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Cognitive psychologist explains why Bill Maher is one of our best weapons against ISIS

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What makes young people give up their lives and join ISIS? Over the past week, we’ve seen reports of troubling new examples of the Islamic State’s hold on some people, who leave from various parts of Europe and even the United States to become volunteers for the brutal war zone in Syria and Iraq. Repeatedly, these stories express the frustration experts feel trying to understand what motivates recruits, some of whom are well off or have college degrees. Why are they giving up their lives in the West for one of the most dangerous places on Earth?

Hungry for answers, we went looking for someone who could explain the situation and stumbled on the work of Glasgow University cognitive psychologist Gijsbert Stoet. His explanation for how ISIS appealed to some young people cut through the confusion, and we were intrigued that he said we’re not going to stem that tide until we start getting more serious about questioning religious ideas in the public sphere. Wanting more detail, we gave him a call, telling him that we hadn’t seen anyone else give such a concise, convincing explanation of who was joining ISIS and why.

“I noticed that commentators said they just didn’t know what was going on, they were struggling. But I realized there was no psychological analysis of it. And I thought somebody really needs to do that,” he said.

He noticed that news articles cited experts who talked about deteriorating social conditions and young recruits being blinded by an ignorance of what was really happening in the Middle East. In other words, that these young people, with desperate lives back home, were being “lured into” a situation they knew little about. But Stoet noticed, like we did, that the news stories themselves didn’t back this up at all.

“People often say that these kids are ‘vulnerable,’ or ‘naive.’ But if you look at the kind of personality you need to have to make this dramatic step, the kids who go there, they are not unintelligent, and they are often doing well in school. I suspect that they know where they’re going, they know they are taking risks. They are not so naive.”

Stoet said it was obvious to him that ISIS recruits shared three things in common.

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— They were devout Muslims.

— They were at an age when they tended to be going through an identity crisis.

— They were “sensation-seekers,” the kind of personality that seeks risky behavior.

Stoet says that there’s a lot of psychological research about sensation seeking, and that people who exhibit it tend to take more risks. “They might be sky divers, street racers, or explore many sexual adventures. We know that especially young people score high on sensation seeking scales. It is easy to see why going to the Islamic State offers lots of opportunities for sensation seekers,” he wrote recently in a piece laying out his analysis of ISIS recruitment.

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While social conditions can be a factor, Stoet says that a certain kind of person runs to a war zone rather than away from one.

“Most people do not like war, but there are people who go to war exactly for that thrill. And I think the people going to Syria, they have those personality features,” he says. “We live in a society that is very risk-averse. But young people think differently about risk, and we need to accept that it’s part of what they want to do.”

Also, he rejects the idea that recruits don’t know what they’re in for. “Sometimes you hear in the press that the people going over there are naive and not aware of what will happen to them. I think that is very unrealistic, given that you can look up everything on the Internet. The ISIS handbook [described recently by the New York Times] also confirms this — it does not hide that joining ISIS is going to be tough. I think that people who are naturally cautious and risk-averse do not go. These are at the very least adventure seekers. You can find adventure seekers in all age groups, but the older you get, the less likely you are going to be a sensation seeker,” he tells us.

But Stoet emphasized that all three elements have to be in place before a person is truly at risk of being recruited. It isn’t enough to be a devout Muslim — most won’t be tempted to leave for Syria no matter how strong their faith in the Koran. And it isn’t enough to be a sensation-seeker either — Presbyterian risk-takers aren’t dropping everything to join the Caliphate.

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“We know with 100 percent accuracy that if a teenager does not have Islam as their religion, they won’t go. What we know is that all of the kids who go are Muslims. But that’s just one element that goes into it,” he says.

Like us, he’s been frustrated at the liberal commentators who seem determined to pretend that Islam has nothing to do with the attacks like those happening in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo offices.

