What motivates one person to engage in acts of violent extremism, while others choose to pursue change through nonviolent action? This report is based on pilot research into the psychological and social dynamics of a nonviolent resistance group—Algeria’s Hirak movement—that employs some of the same measures used to study participation in violent extremist organizations. A deeper understanding of these dynamics, it is hoped, will help practitioners, policymakers, and researchers to identify and support paths away from violent extremism and to strengthen and sustain engagement in nonviolent action.

Thousands of Algerians took to the streets to commemorate the first anniversary of the popular protests in Algiers on February 21, 2020. (Photo by Toufik Doudou/AP)
Thousands of Algerians took to the streets to commemorate the first anniversary of the popular protests in Algiers on February 21, 2020. (Toufik Doudou/AP)

Summary

The motivations for and benefits of participating in violent extremism have been extensively researched. A smaller literature exists on the motivations for and benefits of participating in nonviolent resistance movements. Combining the insights from these literatures should yield major benefits for practitioners and policymakers, particularly in understanding the less-studied nonviolent activism.

This report presents the results of a novel effort to study these two fields in tandem through an in-person survey of activists participating in the Hirak, a nonviolent resistance movement that arose in Algeria in 2019 in protest of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth term and has continued up to the present with the goal of driving reform of the political system. The survey sought to test to what degree several key factors found to motivate participation in violent extremism were also selected as motivating factors by Hirak participants. Key similarities uncovered include strong feelings of identification with the group, trust in other group members, and views of the movement’s goal—in the case of the Hirak, the goal of democracy—as an uncompromisable “sacred value.” Yet the Hirak members surveyed mentioned few of the negative motivators previously identified in the literature for participating in violent extremism, such as feelings of low status or victimhood.

The results offer insights in two directions. First, they better inform several challenges nonviolent action movements encounter in recruitment, mobilization, and achieving their stated goals. Second, they may lead to better identification of the unique pathways into violent extremism, distinct from similar pathways that lead to nonviolent action.

About the Report

This report examines the psychological and social factors that motivate participation in an ongoing nonviolent action campaign in Algeria. It is based on survey research conducted in early 2020 in partnership between the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and Beyond Conflict and is part of the Neuroscience of Resistance and Violent Extremism (NERVE) project, a joint effort of USIP’s Nonviolent Action and Countering Violent Extremism programs.

About the Authors

Jonathan Pinckney is a senior researcher with the Nonviolent Action Program at USIP and the author of From Dissent to Democracy, published by Oxford University Press in 2019. Michael Niconchuk is the program director for trauma and violent conflict at Beyond Conflict. Sarah Ryan is a social psychology lab manager at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and was previously a research assistant for Beyond Conflict.

Related Publications

New Evidence: How Religion Aids Peaceful Change

New Evidence: How Religion Aids Peaceful Change

Thursday, September 30, 2021

By: Jason Klocek, Ph.D.;  Miranda Rivers;  Sandra Tombe

The pullback in 2021 of international military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa’s Sahel region not only shows the limits of such foreign interventions. It forces policymakers to more urgently examine other ways to support the sustainable social changes that can stabilize violence-stricken nations. New USIP research sharpens an insight about one powerful method to achieve such changes—nonviolent, citizens’ movements that improve governance and justice. Effectively, the research shows, religion helps more often than we may think. Of more than 180 nonviolent campaigns for major political change since World War II, a majority have involved religion in some way.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

ReligionNonviolent Action

Precarity and Power: Reflections on Women and Youth in Nonviolent Action

Precarity and Power: Reflections on Women and Youth in Nonviolent Action

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

By: Jonathan Pinckney, Ph.D.;  Miranda Rivers

Examples abound of women and youth on the front lines of recent nonviolent action campaigns—from Alaa Salah leading demonstrators in Sudan in 2019 to the thousands of young people marching against the coup in Myanmar in early 2021. Yet significant social, cultural, and economic barriers can prevent both women and youth from participating in nonviolent action. This report, based in part on firsthand reports from activists in seven diverse countries, sheds light on these barriers and makes concrete recommendations for maximizing the impact of women and youth in nonviolent action.

Type: Peaceworks

Nonviolent Action

Comment—et quand—le pouvoir populaire peut faire avancer la paix dans un contexte de guerre civile

Comment—et quand—le pouvoir populaire peut faire avancer la paix dans un contexte de guerre civile

Thursday, August 19, 2021

By: Luke Abbs;  Marina G. Petrova

Malgré une brève accalmie due aux restrictions liées à la COVID-19, ces dernières années ont été témoins de l'une des plus grandes vagues de résistance non-violente mondiale de l'histoire récente, 2019 étant largement surnommée “l'année de la protestation.” Ces mouvements – du Myanmar à la Colombie en passant par l'Inde – sont largement axés sur la lutte contre l'autoritarisme ou la réparation des injustices sociales. Moins annoncé et discuté est le rôle de l'action non-violente dans les contextes de guerres civiles et des processus de paix. La non-violence stratégique peut également favoriser la paix dans ces contextes, mais le timing et les tactiques sont la clé du succès.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Nonviolent Action

¿Cómo y cuándo puede el poder popular promover la paz durante guerras civiles?

¿Cómo y cuándo puede el poder popular promover la paz durante guerras civiles?

Thursday, August 19, 2021

By: Luke Abbs;  Marina G. Petrova

A pesar de una breve pausa debida a las restricciones de la COVID-19, en los últimos años hemos visto una de las mayores olas de resistencia no violenta a nivel mundial y 2019 fue catalogado como "el año de la protesta". Estos movimientos – desde Myanmar hasta Colombia y la India – se centran en gran medida en la lucha contra el autoritarismo o en subsanar injusticias sociales. Menos difundido y discutido es el papel de la acción no violenta en medio de las guerras civiles y los procesos de paz. La no violencia estratégica puede fomentar la paz también en estos contextos, pero el momento y la táctica son la clave del éxito.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Nonviolent Action

View All Publications