September 26, 2010

Social Factors, Not Political Ideology, Lead To Extremism

Extremists of all political persuasions - from the Molotov cocktail-throwing anarchist to the neo-Nazi skinhead - have a lot in common according to a new study by Germany's criminal police agency.

Sarah Harman
September 26, 2010

Social factors are more important than political persuasions for young people who turn to radicalism, according to a new study by the Federal Criminal Police Agency (BKA).

Researchers interviewed 39 political extremists - most of whom are now in jail - and found many similarities in their life stories.

On the surface, their ideologies couldn't be more different - from skinheads to would-be jihadists. Both the report found that political conviction took a backseat to social motivations in the process of radicalization.

Desire to fit in

Young people are attracted to the feeling of belonging that a group gives them, rather than to the political viewpoints of the group, according to Thomas Kliche, a political psychology researcher at the University of Hamburg.

"The ideology is a very second rate ideology in their biography," he said. "At that age they don't even comprehend the reach of these ideas, they just comprehend, 'The group tells me I'm fine, the group tells me I'm strong.'"

But not all young people are equally susceptible to the allure of group identity. Nearly all the extremists interviewed came from dysfunctional families. Poor family relations can heighten appeal of the group, Kliche said.

"Most offenders do come from broken homes ... or their family is not able to provide them a feeling of security, of warmth, of being welcome," he told Deutsche Welle. "This is where the group steps in."

Something to prove

The report also found that many of those interviewed, in addition to having emotionally or structurally disturbed families, had failed to fit in with society in other ways. Their education or career training had been interrupted or unsuccessful, and they felt they needed to compensate for their shortcomings.

According the report, a person's identification with a particular extremist ideology depended more on coincidence and availability than true political conviction.

Often, the need to fit in led to violence or drug use. Most of the participants had been involved in delinquent behavior before joining a radical scene, leading the author of the report to conclude that so-called "politically motivated crime" often had no real ideological motivation.