Getting to the Roots of Violence

I know that we are all trying to understand why, how, and what on earth is going on.

To say that it's been a Ramadan full of violence and grief would be an understatement. Our community started this month mourning the loss of arguably the greatest modern example of a Muslim. As the days proceeded, violence struck at home and around the world. The loss of innocent lives weighs heavily on our communities as we fast and pray for those who have passed, to protect those in danger, and to turn the hearts of those who oppress in the name of our faith.

It's a confusing and heavy time...

The question that's been on my mind is "what's going on with these men?" These young men who were once children. What chain of events led them to do what they did? At what point, or points, did their thought process lead them to believe that what they were about to do was more critical than life and self-preservation?

Most people in the field of countering violent extremism are (unfortunately) using a very narrow system of analysis that revolves around political and religious motives. I think we're missing a few other factors.

If I had one wish that could be granted, it would be to know the complete histories of men who take their own lives and those they target. While I believe there's not a single formula that leads such men to destructive behavior, I am incredibly curious about a set of mitigating risk factors that may be present within this group as a whole. And by this, I mean from a social-emotional perspective. 

Why do I care about this? I operate from a prevention perspective. And by this I don't mean at the point at which a man's thought process has already determined his course of action, so how do we stop him from moving forward? I mean well before the point where he decides that "martyrdom" is better than survival. 

The following is another point to consider. Our brains are wired for survival - there are numerous mechanisms in our body that are geared to keep us alive in the face of danger. This is why we can't hold our breath for extended periods of time under water before the breathing reflex kicks in. It's why we have a fight, flight or freeze response with our autonomic nervous system. It's why it's incredibly hard to bring harm to our own bodies unless our thought process has been tampered with (either through mental problems, illness or from external sources) to override this circuitry. Which is what baffles me - how do these men override this instinct for survival that's so hard wired within us?

Robert Pape is a man who has studied every suicide bombing attack that ISIS and Al Qaeda has carried out since 1980. That's over 4600 attacks. Here's an excerpt from the article linked below:
"He says that religious fervor is not a motive unto itself. Rather, it serves as a tool for recruitment and a potent means of getting people to overcome their fear of death and natural aversion to killing innocents. “Very often, suicide attackers realize they have instincts for self-preservation that they have to overcome,” and religious beliefs are often part of that process, said Pape in an appearance on my radio show, Politics and Reality Radio, last week."

Let's take his thoughts further back. I do not believe that children are born with the propensity to commit evil acts, just as children are not born to be racist. These behaviors are learned. Humans are not born with the capacity to harm other humans or creatures.

Why do I bring up this topic? Because the vast majority of the world's efforts against terrorism are focused literally on preventing people at the point in time where they are being recruited, helping to plan terror attacks, or just as they're about to commit an act of terror. These efforts are politically and religiously motivated. There are limited efforts focusing on prevention at a much earlier stage - and by that I mean during childhood and adolescence. 

I'm pretty sure that we all believe that with the right internal and external circumstances, children and youth have the ability to flourish into productive, healthy and contributing members of society. This doesn't mean that trials won't be faced, that luring opportunities don't present themselves, and that some of these children and youth won't struggle and/or fail. But with the right supports, a holistic emphasis on bettering oneself, self-awareness, and a village to support their upbringing, I'd like to think that most children and youth will grow into healthy adults. 

I've read articles about the backgrounds of ISIS recruits from North America. Most of these men (and women) come from middle to upper class families; they are educated (mostly in the fields of science and technology); and are often described as well-rounded contributing members of society. Various theories exist regarding risk factors for recruitment - some state that disillusionment with foreign policy plays a huge role; the lack of attachment to society and a loss of feeling of belonging; the need to feel as though they are contributing to their faith and standing up against justice and oppression (interestingly, theories regarding hyper-masculinity also discuss this possibility); mental instability; and so forth. I'd like to note here that the factors may differ for individuals who join ISIS from outside of North America (or Europe for that matter) - but the approach to be discussed would still work.

Regardless of the path that these men and women take, there are risk factors involved that make them susceptible to the path of extremism. Just as there are risk factors for those who abuse and kill others; those who use and abuse substances; and those who partake in any anti-social behavior.

