A former religious extremist explains how radicalization happens {plus, a theory of how suspected Boston Marathon bombers were radicalized}

How do two sons of a political asylum refugee grow up to be terrorists? Their father loved America. Their uncle and aunt and everyone that knew them–including their neighbors and school mates–were shocked to hear these young men were suspected terrorists. In fact, it was so shocking, that the aunt and father quickly began saying the boys were “framed.”

The suspects in the Boston Marathon were brothers. Their father, by a neighbor’s account, was brutually beaten by KGB and fled to the United States. He loved America.

So, how did they become suspected terrorists?

A neighbor described the boys as helpful, the family as hospitable. She said when she saw their picture on TV, she fell on the floor. Her only thought? Somehow they were “poisoned along the way.”

The suspects’ uncle, in a brief appearance on CNN, said his guess was that “somebody radicalized them.” He said this had nothing to do with Chechnya. And historian Charles King agrees, citing reports from journalists interviewing family members in Dagestan:

In other words, the focus now should be on the Tsarnaevs as homegrown terrorists, not on the ethnic or regional origins of their family. Journalists’ initial conversations with family members in Dagestan amplify that point: a sense of shock that two nice boys who had gone to America for their education could have been involved in such a brutal act.

So, how did these young men become terrorists?

The best article I’ve read is from a Reuters journalist who spent seven months in captivity in Pakistan. And although the radicalization process he saw happened in Pakistan, the underlying conclusions are, in my opinion, spot-on: 

militants had created a sophisticated system of schools, training camps and indoctrination videos that slowly severed young men’s bonds with their families.

The only relationship that mattered, recruits were told, was their relationship to God. The only cause that mattered, clerics preached, was stopping a vast – and nonexistent – Christian-Jewish-Hindu conspiracy to obliterate Islam from the face of the earth.

No matter how long I spent talking with him, I could not alter his attitudes. Radicalism gave him a cause, a community and an identity.

My own extremist religious past resonates with this. Here’s how radicalization happens:

  1. Cut off from family. New recruits to my childhood cult found our extremist way of life attractive because they had never made a genuine connection with the “dead” Christianity of their childhood. It was easy to persuade new members to cut off their families because outsiders were “worldly, hypocritical and compromised.” Outsiders didn’t appreciate the HIGHER CALLING that our TRUE religion offered. Effective radicalization requires a rejection of the outside world which many times includes family members.
  2. Relationship with God is the only thing that matters. Extremist religion is narrowly focused. It elevates one thing; ie. “relationship with God” above all else. The trick, here, is that what ACTUALLY matters is the group. The group becomes God for the new recruit. Whatever the group leader says and believes is what the new recruit says and believes. Effective radicalization requires a rejection of previously held values; ie. the American dream is no longer valuable but martyrdom for God IS valuable.
  3. Radicalism gives identity, cause and community. For those disaffected by the disappointments of modern life or crushed by poverty or suffering a heartbreaking loss, extremist religion provides a nearly irresistible solution. Identity, cause and community are a POWERFUL trifecta–especially for young recruits.

Now, here’s my theory about how the two young terrorist suspects experienced their self-radicalization:

My guess is that the older brother was disaffected first. His father had returned to Chechnya. The older brother had a criminal record–beating an ex-girlfriend. Perhaps he’d become disillusioned with the American dream, with American values. Perhaps it felt like no matter how hard he worked or no matter how good an education he had, he was not going to Make It in America.

There was a vacuum in his soul. Moderate, peaceful Islam was no longer attractive–or perhaps, he had never truly connected with his Muslim faith.

Slowly, religious extremism began providing answers. He began watching terrorist YouTube videos. He was looking for something purposeful, some kind of higher calling.

The only relationship that mattered, recruits were told, was their relationship to God.

My guess is that the older brother’s values began shifting. A good education, a nice house and a car, a good job–these things no longer held value for him.

Radicalism gave him a cause, a community and an identity.

Slowly, martyrdom and/or jihadist insurgency became increasingly attractive to the older brother. He started talking to his younger brother about it. They didn’t want to die, necessarily, but they wanted to inflict righteous judgment on the Great Oppressors–the United States.

Whether or not the older brother had real connections to terrorist groups remains unknown. I agree with David Rhode, the Reuters journalist who spent seven months in Pakistani captivity. The enemy is not religion. The enemy is extremism.

And let’s be clear, extremism isn’t just happening in Islam. It happens in all religions. In fact, what has disturbed me the MOST since leaving my childhood cult is that Christian fundamentalism is growing in popularity. My cult used to be considered “fringe” and “weird.” But now, fundamentalism is hip.

Contemplative, mystic, “moderate” Christianity is derided and dismissed just as contemplative Sufism is dismissed and derided among fundamentalist Muslims.

