Do media push or pull Islamists toward radicalism? Not just a chicken and egg question

In early scholarship on radicalization, sociologists and psychologists considered environmental issues such as poverty or oppression as motivating factors. This research posits an alternative view. Though background factors, such as economics, religiosity, and religious training, as well as issues that are of an emotional nature, were important, none showed significant influence in radicalization. But when the populations were evaluated on Webster & Kruglanski’s (1994) “need for closure” metrics, the two populations showed distinct differences. In other words, psychology and personality interacted with endogenous factors to motivate or “pull” someone to seek information to resolve cognitive consternation and are thus radicalized.

There is ample literature on the persuasive effects of mass media that has led some researchers to guess that terrorist organizations might be able to use mass media to persuade hapless Muslims into becoming terrorists (Conway, 2006; Seib, 2008). But, in reality, the role of mass media in the process of terrorist recruitment is much more subtle than such a “direct effects” perspective might suggest. That is, media messages rarely have the power to convert or even mobilize unsuspecting, neutral audiences. However, the media may reinforce predispositions and even play a role in activating members of a predisposed population.  In other words, media messages can be used, not to persuade per se, but to activate the persuadable (Shah et al. , 2007).  This argument could be described as the “pull,” as opposed to the “push,” nature of media in terrorist recruitment in what Hogan calls “nurtured predisposition” (2009, pp.  13, 66).

Wiktorowicz (2005) argues that not all Muslims, even under the same conditions, are universally attracted to the road to radicalism.  So questions can be raised about which Muslims are inclined toward radicalization, and under what conditions.  To address these questions, scholars such as Al-Mutairi (2001), Selengut (2003) and Pape (2005) have examined Islamic movement participants using a psychological lens, trying to look for personality traits or some aberrant thinking process that causes some individuals to become radicalized.  Others researchers, such as Sageman (2004), Wickham (2002), Neighbour (2004) and McCauley & Segal (1987), take a more sociological approach.

For example, Sageman observed that those who are radicalized demonstrate behavior in what he calls a collective “bunch of guys. ”Wickham looked at community dynamics where some pockets of populations and social layers are more mobilized than others. McCauley & Segal concluded that terrorism should not be thought of in terms of individual psychopathology; rather it is a phenomenon of group dynamics and normal psychology. Neighbour supports that theory by demonstrating how in certain Islamic study groups (e. g. , halaqa, usroh, liko), Muslims were converted into radicalism, but the majority of study group participants were not radicalized.

But threaded through the writings of these scholars is the role that media have played in the recruitment and radicalization of certain populations.  Gerwehr & Daly (2006) argue that media are used as part of recruitment strategies such as the “net” or the “funnel” that catches and/or processes recruits via, among other things,media interactions.  Other scholars demonstrate that the use of social media such as Facebook and blogs creates a virtual environment, through which a mash-up of message and relationships persuades some individuals to be recruited (Winn & Zakem, 2009). 

Weimann (2006) posits that through the constant presences on the Internet, groups with limited resources are able to project their cause and recruit more broadly than they were able to using traditional interpersonal connections.  Other researchers such as Edwards (1995) explore a similar concept, yet in a localized manner, by using print media in radicalizing an Islamic population. But these scholars fail to satisfy the Wiktorowicz’s argument that mere media exposure does not result in radicalization.  Small subsets of a population may be radicalized by media, but not everyone. What accounts for the variance?This paper extends Wiktorowicz postulation by asking the question: “why is this person radicalized by media and not that person?”


To explore the role of media in radicalization, we interviewed fourteen members of the radical group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia and fourteen members of Muslim Brotherhood Indonesia to explore the influence of media in the conversion and radicalization processes.

In Indonesia, Muslim Brotherhood is a fundamentalist group that is active in the democratic process (Machmudi, 2008), whereas Hizbut Tahrir has a stated goal of overthrowing the current democratic government and reestablishing the Caliph, the transnational, supreme religious leader (Bubalo & Fealy, 2005), a trait shared by most Islamist groups (Fealy, 2007 ).  The respondents that we interviewed were from public universities, all but one were from a Muslim background, and were religiously active on campus as demonstrated by their participation in halaqa or liko study groups.

