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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Tackling Terrorism’s Taboo: Shame (Part 2)

This is the second part of the series on Tackling Terrorism’s Taboo: Shame. Read Part 1 here.

Shame Narratives

Additionally, radicalization narratives are not only meant to attract people who are already sympathetic to a terrorist cause but are also meant to divide populations into two groups: sympathizers (and thus potential recruits) and apostates. Apostates, or those who reject the moral identity of the entitative group, thus serve the terrorist agenda by providing a foil against which organizations can attach a negative image to that which threatens the entitative identity they promote. The goal of shame, to distance one’s self from social pain, thus presents terrorist organizations with a strong tool of societal division, particularly when attached to an entitative narrative.[60] Once the societal division has been established, norm violation narratives become an even more effective tool, particularly if the entitative group utilizes previously shared identity factors like a shared religious or nationalist outlook. In situations where identity is multifaceted, such as religio-nationalist or ethno- nationalist, the effectiveness of shame-based entitative group narratives may be particularly pronounced.

In addition to shame’s ingroup role in identification with entitative groups, its relation to norm regulation exposes how radical narratives may find footholds in otherwise ‘normal’ individuals and inoculate communities. The method by which terrorist organizations can utilize shame for norm regulation depends on how the narrative is framed within societies.[61] Examples of these types of narratives exist in jihadist framings of conflicts wherein the concept of the global ummah is evoked as a blanket identity for all Muslims, whereby anyone who does not seek to act in its protection against aggressors are considered inferior Muslims and possibly apostates. Such narratives may evoke a sense of failure of the self within recipients of the message because much of the narrative is rooted in an already shared worldview via vessels like Quranic texts, shame’s typical goals of distancing become difficult if not impossible to achieve without also rejecting the stable self. Thus, it is entirely possible that an acceptance of the radical narrative becomes easier than rejecting the stable aspects of the self that is deemed to be a failure, thus fulfilling the action tendencies of shame through an unexpected pathway.

Importantly, the application of entitative, or vanguard, narratives to encourage popular support of a more radical identity is not confined to the Islamic world’s internal jihadist challenge to the Muslim identity. Like shame itself, entitative and vanguard narratives are found across most forms of social movements and extremist entities. For example, extreme Israeli settler factions have long utilized a similar narrative that seeks to diminish the majority of the Israeli populace who do not support a stronger adherence to the Greater Land of Israel ideology. Shame is applied in their invocation of narratives that the Government of Israel will at times act as a Nazi-esque regime bent on preventing the ‘true’ Jewish nation from emerging.[62]

Additionally, in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, various shame-incidents are routinely evoked by both sides in their cultural framing of the necessity for in-group adherence and promotion. From the Palestinian side, the Nakba (the great tragedy and failure to stop expulsion of Arabs at the hands of the Zionists) continues to justify a strong ingroup defense against the ‘other’ (Israeli Zionists) which subjected the ingroup to a shameful status.[63] The shame in this instance is a failure to be strong enough to stop the tragedy that befell those who shared the ingroup identity. Radicalizing narratives thus attempt to capitalize on this open sore by stating that a stronger, more self-sufficient Palestinian effort is required to atone for this past failure. Most importantly, anyone who disagree with this approach can be shamed as ‘collaborators’ or ‘sympathizers’ with the Israelis.

On the other side of the conflict, Israeli settlers use similar narrative ploys to exploit nearly identical shame- incidents. In Hebron, the 1929 massacre continues to serve as a recruitment and radicalization agent for individuals to justify aggressive activities that fit a minimal definition of radical behavior.[64] What we can infer from the actions taken is that these individuals have accepted the worldviews on both sides that they must act to atone for past failures of the collective self to prevent an incident from occurring. Failure to have been prepared for the event is a failure internally and collectively, and, as suggested by Tracy & Robins, the shame of the event is shifted almost simultaneously into an anger at an outgroup.[65] While studies have examined these types of incidents and grievances from the perspective of a humiliation motivation, there is a need to look deeper as these types of events. This suggests a longer impact on the individual(s) and thus constitutes an emotional sentiment rather than a discrete emotional response to a specific event or recurring events.[66]

