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Tackling Terrorism’s Taboo: Shame (Part 1)

Despite the development of a robust global counter-terrorism regime in the post-9/11 era, radicalization continues to present a clear and present danger to societies around the world. Interdisciplinary efforts have yielded promising avenues to be explored, such as the emotional and psychological mechanisms that affect the social identities of human beings.[1] Given this, and knowing that no unique biographical terrorist profile exists, there is a need to expand the radicalization literature to include more emotional mechanisms to better understand how individuals come to embrace the extreme and violent belief systems threatening societies around the world.[2]

Shame, an oft understudied emotion with powerful influence on the self, presents a compelling avenue to explore, given its near universal applicability to all cultural settings.[3] Emotions and identity, through an understanding of the social aspect of the self and shame’s regulatory power on norm adherence, can provide a better understanding of radicalization processes. While modern scholarship has largely overlooked shame’s role in radicalization as a mechanism used by terrorist organizations, Fyodr Dostoyevsky’s The Demons tackles the issue directly, illustrating how deficiencies in the self, such as sexual fetishes and collectively committing a murder, can help cement a secret terrorist cell’s motivation to conduct a revolution.[4] Why is it that a Russian novelist was able to pinpoint the complex emotion that drove terrorism in his day, but modern scholars often overlook the same emotion? In the many years since Dostoyevsky’s classic was published, the colloquial and academic use of shame in describing emotional states has receded in favor of its hyponymic relatives, such as humiliation, guilt, and anger. According to Scheff, shame’s taboo nature in our modern society may play a role in shame’s decline.[5] Shame’s taboo is so powerful it is often avoided as a discussion topic even on the conceptual level.[6]

This exploratory article will cast aside such concerns and attempt to peel back the complexity of shame as it relates to terrorist organizations’ radicalization strategies. It will address what constitutes shame, through the emotion’s associated appraisals, tendencies, and goals, and why it is a critically overlooked component in the radicalization process.[7] With both concepts established, this article will explore how radicalization and shame are related to identity formation and narrative framing, and briefly explore two cases. Finally, the article will contribute a conceptual outline of how terrorist organizations use shame-based narratives and shame’s unique nature to advance a radical identity within an established in-group, a process that has become known as radicalization.


Like terrorism and most other complex social science concepts, radicalization does not have a clearly agreed upon definition.[8] A general consensus has emerged that, in terms of the radicalization process, what individuals believe is less important than how they come to believe it.[9] Additionally, extant literature supports the notion that radicalization can be understood as a phenomenon that can manifest itself cognitively and behaviorally, and generally holds no set or shared profile as to who may become radicalized.[10] Understanding how an individual comes to a new worldview that is relationally radical to the mainstream of the society requires an examination of mechanisms.[11]

Three critical definitions can provide a robust framework for conceptualizing the role of shame within radicalization. First, Hafez and Mullins argue that cognitive radicalization is more widespread than its behavioral counterpart, and is defined by “acquiring values, attitudes, and political beliefs that deviate sharply from those of mainstream society.”[12] Similarly, McCauley and Moskalenko posit the radicalization process as a “change in beliefs, feelings, and behaviors in directions that increasingly justify intergroup violence and demand sacrifice in defense of the ingroup.”[13] And Horgan defines radicalization as “the social and psychological process of incrementally experienced commitment to extremist political or religious ideology.”[14] It is critical to note that these definitions do not seek to claim that the use of violence is a necessary outcome of radicalization.[15] Acknowledging that radicalization is not a deterministic pathway to terrorism is critical for the understanding of shame as a radicalization mechanism and fits within the general consensus of radicalization as non- deterministic.[16]

Moreover, scholarly pursuits to find direct causal explanations for radicalization have largely failed.[17] Alternative approaches have reached a consensus that there are many unique pathways and mechanisms that can coalesce into necessary conditions for radicalization.[18] Importantly, radicalization mechanisms have been identified as a useful way to study how someone comes to a radical belief, which incorporates psychological, neurological, and physical stimuli.[19] Interestingly, in their mechanisms-based approach, McCauley and Moskalenko examine humiliation, anger, hate, facing personal demons, and other similar concepts related to shame in both the individual and collective, but fail to address shame directly.[20] This suggests two important factors. First, emotions are a valid and critical mechanism in the understanding of radicalization.[21] Second, shame is routinely overlooked by radicalization scholars in studying how organizations and movements recruit and radicalize.

