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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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The Psychology of Mob Violence, The Middle East

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 17th 2012

The Psychology of Mob Violence, The Middle EastIt is must be with a combination of surprise, awe, despair, anger and confusion that many people around the world are responding to the news coverage of the rioting in the Middle East and the assaults on the embassies of the United States and other Western nations. To understand what is happening from a psychological point of view it's important to understand human psychology, including mob psychology. Mob psychology are not limited to any one culture or nation. They have happened in the U.S. and other nations around the world.

The type of crowds that turn violent often gather to express a set of grievances resulting from long standing and unresolved problems and issues. During the '60s there were demonstrations and riots that occurred as part of the protest against the war in Vietnam. With the end of the war came the end of those demonstrations and protests. In a similar way, there have been riots in American cities against police brutality, especially in minority neighborhoods. Those diminished in intensity and frequency as the police learned how to respect the feelings and wishes of the people in the neighborhoods they served while continuing the job of protecting and solving crimes. During the 1930's Hitler demonstrated how a demagogue could skillfully use human passions and resents to mobilize a society against Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Russians and, in fact, anyone who came from another race or religion. Using hatred and mob psychology, Hitler was able to unite Germany and lead it on a war of world conquest. The people of Germany resented the way they were treated by foreign countries after they lost World War One.

In a similar way, the Muslims who are rioting in Egypt and all across the Middle East and North Africa, have long standing grievances. Those grievances form the dynamite that is ready to explode when the slightest spark occurs. In this case, the spark was a small, anti Islam video that a few people made and placed on YouTube. Soon, that video became the spark that ignited the rioting.

The simmering grievances that form the basis of these riots and many and complicated. However, one of the most important is the fact that many Muslim young people are unemployed, uneducated and living with their families in poverty. With little or nothing to do, they are ready to explode at the slightest provocation. America and Europe are often the targets of this type of violence because they are rich and powerful. They also follow the Judeo-Christian heritage. In other words, as a followers of a different set of religious beliefs, there have often been tensions between Muslims and Christians. It must also be stated that Muslims resent the state of Israel existing on land that they consider part of the greater Muslim world.

One more ingredient needs to be added to this boiling cauldron and that is the presence of demagogues in the form of Muslim radicals who make use of any turmoil t turn people against the Western world who they see as the enemy. Long before Hitler there have always been negative leaders who know how to stir the frustrations, hatreds and passions of people in order to advance their own cause. For these Muslim radicals the cause is build a world ruled by the Muslims so that everyone follows Islam. They see Islam as the salvation of a world that, in their opinion, is corrupt and evil.

Once the dynamite is ignited, the conflagration spreads because, once part of a rioting mob, everyone seems to forget who they are. Each person becomes part of the crowd that is erupting with full fury, much like a volcano that has been building pressure for centuries. Young people are usually most vulnerable to becoming part of the mob. Young people during their teen years and into their early twenties are more emotional, impulsive, less self controlled and liable to react to what is happening around them. Often, they are not aware that they are being manipulated and used by radicals who are more than ready to have them sacrifice their lives. In fact, the death of any young people during the rioting only becomes more fuel to keep the turmoil going. By the way, these radicals and demagogues are the terrorists who are such a problem around the world.

The idea for people in the United States, Europe and other similar countries, is not to fall prey to all of this emotion by coming to "hate" the rioters. The wish for revenge only falls into the hands of demagogues both in the West and the Muslim world who are ready to exploit passions at any time and for any reason. That is why understanding is so important. Knowing what is really happening, understanding the psychological dynamics behind these riots, helps keep the rest of us from falling victim to our own smoldering passions. in reality, there are no bad people there, only people who are being exploited and taken advantage of.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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