I am not a theologian. I do not read Arabic. And I have never published a paper about radical
Islam. I am a specialist in interventions.
The purpose of the interventions I design and administer is to instill doubt and to
help people become more reflective about their beliefs.
I have done this with diabetics. I have done this with prison inmates.
And I have done this with people of faith. Today, I’ll use my expertise to discuss proposed
interventions with Islamic extremists. The interventions I’ll suggest are important
not just because they can be done, but because they should be done.
If I am correct, they can prevent human suffering. Here’s my hypothesis for this and all other
belief-based interventions: The stronger the doubt, the less likely it
is that one will act upon a belief. The stronger the doubt, the less likely it
is that one will act upon a belief. Virtually no other interventions with Islamic
radicals focus on instilling doubt. Instead, current interventions focus on attempting
to persuade them to disengage from their behaviors. The non-profit global policy think tank RAND,
defines disengagement as, “entailing a change in behavior (that is, refraining from violence
and withdrawing from a radical organization) but not necessarily a change in beliefs. A
person could exit a radical organization and refrain from violence but retain a radical
worldview.” Under the disengagement paradigm, Islamic
radicals are not helped to doubt the belief systems that underpin their behavior.
I’ll discuss alternative strategies that instead focus on instilling doubt. But let’s start
with what’s currently being done: Theologians and former radicals are brought into detention facilities to speak with Islamic
extremists, for example, ISIS members who were captured in combat.
There, they attempt to convince them that their interpretation of Islam is incorrect.
I agree with RAND’s statement that, “precisely because Islamist ideology plays such a central
role in these groups, it is necessary to change militant Islamists’ beliefs as well as their
behavior.” The strategies I’ll propose have the goal
of changing behavior by instilling doubt. Hence the title of this talk,
Islamism and Doubt. Today, I’ll talk about epistemology, that
is, about how people know what they claim to know.
More specifically, I’ll talk about how to change people’s moral epistemology, that is,
about how to change the way people come to moral knowledge.
I have a history of designing epistemological interventions for faith-based worldviews,
of working with prison inmates and within the prison system, and of extensively studying
and contributing to the literature on how to change the behavior of people who do not
want their behavior changed. In all cases, the mechanisms of effective
interventions are virtually identical, independent of the participant or the belief structure
— the point is to instill doubt. I’ll draw from multiple, independent lines
of literature, and literature in other domains of thought as well.
Before I articulate intervention strategies, I’ll briefly discuss three points to contextualize
my proposals. I will say, be ready, this material is extraordinarily
dense. 1. Name it.
No progress can be made if we don’t name what we’re attempting to treat.
If we’re not willing to name it, then we can’t begin the intervention.
For example, we name interventions in other arenas, from drug and alcohol addiction, to
compulsive gambling, to domestic abuse. In the context of this presentation the name
is: Islamism. I define Islamism as, an ideological commitment
to the belief that a strict interpretation of Koranic Islam, particularly as a sociopolitical
structure, is a self-justifying end. This includes a belief that Islam is uniquely
correct for all people, and thus there is a moral obligation to bring everybody to believe
it, by whatever means. We cannot administer an intervention for an
ideology we refuse to name. In the specific context of this presentation,
Islamism is the target of the intervention. 2. Islamic radicals believe exactly what they
claim to believe. No matter how absurd their beliefs may seem,
it could be a literally fatal mistake to think that Islamists don’t actually believe what
they claim to believe. To design a treatment, an intervention, it’s
crucial to think about the problem of Islamism in terms of what Islamists actually believe.
In practical terms, this means that we shouldn’t quibble about whose interpretation of Islam
is correct, and whose is incorrect. We only need to accept that they take their
interpretation seriously. My goal is to figure out a way to instill
doubt. In order to perform an intervention, I have
to address what Islamic radicals actually believe, not what others think they should
believe. Think about it like this.
A patient is brought in who claims to be Napoleon. I want to help the patient understand that
he’s not Napoleon. Would it be helpful for me, as a doctor, if
I have experts telling me, “Well, he’s obviously not Napoleon”.
