain of discrimination, social rejection and lack of identity. As he puts it:

“When the racism kicked in, (I) became part of a West Indian group. I didn’t really feel affiliated with England or Pakistan, and I knew I was not West Indian. So there was a real vacuum in my identity, which was the ideal place for someone to be before recruitment to an Islamist organization. They were able to offer me an identity that had previously been absent.”

In social psychological terms, Nawaz was looking for a way to alleviate the pain of social rejection and for an identity that would give him value. His description of the moment that he decided to embrace the Islamist path confirms that this wasn’t a religious awakening, but a step up the ladder of street gang dynamics from the rap-infused and graffiti-strewn rebellion of his teen years, to the infinitely more powerful and consuming identity of radical, political Islamism.

“I was desperately looking for answers. But it was that afternoon…I realized that Islamism could give me the respect that I’d craved since primary school.”

In radical Islamism, Nawaz found the answer that he was desperately seeking. It gave him purpose, identity, respect and deep connections. In other words, he achieved exactly what our brain is programmed to want on the most fundamental level: social connections, an identity of belonging within a group that will protect us, and recognition from our peers.

Going back to the Somali-Americans adolescents in Minnesota, we effectively see the same longing for identity that Nawaz felt and an environment similar to the one that he encountered.

Within the Minnesota school system, anti-Somali and anti-Muslim discrimination have been rampant. In 2010, the Department of Education began an investigation because of the level of animosity toward Somali-American students in certain Minnesota school districts.

In the communities where the Somali-American population is concentrated in Minnesota, Somali-owned businesses, homes and religious centers have all been vandalized. The same message that has been spray-painted on the property of Somali-Americans, “GO HOME,” has been repeated dozens more times on locally hosted websites and blogs that state with more vitriol the same sentiment, “Can we please just deport these savages back to Africa?”

If we take into account the general anti-Muslim sentiment expressed in the political space, the overwhelmingly negative images of Muslims portrayed on television and in film, and the realities of everyday life for young Somali-Americans in Minnesota, it becomes clear why many would be looking with the same desperation as Nawaz for some kind of relief from the pain of their environment and for a new sense of self. Fine, but why ISIS? Why not the Cripps or one of the many Somali-American street gangs that could provide effective protection and sense of respect?

Again, Naawaz provides a partial answer to this question. Basically, in his situation, the other gangs were more afraid of a potential suicide bomber than another knife-wielding teenager. More important, a street gang didn’t fill the identity void for him.

But there is also another more fundamental element that unlocks the rest of the riddle. The missing piece is a basic ignorance of Islam. As Nawaz states, “it might sound strange, given how committed I was to Islamist ideology, but I had never properly studied Islam or the Quran.” In other words, he didn’t have any great religious awakening or thirst for knowledge about Islam when he became an Islamist radical – he knew as little about his professed faith after joining an extremist group as he did before.

Not knowing about their faith, but desperately seeking an identity, probably in the only community that they feel will accept and truly empower them, young Somali-Americans are embracing a false Islam as the real thing because they don’t know any better. For adolescents craving a sense of meaning for their lives, as well as connections, recognition, respect and identity, what could be more intoxicating than to be told that they can become freedom fighters battling injustice in the name of truth? And this is exactly the language that is being used by the seducers and the seduced.

Twitter and blog posts from Abdi Nur, who traveled from Minnesota to join ISIS, read more like they are from a video gamer than a dedicated terrorist. In March 2015, the New York Times reported that he posted a picture on Facebook of several Beretta pistols, with the text, “How Sweet Does That Look.” In August 2015, he wrote, “Never Felt So Hyped,” about going to fight Kurdish forces. These sound less like the words of a religious fanatic, than someone about to play an intense game of “World of Warcraft.”

And this is exactly what is being sold. In one of the most infamous recruitment videos, American-turned-jihadist Troy Kastigar exhorted Somali-Americans to join the Islamist fight in Somalia, stating, “If only you knew how much fun we have over here! This is the real Disneyland!” Fun, power and purpose, what could be better?

