Fathali M. Moghaddam: On Mutual Radicalization

This is the latest in a series of interviews with APA Books authors. For this interview, David Becker, a development editor at APA Books, spoke with Fathali Moghaddam, PhD, a social psychologist who studies the roots of radicalization and conflict, as well as the psychological factors that underlie democracies and dictatorships. His latest book is Mutual Radicalization: How Groups and Nations Drive Each Other to Extremes.

Fathali M. Moghaddam, PhD, is professor of psychology and director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Cognitive Science at Georgetown University. He is editor-in-chief of the APA journal Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology. His previous books with APA include The Psychology of Dictatorship (2013), The Psychology of Democracy (2016), and Understanding Terrorism: Psychosocial Roots, Consequences, and Interventions (coauthored with Anthony J. Marsella, 2004).

What is mutual radicalization? What are some universal, defining factors that occur across contemporary examples of mutual radicalization?

Mutual radicalization involves two groups radicalizing one another, each pushing the other to more and more extreme positions and views, so the psychological distance between the two groups and their dislike for one another keeps growing and reaches destructive levels. The two groups become unable to work collaboratively with one another, even when it is clearly in the interests of everyone to work together. For example, consider the case of Palestinians and Israelis, or Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, or the U.S.A. and Iran, or the National Rifle Association and gun-regulation groups. We can clearly see the key universal features of mutual radicalization through these examples. I will highlight just four of these features.

First, mutual radicalization is a collective process, in which rational and well-intentioned individuals in both groups can clearly see their groups are moving in the wrong direction, but the collective “stampede” overwhelms individuals. “Runaway mutual radicalization” is so powerful because it is collective.

Second, collective radicalization takes the groups to a “your pain, my gain” situation, where the main purpose of each group becomes inflicting pain on the other. Whatever brings pain for “them” is a benefit to “us,” no matter how much it costs us.

Third, mutual radicalization leads to high levels of conformity and obedience in both groups, so it becomes very difficult for even highly intelligence group members to act against the “collective stampede.”

Fourth, mutual radicalization involves identity transformation, so an important part of “who we are” becomes “our conflict with the other group.” In essence, “we” become the people who are different from and in conflict with “them,” the despicable, hated “other.” We are good humans, but they are horrible “animals.”

You write in the book’s Preface that you started to formulate the concept of mutual radicalization while living in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis, which began on November 4, 1979. How did your experiences during the Iranian Revolution shape your understanding of mutual radicalization, and how has it evolved since then?

The relationship between America and Iran is a classic case of mutual radicalization, where irrational emotions and a “collective stampede” has moved the two nations to neglect their mutual interests and become driven to increasingly extreme positions. The case of America and Iran also highlights the vitally important role of extremists in both groups, who hijack and direct events.

When Khomeini’s extremist followers invaded the American Embassy in Tehran, rational individuals in America and Iran could clearly recognize this was taking America–Iran relations in the wrong direction. But mutual radicalization is a runaway collective process, too powerful to be stopped through the insights of isolated individuals—no matter how rational and intelligent they are. We now have four decades of mutually destructive actions by America and Iran, with both groups thundering down a “your pain, my gain” path, driven by extremists on both sides.

There have been interesting developments regarding some of the conflicts you cover in your book. For instance, North Korea has discussed peace and denuclearization with South Korea and the U.S., although the outcomes of these talks are uncertain at the time of this interview. Even if there are positive outcomes, I get the sense from reading your book that two nations who are at peace can still interact with one another in radical terms, which you illustrate in your analysis of the ongoing mutual radicalization between China and Japan. How do you interpret the current relationship between North Korea and South Korea? Where do they fit within your model of mutual radicalization?

Mutual radicalization is highly influenced by collective psychological perceptions of the two groups. How do the two groups see one another? How do the two groups identify themselves in relation to the other? Group perceptions are highly influenced by leadership, and in the second decade of the 21st century there have been important leadership changes in North and South Korea, and also China and Japan. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un, the grandson of the founder Kim Il Sung, came to power in 2011 and has consolidated his position. In China Xi Jinping has changed the constitution to become chairman for life; he is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, who was also chairman for life and died in 1976. These two dictators feel confident enough to try new paths for achieving their goals. In the case of China, the new path is leading to mutual radicalization with Japan. In the case of North Korea, the new path is leading to slight deradicalization with South Korea, but there could be a sudden change of course and rapid mutual radicalization again.

How can two mutually radicalized groups create and sustain long-term deradicalization? Also, how can other groups stop mutual radicalization before it happens?

I dedicate an important part of the book to the prevention of mutual radicalization and the development of deradicalization. Our actions must be guided by three basic principles. First, remember that the “causes” of conflict can shift over time: a conflict that began as a fight over water can become a fight about identity and collective humiliation, then about land and other resources, then more about religious values. This means we should not fixate on solving a particular “cause.” Second, collective identity is often the underlying theme that encompasses all the different elements in conflict. Third, the motivations in intergroup conflict are subjective, and we need to see the world from the perspective of the groups trapped in the mutual radicalization process.

Starting with these basic principles, I identity four steps in the mutual deradicalization process. First, the two groups have to be helped to recognize that mutual radicalization has taken place. This simple step is often the most difficult, because it requires a shift in collective perceptions in both groups. Second, they have to be helped to imagine their ingroup as extended, and peace as beneficial to the extended group. Thus, the other group is not “alien” or “animal,” it is human and part of the larger humanity. Third, the motivation of the two groups is influenced, so they become interested in changing their relationships. In influencing motivations, practitioners find themselves at loggerheads with extremists in both groups. Finally, the two groups must be helped to adopt mutual superordinate goals, to recognize the goals that both groups share and that neither group can achieve that without the cooperation of the other. There is a great deal of psychological research and practice that helps guide mutual deradicalization along these basic steps.


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