Jihadism, Culture Globalization, and Cognitive Distortions

I have always believed that certain ideologies attract certain individuals. I am also aware that particular individual’s actions are in no sense representative of the whole group to which that individual identifies himself/herself with. However, with that said, I think it is important for anyone to be aware of certain people’s actions and their according rationalizations. Rationalizations which others can with insidious intentions can use to self-validate psychopathic agendas. Agendas which reek havoc on the innocent lives of people around them. It is also important to see what exactly are contributing to these negative thought patterns which are causing this rationalizing behavior–potentially leading to violent and dangerous acts upon themselves and other innocent people. Those of which include culture, globalization and the threat it causes to normal ways of living, and also the role alienation and disenfranchisement play in creating vulnerability to radicalist ideas.

Cognitive distortions were discovered by psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck in his (1972) book titled Depression: Causes and Treatment. Most evidently, he viewed cognitive Aaron Beckdistortions as negative thought patterns that perpetuated psychopathological states; most of which were depression and anxiety. These negative thought patterns included self-blame, self-criticism, negative expectations, indecisiveness, distortion of body image etc. All of which culminated into the many cognitive manifestations we see today but probably do not realize.

One tricky thing is that cognitive distortions serve to sustain these negative states of mind. One example is with heaven’s reward fallacy; the belief that certain actions such as self-denial or personal sacrifice is being kept track(with eventual reward) of by some divine or celestial being, in hopes of an eventual reward (Grohol, 2009a). For example, participating in lent, you expect a good hear, going to the church or mosque in worship you believe you have a  favoritism of these deities; causing you to have sense of grandeur compared to the “non-believers”, the blasphemers, or when not engaging in premarital sex because theological advice implores you to (Childress, 2011). Rewards tend to come whether in monetary form, health, or any other positive outcomes to yourself and/or your loved ones–any and all beneficial or pleasing outcomes that can be imagined, however minuscule or insignificant, are attributed to these acts of self-denial and sacrifice further reinforcing their control on future actions, and further reinforcing their belief in them–no matter how ideological. Of course making cognitive distortions self-reinforcing.

It is important to note that many of these rationalizing and self-sustaining beliefs can be harmless(with a possible over-inflated sense of importance nevertheless), but they can also be very dangerous when you consider that depression and anxiety are involved. In fact, where there is disenfranchisement and most likely stress, these sometimes religious acts can become more dangerous not only in teaching to possible “at-risk”, impressionable minds, but where there is possible outlets for these dangerous acts to be carried out because of the vulnerability and exposure of certain areas (due to lack of security, military presence, or law enforcement). The reason being is that it is one thing to learn about these celestially redeeming acts, but its quite another to carry out potentially violent acts, which of course are claimed to be divinely and religiously inspired by some radialist muslim circles.

Radicalism and Disenfranchisement

To become “radicalized” into fundamentalist religions, one has to consider the possible causes that can contribute radicalization that leads to the phenomenon known as heaven’s reward fallacy, or the belief that violent acts can lead to divine redemption. What really does it take to fall into such negative thought patterns?

The American Psychological Association released(2009b) an issue of their journal Monitor on Psychology that posited that some of the criteria that gives radicalist and terrorist organizations this allure, found by psychologist John Horgan PhD, was to “feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised”. And so when becoming radicalized, one of the ways this can happen, according to Horgan, is if the victim feels that he/she is feeling alienated or disfranchised because they feel deprived of some right, property, dignity,alienation or cultural value that might of been beneficial in some form or another.  And the presiding institution, ideology, or authority structure (be it counter-culture, religious, or scientific or technological movement)  could have any number of reasons why they deprive(or make certain individuals feel deprived) their citizens of this right, property, dignity, or cultural value, whether directly or indirectly.

