Why do young Westerners join ISIS …or the Legion of Christ?

The ar

 

ICSA just shared with us the following article. It occurred to ReGAIN to write the above title because, despite the differences, there are parallels between joining ISIS and the Legion of Christ; the article presents the psychological explanation and “reasons” why young people join certain organizations.

Remember that the Legion likes to recruit young people, “the earlier the better,” often beginning in pre-adolescence, through their “front organizations” such as Challenge, etc.

Many of us joined in adolescence when we thought we were mature!

The article may give the reader insights into why young people join a relatively young and controversial religious order such as the Legion of Christ and other Catholic “fringe” organizations such as Miles Christi, the Magnificat Meal Movement, Love Holy Trinity Mission, Ireland’s own House of Prayer and a myriad of others that the ordinary Catholic or Christian does not know exist, sometimes right in his/her own backyard/parish.

In case you deem these claims outrageous or far fetched the blogger calls your attention to the following concepts which are common to young people joining ISIS and Legion of Christ:

life transition

quest for certainty

loneliness

a powerful, simple ideology with a crystal clear elaboration of the transcendental meaning for their lives

 

Psychiatric Times

 

09/10/15

Omar Sultan Haque, Jihye Choi, Tim Phillips, and Harold Bursztajn

The relatively sudden rise of the terrorist group ISIS in the Middle East has surprised many in the West. Equally surprising is that financially stable foreigners from the West are over-represented among ISIS fighters (1). As helpless observers of the inhumane and disproportionate violence that ISIS has exacted on the people of the Middle East and the rest of the world, it is easy to wonder: what could possibly be the appeal of such a murderous, intolerant, and authoritarian organization to so many young people in the West?

This question is easier to answer when imagining the motives and rationales of locals in Iraq and Syria. Perhaps these locals join in what they believe to be a righteous cause. They may want to fight their perceived enemy in a global war, just as many Americans join the US Armed Forces to fight ISIS and other perceived enemies. But what could possibly compel otherwise financially stable young Westerners (non-Muslim as well as Muslim) to leave their families, friends, and home culture, and take up an uncertain future by joining a terrorist organization like ISIS?

It’s not about poverty or religion

Clearly, poverty is not causing people to join ISIS, neither is religion. The vast majority of the West’s 50 million Muslims do not join terrorist groups. (2). Even among those with radical Islamic beliefs, only a very few act on those beliefs and join a terrorist organization (3). Background beliefs do not explain the motivation that compels people to join such groups—even as fundamentalist organizations go, ISIS is particularly extreme. It has been roundly condemned by many prominent Islamic institutions across the world as illegitimate, in violation of Islamic Law, and as not a part of Islam; it has even been rejected by the quite radical group Al-Qaeda (4).

The true answer is more disturbing and psychological, and has little to do with evil psychopaths finding their true home in ISIS, or of innocent youths being brainwashed into mindless soldiers. Rather, it involves the interaction of conscious and unconscious processes with unique features of ideologies like ISIS, and existential (but not material) vulnerabilities inherent in contemporary American life. One way to summarize our answer is that as an ideology, ISIS provides existential fast food, and for some of the most spiritually hungry young Westerners, ISIS is like a Big Mac amidst a barren wasteland of an existence. Much of the worldview of ISIS appears intellectually vapid and brittle, even silly when seriously considered as religious or philosophical propositions. Just as a person can get lost, a religious movement can also get lost in a forest of bad ideas. But most people do not get a PhD in philosophy of religion before deciding what to believe. The heart’s longings lead the mind, and the existential filler of ISIS nourishes the desperate and vulnerable soul, however much one is surrounded by material comfort.

Who actually joins ISIS? Not psychopaths or the brainwashed, but rather everyday young people in social transition, on the margins of society, or amidst a crisis of identity. According to anthropologist and psychologist Scott Atran who has studied the motivations and demographics of terrorists, it is mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives—immigrants, students, those between jobs or girlfriends, or those who left their homes and are looking for new families. For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are “born again” to religion. They are self-seekers who have found their way to jihad in myriad ways (5).

Why join ISIS?

Have you ever purchased junk food when tired, irritable, and jet-lagged at an airport? For lonely young people in transition, ISIS provides a quick fix to the perennial problems of human life. Vulnerable people don’t tend to fact check when existential relief is easily and cheaply attained with little effort. Specifically, the relief in question concerns the human desire for identity, certainty, social connection, meaning, the optimal amount of freedom, and glory.

At crucial developmental periods in adolescence and early adulthood, the formation of one’s identity is a primary concern, and a riddle to be solved. These years are a time for figuring out who one is, where one belongs, what one values and finds meaningful, and what one can become and prove to the world (6).These years are also a time of increasing awareness of an exciting yet frightening internal world with conscious and unconscious conflicts around envy, competition, self-control, and self-esteem (7).For youths on the margins of Western society, and in transition from one community to the next, this process of identity formation can become a hopeless task. When one has become a fringe member of one’s home community in America during crucial phases of identity formation, it is very tempting to join what appears to be a righteous struggle against one’s oppressive community. Even superficial Internet exposure (much less direct marketing) can convince the young that they too may participate in a world-historical narrative in which the enemy of America is a beacon of hope for solidifying their emerging self. This may evolve into a counterphobic attitude toward the society in which they feel helplessness, with a full embrace of a cult of death such as ISIS (8).

Humans tend to live with a quest for certainty in their hearts, and uncertainty is experienced as aversive (9,10). Whatever its factual merits, a pluralistic worldview denies its adherents the delights of absolute certainty, and it takes much cognitive effort to maintain. ISIS provides an ideology in which the world is divided into absolute good and evil, no compromises are possible, radical Islam is the solution to all human problems, and any other interpretation of Islam is unthinkable. Why settle for shades of grey in a messy world when “The Truth” is packaged and delivered in under 30 seconds via Internet sound bites? This black and white picture of truth may seem simplistic for the critically minded, but it can provide epistemological crème brûlée for drifting and unanchored Western youths. These youths are looking for answers to existential questions within a home culture perceived to be permissive and relativistic. In the midst of all this, an ideology that does not compromise the quest for certainty can be very appealing to the most vulnerable.