Moreover, these group-based expressions of shame run parallel to individual capabilities to experience shame over the same issues, and both act as norm regulators by rejecting individual failure to adhere to the belief as incompatible with what constitutes a proper Palestinian or Israeli outlook. Additionally, these narratives serve as bulwarks against perceived threats against the ingroup’s identity and thus against the norms and values to which they adhere.[67] For those who identify as Israeli, rejection by other Israelis for not supporting the idea that Jews should live in Biblical Jewish lands can lead to the appraisal that they will experience social pain should that opinion be made public. Equally, Palestinians who do not share the belief in the so-called “right to return” may asses that the social pain associated with publicization of their disagreement will be met with ostracization. Ultimately, both sides may find that agreeing with the narrative, or saying nothing at all, is easier than attempting to debate the topic internally, which may bring down social repercussions. While these cases are not the same in terms of degree to terrorist organizational uses of shame, they demonstrate how communal beliefs can justify adoption of more extreme narratives.

Shame as a Terrorist Tool

In further exploring the social devaluation aspect of shame, we can look at efforts like jihadist’s da’wa recruitment. In the United Kingdom, the al-Muhajiroun network’s (and its successors’) street da’wa recruitment efforts offer a unique opportunity to examine the application of shame in recruitment and radicalization efforts. Al- Muhajiroun embraces a stringent entitative narrative of ingroup-outgroup conflict between Islam and the West. [68] The commitment to the identity extends beyond words through physical appearances which signify a ‘true’ Muslim, such as traditional Islamic garb, beards, and other items which essentially create an easily identifiable uniform of the adherent Muslim. Furthermore, according to al-Muhajiroun, true Islam is incompatible with secular nationalism, and thus any Muslim that claims to be British cannot also be a true Muslim, and thus is inferior to the al-Muhajiroun’s members. Such a challenge to the stable self will drive uncertainty, and even the slightest uncertainty can cognitively open the recipients to doubts about their own worldview.[69]

The organization’s action repertoire utilizes a street-level peer-to-peer advocacy for their radical worldview and identity.[70] By challenging people in the streets with their bullhorn style of proselytizing, al-Muhajiroun’s agents thrust the exposed individual into a reflection of the self. Peer devaluation and social pain is not a potential in these circumstances, but is instead immediate and unavoidable given the intimacy of the encounters, decreasing options to achieve shame’s goal orientations such as distancing, removal and avoidance.[71]

As evidenced by watching the al-Muhajiroun network’s online da’wa videos, most targets of the network’s proselytizing will slide by and avoid any confrontation, clearly uncomfortable with the brazen display of radical perceptions which deeply contradict British norms and values. For those passersby who are Muslim and identify more strongly with a pluralistic British-Muslim identity, perceptions of how most British citizens view al- Muhajiroun’s representation of Muslims may evoke a sense of shame for being associated with such perverted understandings of what constitutes a ‘true’ Muslim, and may lead to disengagement and unwillingness to challenge the al-Muhajiroun activists. In contemporary thinking of radicalization wherein the narrative failed to attract support, this would preclude the street da’wa as a success. However, when we consider that shame can act as a mechanism to both attract and push away people, such brazen and aggressive narratives actually benefit the organizational needs of groups like al-Muhajiroun. Essentially, if such efforts by al-Muhajiroun yield one recruit out of every 50 people that walk by, they have also created 49 individuals who aren’t actively banding together against their narrative to the product al-Muhajiroun’s members are selling.[72] This is a crucial victory for entitative groups, as overcoming their relative weakness as a minority status is their greatest challenge.

