Psychology and Ideology of Islamic Extremism


The Psychology and Ideology of Islamic Extremism
(Dr. Tawfik Hamid, September 6, 2013)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

Dr. Tawfik Hamid, an expert in cognitive psychology, is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and one time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He was a member of a radical Islamic organization Jamaa Islameia JI (of Egypt) with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahri, who later became the leader of Al-Qaeda. After being radicalized in the JI (approximately thirty-five years ago), he had an awakening of his human conscience, recognized the threat of Radical Islam, and started to teach modern peaceful interpretations of classical Islamic core texts. Dr. Hamid is the author of Inside Jihad: How Radical Islam Works; Why It Should Terrify Us: How To Defeat It. He also spoke at The Westminster Institute on Inside Jihad: How Radical Islam Works and How to Defeat It (December 9, 2015).



Tawfik Hamid:

There is a well-known quote that has been said by Albert Einstein when he said the definition of insanity is to repeat the same thing again and again and expect different results. For ten years the West has been using the same approach in military confrontation with an ideology, and it will never work because to deal with an ideology you need to work here.

If right now [you] imagine this was a bomb, and I threw it at you now, just pretend that, something has to happen here. An impulse must arise in the brain, and this impulse should move my muscle, and then I threw the bomb. If the focus was just preventing me from getting the bomb, you may fail. If the focus was just to stop my hand [unintelligible], you may fail. But if the focus was to prevent me from even thinking of harming you, then you win.

That is the way this phenomenon must be seen, a phenomenon that occurs there, primarily and predominantly and initially there in what I call [the] brainstem. So today I will take you through a short journey into [the] brainstem. I lived in brainstem through some period of my life. It is not easy to get a passport or visa for it.

Fundamental Things that Radicalized Me

We will start with five fundamental things that I noticed in my life that changed me from being a very innocent person to become a radical at [a] stage of my life. And I have seen the same process or mechanism occurring in the minds of many other colleagues in my medical school and friends who became radicalized at different stages of my life.

Information Input

The first is the input of information. I am talking here about the human behavior and what can affect it in such a case. We have the input information. What you put in here will come at the end in my behavior and my actions, so if you taught me how to love, I will think differently and behave differently from those who teach me how to hate.

Information Processing

The second process in making the behavior is the processing of information itself. I can receive information. That is fine, but if I have a normal processing or a good processing system, the outcome can be okay. But if the processing of information or the thinking process itself is affected, then even with good information I can do crimes. In history, for example in Medieval Europe, some crimes happened in the name of the Gospel, for example. Why? It teaches peace. So the process of thinking itself of humans can affect the behavior of humans.

Psychological Influences

The third item or mechanism in changing our behavior is some psychological influences, and we will come to them one by one and also there are behavior modifiers so we will see how our behavior can be modified by positive and negative reinforcements. If [a] child, for example, touches something hot, he learns by pain, which is a negative reinforcement factor, do not do this again.

Behavior Modifiers

And of the contrary, if you gave a child a piece of chocolate for doing something, he will be more inclined to do it again. The same with the radicals. They will do their acts, and if the outcome is negative, they will think twice before doing it again. But if you do not know how to do negative reinforcement properly for them, they will repeat it again and again forever.

The Ability to Appreciate Beauty

And the final one [is] the ability to appreciate beauty. And I will give details when it comes to this point. So there are five main foundations for the behavior of a person, and I guess it can apply to humans, everyone: the input of information, the processes of thinking itself, the psychological influences that affect us, the behavior modifiers, and [the] ability to appreciate beauty… I will come this.

The first part is input of information. I usually mention [a] story, and I have to mention it again today because it is very illustrative of what happens when the input of information can be violent. I remember one day I was reading a verse in the Qur’an that said, “[Arabic],” this part here in Arabic, which means literally fight, “kill the infidels wherever you find them.” And I was young, motivated, I want to serve God.

I ask myself, ‘oh, shall I go and fight and kill Aunty Faizeo?’ She was our neighbor. She was a Christian. She was called Aunty for any elder. ‘Shall I go and kill her?’ And I could not. She was very nice with me. I had known her since I was a child. And I was disturbed with the verse, so I went to a friend of mine called ‘Ad-AlSaif. He was a Salafi radical in his way of thinking, and he said, ‘yes, of course. We have to fight these people, but we need to be organized in this,’ and he brought me several references from Ibn Taymiyya and other Sharia books, and he added that ‘yes, we have to fight all of these infidels’ or non-Muslims or Muslims who think differently from us.

I was not convinced.

I went to someone called Sheikh Shaban, and he was a Sufi scholar, [a] wonderful human being. When I said this to him, he just- I was in front of him after the Friday prayer and he knew me before that. He pat[ted] me on the shoulder and [said], ‘Tawfik, just love every human being and people who is every human being’. And I said to him, “But Sheikh Shaban, it is written in the Qur’an.” I was motivated, enthusiastic. “I want to apply the Qur’an.”

