Radicalisation and Self-Restraint

Cognitive self-restraint can limit a person from falling prey to radicalisation as a protective factor – but it need not. Indeed, the contrary can also be true. Limiting one’s actions and mode of thinking can prevent radicalisation or lead to it. Most often, it prevents radicalisation. Still, there is a certain ambivalence. Let us show how this comes about, taking the example of pious Muslims, on the one hand, and radicalized Islamists, on the other.

In the moral realm of Islam, where everyone is deemed responsible of his or her own actions, pious self-restraint is imperative not only during the holy month of Ramadan but always. Moderation (wasatiyya) in faith and in life has a long history, and as a formal concept has been promoted by countries such as Malaysia for years, and quite successfully.

But self-restraint can also be imposed extrinsically, by factors such as poverty. A person struck or shaped by such conditions can victimize himself, feeling marginalized. He can even rebel, alone or with a group of like-minded radicals, being drawn in such a group by false friends or extremist groomers.

Self-restraint can also take the shape of, seemingly moral, self-castigation. The latter could be deemed conspicuous with a view on mental health and could amount, in some cases where exaggerated, to personality disorder. While the share of those who are mentally ill and who then become radicalized to the extent of committing violent extremism is rather small, there have been such cases, in recent history.

The author of this note has found those self-castigating, who can be perfectly normal persons, to be mostly modest, or, for the most part, sympathizers of either moderate, or extreme, tendencies of Islam, not to the extent of promoting or committing acts of violence. There are pious Muslims who actively speak out against violence and promote peaceful relations between faiths as well as work ethics conducive to integration into society.

An Islamist deemed a victim of poverty, injustice, or marginalization, sometimes is trapped, incapable of leaving a, sometimes self-imposed, negative context. In any case, coping can go very wrong, and can quickly lead an insufficiently prudent person on the wrong path. A constructive mindset, along with certain incentives and limits provided by overall society and on the community level, is essential in dealing with individual self-castigation and victimization, and can oftentimes prevent radicalisation.

Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip
August 2019

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