In an article titled “Radical Embitterment: The Unconscious Psychology of Terrorists(Part Two)”, Dr Stephen Diamond, a clinical and forensic psychologist, outlined (2009c) the personal and psychological attributes that lead islamist fundamentalist  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to an attempted suicide bombing on a Northwest Airlines flight in 2009–Dr Diamond mentioned “he had been a very lonely, alienated, frustrated, unhappy, and, in his own apparent words, “depressed” young man as an engineering student in London in 2005″. We see here the role that alienation and disenfranchisement plays in Umar’s motivations with the belief that his sacrifice(attempted in this case) would offer some reward in the afterlife, being a muslim with radicalized beliefs. A sense of oppression by being  a minority, an outcast, maybe even “frustrated” for whatever reason, as the quote expresses, spurred on negative emotions which lead him to take a more drastic measure in rectifying such feelings. The allure of radicalized islam did not seem as something too far-fetched according to his present state.

Another case were we see Jihad and disenfranchisement or alienation relationship is with the more recent bombings that happened on April 2013. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the suspects involved in the boston marathon bombings, it was found, had some degree of exposure to radicalized islam, and most likely had some part to play in carrying out the attack (Tangel & Powers, 2013a).  Another article in The Guardian quoted(2013b) Tamerlan in saying “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them” and feeling estranged from the general american public yet being very committed to his religious beliefs. While other sources state that he was unemployed and dropped out of competitive boxing (Samenow, 2013c).

Again, there is the interplay of disenfranchisement, alienation, and a potentially inspired by radical islam terrorist attack. It would be somewhat simple to point out the simultaneous occurrence of these factors as suggesting a relationship with each other. In Tamerlan’s case, that radical influence was all to clear(Elder, 2013b). Could it be that his lack of social estrangement, financial woes, and as an overall dysfunctional member of society cause him to join radicalist causes? Maybe.

It is, nevertheless, perfectly reasonable to assume that the relationship between disenfranchisement, alienation, and terrorist attacks is not universal and absolute. But there is certainly a percentage that do have these characteristics which result in the same consequence of terrorist attacks. Heaven’s reward fallacy, the belief that certain actions have divinely redeeming effects, some of which results in martyrdom, becomes a problem when these religious rationalizations of destructive behavior comes into the psyche of these at-risk individuals. As was suggested by the cases of Umar and Tamerlan.

The Threat of Globalization and The Identity Crisis

The only reason why I bring  jihadism in the picture is because I think it is the most strongest example of how dangerous heaven’s reward fallacy can express itself. Many non-westernized parts of the world, where islamic fundamentalism is present, tend to have more consistent occurrences of suicide bombings. Such acts of martyrdom are identity_crisis-291x300viewed as divinely redeeming acts of sacrifice that have their reward in the afterlife. Notwithstanding that ‘jihad’ has a hermeneutical and etymological discrepancy many radicals are not aware of, but that is a different issue altogether.

At any rate, it is appropriate to see further what might be popularizing the negative thought patterns that could be contributing the terrorist acts we are seeing. One important aspect is culture and identity. Another is the threat that globalization of cultures that islamic militancy could be seen as a reaction to.

Firstly, religion can be a way of life to most of the fundamentalist adherents, while the more moderates and others are more occasion-based–that is, it is not so much a lifestyle as it is just something they practice. Identity is also something very important to fundamentalists, as you might expect it their identity is tied to their religious and spiritual outlook. Which then transforms itself into a cultural phenomenon.

Secondly is culture. Culture and politics are the driving engines of life within countries; it is how they govern themselves in day-to-day functions and it provides inhabitants an element of predictability and structure necessary to all human life. Culture could be norms, values, social ethos, or even specifically relevant to this query, religious mores.

Going back to the APA issue mentioned earlier, cultures with collectivist mentalities are more likely to support terrorist actions, as surveys in 15 Arab countries found (DeAngelis, 2009b). Which lead them to believe that collectivist mentality plays a role in terrorist attacks. Countries in the middle-east have predominately more collectivist cultures theyare more likely to be breeding grounds for jihad martyrdom, and thus encourage the cognitive processes behind heaven’s reward fallacy to justify their actions as a result of their likelihood of their support for terrorist actions (Schaus, 2013c). Which could be a reason why individuals see terrorist attacks happen in the middle-east as opposed to anywhere else.