Discursive approaches are uniquely relevant when examining the issue of radicalization through the emotional framework.[22] Critically, the discursive approach suggested by Costanza, provides a deeply contextual analysis that seeks to limit the Western bias that pervades the field of radicalization studies. Costanza argues that because individuals are embedded within society, and vice versa, our models to assess radicalization must incorporate that unique and personal dynamic. Narratives, according to Costanza, establish “a standard of conformity in which an individual must decide to either leave the group or share in the doctrinally established group narrative.”[23]

Radicalization, therefore, can best be understood as a culturally contextual and highly personal experience, governed by norms, rules, and societal expectations. When radical entities seek to establish deviant norms from the majority norms, narratives used aid in forcing individuals to choose between the old and the new identity. Thus, emotions and identity, being firmly rooted in the social aspect of the self, should be at the core of the study of radicalization processes.


The first challenge in understanding shame’s role within radicalization is overcoming the traditional aspects of shame that are associated with escape, aversion, and avoidance.[24] Because radicalization narratives are conventionally understood to be aimed at motivating individuals, emotions that are negatively oriented, such as shame, are not immediately and logically connected to radicalization studies. Shame is a taboo, an often subconscious emotion, which is triggered by self-reflection.[25] That some scholars suggest shame requires self-reflection should not dismiss shame from a central focus in radicalization studies, as it may be one of the most powerful and extensive emotion humans can experience.[26] The power of shame comes from its ability to deeply challenge the core self with or without public exposure, separating it from other self- conscious emotions like humiliation and guilt, which are social reactions to an exposure of wrongdoing or failure.[27] And according to Thomaes, et al., shame can leave people feeling “strongly devalued, inferior, and exposed.”[28] It is commonly associated with internal attributions for a failure of the stable self, but also with external attributions of a failure of the self. It is connected to a need to prevent public exposure, or the potential exposure, of a self-failure.[29] Shame evokes action tendencies such as “defensiveness, interpersonal separation, and distance.”[30] In the context of the socialized radicalization analysis model proposed by Costanza, shame’s role within the social-self interaction makes it a highly valuable emotion from which to assess radicalization processes.

Furthermore, shame is strongly associated with norm regulation through the concern of how others view the self, particularly the concern that others view one as deficient due to an inability to live up to norms. [31] According to Pivetti, Camodeca, and Rapino, “shame and guilt are generally considered to be the most important adaptive moral, or social, emotions, because they tend to assure the adherence to social norms through their internalization, without requiring the use of external sanctions.”[32] Based on the need to meet certain societal expectations or uphold the norms (morals and belief systems), when the total self (and not just a specific aspect of the self) fails to meet these standards, one may individually assign failure to the self or fear that public exposure will bring social pain. Internalization of shame will lead to preemptive attempts to avoid the public exposure; therefore, the overarching goal of shame is to avoid public and peer devaluation.[33]

In most cases, social pain may result in a casting out from the majority group, but in circumstances where the social norms are set by more extreme actors, it can be accompanied by physical ramifications (e.g., honor- killings in ultra-conservative Muslim communities or labeling as an apostate by radical ideological terrorist organizations). These failures are rooted in an understanding that their existence runs counter to mainstream values and beliefs.[34] Therefore, when individuals assign a failure to meet standards of a stable internal factor of the self (e.g. being a homosexual in a deeply conservative household), rather than an external factor (e.g., interference by another person) or an unstable factor of the self (e.g., a failed effort), shame will be evoked.[35] When strategically deployed, shame’s inherent power over the individual can have devastating consequences. Yet, its taboo nature has led to it being drastically understudied as an organizational tool in recruitment and radicalization.

Another aspect of shame that lends promise to the study of radicalization is its long-term impact, or its emotional sentiment.[36] According to Halperin, emotional sentiments exist as a baseline state toward a “person, group, or symbol that is unrelated to any specific action or statement by this object.”[37] Discrete emotional responses and long-term sentiments can take the same form, suggesting that long-term communal failures of identity can imprint and be ‘spiked’ by recurring events that mimic traumatic shame-incidents in a collective identity’s shared history.[38] This is supported by Tracy & Robins’ research, which found that individuals routinely exposed to shame, “may learn to regulate it by making external attributions.”[39] Essentially, shame-prone individuals will escape the conscious acknowledgement of shame within the self, and instead will unconsciously blame others for their failure.[40]

Additionally, Tracy & Robins state that if one does not externalize the blame for failures, then they “may need to adopt a long-term strategy of behavioral modification (e.g., working toward becoming a different kind of person).”[41] The implications of shame’s role as a strategically employed mechanism for radicalization by terrorist organizations is apparent in relation to ingroup-outgroup dynamics and identity formation tactics. Exploitation of this condition of shame may be best understood through theories such as: framing theory, which holds strong value in cognitive psychological processes; and uncertainty-identity theory, which suggests that when individuals are uncertain in their identity of the self, they may turn toward more extreme sources of identity to achieve closure.[42] This will be explored in the discussion section of this article. Furthermore, if framing narratives are meant to evoke specific emotional responses in a populace toward action, and adopting a worldview, then we can also understand strategic invocations of historic shame-incidents as a means of externally applied norm regulation. Additionally, the lack of resolution for specific shame-incidents may create a festering wound in a shared identity that is free to be re-opened by radicalizers at will.

