Systemic, Holistic Thinking

In “What Makes a Terrorist?” Nafees Hamid presents a particularly clear argument for systemic analysis and a holistic perspective on what leads jihadist terrorists to engage in terrorism.

He argues:

The greatest difficulty for our ability to understand and respond to terrorism and radicalization is linear thinking. Arguing that radicalization is caused by poverty because most modern jihadists come from marginalized neighborhoods is the same flawed logic as arguing that radicalization is caused by Islam because jihadists are all Muslims. Even combining Islam and marginalization as risk factors doesn’t get us far, as only a fraction of a percentage of marginalized Muslims join jihadist groups. One can add many more factors and still end up with the same dilemma. Trying to find a root cause of radicalization is doomed from the start because it assumes a single, linear chain of causation.

Instead, it is better to think of radicalization as a phenomenon in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Multiple factors interact in complex ways that cause radicalization to emerge in individual people and groups. As with other complex systems, such as ecosystems, removing one factor does not cause the system to collapse but instead to evolve in ways that may be positive or negative.

…Radicalization is a complex system that cannot be reduced to its individual factors. International conflicts, social networks, community, ideology, and individual vulnerabilities all combine to let radicalization emerge. Some of these factors may be more volatile, such as individual personalities, while others are more stable, such as social networks. But only a holistic view of this phenomenon can provide the understanding needed for designing policies to counter the pull of extremist groups.

His approach applies to other issues as well.

2 Responses to Systemic, Holistic Thinking

  1. Whatever the phenomenon, “only a holistic view of this phenomenon can provide the understanding needed for designing policies”. A systems view always requires us to consider all applicable factors and their interactions. Committing to taking this more nuanced approach also necessarily induces some deliberation into our responses, and helps us avoid knee-jerk reactions. And we’ve learned many of those reactions through similar past experiences – but without also learning why they didn’t work.

    Chance favours the prepared mind. So in the heat of the moment, we can take a chance to act more effectively if we have previously thought through our response to various kinds of fires! There’s no use trying to quench an electrical flame with water, so we need to be prepared to recognise what we’re up against and to bring the right tools to deal with it.

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