 

The underside of individualism

Americans pride themselves on their individualism, but the underside of individualism is loneliness (11). The desire for social connection is a human need as basic as food and sex, and the most obvious source of terrorist seduction for the lonely hearted (12). Social networks construct the web by which individuals are drawn to action, and social connection is a common attraction for everyday wholesome clubs as well as nefarious cults of all persuasions. Terrorist organizations are no exception, and most people join due to the influence of friends, kin, and others in a social network (13,14).

Although joining based on the influence of one’s friends and kin is a primary factor, recruitment from ISIS also occurs. ISIS has initiated a number of systematic online efforts to target and respond effectively to young Westerners in transition at the margins of society, who can be easily tempted by the false allure of quick and easy social connections amidst an individualistic society from which they feel alienated (15). Rather than contemplating and deciding whether the ideas within the ideology of ISIS are rational and worthy of assent, the young are more likely to be drawn in by attachments to those already embedded in ISIS as a way to thwart loneliness.

By most accounts, Americans are happy people, and the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence. But Western definitions of happiness tend toward happiness as present pleasure and self-expression, rather than happiness as meaning, moral struggle and sacrifice, and aligning oneself with sacred purposes beyond the self (16, 17). The latter meaning-oriented definition of happiness is more crucial for mental and physical health, but it is more common in non-secular cultures (and in the religious traditions within secular societies) (18). For Western youths drifting between communities and belief systems amidst pluralistic America, the allure of a powerful, simple ideology with a crystal-clear elaboration of the transcendent meaning for their lives and struggles would be akin to an ice cream cone on a hot July afternoon. This desire for meaning—to be a part of something much larger than oneself, especially if it is transcendent—is a very deep wish in human nature, and not the same as routine motivations concerning status or in-group preferences (ethnicity, race, or religion) (19,20). Thus the same need for meaning that propels a youngster to want to join ISIS can also lead an American businessman who achieves financial success to yearn for something beyond the accumulation of wealth, to something more meaningful and significant such as philanthropy, political office, or supporting a war (21).

Relatedly, as Atran notes, people join ISIS because they seek adventure and want glory. ISIS presents to the bored, secure, and the uninspired in Western liberal democracies a “thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool. . . Many are just ‘vacationers’ for jihad, going to Syria over school breaks or holidays for the thrill of adventure and a semblance of glory.”

A seemingly paradoxical reason some Westerners join ISIS and other totalitarian organizations is that too much freedom can be experienced as burdensome. In 1941, the psychologist Erich Fromm in Escape From Freedom (22) explained why so many were attracted to the Nazi ideology in Germany by pointing to a feature of human nature that is afraid of being free and thus would rather submit to authority than be responsible for creating a life of one’s own. As in 1941 for Nazism, so also in 2015 for ISIS. Clearly, being a slave is no fun. But maximal freedom may also not be ideal, and humans vary in the degree to which additional freedom is experienced as beneficial. For someone who is socially integrated and stable, and more willful by nature, more autonomy can be a liberating means to self-create a life amidst hospitable institutions. In contrast, young adults in transition or on the margins of society may experience freedom as oppressive, since they lack the personal or social means for actually using a high degree of freedom to improve their lives. A totalitarian cult such as ISIS, which promises a strict ideology, rules, and a social order to which one can bind and submerge oneself, appeals to youths, especially those on the fringes of Western society for whom high amounts of freedom do not feel liberating but instead, oppressive.

Finally, these many vulnerabilities to joining terrorist organizations are combined with a deep but selective empathy. For example, an Iraqi-American youngster who perceives that Iraqis are persecuted by Americans might expand his empathy for suffering Iraqis over Americans and decide to join ISIS. Alternatively, a 5th-generation Italian-American youngster could find himself on the fringe of American society and start to develop deep empathy with the sufferings of America’s perceived enemies. Empathy is indeed a source of joining terrorist groups. The same empathy we may feel for the cherished victims of our favorite causes, others may feel for non-Americans. Empathy can be free of this paradoxical effect and fulfill its ethical possibilities only when empathy is generalized to all humans who suffer, not just to those in our in-group.

The reasons that youths join terrorist organizations such as ISIS have little to do with being poor, brainwashed, a Muslim, or a psychopath, and more to do with vulnerabilities in human nature exacerbated by aspects of Western societies. This diagnosis is echoed by journalists who have interviewed many ISIS fighters; a recent analysis of ISIS fighters remarks that “what draws people to ISIS could easily bring them to any number of cults or totalitarian movements, even those ideologically contradictory to Salafist Jihadism” (23).

If we Westerners are lucky, we have identities, certainties, social connections, meanings, generalized empathies, freedoms, and individual pursuits of glory that can be taken for granted. However, for those Westerners in transition, marginalized, lonely, lost, bored, uncertain, spiritually or existentially dispossessed, burdened by too much freedom, and empathically selective, ISIS and other shallow but contagious ideologies will remain tempting as quick fixes for the deep predicaments inherent to the human condition.

Acknowledgment—We would like to thank Dan Jones for helping us find some of the sources quoted in this article.

Disclosures

Dr Haque is Co-Director, UNESCO Chair in Bioethics, American Unit; Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Brown University, Providence, RI; Program in Psychiatry and the Law and Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Ms Choi is Associate at Nonprofit Finance Fund, Boston; Harvard Mediation Program, Harvard Law School. Mr Phillips is Co-Founder of Beyond Conflict, Cambridge, MA. Dr Bursztajn is President, UNESCO Chair in Bioethics, American Unit; Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Co-Founder of the Program in Psychiatry and the Law, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston. The authors report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.

