Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education

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Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education. Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.


Several years ago in Bucharest I had the opportunity to tour the Museum of the History of the Rumanian Communist Party and of the Movement for Social Democracy in Romania.  I was puzzled with the discovery that, according to the curators of the Museum, medical doctors were very strongly represented in the leadership cadres of the party and movement during the nineteenth century (many of their pocket watches were also displayed). “Why doctors?” I wondered. In Engineers of Jihad, the authors are puzzled by a similar observation. Just as a small percentage of Muslims are terrorist but a disproportionate percentage of terrorists are Muslims, so too a small percentage of Muslim engineers are jihadist militants and terrorists (I use the terms interchangeably), but a disproportionate percentage of jihadist militants and terrorists are engineers. Why?

The authors indicate that their procedure approximates that of Emile Durkheim in his classic study Le Suicide (1897). Where Durkheim asked, for example, “why do Protestants commit suicide more often than Catholics or Jews?” the authors raise the question: “What kind of people embark on a violent radical course when their chances of success are low and the fight they pick is so asymmetrical in terms of force? … So what makes some people form or join groups of violent extremists?” By formulating the central issue in such language, the authors avoid a central reality: nothing makes some people form or join such groups. They choose to do so and usually provide pretty clear accounts of their own motivations. Moreover, several times the authors report those motivations only to overlook or ignore the significance of what they nevertheless sense to be important. This fundamental methodological defect, which, as Jean Baecheler noted in his study, Les Suicides (1975), was the same as Durkheim’s –suicide is also always a choice, hence the plural in Baecheler’s title in contrast to Durkheim’s singular. Because such actions are chosen, they are uncaused; the chooser had options. The authors’ pursuit of a cause or an explanation of a determination of an uncaused action limits the insight that this otherwise interesting study conveys.

Gambetta and Hertog specifically raise four “classic questions” that pertain to “extremism” and not simply to jihadist militancy: (1) What are the socioeconomic conditions (Durkheim’s “social facts”) that explain why persons join “extremist groups?” (2) Do some persons have a “mind-set” that makes them “susceptible to the lure of extremism?” (3) Do persons join “extremist groups” because of “supply” –where different “types” become the same kind of extremist? Or because of “demand” –where groups of extremists recruit specific “types” of persons? (4) Does ideology matter in “determining” which types join which groups? More specifically, and in more commonsensical language, is there something about engineers that makes jihadist militancy appealing to them? And are such persons also attracted to other forms of “extremism?”

The authors use several extensive data sets to establish the basic fact that engineers are disproportionately found among militant jihadists. For example, the odds of finding an engineer among a sample of radical jihadist militants is 17 times that of the general male adult population of the Muslim world (except in Saudi Arabia). The first generation attracted to “extremism” were more likely to be teachers –Hassan Al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb being the most prominent examples. What changed after about 1950, they argue, was a consequence of the opening of universities, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to rural and non-traditional, but meritorious, students. They tended to enroll in intellectually demanding courses, of which engineering was the most important, because of their ambition and skills. However, after about 1970, they could not find employment because recruitment to actual engineering positions was still governed by criteria that had less to do with merit than with connections. We usually call this corruption. In the sociological language preferred by the authors, the result was “relative deprivation” for the jobless or underemployed new graduates from high prestige engineering faculties, which led to “frustration.” Such frustration was worse for MENA students educated in the West. About the only MENA engineering graduates who entered a favourable labour market were Saudis. Thus does relative deprivation explain the Saudi anomaly.

The authors do not argue that relative deprivation explains all the disproportionate presence of engineers among radical jihadist militants and terrorists, though it “goes a long way in explaining our puzzle.” The reasons are obvious enough. “Frustration,” whatever the term may in reality mean, does not invariably lead to radicalization, violence, terrorism, etc. Nor are all radical, violent jihadists “frustrated” as a result of relative deprivation. This is especially true of “home-grown” western jihadist militants who tend to be less educated than their MENA colleagues. Perhaps they are “frustrated” not because they are overqualified but because they are underqualified, which suggests that “frustration” has a highly elastic operational meaning.

And yet, even in the West, engineers are over-represented, which suggests that there is something about engineering per se that makes radicalism appealing to them more than it is, say, to doctors or plumbers. To clarify this problem, the authors compare Islamist radicalism with other kinds of radicalism, which, following Western conventions, they call left- and right-wing extremism. Using an array of measures, the questionable nature of which we need not examine in detail, they determine that: (1) “there is a near complete coincidence between the ideological cocktail of Islamist extremism and that of right-wing extremism,” and (2) “our data leave little doubt that engineers are more prominent among the right than among the left.”