The enemy is fundamentalism because fundamentalism is very attractive to people looking for Definitive Answers. Extremist religion provides a rigid, black-and-white framework for understanding the world.

For those disaffected by the disappointments of modern life, extremist religion provides a nearly irresistible solution.

**DISCLAIMER: although my childhood cult didn’t promote violence toward outsiders (we just beat up each other, ugh), it’s not a huge leap of logic to see the similarities between hard-line religious groups. Also, these are just my opinions and theories based my experience in extremist religion. When new information comes to light, I’ll probably change my theories and opinions. WHICH IS TO SAY, no need to get all crazy up in da combox, k? Good. Thanks.**

  • http://exitthecave.blogspot.com/ Christiana Vandermale

    Hi Elizabeth! I enjoy your perspective on the attraction of radicalism, and I think you bring really important points about how people can get swept into it and how it affects many religions. However, I don’t know that the link between radicalism and violent terrorism is as clear. It seems like there would need to be a lot of psychological studies on what makes people make the step from radicalism to violence.

    One note: identity, cause and community are NOT masculine qualities. I think your blog has generally been more egalitarian and aware of the way that women can be pigeon-holed into supposedly “feminine” qualities, so I was really surprised to see that sentence in this post!

    • Anonymous

      Christiana: thanks for this! You’re right, those qualities are not masculine specific. I was just typing along thinking of the two terrorist suspects and wrote “young men.” So. I changed it to “young recruits” because you’re absolutely right, it applies to both. Thanks for that and thanks for bearing with my oversight! :)

      As far as the link between radicalism and violent acts of terrorism: I think it’s important to note that when you add in crushing poverty, growing up in a war torn country and then trying to assimilate into American culture–I mean, the sense of desperation is FAR greater, yes? So, the resulting actions could be far more desperate, too….

      • http://exitthecave.blogspot.com/ Christiana Vandermale

        Awesome! I love that you have created a place online that is a break from the gender-role conformity pressure. Thanks for the response!

    • Map Forward

      Except. . .almost every single terrorist who commits widescale violence is a young man age 15-35. Most physical abuse is done by young men. I grew up with great brothers and have great boys, so I am not trying to throw men under the bus, but we need to be honest here. It’s a piece of the puzzle, along with some of the other issues Elizabeth mentioned here. So encouraging to see something like this coming out of Christian blog.

      • Jaz

        And every single brick you see around you were built by men, the car you drive, the computer you use almost everything around you were built by men. We need to put that part in too. Otherwise you are “making” young men out to be terrorists.

        • Map Forward

          If you shared a fact that women were more prone to a particular crime than men, I wouldn’t take that as a critique of women’s broader role in society and ask you to note all of our other positive contributions. That’s a bit of a stretch.

  • Jessa

    Love your disclaimer!

    Reading your post makes me wonder about the process in “my” cult. (all of a sudden I feel this need to take ownership of the cult. I have no idea why. Probably something to do with the self-blame work I’m doing in therapy right now, I guess.) I’m not sure if my parents left before I was old enough to see how the induction process worked, or if I just haven’t recovered those memories yet. Or maybe, given the satanic and masonic features of the cult, the induction process was a carefully guarded secret. Certainly most of the people I had contact with were long-time members, or else children born into the cult (as I was). I guess, if I think about it, I can remember the ceremony that was sort of my inaugural ceremony, and I remember thinking it was also a way of guaranteeing my mother’s silence, since she wasn’t a “blood member” and was therefore not to be trusted.

    I guess one of the differences (and maybe this speaks to the appeal of violence to the newly-radicalized?) between my cult and yours (not seeking to ascribe ownership to you at all, I just don’t know how else to say this with any economy of words) is that violence–blood lust, really–was a huge part of what we did. I guess some of the people the cult attracted were sadists by nature, but I’d also guess that the others, men and women alike, were slowly exposed to sexual excitement in the presence of blood, so that they were more easily led into a state where they were willing to do anything–or almost anything–to get the blood they needed for climax. And, I think it has to do with having power over other human beings. At least some of our people thought that offering the blood of a victim–whether it was menstrual blood or blood resulting from violence to an animal or person–to the goddess or Satan or even God-of-the-Old-Testament would bring them more power. I think there were others who were simply enamored of having the power over life and death for another person (or animal, but usually people). It’s a form of addiction, I think, a drunkenness. For others, maybe it was a fear thing–they had to offer up blood to appease the angry god. And for many, non-lethal violence was a way of beating the sin out of another cult member. I know that was the justification they offered for many of the things they did to me–they had to punish me to make me “better.”

