Counter Culture and propensity to violence

Muslim terrorists radicalize themselves

People who have been brought up to be moralists have difficulty in navigating in an ethical environment, because democracy is first and foremost a way of thinking and a state of mind.

By Kirsten Damgaard cultural psychologist   2012

 ( på dansk: Villighed til vold, også på denne hjemmeside )


The fact that some young men in Denmark turn to jihad on their own initiative should be investigated qualitatively. Why do these young men – as terrorism-investigator Lars Erslev Andersen from the Danish Institute for International Studies has pointed out – have no mental barrier that prevents them from performing acts of lethal violence?

The men charged with and convicted of conspiring to commit terrorism in the Glostrup terror-case, and other Danish terror-trials, were linked by the common bond of their faith. How can children of Muslim parents who have emigrated to the country of the world’s most satisfied citizens – and who are already part of the Danish society – become antagonists of democracy and intellectual freedom? Are our home-grown terrorists mentally unhinged? Terrorists talk about their humiliation, loneliness, envy, fury and the victimization they are subjected to. Though what usually goes under the heading of “evil” is always rooted in individual-related psychological and social processes. The known terrorists’ personalities are certainly deviant. But they seldom deserve a psychiatric diagnosis.

Just the same, radical thinking and readiness to commit lethal violence against innocent victims is a perversion of normal psychological processes. Borderline and narcissistic personalities both have the common denominator of seeing people and events in black and white. Their anger is immature and egocentric, and they have a capacity for fanatical devotion, writes the Danish professor of psychology Gretty Mirdal in her paper on terrorists.
Generally speaking holy warriors are not dull-witted but there are thought processes they have difficulty with. We shall return to that. The American terrorism investigator Marc Sageman interviewed 172 Islamist terrorists and found that they were better educated than the average person in the sub-culture they came from. There was an over-representation of the exact sciences and only few with a background in the arts or social sciences. Before they took to terrorism they were often out of work and unable to use their training and presumed intelligence.

Islam is a cause

According to Islamist dogma all Muslims form one nation (the umma). Jews and Christians have to acknowledge Muslims as their masters. Islam is the only true religion, a natural religion where every action has a religious value. No secular state can obligate Muslims to act in a certain way. The Law (sharia) must be enforced. Is such a nation-based state the holy warriors’ goal or will they merely liberate “Muslim territories” outside Europe from Western influence? In which light are we to understand the fact that the West is being bombed by Muslims born among us? The Swedish security police have pin-pointed 200 Islamic extremists who are ready for violence. A third of these willing Jihadis were born and bred in Sweden. Religion commits its believers to action which is why too much faith – especially from demanding religions – can easily lead to fanaticism and war.

Religion determines the ego

It is important to understand what religion does to the mind. Our perception, thinking and learning are mediated by other people’s experiences via cultural codes and knowledge systems.

Religions and cultures function as information processing programs that contribute to “steering” ideas and conduct. I put the word “steering” in inverted commas because the mind also has the ability not only to organize itself but also to do so in an individual way, so we are not products of determinism. The purpose of religion is also to tell stories – the so called narratives – that contribute to the forming of the neural network. Michael Rothstein, a historian of religion, writes that religion has a determining influence on people’s attitude to life and to other people. We are taught what to believe. And how – and what – we are to feel and experience. Children are naturally given the same view of things as the people who bring them up.

Agressive counterculture

Holy warriors interviewed in a lengthy investigative study have been shown to be humiliated, lonely and eaten up with rage. Anger is normally a healthy reaction, but most psychologists don’t see rage and aggression as healthy reactions in adults who are no longer in puberty. But what about the role of culture? Have Western psychologists allowed for the fact that violence and threats are closely linked to cultures where honour and shame are fundamental values, and that threats and violence are seen as being quite normal socialising tools? Scholars of the Middle East specialising in gender research point out that men who live in honour-cultures are notoriously fearful, suspicious, jealous and angry.

