The Staircase Model Theory | Why Not All Muslims Are Terrorists

The staircase model is a theory that helps to explain and understand why out of millions if not billions of disgruntled people in society, only a very small minority end up being terrorists. The theory was developed by Fathali M. Moghaddam in 2005 in his paper “The Staircase to Terrorism”. The model has metaphorical staircases, where each step is influenced by a certain psychological process. The theory posits that the higher a person climbs the staircase, the fewer alternatives they will have to violence, ultimately leading to the destruction of themselves, others, or both.

According to Moghaddam societal-level variables, like lack of democratic processes, social inequality, weapons availability and the likes, do not help explain why only a small percentage of people living under the same circumstances end up becoming terrorists. In tandem, Moghaddam developed the staircase model to explain this phenomenon, which describes the pathway to terrorism as a narrowing staircase, that only few people reach the top. The model involves six floors. Although the majority of people, even when feeling deprived and treated unfairly, remain on the ground floor, some individuals move up and are hence recruited into terrorist organizations. These individuals feel and believe that they have no effective voice in society, are encouraged by leaders to displace aggression onto out-groups, and become socialized to see terrorist organizations as legitimate and out-group members as evil. Moghaddam posits that the current policy of focusing on individuals already at the top of the staircase brings only short-term gains, and the best long-term policy against terrorism is prevention, which is made possible by nourishing contextualized democracy on the ground floor.

Now let us discuss the six floors individually which will shed light onto why not all Muslims are terrorists (since majority of them are on the ground floor) but only a handful of them (those on the fifth floor).

Ground Floor: Psychological Interpretation of Material Conditions

As per the model, majority of individuals in a society occupy the ground floor where what matters most are perceptions of fairness and just treatment. Thus, to have a better understanding of those who climb up to the top of the staircase to terrorism, one must first understand the level of perceived injustice and the feelings of frustration and shame among hundreds of millions of people down at the ground floor. In tandem, among the majority of the population who occupy the ground floor, perceptions of fairness are what matter most. In this regard, Moghaddam explains that, an individual may be living in extremely poor, crowded conditions in Bombay and not feel unjustly treated despite the opulent living conditions of others around him or her in the city; however, another individual may be living in relatively comfortable conditions in Riyadh but feel very unjustly treated. When this occur, the person feeling unjustly treated may proceed to the first floor. Thus, people will remain on the ground floor as long as they consider their living conditions to be fair. Those who perceive injustice move onto the first floor.

First Floor: Perceived Options to Fight Unfair Treatment

As per the model, individuals climb to the first floor and try different doors in search of solutions to what they perceive to be unjust treatment. According to Moghaddam, two psychological factors shape their behavior on the first floor in major ways: individuals’ perceived possibilities for personal mobility to improve their situation and their perceptions of procedural justice.

Thus, on the first floor, people consider their options to improve their situation. Consequently, people who find options to improve their own individual situation and influence decision-makers leave the staircase at this floor and thus pursue non-violent paths. However, those unsatisfied with their available options vehemently blame “others” (e.g., “America—the Great Satan”) for their perceived problems and thus climb the stairs to the second floor.

Second Floor: Displacement of Aggression

In the second floor, after failing to improve their individual situation in the first floor, the feelings of both anger and frustration instigate a search for a target to blame. The target can be either a direct opponent, for instance a government, or a third party to whom aggression is displaced, for instance an ethnic or religious group. Thus, once they are persuaded that they have an enemy toward whom they can direct their aggression, such people will climb to the third floor. According to the theory, individuals who develop a readiness to physically displace aggression and who actively seek out opportunities to do so eventually leave the second floor and climb more steps to try to take action against perceived enemies.

Third Floor: “Moral Engagement”

According to Moghaddam, terrorist organizations arise as a parallel or shadow world, with a parallel morality that justifies “the struggle” to achieve the “ideal” society by any means possible. From the perspective of the mainstream, terrorists are “morally disengaged,” particularly because of their willingness to commit acts of violence against civilians. However, from the perspective of the morality that exists within terrorist organizations, terrorists are “morally engaged,” and it is “enemy” governments and their agents who are morally disengaged.

Having begun from the ground floor, where they share feelings of frustration and injustice with vast populations, on the third floor, potential terrorists now find themselves engaged in the extremist morality of isolated, secretive organizations dedicated to changing the world by any means available to them.

Individuals on the third floor have already developed a readiness towards violence. The feelings of these individuals can be capitalized on by a violent organization offering a sense of ‘moral engagement’ to potential recruits. These organizations teach that violent actions against a perceived enemy are acceptable or even as one’s duty. These organizations provide potential recruits a new social identity as members of a selective in-group with the aim of bringing justice to the world. Individuals who are enticed by this offer will climb to the fourth floor.

Fourth Floor: Solidification of Categorical Thinking and the Perceived Legitimacy of the Terrorist Organization

Once an individual has climbed to the fourth floor and entered the secret world of the terrorist organization, there is little or no opportunity to exit alive. This is because, during their stay on the fourth floor, the individuals find that their options have narrowed considerably since they are now part of a tightly controlled group from which they cannot exit alive.

It is on the fourth floor that thinking such as ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is advanced. Recruits are isolated from friends and family, strict secrecy is imposed and the legitimacy of the organization is emphasized. Individuals who reach the fourth floor rarely withdraw and exit the staircase alive. These individuals move onto the last floor (the fifth floor) if and when an opportunity to do so arises.

Fifth Floor: The Terrorist Act and Sidestepping Inhibitory Mechanisms

Once having reached the fifth floor, these individuals become psychologically prepared and motivated to commit acts of terrorism, sometimes resulting in multiple civilian deaths. Thus, it is individuals on the fifth floor that commits violent act. In order to be as effective as possible, any inhibition about killing innocent people must be overcome. This is achieved in two ways. Categorization, which stresses the differentiation between in-group and out group, and distancing, which exaggerates the differences between the in-group and the perceived enemy.

Inclosing, Moghaddam posits that the model is not formal, but a theory or a metaphor providing a general framework in order to organize present psychological knowledge regarding terrorism. However, the model is often cited as useful for conceptualizing the process that leads to only a small number of individuals from a large group of disgruntled people committing acts of violence against the innocent. Moghaddam claims that simply identifying and stopping potential terrorists is not enough since it is just a temporary measure because it only make room for new recruits to step forward. In tandem, Moghaddam, suggests that the only way to end terrorism is by reforming the condition on the ground floor so that it is no longer perceived as unjust and hopeless by a large portion of society. In this regard, the staircase metaphor directs us to build a solid foundation of contextualized democracy so that there will be little incentive for individuals to climb to higher floors in order to join terrorist organizations. Moghadam laments that the focus of policies for the most part has been on individuals who have climbed all the way up the staircase and are already committed to carrying out terrorist acts. However, as per the staircase model, policies must be revised to address foundational problems at the bottom of the staircase and to encourage the development of contextualized democracies.