Political Psychological Analysis of Daesh Phenomenon: An Iranian Approach

Saturday, June 10, 2017


Shohreh Pirani
Political Psychology Researcher

Analyzing terrorism and political violence: Case study of Daesh’s violent actions” was the theme of a research conducted by Shohreh Pirani, who has taken a political psychological approach to analyzing acts of violence and terrorism by the Daesh terrorist group. The author of the research has proposed and analyzed three main approaches in her research, which include the “dispositionist” approach (based on personality traits), the “situationist” approach (situation-based), and the “dispositionist-situationist” approach (which is a combination of personality-based and situation-based approaches). Finally, a strategy has been proposed for countering acts of violence by the Daesh terror group that is contemporary representative of a historical way of thinking.

What is the problem?

The research questions are: 1. What psychological grounds play a role in acts of violence and political extremism by Daesh? How Daesh’s violence and political extremism can be analyzed in accordance with available views and theoretical approaches? The hypothesis that is brought up in answer to these questions is that learning violence, feeling of disillusionment, ideological homogeneity, group solidarity, illusion of invincibility, as well as aggressive and opinionated management are major factors behind the violence and extremism of Daesh.

Historical-analytical course of Daesh’s Salafist terrorism

In this part of the research, early branching, organizational structure of Daesh, theoretical alliance between Baathist and Daesh elements, financial resources of Daesh, reasons behind emergence of Daesh, and differences between Daesh and al-Qaeda have been discussed as a prelude to understanding historical grounds underlying violent acts of Daesh. In other words, genealogy of those grounds that have led to emergence of Takfiri ideas, including the historical roots of the Salafist groups, Salafist methodology, theoretical roots of contemporary Salafist groups, as well as the emergence of al-Qaeda and its branches are the most important topics discussed in this part of the research.

A theoretical approach to political psychological analysis of Salafist terrorism: Daesh

One of the existing divisions regarding intellectual paradigms of political psychology, which is used to explain human behavior such as violence, puts emphasis on internal factors (person and his/her personality traits), on the one hand, and external factors (situation), on the other hand.

According to this division, some theories put emphasis on the internal and personal factors, introducing the human instinct and vital mechanisms of defense, aggression and violence as being innate to human beings. On the other hand, the highest degree of importance in this approach is attached to the actor, including his/her values and personality. These theories are presented through a nativist/dispositionist approach to violence. The most important theories in this approach are the theory of instinctive behavior and the theory of narcissism.

A)    The theory of instinctive behavior banks on the theories of Freud and Lorenz, and while emphasizing that violence is an innate trait in humans, analyses the actions of Daesh on the basis of such instincts as death and life. A prominent example of the death instinct, which shows itself in the form of homicide among Daesh members, can be seen in the criminal acts of this group when its members massacre civilians and other innocent people. On the other hand, suicide and homicide, as another manifestation of the Freudian death instinct, can be seen in suicide attacks carried out by this group. The life instinct among members of Daesh, on the other hand, can be seen through the Jihad al-Nikah (or marriage jihad in which sexual desire is a symbol of the life instinct) as well as in the ideas of martyrdom and tendency toward eternal life in the Afterworld. Along the same line, the theory of narcissism in the analysis of Daesh can be seen within framework of such features as considering Daesh’s reading of Islam as being superior to others, breaking ranks with al-Qaeda, intolerance for criticism, humiliating victims, rejecting any form of communication with non-Muslims, and excommunicating Shia Muslims.

B)    On the opposite, situationist theories take those factors, which affect human behaviors like violence and aggression, as the main axis and put the highest emphasis on external factors and conditions that surround a person. The most important theories used in this approach include the theory of the banality of evil and study of international factors. A bureaucratic system that forced people like former Nazi general, Adolf Eichmann, to do acts of violence to Jews, has turned into an ideology by Daesh and members of this group justify their acts of violence on the basis of ideological reasons.

This research enumerates the most important international factors behind acts of violence by Daesh as such: measures taken by Western countries, including the United States and Europe, in West Asia (such as their background of colonialism and occupationism), occupation of Palestine, globalization and subsequent facilitation of immigration, rejection of immigrants in European countries and subsequent creation of slum dwellers in European states, as well as globalization and its impact on accelerating exchange of information.