Framing Shame

To understand how to analyze shame within the radicalization process, it is important to understand the benefit of emotions-based narrative framing. Hafez’s case study highlights the use of emotional narratives within Iraq to mobilize recruits into conducting suicide bombings on behalf of terrorist organizations.[73] Hitting the nail on the head, Hafez explains how these narratives “exaggerate mistreatment of women and appeal to the masculinity of men” to shame them into action.[74] Suicide bombers, were given an elevated status of “extraordinary moral beings who make the ultimate sacrifice” on behalf of the greater in-group identity, the Muslim nation.[75]

The organizations Hafez highlighted in his study used narratives like global persecution of Muslims by Western “crusaders,” failures of Muslim governments to protect against these persecutions (as well as their complicity in the persecutions), and the promotion of the martyrdom of Muslims that have fought and sacrificed themselves to protect the ingroup identity.[76] The purpose is to “weave together these three narratives to suggest a deleterious condition that requires immediate action, offer an explanation of the causes of this persistent condition, and present the necessary solution to overcome the problem.”[77] Hafez argues that “humiliation is at the heart of the mobilizing narratives of insurgents” due to imagery that highlights violations of Iraqi and Muslim norms (i.e., deaths of their women and children, the fall of the Iraqi government, military targeting of mosques during prayers, U.S. soldiers shooting or denigrating Iraqi insurgents by stepping on their backs,

and more).[78] Furthermore, Hafez asserts that these images are designed to “personalize the suffering and heighten the sense of powerlessness and indignations that many Muslims feel.”[79] Such narratives are the gold standard in understanding how uncertainty over one’s status quo can be pushed toward radical worldviews through shame-inducing imagery and framings.

What Hafez describes is a clear attempt to manipulate the emotional sentiment of shame within the Iraqi and broader Muslim identity. Moreover, Hafez highlights a specific hymn that is chanted in insurgent videos which states:

With the Sharp Weapon of Truth

We will liberate the lands of the free

And bring back purity to the land of Jerusalem After the humiliation and shame. [80]

What is abundantly clear from this passage and the study conducted by Hafez on the role that framing plays in radicalization efforts by terrorist organizations, is the direct and intentional use of shame as a mobilizing and radicalizing agent. The study also highlights the use of entitative narratives which promote ingroup divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and labels Iraqi security forces as “collaborators” of the American forces.[81]

Shame’s Role in Justifying Violence

Lastly, in tackling the potential link between shame and the justification for violence, scholarly efforts should turn to theories such as the shame-rage spiral for explanation.[82] Through its combination with framing narratives, this theory may shed light on how terrorist organizations can condition an ingroup to be accepting of violent actions to alleviate or preempt the social pain that could emerge in an ‘other’-imposed shame incident. Doojse et al. assert that virtually all ingroups perceive themselves as morally superior and when threats manifest against that superiority, it could provoke a feeling of shame, making it easier to cognitively accept violence to forcibly reject the perceived threat.[83]

Additionally, long-term collective shame sentiments framed by terrorist organizations, such as the ineptness of Muslim regimes in protecting their land against Western invasions, present particularly rich mines of emotive sentiment to draw upon for mobilizing individuals towards radical states and a willingness to justify violence. Failures that are transformed into external blame may become a source of anger that is prompted by an effort to internally escape the necessary self-reflection to process the shame event that is occurring.[84] Prolonged exposure to shame may lead to shame proneness within affected communities and increased “anger arousal, irritability, and indirect hostility.”[85] As of yet, there remains no indication that this shamed into anger state of mind may lead to direct aggression, though it does suggest that individuals suffering from a shame-anger emotional state could be more susceptible to narratives which help direct blame of negative events to external targets.

