Does fear of death make people more extremist? New evidence published in the journal Political Psychology

Why do people engage in terrorism? There are a lot of opinions about it, and only a comparatively small number of empirical studies. Terror Management Theory is one of the few theories that has the potential to shed light on this issue and provide a basis for informed policy responses.

In a nutshell, Terror Management Theory posits that when people are reminded of death (for example, when they experience the loss of a loved one, or for example when they live in war-torn countries), they will employ, if unconsciously, a range of behaviours and cognitions that act to psychologically buffer them from death anxiety. A handful of empirical studies found that reminding people of death increased support for racism, martyrdom and sacrifice to protect one’s country. Based on these studies, many scholars have argued that thoughts of death, even when evoked by death-related images on TV and the internet, can lead to increased political aggression and support for extremist views.

However, in this article just published in Political Psychology, we find that reminding people of death can increase people’s support for foreign military intervention for combating violent extremism, but it cannot increase the support for violent extremism among non-extremist samples. We argue that future research needs to overcome methodological and theoretical limitations before evidence arising from TMT can be usefully relied upon to inform efforts to reduce radicalization, extremism, and terrorism.

The article is largely based on my PhD thesis, and it was co-authored with Kerry S. O’Brien, Peter Lentini and Greg Barton.

Italy migrant shootings. When the failure to recognize right-wing terrorism is a threat to counter-terrorism

Italy is failing to recognize that a right-wing terrorist attack has happened in the streets of Macerata. On Saturday 3rd of February, far-right militant Luca Traini, 28, opened fire from his car against African immigrants. The drive-by shootings lasted about two hours, and at least six people were injured. This attack perfectly fits all the criteria of a terrorist act: 1- a political ideology motivating it; 2- the indiscriminate killing of symbolic targets; 3- the attempt to send a message of intimidation and fear. If in the case of Stephen Paddock’s Las Vegas shootings we can’t identify a clear political motive behind the violence, in this case the political intent is more than obvious. When the police surrounded Triani, he took his jacket off, he wore the Italian flag and gave the Roman salute. Later on, the investigators found Hitler’s Mein Kampf and other neonazi materials in Traini’s house. If Traini had been inspired by jihadist propaganda and if he had an ISIS flag around his neck, he would have been labelled immediately as a “lone wolf terrorist”.

However, the Italian institutions are failing to recognize Traini’s act as terrorism: prosecutors accused him of attempted mass murder aggravated by racist hatred. The Prime Minister, the Minister of Internal Affairs and other opposition leaders such as Berlusconi defined Traini as a “crazy man” and a “criminal”. The local branch of the Northern League party in Macerata suggested to the press that Traini had personal – not political – motives. They told the journalists that Traini was in love with a young woman whose dismembered body was discovered hidden in two suitcases days earlier the shootings. The alleged perpetrator of the heinous crime was a Nigerian asylum seeker, which would explain Traini’s revenge against “black people”. Even though the Italian investigators found that Traini never knew this woman, the case is often mentioned in the Italian media as an emotional trigger of the shootings. It is also important to mention that in 2017 Traini was a failed election candidate of Italy’s party Northern League, which currently holds about 13% of the national vote in the opinion polls, and it is likely to win the upcoming elections in March in coalition with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

It is possible that Traini is mentally unfit (as his lawyers understandably try to say), and it is also possible that the brutal killing of a young woman by the hands of an asylum seeker was an emotional trigger of the action. However, this would not change the terrorist nature of Traini’s act. About a third lone wolf terrorists are not mentally fit: about a third of lone actors have mental health issues. Moreover, almost all terrorists act in the name of a real or perceived injustice. Some are even motivated by personal losses, like the famous example of the Chechen “black widows”.

Right-wing politicians like Northern League’s leader Salvini told the press that illegal immigration is the “root cause” of “social conflict” and violence such as Traini’s act. Neo-fascist political party Forza Nuova went as far as openly saying “today we stay with Luca Traini”. These parties are proving to be the mirror image of the the Islamist parties that, in the Muslim world, fail to condemn jihadist terrorism in the name of the perceived injustices that they claim to avenge. Most of the Italian newspapers published a full-size picture of Traini with a neo-Nazi tattoo prominently on his forehead and an Italian flag tied around his neck. Conversely, it is almost impossible to find the photos and names of the African nationals who were wounded by Traini. The political discourse, coupled with this visual news coverage, is likely to “glamourize” Traini and to inspire copycat attacks in the fragile minds of like-minded far-right individuals. This is a real risk widely acknowledged in relation to jihadist terrorism, but still ignored in Italy, especially in relation to far-right terrorism.

