There is a big question in the media currently about how it is possible that young people (and older ones as well) can be radicalized in the western world. How is it that middle class teens or twenty-somethings view Internet sites and then are recruited by ISIS or other radical organizations? Why are the conversion/recruitments more successful with ISIS than with Al-Qaida? Some are Arab Muslims, some are recent converts. Some come from disadvantaged backgrounds, some do not. The question is similar to but not identical to the question of why a middle class student might walk into a school and shoot other students.
In my opinion, one way to better understand what is happening here is to use a cognitive model I first encountered in a book titled Virus Of The Mind, by Richard Brodie (1996). Actually, the book itself was less than spectacular. I found it difficult to read and rather blurry in both its concepts and its writing style. However, the central idea was a very interesting one. One of the problems with the book and with many other renditions of memetic viruses is that they take to literally the foundation established by Richard Dawkins in his original article, “Viruses of the mind”. Because of Dawkins’ strong ties to biological evolution, he applied the same ideas to the evolution of memes. Because of the highly rationalistic world view of many evolution supporters, the ideas ended up being translated to memes quite literally. The other thing that Dawkins seems determined to do in his original article is to relate the whole thing to religion and the transmission of religious ideas (to which he has a rather knee-jerk antipathy), which ends up hobbling the idea al little.
While I believe that there might be some transfer, I think that it is very dangerous to be too literal in applying biological concepts to mental ones. It seems to be too rigid an application of materialism. The model, however, can adopt parts of the biological model. The important thing is the degree to which the model fits, works and predicts. “The map is not the landscape” clearly warns about taking any model or analogy too literally. In fact the analogy of a computer virus may be more appropriate than a biological one.
Keeping that in mind, “meme as virus” is a useful map in order to try to understand the current situation with regards to radical extremism. Let me clarify the way in which I am using certain terms in order to provide perspective.
A meme is a unit of meaning usually summed up in a catch-phrase like “the end justifies the means” or “things go better with Coke”. It is the cultural equivalent of what in science is often called a Holon, which is important because Holons can evolve dialectically and so can memes.
Several memes can combine to create a larger meme, called a super meme, which is far more powerful because it relies on several mutually supportive memes for its inner validation, producing a sense of intrinsic consistency and rationalization.
A meme virus is a meme that is either deliberately crafted or the product of a selective evolution of ideas, and which strongly self replicates, especially in a particular medium of mind, like a seed engineered to thrive in particular kind of soils and environmental conditions. This may be a deliberate configuration of the meme, a product of a selective evolution of a meme (explained below), or a combination of both through the opportunistic utilization of an emergent meme.
In essence, all memes are viruses, defined by their ability to engage and be absorbed by the mind, however some act in a more virus like, efficient manner, defying normal safeguards against them. Take for example a religious meme vs “things go better with Coke”. While the ad meme is weaker and more likely to be mediated by intelligent thinking, the religious meme is far more powerful and can take on more virus like qualities.
The meme in the case of “radical violent extremism”, which for the sake of simplicity we will henceforth refer to as “Jihad”, is in fact a super meme which can be reduced to its supportive sub memes. However, the idea of “radical violent extremism” is not restricted to Muslim extremism or even religious extremism. For example, there are forms of environmental extremism which have exactly the same meme foundation. Comparing religious and environmental extremism yields some interesting insights into the nature of this virus, which I will examine at a later point.
The sub memes which constitute Jihad can be reduced to the following:
- The end justifies the means.
2. Some ends are valued to justify any cost, including martyrdom. They are ends that demand justice. They are ends that have moral or ethical priority over all else. That end can be easily rationalized or may not even require evidence at all.
3. Using extreme means to fight for these ends is noble and self righteous.
4. People who don’t agree with the value of this end are working against it and therefore against the ultimate good that is associated with it. If they’re not with you, they’re against you. Their well being or even their lives are therefore a lesser priority.
We can see many of these operate individually with only slight or moderate consequences. When you put them all together, you end up with a radical mind set.
In the case of religious extremism, the morals and dogmas associated with the religion are the end. In Muslim extremism, for example, the values of the religion are so sacred that to defy them is considered a blasphemy. The “end”, whether it be moral righteousness or the promise of an afterlife in paradise, can take on a fanatical and extremist nature. In the case of environmental extremism, the survival of the environment at all costs is the end along with a condemnation of those that defile it. (I’m not equating these on an ethical level, just on a structural one.)
The soil in which this particular super meme of Jihad is likely to take hold most effectively has a relation to the nature of the sub memes. These sub memes have a foundation based on injustice and sense of purpose. Those people who are particularly vulnerable in those areas will be the ones most susceptible to a meme virus directed at conversion and recruitment to such a cause. This may include:
- People who have been the victims of injustice and prejudice in their own lives, or who identify and empathise with the injustice done to others.
2. People who do not have a sense of purpose and feel that there is a void of meaning in their lives.
3. People who have a fundamentalist conceptual mind set, seeing the world in terms of black and white or good and bad.
4. People who have not developed a strong or consistent sense of empathy.
5. People who have other forms of mental illness or personality disorders that lead to hardship in their interpersonal relationships and which encourage them to see the world in extreme terms.
