Mark Van Vugt Ph.D.

Naturally Selected

ISIS and the Real Reason Why Young Muslim Men Join the Jihad

The male warrior phenomenon

Posted Sep 20, 2014

Almost every day new news stories and gruesome images appear of atrocities committed by ISIS (Islamic State), also referred to as IS. The Paris terror attacks of Friday 13 November in which a group of IS affiliated suicide bombers killed more than a hundred individuals indiscriminately are fresh in everyone's mind. Such atrocities hardly seem to diminish the appeal of this terrorist movement, however.  Recent figures show that there are more than 3000 Western jihadists who have joined to fight in Syria and Iraq, mostly young Muslim men from Britain, Australia, France, Germany and the US. The mortality rates are pretty high (of the 140 Dutch IS fighters 15 are known to have died; so more than 10%). So this begs the question why any rational human being would decide to fight there or strip on a suicide vest to kill in the name of IS in Europe or elsewhere?

Analysts and politicians break their heads over the apparent popularity of IS among foreign fighters, and they come up with all sorts of explanations such as discrimination and prejudice at home, an aversion to Western culture, and the influence of the imams. I do believe that all these factors play a role, but they ignore a deeper underlying cause. For many young men engaging in warfare is just an adventurous journey. And for many it is a way to increase their status among their peers.

The American philosopher Jesse Glenn Gray fought in World War II and described his experiences as a member of a platoon in the memorable book The Warriors: "Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit that the experience of communal effort in battle was a high point of their lives. Despite the horror, the weariness, and the grim hatred, participation with others in the chances of battle had its unforgettable side which they would not want to have missed. "

Are the Western jihadists seeking such highlights? It could well be. We have done quite a bit of research on what we call "male warrior' effect. This describes the strong fascination among men in particular with anything to do with warfare. We find significant differences between men and women in watching war movies, reading war books, and in their political support for armed conflict as a solution to international relations. Men also participate more in intergroup aggression, are more prejudiced, and like to wear the colors of their favorite tribes, for instance, the sports team, motorcycle club, and religious tribe. This warrior psychology is probably deeply ingrained in the biology of men. There are several indications.

In different places in the world archeologists have found the mass graves with the skulls and skeletons are of men, women, and children who are clearly the victims of organized violence. Some of these graves are several tens of thousands years old.  In today's hunter-gatherer tribes – such as the Yanomamo in the Amazon – we see that male warriors enjoy high standing. The more enemies a warrior slains the higher his status in the group. Status translates into reproductive success, because good warriors sire more children. In recent research, we have through scenarios looked at the attractiveness of soldiers. Historical research (yet unpublished) shows that American soldiers who had earned a Medal of Honor  in World War II had more children on average than the average war veteran surviving WWII.

In our genetic relatives, the chimpanzee, we also find evidence for something that looks like warfare. Males of one community work together to guard the borders of their territory and if they see a male intruder then they grab him, pulling his limbs from his body and bite off his genitals. Female intruders tend to be left alone. It is a cowardly and sadistic spectacle reminiscent of some of the IS videos. Primatologists believe that the cause of these killings lies in weakening the other community so that the females choose to migrate to the stronger community. A recent study in Nature indeed shows that chimpanzee violence is not a result of human interference because it occurs even in areas in which there is no chimpanzee human interaction..

There may be several evolutionary advantages for young men to join a war party despite the chances of death. It gives young men a platform to acquire hero status for themselves and their family, and thus access to fame, women, and sex. The 72 virgins for Jihadis who are slain in battle is a metaphor of this reward. Sometimes however bride theft is a direct cause of warfare, think of the two hundred Nigerian girls were recently kidnapped by Boko Haram. Furthermore, participation in warfare ensures a memorable bonding experience with like-minded young men, similar perhaps to joining a street gang or a group of hooligans. Probably there is also a hefty dose of the "love" hormone oxytocin involved in the male bonding that occurs during fights. This mix of excitement, elevated status, and the surge of powerful hormones is the real reason why so many young Western men choose to join IS.

What should Western governments do about this? I have watched the anti-IS video of the American government showing clips of public executions by IS, and suicide bombs going off in mosques. The message is that you're crazy if you're going to fight fellow Muslims. But that's not the solution, I believe. Muslim communities around the world should stand up and make clear that it is not cool to become a Jihadist fighter and that you are absolutely not a hero but a loser who is rejected by their local community, by the mosques, the imams and women if they join this war. Those young Muslim men who stay home should be considered the true heroes of this terrible story.

Twitter: @markvanvugt1