The American psychology expert Donald S. Dutton has studied men who use violence to attain their ends and found three conspicuous characteristics, namely a tenuous connection with their mother, borderline character traits, and a reaction to a trauma. When a mother (the primary caring person) fails to satisfy the little child’s needs, the child is unable to bond to the mother and starts to malfunction early in life. A severely frustrated child has little self-esteem and a restricted capacity to trust others. This deviant development cannot be repaired later, so the mother’s physical or mental absence means the child will suffer from a serious handicap. The development of a personal moral code – and not just a superficial imitation of other people’s moral codes – depends precisely on this bonding. This moral development is crucial and can decide whether or not an individual will at some time in his life break into the premises of Jyllands Posten premises (the newspaper that printed the Muhammed cartoons) with the intention of gagging as many people as he can in 20 minutes before cutting their throats or whether he will threaten Danish politicians with violence.

It is extremely important to find out why so many boys with Muslim backgrounds are given to creating the negative counter culture which has so often been described by school headmasters and others with similar experiences. Men who use violence to attain their ends have – due to the circumstances they grew up in – had little acknowledgement and sympathy and this, according to Western psychological theory, has given them a lack of self esteem.

Immigrants who grow up between two cultures often find the values of these cultures are at odds with each other. Because their collective identity has never been cleared up, they have difficulty in finding a personal identity (“who am I”).This is most often due to the fact of the parents being culturally between two stools and who discourage this necessary introspection. This is especially true if the circles they move in regard being a Muslim and being a Dane as completely incompatible. So anyone who wants to be both finds himself in a dilemma which his “self” has to help him resolve. This implies that children who in their homes are pressurized to adopt a lifestyle which is very different from Danish middle-class norms will not develop harmonious personalities.


Moral theory

According to Islamic moral theory children are born as Muslims in the sense that they are thought to have an innate instinct for what is morally right.

It is an act of will to do Allah’s bidding and abide by the Law (sharia). The fact that islam has no actual ethics – just dogma and a whole catalogue of do’s and don’ts – makes things much more difficult for Muslim children who grow up in Western societies. They have to try and find what psychologists call a sailing channel between the Danish secular ideas of the ideal way to live and the contrasting submissive Islamic mode.

Children in immigrant Muslim families are seldom socialized into acquiring the autonomous identity necessary for acknowledgement and proper functioning in post-modern societies. And for those brought up in a collective culture the fact that their imported culture’s symbols and ideas are not accepted feels like a personal affront.

If they also feel that Danes see islam as backward and treat its ideology with disdain, then this humiliation may turn to latent anger.

Several young people will thus be caught between two sets of norms, Western and islamic. But since it is unthinkable and frightening to cut all ties with the caring family, the latent rage towards the vice-like grip of traditions slavishly followed by the parents cannot be released (unleashed) . The anger is therefore redirected and projected openly towards the harbingers of freedom and free choice. In other words Danes and danishness.
Inner turmoil and immature narcissism are directed outwards, away from the sensing body and focused on a cause.This is called a chosen trauma. So instead of shame and humiliation the individual can now feel power and vigor. The story is well-known: The Palestinians are oppressed – all Muslims are suffering – Jews and Americans must be fought against so there can be happiness and security etc.

Islam furthers violence
The German-Turkish Muslim sociologist Necla Kelek has postulated in her book “Die Verlorenen Söhne” (Lost Sons) that islamic religiosity creates a propensity to violence. Her basis for this conclusion is among other scholarly sources an extensive German enquiry which shows that young, religious Muslims are less well integrated into society than non-religious Muslims. They are more inclined to violence and have fewer German friends.

The enquiry’s respondents were 44 000 15 year-old youths in Niedersachsen. 70% of the young Muslims were very religious or religious and 40% of them had a dogmatic attitude to their religion. 40% of them said that islam is more important than democracy and 37% said that sharia should be the valid law for Muslims in Europe (
The German enquiry also showed that non-Muslim immigrants are better integrated than Muslims, which is also generally true in other countries with many immigrants. Another German sociologist, professor Ulrike Ackermann has pointed out that there is a statistic connection between a strongly religious Arab/patriarchal environment and readiness to use violence.