Indonesian graduate students, all Muslims, conducted the interviews in Indonesian. The interviews were open-ended, lasting on average 90 minutes, focusing on the overarching question asking participants to explain their “spiritual journey.” That is, they were asked to describe the path that led them to join a certain group and become active in the halaqa or liko study group.  The interview procedure was an adaptation of competency interview techniques popularized by Spencer and Spencer (1993). When the interviewee mentioned an item that was considered an important milestone in their spiritual journey, the interviewer probed further by asking questions to explain “competencies” that could be later coded.  Competencies are “underlying characteristics of people and show ways of behaving or thinking, generalizing across situations, and enduring for a reasonably long period (Spencer & Spencer, 1993, p. 9).” Competencies reveal the intersection of motivations, traits, and self-concepts – items of interest for this research project.

The Indonesian graduate student interviewers were recruited from four major universities in Indonesia based on their active participation in Islamic affairs. University of Wisconsin researchers trained the graduate students in the competency interviewing techniques after the Spencer and Spencer (1993) model. The graduate students were able to identify and contact members of Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbut Tahrir to secure participation in spiritual journey interviews. It should be noted that Hizbut Tahrir is a clandestine organization that does not publicly acknowledge its membership, but religious insiders know each other from various religious events. 

Though the local leadership of both Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbut Tahrir had met with University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and had given approval for the interviews, Hizbut Tahrir later rescinded their approval and members were barred from providing further interviews.  But in the interim, the Indonesian research team obtained fourteen interviews from Hizbut Tahrir participants. Twenty-eight members of Muslim Brotherhood were interviewed and the research team matched word count and gender to the fourteen Hizbut Tahrir members to have a paired population of fourteen from each group. 

The interviews were transcribed and were to be translated, but the terms used by the interviewees reflected significant “emic” language that was difficult to translate into English (Caracelli & Greene, 1997). To overcome this, the interviews were coded by two of the Indonesian graduate students who were religiously active Muslims and could understand the emic terms in their context, thus following the competency-coding scheme. A member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison research team who was fluent in Indonesian then verified the coded transcriptions. Terms that were Indonesianized derivates from Arabic words were added to a coding dictionary.

The coding dictionary consisted of 161 codes.  Analysis yielded 1637 data incidents emerged from the interviews. An example of such an incident is the mention of the Internet to search religious issues after conversion, which was coded as“after conversion-Internet. ”If an individual mentioned searching the Internet before conversion, it was coded as“before conversion-Internet. ” Sometimes codes would be unique to one individual such as “before conversion -Hajj.” Codes with five or less incidents were generalized with similar codes, yielding 66 discrete categories, with a median incidence of 12 incidents per category.  In the Hajj example above, this incident was collapsed with others under the category, “before conversion-religious activity.” Category frequencies were later subjected to T-tests to determine significant differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbut Tahrir, the primary group of interest (Snijders, 2001). 


In looking for response patterns to provide evidence to help answer the research question, “why this person and not that person?” we began by examining the evidence of the influence of religious training and influence in pre-conditioning people for group participation.  For “Preconversion-religions training”, the means were 7.4 for Muslim Brotherhood members (s.d.  = 6.6) and 8.2 for Hizbut Tahrir members (s.d. = 6.3). The difference between the two means was not significant.  It should be noted that members of both groups stated they had siblings who were and were not members of their respective group, reinforcing that background was not a significant contributing factor to group membership.  For example:

Interviewer: Where did you first learn to pray (pray Islamic style)?

Fery: I first learned to pray from my older brother.  We had only had a few times together because I was already married and not living at home.  Later I learned more from a person from HT who lived about 5 kilometers from my village.  He taught me in my village.  He would come to my house and gather my friends and me and we would go pray (at the Mosque).

Interviewer: Who influenced you (in conversion)?

Adnan: No one particularly.  Maybe because no one connected with me.  I gave it no thought, and didn’t do my prayers.  So there was little influence from anyone.  I was negligent in my prayers.  Sometimes I prayed but most of the time not, usually because I was lazy. 

Interviewer: What was your position in the family?

Adnan: I was the youngest of two. 

Interviewer: How religious was your older sibling?

Adnan: My older sister - she was like most women in Indonesia.  She lived hedonically, living worldly, and was dating. 