    I’m cringing a little at the words “The enemy is…” It’s not that I don’t think things like fundamentalism and extremism are bad–I agree with you completely in substance, and I think the method of induction you laid out makes loads of sense. I guess I feel like the word “enemy” perpetuates the mindset that we must make war on the bad things, and I think the only way to turn hatred/deep-seated anger around is to show an equal or greater measure of love. Does that make any kind of sense?

  • Beth

    “The enemy is fundamentalism because fundamentalism is very attractive to people looking for Definitive Answers. Extremist religion provides a rigid, black-and-white framework for understanding the world.”

    It does also provide a cause, community and identity where people are either “IN” or “OUT”, “RIGHT” or “WRONG.” The members of the community are the only ones who know Truth. Believing in a cause, community or identity is a very good thing but it can turn bad. The lines are not always clearly marked for people as to when they enter the unhealthy side. Fundamentalism is present in every faith. I see and experience it in the Catholic Church. It has been quite a learning experience. A very difficult one at times.

  • http://www.facebook.com/geonorman George Norman Lippert

    Having friends who’ve experienced truly heinous treatment at the hands of Christian extremists, I am always torn about how to respond to blogs like this. On one hand, it seems that the best response is simply empathy and compassion– which I very much feel for people like yourself, Elizabeth, who’ve been beaten by human psychopathy in the name of God.

    On the other hand, it saddens me more than a little to see those human psychopaths allowed to represent Christianity– or religion in general.

    I suspect some definitions would be helpful. For instance, I strongly suspect that, by your definition, I would be a fundamentalist. And yet, I don’t beat my children or wife. I haven’t severed all ties with my family in the name of God. As a professional in the artistic community, I am surrounded by unbelievers, atheists, and outright skeptics of anything religious, and yet I am friends with them. I don’t wallop them with Bible verses (although they do know I am a Christian). Furthermore, I have dear friends who are homosexuals. My “fundamentalist” beliefs do not separate me from them, but draw me close to them, drive my compassion for them.

    In short, I manage to have fundamental Christian beliefs but not be an extremist, prepared to bomb abortion clinics, picket mosques and military funerals with hateful messages, and collect guns in preparation for the great tribulation.

    And that leads me to ask: what is your basis for believing that Christian extremism is the mainstream?

    I’ve been involved with the Christian church since I was a boy. I went to a Pentecostal church on Sunday and attended a Baptist school during the week. My parents owned and operated a Christian bookstore. I was as immersed in fundamental Bible culture as possible.

    And simply put, the sort of extremism you describe (and that I know about from my less fortunate friends) did not happen in any of those churches. If we had heard that a family was beating their children in the name of the Bible, there would have been serious– and immediate– repercussions, up to and including reporting them and releasing them from the congregation. If a Christian in our community was spreading hate-filled messages (and I have no recollection of that happening) I promise that it would have been dealt with immediately.

    Why? Because hate, exclusivity and extremism are simply not a part of the Christian message or lifestyle.

    And yet, I can very much appreciate your concern. I can sympathize with your fear that extremism is taking over the Christian church, even if I don’t experience that concern myself. Here’s why:

    When I was a teenager, a young woman moved with her family into our neighborhood and had a harrowing experience– she discovered a silhouetted figure staring into her window late one night as she was preparing for bed. I only knew about it because we lived next door and the woman’s mother, being new to the area, came to ask my parents who it could be. She couldn’t describe the peeper, but we still had a suspicion of who it probably was– a troubled young man that lived further down the block.

    A few days later, I was sitting on the street corner waiting for my brother (14 at the time) to get home from his paper route. The neighbor girl was sitting in her mother’s car in front of their house. When she saw my brother approaching along the street, she became frantic. She locked the passenger’s door, then lunged across the seat to lock the driver’s door as well.

    I knew my brother was not the dreaded peeper– we shared a bedroom and were never out that late at night– but I also knew that her fear was real. For all she knew, anyone could be her stalker. I didn’t feel derision for her. I didn’t mock her fear, even though I knew my brother was about as dangerous as an Easter Peep. I felt empathy for her, and wished I could ease her fear.

    I don’t blame you at all for fearing dangerous extremism in any church that holds to a traditional view of Christianity. I empathize. I would only suggest– as carefully as I can– that perhaps not every traditional (fundamental) Christian church is dangerously extremist anymore than every male in my neighborhood was a stalking, peeping tom.

    I am not an extremist, but I am a traditional Christian. And I assure you: if the sort of extremism that you experienced had been an essential ingredient of traditional Christianity, I absolutely would not be a Christian today.

    Either way, I do greatly appreciate the tone and information in this blog post. Extremism, no matter how rampant, should always be called out, quelled, and, at the very least, marginalized for what it is: a deadly perversion of a good thing.

  • Kara

    What is your definition of Christian fundamentalism?

  • Lindsey

    Islam is to extremist Islam as Christianity is to KKK. Not “Christian fundamentalism” as you call it.