And he said to me, “[Arabic],” which is another verse of the Qur’an that means ‘in the Day of Judgement, and only in the Day of Judgement you will understand the real meaning of the Qur’an’. And as I always say I was not that patient to wait for the day of judgement. I want it here. So I did not wait. I followed Ad-AlSaif, the radical one.

What I am saying here if the same verse was taken, “[Arabic] Kill the infidels wherever you find them,” and interpreted differently. Here is an example that I curated with the help of my wife Ma’a in the last few months. It is a modern interpretation for the Qur’an and I will show you how the same verse can be interpreted as a commentary in a completely different way that can change the ways of thinking and behavior of the children who learn this verse or read it regularly during their prayers. First of all, I call it level one interpretation. Who are these infidels? Is it everyone or a specific one? When I say, ‘I’m going to a white houses this afternoon’, it’s very different from saying, ‘I’m going to the White House’. Just adding the suffix -the can completely change the meaning and define it to a specific place.

Then the second level of interpretation: who were those infidels who are defined by the suffix -the? These are the early people who fought in Mecca who fought Muhammad in the very early stage of Islam. It does not apply to the people today because it is defined. Otherwise, the Qur’an could have used the expression min Kuffar, which means to generalize it to any infidel but the use of the or the suffix -al or -the define the meaning, the violent meaning into specific unit of time in history and place.

Then the third level of interpretation or the next level of interpretation: why God was unhappy with those infidels back then… because – this is according to the Qur’an – they discriminated against the early Muslims who lived in Mecca. They beheaded them. They butchered them. It was what the radicals really today are doing to their opponents.

And the second level or the next level of interpretation: what can we learn from this is not to discriminate against more religious minorities otherwise we will be likes those infidels. So the same verse with different interpretations and commentaries can completely make a difference in the way of thinking of people.

If Sheikh Shaban had told me this interpretation, he could have changed my life completely. I would not have continued in Jemaah Islamiyah. I continued because he failed. He was a good man, but he failed to give me a theological base for being peaceful. I have the verse telling me literally to be violent and to really counterbalance this, you have to work at the core of the interpretation itself of the verse and words which I have thank God done… one step at least in the process here.

Well, this is about the input of information, and I mean here the interpretation of the religious text itself. The second is the thinking process. The processing of information itself. I realized even if you gave some people a peaceful verses and text, if the processes of thinking are radical, they can be violent and they can be radical.

So I started to analyze what can make people radical. What is different in the mind. I found radicals in different faiths. I know we have much more in the Muslim world but in general you can find radicals in different faiths. So I started to analyze if it is not the religious text, what could be the underlying mechanism that changes the process of thinking of humans and make[s] them radicals? And I found several, and I am giving a few examples like absolutism, like inability- like oh what I see is the absolute truth, and what you see is absolutely wrong, and I started to hate you based on this. You are wrong, and what I see is the only thing that is correct.

Then I start to think as a radical. And here is an example. I have an educational system. I started it to fight radicalism at the level of the thinking process. So if a child is seeing this lady, he will see oh, it’s an old lady. But if [a] child is seeing it from the other side, just inverted it would be seen like this. This is a young princess. So people can fight forever simply because they- each person is looking through the reality through a different angle. Just changing our positions can completely bring new understanding of the same reality.

So what I am saying here is absolutism in the process of thinking can be fought by certain ways through cognitive psychology and certain ways to just change the thinking process from absolutism to relativism, being able to see that if we all draw this room now, each one will have a different angle and view and maybe mine will be different from yours. I see a completely different thing from what you see now, but I should not hate you for this. In fact, if you brought our photos together or our images, we would get a better reality, in fact, at the end.

So I think this has nothing to do with the religious texts. It has to do with the process of thinking. If I remember when I was young, my father, he was a Communist, and he used to bring to me a pyramid and tell me Tarik – my real name originally is Tarik – look at it from down. How do you see it? I say, oh, it is a rectangle or square. Then he brings it down and lets me see it from the side. How does it look now? It is [a] triangle not [a] square.

He taught me, not through religion, how we may be different. The difference does not mean you are wrong, and I am right. And it could be just a difference in looking at things. Teaching people how to think this way, I mean the good way, to accept the difference, can make [a] huge difference in the process of radicalization itself. Also, being judgmental… In our societies I have to say we have a tendency to be very judgmental to others. The West is bad. These people are bad. There is continuous criticism of the other. The other is bad and I give an example here.

Another educational example: I called it the river of the truth; that if the truth at level 100, the end of the river, and there are two people swimming, one at .5 and one at .95, humans tend to say ‘oh, the one at 95 is much better. He is closer to the truth and reality. The other guy oh, he’s a bad guy. He is too far from it.’

