Whether to Kill: The Cognitive Maps of Violent and Nonviolent Individuals

Whether to Kill: The Cognitive Maps of Violent and Nonviolent Individuals

Whether to Kill: The Cognitive Maps of Violent and Nonviolent Individuals

Whether to Kill: The Cognitive Maps of Violent and Nonviolent Individuals

Synopsis

What drives some to violence against the state while others, living in the same place at the same time, turn to nonviolent resistance? And in this age of Islamist terrorism and Islamophobia, does the practice of Islam encourage violence? Structural explanations of violence fail to answer these questions. In Whether to Kill, Stephanie Dornschneider applies the methodology of cognitive mapping to study the beliefs that motivate individuals to take up arms or engage in nonviolent activism. Using a double-paired comparison with control groups, Dornschneider conducted extensive ethnographic interviews with violent and nonviolent Muslims and non-Muslims in both Egypt and Germany, speaking with them about their lives and contexts and what drove them to resist the state. After coding their responses into cognitive maps, which make visible the connections between an individual's beliefs and decisions for behavior, Dornschneider used a computer model to analyze the huge number of possible factors driving people to choose or not choose violence, eventually identifying ten reasoning processes by which violent individuals can be differentiated from nonviolent ones.

Whether to Kill takes a new approach to understanding terrorism. Through first-person accounts of those involved in both violent and nonviolent action against the state--from members of groups as diverse as the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Jihad, the Socialist German Student Union, and the Red Army Faction--then analyzing that data via cognitive mapping, Stephanie Dornschneider has opened up new perspectives on what drives people to--or away from--the use of political violence.

Excerpt

As a child, Najeh Ibrahim loved his president. “We all loved Nasser,” he recalls. “He emphasized our country.” However, Ibrahim’s positive attitude toward the leader of his country changed as he grew older. Observing waves of arrests of Muslim Brothers and other political opponents, he began to resent the state. “We were seeing them come out of prison with marks of torture.” When he was seventeen, Ibrahim founded a small group, which quickly spread all over Egypt and soon posed a serious threat to the state: al-Jamaʿat al-Islamiyya. In 1981, this group changed the history of the country: it participated in the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat. Ibrahim was among the leaders who decided to kill the president. He says the decision was made to resist state repression, by “young and strong” men who had alternatives: “Of course I had an alternative. I am a doctor. Look at bin Laden: He is a millionaire but lives like a beggar.” Had the state not engaged in repression, Ibrahim believes, “Sadat would not have been dead.”

Ahmad Saif al-Islam Hassan al-Banna did not love his president as a child. His father was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and assassinated in 1949. When Saif al-Islam became politically active himself, he had bitter experiences. “I tried to oppose parliament twice,” he recalls his time in the People’s Assembly. “They threatened to kill me. … They also threatened my family.” He says he refused to give in and went to court instead— but nothing happened. In spite of such experiences, he did not lose hope and continued to believe that the Muslim Brothers’ participation in politics could change the state. “It is better to succeed. Someone else replaced me,” he comments on his forced withdrawal from elections. “I left, and I understand it is not only me who is treated like that.” Saif al-Islam says he never considered the use of physical force to confront the state: “I will not use violence. I am a judge, and I studied law. My mind does not accept a violation of the law. If I use violence, I will lose. The state will kill us all. Now the state has no reason to do anything against us.”

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