The War on Radicalization Starts Within Us

In light of last week’s attacks in Paris and Nigeria, the aftermath of historical analyses and political scrutiny, and the ongoing expansion of idealistic networks representing every facet of good and evil in their very own definitions of a perfect world, I’m reminded of my research on radicalization at LSE. What we are seeing are not isolated events. Yes, barbaric violence has been acted out at different scales and in different contexts, but what we fail to see is that there is a war going on everywhere. The definition of war as violent conflict between nation states or populations is paling at the rate of young men and women from all over the world seeking out and voluntarily giving their bodies and souls to fight for philosophies. The phrase “winning hearts and minds” has reached new levels.

We ask why these things happen, but we should start asking ourselves “How?” Radicalization doesn’t happen overnight. Radicalization is a process that involves personal experiences and contextual factors. Radicalization means a change in beliefs, feelings, and behaviors in directions that increasingly justify intergroup violence and demand sacrifice in defence of the in-group. The way we view the world – our relationships to our environment, to other people and to possibilities – is deeply rooted in the values, beliefs, and memories that we hold to the greatest extent unconsciously. These were formed by experiences in our early childhood, what is called the imprint period. This is the period in which our unconscious mind is created, and this in turn becomes the platform on which our rational capacity develops. Implicit in this notion is that many of our unconscious processes pose limitations on or distort our ability to perceive the world clearly, and to relate to others constructively and inclusively.

Additionally, Robert Kegan, Professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at Harvard University, has identified five stages of cognitive maturity, or orders of consciousness, that people go through from birth throughout adulthood, which define our relationship to the world. The first constitutes our baby years, in which our needs for safety and nurturing depend entirely on the discernment of our caretakers. The second order begins in the totter years, at the time we become conscious of our own needs, realise that we are an individual, and with that our ability to influence our environment. Yet, these first stages are defined as egocentric, in that we are dependent on the environment to meet our needs and reinforce our sense of self, but have not yet developed an ability to perceive the needs of others. In the third order we recognise that we have a reciprocal relationship with our environment, that our actions and behaviours affect our circumstances, but we are still dependent on our circumstances to dictate how we should act and behave and rely on our environment to define our paradigms. This limits us to perceiving ourselves as members of a defined group or “tribe” – be it a social strata, ethnic group, or religion – and our sense of self becomes tied to this group in that it defines our identity and reciprocally our defined identity reinforces the existence of the rest of the group. The fourth and fifth orders are described as world-centric, as people at this level have developed a capacity to relate to the world objectively, not as subjects of the values and expectations of their surroundings. In these stages, we are more able to engage in critical reflection and constructive discourse, and to embrace transformation more readily. It is at these latter stages we see transformational leaders rewrite history, from Gandhi, to Mandela, to Aung San Suu Kyi.

According to Kegan, the two greatest yearnings in the human experience are to be included and to have a sense of purpose. Kegan found that the more cognitively mature a person is, the greater their capability adapt to a larger context, and consequently to feel comfortable and stay successful in an altering environment. However, only very few people ever reach these latter stages. Most adults in today’s world remain in the third stage, their sense of self defined by a dualistic paradigm, “us vs. them”. Not surprisingly then, it is this level of consciousness that is the most vulnerable, and it makes up the thickest layer of today’s ever more intricate and diverse societies. Additionally, our worst enemy in the transformational learning journey can be ourselves, as the step back to a comfortable known frame of reference is both shorter and smoother than that towards a yet uncertain, and sometimes uncomfortable, new paradigm. At any perception of scarcity, uncertainty or threat, we are at risk of regressing to a previous stage of cognitive maturity.

This is most often evident in intercultural or inter-racial relationships. Since we have all at one point been dualists in the way we have seen the world, we hold the capacity of dualistic thinking within ourselves, and in that we also hold the capacity to resort to pernicious dualism if a situation is difficult for us to handle. Simply put, each and every one of us can become a radical. The most significant terrorist attacks on the western world of recent years have been committed by highly educated young men residing for the majority of their lives in the democratic world, however with a fundamental commitment to a homicidal purpose beyond their own existence. This is where pernicious dualism and the search for a sense of purpose take expression in destructive acts.

We are at a tipping point in our evolving and ever inter-connected world, when education, wherever offered, must cultivate constructive cognitive development beyond the mere pursuit of knowledge. Whether in a societal, organisational or individual context, transformational learning involves breaking away from unconscious beliefs that limit us from seeing our own abilities and the possibilities in front of us, so that we are more equipped to realise our highest potential. Through facilitated transformational learning, we can change both negative unconscious belief systems originating from our early life experiences, as well as expand our capacity to relate to the world and thereby increase our resourcefulness in meeting future challenges.

So if war is now a battle of worldviews, then we need to start thinking about what peace should look like. And as this war is going on inside each and everyone of us, we are all participants. We are all individuals in one way or the other responsible for being and defending the worldview that we represent. Then peace can no longer be defined as the absence of violence. Then peace to every individual must be defined as having overcome mental and emotional trauma, the heavy lid on a fully lived life and expression of talent. It must mean inner calm, security in being oneself in all facets of culture and religion, resourcefulness in finding constructive assertion of strength, and creatively applying it to opportunities in an enabling environment. Imagine then, if transformational learning programs were included in every primary and secondary school curriculum as naturally as Math. Imagine what effect it would have in the name of peace-building and peace-keeping in this new context. Just imagine the atrocity it can prevent.

I believe political and social leadership can only celebrate long-term success if it is able to navigate the unconscious map of the constituency and push through the barriers to inclusiveness. Similar to the sense of purpose experienced by Mandela and so many other transformational leaders, when the clients I coach confide in me their wish to transform, they discover in their own complexity a sense of purpose, which when unveiled unleashes a tremendous power in the individual. From this point, the unique person’s creative capacity becomes an active force in painting the vision of their future. My role of facilitator is merely to question assumptions, address uncertainties, identify common ground, establish understanding and carry light on shared intentions and constructive action.

I am calling on more of my fellow world citizens to do the same. We need to fight this war by winning over our own mental barriers. And we can only conquer ground by inspiring others to follow suit. We need to embody, and to facilitate, more leaders like Mandela, Gandhi, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Such enormous transformational power can emerge from individuals who make a conscious choice to make the most of their resources – a charisma that can drive masses to accept challenges and accomplish goals. In the same way that radicalization can lead to violent acts, reaching peace will also be a process. And it starts inside each and everyone of us.

An update 2/2/15 – this war is real:

Al Jazeera on the radicalization of Australia’s jihadis

Britain’s Army’s new brigade 77, to battle extremism online