In websites, tweets and blog posts, using rap lyrics and professionally edited videos, sophisticated recruiters are successfully preying on the pain of rejection, lack of social connection, and identity deprivation, that many Somali-American teenagers acutely feel. The recruiters have been so successful in their endeavors that a State Department document made clear that ISIS has them beaten in terms of the effectiveness of their social media campaigns.

The jihadist recruiters are selling a fantasy in which young Somali-Americans will be at the vanguard in building a new society based on “pure” Islam, as defined by ISIS. For teenagers with little understanding of their religion, the sense of importance, mission and power conveyed by this message represents everything that we are hard-wired to want. As Jay Kumar, a professor of brain science, public policy and religion, puts it, “These marginalized youth don’t yearn for wealth or independence. Ultimately the currency most valuable to them is societal acceptance. It’s precisely what our social brains crave above anything else–the need to feel valued and recognized by others.” If you’re a Somali-American teenager seeking acceptance and recognition, all you have to do is leave behind a society that has already made clear that it doesn’t want you anyway. On the other side is fantasy becoming reality, everything the brain craves. Disneyland.

How do we begin to respond to all of this? How do we counter golden-tongued recruiters who are preying on desperate and vulnerable teenagers and young adults? The best answer is that we start to accept the truth and stop believing in the monster living under the bed. If we can accept reality, then science is on our side and we can likely rid ourselves of the scourge of homegrown terrorism, blunt the larger ISIS message and prevent blood being spilled on our streets by American-born jihadists.

A quick review of the facts should help shed some light on the current situation in the U.S. At present, there are approximately 2.8 million Muslim-Americans in the United States, so they make up a little less than 1 percent of the population. Within the American-Muslim community, there have been approximately 250 individuals who have joined jihadist groups in Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan and other places where Islamist groups have been engaged in armed struggles. Roughly 30 more have tried to leave the country to fight for extremist groups, but have been stopped. This means that one-hundredth of 1 percent of Muslim-Americans have joined, or tried to join, violent Islamic groups.

At the same time, Pew Research Center polls show that the majority of Muslim-Americans believe that they should assimilate into mainstream American society and culture. Almost two-thirds see no conflict between living in a modern society and being Muslim. Further, most Muslim-Americans tend to be middle-class and content with their lives in the U.S. Seventy-two percent say that their communities are good or excellent places to live and 71 percent believe that with hard work they will succeed in the U.S.

More important for the purposes of dispelling the false notion that most Muslim-Americans are closet-case jihadists, according to Pew, the overwhelming majority rejects suicide bombings and violence in the name of religion as never justified (83 percent) and is deeply concerned about terrorist threats. Muslim-Americans also tend to be the most vocal in criticizing their religious leaders and holding them to account, despite the perception that they are not doing enough to counter the message of the extremist recruiters.

What the data makes clear is that Muslims in this country make up a tiny percentage of the overall population and share many of the same values as the rest of us – but perhaps most important, the majority of them want to be more American and more a part of our social fabric and group, if only we would let them.

The notion that a group that is solidly middle class, and in many respects believes more deeply in the American Dream than the general population, secretly wants to kill Christians, or supports ISIS, borders on the level of absurdity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Yes, there are sad and true bases for such beliefs about Muslim-Americans, but they are attributable to one-hundredth of a percent of the population. This is tantamount to blaming all Christians for the acts of Timothy McVeigh, or for that matter all atheists for the blood spilled by Pol Pot. It would have been far more plausible to label all Irish-Americans as terrorist sympathizers because of the monetary support that a significant portion of this population provided to the IRA than to suspect all Muslim-Americans of jihadist leanings. We need to see discrimination against Muslim-Americans for what it is – prejudice based on an irrational fear.

