How Love Drives Extremism


Even a cursory glance at recent books on extremism makes clear the kinds of emotions that most scholars and policymakers see as central to the appeal of the radical right. Titles like Age of Anger, Strangers in Their Own Land and Angry White Men point to negative feelings like alienation, isolation, anxiety, anger and frustration. But what if love matters more?

Love — the subject of countless ballads and Greek tragedies — is among the most powerful emotions of the human condition, making us feel we belong and are connected to others, and that we are valuable, important and desired. But love also makes people behave irrationally. Falling in love, or any varying degrees of infatuation and desire, is even described as lovesickness — an emotional and physiological state of yearning that can cause individuals to lose sight of reality.

Love inspires violence too. Since the dawning of the ages, love has motivated duels, honor killings, suicides and even wars. The decade-long Trojan War was caused by a passionate love triangle: Ten years after the prince of Troy stole Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the Greeks claimed victory by winning Helen back. More recently, Islamic State militants recruited dozens of young women after they fell in love online with foreign fighters.

It isn’t only the romantic love of operatic arias and Shakespearean sonnets that can motivate people to move toward extreme ideologies. Psychologists Harry Reis and Arthur Aron argue that companionate love — the intimate affection we feel for our children, siblings, best friends, mentors and others whose lives are deeply entwined with our own — is an even more powerful bond.

Two centuries ago, the terrorist Amrozi Nurhasyim was radicalized as part of desperate quest for love, acceptance and approval from his older brother, who was a leader of a terrorist group. Tracing this and other historical cases of radicalization, the scholars Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko conclude that the “pull of romantic and comradely love can be as strong as politics in moving individuals into a underground group.”

The human need for connection leads young people to be especially vulnerable to extremist groups who promise deep connection, comradeship, brotherhood and belonging. Recruiters capitalize on these desires. T-shirts marketed to radical-right youth in Germany display messages declaring consumers part of “the unbreakable brotherhood” and advocating “loyalty, respect, solidarity.” The radical right thus becomes a means of connecting with others and being part of something bigger than themselves, even if, paradoxically, those connections are forged through hate and violence against others.

Losing Love

If love is the most powerful human force, then its absence must really be something to be reckoned with. Indeed, when we lose love, as Brene Brown so cogently describes, “We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others.” The absence of love and belonging, Brown argues, “will always lead to suffering.” Love causes euphoria, in other words, but also misery.

Love forsaken leaves individuals bereft, spurned and dejected, resulting, in the worst cases, in suicidal despondence and vengeful homicides. The death of a loved one can be so unbearable that survivors become “mad with grief,” which describes the inexplicable actions of the bereaved, whose reactions can seem like psychosis.

Heartbreak — and a desire for love — creates vulnerabilities that are easily exploited by radical groups and movements. The loss of love led the British jihadi terrorist Thomas Evans to extremism as he coped with the sudden loss from his father’s abandonment, followed by an intense romantic heartbreak. Devastated, Thomas sought out belonging and became vulnerable to extremist recruiters who offered him a sense of connection, meaning and purpose.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of people who suffer heartbreak or loss of love do not become extremists. And negative emotions like anger, resentment, alienation and humiliation are indeed central to the radicalizing process. But we suggest that we overlook a lot when we fail to recognize that behind the animosity is often an intense need for love and belonging.

Restoring Love

What would it mean to recognize the central role of love in the appeal of the radical right? First, we would have to acknowledge that many extremists — especially at the early stages of radicalization — may be more emotionally than ideologically motivated. Those emotional needs are not only rooted in anger, however, but also in a deep desire for human connection, togetherness, belonging and love.

The vulnerabilities that result from falling in love, feeling unloved or grieving love’s loss create openings for radicalization, whether by following a loved one into extremism or as an expression of frustration, grief and heartbreak. Some youth may be more susceptible than others, and more research into this domain is sorely needed. Thinking about prevention — and intervention —through this lens might help us to think of ways to engage people in ways that don’t only dismantle existing relationships to radical groups, but also help build new bonds.

“There is no end to grief,” the singer Bono told the OneLove concert in Manchester following the May 2017 bombing, “but that’s how we know there’s no end to love.” Perhaps it is time that we take love more seriously as a motivating force for radicalism and extremism. Behind all the anger we see may well be individuals who are attracted to the radical right because they were in order to fulfill their most fundamental human needs: love and togetherness.

Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss  is Head of Outreach at CARR. She is also Professor of Education and Sociology at American University in Washington, D.C. Her profile can be found here.

Co-Author Information: Ms Daisy Gebbia-Richards is an undergraduate student at American University in Washington, D.C.

© Cynthia Miller-Idriss & Daisy Gebbia-Richards. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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