Failing to recognize terrorism can undermine our ability to address it. For reasons we don’t fully understand Italy, hasn’t had a major terrorist attack. When it will happen, we should be ready to recognize it as such in order to deliver a right and balanced response, and to preserve a cohesive society. Failing to recognize crimes such as rape and domestic violence risks to create misunderstandings that make things much worse. Suggesting that a girl with a tight skirt provokes sexual assaults is a dangerous culture that we have to fight against. At the same time, suggesting that the presence of immigrants provokes tensions and violence is unacceptable. Ultimately, this will undermine the counter-terrorism efforts, escalating violence and de-legitimizing the state institutions because they will be seen to apply double standards. This would be a gift to ISIS’ recruiters, whose job is to manipulate the feelings of injustice of disenfranchised people who feel left alone by the state. I want to finish this piece citing Brendan Cox, the husband of murdered MP Jo Cox: “When islamists commit acts of terror we rightly hunt down the hate preachers who inspired them. We should do the same for the far right.”

The psychological characteristics of ISIS-inspired homegrown terrorists

Why do ISIS-inspired homegrown terrorists attack more religious targets than al-Qaeda’s? Why do they target more journalists? Why is the lethality of attacks against soft-targets (such as night clubs and music venues) increased with ISIS? In our new article, Ana-Maria Bliuc and I suggest that ISIS-inspired homegrown terrorists have different psychological characteristics than al-Qaeda’s.

Firstly, we use computerized linguistic analysis to examine the differences in the psychological dimensions of language used in two English-language online magazines published by ISIS and al-Qaeda. We find that ISIS’ language is higher in authoritarianism and in its level of religiousness, compared to al-Qaeda’s.

Secondly, we conduct an experiment with American participants, and we find that being high in religiousness and authoritarianism predicts more positive attitudes towards the language of ISIS but not towards the language of al-Qaeda.

Taken together, the results suggest that ISIS might be more effective than al-Qaeda in mobilizing individuals who have an authoritarian personality and are more focused on religion. Our findings also suggest that the individuals who are potentially more attracted to ISIS propaganda in the West exhibit higher levels of concern with religious affiliation compared to those who are more likely to be attracted by al-Qaeda’s propaganda. The results might also shed light on why ISIS-inspired homegrown terrorists are increasingly targeting victims that are members of religious, moral and political out-groups.

Islamophobia in Australia 2014 – 2016: the report is out

I am proud to be one of the authors of the report “Islamophobia in Australia 2014 – 2016”. Specifically, I have contributed to the analysis of the data collected by the Islamophobia Register Australia together with Dr Derya Iner and Iman Zayed. The report can be found here.

The report describes and categorizes 243 verified cases of Islamophobic incidents collected between 2014 and 2015 in Australia. Among the key findings, the report highlights that: women have been the main victims of Islamophobia in Australia, and one-in-three female victims had their children with them at the time of the reported incident. Perpetrators were more likely to be male. Almost half (48%) of the Islamophobic attacks occurred in crowded public spaces (like train stations and shopping centers) in front of a large numbers of bystanders. However, nobody intervened in 75% of the reported incidents.

The launch of the report had large media coverage, including articles published by SBS, ABC, SMH, The Conversation among others. Please see here for a definition of the term “Islamophobia”.

The more Australians know about Islam, the less prejudice they have against practicing Muslims

Preliminary results from the first 2016 wave of the AuSSA survey indicate that the more Australians know about Islam, the less prejudice they have against practicing Muslims.

First, we measured how much participants were concerned of Muslim, and we found that Islamophobia exists in Australia.


Second, we measured both self-reported knowledge of Islam and factual knowledge of Islam. Specifically, we asked: “how much do you think you know about Islam?”, but we also asked five factual questions about the religion, for example: “Is Jesus a revered Prophet in Islam?”

Unsurprisingly, knowing about Islam and thinking to know about Islam were not the same. In fact, the people who knew more about Islam indicated less prejudice against practicing Muslims, but not the people who thought they knew about Islam. Similarly, knowing more Muslims (for example at work, or at school) was associated with less prejudice against Muslims.

Moreover, we also measured the perceived threat of terrorism, and we found that the people who were more concerned of terrorism were also more concerned about practicing Muslims.

The research, that I conducted with Prof. Fethi Mansouri, is part of the ongoing “Muslims and Islamic Religiosity in the West” ARC research project. You can find the official press release on the website of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation.


Death Reminders Increase Agreement With Extremist Views but Not Violent Extremist Action in Indonesian Muslims

I’ve co-authored an article with Muhammad Iqbal, Kerry O’Brien and Ana-Maria Bliuc on the effects of death awareness on young Indonesians’ support for extremism and violent extremism. The article can be accessed here.
Muslim and non-Muslim Indonesian students in Australia were randomly assigned to an MS (Mortality Salience, i.e. we asked them to think about death) or control condition. Following a delay, participants were asked to rate their agreement/disagreement with another Indonesian Muslim student’s (bogus) statements toward extremist views and violent extremist actions. After controlling for alienation, Muslim students in the MS condition reported significantly higher levels of support for extremist views than did non-Muslims. However there was no significant effect of MS on support violent extremist action in either Muslims or non-Muslims. The results suggest that reminders of death may lead young Muslims to be more supportive of politically and religiously extreme views, but not violent action.
In conclusion, our article suggests that death awareness does not appear to be a cause of engagement in violent action as previous research suggests (see for example this article on the effects of MS on the support for martyrdom among Iranian Muslims).