As Kruglanski(2009b), a psychologist and researcher in terrorism, says;

“Being part of a collectivist cause has always been a hallmark of people willing to undergo personal sacrifices” (par 16)

Personal sacrifice which has all too often translated into dangerous and destructive martyrdom in many radicalist circles.

Another source for this fallacious thinking could be the threat of globalization to that very culture and way of life. Mostly in the idea that islamic fundementalist cultures is in its throes. The same APA article aptly states;

“In a more global sense, a fear of cultural annihilation may help fuel terrorist sentiments, says psychologist and terrorism expert Fathali Moghaddam, PhD, of Georgetown University’s department of psychology. In “How Globalization Spurs Terrorism: The Lopsided Benefits of One World and Why That Fuels Violence” , Moghaddam argues that rapid globalization has forced disparate cultures into contact with one another and is threatening the domination or disappearance of some groups—a cultural version of “survival of the fittest.” (par 17)

This is where collectivist cultures such as the middle-east islamic communities and globalization come into contact; because collectivist cultures or groups usually have many people living together with one identity(e.g. living in extended family structures, approval by elders, strong family ties, traditional or religious obligations etc)(Schaus, 2013c), the identity of religious fundamentalism within these cultures and the resistance of these cultures to globalization of the west, could be the reason why there are numerous terrorist activities and groups within cultures supportive of this way of life. That is, collectivist mentality has already laid the platform to have terrorist groups in allowing them to work together and become cohesive. And so jihadism, or martyrdom; as some of the islamic radicalists view it, becomes just an available avenue of expression to this cultural epidemic in light of these groups.

The article goes on to say;

“You can interpret Islamic terrorism as one form of reaction to the perception that the fundamentalist way of life is under attack and is about to become extinct”(par 18)

Since fundamentalists generally identify with islam, in this case, as a way of life and even as an all-consuming identity (Kanazawa, 2010a), it seems reasonable from their standpoint to think that their principles and sacred values are under attack as well. So terrorism and jihad, for some, seems like a valid coping mechanism to this assault, or what they view as an assault on their way of life. However wrong as they are to the outside world. But where heaven’s reward fallacy comes into play is the belief that these actions will have reward for their short-term sacrifice. This sort of distorted thinking can act as a springboard to catapult these destructive actions and provide some sort of a rationale for them.

It is easy to see why many collectivist islamic countries would feel a sense of unease with the growing “technologization”; social media, news outlets, multi-national advertisings, pop-culture, trends of liberalism in youth etc. All these things which can be detrimental to the influence of fundamentalist principles and values which are not hospitable to change. The resultant effect is then group resistance, the creation of an “us vs them” mentality, or in-group-out group ways of approaching this problem.

The “Lure” of Cognitive Distortions Within Radicalist Islam

In considering the pressures of acculturation within these fundamentalist groups or countries, there are some who can take on the change by being open to it. However, there are those who are a little more unpredictable and other individuals who are dangerous to themselves and those around them. The radicalists of islam who follow the more violent sect of jihad are willing to go to drastic measures to make their sentiments about the oppression, and feelings of persecution because of acculturation, felt.

Many individuals see jihad to mean “holy war” which is a misunderstanding(Morgan, 2010b). Because cognitive distortions work at a subconscious level, many who are under the spell of them are unable to notice them. And so fall into trap of that sort of fallacious thinking. No one within the fundamentalist circles are willing to contest such an etymological misconception. As a result there are these rationalizations for such dangerous behaviors go on unabated–which further perpetuates fear and anger that acts as fuel for such negative thinking and behavior.

Dr John Grohol (2009a) echos the same sentiment;

“These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves” (par 1)

The negative feelings and emotions that could be harvesting because of feelings of alienation/disenfranchisement or the growing western acculturation, that is a threat to the collectivist islamic way of life, could further reinforce the belief in the divinely redeeming attributes in martyrdom. Negative feelings which could also very well play a part in why many islamic fundamentalists in collectivist societies and countries have feeling of being attacked or persecuted. Hence their support of terrorist actions; they1576562559_80fcf3dbe9_o3 see it as a fight for their way of life rather than a religious doctrine to be saved and adhered to.