References

(1) Stern J, Berger JM. ISIS: The State of Terror. New York: Ecco; 2015.

(2) Kurzman C.The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists? NY: Oxford University Press; 2011.

(3) Neumann PR. The trouble with radicalization. Int Affairs. 2013;89:873-893.

(4) Hassaballa HA. Think Muslims haven’t condemned ISIS? Think again. http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/commonwordcommonlord/2014/08/think-muslims-havent-condemned-isis-think-again.html. Accessed August 11, 2015.

(5) Atran S. Jihad’s fatal attraction. The Guardian. September 4, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/04/jihad-fatal-attraction-challenge-democracies-isis-barbarism. Accessed August 11, 2015.

(6) Erikson EH. Identity and the Life Cycle. Vol 1. New York: WW Norton; 1980. Erikson EH. Identity: Youth and Crisis. No. 7. New York: WW Norton; 1994.

(7) Klein M. Envy and Gratitude: A Study of Unconscious Sources. New York: Routledge; 2013.

(8) Fenichel O. The counter-phobic attitude. Intl J Psychoanalysis. 1939;20:263-274. Unfortunately, current diagnostic taxonomy does not facilitate an empathic understanding of what can be helpfully understood as a counterphobic response to the trauma of adolescence (see: Bursztajn HJ, First MB. PTSD diagnoses can avoid avoidance as an absolute criterion. Lancet Psychiatry. 2014;1:332-333).

(9) Hogg MA. Subjective uncertainty reduction through self-categorization: a motivational theory of social identity processes. In: Stroebe W, Hewstone M, eds. European Review of Social Psychology. Chichester, United Kingdom: Wiley; 2000;11:223-255.

(10) Weary G, Edwards JA. Causal-uncertainty beliefs and related goal structures. In: Sorrentino RM, Higgins ET, eds. Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: The Interpersonal Context. New York: Guilford Press; 1996;3:148-181.

(11) Putnam RD. Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. J Democracy. 1995;6:65-78.

(12) Baumeister RF, Leary MR. The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychol Bull. 1995;117:497-529.

(13) Sageman M. Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; 2011.

(14) Atran S. Talking to the Enemy: Religion, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. New York: Ecco; 2011.

(15) Callimachi R. ISIS and the lonely young American. The New York Times. June 27, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/world/americas/isis-online-recruiting-american.html.

(16) Baumeister RF, Vohs KD, Aaker JL, Garbinsky EN. Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. J Positive Psychol. 2013;8:505-516.

(17) Oishi S, Diener E. Residents of poor nations have a greater sense of meaning in life than residents of wealthy nations Psychological Science. 2013.http://pss.sagepub.com/content/25/2/422.abstract.

(18) Fredrickson BL, Grewen KM, Coffey KA, et al. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. PNAS. 2013;110:13684-13689.

(19) Frankl VE. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Simon and Schuster; 1985.

(20) Markman, KD, Proulx TE, Lindberg MJ. The Psychology of Meaning. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2013.

(21) Phillips T, Eisikovits N. For some Muslim youth, Islamic State’s allure is a meaningful alternative to Western values. Global Post. April 24, 2015. http://www.globalpost.com/article/6527455/2015/04/24/muslim-youth-allure-isis-meaningful-alternative-western-values. Accessed August 11, 2015.

(22) Fromm E. Escape From Freedom. NY: Farrar & Rinehart; 1941.

(23) Weiss M, Hassan H. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. NY: Regan Arts; 2015.

Linked Articles

The Ultimate Violation of “Do No Harm” at Fort Hood

Fort Hood and DOD Independent Review

The Fort Hood Aftermath—Army Accountability Review and Psychiatrists

Immigration and Post-Adolescent Psychology of Young Terrorists

The Making of a Homegrown Terrorist

Why Are Young Westerners Drawn to Terrorist Organizations Like ISIS?

Psychiatric and Societal Impacts of Terrorism

Psychiatric Times

 

09/10/15

Omar Sultan Haque, Jihye Choi, Tim Phillips, and Harold Bursztajn

The relatively sudden rise of the terrorist group ISIS in the Middle East has surprised many in the West. Equally surprising is that financially stable foreigners from the West are over-represented among ISIS fighters (1). As helpless observers of the inhumane and disproportionate violence that ISIS has exacted on the people of the Middle East and the rest of the world, it is easy to wonder: what could possibly be the appeal of such a murderous, intolerant, and authoritarian organization to so many young people in the West?

This question is easier to answer when imagining the motives and rationales of locals in Iraq and Syria. Perhaps these locals join in what they believe to be a righteous cause. They may want to fight their perceived enemy in a global war, just as many Americans join the US Armed Forces to fight ISIS and other perceived enemies. But what could possibly compel otherwise financially stable young Westerners (non-Muslim as well as Muslim) to leave their families, friends, and home culture, and take up an uncertain future by joining a terrorist organization like ISIS?

It’s not about poverty or religion

Clearly, poverty is not causing people to join ISIS, neither is religion. The vast majority of the West’s 50 million Muslims do not join terrorist groups. (2). Even among those with radical Islamic beliefs, only a very few act on those beliefs and join a terrorist organization (3). Background beliefs do not explain the motivation that compels people to join such groups—even as fundamentalist organizations go, ISIS is particularly extreme. It has been roundly condemned by many prominent Islamic institutions across the world as illegitimate, in violation of Islamic Law, and as not a part of Islam; it has even been rejected by the quite radical group Al-Qaeda (4).

