Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Multiple motivations

When people do something unusual, it is natural for others to try to understand their motivations. This is particularly true when the unusual thing is an act of violent crime or terrorism. Most people can't imagine doing this themselves, and so they wonder how the perpetrator could be so different.

Unfortunately, in such cases people often tend to think simplistically. They want to find one motivation, one explanation. But in fact people are complex and have multiple motivations for their behaviour and actions. There is no logical requirement for "purity" of motivation. In our everyday lives we often have multiple motivations for our actions. For example, the more fortunate among us both enjoy our work and do it for the money. The fact that we enjoy it doesn't mean we would necessarily do it for free, nor does our being paid for it mean that our enjoyment is any less authentic.

One of the expressions of this sort of simplistic thinking in recent days has been in discussing the spate of violent attacks around the world. The question tends to be "was this an Islamist terrorist attack?". People then search for clues in the perpetrator's past and try to find another explanation so they can rule out a terrorism connection.

One example of this was the investigation into the Orlando killer's background. At one point the media started to argue that he had spent time in gay clubs and was a "closet gay", filled with self-loathing, and therefore his decision to attack a gay club was entirely personal and had no connection with Islam. This seemed to me to be very illogical, since even if this were true, his self-loathing would have been a result of his awareness that in Islam homosexuality is considered sinful. In such a case, regardless of whether the killer hated gays because he was one or because he wasn't one, he hated them because of religious teachings, and therefore he had an Islamist motivation. This can be in addition to any personal motivation he may have had.

More recently, several young Moslems have committed violent attacks in Europe. The media doesn't want to admit that there is a pattern emerging here, because that would be racist or "islamophobic". I have written before about what racism is and what it isn't. It seems to me that when people insist on denying a trend that is emerging, they are potentially endangering lives and blocking any attempts to prevent future crimes.

Yes, many of these individuals acted alone. They may have been mentally unstable, but that is to be expected when people turn to murder. But to say that these crimes have nothing to do with Islamism, when the killers themselves left messages declaring their loyalty to IS seems to me a denial of reality. Even if they had several motivations at once, that doesn't make them any less authentically motivated by Islamism.

To be a terrorist of this type, an individual does not have to "belong" to a group. It is sufficient for him or her to identify with the group's aspirations. Even those who act alone are inspired by, and consider themselves part of, the Islamist holy war against the west. For the west to continue calling them "lone wolves" and to deny that this war is taking place is dangerous and irresponsible.

I would like to see people starting to think more maturely about issues of motivation. People can decide to become terrorists in the name of IS in addition to having other reasons for their decision. For example, some may feel guilt at their previous "sinful" way of life. Some may know that if they become martyrs, their family will receive financial support from Islamic "charitable" organizations. Some seek glory. Some may be attempting "suicide by police". This does not lessen their self-identification as holy fighters for Islam, as they see it.

Obviously, I don't consider every Moslem to be a terrorist. However, to say that no terrorist can be a Moslem is equally unhelpful, and the element of identification with the extremist form of Islam has to be taken into account when trying to prevent further attacks.  Similarly, the many refugees entering Europe are mainly victims of war and should be given help. But at the same time, we have to remember that victims can also become perpetrators. Again, this is not to say that all refugees could be terrorists, but nor should we assume that no refugees are ever terrorists because they are victims.

It seems to me that the west has to find ways of helping the Moslem community, primarily through education, both in order to benefit a minority that feels marginalized, and also for the sake of the majority society. If we think in a more complex way about people's identities and motivations, perhaps we can help those who need help, identify those on the cusp of becoming violent, and prevent some of the violence, rather than just shying away from any profiling that might be seen as racism.

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