Mutual Radicalization: A Danger We Can Overcome

Fathali M. Moghaddam, PhD*

Fathali M. Moghaddam, PhD*

Fathali M. Moghaddam, PhD*
Georgetown University
moghaddf@georgetown.edu

I was in Tehran, Iran, in 1979 when Khomeini’s fanatical followers invaded the American Embassy and took 52 American diplomats as hostages. This illegal invasion was part of a long series of extremist events, which many Americans and Iranians saw as actually starting with the CIA orchestrated coup that toppled the democratic government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, and reinstalled the “American puppet” Shah as dictator in Iran. Rational individuals in America and Iran could clearly recognize that taking more and more extreme measures against one another was moving America-Iran relations in the wrong direction. But rational individuals seemed helpless to prevent the collective stampede underway.

This experience led me to study what I have called mutual radicalization, when two groups radicalize one another, each pushing the other to more and more extreme positions and views, so the psychological distance between the two groups and their dislike for one another keeps growing and reaches destructive levels. The two groups become unable to collaborate with one another, even when it is clearly in the interests of everyone to work together. For example, consider the case of Palestinians and Israelis, or Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, or the National Rifle Association and gun-regulation groups.

The relationship between America and Iran is a classic case of mutual radicalization, where irrational emotions and a “collective stampede” have moved the two nations to neglect their mutual interests and become driven to increasingly extreme positions. This case also highlights the vitally important role of extremists in both groups, who hijack and direct events. Second, the case of America and Iran highlights the collective psychological perceptions and identities of the two groups. How do the two groups perceive and identify themselves in relation to the other? Group perceptions and identities are highly influenced by leadership, and in the second decade of the 21st century there have been important leadership changes in the United States. Donald Trump is likely to influence mutual radicalization processes not just with Iran, but also with North Korea and China, where there have also been leadership changes. In North Korea Kim Jong Eun, the grandson of the founder Kim Il-Sung, came to power in 2011 and has consolidated his position. In China Xi Jinping has become chairman for life; he is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, who was also chairman for life and died in 1976. These two dictators feel confident enough to try radical new paths for achieving their goals. In the case of China, the new path is leading to mutual radicalization with Japan. In the case of North Korea, the new path is leading to temporary de-radicalization with South Korea, but there could be a sudden change of course and rapid mutual radicalization again.

Mutual radicalization is a universal process, with four features we can recognize across cultures.

First, mutual radicalization is a collective process, in which rational and well-intentioned individuals in both groups can clearly see their groups are moving in the wrong direction, but the collective “stampede” overwhelms individuals. “Runaway mutual radicalization” is so powerful because it is collective. We have now had four decades of mutually destructive actions by America and Iran, driven by extremists on both sides.

Second, collective radicalization takes the groups to a “your pain, my gain” situation, where the main purpose of each group becomes inflicting pain on the other, no matter what the cost is to the self. Whatever brings pain for “them” is a benefit to “us,” no matter what it costs us.

Third, mutual radicalization leads to high levels of conformity and obedience in both groups, so it becomes very difficult for even highly intelligent group members to act against the “collective stampede.”

Fourth, mutual radicalization involves identity transformation, so an important part of “who we are” becomes “conflict with the other group.” In essence, “we” become the people who are in conflict with “them,” the despicable, hated “other.” We are good humans, but they are horrible “animals.”

In writing a book about mutual radicalization, I dedicated a lot of attention to the prevention of mutual radicalization and the development of de-radicalization. Our actions must be guided by three basic principles. First, remember that the “causes” of conflict can shift over time: A conflict that began as a fight over water can become a fight about identity and collective humiliation, then about land and other resources, then more about religious values. This means we should not fixate on solving a particular “cause.” Second, collective identity is often the underlying theme that encompasses all the different elements in conflict. Third, the motivations in inter-group conflict are subjective, and we need to see the world from the perspective of the groups trapped in the mutual radicalization process.

Starting with these basic principles, I identify four steps in the mutual de-radicalization process. First, the two groups have to be helped to recognize that mutual radicalization has taken place. This simple step is often the most difficult, because it requires a shift in collective perceptions in both groups. Second, they have to be helped to imagine their in-group as extended and to regard peace as beneficial to the extended group. Thus, the other group is not “alien” or “animal,” it is human and part of the larger humanity. Third, the motivation of the two groups is influenced, so they become interested in changing their relationships. In influencing motivations, practitioners find themselves at loggerheads with extremists in both groups. Finally, the two groups are helped to adopt mutual superordinate goals, to recognize the goals that both groups share, but neither group can achieve without the cooperation of the other. There is a great deal of psychological research and practice that helps guide mutual de-radicalization along these four basic steps. Mutual radicalization is a danger we can and must overcome; our future depends on it.

(*Editor’s Note:  Fathali M. Moghaddam is the editor of APA/Division 48 journal Peace and Conflict and he has authored 29 books including Mutual radicalization: How groups and nations drive each other to extremes, published by APA, June 2018. The topics of his oeuvre are central to important media issues of recent decades.)

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