“You see some people say that the Islamic State is not Islamic. But that’s a theological argument. I don’t think you have to go into that to understand why young people are joining. What we should really properly do is understand how we can identify the teenagers who are at risk,” he says. “Who is joining? The young people with Islam as their religion who are in search of an identity — which is very normal for those years — and who are high in sensation-seeking. Those are the kids who are at risk. We need a way to identify them.”

We explained to Stoet that in this country, there’s been a fierce debate about even calling ISIS an “Islamic” organization. President Obama famously said that ISIS wasn’t Islamic, and when Atlantic writer Graeme Wood pointed out that actually, ISIS is an apocalyptic Islamic cult that’s trying to recreate the seventh century through interpreting the Koran and the Hadith strictly, it caused a storm of protest. Some commenters are determined not to offend the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims by suggesting there was any connection at all between the religion and the beheadings that have been going on in its name.

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But Stoet says that connection is obvious, and in fact, if we’re going to stop young people from joining ISIS, we need to challenge them on their religious beliefs.

“Even if we accept that people hold these views, we should at least teach children to think very critically about everything. We want to teach people to trust their doubts. If they have doubts, it’s harder for them to hold such extremist views,” he says.

We wanted to make sure we understood what he meant: Did he mean challenging them about the atrocities committed by ISIS in the name of Islam specifically, or more general questions about religion? Is he talking about challenging Muslims, for example, over the belief that the prophet Muhammad flew from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on a winged horse? Stoet said he was talking about the latter. Yes, Muslims should be challenged about their beliefs in general.

“We need to create an environment where authority figures are challenging young people. As Lawrence Krauss says, you need to ask people, what’s your evidence for God?” he says. “Many teachers shy away from this. Certainly in our culture, we shy away from this. But if we don’t ask these questions, people can develop extreme ideas without ever being challenged.”

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When we asked him how that might be accomplished, he said, “You have Bill Maher, for example. I think he’s doing the right thing by challenging religion on television.”

Unless we ask these questions in the public sphere, he points out, extremists are able to develop and disseminate their views without being challenged. And that’s part of the reason their ideas are so toxic — they’ve festered in the dark.

“If I was a teenager and saw that society didn’t dare to criticize my belief system, that would be a very empowering thing for extremist views,” he says. “These kids have never critically thought about whether there really is a heaven with 72 virgins. We have to have respect for people believing different things, but we should not put those religious ideas on a pedestal. We should talk about them the same way we talk about political ideas.”

Stoet pointed to Guardian columnist Nick Cohen, who has also wrestled with the issue of how to talk about religion in a culture that takes offense so easily. Too often, Cohen says, criticism of religious ideas is branded as “racism” — even though Islam is not a race. “The young men who end up killing, enslaving, raping and dying in Syria and Iraq — and maybe soon in Britain too — have not grown up hearing arguments against extremism. British culture has presented them with racism on the one hand and silence on the other,” Cohen wrote recently in Standpoint magazine.

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“The danger is this conflation of religion and race that makes it difficult to say things about Islam,” Stoet says. But it’s important to overcome that and have authority figures challenge religious ideas while making it clear that asking questions about religious ideas is not the same as criticizing religious people.

“It takes a lot of skill to do this the right way. It’s true that you don’t want to alienate your audience. What kind of program can you develop that asks children to question their beliefs? It’s a tricky thing. But we do have people who are good at this. You can do it in a respectful format, especially with young people. It does take some thought,” he says.

There’s nothing we can do about young people going through changes in identity. There will always be young people drawn to risk. And there will always be young people who become devout Muslims. But it takes all three elements to create someone like Jihadi John. And as long as that person is not hearing anything critical about Islam in the press or on the television, the chances that all three elements coincide to create a ripe recruit for ISIS are higher. And until we become less squeamish about discussing religion, we will continue to struggle to understand how to keep people from giving up their lives for a hellhole.

Stoet says he’s been particularly struck by some audience members on a British talk show who, when asked about British youngsters joining ISIS, said we should just let them go and be killed, if that’s what they want.

Stoet disagrees. “As a society, we have a responsibility to protect young people from unwise approaches if we can.”

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