No. That’s not helpful. He believes he’s Napoleon, and that’s what
the intervention must target — his beliefs. We need to address what Islamic radicals actually
believe. Not what their interpretation of the Koran,
the Hadith, or the life of the Prophet should be.
But What. It. Is. And we need to acknowledge that they believe
what they claim to believe. 3. Framework.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the term “moral community” to refer to a group of people
operating with the same set of moral attitudes and intuitions, what we might call a moral
framework. Every one of us belongs to different moral
communities that are not ideologically driven. For example, think of friends, family, neighbors,
clubs, teams, poker night acquaintances, professional networks.
The problem arises when we start believing that our moral frameworks are absolutely correct,
or “how it is”. When this occurs we’re dealing with an ideology.
Religions and political parties are examples of moral communities that are typically motivated
by ideologies. In the forthcoming book, Everybody Is Wrong
About God, Mathematician James Lindsay adapts Haidt’s terminology and uses stronger phrasing,
“ideologically motivated moral community.” Ideologically motivated moral communities,
I’ll call these “immcs” for short, are moral communities that have become ideologically
motivated, that is, they’ve taken some aspects of their moral framework and rendered them
as undoubted truths about the universe, morality, or some other aspect of existence.
In other words, they have taken certain articles as sacred.
In the context of religion, for example, we see this in countries like Iran, Pakistan,
and Saudi Arabia, where Mohammad is a sacred figure, and images of him are seen as idolatry
and therefore forbidden. But there are also non-religious immcs that
have secular blasphemies. For example, in the United States, on the
right we saw this with flag burning in the 1990s, and today we see this on the left with
GMOs. I’m suggesting we view the problem of Islamic
extremism in this framework: As an ideologically motivated moral community, an immc.
Islamic radicals, and people in every other immc, act not because they’re lacking morality,
but as Psychologist and Cognitive Scientist Steven Pinker writes, because they’re too
moralistically motivated. That is, their sense of morality motivates
them to act in a way that they think is moral, and absent the ideology they’re far less likely
to act in certain ways. Okay, that’s the framework through which I’m
suggesting we view Islamism in general, and for the purpose of this talk, ISIS and individuals
who seek to join ISIS in particular. These are immcs. They’re ideologically motivated
moral communities. Alright, let’s get into into the interventions…
Micro interventions are one-on-one engagements. They’re personal interactions.
Macro interventions operate on a larger scale. They can be thought of as propaganda campaigns.
I’ll start with Micro and segue way to Macro interventions.
According to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in a recently declassified report,
the CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring
intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.” Meaning, enhanced interrogation, otherwise
know as torture, does not work. I’ll suggest a radically different strategy.
A more compassionate, more humane, and more moral, and ultimately a more effective approach:
An epistemological intervention, that is, an intervention designed to instill doubt
about how Islamists know what they think they know.
Remember: the difference between a moral community, which is something we’re all part of, and
an IMMC, is that ideological motivation means lacking doubt, or, phrased positively, certainty
of conviction. In personal, one-on-one interventions, the
object should be to instill doubt in beliefs that translate into action.
Once doubt is cemented, we can begin the process of eliciting actionable intelligence, and
later attempt to reintegrate the individual back into society.
And all of this can be accomplished without coercive techniques.
But how do we accomplish this? How do we instill doubt in people who think
they have the key to understanding reality? And which beliefs do we target for doubt?
We can artificially create what’s referred to in the deprogramming literature as a trigger,
that is, an event that causes one to question their beliefs.
In an intervention, we do this by undermining certainty in particular beliefs.
Ideally, under the auspices of a government where the individual was apprehended, in a
secure holding facility, a skilled facilitator would conduct the intervention as soon as
possible. Cepending on whether we intercept people coming
from Syria and Iraq, or going to Syria and Iraq, the intervention would be different.
If they’re going to Syria and Iraq, for example, then one of the beliefs in which we could
instill doubt is that life there is good and that people want to be there.
