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terrorism, religion & psychology

I watched events unfold in Paris last week with a combination of dismay, disgust and horror. I’m sure we all did. There was a surreal quality to the footage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the ensuing manhunts, hostage scenarios and ultimate carnage. An attack on free speech, twenty people dead, religious tensions exacerbated - and all in a country I love, with a culture I respect and admire, and in a city I visited only a few weeks ago. On a level I have found the whole situation absurd, and really quite difficult to get my head around.

First and foremost, I stand side by side, in absolute solidarity with the French people. Above anything else, an attack on free speech feels like an attack on me and my core values. No-one is above criticism, not me, not you, and certainly not any religion. To murder journalists for doing their job is a truly despicable act. If I was Muslim, I would feel dismayed that this was done in the name of my faith.

However, beyond the cold facts of what occurred in this past week, the issues that trouble me more are that this could have happened at all. This is 2015. And yet, rather than moving into a more peaceful and enlightened age, it currently seems like we are going backwards. I feel that the threat of violence and terrorism is now greater in the West than it has been at any point in my life. This is a disturbing thought: events similar to those of last week will happen again, soon, and probably somewhere uncomfortably close to home.


Why is this happening? Why are young men and women becoming radicalised in the name of a religious faith, and developing intent to perpetrate this kind of violence? What psychological mechanisms drive such extreme and destructive behaviours?

Make no mistake, this doesn’t come from nowhere. And in my view it is naïve to sit back, point the finger of blame and not accept responsibility on some level. The seeds of these tragic events have been sewn over a period of years, decades even, going beyond the psychology of any one individual or group. There is a narrative to this – a strong and consistent psychological back-story. In order to change it, it needs to be understood. Whilst I don’t purport to have the political answers, I certainly know something about the mindsets of those involved.

In the past I have worked with people who have been described as terrorists. Without going into details, I met and spoke with several individuals who had been heavily involved in paramilitary activity during the conflict in Northern Ireland. To an objective ear, their attitudes, actions and behaviours were extreme - it was uncomfortable to listen to. However, interestingly they didn’t see themselves as terrorists. Rather, they were soldiers, fighting in wars, with just cause. From this standpoint they were able to square away and rationalise whatever they did, however warped that logic may seem to you or I. As psychological mindsets go, this is both powerful and dangerous. Elements of these mindsets in the people I met are similar to what I have read about the Paris attackers and others before them (Boston, New York, London etc.).

There are additional factors. People like those that I met are driven, with one emotion usually dominating at their core: anger. Of course anger has to have a source, and builds through a combination of issues, some of them personal, some of them environmental, some perhaps even political. Like a volcano, anger can lie dormant for years, but will erupt under the ‘right’ circumstances. Rejection, marginalisation and persecution can play a role alongside personal and social difficulties. People can be drawn towards less mainstream groups, seeking belonging, and thus being more prone to influence. Anger becomes mobilised. It is not too much of a stretch to see how radicalisation can take hold.

It is worth saying that in my view, the fact religion has been involved in recent events is something of a distraction. Religious division is simply a convenient vehicle for anger, hate and ultimately violence. It was the same in my experience of Northern Ireland – the conflict was less about Catholicism and Protestantism, and more about division, argument and historic hate between two separate groups. It was all very tribal, and humans have been doing that for as long as we’ve been around.

The political backdrop

So here we get to the crux of the issue, both in France and in the broader political landscape. In a sense, we in the West have made it easy for individuals such as those involved in the Paris attacks to mobilise their anger and convert it into murderous rage and violent intent. We have to take responsibility for that – otherwise, I fear we will find ourselves locked in a cycle of conflict and violence for years ahead.

In order to give people a war, they need something to fight against. On a number of levels western/NATO foreign policy, globalisation, selfish capitalism and the uneven distribution of power and wealth have played into the hands of religious zealots. I often wonder how we in the West must look to people fighting for the IS cause? Presumably a rich, bloated, greedy, bourgeois elite lacking in any kind of morality. Whilst this may be wildly untrue for the majority of people living in the West, unfortunately once such a narrative is set, people will tend to seek evidence only to confirm rather than refute their worldview.


So, this has become an incredibly difficult problem to resolve. Any political solution is likely to take generations. All we are left with is what we can do on a personal level. What can I do differently that might help change things?

  • I can care. For me this is all about tolerance and unity, rather than division and anger. It might be different for you. Rather than write off or pour scorn on any section of society, I will seek to understand, include and give the time of day to anyone that I meet or interact with, regardless of their background or where they are from.

  • I can influence others. I will do this through the written word, or through those I talk to. Ultimately, this is about trying to spread a positive message, and not feeding into stereotypes.

  • I can vote. We have elections approaching in May in the UK, and I will think carefully about how I will use my vote in the context of these world events, rather than focusing on what is immediate and in front of me on a domestic level.

It might not be much, but if we all take an approach like this, it might just add up to something more powerful. Change may happen. In my view it needs to….

Nous sommes tous Charlie.

Yours in psychology,


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