It is important to note that shame is often used interchangeably with guilt or humiliation (including within the clinical setting), and distinctions from guilt and humiliation stem from the individual appraisal of a shame- inducing event.[43] According to June Tangney, differentiation between the two emotions is delicate, but important, and when people feel shame, “they feel badly for themselves; when people feel guilt, they feel badly about a specific behavior.”[44] This presents unique challenges to past research (e.g. fury studies) that utilized shame’s hyponymic cousins – anger and humiliation.[45] However, while this is beyond the scope of this article, the potential of incorrect categorization of such similar emotions in past research on radicalization should be addressed in future research.

What we can infer from the assessment of shame’s emotional uniqueness is that shame is an immensely powerful and formative emotion. Moreover, shame-based narratives are powerful for pushing individuals toward accepting a new worldview, particularly if the social pain derived from non-conformity is amplified with a threat to an individual’s safety, stemming from moral transgressions and norm violations.[46] Second, when an individual’s social value derives from an ingroup that is beset by a terrorist narrative that seeks to divide the ingroup into adherents to their worldview and those that are in a state of impropriety, conditions for the utilization of shame as a recruitment and radicalization mechanism emerge.[47]

The Conceptual Application of Shame to Radicalization Studies

Theoretical Connection

As the study of radicalization has largely shifted from examining what people believe, to how they come to believe it, there is clear value in considering shame as an emotional mechanism within a process of incremental adoption and commitment to a radical identity and worldview.[48] Emotional mechanisms provide a strong understanding of how someone comes to believe something, and in ongoing conflicts, they can shed light on the contributing radicalization factors within an individual or within communities that go unnoticed due to their repressed taboo nature.[49] Terrorist organizations, like al- Qaeda or the Islamic State, routinely engage in use of emotion-based narratives in their recruitment and radicalization strategies.[50] For example, in an online statement released in March 2010, al-Qaeda’s infamous radicalizer, Anwar al-Awlaki, posed the following question to American Muslims:

With the American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being a Muslim, and I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other Muslim….

To the Muslims in America, I have this to say: How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful coexistence with a nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters?[51]

Such questions within jihadist recruitment narratives are designed to stoke uncertainty within the dual identity nature of Muslim Americans. In referencing the conscience and juxtaposing a shared proto-Muslim worldview against the framed immorality of the host nation (in this case, America), al-Awlaki and his fellow jihadist ideologues hope to shame listeners into abandoning their attachment to the American identity and taking up arms to rectify its wrongdoings. Such pleas are supported by an internal ‘awakening’ by al-Awlaki who determined that his identity could not support both American and Muslim values in his total self. On the other hand, Muslim Americans who believe the teachings of al-Awlaki to be repugnant, may find it shameful to learn that there are Muslim Americans who agree with him, or that he himself was American. To resolve such painful revelations, they may distance themselves from challenging these individuals, or ignore the contentious topic altogether

The following discussion of how shame may play a central role in terrorist organizations’ upstream recruitment and radicalization strategies is not intended to be an exhaustive exploration of the interaction between the two subjects. On the contrary, shame’s near universal presence in our lives and its need for self-reflection suggest that its role within radicalization is likely present across the process as a whole, and not just in discrete applications. [52]

First, shame’s ability to impact identity through peer devaluation and outgroup blame merits significant attention by scholars. Analysis of terrorist organizations’ use of shame can, and should, be conducted on both the individual and group level. Individual and collective experiences of shame are easily exploitable by those seeking to affix an entitative identity onto as many recruits as possible. The nexus between shame’s concern over others’ perception of one’s self and the role groups play in protecting the self through affiliation with an identity group that provides the individual with a positive association, suggest a widespread presence of the use of shame in individuals’ pursuit of a group identity which may affirm their worldview, and the use of shame to increase the group’s identity narrative in a radical context.[53]

Uncertainty-identity theory provides a strong conceptualization of the relationship between shame and “motivational underpinnings of social identity processes.”[54] Because uncertainty is an aversive sentiment, it motivates one to take action at reducing uncertainty, particularly those uncertainties that relate to the self.[55] Most notably, attachment to entitative groups (a pure representation of the ingroup identity) present a clear resolution to the uncertainty of the self’s categorization within the social sphere.[56] These narratives seek to dismiss those within the ingroup that would, if given the proper platform or enough power, dismantle the entitative argument of the terrorist organization.