The true answer is more disturbing and psychological, and has little to do with evil psychopaths finding their true home in ISIS, or of innocent youths being brainwashed into mindless soldiers. Rather, it involves the interaction of conscious and unconscious processes with unique features of ideologies like ISIS, and existential (but not material) vulnerabilities inherent in contemporary American life. One way to summarize our answer is that as an ideology, ISIS provides existential fast food, and for some of the most spiritually hungry young Westerners, ISIS is like a Big Mac amidst a barren wasteland of an existence. Much of the worldview of ISIS appears intellectually vapid and brittle, even silly when seriously considered as religious or philosophical propositions. Just as a person can get lost, a religious movement can also get lost in a forest of bad ideas. But most people do not get a PhD in philosophy of religion before deciding what to believe. The heart’s longings lead the mind, and the existential filler of ISIS nourishes the desperate and vulnerable soul, however much one is surrounded by material comfort.

Who actually joins ISIS? Not psychopaths or the brainwashed, but rather everyday young people in social transition, on the margins of society, or amidst a crisis of identity. According to anthropologist and psychologist Scott Atran who has studied the motivations and demographics of terrorists, it is mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives—immigrants, students, those between jobs or girlfriends, or those who left their homes and are looking for new families. For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are “born again” to religion. They are self-seekers who have found their way to jihad in myriad ways (5).

Why join ISIS?

Have you ever purchased junk food when tired, irritable, and jet-lagged at an airport? For lonely young people in transition, ISIS provides a quick fix to the perennial problems of human life. Vulnerable people don’t tend to fact check when existential relief is easily and cheaply attained with little effort. Specifically, the relief in question concerns the human desire for identity, certainty, social connection, meaning, the optimal amount of freedom, and glory.

At crucial developmental periods in adolescence and early adulthood, the formation of one’s identity is a primary concern, and a riddle to be solved. These years are a time for figuring out who one is, where one belongs, what one values and finds meaningful, and what one can become and prove to the world (6).These years are also a time of increasing awareness of an exciting yet frightening internal world with conscious and unconscious conflicts around envy, competition, self-control, and self-esteem (7).For youths on the margins of Western society, and in transition from one community to the next, this process of identity formation can become a hopeless task. When one has become a fringe member of one’s home community in America during crucial phases of identity formation, it is very tempting to join what appears to be a righteous struggle against one’s oppressive community. Even superficial Internet exposure (much less direct marketing) can convince the young that they too may participate in a world-historical narrative in which the enemy of America is a beacon of hope for solidifying their emerging self. This may evolve into a counterphobic attitude toward the society in which they feel helplessness, with a full embrace of a cult of death such as ISIS (8).

Humans tend to live with a quest for certainty in their hearts, and uncertainty is experienced as aversive (9,10). Whatever its factual merits, a pluralistic worldview denies its adherents the delights of absolute certainty, and it takes much cognitive effort to maintain. ISIS provides an ideology in which the world is divided into absolute good and evil, no compromises are possible, radical Islam is the solution to all human problems, and any other interpretation of Islam is unthinkable. Why settle for shades of grey in a messy world when “The Truth” is packaged and delivered in under 30 seconds via Internet sound bites? This black and white picture of truth may seem simplistic for the critically minded, but it can provide epistemological crème brûlée for drifting and unanchored Western youths. These youths are looking for answers to existential questions within a home culture perceived to be permissive and relativistic. In the midst of all this, an ideology that does not compromise the quest for certainty can be very appealing to the most vulnerable.

 

The underside of individualism

Americans pride themselves on their individualism, but the underside of individualism is loneliness (11). The desire for social connection is a human need as basic as food and sex, and the most obvious source of terrorist seduction for the lonely hearted (12). Social networks construct the web by which individuals are drawn to action, and social connection is a common attraction for everyday wholesome clubs as well as nefarious cults of all persuasions. Terrorist organizations are no exception, and most people join due to the influence of friends, kin, and others in a social network (13,14).

Although joining based on the influence of one’s friends and kin is a primary factor, recruitment from ISIS also occurs. ISIS has initiated a number of systematic online efforts to target and respond effectively to young Westerners in transition at the margins of society, who can be easily tempted by the false allure of quick and easy social connections amidst an individualistic society from which they feel alienated (15). Rather than contemplating and deciding whether the ideas within the ideology of ISIS are rational and worthy of assent, the young are more likely to be drawn in by attachments to those already embedded in ISIS as a way to thwart loneliness.

By most accounts, Americans are happy people, and the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence. But Western definitions of happiness tend toward happiness as present pleasure and self-expression, rather than happiness as meaning, moral struggle and sacrifice, and aligning oneself with sacred purposes beyond the self (16, 17). The latter meaning-oriented definition of happiness is more crucial for mental and physical health, but it is more common in non-secular cultures (and in the religious traditions within secular societies) (18). For Western youths drifting between communities and belief systems amidst pluralistic America, the allure of a powerful, simple ideology with a crystal-clear elaboration of the transcendent meaning for their lives and struggles would be akin to an ice cream cone on a hot July afternoon. This desire for meaning—to be a part of something much larger than oneself, especially if it is transcendent—is a very deep wish in human nature, and not the same as routine motivations concerning status or in-group preferences (ethnicity, race, or religion) (19,20). Thus the same need for meaning that propels a youngster to want to join ISIS can also lead an American businessman who achieves financial success to yearn for something beyond the accumulation of wealth, to something more meaningful and significant such as philanthropy, political office, or supporting a war (21).

Relatedly, as Atran notes, people join ISIS because they seek adventure and want glory. ISIS presents to the bored, secure, and the uninspired in Western liberal democracies a “thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool. . . Many are just ‘vacationers’ for jihad, going to Syria over school breaks or holidays for the thrill of adventure and a semblance of glory.”

