Fighting terrorism in 'Brainstan'

In the fight against terror, strategists have completely neglected to treat or even address the ideological and psychological foundations in the mind.

captured Taliban 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mustafa Andalib)
captured Taliban 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mustafa Andalib)
Albert Einstein defined inanity as repeating the same thing again and again and expecting different results. For more than a decade, the US and the West have fought Islamic terrorism predominantly on the military front. Strategists have completely neglected to treat or even address the ideological and psychological foundations in the mind—in “Brainstan.” The results of the war on terror thus far have been quite simply abominable. The West has failed utterly to defeat the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism. In fact, according to The Wall Street Journal, two recent studies have found that regional affiliate groups of al-Qaida are on the rise. By one estimate, al-Qaida now occupies twice as much territory as they did five years ago. It is becoming apparent that the military approach cannot work.
Human behavior and actions (such as terrorist acts, for example) are the result of a complex cognitive, psychological and neurological process. Fighting terrorism at this level is the key to preventing future terrorist acts.
The real battlefields in this psycho-biological war are not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but more importantly in “Brainstan.” There are several constituent parts of this battle for the mind that must be considered.
The first component is the education of young Muslim minds. Reinterpreting violent religious texts is fundamental as the literal application of certain verses in the Koran can result in serious violent acts. Consider, for example, Koran [9:5]: "Kill the Infidels wherever you find them.” A literal understanding of this verse can only produce disasters. On the other hand, if the meaning of this verse is properly contextualized in time and place, i.e. referring specifically to the early stages of Islam—which is entirely legitimate because the verse uses the defining article “the” before the word “Infidels” — then many young Muslims could be protected from radicalization.
The second constituent might be referred to as the “Thinking Process”—which refers to the processing of information in the brain. The historical existence of violent radicalism even among the followers of otherwise peaceful religious texts points to the fact that humans draw their own distorted conclusions irrespective of the original intent of the texts themselves. The “thinking traits” that predispose people to radicalism include absolutism, being judgmental of others, and the suppression of critical thinking. Using certain cognitive psychological and educational methods can significantly help fight these destructive thinking traits in “Brainstan.”
The third point is related to certain negative psychological influences that shape the minds of radicals, allowing them to practice mayhem. The ability to kill is encouraged in radical thinking by the spread of hatred, suppression of the human conscience, and desensitization to the use of violence. Fighting such psychological influences in “Brainstan” requires the integration of several theological and educational approaches. The media can also play a significant role in such an endeavor.
The fourth component in this battle for the mind is the effective use of behavioral modifiers. Human behavior and actions can be significantly affected by both positive and negative reinforcement. For example, when someone kicks a brick wall, the immediate pain in his leg works as a negative reinforcement factor that tends to prevent him from kicking the wall again. Killing Jihadists—which most westerners would regard as a negative reinforcement factor for other Jihadists—is actually positive reinforcement in the mind of many of them because “to be killed for Allah” is the ultimate dream; it saves them from hell and allows them to enter paradise.
By contrast, requiring female American soldiers to wear headscarves, as was done a few years ago in Afghanistan to show respect for the local culture, likely worked as a positive reinforcement factor for the Islamic radical mindset which regarded this “cultural sensitivity” as obeisance and a sign of Taliban victory over the US. Understanding this point is crucial for fighting the war in “Brainstan.” Failure to create genuinely effective negative psychological reinforcement for the radicals, particularly following violent acts, will encourage them to continue down the path of violence.  In order to be effective, both negative and positive reinforcement must occur immediately (or very shortly after) an act, and must be clearly and unambiguously seen as a direct response to the act, in order for the brain to create a direct link between the action and the consequence.
The fifth constituent of this battle is related to the appreciation of beauty. One aspect of the development of a radical mindset in “Brainstan” is the destruction of beauty. Almost all radical Islamic groups prohibit almost all forms of music and art. Islamic radicals force women to wear bland, shapeless and colorless dresses, and forbid the expression of any physical beauty. This suppression of everything lovely gradually kills the individual ability to even recognize, let alone appreciate beauty. It’s not unlike what happens when a person is served only bland and tasteless food; over time that person loses the ability to distinguish between “good” and “bad” tastes. When this phenomenon besets the mind of radicals, they literally cannot distinguish between beauty and ugliness. This of course allows radical demagogues and preachers to spew all manner of vicious and cruel hatred, intolerance and violence, without offending what one might call natural decency and good taste.
In short, attempting to fight Islamist terrorism only in physical combat is not only extremely costly, but it is also utterly ineffective. Confronting the problem correctly at the mind level –in “Brainstan”—is not only more efficient and less expensive, but it is also fundamental to defeat radical Islam.
The writer is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He was a member of a terrorist Islamic organization JI with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawaherri, who later became the second in command of al-Qaida. He is currently a senior fellow and chairman of the study of Islamic radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy