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Psychological Differences between Radicalized and non-Radicalized Muslim Prisoners: A Qualitative Analysis of their Frame Alignment

Mark Stemmler EMAIL logo , Johann Endres , Sonja King , Bianca Ritter and Kristina Becker


Do radicalized Muslim prisoners differ from non-radicalized Muslim prisoners with regard to Kruglanski’s (2004) quest for significance (QFS), need for (cognitive) closure (NFC), and their frame alignment regarding ideological and religious issues? To answer this research question N = 26 male inmates from Bavarian prisons were interviewed. The radicalized prisoners or extremists (n = 13) had been identified as Salafi or Jihadi adherents by the Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bayerischer Verfassungsschutz) and therefore had a security note. The comparison group were non-radicalized Muslim inmates (n = 13); the vast majority had a migration background. The audio files of the interviews were transcribed and Mayring’s (2010) qualitative content analysis was applied. The obtained interview material was analyzed twice (each time with a different focus) for psychological differences and characteristics between the two groups of Muslim prisoners. In the first analysis, the interviews were investigated with regard to conspiracy theories, dualistic conception of the world, political sensitivity, collective and individual victimization and religious rigidity. Extremists exhibited a stronger frame alignment with respect to general conspiracy theories, dualistic conception of the world, collective victimization, and political sensitivity. Results also substantiate the idea that extremists exhibit more rigid religious behaviors than non-extremist Muslim prisoners. Contrary to our expectations, the two groups did not differ in various biographical features, for example whether they grew up in a family that actively practiced their religion. In the second analysis, we found that although the overall pattern regarding QFS turned out as expected, the radicalized inmates did not achieve higher values than their non-radicalized counterparts. However, we obtained substantial differences for subcategories of QFS. The extremist prisoners reported more norm violations as a trigger for QFS and more opportunities for gaining significance than non-extremists. This was also true for non-legitimate as well as non-criminal opportunities to gain significance. There was a substantial difference between extremists and non-extremists regarding the overall NFC characteristics. Radicalized prisoners tend to avoid ambiguous situations or uncertainty, they prefer clear, structured processes and firm beliefs. The results suggest that it is possible to differentiate non-radicalized from radicalized Muslims as they showed less quest for significance, less need for closure, less political sensitivity and a less rigorous view on religion.


This article is based on the research project ‘Islamic radicalization in prison settings – potentials and processes of radicalization’ which was funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG); reference number: STE 923/10).


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Published Online: 2021-08-20
Published in Print: 2021-09-14

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