A seemingly paradoxical reason some Westerners join ISIS and other totalitarian organizations is that too much freedom can be experienced as burdensome. In 1941, the psychologist Erich Fromm in Escape From Freedom (22) explained why so many were attracted to the Nazi ideology in Germany by pointing to a feature of human nature that is afraid of being free and thus would rather submit to authority than be responsible for creating a life of one’s own. As in 1941 for Nazism, so also in 2015 for ISIS. Clearly, being a slave is no fun. But maximal freedom may also not be ideal, and humans vary in the degree to which additional freedom is experienced as beneficial. For someone who is socially integrated and stable, and more willful by nature, more autonomy can be a liberating means to self-create a life amidst hospitable institutions. In contrast, young adults in transition or on the margins of society may experience freedom as oppressive, since they lack the personal or social means for actually using a high degree of freedom to improve their lives. A totalitarian cult such as ISIS, which promises a strict ideology, rules, and a social order to which one can bind and submerge oneself, appeals to youths, especially those on the fringes of Western society for whom high amounts of freedom do not feel liberating but instead, oppressive.

Finally, these many vulnerabilities to joining terrorist organizations are combined with a deep but selective empathy. For example, an Iraqi-American youngster who perceives that Iraqis are persecuted by Americans might expand his empathy for suffering Iraqis over Americans and decide to join ISIS. Alternatively, a 5th-generation Italian-American youngster could find himself on the fringe of American society and start to develop deep empathy with the sufferings of America’s perceived enemies. Empathy is indeed a source of joining terrorist groups. The same empathy we may feel for the cherished victims of our favorite causes, others may feel for non-Americans. Empathy can be free of this paradoxical effect and fulfill its ethical possibilities only when empathy is generalized to all humans who suffer, not just to those in our in-group.

The reasons that youths join terrorist organizations such as ISIS have little to do with being poor, brainwashed, a Muslim, or a psychopath, and more to do with vulnerabilities in human nature exacerbated by aspects of Western societies. This diagnosis is echoed by journalists who have interviewed many ISIS fighters; a recent analysis of ISIS fighters remarks that “what draws people to ISIS could easily bring them to any number of cults or totalitarian movements, even those ideologically contradictory to Salafist Jihadism” (23).

If we Westerners are lucky, we have identities, certainties, social connections, meanings, generalized empathies, freedoms, and individual pursuits of glory that can be taken for granted. However, for those Westerners in transition, marginalized, lonely, lost, bored, uncertain, spiritually or existentially dispossessed, burdened by too much freedom, and empathically selective, ISIS and other shallow but contagious ideologies will remain tempting as quick fixes for the deep predicaments inherent to the human condition.

Acknowledgment—We would like to thank Dan Jones for helping us find some of the sources quoted in this article.

Disclosures

Dr Haque is Co-Director, UNESCO Chair in Bioethics, American Unit; Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Brown University, Providence, RI; Program in Psychiatry and the Law and Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Ms Choi is Associate at Nonprofit Finance Fund, Boston; Harvard Mediation Program, Harvard Law School. Mr Phillips is Co-Founder of Beyond Conflict, Cambridge, MA. Dr Bursztajn is President, UNESCO Chair in Bioethics, American Unit; Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Co-Founder of the Program in Psychiatry and the Law, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston. The authors report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.

References

(1) Stern J, Berger JM. ISIS: The State of Terror. New York: Ecco; 2015.

(2) Kurzman C.The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists? NY: Oxford University Press; 2011.

(3) Neumann PR. The trouble with radicalization. Int Affairs. 2013;89:873-893.

(4) Hassaballa HA. Think Muslims haven’t condemned ISIS? Think again. http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/commonwordcommonlord/2014/08/think-muslims-havent-condemned-isis-think-again.html. Accessed August 11, 2015.

(5) Atran S. Jihad’s fatal attraction. The Guardian. September 4, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/04/jihad-fatal-attraction-challenge-democracies-isis-barbarism. Accessed August 11, 2015.

(6) Erikson EH. Identity and the Life Cycle. Vol 1. New York: WW Norton; 1980. Erikson EH. Identity: Youth and Crisis. No. 7. New York: WW Norton; 1994.

(7) Klein M. Envy and Gratitude: A Study of Unconscious Sources. New York: Routledge; 2013.

(8) Fenichel O. The counter-phobic attitude. Intl J Psychoanalysis. 1939;20:263-274. Unfortunately, current diagnostic taxonomy does not facilitate an empathic understanding of what can be helpfully understood as a counterphobic response to the trauma of adolescence (see: Bursztajn HJ, First MB. PTSD diagnoses can avoid avoidance as an absolute criterion. Lancet Psychiatry. 2014;1:332-333).

(9) Hogg MA. Subjective uncertainty reduction through self-categorization: a motivational theory of social identity processes. In: Stroebe W, Hewstone M, eds. European Review of Social Psychology. Chichester, United Kingdom: Wiley; 2000;11:223-255.

(10) Weary G, Edwards JA. Causal-uncertainty beliefs and related goal structures. In: Sorrentino RM, Higgins ET, eds. Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: The Interpersonal Context. New York: Guilford Press; 1996;3:148-181.

(11) Putnam RD. Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. J Democracy. 1995;6:65-78.

(12) Baumeister RF, Leary MR. The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychol Bull. 1995;117:497-529.

(13) Sageman M. Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; 2011.

(14) Atran S. Talking to the Enemy: Religion, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. New York: Ecco; 2011.

(15) Callimachi R. ISIS and the lonely young American. The New York Times. June 27, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/world/americas/isis-online-recruiting-american.html.

(16) Baumeister RF, Vohs KD, Aaker JL, Garbinsky EN. Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. J Positive Psychol. 2013;8:505-516.

(17) Oishi S, Diener E. Residents of poor nations have a greater sense of meaning in life than residents of wealthy nations Psychological Science. 2013.http://pss.sagepub.com/content/25/2/422.abstract.

(18) Fredrickson BL, Grewen KM, Coffey KA, et al. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. PNAS. 2013;110:13684-13689.

