What Causes Radicalization?

This is part three of a series on refugees and radicalization. Introduction here. Who is at risk of radicalization? Here What Causes Radicalization?

In our last post on radicalization we looked at several factors that can make an individual more likely to adopt extremist ideologies - age, gender, poverty, view of government, discrimination, and community involvement. These factors can make powerful contributions to one's risk of radicalization, but I do not think that they are the primary causes of radicalization. Instead, I believe that the primary cause of radicalization lies in humanity's need to belong.


Belongingness is the term used by psychologists to refer to an inherent human need to belong to a particular group or community, to have meaningful relationships within that group, and to give and receive attention and acceptance within the group. The need to belong is a powerful motivator and can deeply affect human behavior. It is this need to belong that I believe is the single most important factor to consider when determining an individual or group's risk of radicalization. When an individual's need to belong is not met through proper channels of human interaction it is far more likely that they will adopt extreme behaviors and ideologies in order to meet their need.

This can happen in countless ways to absolutely anyone. At the risk of generalization, here are a few examples.

  • A teenage girl who is bullied and ostracized at school develops depression and turns to the extreme behavior of cutting, effectively finding belonging in a real or perceived group of individuals who practice self-harm.
  • A young hispanic or African American who struggles academically decides that their need for belonging can be better met in a street gang than it can in the classroom.
  • A religious or political person (or group) feels that their concerns are not being heard by the government, eroding their sense of belonging as citizens and so they turn to more and more extreme ideas and demonstrations against that government as a way of regaining identity.

The potential for Muslim refugees to undergo radicalization is simply another example of this pattern. A refugee's sense of belonging is often shattered through the process of displacement and resettlement. Once resettled that belonging is not restored, but rather further undermined by things like discrimination and racism, the perpetuation of negative refugee stereotypes, and the negative portrayal of refugees and immigrants in the media. Recruiters for terrorist organizations like Daesh prey on these insecurities by offering vulnerable individuals ultimate belonging in a community with passion and purpose.

The factors discussed in the last post may make one more likely to experience radicalization, but none of them can cause radicalization. While someone's age, gender, the fact that they live in poverty or are discriminated against may make them a more vulnerable target to terrorist recruiters, those facts cannot cause them to act violently or adopt radical ideologies. The other factors we discussed, view of government, and community involvement, are also not causes of radicalization, but rather symptoms of an unfulfilled need to belong. The need to belong, however, is so inherent in human motivation that I believe it can be considered the clearest common cause of radicalization, especially among Muslim refugees.

The next post in this series will address methods of radicalization and look at how terrorist organizations like Daesh recruit and radicalize individuals for their cause.

The Benefits of Belonging - A pamphlet published by the UNHCR on refugee integration.

An op-ed about the media's impact on refugees' sense of belonging.

Barriers to refugees' sense of belonging in Cairo.

An excellent scholarly take on marginalization and radicalization risk among Muslim immigrants.

Image Source: Wikipedia