The Ideological Volcano of Religious Extremism

I have recently been thinking about the crises a terrorist passes through and how those crises relate to one another.

There are phases of radicalisation that these people go through. Some people, like Maajid Nawaz, believes that his very own religious radicalisation process went through the phases of: (1) an identity crisis (i.e. Muslim vs non-Muslim), (2) fixation on a real or perceived grievance (i.e. Muslims dying overseas), (3) persuasion by charismatic recruiters (i.e. spiritual leaders), (4) an ideological attachment, especially that to a narrative of interest to the individual (i.e. jihadism, Islamism, Qur’anic warfare). But is that all?

Considering Nawaz’s paradigm, a religious or spiritual extremist or terrorist is mostly unique in his belief in the world, the world to come, the afterlife (orthodoxy), the good and spiritually healthy (orthopathy) and the actions and behaviours within this temporary world according to their dogmas (orthopraxy). Each major monotheistic faith shares these similar traits but believes and practices them differently. There is a trend to be acknowledged. Although each religion or cult may come to different theological conclusions, they tend to act on similar traits and ambitions based on similar crises throughout life. I am attempting to model this trend using a ‘triad’ of the religious extremist (as below). The first problem I encountered with Nawaz’s model versus my own is that an identity crisis just doesn’t cut it. It’s too simplistic.

An identity crisis alone does not articulate the internal conflict of a ‘true believer.’ An identity crisis is not solely a crisis of who that person is or how they act in the world, but a theological and eschatological crisis, for the religious extremist. It is how they act as based on their belief system (i.e. not transgressing religious boundaries) and how they act to gain Paradise (i.e. martyrdom, fighting for a Cause) and survive the Day of Judgment (after all, what is the point in this life if you do not consider the next?).

The triad I am working on, therefore, consists of an identity crisis, a theological crisis and an eschatological crisis. This triad relates to and can be applied to historic terrorist events such as the Seizure of the Grand Mosque, Aum Shinrikyo and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, as well as contemporary terrorism such as the apocolyptism espoused by groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.



Above: The Religious Extremist Triad aimed at understanding religious terrorism in this example – commonly observed crises in religious terrorism by myself. Dated 03/07/17.

Religious extremists, violent cultists and terrorists tend to display:

  • Signs of an identity crisis – i.e. conflicting understandings about self and their role in the world.
  • Signs of a theological crisis – i.e. using religious scripture to solidify and justify violent acts or radical opinions.
  • Signs of an eschatological crisis – i.e. signifying the importance of the act and magnifying its importance in relation to world affairs.

These crises when combined are, I believe, an ideological volcano that can explode into violence – or even one that can lay dormant in the form of radicalism or pseudo-moderation before spilling over (unless deradicalised).

This relates to Bruce Hoffman‘s triad, in which religious terrorists and organisations display:

  • The use of religious scripture to motivate acts of violence.
  • The use of clerical figures in leadership roles.
  • The use of apocalyptic images and theology.

The ‘religious extremist triad’ exposes a trend that may be present in established religions (albeit applied rarely), but also up-spring or newly-founded religions and cults. It sticks! There are many such examples of these crises meeting together in a clash of violence and immediate action. The Jonestown cult for example is a clash of religious identity (following a Prophet), theological covenants (charismatic promises) and the predictions of judgment day (impeding danger, existential anxiety).

The cult leaders or religious ‘true’ believers see themselves as a product of God. They are either guided by him, resembling him in some way of thought or action in fulfilling Prophesies; or are present on Earth as a Prophet of Him or as Him himself (i.e. Jesus Christ). This pattern of behaviour and religious hysteria is known as an active form of theomorphism. The individual acts as a deity, a form of deity, a Messenger, an Angel or some other religious or spiritual element with theological, identity=related and eschatological connotations. These things are attractive to the culturally and spiritually homeless individual who desires more or wishes to go beyond the norm.

These people attempt to propagate propaganda of their ‘divine’ qualities. They are the ‘best of believers’ if they are in ISIS, or the Second Coming of Jesus Christ if they are following David Koresh, or those who will free the world in the destructive doctrine of Aum Shinirikyo. Therefore, their justifications rely heavily on central texts, dogmas and principles of the religion they orientate towards. They search for meaning beyond themselves in a familiar in-group (i.e. their religious upbringing, the close connections to friends and family they have) to sell their understanding to their inner self – and even to other people (proselytizing). They may even go so far as combining political ambitions with their crises, such as revolutionary socialism.

That said, these crises do not always relate to violent religious groups. The Ahmadiyya sect within Islam see themselves in a similar vein (i.e. religious observant awaiting the day of judgment, Messiah/Mahdi) but are restricted or held-back by theological precepts from engaging violence and overt political action until the conditions of jihad are met. Other religious non-violent groups believe similar to that of the Ahmadis. Sometimes these groups are in a dormant phase before they become violent, either to themselves or others (see the Heaven’s Gate initiation tape below). Any person seeking a spiritual foundation to their lives can be engulfed by such a state, especially nominal believers or so-called sinners.

I hope to iron-out any of the inconsistencies, fallacies or mistakes made around this triad over the course of the next year (which will come when I collect more data and break it down further before building it back up again). I also hope to create criterion, further models and tools for how it may be applied in a pragmatic sense.

Any constructive criticism is welcome. Thank you.

The Grand Mosque Seizure, al-Ikhwan and Juhayman al-Otaybi:


Aum Shinirikyo cultists and their leader Shoko Asahara:


David Koresh, the Branch Davidians and the WACO Siege:


The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria:


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