Another potential motivating factor is cognitive dissonance, which in this case was defined as the feelings one experiences when there is a difference between the beliefs and practices of members of a religious group (Brock, 1962; Eagly & Chaiken, 1993; Rambo, 1992). We collapsed categories[1] that related to cognitive dissonance such as expressed sinfulness before joining a group. The difference between Muslim Brotherhood (mean - 9.5; s.d. = 6.8,) and Hizbut Tahrir members (mean = 10.3; s.d. = 7.2) was not significant. 

We also examined another psychological variable, “Need for Closure” (Kruglanski, Pierro, Mannetti, & De Grada, 2006; Kruglanski & Webster, 1996; Webster & Kruglanski, 1994), which has been defined as the desire for "an answer on a given topic, any answer, . . .  compared to confusion and ambiguity" (Kruglanski, 1990b, p.337). 

Such need was called "nonspecific" and was contrasted with needs for "specific closure," that is, for particular (e.g., ego-protective or enhancing) answers to one's questions (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994, p. 149).  We operationalized Need for Closure following Webster & Kruglanski’s (1994) conceptual guidelines. 

A key difference emerged between the two groups here, as indicated in Table 1.  Muslim Brotherhood members had a mean of 22.4 (s.d. = 6.7), which was significantly less than the mean of 46. 7 (s.d.= 17.7) for Hizbut Tahrir members (t = 4.82; df = 26, p. < .05). Clearly Hizbut Tahrir members demonstrated a higher level of “need for closure” than members of Muslim Brotherhood.  The following excerpt from an interview with a Hizbut Tahrir member illustrates this point:

Interviewer: Explain your decision-making process?

Kardi: Many people say they change based on feelings.  But I base mine on thinking.  I assumed that Islam is a religion that must be followed, and I also try to think about Islam, the upright Islam.  So I made my decision based on my thinking. 

Interviewer: Tell me about the moment when you made your decision?

Kardi: At the time I was in my fifth semester of college when I was introduced to the (Islamic) studies and the (Hizbut Tahrir) movement. I then thought about it - if it was consistent with the claims of Islam and the teachings of Islam.  Finally I joined HT.  Moreover, Allah tells us to obey and preach Islam. 

One characteristic of “need of closure” is the desire to have closure by seeking information on the issue that has caused consternation. For this reason, we felt that the data should show both elevated information seeking demonstrated by intentional activities such as looking into media sources (Shah et al., 2007) as well as a heightened level of general media use (Palmgreen, Wenner, & Rosengren, 1985; Rubin, 2002). 

In terms of information seeking, Muslim Brotherhood had a mean of 1.7 (s.d. = 1.9) whereas Hizbut Tahrir had a mean of 3.9 (s.d. = 2.8).  (t = 2.42; df = 26, p. < .05). Regarding continued general media use after conversion into a group, Muslim Brotherhood had a mean of 2.1 and standard deviation of 2.2 whereas Hizbut Tahrir had a mean of 5 2 and standard deviation of 4.7, both with p<.05. Clearly as table 1 indicates, in both information seeking and general media use, members of Hizbut Tahrir demonstrated elevated drive toward media consumption. 


In early scholarship on radicalization, sociologists and psychologists considered environmental issues such as poverty or oppression as motivating factors (Dekmejian, 1985; Stemmann, 2006).  But scholars such as Wiktorowicz (2005), Sageman (2004), and Kepel (2004) discount these factors, preferring to consider factors ranging from religion to ideation. Scholars such as Kepel (2004), Anderson (2003), Winn & Zakem (2009), and Weimann (2004) postulate media as a casual agent in radicalization, yet they offer very little discussion on why media did not persuade everyone.

This returns researchers to theorizing that some environmental issue such as poverty or oppression drive people to media messages that influence them. Though some evidence exists on these possibilities, none offer a clear picture of the nature of motivating forces. Did media accentuate a condition of the oppressed that eventually led some in a population to become radicalized or did the oppressed use media to give definition to their condition and were thereby radicalized?In many ways, this argument is chicken and the egg argument.  Which came first?

Our research shows an alternative view. Though background factors, such as economics, religiosity, and religious training, as well as issues that are of an emotional nature, were important, none showed significant influence in radicalization.  But when the populations were evaluated on Webster & Kruglanski’s(1994) “need for closure” metrics, the two populations showed distinct differences. In other words, psychology and personality interacted with endogenous factors to motivate someone to seek information to resolve cognitive consternation.

