It is easy to look to religion for an explanation of why young men -- and some women -- become radicalized. But it is psychology, not theology, that offers the best tools for understanding radicalization -- and how best to undo it.
The appeal of Islamic State rests on individuals’ quest for what psychologists call “personal significance,” which the militant group’s extremist propaganda cleverly exploits. The quest for significance is the desire to matter, to be respected, to be somebody in one's own eyes and in the eyes of others.
A person’s sense of significance may be lost for many reasons, such as a personal failure or a stigma that comes from transgressing the norms of one's society. We are reminded of this when we examine the backgrounds of female suicide-bombers in Israel. The first female suicide-bomber in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was divorced by her husband after she was found to be infertile. Another would-be bomber had been disfigured by burns, believed to have been caused by her family, after she had an affair. These women suffered from personal stigma and went on to volunteer for suicidal missions against the Israelis.
Loss of significance can also be caused by hopeless economic conditions. It can grow out of a sense of disparagement and discrimination, a not uncommon experience of many immigrants. And it can come from a sense that one's brethren in faith are being humiliated and disgraced around the world.
Ideological extremists like those leading Islamic State deliberately employ the ideas of collective hardship and victimization of Muslims worldwide to galvanize and recruit potential jihadists. In a 1997 interview with CNN, Osama bin Laden fulminated: “The mention of the U.S. reminds us before everything else of those innocent children who were dismembered, their heads and arms cut off …” Another senior Al Qaeda leader, Yehia Al Libi, stoked anger and indignation by saying: “Jihad in Algeria […] is your hope […] from the hell of the unjust ruling regimes whose prisons are congested with your youths and children, if not with your women.”