But within the data, there is a paradox. Why are Muslim-Americans so content in the U.S. when they are held in such low esteem and widely suspected of terrorist inclinations? Ironically, in seems that mainstream Islam probably provides the answer to this question. Given the numbers, we can speculate with a high degree of confidence that there is likely a large overlap between those Muslim-Americans for whom Islam is an important part of their lives, and those who believe in the American Dream.

Applying the lens of social psychology, it appears that Muslim-Americans who embrace mainstream Islam likely find the social connections and recognition that they need within their religious communities and families and have no need of radical Islam for identity. They already know who they are – Muslims building a better life for themselves and their children in the U.S. So rather than maligning Islam, it would seem that supporting our Muslim neighbors in their faith, especially in the proper religious education of their children, could be one of the best countermeasures to the jihadist recruiters’ message.

There are issues that we can take with Islam, as there are with all religions, but we need to see our Muslim-American neighbors for who they are – people pretty much like the rest of us. If we can accept this truth, then we can make great inroads against the creeping extremism that seduces the most alienated among us.

Everything that we know about the Somali-Americans who have been falling prey to the jihadist recruiters indicates that they would much rather be part of American society than go to Syria or kill their fellow citizens.

So where does this leave us? Probably in a better position than we would have imagined. Science and the truth about our Muslim-American neighbors are on our side.

If we can begin to accept Muslim-Americans within our society, then we can start to eliminate much of the alienation and concurrent identity deprivation that is causing the deep pain upon which jihadist recruiters are capitalizing. Further, if we can start to encourage a better understanding of Islam among Muslim-American youth, then we can likely eliminate much of the religious ignorance upon which they depend for their words to find fertile ground.

Further, the benefits of this kind of shift would reach far beyond our shores. Gallup and other polling sources make clear that it matters deeply to Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere how their co-religionists are treated in the U.S. and Europe. The latest numbers show that the majority feels that Muslims in the West are second-class citizens. The same data also show that an improvement in the perceived treatment of Muslims in the West would go a long way in terms of improving views about the U.S. and Europe in the Muslim heartland.

Many articles that have been published in the aftermath of the Paris attacks by Middle East and ISIS experts confirm the Gallup findings. They make clear that the Islamic State fears the unity of the West and its possible embrace of Muslims more than all the force of arms that we can bring to bear in Syria. ISIS counts on its actions to stoke Islamophobia and a backlash against Muslims in Europe and the United States. Discrimination and anti-Muslim sentiments in the West play directly into the ISIS narrative. Given this reality, if Muslim-Americans were truly embraced as part of the fabric of American society, it is entirely possible that the U.S. would enjoy much more support in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world, which could drastically alter our position with respect to ISIS.

There was a time when Jews, Catholics and other religious and ethnic groups were considered incapable of holding democratic values because of their beliefs, which were more alien to most Americans in the 19th and early 20th century than Islam is to us today. The loyalty of these same groups to the U.S. was also considered highly suspect. Many pundits at that time predicted that the influx of such peoples would eventually lead to the demise of the democratic experiment in America, not unlike what we currently hear about the purported threat posed by Muslim immigrants to the future of the United States.

We need to see the present situation with respect to Muslim-Americans as no different than that of any other group that has come to America with the fervent desire to become part of the fabric of American society and that has successfully assimilated and enriched our culture. If we can move beyond our prejudices and allow Muslim-Americans to fully become part of our society and to develop their identity within it, then we will likely discover that they have, and are contributing, much to our country.

In all probability, we can stanch the trickle of misguided youth flowing to Syria, while greatly improving our standing within the Muslim world and drastically decreasing the likelihood of a Paris-like attack in the United States. Brain science and millions of years of human development are on our side. So, too, are the basic precepts of the rich faith traditions that have guided much of this nation’s history and that demand that we welcome the stranger as a basic measure of our belief. This requires the courage to overcome our fears, but this is certainly a goal worthy of America.

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