This is similar to theories on media uses and gratifications (Blumber, 1985; Palmgreen et al., 1985; Rubin, 2002) and subsequent “information seeking” by media consumers (Brader, 2005; Ramirez, Walther, Burgoon, & Sunnafrank, 2002; Shah et al., 2007; Turner, Rimal, Morrison, & Kim, 2006). Those with higher “need for closure” sought out media that satisfied their consternation. The media message, tethered to certain radical ideology pulled, not pushed, the person into the movement. These two interviews demonstrate this point:

Interviewer: What HT media was important for you when you made your decision (to join HT)

Nuriman: Print, both a monthly and weekly papers.  Initially I was always reading.  And it was incredible, I never got this kind of content before, I could not study enough of these subjects at this level of depth. 

Interviewer: How did you gain Islamic knowledge from the books when the motivation (in the university) was to learn about the sciences?

Yonsens: Yes, I was looking for other references by browsing books on the Internet.  This I did because I felt my knowledge was still lacking. 

Interviewer: How did your reading of the books influence you?

Yonsens: Very much influenced me.  If I felt lacking in understanding during our discussions (in the halaqa), I would search for more material in books.  Some books that I liked to read were Siroh Nabawiyah, Becoming Warriors of Islam, Verses of Muhammad.  At first, I never bought Islamic books.  I usually bought books about computers, IT, etc but then I begin to substitute my library with Islamic reference books.  Reading these books added to my science knowledge as well as adding to our discussions. 

The interviews with those who were radicalized indicate that after these people were pulled into the group, they narrowed their media consumption in what Kruglanski & Webster (1996) call seizing (on closure) and freezing (rejection counter messages). Researchers found this to be consistent of members of the Hizbut Tahrir websites. The threads of conversations on the unmediated website centered on support of Hizbut Tahrir doctrine and referenced books and pamphlets that support the Hizbut Tahrir doctrine. There were no posts to the website that were offering alternative views or alternative media sources. 

The implication of this research is that media seem to“pull” people who have predispositions toward radicalization. But due to the small and localized sample used in this research, further studies of other radicalized populations should be conducted. Since Indonesia is an Islamic majority democratic nation, it would be important to study Muslims in a non-majority settings as well. 

Tables Table 1. Category frequencies for Hizbut Tahrir and Muslim Brotherhood members.

Now that you've seen how Muslims recruit radicals, explore a Christian media strategy to reach Muslims.


Al-Mutairi, A. R. I. M. A.-L. (2001). Religious Extremism in the Lives of Contemporary Muslims (J. A.-D. M. Zarabozo, Trans.). Denver, Co: Al-Basheer Publications & Translations.

Anderson, J. W. (2003). New media, new publics: Reconfiguring the public sphere of Islam. Social Research: An International Quarterly of Social Sciences, 70(3), 887-906.

Blumber, J. (1985). The social character of media gratifications. In K. Rosengren, L. Wenner & P. Palmgreen (Eds.), Media gratification and research. Beverly Hills, Ca: Sage Publications.

Brader, T. (2005). Striking a responsive chord: How political ads motivate and persuade voters by appealing to emotions. American Journal of Political Science, 49(2), 388-405.

Brock, T. C. (1962). Implications of conversion and magnitude of cognitive dissonance. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1(2), 198-203.

Bubalo, A., & Fealy, G. (2005). Joining the Caravan? The Middle East, Islamism and Indonesia. Alexandria, NSW, Australia: Media for the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Caracelli, V. J., & Greene, J. C. (1997). Crafting Mixed-Method Evaluation Designs. In J. C. Greene & V. J. Caracelli (Eds.), Advances in mixed-method evaluation: The challenges and benefits of integrating diverse paradigms. San Francisco, CA, USA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Conway, M. (2006). Terrorism and the Internet: New media--new threat? Parliamentary Affairs, 59(2), 283.

Dekmejian, R. H. (1985). Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press.

Eagly, A. H., & Chaiken, S. (1993). The psychology of attitudes. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers.

Edwards, D. B. (1995). Print Islam: media and religious revolution in Afghanistan. Anthropological Quarterly, 68(3), 171-184.

