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Radicalization: Learning from Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott

Mossad, Israel’s external secret service, has sent a team, codenamed Bayonet, to Europe. It is hunting a group of white Europeans who are thought to have converted to Islam and to be working with the Iranian Quds force and Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Tehran.

Sunday Times

After the Burgas terror attack, we are faced again with this question: what goes on inside the radicalizing encounter between the Islamist political activist and his or her prey?

When I was a consultant to the UK’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism from 2008 to 2010, I researched patterns of radicalization among British Muslims. After taking down some 25 life-story interviews with ex-extremists and spending a lot of time in mosques, community centers, and homes, I began to think that the most profound interpreter of the psychic transaction that takes place between influencer and influenced within the radicalizing encounter was the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott.

It was certainly Winnicott’s brilliant little essay “On Influencing and Being Influenced” (first published in 1941 and later collected in The Child, The Family and the Outside World) thatprovided a framework for me to make sense of much of what my interviewees had told me.

Winnicott argued that the influenced are the “empty seeking to be filled” and bring to encounters inherent “doubts and suspicions” and the need to “succumb to whatever powerful influence happens to turn up.” Along with “their own emotional distortions” they bring their tendency to “distort what they find.”

More recently, Russell Razzaque, a professional therapist who has applied himself to explaining Islamist radicalization, has argued that the idealization of the recruiter is “always an essential component of radicalization.” Al-Muhajiroun members have recalled that when Omar Bakri made an error in his use of English, their reaction was to “adopt it rather than criticize him” (see James Brandon). Tahir Pervez reported that his nephew and 7/7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer “said Bin Laden was his hero and everything he did was right” (see Razzaque).

Winnicott called the influencer the “frustrated giver” who brings to the encounter their need to give, to fill people up, to prove that what he has got is good: “such a person must be teaching, organizing, effecting propaganda, getting his or her own way through influencing others to act.”

Any encounter between a frustrated giver and a frustrated receiver can have profound consequences. As Winnicott puts it:

Here is one person empty and seeking a new influence, and here is another aching to get inside someone and exert influence. In the extreme case, where one person, so to speak, swallows the other whole, the result can be a rather ludicrous impersonation. Such incorporation of one person by another can account for that spurious maturity ... or may explain how it is that a person can seem all the time to be acting.

The radicalizing encounter between Islamist activist and raw recruit (who may sometimes be a convert) involves an inversion of Winnicott’s notion of “good enough parenting” between mother and child. In that case, “basic trust” is forged between infant and the prime caregiver and this creates a “potential space” in which the infant moves from a state of omnipotence to the reality principle, securing for itself an acceptance of the reality of the external world as the basis for a stable self-identity.

In the radicalizing Islamist encounter, this journey is reversed. Anxiety is deliberately heightened in order to drive the individual from the reality principle to omnipotence, away from a secure emotional acceptance of the reality of the external world toward feelings of anxiety and persecution. In both spaces we find a figure—the mother in one case, the political entrepreneur in the other—taking up an “intermediate” position between what is and what could be, anintermediate space of “play,” to use Winnicott’s term.

The recruit gradually learns to play out his internal drama in the politicized terms offered by the encounter. Winnicott again:

The external scene, with its many social and political aspects, is made personal for him in the sense that he gradually identifies himself with all the parties to the struggle. This means that he perceives the external scene in terms of his own internal struggle, and he temporarily allows his internal struggle to be waged in terms of the external political scene.

The point is this. If Winnicott is even half-right, then countering radicalization means that liberals and democrats (Muslims and non-Muslims) must be willing to contest with the Islamists for influence. And that requires a social movement occupying Winnicott’s “space of play” between what is and what could be. A start has been made, but much more is needed.

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