This is remarkably like the action tendencies of shame, which seek to reduce uncertainty over the potential publicization of moral transgressions and the effect that may have on one’s social standing.[57] Because shame is a cognitive emotion that requires self-reflection, when narratives that seek to force a dichotomous identity upon an ingroup emerge from terrorist organizations, an unconscious or conscious questioning of an individual’s sense of attachment to the shared identity will occur, particularly if they center on morality and norm violation.[58] In such circumstances, when one perceives the ingroup as having positive moral value, adopting those values may provide an avenue to resolve the uncertainty the moral shaming instigated. However, complete avoidance of the shame will likely occur among those that are more concerned with their social image rather than the violation of the moral norm.[59]

This article was first published in Perspectives on Terrorism, a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies reprinted under Creative Commons 3.0 license. It is the first part in a two part series about Tackling Terrorism’s Taboo: Shame. 

[1] Borum, R. (2011a). “Radicalization into Violent Extremism I: A Review of Social Science Theories.” Journal of Strategic Securi- ty, 4(4), 7; Horgan, J. (2008). “From Profiles to Pathways and Roots to Routes: Perspectives from Psychology on Radicalization into‏.94 – 80 ,)1(618,Terrorism.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
[2] McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S. (2008). “Mechanisms of Political Radicalization: Pathways toward Terrorism.” Terrorism and Political Violence, 20(3), 415-433.‏; Horgan, 2008, 80.
[3] Scheff, T. J. (2003). Shame in self and society. Symbolic interaction, 26(2), 239-262.
[4] While Dostoyevsky’s novel is a great work of fiction, it has considerable psychological merit. Sigmund Freud reportedly stated that all he knew of psychology was first discovered by Fyodr Dostoyevsky. See: Moran, J. P. (2009). The Solution of the Fist: Dosto- evsky and the Roots of Modern Terrorism. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
[5] Scheff, 2003, 250.
[6] Scheff, 2003, 250; Dearing, R. L., & Tangney, J. P. E. (2011). Shame in the therapy hour. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. URL: http://dx.doi.org.ezprimo1.idc.ac.il/10.1037/12326-000
[7] Halperin, E. (2015). Emotions in Conflict: Inhibitors and Facilitators of Peace Making (Vol. 2). New York, NY: Routledge.‏.7,Borum, 2011a ]8[
[9] Borum, 2011a, 7.‏; Horgan, 2008, 81.
[10] Borum, 2011a, 7.‏; Borum, R. (2011b). Radicalization into Violent Extremism II: A review of Conceptual Models and Empirical Research. Journal of Strategic Security, 4(4), 37.; Hafez, M., & Mullins, C. (2015). The Radicalization Puzzle: a Theoretical Synthesis of Empirical Approaches to Homegrown Extremism. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 38(11), 958-975; Horgan, 2008, 83; McCau- ley, C., & Moskalenko, S., 2008, 429.
[11] Borum, 2011a, 7.‏‏; McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S., 2008, 416.
[12] Hafez, M., & Mullins, C. (2015). The Radicalization Puzzle: a Theoretical Synthesis of Empirical Approaches to Homegrown
Extremism. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 38(11), 961.
[13] McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S. (2008). Mechanisms of Political Radicalization: Pathways toward Terrorism. Terrorism andPolitical Violence, 20(3), 416.
[ 14] Horgan, J. G. (2009). Walking away from terrorism: Accounts of disengagement from radical and extremist movements. New York, NY: Routledge, 152.
[15] Hafez & Mullins, 2015, 960‏; McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S., 2008, 419.
[16] Borum, 2011b, 57.
[17] Costanza, W. A. (2015). Adjusting our Gaze: an Alternative Approach to Understanding Youth Radicalization. Journal of Stra- tegic Security, 8(1-2), 1-15. URL: doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5038/1944-0472.8.1.1428
[18] Borum, 2011b, 57; Hafez & Mullins, 2015, 959; Horgan, 2008, 86; McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S., 2008, 416. [19] McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S., 2008, 418.
[20] McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S., 2008, 418.
[21] Halperin, 2015, 3; McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S., 2008, 418; Wilner, A. S., & Dubouloz, C. J. (2010). Homegrown Terrorism and Transformative Learning: an Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding Radicalization. Global Change, Peace & Securi-
ty, 22(1), 33-51.
[22] Costanza, 2015, 2.
[23] Ibid., 7.
