ISIS and the Chosen Trauma Narrative

The Turkish-American Psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan used the term "chosen trauma" to describe the process of a group evoking the memory of a persecutory event and ascribing it an inordinate amount of emotional and historic significance. According to Volkan traumatized groups may evolve two kinds of leadership; the "reparative" type uses the traumatic event to unite the group and solidify its identity without harming another group. The "destructive type" uses the "chosen trauma" to increase a sense of victimization, vilify a real or imagined enemy and to resurrect dormant ideologies. These ideologies typically claim exaggerated privilege and endorse revenge. This construct provides an excellent psychological framework to analyze the phenomenon of violent entities such as ISIS.

At the outset of this discussion it is important to be cognizant that the most prominent terrorist groups have appeared in regions where armed conflict and failure of leadership have coincided. These are populations profoundly traumatized, impoverished and removed from any semblance of order and legal process. These factors make them more suggestible to indoctrination into absolutist narratives.

The first category of events that violent extremists have utilized in their rhetoric are those that symbolize persecution by non-Muslims. Prior to ISIS, Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zwahiri released a string of videos and memos that listed American and British excesses and painted a picture of a Muslim world prey to a forceful intrusion of Western economic, social and cultural influence. Graphic images from theaters of war such as Palestine, Chechnya and Afghanistan were incorporated into propaganda videos that called for holy war and revenge. Like its progenitor Al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS has also utilized this ploy to devastating effect. In each video that ISIS has released the objective seems to be the same: dehumanize the enemy and normalize the notion of violent retribution.

The second category of "chosen traumas" is mileposts of sectarian strife that militant groups selectively recall for recruitment and incitement purposes. ISIS propaganda videos targeting Iraqi audiences repeatedly evoke the "Shia regime" of Nouri Al-Maliki. The solitary speech of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi uploaded on social media contained repeated references to excesses by Maliki and spoke of the "ideological war" that must be fought with Shias. The videos aimed at Syrians speak of the atrocities perpetrated by the Alawite Bashar-ul-Assad on Sunni civilians.

Another aspect of Volkan's thesis that appears here are the nihilistic exegeses of Islam proffered by terrorist groups that summon potential recruits to the supposed "original" form of Islam that existed in the religion's earliest days. Invariably this vision of a pure Islam is tailored to inspire the elements of victimhood, revenge and exaggerated entitlement described by Volkan. Baghdadi compares his followers to the companions of Prophet Mohammad and asserts that his followers alone are capable of enforcing "true sharia".

The "chosen trauma" paradigm is thus utilized by violent extremist leadership throughout the Muslim world and provides them with a powerful modus for imposing draconian statutes as well as evoking fear and hatred. It allows them to justify persecution both within the ingroup as well as towards outgroups designated as enemies. The crucial role that the vicarious trauma of graphic videos plays in fostering hate on all sides cannot be stressed enough. These videos are viscerally disturbing and evoke fear and loathing-which they are designed to do. While their transmission on popular websites is protected by free speech laws some self-censorship is certainly called for. The tendency of some sources to seek out the most gruesome carnage and put it on display for all may enhance popularity but benefits ultimately only those who feed on hatred and schism.

In the final analysis ISIS and other terroristic entities can only be successfully countered by the emergence of the "reparative" leadership that Volkan speaks of to replace the "destructive" type. A Mandela or a Gandhi perhaps who validates the traumas suffered by the people but does not utilize them to foster hate. Who uses a history of shared traumas to bring people closer-and teaches them not to seek vengeance but "to do unto others what you would have them do unto you".