Counter culture


In traditional cultures the law and morality are the same thing. Being moral means obeying the law. But written laws and unwritten discourses always have human origins. When people see laws as being an expression of divine will, their urge and capacity to change society for the better are seriously impaired.

In islamist societies there is no tradition for conflicting opinions to exist side by side. Only one of them can be legitimate and all others are without any validity. Socratic dialogue in which two parties listen to each other’s arguments and adjust their own accordingly is an unknown phenomenon. The same goes for the idea of compromise as truth is either on the one side or the other and there is nothing in between. Truth must prevail.

Everywhere in European cities where there are large concentrations of Muslims anti-democratic and anti-individualistic parallel societies have grown up. They are expressions of a pessimistic counter culture in which zest for living has little room, and where a sense of victimhood is paramount. This is again related to a pre-modern culture in which the law is always formed in such a way as to favour the interests of certain groups at the expense of others.
“The body’s passions are not given proper consideration” writes psychologist Erik Schultz. Environments that are incompatible with basic human needs like safety and trust constitute a loser’s logic which hampers the growing child’s natural development

Four young men – jihadis – were last year planning to attack Americans in Germany. They were arrested in flagrante just as they were kneading the explosives together. In their defence they alleged that they were religious – but not violent! Judges in Germany are bewildered and “have not been able to find convincing reasons why young men from well-established families should let themselves be seduced by religious fanatics into accepting the insanity of terrorism” related Jyllandsposten newspaper.

But who says these young people have been seduced? The judges are looking for an answer in the wrong place. Manni Crone from the Danish Institute of International Studies has pointed out that the young men themselves volunteer to fight holy war without needing any persuasion! They have surfed round between various Muslim environments and have finished up opting for the most extreme. And here they find comrades-in-arms who are just as eager to commit violence as they are.

Where does the rage come from?

The decisive steps in the development of their personalities has already taken place well before the terrorists start looking for like-minded men who are willing to put bombs in Spanish and British trains. Understanding the terrorists’ mentality means beginning with childhood and the way fanatism and violence becomes part of ( ) people’s personalities. How was the child’s cognitive development as regards perception, thinking and learning? What was his emotional development like? How have his relations to others developed along the way?

A personal moral code which is more than just a loan from somebody else requires a certain cognitive development. Perception analysis and learning come from interaction with adults who answer questions put to them and are willing to discuss things.

A combination of brain development and concrete experiences with adults and their way of living create a basis for young people’s concepts, analysis and learning which are necessary for forming personal ethics.

In the West this happens around the age of eleven and the big question for young people is who to identify with. As they grow up, children internalize the culture they live in. The family has pride of place in this process and the world outside is of lesser importance. In many Muslim families there is a good deal of violence, struggles for hierarchy (dominance) and paternel authority carried out without any corresponding insight or obvious ability. Evidently this gives rise to frustration, lack of self-esteem and anger. Especially male children will have a tendency to act out their emotions. Local Muslim communities in Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Great Britain and other places are characterised by a combination of both islamic values and tribal values. Religion is paramount, socialisation is repressive and patriarchal and traditionalism leaves little room for creativity. The goal of formation of character is to evince a mentality that sustains tradition. But cultural traditions are changeable, many people will argue. It is a dynamic thing, so parents can modify traditions and codes if it they want to, and if not in the world around them then certainly in their own families.