[24] Tangney, J. P., Stuewig, J., & Mashek, D. J. (2007). Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 345- 372; Tracy, J. L., & Robins, R. W. (2006). Appraisal antecedents of shame and guilt: Support for a theoretical model. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(10), 1339-1351.
[25] Scheff, 2003, 250; Tracy & Robins, 2006, 1340.
[26] Scheff, 2003, 249.
[27] Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007, 349; Tracy & Robins, 2006.
[28] Thomaes, S., Stegge, H., Olthof, T., Bushman, B. J., & Nezlek, J. B. (2011). Turning Shame Inside-out: “Humiliated Fury” in Young Adolescents. Emotion, 11(4), 786.
[29] Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007, 349; Tracy & Robins, 2006, 1340. [30] Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007, 350.
[31] Stiles, P. (2008). The negative side of motivation: the role of shame. Judge Business School University of Cambridge. Cambridge, UK: Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, 1.
[32] Pivetti, M., Camodeca, M., & Rapino, M. (2016). Shame, Guilt, and Anger: Their Cognitive, Physiological, and Behavioral Correlates. Current Psychology, 35(4), 691.
[33] Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007, 348; Pivetti, Camodeca, & Rapino, 2016, 697.
[34] Costanza, 2015, 7; Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007, 348.
[35] Tracy & Robins, 2006, 1340; Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007, 350.
[36] Frijda, N. H. (1986). The Emotions. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 102; Halperin, 2015, 23. [37] Halperin, 2015, 23.
[38] Ibid., 23.
[39] Tracy & Robins, 2006, 1340.
[40] Lewis, H. B. (1971). Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. Psychoanalytic Review, 58(3), 419; Tracy & Robins, 2006, 1340.[41] Tracy & Robins, 2006, 1348.
[42] Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; Benford, R. D., & Snow, D. A. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: An over- view and assessment. Annual Review of Sociology, 26(1), 611-639; Hogg, M. A., & Adelman, J. (2013). Uncertainty–identity theory: Extreme groups, radical behavior, and authoritarian leadership. Journal of Social Issues, 69(3), 436-454; Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211(4481), 453-458.
[43] Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007, 348; Scheff, 2003, 242.
[44] Tangney, J. P. E. (2011). Interview with June Price Tangney About Shame in the Therapy Hour. Retrieved from URL: http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/interviews/4317264-tangney.aspx
[45] Scheff, 2003, 254-255.
[46] Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007, 347.
[47] Costanza, 2015, 13-14; Hafez, M. M. (2007). Martyrdom mythology in Iraq: How jihadists frame suicide terrorism in videos and biographies. Terrorism and Political Violence, 19(1), 95-115‏; Hogg & Adelman, 2013, 438.
[48] Borum, 2011a, 7; Horgan, 2008, 81.
[49] Scheff, 2003, 250.
[50] Hafez, 2007, 95.
[51] Mackey, R. (September 30, 2011). Anwar al-Awlaki in his own words. Retrieved April 8, 2018 from URL: https://www. theguardian.com/world/2011/sep/30/anwar-al-awlaki-video-blogs
[52] Scheff, 2003, 239.
[53] Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007, 348; Hogg & Adelman, 2013, 438. [54] Hogg & Adelman, 2013, 438.
[55] Ibid.
[56] Ibid.; Hogg, M. A. (2004). Uncertainty and extremism: Identification with high entitativity groups under conditions of uncer- tainty. In V. Yzerbyt, C. M. Judd, & O. Corneille (Eds.), The Psychology of Group Perception: Perceived Variability, Entitativity, and Essentialism (pp. 401–418). New York: Psychology Press.
[57] Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007, 348.
[58] Pivetti, Camodeca, & Rapino, 2016, 691; Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007, 348.
[59] Allpress, J. A., Brown, R., Giner-Sorolla, R., Deonna, J. A., & Teroni, F. (2014). Two faces of group-based shame: Moral shame and image shame differentially predict positive and negative orientations to ingroup wrongdoing. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(10), 1270-1284.
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Matthew Kriner is based in Washington, D.C. where he serves as a Research Fellow for Valens Global, a private company that consults on counter-terrorism, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, insurgent groups and violent non-state actors. Prior to joining Valens Global, he was a Graduate Research Assistant at IDC and previously served as the Director for Political Affairs at the Atlanta, GA Consulate General for Israel. Matthew's research interests include all things related to extremism, radicalization, and violent social movements. He has published an article on radicalization with Perspectives on Terrorism, and published op-eds on contemporary terrorism challenges in RealClearDefense and Huffington Post.

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