In terms of jihadist radicalization, narratives that seek to establish a defensive jihad justification may declare the need to deploy violent tactics or intimidation tactics in preemption of another Western effort that could bring shame upon Islam or Muslims globally. By asking the global ummah to mobilize, these narratives seek to cast those who do not act as complicit in perpetuating shame upon the collective Muslim identity. The connection between the long-term stable self ’s failure to adhere to expected norms of collective defense of the broader ingroup identity and the entitative identity narrative provide terrorist organizations with an immensely influential tool. This may also explain why previous radicalization models portray the increasing assumption of the entitative identity and actions in its defense as a deterministic pathway to terror.

In a stark example of how shame-based activities and narratives can influence individual actions, al-Mahjiroun was linked ideologically to the murderers of British soldier Lee Rigby. Both attackers, Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, had attended al-Mahjiroun rallies and demonstrations.[86] Adebolajo, it was later revealed, received direct tutoring from Omar Bakri Mohammad, the founder of al-Muhjiroun.[87] One of the issues that motivated the recent convert to Islam, according to Bakri Mohammad, was the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan by American-led Western forces.[88] Narrative calls to defend against the West’s invasion of those two countries are in no short supply, and there is a strong likelihood that the oft-angered Adebolajo was struggling with the shame surrounding the injustices he perceived associated with those invasions. Many others like Adebolajo exist, and not just in the context of jihadism. Shame is a universal emotion and its study within radicalization should extend to other radicalization case studies, especially those that can be described as attitudinal radicalization, wherein justification of violence is accepted, but the use of violence has not yet materialized.[89]


This search for a hidden underlying factor that may predispose some individuals and communities to radicalization narratives has identified shame, a self-conscious emotion which manifests itself unconsciously at times, as a potential missing link in more upstream aspects of process-based radicalization models.

In addition, it is distinctly possible that individuals and communities routinely exposed to compelling shame narratives and events may carry with them an emotional sentiment of shame that exists more persistently than the discrete emotional experiences a single event may evoke. This persistent emotional predisposition can be kindling for terrorist organizations keen on exploiting cultural, religious and political shifts. For example, in looking beyond the case of al-Muhajiroun to other circumstances of recent domestic radicalization challenges, long-term shame sentiments may play a role in understanding the phenomena of second and third generation extremism in European countries such as France and Belgium, two countries recently beset by waves of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslims with an immigration background in their families. To uncover the impact of long-term shame narratives on radicalization, future research should employ empirical assessments of outlets like al Qaeda’s Inspire and the Islamic State’s Dabiq magazines to assess how shame is situated and exploited in the texts. Additionally, examinations of prominent radicalizers like Anwar al-Awlaki’s statements for shame narratives could provide more robust support to the theoretical connections suggested in this article.

Most critically, future research should not shy away from expanding the role of shame beyond the immediate threats posed by jihadist terrorist organizations, as shame’s universal presence suggests a broader role in political extremism for this taboo emotion. The rise of right-wing nationalist groups and political parties expressing their own distinct identity as a justification for expelling or maligning those they deem unfit to be part of the community and therefore generally acceptable, should place shame firmly in the exploration of emotional mechanisms which attract, mobilize and then exploit people through radicalization. In addition, future research should also examine, in tandem, shame’s paired emotion – pride. Perceptions of ingroup superiority should not be separated from perceptions of shame. If at one end of a pendular spectrum exists the complete withdrawal from a shared identity due to shame, the other end logically would be the complete attachment to a collective identity due to pride. The two should be explored together and in their interactions.

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 second part in the series on Shame. 