But there are things that are difficult to change and this is particularly true of first generation immigrants who by and large have not developed the thinking processes which are honed by fluent reading and writing. The parents of the young Arabs and Pakistanis of the counter culture are very often illiterate even after many years in a West preoccupied with education. An illiterate person with a traditional and authoritarian view of life thinks in practical terms and and has difficulty with logical, hypothetical and syllogistic reasoning where many different factors are involved.
Many parents of second generation immigrants are bad at structuralizing and analyzing and this incapacity for reflection and individual appraisal of things is passed on to their children. In such families the existential questions that always arise are not dealt with adequately enough for the decendents to develop an autonomous reasoning. We know of course that many of the Arab 9/11 terrorists were trained as engineers in Germany and that there were Muslim doctors involved in terrorism in UK and the USA,
But individuals can often attain a high degree of operational thinking in areas like engineering and technology whereas they think less coherently in the realms of religion and patriotism. Danish school career-advisors often notice that kind of difficulty in scions of traditional families. Analyzing, arguing and problem-solving in subjects which require interpretation and relativisation
does not come easy to them and they do much better in areas where learning by heart, acquired knowledge, repetition and rigid procedures are the rule. This is not due to lack of intelligence but to a culturally structured mind.

The brain and thinking

Many of the terrorists caught by the police are so young that their brains are not yet fully developed and their moral and logical thinking processes have been profoundly marked by the cultural environment they grew up in. They are not old enough to have acquired the ability to analyze logically and reflect abstractly, an ability which normally is not fully developed until the age of 25.

Their original childhood environment and its effects are crucial to understanding terrorists’ feeling of envy and humiliation. They blame others for their feelings .” The other” is perceived as in-human, and they themselves are innocent victims.And since they are innocent they cannot be blamed for justifiably hitting back.

Faced with ambivalence they are unable to cope with it as they have never learnt how. They have not been socialized to reflect on their own actions and their acknowledgement of their own responsability is very weak. Fanatics live in a paranoid/schizoid world which in certain areas makes normal perception and thinking impossible.
Many of them indulge in conspiracy theories and totally misunderstand their own doings and importance. They cherish the illusion of by-gone greatness or a glorious future which will give them the power to carry out their designs. Social anthroplogist Aje Carlbom has studied young extremists in Sweden who have ganged up in groups supporting jihad and noted that that they have a selective attitude to facts and little appreciation of nuances.( 15.03.10).

Seen with Western eyes this indicates an immature personality but for scholars from the Middle East like Persian Daryush Shayegan (who was given the Global Dialogue Prize 2010 by Aarhus University) this is to disregard the fact that children in Middle Eastern societies are brought up to react immaturely to disappointment, anger and unpleasant facts. Thus immaturity (in Western psychological terminology) is established as part of the prevailing social character in the members of such a society.
Terrorism is accepted

“The martyr lifts himself into a higher sphere” says the former terrorist Walid Shoebat.

He explains that an insignificant little person in quest of acknowledgement and a meaning in life can slowly become a hero by committing acts of terrorism. By maintaining that he is morally superior and wreaking destruction in islam’s name the terrorist wins respect in his circle of friends and acquaintances.

From a human rights perspective a prerequisite for this respect is of course a cultural environment that accepts terrorism as a legitimate means to a praiseworthy end. However there is something in this that smacks a little of a double life. The family members always appear to be taken completely by surprise when they find out what sonny boy has been up to. But spiteful revenge can also mean that ( ) the sons live out “justified hatred” on behalf of the other members of the group or family. Fanatics, however, can also become so extreme that they loose touch with those they maintain they represent, since many of “their own” don’t share their views on the legitimacy of violence.

Studies of holy war offer different explanations as to why people born in peaceful Europe turn to terrorism. The Danish sociologist Manni Crone who has interviewed terrorist suspects in Denmark says that they are young men with a craving for action and excitement and an overwhelming desire to be the best.

“They are Muslims and they support jihad” she says, but they are not especially religious because they don’t read their own holy scriptures very much.” But perhaps they listen to islamist tv-preachers or listen to self-appointed authorities (sunni islam not having priests or official fatwa-makers) on ipod or DVD?

After the fatal disappointments of early childhood Danish institutions unwittingly further bruise the ego, which then builds up a counter-identity and animosity towards the Danish society which they feel neither sees, hears nor respects them. The Muhammed cartoons, the frivolous blond girl in the disco and the schools’ admittance criteria are taken as a personal insult.