But if we [did not] know that, the guy at .95 had already started from .100, and he is moving backward and the guy at .5 has already started from .0 and he is struggling, trying to find the reality or the truth, who is better now? Maybe the one at 5. That is why we can judge the deeds but the persons themselves, I think it is not our job to judge.

Do not be judgmental because by the way you judge others is the way you will be judged at the end. So I think it is important not to be [judgmental] because I will never go attack someone unless I judged him to be bad initially. So being judgmental, to [unintelligible] judgmental is by itself an issue that can help in preventing [the] radicalization process. Also, critical thinking is vital. You give me information. If I do not have proper critical thinking, I will just follow blindly without even thinking.

I remember the first day I prayed in Jemaah Islamiyah, our radical school. The guy who was escorting me to pray with them… He was [the] emir or prince of Jemaah Islamiyah. His name was Mukhtar Mukhtar and he said to me one word or one phrase, “Al Fikroo Kuffar.” Fikroo like F-A-K-R Kay-far, same letters but different arrangement. The first one means to think. The second one [means] you will become an infidel if you start to think. Is it me [or] your brain is just like a donkey.

And the donkey in our culture represents the highest level of stupidity. You say to someone ‘you are a donkey’, it is the biggest insult. It means he is so stupid. So he said to me, your brain is just like a donkey. And the donkey can help you, or my brain can help me to reach the palace of the king or Allah in the religion, Islam. And once you reach the palace of the king, the religion of Islam, you enter the palace.

You ask me do you take your brain or my donkey inside the palace… or [do] you leave the donkey outside [of] the palace? Usually, we leave the donkey outside [of] the palace. And he means religion, and then I was welcomed. So the whole process is suppressing critical thinking. And if we are truly interested in fighting radical Islam with what would be called soft power, it is vital and fundamental to focus on the process of radicalization at the mental level, the absolutism, being judgmental to others, the lack of critical thinking in the society which is being encouraged in different ways. All of these are factors that are non-theological factors but can affect seriously the process of radicalization and can create radicals even if you give them peaceful texts. That is the problem here. Then there are some psychological influences.

If someone told me now, Tawfik, take this bomb or take the weapon and go kill some guy there, the first thing he has to do is make me hate that or this individual. Otherwise, I will not really be interested in killing someone if I don’t hate him. Why should I kill someone? So the first thing you teach people to become radical is to hate the other. The second: if I started to move a few steps toward the process of killing itself, my human conscience may tell me, ‘Tawfik, the man didn’t do anything wrong to you. Why should you kill him? Remember his family, how they would suffer after him. Remember his pain.’

So my human conscience will start to tell me not to do it.

Then at the last moment if I started to attack them, the person, then if I’m not used to violence, then you have to teach me be de-sensitized to the use of violence. And I notice the psychological influences that affected me and many others when the radicalization process is hatred to the other, suppression of our human conscience, and the desensitization of violence… to violence… and all of them… unfortunately, the religious text has been used to create the three of them.

Then finally there are behavior modifiers, a negative reinforcement. Radicals kill, behead, explode, and what is the outcome at the end? We see support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example. And they go and kill and explode and what is the outcome? We do not give them the negative reinforcement.

I put this boy here because imagine if someone kicked his leg against a wall, a brick wall. He feels pain. The pain is the negative reinforcement that prevents people from doing it again. If you get him a chocolate instead of pain, he might repeat it again if he did not feel the pain. So what happened? The positive and negative reinforcement from the radicals is extremely weak. In fact, we do the opposite.

In Afghanistan, some soldier wears a hijab and for the radical this is a positive reinforcement. We are winners. They are subjugated to our Shariah. So you actually do the opposite from what should happen. There is a need for proper negative reinforcement for the radicals and the negative reinforcement has to happen immediately after the act itself because if I kicked my leg in the wall and after three years I have pain in my leg, I will never refer it to the act itself. It has to be related in time, so proper negative reinforcement and also positive reinforcements are vital to find the radicalization process and make them think twice before doing it again.

There are many reinforcements that can be at work here.

Finally, the ability to appreciate beauty [matters]. If you noticed, and this happened to me in person, radicals, Islamic radicals everywhere, prevent people from listening to beautiful music, from women from singing, a colorful dress, even laughing so the ability to appreciate beauty here when they start to suppress it, telling you are not allowed this, you are not [allowed that].

After some time, it is like depriving someone of the taste receptors of the tongue. He loses the ability to appreciate any beautiful thing. Once you reach that level of being unable to appreciate the beauty, then they can fill your brain with any rubbish, literally rubbish, and whatever they put in your brain you will accept. So the inability to appreciate what is beautiful and what is not beautiful they suppress it, even laughter. I was not allowed to laugh when I was in the Jemaah Islamiyah. They said it is not good in religion. So finally, I can just smile to you now and say thank you so much. It is a pleasure to talk to you.