Finally they discuss the aforementioned “mind-set.” Looking to the political psychology literature, they discover that “researchers who have looked for pathological traits in the minds of violent extremists have found none.” (We note in passing that “violent extremism” is not eo ipse considered in some fashion to be pathological.) There is, however, rapidly mounting evidence “that political attitudes are linked to personality traits, all the way down to variations in brain structure.” Specifically (and leaving brain structure aside) “right-wingers” (and by analogy radical Islamists) exhibit “a proneness to be easily disgusted.” (There is no discussion as to whether anything in the world is disgusting and so merits disgust, which would turn such persons into individuals with sensitivity to disgusting things.) Such easily disgusted persons also have a “need for cognitive closure” (NFC). Those afflicted with NFC prefer “order, structure and certainties.” Third, and “a close companion to high NFC,” such persons make sharp distinctions between in-groups and out-groups, which the authors call “decisiveness.” They comment:  “We’ll never know how many people mull over blowing up this or that or assassinating this or that autocrat to redress humiliations and injustices –what is clear is that few act on such thoughts, which remain daydreams for the vast majority.” They did not explore the possibility that even for the “decisive” it is still a daydream since the connection between violence and “redress” of injustice does not exist in reality. Or, as T.E. Lawrence put it: “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to fine that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.” Lawrence was sensitive to a reality that evidently escaped Gambetta and Hertog.

To decisiveness they add another trait, which they take from Lipset and Rabb’s The Politics of Unreason, “simplism.” They explain: “A penchant to seek simple and unambiguous explanations of the social world and its ills is a cognitive trait that could be part of the NFC galaxy.” Simplism is connected to “the engineering mentality” by the following logic: “U.S. research has shown that students in the pure sciences have more sophisticated and less closed views of knowledge than do students in engineering (understood as ‘applied science’); those in soft, social scientific fields have the most open-ended view of knowledge as uncertain and dependent on their own reasoning ability.” They conclude that the evidence “is too scattered for firm conclusions.” Nevertheless, “we can surmise that individuals with NFC and a craving for order are attracted to engineering as a discipline that provides concrete, unambiguous answers and recoil from the open-ended project of natural science and the ambiguities of the humanities and social sciences.” Accordingly, “the distribution of traits across disciplines mirrors almost exactly the distribution of disciplines across militant groups.”

Finally, we note that the authors are aware that they did not address “a question of much importance,” namely “whether engineers are attracted by Islamism, and perhaps by right-wing ideologies, because they are more strongly religious.” As a consequence, they observe “the evidence for personal religiousness is mixed” because “religiosity is typically a personal rather than a political affair, and other research shows that it is not a driver or radicalism.” On the other hand, and in apparent contradiction to the first observation, “many Islamist militants are not particularly religious before joining radical networks and become ‘born again’ Muslims in the course of radicalization.” They conclude “it is more likely to be Islamism’s vision of social order combined with the well-regulated daily routines that attracts engineers –and if we strip Islamism of religious dogma, what is left looks even more like right-wing ideology.”

Their concluding chapter summarizes the foregoing argument and adds the observation that “increasing evidence emerging from contemporary political psychology, however, suggests that politically relevant traits are innate rather than acquired.” This conclusion is consistent with the Durkheimian assumptions the authors make but unfortunately the postulate of “innate” traits absolves the person bearing such traits from any personal responsibility because such a person had no choice. This returns us to the methodological objections Baecheler raised with respect to Durkheim’s “social facts.” Suicide, like the decision to become a jihadist militant or terrorist is always a choice by a specific individual. Moreover, early in the book (pp.2-3) the authors cite an example where the choice made by a person to become a jihadist militant or terrorist was fully self-conscious. Abdul Subham Qureshi, on 26 March, 2001, resigned his job at Bharat Petrochemicals and explained: “I wish to inform you, that I have decided to devote one complete year to pursue religions and spiritual matters.” Likewise Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded bin Laden as leader of Al Qaeda, criticized a classic study of Islamist militants by the Egyptian sociologist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim: “you have trivialized our movement by your mundane analysis. May God have mercy on you.”

Not only is religious experience central to jihadi militants such as Qureshi and Zawahiri, the kind of religious experience is, to use a term familiar to readers of VoegelinView, imaginary –a second reality as Voegelin called it. Interestingly enough the authors are aware of the problem: “It stands to reason that extremists of all stripes, not just right-wingers, in order to do what they need to do, need a considerable degree of cognitive naiveté concerning how the world works, especially about the causes of the states of affairs that particularly incenses them –think of imperialist plots, Jewish conspiracies, or Bilderberg Conference world domination plans.”

In summary, this is an interesting enough book that raises a number of significant questions. It would be much improved, however, if the authors abandoned their parochial political psychology in favour of a well-developed philosophical anthropology by which to measure the choices and the motivations for those choices that jihadist militants typically make. Failing that, they might ponder Lawrence of Arabia’s pillar of wisdom cited earlier: the waking dreamers are dangerous because, unlike the night-time dreamers, they never wake up to reality.

Barry Cooper

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Barry Cooper is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary. He is the author, editor, or translator of more than thirty books and has published over one hundred and fifty papers and book chapters. He writes a regular column in the Calgary Herald.