6. People who have little to lose, which is both the result of and a reinforcer for all of the above.
Combine the above memes with the above mental states in various combinations and permutations, and you have the perfect catalytic situation for the development of the Jihadist super meme. Expose kind of person described above to a Muslim extremist narrative of violence, and that virus will take hold and self replicate. Expose them to a different one, say a political or environmental ideology, and they will be susceptible to that as well. Put it in a racial equality context, especially one in which violence enters the meme through the actions of the “oppressors” and the meme will thrive in the form of violent demonstrations and organizations. One difference is that politics and environmentalism are more difficult to fully comprehend, and so intelligence plays a part as well. Religious ideologies are tailored to not require intelligence. This is not meant to be an insult to religion. They are meant to be highly accessible by nature.
Right now, one of the strongest extremist super memes in the world is Jihadist Muslim extremism. Its strength comes from several sources. There is a legitimate sense of injustice against Muslim people and the Arab world. Even highly rational and politically sceptical people will admit to a certain moral ambiguity in the way that the West has treated the Arabs of the Middle East. We’ve seen it in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or in the way Iraq was invaded under the pretense of Weapons Of Mass Destruction. It’s a complex issue, but nobody can deny that it is a huge compost pile for feelings of injustice. Combined with that is the feeling in the western countries post 9-11 which engender a sense of persecution or suspicion of Muslim people. As I said, these are all highly complex issues, the justification for each side being debatable, but the sense of injustice is easily understood and easily made a factor that can influence and promote the meme.
Also as a religion with a strong fundamentalist side to it, Islam can easily be reduced by an evolving meme into extremist views. While the vast majority of Muslims would never resort to extremist violence to express their outrage, most would agree that the depiction or insult of their prophet is a blasphemy and is highly offensive to their religion. That’s not that different from fundamentalist Christians who would be outraged if someone posted a video of a person blowing their nose with pages from the New Testament or perhaps peeing on it. There would be outrage, especially from the fundamentalist corners of the religion who tend to take things more literally. There might even be a violent reaction, although that would be far less likely that it would be in the Muslim case. Why? For two reasons. First, Christian Jihad isn’t a prominent meme. If it were being reported every day that Christians were rising up in protest and violently reacting to certain things, that meme would quickly grow. Second, among fundamentalist Christians, the soil in which such a meme could develop is less likely to exist. Principally, they would have too much to lose. The person susceptible to Islamic Jihad characteristically has little to lose (and often much to gain, at least in their own minds).
ISIS, in particular, has figured out that it strengthens their meme to depict themselves as a source of brotherhood and adventure. To the bored young person who feels alienated from their social environment, or who feels rudderless, this becomes extremely enticing, the way that joining the Army is often depicted as adventurous to young recruits. (In fact, American military recruiters tend to use exactly the same meme and tactics, just replacing religious fervour with patriotic fervour.)
All this may be further complicated by personal issues that involve unresolved issues and Shadows, especially those that might result in a violent temperament. In fact, when the meme lands in the soil of the prospective mind, its very nature will dredge up Shadows, sometimes the worst and most unstable parts of ourselves, and celebrate them. That is part of the virus, to zero in on mental weaknesses and exploit them.
From an Integral point of view, those people who are at a Red/Amber (Pre-Rational / Pre-Modern) state of personal evolution are more susceptible to this process. Mediation by more reasonable forces is less present and the mind is already operating in a more fundamentalist, black & white mode. Feeling empathy for a victimized people and then joining a movement to kill or injure innocents and to make everybody think the same way, is not really empathy at all. It is, I think, related to the pre-trans fallacy that Ken Wilber talks about, where Pre-Modern values are confused with Post-Modern ones. Empathy becomes confused with a kind of murky, dark relativism. The person thinks they are being empathic and working for a higher morality, but really it is all rooted in Red egocentrism and groupcentrism.
By framing the idea of radical Muslim extremism in the model of a meme virus, I hope to illuminate several things. First, it is not the Muslim religion that is at fault here, but the way that it is being crafted to better suit a Jihadi meme. Similarly, the mal-contents that find it attractive are responding to a set of mental pre-conditions that would have likely responded to some other form of violent meme. Perhaps they would have become gang members or criminals. The central cause is the merging of a crafted, violent meme with a fertile mind, -and right now the prevalent violent meme is Muslim radicalism.
Secondly, I hope that this sheds some light on how to spot and avoid this from happening. The media needs to reframe the meme. How to do that would take another long entry to explain. Also, the personal issues that make an individual fertile ground can be addressed. In communities where Arab Muslims feel alienated and where they don’t feel that they have anything to give up or lose, you’re much more likely to find a fertile field for the meme to pursue conversion and recruitment. People in general who feel an absence of purpose or who have been bullied and feel victimized will clearly be more susceptible.
As a model this perspective is far from perfect or absolute. However I feel that it does illuminate and even answer some of the questions which are being asked about the current situation concerning domestic terrorism.