We can ask why men dress up as women to escape if life under ISIS is so good.
I’ll now briefly explain some obstacles to the micro intervention strategy and how they
can be bypassed. The first obstacle in designing and administering
interventions with members of an immc, is that people think it’s morally wrong for their
sacred beliefs to be criticized and so they don’t listen.
An accessible primer to this idea is Dan Dennett’s work on belief in belief.
This is because people think that holding particular beliefs makes them better people.
Fortunately, interventions can be designed to bypass these defensive mechanisms by not
criticizing beliefs. On a micro level, this is accomplished by
asking sequentially targeted moral questions designed to reveal how people know what they
claim to know. I explain exactly how to do this is chapter
5 of my book, A Manual for Creating Atheists. In my work with prison inmates, I used the
following questions from the Platonic dialogues: What is it to be a man?
What is courage? Do people knowingly do bad things?
What is justice? Are people responsible for who they become?
What’s worth dying for? What obligations do we have towards others?
What are the claims of loyalty and friendship? Here’s an example dialogue with a prison inmate
that illustrates an intervention in moral epistemology:
Boghossian: What’s worth dying for? Inmate: Respect
Boghossian: You mean having other people respect you? That’s worth dying for?
Inmate: Yeah. I need respect. You know? Boghossian: I think so. Can you explain to
me why that’s so important? Inmate: If you don’t got respect you got nothin’.
People respect me. These people in here, they respect me.
Boghossian: But they respect you for what you do, right?
Inmate: Yeah, that’s right. Boghossian: So, if you did something that
didn’t deserve respect, should people still respect you?
Inmate: What? Boghossian: Well, let’s say someone did something
that didn’t deserve respect, like steal someone’s dessert just because they wanted a second
dessert. Then they shouldn’t be respected, right?
Inmate: That’s right. Boghossian: So respect is a consequence of
doing the right thing. And if there was ever a time when you didn’t do the right thing
— like maybe when you were drinking — then people shouldn’t respect you.
Inmate: I always do the right thing. Boghossian: Okay, but if there were just one
time when you slipped up and didn’t — and that’s possible right?
Inmate: Yeah, I suppose. That’s possible. Boghossian: Then people shouldn’t respect
you for doing something that doesn’t deserve respect.
He looked at me for a long time. The Greeks call this aporia, an expression of doubt.
Boghossian: Right? Inmate: Yeah, that’s right. Respect is earned.
Boghossian: So then respect isn’t worth dying for if you did something that shouldn’t be
respected, yet people still respect you? I mean, if respect weren’t earned it’s not respect,
right? Inmate: Yeah, I suppose that’s right.
Boghossian: So maybe doing the right thing is more important than respect. In any event,
it doesn’t seem that respect is worth dying for. Is that right?
Inmate: Maybe. Maybe. In this case, “maybe” means doubt and the
possibility of a changed moral attitude. Yet while prison inmates are a moral community,
they’re not an ideologically motivated moral community, an immc.
If you’d like to watch some examples of these techniques being used to help members of religiously
motivated immcs, please visit Anthony Magnabosco’s YouTube channel.
Anthony uses the techniques from my book to help people become more reflective about their
god beliefs. In only 5 to 10 minutes, he helps people doubt
their knowledge claim and break through dogmatism. In the context of a micro intervention with
a jihadi, the content of the belief is not directly engaged until the final stage of
the intervention. In the case of Islamic radicalism, for example,
jihad, martyrdom, the afterlife, what life is like under ISIS, etc., would not be directly
engaged until it was understood how individuals think they know what they’re claiming to know.
Bypassing defensive postures may be best accomplished through using a modified version of the Socratic
method, coupled with techniques designed to encourage desistance to criminal behavior
among prison inmates, along with techniques used in drug and alcohol treatment programs
like cognitive behavioral therapy, and those used by exit counselors, otherwise know as
cult exiting deprogrammers. The second obstacle in administering micro
interventions, is that exposing a belief as unjustified or under-justified, can cause
cognitive dissonance, and panic. These responses are usually due to the feeling
a loss of control. Basically, this is because ideologies are
cognitive structures that provide a core psychological need — the sense of control.
