The Two Cultures and the Jihad


I published a working paper recently under the title Immunising the Mind: How can education reform contribute to combatting violent extremism in which I commented on the fact that the recruitment of jihadis in the Middle East and North Africa seems to correlate to some extent with their choice of subject at university. Diego Gambetta of EUI and Oxford University, and Steffen Hertog, whose excellent 2007 joint study I came across while working on this subject (and whose book, Engineers of Jihad, is coming out in May 2016) suggest that 48.5 percent of jihadi recruits at the time of his first researches were graduates, and about 44 percent of these were engineering graduates: hence his title. This is interesting, and although it is not the first time it has been noted, his analysis of the reasons for it is thorough and very intriguing indeed.

But I am even more interested by the dog that didn’t bark: there are virtually no graduates in the humanities and social sciences among the databases of jihadis that have been compiled. Since some 70 percent of students in the MENA region are in broadly defined H&SS, and since unemployment rates amongst H&SS graduates are very significantly higher than those amongst STEM graduates, and particularly amongst engineering graduates, this is highly counter-intuitive. I find myself wondering whether the humanities and social sciences may not have some subtle but powerful prophylactic effect on the mind.

Of course there are a wide variety of contributory factors on the one side (the dog that did bark) in the sociology of the engineering profession in MENA and the crisis of unmet expectations as the region’s governments scaled back public employment of engineers from the 70s onwards. There are also questions of prestige and selectivity – engineering, medicine and science tend to be limited (‘numerus clausus’) elite faculties, while H&SS don’t; and traditionally lead to good earning power – while H&SS have been the entry tickets for the now fast-shrinking public service.

But although there must be many reservations, it still seems to me that the question of how different disciplines form thought-processes and habits of mind is important in understanding the mental topography of jihad. Gambetta explores what he calls ‘the engineering mindset,’ and I summarised:

[he] picks out three traits that characterise the ‘engineering mindset’: monism, simplism and preservatism.  “Whether American, Canadian or Islamic, and whether due to selection or field socialisation, a disproportionate share of engineers seems to have a mindset that inclines them to entertain the quintessential right-wing features of “monism” – ‘why argue when there is one best solution’ – and of “simplism” – ‘if only people were rational, remedies would be simple.’” As for preservatism, “its underlying craving for a lost order, its match with the radical Islamic ideology is [sic] undeniable: the theme of returning to the order of the prophet’s early community is omnipresent in most salafist and jihadist ideology.”

I wondered whether the opposite might be true for sociologists, historians and anthropologists. Whether, in other words, the nuanced, hypothesis-based thinking that the social sciences require might not give the mind an inherent flexibility and questioning habits that make it very difficult for un-nuanced, black-and-white arguments to get a grip. What strikes me particularly is that even given the low-budget, high-volume and often low-quality teaching of H&SS across the region, there is very little overlap between Islamists and jihadis on the one hand, and students of the social sciences on the other. I began to wonder what really good teaching in these subjects, of which there is some but nothing like enough, could achieve. Hazem Kandil seemed to me to sum it up well in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood:

One look at members’ educational backgrounds reveals that highly educated Brothers (including 20,000 with doctoral degrees and 3,000 professors) come overwhelmingly from the natural sciences. He notes that there are clerics, lawyers and businessmen, and even a handful of literature students. Absent, however, are students of politics, sociology, history and philosophy. Kandil analyses the Brotherhood’s top leadership, finding veterinarians, agronomists, engineers, geologists and doctors, but virtually no social scientists. He quotes one former Brother as saying, In social sciences one learns that someone made an argument; another criticized it; and history validated or disproved it. Questioning received wisdom is welcomed. In natural sciences by contrast, there are no opinions, only facts. This type of matter-of-fact mentality is more susceptible to accepting the Brotherhood’s formulas which present everything as black or white.

And Marc Sageman says much the same: The elegance and simplicity of [Salafism’s] interpretations attract many who seek a single solution, devoid of ambiguity. Very often these persons have already chosen such unambiguous technical fields as engineering, architecture, computer science, or medicine. Students of the humanities and social sciences were few and far between in my sample.

Clearly a fine-grained study will look for the possibility of differentiation across the Islamist spectrum, violent and non-violent. (There is an intriguing aside in a Demos report of 2010: terrorists were more likely to hold technical or applied degrees – medicine, applied science and especially engineering. [Non-violent] Radicals, by contrast, were much more likely to study arts, humanities and social sciences, which gives abrupt pause for thought, though – or perhaps because – referring to the UK).

Anyway, the arguments need not be re-worked in this note (follow this hyperlink for the whole essay), but I was very intrigued by the possible significance of two rather different ways of thinking, and the impact of these different mindsets. It would be ingenuous to suggest that these are absolutes – very far from it, they are small phenomena on the margin – statistically, but not numerically, significant. Most engineers are of course not starkly ‘binary’ in this sense, though it is far from an unknown phenomenon.

What it does do is to make us think about education. If choice of discipline has this impact, we should be asking ourselves how to maximise the impact of the social sciences – how to raise their status, encourage the ‘valorisation’ of their approach to the world and improve their quality – all this in an environment where religious and political authoritarianism find them threatening. And we should be learning from the excellent work done in the UK and the US to broaden STEM curricula, to make sure that scientists have access to the destabilising questioning of the sociology and philosophy of science – as well as to the fullness of Popperian falsifiability, a parallel immunisation all too often lost in the torrent of fact.

And we should be looking closely at schools. Because it is very possible that it is not the university faculties that are driving out critical individualism, nuance and complex non-binary thinking – but the entire structure of schooling in the MENA region. Rather, it might be that a long tradition of passive education from the msid or kuttab (the koranic school) to the baccalaureate is creating the minds that feed and are fed by the binarism of simplistic science teaching when (and if) it is finally encountered. The classroom and the examination system in which young Arabs and Amazigh are intellectually formed may – perhaps – be a selection mechanism for what Diego Gambetta calls the ‘engineering mindset,’ and we might call the ‘uncritical mind.’ Whichever we call it, it seems to offer an increased degree of vulnerability to the ill-understood process known as ‘radicalisation.’


2 thoughts on “The Two Cultures and the Jihad

  1. Martin – speaking as an engineer who tended to blow things up by accident rather than design, I wanted to build on the point made by Marc Sageman, and add the obvious fact that engineers are trained to build solutions to problems, and have the relevant research and construction skills.

    Its quite possible that other disciplines have more romantic views of how to solve the problem that they perceive, but are fustrated by the execution.

    However as the tools become easier to use (Twitter, Facebook, Telegram, etc) I would argue that we are already seeing that hurdle falling and the two cultures leading to the same violent conclusion.

    1. I take the point, but I think that perhaps engineers are trained look for the single best solution … and I’m not convinced that a less optimalist mindset is ‘romantic.’ But anyway my point is not really that engineers are anything, just that there seems to be something that predisposes a small but significant proportion of (perhaps ill-trained) engineers to accept simple, binary solutions to ethical and religious issues. The numbers are small but the figures persuasive – 44% of MENA-recruited gradaute jihadis are (or were in Gambetta’s research) engineers, virtually none social scientists. To me the real point of this is the prophylactic power of the social sciences and humanities – and the effect of binary thinking at a non-violent level on societies and institutions in MENA. It will be interesting to see what new figures Gambetta & Hertog produce in their forthcoming book (May) – i.e. whether this is changing. The only suggestion I have seen is that in-MENA recruitment may be moving down the educational scale, the proportion of graduates perhaps dropping. But any predisposition to binary, black-and-white thinking has powewrful implications for the societies of the region.

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