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Do terrorists view us as human?

By Shane Satterley - posted Wednesday, 6 June 2018

In a recent article in The New Yorker, "The Root of all Cruelty", Paul Bloom asks us to reconsider the common notion that perpetrators of violence dehumanise their victims. The theory of dehumanisation has been put forward to help explain how genocide can happen when one group views an out-group as less than human. Referring to others as vermin, monsters, rodents or animals is one way in which we can see the dehumanisation of others manifesting. Bloom provides some examples which seem to suggest that the opposite, unfortunately, is the case. For example, soccer fans calling African players "monkeys" is less about dehumanising and more about taunting in order to disorient and humiliate (emotional dispositions that recognise the humanity of the other). Furthermore, the textbook example of dehumanisation, Germany under the Third Reich and their treatment of the Jews, is also not as straightforward. In German-occupied Austria Jews were forced to kneel and scrub the streets for the amusement of the Austrian population. Bloom writes:

"The Jews who were forced to scrub the streets-not to mention those subjected to far worse degradations-were not thought of as lacking human emotions. Indeed, if the Jews had been thought to be indifferent to their treatment, there would have been nothing to watch here; the crowd had gathered because it wanted to see them suffer. Bloom articulates this ostensibly paradoxical point: "The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not".

Bloom makes the point that suicide bombing is an obvious example of a morally motivated act of violence that is considered by the perpetrator to be "necessary, natural, legitimate, desirable, condoned, admired, and ethically gratifying". If this is true, and perhaps in spite of some of their rhetoric, jihadist terrorists do view their enemies (the West including civilian populations, Shia populations, perceived heretical Islamic state governments) as human, what does that tell us when we attempt to combat them ideologically? If we take the most prevalent example of a jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), do they see the aforementioned enemies as human? One way to do this is to look at its magazine, Dabiq (Issue 15, 2016), where under the heading "why we hate you & why we fight you", the group lays out in order of importance (moral triage), reasons for their activities. The opening paragraph is as follows:


"Shortly following the blessed attack on a sodomi­te, Crusader nightclub by the mujahid Omar Mateen, American politicians were quick to jump into the spotlight and denounce the shooting, declaring it a hate crime, an act of terrorism, and an act of sense­less violence. A hate crime? Yes. Muslims undoubted­ly hate liberalist sodomites, as does anyone else with any shred of their fitrah (inborn human nature) still intact".

This statement ostensibly puts forward the notion that having a moral human nature means hating "liberalist sodomites", and therefore not hating liberalist sodomites brings into question one's inborn human nature. On its surface this could appear as a dehumanising characteristic of the jihadist worldview. However, the top motivational reasons under this heading are 1) disbelief (in Islam) 2) secular liberalism and 3) atheism. These reasons, and the further detail covered in the magazine all surround the notion of moral agency and triage, values, ethics, beliefs and behaviour. If a significant portion of the jihadist mindset saw its enemy as not human then it would make no sense to spend much time worrying about what they believe and how they act. As the Bloom article notes, it is not possible to see someone as a friend or an enemy without first viewing them as a person "capable of valuing, they may value what you abhor and abhor what you value. They may hence be a threat to all that you cherish". This notion seems to capture the jihadist worldview and indeed many other extremist worldviews, because other thinking, feeling, valuing humans believe something that might challenge what you believe.

If jihadists view us as human why does this matter? If Bloom is right then this may influence the way in which we approach counter radicalisation (prevention) and deradicalisation (rehabilitation) programs and policies. To keep in mind that the radicalised individual does actually see other people as human and cares about what other people think and believe may help with an intervention. For example, we know through various psychological research results that taking someone else's perspective has been shown to shift many forms of biases, particularly when evaluating evidence. This methodology of "perspective taking" only works because the individual can put themselves in someone else's shoes. The jihadist worldview is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, and in the West we are continually evolving our approach to the challenges of counter radicalisation and deradicalisation. What appears salient for those charged with doing this work is an understanding that the radicalised individual does not dehumanise the "other" and may in fact care deeply about what you believe

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About the Author

Shane Satterley is currently pursuing a PhD at Griffith University looking at global counter-radicalisation and deradicalisation policies.He has a Bachelor of Arts in Security, Terrorism, and Counter Terrorism studies. A Masters of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism and a Graduate Diploma in Criminological Research Studies.

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