Further in her research, the author who sees situationist and dispositionist theories as unable to analyze acts of violence by Daesh on their own, has tried to analyze this type of violence through a combined dispositionist-situationist approach. The most important theories used here can be divided into two groups. The first group includes cultural and religious theories, including the social learning theory, while the second group includes interdisciplinary theories such as the theory of realistic conflict, social identity theory, and groupthink theory.

When studying the cultural-religious theory, such factors as the culture of honor, the culture of violence in region, religious prejudice, humiliation of and discrimination against Muslims’ culture and religion in Europe, humiliation of and discrimination against religious groups in Iraq and Syria, as well as the human need to gain value and overcome the distress of death have been viewed as the most important factors that attract people to Daesh.

With regard to effective factors from the viewpoint of social learning theory, such issues and preliminary measures, including attraction and training of extremist forces in various countries of the world from Europe to Africa, Central Asia and Southeast Asia, and finally the use of virtual media for the attraction and training of extremist forces have been analyzed and assessed.

In that part of the research, which is about taking advantage of interdisciplinary theories to analyze acts of violence by Daesh and has been written on the basis of conflicts both inside and outside the group, two theories have been discussed as the main theories:

1.      Realistic conflict theory: According to this theory, unsuitable distribution of facilities and resources between potential supporters of Daesh and their rivals as well as the economic poverty that plagues some members of Daesh, along with a feeling of relative deprivation, humiliation, and discrimination have been discussed as reasons behind acts of violence committed by Daesh.

2.      Social identity theory: According to this theory, the crisis of identity that plagues members of Daesh has been discussed in view of the fact that serious conflicts exist between what is inside and what is outside this group. This theory also sheds light on measures taken by Daesh leaders to differentiate between this group and other groups as a result of which Daesh has defined various groups outside its ranks, calling them by such humiliating names as infidels, apostates, Safavids and so forth. Another issue discussed here is the reality that in terms of average age, most members of Daesh are young and need to find an independent identity.

Ultimately, the groupthink theory, as the last interdisciplinary theory, which puts more emphasis on what exists within the group as a means of confrontation with what is outside, has been assessed as another applied theory for analyzing the Daesh violence. According to this theory, this group erects a wall between the group and all theories that fall outside the group in order to create ideological homogeneity among its members, suppress their personal doubts, and induce them with a sense of invincibility to convince them about conducting acts of violence.


In the conclusion part of the research, the author has noted that several factors are behind the Daesh violence. She argues that such factors as “training,” “disillusionment,” “ideology,” “globalization,” and “in-group favoritism” can be taken into consideration in its regard. The author also emphasizes that these factors are not of similar importance and their impact on creating theories related to violence has not been equal in view of what has been explained through the research.

Military action will not have a long-term impact in terms of eradication of this group, and may even lead to emergence of more radical groups. This is true, as previous US attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq have led to emergence of more radical groups. Daesh arises from a way of thinking and factors behind its creation are more of a psychological and mental nature than being tangible and objective. Therefore, the way that this group is dealt with must be proportionate with reasons and factors that have led to its creation.

Identification of vulnerable regions can be a first step in the formulation of suitable policies to do away with social voids that are exploited by this group for recruiting its forces and getting access to necessary resources. One of the most important measures in countering Daesh is to identify such vulnerable regions and formulate relevant policies to counter the way of thinking that is represented by Daesh. Other relevant steps in this regard include:

1.      Education: Providing education services to vulnerable social classes and groups, especially children and young adults, against the ideas of Daesh;

2.      Political: Doing away with political discrimination and providing grounds for equal political participation for all people;

3.      Economic: Suitable distribution of economic facilities and resources in vulnerable regions, preventing aid from Salafist groups from reaching underprivileged regions, doing away with economic discrimination and creating equal job opportunities, and finally, preventing Daesh from getting financially rich by cutting off its financial resources;

4.      Social: Doing away with the feeling of humiliation and social discrimination among people in vulnerable regions, taking advantage of Sunni groups that are against Daesh to influence young people in such vulnerable regions, creating a sense of importance and honor among young people in vulnerable regions, and paving the way for members of this group to go back to their normal lives.

*Photo Credit: RT

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