He feel is that his rightful demands are not being acceded to. He gets angry. And this helps a little at first.

The Problem is externalised. It is the fault of “the other” and so these emotions don’t need to give rise to reflection on one’s own deeds. His self-esteem is not affected negatively and being angry is agreeable in the sense that it takes away any feeling of guilt.

In a Middle Eastern context guilt is not conceived of in the same way as in the West, it is a relative thing, and if one believes in Allah then one knows that he sees everything. Anger gives a feeling of power and vigor.

And when anger piles up on previous anger then this can lead to the idea that somebody or something is responsible for this, and the malign factor could be a person, a structure or a state. They are provocative and the lack of respect/rejection/exploitation they represent must be stopped so the terrorist can feel more at ease with the world.

The guilty parties must be punished. Palestinians are suffering, Afghans are suffering, Irakis are suffering…”as long as my brothers are suffering, I too am suffering” is the general feeling.

Upbringing in the home

How much has socialisation in the family to do with what youth counsellors and others call Muslim men’s tendency to be “quick on the trigger”?

The answer is that perceived provocation and the way people react to it or try to stop it are all a product of cultural influences.

Every culture has its logic and every individual has his way of judging things, but it’s obvious that intelligence (very largely genetically determined) and temperament (genetically determined) also play a part in the subject’s choice of actions and reactions.

The role of the parent includes teaching the child to act adequately when he expresses his feelings and also to give the child positive experiences and help it to reflect. One of parents’ duties is to teach the child to get over disappointments. Life offers plenty of them and they should not be allowed to pile up in the mind in the form of unexpressed anger.

But what happens when children are socialised in an honour culture where derision, humiliation and punishment are normal tools in children’s upbringing? According to Western psychological theory the result will be fewer mentally healthier individuals. So when youths in ghettoes everywhere in Europe demand respect and acknowledgement they might be addressing their parents as well Western nations!
Many Muslim immigrants – especially girls (which in reality is a tale about gender) – do very well as regards jobs and education. Have the known homegrown terrorists also preached the usual sermon about respect and acknowledgement before they became radicals? Did our home-grown also preach etc.

We may well assume that Muslim boys’ repeated demands for respect are essentially a call for attention to personal problems which in reality are due to the fact that they are caught between two sets of values.

One dilemma stems from inner and outer demands to conform to an individualistic culture while at the same time retaining their parents’ imported collective values.

This is what personal integration is about. Feeling secure, satisfied and acknowledged in your own environment.

Many young Muslims find themselves on the horns of a dilemma when they try to reconcile the contradiction between the authoritarian Islamic concept of being a well mannered man or woman with the individualistic Western concept of being an open-minded and reflecting citizen. People who have been brought up to be moralists have difficulty in navigating in an ethical environment, because democracy is first and foremost a way of thinking and a state of mind.

Muslim identity

We know that young people are generally very touchy about what they see as injustice. The concept of a world-wide Muslim community (the umma) which transcends all national boundaries and ethnic categories gives Muslims the feeling of belonging to a very special universal fellowship which is quite different from that of Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, although the comradeship of communists in the last century was rather similar.

So when the children of Muslim immigrants find their identity to a very large degree in Islam, and considering the devaluation and dehumanization of non-muslims which is essential in core Islam, it invariably leads them to distance themselves from non–Muslims. This distancing oneself from everything non-muslim incidentally applies to great many Muslims who have acquired Danish citizenship.
This reticence with regard to the indigenous eller local non-Muslim population is part of the Muslim identity and an expression of the internalisation of the umma concept.For example a recent book in Danish – bought from a so-called moderate imam – commands the faithful to hate the infidels for Allah’s sake.