In thinking about most of the world's problems when it comes to acts of violence against oneself and humanity, I'd like to believe that they're preventable. If you think about the rates of domestic violence, sexual violence, and human trafficking, a lot is being done in the moment to intervene, but little is done from a prevention perspective, well before these issues are even in the realm of people's lives.

Research in the fields of neuroscience and social-emotional wellness have determined what children need in order to thrive and flourish. Basic needs are critical - shelter, food, emotionally responsive parents, and so forth. They also need other adults in their life who are healthy role models, as a means to form attachment with. Children need healthy environments that are free from violence and trauma; they need opportunities to struggle, fail and succeed. They require the skills to be self-aware and self-regulated; to understand when they need support and how to reach out for it. Children and youth also need nuanced, abstract thinking - so that they understand that concrete, simple answers have no place in a world where complex problems are all around us.

In this ideal world where all children and youth would receive this healthy upbringing, and families would be supported, there'd also be no such thing as "countering violent extremism" (CVE) initiatives. Programs that take on the CVE label are often targeted, narrowly-focused, and involve Muslim communities essentially taking ownership (or being forced) to solve a problem that is not rooted in Islam. Such programs have standardized definitions by which young men and women are identified as being "at risk" for extremism. These standards often involve racial and religious profiling and again, provide an overly simplistic (and therefore faulty) view to operate from.

It's quite ironic that countries which employ CVE approaches don't do the same for other societal ills such as domestic violence, sexual violence, and gun violence. Using the same logic, countering gun violence (CGV) programs to prevent mass shootings would involve surveilling every white American community in the United States, and asking Church and community leaders to bring forth individuals who fit the profile of potential mass murderers, using a standardized form with checklist items. If this sounds ludicrous for preventing gun violence, then you know how it sounds to Muslims when we hear about CVE approaches in our communities. 

Here's a visual representation of the point I'm trying to make. If violence - ANY act of violence - was represented by a tree, most "preventative" approaches are formed by examining the branches and leaves.

Pretty much no one is looking at the roots - which is true, unbiased prevention for any path of violence that would deter a human being from living a healthy, productive, and balanced life.

For all the money that gets pumped into reactive programs that attempt to prevent violence, we can at least pump the same into prevention programs that support ALL communities at the roots. Any man or woman who commits an act of violence was once a child. They had potential. They were not in control of anything in their environment, as children are not. They did not control what they were and were not exposed to, the parent(s) they received, or the environment(s) they were raised in. Something along the way - or several things along the way - led them off the path. Not everyone who gets led off the path will stay there - some will make their way back. 

But a handful will not. 

And we're waiting until these individuals are pretty much stuck on this path because there are no other options before we try to intervene. This simply isn't working.

What should "we" (starting with governments) be doing instead for ALL communities?
  • Pump more money into supporting families and children with basic needs; supports and resources to recreate that "village" that children need to thrive and flourish.
  • For children and youth who have experienced trauma and violence, provide a trauma-informed lens and support/therapy/mentorship.
  • Focus on pluralism and attachment to the community - people who feel as they contribute to society in a meaningful way are less likely to commit acts of violence.
  • Streamline money into schools for mental health screening, prevention, and intervention. 75% of mental illnesses can be diagnosed in high school. I guarantee you that the highest diagnosis rates are far above that age group. 
  • Instill critical thinking skills into children and youth. Many people suffer from an overly simplistic view of the world and lack the skills to critically appraise the world around them. For example, we know that men who objectify women are more likely to commit acts of sexual violence. The objectification of women is pervasive within society and the multi-billion dollar advertising industry. If men were taught the critical thinking skills to counteract these hyper-seualized messages of objectification, I'd hypothesize that we'd see sexual violence rates decline. These skills are essential for questioning information we're presented with and prevents us from falling into concrete thinking patterns, which can be hard to break - and not to mention, dangerous.
I am not naive and think that the above points are the solutions to the world's problems. But since the current approach is clearly not working, novel ideas should start to be implemented. 

It's hard for us to sit back and watch events around the world unfold, as we feel helpless and sometimes, even hopeless. I have to believe that we can at least have more influence and better outcomes with preventing violence in our communities.

And I'd like to believe that this all starts from within.


  1. I have read half of your blog and its soooo addictive and amazing . Keep up the positive energy

    1. Thank you for your kind words, I appreciate it! I will try to keep blogging :) It's heartening to know that readers find it positive.


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