(19) Frankl VE. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Simon and Schuster; 1985.

(20) Markman, KD, Proulx TE, Lindberg MJ. The Psychology of Meaning. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2013.

(21) Phillips T, Eisikovits N. For some Muslim youth, Islamic State’s allure is a meaningful alternative to Western values. Global Post. April 24, 2015. http://www.globalpost.com/article/6527455/2015/04/24/muslim-youth-allure-isis-meaningful-alternative-western-values. Accessed August 11, 2015.

(22) Fromm E. Escape From Freedom. NY: Farrar & Rinehart; 1941.

(23) Weiss M, Hassan H. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. NY: Regan Arts; 2015.

Linked Articles

The Ultimate Violation of “Do No Harm” at Fort Hood

Fort Hood and DOD Independent Review

The Fort Hood Aftermath—Army Accountability Review and Psychiatrists

Immigration and Post-Adolescent Psychology of Young Terrorists

The Making of a Homegrown Terrorist

Why Are Young Westerners Drawn to Terrorist Organizations Like ISIS?

Psychiatric and Societal Impacts of Terrorism

 

 

The Dog, the Wine and the Psychiatrist: Part 3, Legionaries’ Paradise (in Cancun)

3rd part of Legionaries’ Paradise

(written by Emiliano  Ruiz Parrra, originally appeared in Spanish on the Gatopardo blog:Gatopardo )

The Dog,  the Wine and the Psychiatrist
Fr. Pablo Pérez-Guajardo walked around in a stupor all day every day.

His “depression” did not get better despite taking medication.

Until he decided to stop taking his Legion-prescribed medication, Diazepan[1], and gave it to one of the guard dogs in the mother house at 677 Via Aurelia, Rome. Pablo gradually became less drowsy. The dog, for its part, slept all day and lost its zest. “The superiors became very concerned about the dog. More than about me,” he recalls testily.

Once fully awake, Fr. Pérez-Guajardo became one of the Legion’s harshest critics. He never was a superior in the order but during his time in Rome. as a member of the archives team, he was close to the Legion’s leadership cadre and to Fr. Maciel, the founder. From 1986 until 2006 he belonged to the community that lived at the mother house, first as a seminarian and later as an ordained priest.

One can find Fr. Pablo in dated photos of the Legionaries at St. Peter’s Basilica from January 3rd, 1991. To celebrate the Legion’s 50th Anniversary (it was founded in 1941), Fr. Maciel orchestrated having 60 Legionaries ordained to the Catholic priesthood by Pope John Paul II. Fr. Pablo appears with prayerfully joined hands, scarcely a few steps from the pope. He was being ordained a priest after 15 years of Legion training.

He is pictured again in Una Iglesia de corazón misionero, libro de nuestra historia, the booklet the Legionaries published to mark the Chetumal-Cancun Prelature’s 40th anniversary. He is pictured three times in the booklet: inside the back cover with all the other Legionaries in Quintana Roo, and on pages 132 and 133. We find him in a panoramic view surrounded by scores of people, mostly children, his community at the chapel of San José in the working-class Colonia Guadalupana, Playa del Carmen. On the next page he appears microphone in hand as he approaches a little boy.

These images portray the years of his close attachment to the Legion. But on September 29th, 2011 he sent a scathing, “Carta de Fuego” letter to the then superior general of the Legion, Fr. Álvaro Corcuera, in which de demanded the Legion cut all ties with the founder, Marcial Maciel:

“A drunken pedophile womanizer dressed in priestly garb. (…) Not only did he mock God, the Church and us, the members, but you and many other superiors have mocked the pope’s authority by accompanying our pedophile founder on trips with his concubine and his sacrilegious daughter. (…) Your lips have kissed the corpse of a false prophet which you and the major superiors have presented to us as Another Christ while he was in reality an Anti-Christ.”

Another dozen letter followed after in which he denounced money-laundering, systematic cover-up of pedophile Legionaries, the cult of Maciel’s memory, the financial exploitation of the Legion’s educational enterprises and many other abuses.
Slightly built, with green eyes, pointed ears and scant hair, Fr. Pablo Pérez-Guajardo was officially expelled from the Legion in May 2015. They had already kicked him out of the San José chapel in Playa del Carmen in September, 2012; after that his lifestyle became nomadic. When he was interviewed by the reporter in September, 2014 he had transformed a garage in a poor neighborhood into a chapel. “The bishop (Monsignor Pedro Pablo Elizondo, LC) has forbidden me from entering Catholic schools and hospitals” (to perform my priestly duties).

The interview lasted three hours. Fr. Pablo’s most traumatic stage of Legion life was in Rome. In 1986 he had been posted to the mother house in Rome.

Legionary life took a heavy toll on Fr. Pablo’s emotional state. He became very depressed. The Assistant Superior General at the time, Fr. Luis Garza Medina, asked him to go visit Dr. Francisco López -Ibor, son of the very renowned Spanish psychiatrist, Juan José. Pablo refused. But later, founder Marcial Maciel himself suggested Fr. Pablo see the famous psychiatrist. Fr. Maciel’s suggestions were orders for a Legionary. Fr. Pablo obeyed -though he was unaware at that time how Maciel was in the habit of sending problematic Legionaries to the Madrid clinic.  There Pablo was evaluated and put on medication. Every four months he would obediently travel to Madrid to have his prescription refilled: The meds kept him drowsy, listless and lifeless.

In Rome Fr. Pablo was able to get on the Internet. Surfing the net he found that his dose of “antidepressants” was heavier than needed and he realized his despondency was due to stresses of the religious life, loneliness, long term separation from his family of origin (he hadn’t seen them since he joined the Legion aged 18), and lack of incentive. That was what prompted Fr. Pablo to start giving his meds to the German shepherd dog zealously cared for by house superior, Fr. Juan Manuel Dueñas-Rojas.

