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Terrorism and Political Conflicts: An Integrated Perspective

Author: Dr. Dipak Gupta

Traditional economics and many of the allied social sciences unquestionably assume that we are motivated solely by our self-interest. Unfortunately, such an assumption runs contrary to the real world, where, from the extreme (suicide bombing) to the mundane (donating to PBS), people sacrifice their self-interest for larger group interest. In order to develop a fuller explanation of collective actions, I hypothesize that as social beings, we are motivated by what is good for us individually, as well as what is good for the group(s), in which we claim our membership. This expanded concept of human motivations, allows me to combine economics with social psychology and evolutionary biology. Let me explain how it helps us understand social conflict.

When we examine closely the causes of sociopolitical conflicts, we find a number of common factors: Whenever we form groups, based on nationalism, religious identity, or Marxian class identity, we do so on the basis of imaginary communities. We draw boundaries based on our perception of who belongs to the community and who don’t. These perceptions of group identity are not in-born, but are learned behavior. We buy into a narrative told by group leaders — social elites of all kinds, from village mullahs to the national leaders — which defines our enemies and allies. When these elites articulate an existential threat from the group of the “enemies” to ours, some of us become ready to attack the offenders. These conflicting group identities are at the core of all political conflicts.

Today, the biggest threat to peace and prosperity to the democratic societies come from those who want to challenge it through violent means. The Internet and other means of global communication have increased the threat of mass violence based on ideas of hate. In order to counter this threat, we must understand the process by which ideas spread across the world. We must understand the path by which they penetrate all national boundaries and incite young men and women to take up arms. As we examine these paths we realize that the process of radicalization is not random; they affect some while leaving out others. Our research aims at understanding this process by examining the causes of “susceptibility” and “immunity” to the ideas of violence.

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