Fealy, G. (2007 ). Hizbut Tahrir in Indonesia: Seeking a "total Islamic identity" In S. Akbarzadeh & F. Mansouri (Eds.), Islam and Political Violence: Muslim Diaspora and Radicalism in the West (pp. 151-164). New York: Palgrave Macmillan Ltd.

Gerwehr, S., & Daly, S. (2006). Al-Qaida: Terrorist Selection and Recruitment. In D. Kamien (Ed.), The McGraw-Hill Homeland Security Handbook (pp. 73-89). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Horgan, J. (2009). Walking away from terrorism: accounts of disengagement from radical and extremist movements. New York: Routledge.

Kepel, G. (2004). The War for Muslim Minds : Islam and the West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kruglanski, A. W., Pierro, A., Mannetti, L., & De Grada, E. (2006). Groups as epistemic providers: Need for closure and the unfolding of group-centrism. Psychological Review, 113(1), 84-99.

Kruglanski, A. W., & Webster, D. M. (1996). Motivated closing of the mind: Seizing and freezing. Psychological Review, 103(2), 263-283.

Machmudi, Y. (2008). Islamising Indonesia. Retrieved January 1, 2009.

McCauley, C., & Segal, M. (1987). Social Psychology of Terrorist Groups. In C. Hendrick (Ed.), Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. New York: Sage Publications.

Neighbour, S. (2004). In the Shadow of Swords: On the Trail of Terrorism from Afghanistan to Australia. Sydney, Australia: Harper Collins Publishers.

Palmgreen, P., Wenner, L., & Rosengren, K. E. (1985). Uses and gratifications research: the past ten years. . In K. E. Rosengren, L. Wenner & P. Palmgreen (Eds.), Media Gratifications Research. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Pape, R. A. (2005). Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House.

Rambo, L. R. (1992). The psychology of conversion. In H. M. Malony & S. Southard (Eds.), Handbook of religious conversion. Birmingham, Al: Religious Education Press.

Ramirez, A. J., Walther, J. B., Burgoon, J. K., & Sunnafrank, M. (2002). Information-seeking strategies, Uncertainty, and computer-mediated communication. Human Communication Research, 28(2), 213-228.

Rubin, A. (2002). The Uses-and-Gratification Perspective on Media Use. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (Eds.), Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Sageman, M. (2004). Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Seib, P. (2008). Radicalism, terrorism and “the Al Jazeera effect”. Paper presented at the International Studies Association Annual Convention.

Selengut, C. (2003). Sacred fury: understanding religious violence. New York: Altamira Press.

Shah, D., Cho, J., Nah, S., Gotlieb, M., Hwang, H., Lee, N., et al. (2007). Campaign ads, online messaging, and participation: Extending the communication mediation model. Journal of Communication, 57(4).

Snijders, T. A. B. (2001). The statistical evaluation of social network dynamics. Sociological methodology, 31(1), 361-395.

Spencer, L. M., & Spencer, S. M. (1993). Competence at work. New York: Wiley

Stemmann, J. J. E. (2006). Middle East Salafism's influence and Radicalization of Muslim Communities in Europe Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, 10(1).

Turner, M. M., Rimal, R. N., Morrison, D., & Kim, H. (2006). The Role of Anxiety in Seeking and Retaining Risk Information: Testing the Risk Perception Attitude Framework in Two Studies. HUMAN COMMUNICATION RESEARCH, 32(2), 130.

Webster, D. M., & Kruglanski, A. W. (1994). Individual differences in need for cognitive closure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 1049-1049.

Weimann, G. (2004a). www.Terror.Net: How modern terrorism uses the internet. Washington DC: United States Instititute of Peace.

Weimann, G. (2006). Terror on the Internet: the new arena, the new challenges: United States Institute of Peace Press.

Wickham, C. (2002). Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wiktorowicz, Q. (2005). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Winn, A. K., & Zakem, V. L. (2009). 2.0: The New Social Media and the Changing Dynamics of Mass Persuasion. In J. Forest (Ed.), Influence Warfare: How Terrorist and Governments Fight to Shape Perceptions. Westport, CN: Praeger Security International.

[1] (After conversion, less sinning) +(before conversion, religious education weak) + (before conversion friends religion weak) + (before conversion values modern Islam) +(before conversion values “social sinful”)+(Conversion decision was about sin issues) + (“Decision Point Analysis”- struggled with cognitive dissonance)