Stopping the meds, he gradually became more energetic and alert. But this had a price. His emotions awakened with angry outbursts and bouts of deep sadness. His parents were getting old and ill and he wanted to spend their last years with them. He never reached his father in time. When Pablo’s plane touched down in Mexico City, the family was already mourning his passing.
Memory of a particular Legionary life scene provokes Fr. Pablo’s indignation during the interview. Regular priest members were allowed to drink only one glass of wine with dinner in Rome. The superiors had two or three “because they had special permission from Fr. Maciel.” Pablo’s displeasure got the upper hand and he decided to raid the wine cellar and hide bottles of wine in the bathroom and in the air ducts.
One evening a superior called Fr Pablo to his quarters to rebuke him. Padre Pablo had been expecting something like this. When he entered the office he was hiding two bottles of uncorked wine under his cassock. To the superior’s surprise, Pablo began pouring the two bottles over the superior’s desk.

-“How dare you!, fussed the superior, you know there are Letters of Nuestro Padre [Maciel]! here” (And what if there were, muses Fr. Pablo many years later! When most of these Letters of Nuestro Padre were plagiarized or written by others –Maciel was such a fraud!)

Tired of Fr. Pablo’s  insubordination, his superiors allowed him to live in a Mexico City house, where he would be closer to his mother who was suffering from cancer.

Spilling the wine was the beginning of Fr. Pablo’s disobedience. Looking back he sees it as a calculated action to get his superiors’ attention and prompt his transfer. In perspective, it could even be considered a prank. His real opposition came later when he began to publicly denounce the Legion in hundreds of pages and when he opened up in his “Confessions,”a flood of memories which gradually put together the jigsaw puzzle of the Legion’s frauds and abuses.

The evening of the interview, some of those scenes popped into Fr. Pablo’s head:

  • The night before Fr. Pablo took his vows, Fr. Maciel called one of Pablo’s companions to his bedside and spent the whole night with him! Once ordained, this priest was sent to the Chetumal-Cancun Prelature. After it became public that Maciel had a daughter, the abused priest –now aged fifty- could not stop telling the story of his abuse to anyone who would listen.
  • Or about the time Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, told a group of Legionaries: “Blessed are you because there are many bishops and cardinals but there is only one founder!”
  • Or when he learned that Assistant Superior General, Fr. Luis Garza-Medina –a brother of Dionisio Garza-Medina (Monterrey, Mexico, Alpha Group) – had hatched a plan to get full control of the Legion and how he had hired a group of private detectives to trail Maciel; once he had the dirt on Maciel’s double life he planned to blackmail him to hand over control of the Legion’s finances.
  • During his forty years in the Legion, Fr. Pablo Perez has seen and heard hundreds of stories but he kept silent because of his Private Vow[2]

After his assignment to the religious house in Mexico City his superiors sent him to the Chetumal-Cancun Prelature. According to his story he was told to live at the Church of the Sacred Hearth, at that time the cathedral, residence of Legion bishop emeritus Monsignor Jorge Bernal. He revitalized morning Mass and went out into the streets to offer baptisms “free of charge” to the poor. When new bishop Pedro-Pablo Elizondo saw this he called Fr. Pablo to Playa del Carmen to take charge of a working class neighborhood.

Fr. Pablo has many pleasant memories of his time working at the Colonia Guadalupana, Playa del Carmen, in what he calls, using a Mexican play on words, la zona atolera (referring to the simple native corn drink, atole) in contrast to the zona hotelera (hotel zone). In this article we will focus on his remarks on the Chetumal-Cancun Prelature.

He first formalized his impressions of the apostolic work of the Legionaries in a letter he wrote to Bishop Pedro-Pablo Elizondo on September 24, 2012. In it he states that Legion founder, Marcial Maciel, used the Prelature from its inception as a place to warehouse undesirable members of the order; meaning those members who did not buy Maciel’s vision, either because they did not want to work in schools for the rich or as, in the case of the Irish, they had joined the Legion to become missionaries and did not savor being chaplains for the upper classes.

The Prelature had espoused three causes/businesses, according to Pérez:

  • The glamorous weddings celebrated in the luxury hotels: he accused the Legion priests of becoming the “escorts” to rich and famous Catholics: always impeccably dressed, with the hair always cleanly parted to the right, so as to adorn the weddings of the well-to-do. Pablo notes that hotel employees, the proletariat, were excluded from theses Masses.
  • The second favorite project was The City of Happiness (La Ciudad de la Alegría), a complex housing orphans, seniors and terminally ill patients. According to Fr. Pablo it is used to furnish some local businesses/benefactors with tax free receipts. Fr. Pablo refers in particular to the businesses owned by one, Fernando García Zalvidea, a Legion favorite and protégé.
  • A third source of income for the Prelature are the donations from the United States and Europe which are spun as “for the Missions”, the evangelization of the Maya peoples. “They (the missions) have never received these moneys – complains Fr. Pablo- Most of these poor areas and colonies lack medical dispensaries, Catholic schools, churches, parishes and social services.”

When he was expelled, Fr. Pablo left the Prelature. He sought support in his home diocese of Saltillo, (Coahuila State, Mexico) under Bishop Raúl Vera-López, a promotor of human rights and antagonistic to the Legionaries. The firebrand from Playa del Carmen clashed with the charismatic bishop –accusing him of using the poor to his own benefit, Vera-López, for his part, accused Fr. Pablo of being a plant- and after only eleven months their relationship came to an end.


Translator’s notes:

[1] Diazepam (also known as Valium) is a benzodiazepine (ben-zoe-dye-AZE-eh-peens). It affects chemicals in the brain that may be unbalanced in people with anxiety. Diazepam is used to treat anxiety disorders, alcohol withdrawal symptoms, or muscle spasms. Diazepam is sometimes used with other medications to treat seizures.