Finally, going back to the alienated individuals who exist in individualistic societies, such as the west, many of them might feel attracted to these radicalist movements that deify martyrs; selfless individuals that are glorified to level of stardom and are revered for paying the ultimate but violent acts like the suicide bombings we see so often. Offering a moment of recognition to these individuals who feel ostracized and estranged to their societies. Anger, frustration, sadness, or any other negative feelings that might come from feeling alienated, again, could act as a springboard for falling into the processes that goes on behind heaven’s reward fallacy, the belief that personal, selfless sacrifice, in its ultimate form, has its reward in a perceived afterlife. Which is so often promoted in these violent jihadist movments.


In the end, absolute causality is a hard thing to pinpoint with radicalist movements and some of their attendant violent actions. However, many forms of rationale are provided as to why they think their actions are justifiable. But when these actions, religiously motivated or otherwise, take the form of erroneous thinking pattern– such as what is seen in heaven’s reward fallacy–there is an obligation to point it out and create awareness. Negative emotions such as fear, anger, sadness etc do not just happen by themselves; as was pointed out, many of them happen because of alienation, disenfranchisement, shrinking culture, old ways of living becoming obsolete and the pressure it creates–all these sources which cause negative emotions; most likely through maladaptation. The tenacity for cognitive distortions, relevantly here; heaven’s reward fallacy, to justify violent behavior seen in the martyrdom of the radicalist islam movements should be spelled out clearly. So that not only can we spot sources for these dangerous rationalizations but prevent the very rationalizations from occurring in the first place–in spite of the emotional turmoil we may be facing. These negative emotions can be dealt with separately and accordingly.


Beck, T., A. (1972). Depression: Causes and Treatment. Philadelphia, PA. University of Pennsylvania. Print.

Childress, F. (2011, April 25). Twisted Thinking: Heaven’s Reward Fallacy Distortion Explained. Examiner. Retrieved on July 20 2013, from http://www.examiner.com/article/twisted-thinking-heaven-s-reward-fallacy-distortion-explained

DeAngelis, T. (2009b). Understanding Terrorism. Monitor on Psychology. Vol 40, No. 1, 60. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/11/terrorism.aspx

Diamond, S. (2009c, December 30). Radical Embitterment: The Unconscious Psychology of Terrorists (Part Two). Psychology Today. Retrieved on July 20 2013, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/inside-the-criminal-mind/201306/radicalization-outlet-bombers-criminality

Edler, M. (2013b, April 19). Tamerlan Tsarnaev – American life of dead Boston bombing suspect. The Guardian. Retrieved on July 20 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/19/tamerlan-tsarnaev-american-life-of-dead-boston-bomb-suspect

Grohol, J. (2009a). 15 Common Cognitive Distortions. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 21, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/0002153

Kanazawa, S. (2010a, January 10). What’s Wrong with Muslims?. Psychology Today. Retrieved on July 20 2013, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201001/what-s-wrong-muslims

Morgan, D. (2010b).  Essential Islam: A Comprehensive Guide to Belief and Practice.  ABC-CLIO. p. 87.ISBN 0-313-36025-1.

Samenow, S. (2013c, June 7). Radicalization: An Outlet for a Bomber’s Criminality. Psychology Today. Retrieved on July 20 2013, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/inside-the-criminal-mind/201306/radicalization-outlet-bombers-criminality

Schaus, R. (2013, March 25). Middle Eastern Culture. Suite 101. Retrieved on July 20 2013, from http://suite101.com/article/middle-easterrn-culture-and-social-standards-a206559

Tangel, A., & Powers, A. (2013a, April 20). FBI: Boston suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev followed ‘Radical Islam’. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on July 20 2013, from http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/20/nation/la-na-nn-boston-bombing-suspect-radical-fbi-20130420

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