Behavioral scientists have devoted considerable attention to religious extremism and the psychological factors that contribute to an individual’s propensity toward violence. However, relatively little data are available on those who abandon extremism and become proponents of conciliation and peace. Dr. Renee Garfinkel offers a number of tentative conclusions about individuals she has interviewed who have made this transition.

Summary

  • Just as people become religious extremists, some of them abandon extremism and embrace peace. For some this change is a spiritual transformation, similar to religious conversion.
  • Under certain circumstances stress, crisis, and trauma appear to play an important role in the process of change.
  • Geographic relocation may be important for some. Migration involves novelty, insecurity, and instability, conditions that enhance vulnerability and, perhaps, openness to change.
  • The transformation experienced by religious extremists involves a reorientation in outlook and direction but does not necessarily imply an alteration in basic personality structure.
  • A key factor in the transition is personal relationships. Change often hinges on a relationship with a mentor or friend who supports and affirms peaceful behavior.

About the Report

Behavioral scientists have devoted considerable attention to religious extremism and the psychological factors that contribute to an individual’s propensity toward violence. However, relatively little data are available on those who abandon extremism and become proponents of conciliation and peace. Dr. Renee Garfinkel offers a number of tentative conclusions about individuals she has interviewed who have made this transition.

Renee Garfinkel received a Ph.D. in psychology from Lund University (Sweden). She is a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., an author, and a faculty member at the Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management of the George Washington University.

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