This medication would be counter indicated for Depression and would increase Depressive symptoms instead of reducing them. Its recommendation in the case of Fr. Pablo demonstrates either ignorance or a purposeful plan to keep him dumbed down.

[2] Members of religious orders take three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. But the Legion had a fourth vow: “Never to criticize a superior in any way and to tell your immediate superior about it if you became aware of another member breaking his vow.”

————————–

Slightly built, with green eyes, pointed ears and scant hair, Fr. Pablo Pérez-Guajardo was officially expelled from the Legion in May 2015. They had already expelled him from the San José chapel in Playa del Carmen in September, 2012, after which his lifestyle became nomadic. When he was interviewed by the reporter in September, 2014 he had transformed a garage in a poor neighborhood into a chapel. “The bishop (Monsignor Pedro Pablo Elizondo, LC) has forbidden me from entering Catholic schools and hospitals” (to perform my priestly duties).

“Where could I go now that I was sixty?” the priest asked himself. So he traipsed back to Playa del Carmen, to the working class neighborhood, setting up a chapel in a garage of a house under construction. When the reporter met him Fr. Pablo was going around in an old dirty Chevy, with the seats falling apart. He was living with a family, surrounded by bags of cement and dust curtains. The Legion had expelled him in 2015. “In canonical terms I do not have ministerial faculties, although I am not sanctioned for any reason nor do I have any canonical censure against me because I have not committed any ecclesiastical crime (pedophilia, sexual partner, fraud, doctrinal problems or errors in moral or doctrinal teachings).”

As they spoke the reporter noted the Padre’s fatigue after four years of accusations and no success except to keep trudging along performing baptisms and building his chapel. When asked why he had spent so much energy writing the hundreds of protest pages, he said he had hoped that the Vatican would hear his plea and would depose the Legion of Christ from the Prelature. “Quintana Roo needs a Franciscan, Jesuit or diocesan bishop who will dress in sandals and jeans, carry a backpack and rub shoulders with the workers and native peoples of the interior and not with the hotel zone magnates.”

The Legend of the holy money launderer
Fernando García Zalvidea was one of the thousands of immigrants attracted to Cancun tourist growth. Driving his limousine he would offer excursions to gringos fascinated by the Caribbean paradise. One of them exclaimed to him on a certain occasion: This is my best day! Fernando liked the phrase and he made it his. Cancun was growing in leaps and bounds and it was fertile soil for an entrepreneur such as García Zalvidea who, with his meteoric rise as a hotel baron, created a public relations network of public, political and religious dimensions with the Quintana Roo elite. His savvy made him owner of a whole chain of hotels, Real Caribe, and Best Day, pioneering all-inclusive travel on the web.

But came the day in 1998 when his empire began crumbling. The Mexican Attorney General named him in association with “Maxiproceso,” an investigation into drug smuggling and money laundering for the Juarez Cartel in the state of Quintana Roo. State governor, Mario Villanueva-Madrid, nicknamed El Chueco (The Crook)), stood accused of having placed the state prosecutor at the service of drug boss, Ramón Alcides-Magaña, alias El Metro (One Meter). García-Zalvidea was accused of money laundering for the cartel in the purchase of the Gran Caribe Real hotel. He was detained and sent to the infamous Reclusorio Sur in Mexico City.

The investigations results were ambiguous. Former governor, Villanueva-Madrid was detained, imprisons and extradited to the USA where he is still incarcerated.

His punishment was unusually harsh by Mexican standards. Most of the accused were absolved of their crimes. García Zalvidea was released on March 4th, 2000 after only fourteen months.

Three years later, a magazine called Contralínea published a series of phone conversations between former Attorney General Antonio Lozano-Gracia, ex presidential candidate for the PAN party, Diego Fernández de Cevallos, and García-Zalvidea’s lawyer, Germán Rangel-González in which the PAN members discussed “political moves” to free the hotel owner and eventually have his case closed by the country’s attorney general.

Upon his release Fernando García-Zalvidea became the Legion’s greatest benefactor in Quintana Roo. He helped to build the City of Happiness in 2000, the largest social work of the Prelature, a center embracing schools, retirement home, homes for orphans and the terminally ill and a center for addiction treatment.
But the man in question went far beyond that, extending his political network through his brother, Juan Ignacio, El Chacho who became a member of the house for the PAN party in 2000 and later jumped ship to the Green Party. Under the green banner he won the election for Lord Mayor of the Benito Juárez Delegation (which includes Cancun) in February 2002. He was the first major of the opposition party (not from the PRI) in the city of Cancun. In 2004 El Chacho approached the leading candidate for the Mexican presidency, leftist Andrés Manuel López-Obrador.

Juan Ignacio proclaimed that he wanted to be a candidate for governor of Quintana Roo state representing the opposition. A few months after making his aspirations public he lost his seat in congress and later incarcerated on charges of over-spending the Cancun treasury. He was incarcerated for over a year until his brother, Fernando, paid a bail of 71 million Mexican pesos (five and a half million dollars.)

The García Zalvidea were one of the most powerful families in Quintana Roo state. El Chacho demonstrated his allegiance to the ruling party, PRI’, by participating in the present governor, Roberto Borge’s, campaign. While on the other side, Fernando was supporting the PAN party in 2012, organizing fundraisers for the PAN presidential candidate, Josefina Vázquez-Mota, among hotel owners. Bishop Pedro-Pablo Elizondo was invited to one of these events.
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A Closer Look at the Legion of Christ (historical documentary)

A documentary well researched and crafted by RTE (Irish Radio and Television) investigative reporter, Mick Peelo, full of well known and lesser known facts and new information. Peelo interviewed an heretofore forgotten source, Maciel accuser, Federico Dominguez who came forward with the first accusations against Fr. Maciel’s strange ways…

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