[60] Costanza, 2015, 7; Hogg & Adelman, 2013, 449.[61] Costanza, 2015, 7; Stiles, 2008, 12-13.
[62] Pedahzur, A. (2012). The Triumph of Israel’s Radical Right. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; Zertal, I., & Eldar, A. (2014). Lords of the Land: the War over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007. Nation Books.
[63] Nur, M. (2008). Remembering the Palestinian Nakba: commemoration, oral history and narratives of memory. Holy Land Studies, 7(2), 123-156.
[64] Zertal, I., & Eldar, A. (2014). Lords of the Land: the War over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007. New York, NY: Nation Books, 135; Hirsch-Hoefler, S., Canetti, D., & Eiran, E. (2015). Radicalizing Religion? Religious Identity and Set- tlers’ Behavior. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 39(6), 500-518.
[65] Tracy & Robins, 2006, 1340.
[66] Longo, M., Canetti, D., & Hite‐Rubin, N. (2014). A checkpoint effect? Evidence from a natural experiment on travel restric-tions in the West Bank. American Journal of Political Science, 58(4), 1006-1023.
[67] Lickel, B., Steele, R. R., & Schmader, T. (2011). Group‐based shame and guilt: Emerging directions in research. Social and
‏.153-163 ,)3(5,Personality Psychology Compass
[68] Moghadam, A. (2016, September 14). The Jihadist Entrepreneur: What the Anjem Choudary Case Can Teach Us. Retrieved October 06, 2017, from URL: https://warontherocks.com/2016/09/the-jihadist-entrepreneur-what-the-anjem-choudary-case- can-teach-us/; Moghadam, A. (2017). Nexus of Global Jihad: Understanding Cooperation Among Terrorist Actors. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
[69] Hogg & Adelman, 2013, 449.
[70] Moghadam, A. (2016, September 14). The Jihadist Entrepreneur: What the Anjem Choudary Case Can Teach Us. Retrieved October 06, 2017, from URL: https://warontherocks.com/2016/09/the-jihadist-entrepreneur-what-the-anjem-choudary-case-can- teach-us/
[71] Dodd, V., & Howden, D. (2013, December 19). Woolwich murder: what drove two men to kill a soldier in the street? Retrieved October 06, 2017, from URL: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/dec/19/woolwich-murder-soldier-street-adebolajo-rad- icalised-kenya
[72] These numbers are for example only and are not intended to act as a source of empirical evidence.
[73] Hafez, 2007, 95.[74] Ibid.
[75] Hafez, 2007, 96. [76] Ibid.
[77] Hafez, 2007, 112.
[78] Hafez, 2007, 99.
[79] Hafez, 2007, 100.
[80] Video is 55 minutes, 12 seconds, entitled ‘‘Persist’’ or ‘‘Continue,’’ issued by the Islamic Army in Iraq and distributed through al-Meer Forum (www.almeer.net=vb) in January 2006.
[81] Ibid.
[82] Lewis, 1971, 419.
[83] Doosje, B., Loseman, A., & Bos, K. (2013). Determinants of radicalization of Islamic youth in the Netherlands: Personal uncer-tainty, perceived injustice, and perceived group threat. Journal of Social Issues, 69(3), 586-604. [84] Tracy & Robins, 2006, 1340; Lewis, 1971, 419.
[85] Tangney, J. P., Wagner, P., Fletcher, C., & Gramzow, R. (1992). Shamed into anger? The relation of shame and guilt to anger and self-reported aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(4), 669.
[86] Moghadam, A. (2016, September 14). The Jihadist Entrepreneur: What the Anjem Choudary Case Can Teach Us. Retrieved October 06, 2017, from URL: https://warontherocks.com/2016/09/the-jihadist-entrepreneur-what-the-anjem-choudary-case-can- teach-us/
[87] Dodd, V., & Howden, D. (2013, December 19). Woolwich murder: what drove two men to kill a soldier in the street? Retrieved October 06, 2017, from URL: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/dec/19/woolwich-murder-soldier-street-adebolajo-rad- icalised-kenya.
[88] Dodd, V., & Howden, D. (2013, December 19). Woolwich murder: what drove two men to kill a soldier in the street? Retrieved October 06, 2017, from URL: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/dec/19/woolwich-murder-soldier-street-adebolajo-rad- icalised-kenya.
[89] Scheff, 2003, 239; McCauley, & Moskalenko, 2008, 419.
Matthew Kriner
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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