All “Mixed” up: Understanding Mixed, Unstable and Unclear Ideology

By Ross Paton

Why do people commit acts of terrorism? Ever since we began trying to understand this phenomenon, a central part of the answer has been ideology. Yet the growth of ‘Mixed, unstable and unclear’ ideology in the UK, or ‘Salad Bar’ ideology in the US, presents some intriguing questions. Previous understandings of ideology have understood it to be clear, rigid and unbending. That you adopt it like putting on a lens through which you view the world; but that crucially, you have to discard it before adopting another. To describe ideology as something which can be mixed or unclear, seems antithetical to this.

Nonetheless, statistics are hard to ignore. In the year closing 2021, 51% of referrals to the prevent strategy (part of the UK’s counter-terrorism program) were categorised as ‘Mixed unstable or unclear ideology.’ The following year MUU was segmented into six sub-categories (excluding incels and school shooters which should be viewed as distinct from MUU), these still collectively accounted for 58% of referrals (3739) to prevent, in the year ending 2022. Meanwhile in the US, former CIA director Christopher Wray spoke of terrorists adopting a ‘Salad Bar of ideology’, in his testimony to the Senate Homeland Security Committee in 2020. 

The documented admiration that the white supremacists have for Salafi-jihadists in their writings or online memes, lionising Islamist figures and groups, speaks to this curious affinity. The historic alliances between Islamist extremists and the Nazis congeals this idea of kinship further. We can even see this curious phenomenon in practice with individuals like Arthur Wagner or Arnoud van Doorn, where they originally belong to actively anti-Muslim parties, only to later convert to Islam. Or equally, at the sharper end, an individual like Devon Arthurs, a neo-Nazi turned Islamist extremist, who killed his two neo-Nazi sympathising flatmates, for insulting his new faith.

Yet generally, there doesn’t seem to be the same conversion in reverse. This may be explained by the blunt observation that most Islamist extremists are not ethnically white, and are therefore not amenable to white supremacist sentiments. Equally, it could be reasoned that despite the Islamist extremist notion of religious supremacy, unlike white supremacists, Islamists do not racially discriminate in their proselytisation – which may only pave a “one way” transition.

To date, the commentary on this subject has largely explained this by way of shared prejudice across ideologies. That although Islamists extremists, the far-right and the far-left seem unlikely allies, they align across shared anti-Semitism, and that especially between the far-right and Islamist extremism, this cosiness is deepened further, by shared misogyny and homophobia. This is all true, but might not be the full picture. The case of Horst Mahler speaks to how anti-Semitism can be a shared, transitionary cavern, from even the far-left to the far right. In his youth Mahler was a founding member of the German Red Army Faction and the son to an anti-Semite, but later joined the Far-Right National Democratic Party, before being charged for holocaust denial and Hitler salutes. Although this ideological transition may be possible through shared antisemitism alone, the vanishing rarity of such, “left to right” cases speaks to how there is more to this wider trend of ideological transition, than shared antisemitism alone.

Contrastingly, transitions between the far-right and Islamist extremism seem increasingly common. As my colleague Ghaffar Hussain has rightly pointed out, the internet has facilitated the ease with which extremists can browse for an ideology which aligns with their underlying needs. Meanwhile, the gradual move towards Marc Sageman’s Leaderless Jihad hypothesis has meant that the ideological enforcement of group dynamics, which typically kept ideological borders intact and its adherents committed, has largely evaporated. In its place, an internet “free market” of ideologies has risen. The anti-Semitic congruency and the online “free-market” dynamics, might explain the move between the far-right and Islamist extremism to a point, but it intuitively lacks something. The real shared factor driving this trend, is far deeper. Their shared underlying political-psychology, is the key. 

The Psychology of Political Behaviour and Extremist Ideology:

Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory, is about as well evidenced as it is possible for a psychological theory to be. Replicated cross culturally with an impressive sample size, Haidt found that people tend to guide their moral decisions from “Moral Foundations”. Specifically, he demonstrated that the political right tend to make decisions from an equitable base of five foundations. These moral foundations take the form of a competition between a moral value and its opposite; for example, “sanctity vs degradation”, in which the moral impetus is to react strongly against “impurity”, and to “purify” whatever, or whoever is deemed to be “impure”. These foundations, are the framework which underpin ethical decisions. Interestingly, left leaning people were found to lack three of the five right leaning foundations; ‘loyalty vs betrayal’, ‘authority vs subversion’ and the aforementioned ‘sanctity vs degradation.’ 