Explanations of this phenomenon are found in the psychology of religion literature;
see, for example Hood, Hill, and Spilka, The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach,
in which they note that a sense of control is one of the three psychological underpinnings
of religious belief. Any time a lack of justification for a belief
is exposed, an irrational defense must be mounted to keep the belief in place.
For example, one risk of exposing a belief as unjustified is what Political Scientists
Nyhan and Reifler term the backfire effect. Basically, this occurs when challenging one’s
beliefs actually make those beliefs stronger. Fortunately, targeted micro interventions
can be designed to sidestep these defensive mechanisms by focusing on the epistemological
undergirdings of belief, that is, how someone knows what they claim to know, and thus the
content of beliefs can be avoided. It’s important to note that the backfire effect
is a risk not only for the interlocutor, but also for the facilitator.
For example — and I apologize if this example is coarse, but it clarifies a critical point
— the first day I started teaching prison inmates, the door had not even shut behind
me when an extremely large man, who was heavily tattooed — with 9 of his fellow inmates
gazing at me — leapt up from his chair, and he said, “Do you know what a bunghole
is? Do you know?” And I responded, “Yes, I do.”
He said, “Well then what is it? What is it?” He was right in my face.
And I replied, “It’s an asshole.” He screamed, “No, it’s not.”
And truly seemingly out of nowhere he pulls out this dictionary, it had a pre-marked page
and shoves it in my face, and he starts pounding his finger right into the dictionary.
“See, see,” he said, “It’s a tap on a keg of beer.”
I read the entry carefully — sure enough, he was correct.
A bunghole is a tap on a keg of beer. I responded, “I didn’t know that. Now I do.
Thank you for teaching me”. In this situation, in the face of a relatively
hostile conversation partner my guard could have gone up and I might simply have refused
to acknowledge the dictionary definition, insisting instead that the more vulgar definition
was correct. I avoided the backfire effect by accepting
the dictionary definition by saying, that’s valid. It may seem like a trivial example,
but many people find it difficult to change their mind about something, even something
trivial, when they’re on the spot. The third and final obstacle is unrelated
to the intervention, and has more to do with political considerations.
Once it’s revealed that we’ve designed interventions and used programs to instill doubt in Islamists
core beliefs, this could play into the narrative that the US government is engaged in a war
against Islam. This is a legitimate concern and should be
taken seriously. It can, however, be partially addressed by
using the name “Islamism” in the name of the intervention.
Okay. Now on to the macro interventions. We’ve tried to defeat an ideology through
military means — it hasn’t worked, and it won’t.
Even if we kill every jihadi, the ideology would remain, and it would metastasize.
I’ll now offer an alternative. I’ll discuss elements of broad macro strategy.
This strategy targets our own citizens, and includes a rebranding narrative.
First, a question: How do we change people’s values?
Answer: through marketing. I suggest that we go to Madison Avenue.
We should offer a massive award in a competitive advertising campaign.
And while I don’t know what that ad campaign would be — I’m also not a professional adman
— my current thinking is that it should be designed around one principle, and use
one mechanism. Psychiatrist Andy Thomson notes that Islamists,
and particularly ISIS, are exceptionally effective at creating bonds of fictional kinship — brothers
in Islam. This is integral to the way in which Islamists
gird their moral community — by making it family — and it’s a significant part of
the romanticism for disaffected people to whom they market themselves.
This is a major theme in the conversion of every Western convert.
So how do we instill doubt and undermine romanticism? The best antidote to romanticism is… wait
for it… goofy. Islamists should be portrayed as goofy.
Interestingly, in Canada here, “Goof” is a prison insult in some Canadian prisons.
It’s reserved for child molesters and inmates who steal from other inmates’ cells.