The British social anthropologist Pnina Werbner who has studied ethnic Pakistanis in Britain’s big cities speaks of self-separation or in other words withdrawal from the non- Muslim society. This happens when the numbers of immigrant Pakistanis grow large enough to form autonomous communities in their new countries (cf the yummies – Young Urban Muslims with Education). Muslim children who never spend their leisure time with Danish children are a good example of this introversion, and it appears to me to be a character trait inherent in the greater part of Muslim immigrants.

Keen on weapons

Not all Europe’s home-grown terrorists claiming to be the humble instruments of Allah have been brought up as Muslims. About a quarter of them are converts, and they have probably had an unstable childhood. A childhood in disarray is often the hidden cause of conversion. French studies have shown that young people with a background of divorced parents and/or an incipient career in crime can often choose the umma as the solution to their problems.

Lost souls can find sanctuary in Islam’s welcoming fellowship and inflexible rules. This frees them from the responsability of having to choose between good and evil, because this choice has already been made for them. In Islamic terms they are not converts but “reverts”, since everybody according to islamic theology is born a Muslim. And since Allah automatically pardons all reverts, that makes the choice even easier.

Manni Crones studies have convinced her that people accused or convicted of terrorism are young men looking for action. The most violent fanatics want to be “the best” and “to make a difference”. They could do this by to working as NGOs in developing countries or other challenging jobs like being a sports trainer. But they have absolutely no desire to be boy-scouts and they find weapons attractive.
But “making a difference” has very often to take place abroad as “they have the Danish Police Intelligence Service breathing down their necks”, Manni Crone explains.

Crone apparently sees jihadism as a kind of youth revolt, or in other words a normal part of growing up (here is her four minute video lecture in Danish ).She doesn’t delve deeper into the terrorists’ pathological rage. In violent cultures nobody can feel safe physically or psychologically.

Policemen and youth counsellors relate that many youths from the ghettoes feel they have a right to get whatever they want without personal merits, otherwise they feel victimised. A sentiment which is not condoned by many adult Danes or the girls they want to get in contact with.
The lack of acknowledgement for their way of acting out their maleness can lead to frustrated, negative behaviour in individuals with an underdeveloped ability to judge things properly. Everybody – regardless of environment and intelligence – has the possibility of regulating his knowledge and thereby changing his basis for action and reaction. The choice a person makes is an expression of his personality. New experiences afford new possibilities for making qualified choices and therefore new ways of being “me”. It is natural for children who are socialized by institutions that dehumanize others to band together in groups that later on translate these attitudes into actions of hate and violence perpetrated against the contemptible “other”.

Aggressive young people who are consumed by hatred are a misfortune for everybody. Everybody except islamists.


Durre S. Ahmed : Gender and Islamic spirituality : a psychological view of “low” fundamentalism in Lahouchine Ouzgane (ed) : Islamic masculinities. 2006

Manni Crone : The Saudi Connection : Islamism, Salafisme and Jihadism in the Northern Countries in Denmark and the Foreigners by Tonny Brems Knudsen, Jørgen Dige Pedersen, Georg Sørensen (ed.), 2009 ; and the discussion in the Free Speech Society 23.02.10

Kirsten Damgaard. Thesis DLH 1993

Donald S. Dutton: The Abusive Personality, 2008

Carsten René Jørgensen: Terrorism, Fundamentalism and identity in Carsten René Jørgensen: Identity. Psychological and Cultural Perspektives, 2008

Alice LoCicero and Samuel J. Sinclair: Creating Young Martyrs: Conditions That Make Dying in a Terrorist Attack Seem Like a Good Idea (Contemporary Psychology Series). 2008

Fathali M.Moghaddam and Anthony J. Marsella: Understanding Terrorism: Psychosocial Roots,Consequences and Interventions. 2003

Ayse Onal : Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed, 2008

Michael Rothstein: Culture and Upbringing, Bent Gynther and Ole Varming (ed.) 1996

Marc Sageman: Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-first Century, 2008

Walid Shoebat : Why We Want to Kill You ! (2007)

Jessica Stern: Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, 2004





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