This would partially explain the rarity of mixed ideology cases in which left-wing extremists’ transition to the right – they lack the shared “psychological foundations”, which ease the ideological transition. Crucially, Islamists and the far-right, do not. This perspective on Islamist extremism, as an ideology of the wider-political right is not new. 

Although Haidt’s theory is persuasive, there is another psychological framework through which to identify and even quantify the degree to which someone has right-wing traits. “The Big Five” personality test, continues to arguably be the most psychologically reliable framework through which to assess personality. Of these five traits, ‘conscientiousness’ has been positively associated with right wing affiliation and negatively so with left-wing affiliation, while ‘openness to experience’ was the total inverse. Conscientious is divided into two aspects, industriousness and orderliness; the consequences of high levels of orderliness in particular are worth pondering. A higher orderliness correlates with higher disgust sensitivity, alongside a need for closure and in group out group distinctions (particularly when paired with low openness to experience), all of which are outlined by Gambetta and Hertog as traits of Islamist and far-right extremists. 

These traits carry a disturbing alignment with the ideological leaders of Islamist extremism and Nazism. In his writings describing his time in America, Sayyid Qutb provides telling anecdotes detailing his ‘disgust’ for American humour at the expense of the dead, the desecration of a church as it transformed into a dancefloor, or his disapproval towards the impure immodesty of American women. With Hitler, this is distilled with his habits. Hitler was teetotal, gave up smoking and pursued aggressive public health policies against both. He also routinely had three baths a day and was a hypochondriac. 

Even Hitler’s painting demonstrates his orderliness, as told by a journalist in 1933: 

‘They are architect’s sketches: painful and precise craftsmanship; nothing more. No wonder the Vienna professors told him to go to an architectural school and give up pure art as hopeless.’

How did we get so “Mixed” up?

What does all this mean for the idea of “mixed and unclear” ideology? A better starting point may be “settled and unsettled” ideology. That prior to adoption, individuals are drawn to ideologies which reflect their underlying psychology, but freely “shop around” until they settle on one which meets the unique individual wants of their personality type and social-needs circumstances. Once settled, an ideological base has been adopted and any flirtation with other ideologies exists in relation to the adopted ideology, until it is altogether discarded for another.

The reality is that the majority of cases ascribed as “mixed and unclear” seem to involve moving completely from one ideology to another. Flirtation between certain ideologies is not uncommon where there is shared political-psychology; but internal coexistence of Islamist extremism and white supremacy is rarely seen without a strong mental health component explaining the sheer psychological instability. Most tellingly of all, the overwhelming amount of ideological transitions tend to be from the far-right to Islamism. Given their shared affinity with the wider political right, whether through Haidt’s Moral Foundations, or through shared right-wing psychological traits outlined by Gambetta and Hertog, this seems wholly unsurprising. 

Far-right and Islamist ideology have something crucial in common. A need to maintain racial or religious purity, a binary vision of the world of whites vs non-whites, the ummah vs the kafir, the ethno-state and the caliphate. The glaring similarities between these ideologies, speaks to how despite their differences, they have both developed to fulfil the very same needs; most notably, a need for purity, closure, and in-group, out-group distinctions. Until we understand the role that these psychological needs play in driving an individual to adopt ideology, we are unlikely to understand how an individual might abandon ideology. 

Contrary to the expectations of some, both white supremacy and Islamism belong to the wider political far-right. Given that both ideologies provide outlets for right-wing psychological needs to be fulfilled, it should not be mysterious when some right-wing people leave one, to adopt another. This psychology of political behaviour is a sobering reminder that the intuitions guiding our decisions, are more unconscious than we like to think. It seems unlikely that we can change, or suppress our psychological needs. But like the young person who disciplines his aggression through boxing, with more understanding, we may be able to integrate these traits to more healthy outlets.

About the Author

Ross Paton is a preventative counter-terrorism practitioner working in London, UK, and holds an MA in National Security from Kings College London.

The views and opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Lobo Institute. For more information on the institute or to get on the mailing list for our papers and LoboCasts, please go to Lobo Institute.