In the literature this is referred to as a “push factor,” that is, a negative factor
encouraging disengagement. Overwhelmingly, recruits aren’t primarily
motivated by the plight of Palestinians. Nor are they poor people who are hungry.
They’re seduced for romantic reasons. Islam plays into this.
It’s a very seductive, romantic message. We need to make a shift from romantic to goofy.
That’s the core message I’d suggest Madison Avenue strategists consider: ISIS is goofy.
I’ll preempt your criticism that this will make Islamists hate you.
Don’t worry about it. They hate you anyway. More importantly, it’s less about what ISIS
leaders think, and more about what potential recruits think.
By point of comparison, there’s a new documentary about Scientology: Going Clear: Scientology
and the Prison of Belief. Yes, the negative exposure and jokes might
be upsetting Scientologists, but it’s severely compromising recruiting efforts.
And, this shift can be accomplished. We know how to make something attractive.
Cool is attractive. Isn’t not admirable, but it’s attractive.
We know how to make things cool. It doesn’t matter what we think about ISIS,
but for some people, ISIS is perceived as romantic and cool.
Goofy is the path to uncool. In 1929 Edward Bernays’ “Torches of Freedom”
campaign dramatically increased the number of female smokers.
In the 40s & 50s we made smoking cool. In 1980 the American Lung Association released
an extraordinarily effective picture of Brooke Shields with cigarettes sticking out of her
ears. It made smoking ugly, and silly. Today smoking is uncool.
What we can draw from this is that we can do both — that is, make something cool and
uncool. And the evidence suggests that one of the
reasons for the decrease in tobacco sales was not because more people became aware of
the danger. It was because there was a shift in attitudes.
Smoking had a romantic portrayal. It was bundled with a suite of other attributes — it was
an identity, maybe even a type of club, and people smoked in part because it was cool.
However, even though smoking is not a community and not an immc because it’s not morally motivated,
the identical principle is still operative. If we can deter people from smoking, we can
deter people from cutting people’s heads off. One mechanism that we could use to accomplish
this can be learned from the tobacco industry, and from the vast array of foundations, organizations,
and industries funding climate change denial. Their tactics and strategies are models that
should prove invaluable. These industries developed remarkable ways
to promote doubt. The tobacco industry, for example, used doubt
to allow people to feel okay if they behaved in certain ways — for example, to smoke.
Their goal was for people to continue their behavior.
They made consumers and potential consumers feel comfortable about their actions.
And it’s easier to engage in certain behaviors, if one thinks there’s nothing wrong with engaging
in those behaviors. Easier still, if one thinks those behaviors
are virtues. Advertising agencies [and I’m using this as
a catch-all phrase] may want to think about designing macro interventions that use the
same mechanism, but instead of doubt making it easier to use a product, doubt would be
used to place a wedge between beliefs and behavior.
One goal should be to instill doubt about core values in one of the Islamists target
demographics. My current thinking is that we should focus
on one slice of that demographic. I suggest targeting teenage males and the
females with whom they’d like to have sex. That’s the target demographic.
And, while Madison Avenue is a good start, it’s not enough.
According to the RAND report I mentioned earlier: “deradicalization programs cannot simply be
transplanted from one country to another, even within the same region.”
Once we have experience navigating this project with Madison Avenue, and targeting our own
citizens, then ´I suggest that we host the same competition with a massive payout in
other countries that target their citizens. If a marketing agency did this correctly,
and if it polled well in focus groups, then I’d ask Islamic countries in the region to
help fund and deploy it. To have the best chance of success, the ridicule
needs to come from internal, culturally relevant and/or significant sources.
Most governments in the Muslim world would help.
Especially if a direct connection were drawn between inaction, and threats that could undermine
those in power. The added benefit would be that they’d help
prevent their young men from joining ISIS and murdering fellow Muslims.
Only with the help and involvement of Muslims will this work.
I suggest creating a Political Action Committee, a PAC, “People for Islamic Fairness”.
