Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Not Understanding Terror

By Simon Grose

Science is not up to the challenge of divining the behavioural roots of Islamic terrorism.

In his conScience column in the previous edition (AS, Jan/Feb 2015, p.39), Peter Harrison argued that science and religion can peacefully coexist. So while we may deprecate religion as a denial of the reality of the mortal condition we should be so kind as to allow believers their folly. OK – as long as it’s a victimless folly.

Science has an advantage over religion. It can study it as a subject of rational inquiry. Yet it seems this advantage amounts to little when it comes to explaining the victim-littered folly of gratuitously murderous men who invoke Islam as their motivation.

A survey of recent publications by psychologists and psychiatrists on the topic reflects an underlying difference between the social sciences and physical sciences. When it comes to dealing with threats like an emerging flu virus or a close-flying asteroid, the hard sciences can analyse and predict with increasing certainty. When it comes to the threats posed by Islamic zealots with guns and internet access, psychoscience is a delta of meandering streams.

One is that terrorists are no more likely to be mentally ill than the rest of a population. This is generally agreed for those who join terrorist groups, less so for “lone wolves” such as the perpetrator of the Martin Place siege.

Another stream is that if you commit random murders in the streets, behead journalists or strap bombs to children in the name of Allah you lack empathy for other humans. That’s an ipso facto. But a lack of empathy is a symptom displayed by people diagnosed as psychopaths and sociopaths, so it is a symptom of mental illness.

Another stream is the effect of bad fathering. But bad fathering is ubiquitous across cultures and over generations. The ubiquitously human need to believe in something and belong to a group is also cited as a reason for young men turning to terrorism – yet a multitude of groups from the YMCA to the Bandidos offer a sense of belonging free of religion or a culture of gratuitous murder.

The foreign fighter phenomenon is outwardly baffling – why would a boy educated in a free rich society join a medieval movement in his parents’ benighted homeland? Some sociological contributions shed light, showing this to be an extreme example of the difficulties all first generation immigrants face in assimilating.

A cohort of poorly educated rural Lebanese who settled in Sydney after the 1975 Lebanese civil war remained socially withdrawn in their new country. A high proportion of Australian foreign fighters are their sons.

A stream that is strangely missing is an urge for self-destruction, despite the rhetoric of martyrdom and its regular practice.

So science struggles to understand the mind of an Islamic terrorist, but one thing is for sure – they cannot coexist peacefully.

Simon Grose is Editor of Canberra IQ (canberraiq.com.au)