We should invite Islamic Political Action Committees,
like the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the American Muslim PAC,
and the American Muslim Council, to join this campaign and fight against Islamism.
If the objection to these macro strategies is, “We can’t denigrate Islam”. My understanding,
from Muslim leaders and scholars, like the 120+ signatories of the Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi,
is that ISIS is not the real Islam. It is this particular ideological version
of Islam, Islamism, that I recommend targeting. Finally, while I’m in agreement with United
States Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency,
when he said, “the core is the ideology. That’s what must be defeated,” interventions alone
will not solve the problem. They should complement other initiatives.
According to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization’s “De-Radicalising
Islamists,” “Religious dialogue alone will not eliminate violent extremism.
Programmes must not ignore the social, economic and political factors that contribute to radicalisation
and consider them in their mix of programming.” Briefly: Job training and jobs, housing, family
and social support, monitoring, counseling, health care, education, exit barriers, etc.
These variables are important because they can help former militants successfully reintegrate
into the community. Aarhus, Denmark, for example, has recently
implemented a successful program that focuses on these variables.
Remember Andy Thomson’s observation that the romanticism of extremist Islam lies in creating
bonds of fictional kinship. Similar bonds are available by reintegrating
former militants into the broader community, helping them to become enfranchised, connecting
with friends, and making new social ties that do not rely upon extremism to bind them.
Fortunately there’s a corpus of literature on DDR programs in conflict zones around the
world. DDR is disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.
And these initiatives are needed. Admittedly, the challenges of radical Islam
are formidable, and urgent. According to the International Centre for
the Study of Radicalisation, approximately 20,000 foreign fighters have travelled to
Syria and Iraq, since ISIS started taking a foothold in the region.
By some estimates, this is roughly half of their total fighting force.
Anthropologist Scott Atran described this as “the largest, most potent extraterritorial
fighting force since WWII”. Of these 20,000, approximately 4,000 are from
Europe, 600 from the UK, 100 from the United States, and 90 from Australia.
The remaining 15,000 are from the Middle East and countries scattered throughout the globe.
As we all know, Islamic radicals are committing horrific, savage acts in their
host countries, and around the world. This may pose an existential threat to the
West. Unfortunately, our reactions — from sacrificing
freedoms for the perception of increased security, to resorting to torture — have eroded transparency
in democratic institutions, helped to advance Islamist narratives, and radicalized people
who would likely not have been radicalized. There is a lot at stake.
Atrocities from murder to organized rape, slavery, and beheadings are committed
in the name of Islam. In addition to this horror, chaos, and the
problems related to geopolitical instability, many innocent Muslims are being ostracized,
alienated, and suffer from backlash because of the actions of extremists.
There’s a need for the proposals I’ve outlined because other strategies, such as disengaging
from the region, or appeasement, are either unrealistic, or insufficient to stop radicalization.
In conclusion, today I’ve offered a framework to understand Islamism — as an ideologically
motivated moral community, an immc — and I’ve suggested strategies to instill doubt.
I’ve discussed a hypothesis that we could test, and a principle and a mechanism that
we could use as a rebranding narrative. Yet, we must be cautious. The broad strategies
and approaches I offer are speculative. It is possible that there may be something
unique to Islamic extremists that prevent these techniques from working — techniques
that have proven to be effective in helping individuals trapped in other belief systems.
It’s also not clear that introducing this kind of doubt alone would be sufficient.
It might be a crucial piece of a puzzle that includes social reinforcement and inclusion
in a group, for example. My proposals place us in new territory.
Because what I’ve suggested hasn’t been tried, I do not have evidence for the effectiveness
of the proposed interventions with this specific population.
They are speculative. I’m making inferences based upon what has
worked in other arenas, but the proposed strategies must be extensively tested, and evaluated.
We can be fairly confident, however, that these proposals are less costly, and less
adversarial than what’s been attempted. And we can be completely confident that if
we’re honest with ourselves, and honest about the nature of the problem, then that’s the
first step towards a sustainable solution. Thank you!