Here’s a new study that tries to get to the bottom of why engineers seem to form such a prominent part of radical and nonviolent Islamist movements. It affirms the received wisdom on the tendency for well-educated people with a sense of status inconsistency to show up in the cadre of social movements, and also notes that engineers are overrepresented anyway among male graduates in many Muslim countries. It asks if this overrepresentation of engineers is unique to Islamist movements and finds that radical movements in the West have not had such a strong engineer presence in their cadres, though right-wing movements have had more engineers than leftist ones. The authors then ask if engineers have a tendency to get radicalized in “Islamic countries” in particular, noting that engineers and scientists have been relatively strongly represented even in leftist radical movements in countries like Iran and Turkey (here I think they should have considered the higher prestige of engineering in third-world countries more generally, and the emphasis on engineers in post-independence nationalist development ideologies as the ‘builders of the modern nation’).
Their findings suggest that engineers are more inclined in any setting to join right-wing movements and to be more drawn to violence than recruits from other backgrounds, and at this point they acknowledge the limitations of statistical information and argue that detailed biographies and ethnographies would be more useful in explaining how engineers get radicalized.
The next section of the paper points to the usefulness of technical and professional education networks in recruitment, and note that self-selection on the part of those who think they have unique “technical” skills is significant too:
Ayman al-Zawahiri in his memoirs wrote that al-Jihad aimed at recruiting members with a firm adherence to Islamic principles and likely to be perseverant, patient, and steadfast:
Hence comes the importance of the issue of leadership in Islamic action in general and jihad action in particular and the nation’s need for a scientific, struggling, and rational leadership that could guide the nation, amidst the mighty storms and hurricanes, toward its goal with awareness and prudence, without losing sight of its path, stumbling aimlessly, or reversing its course (al-Zawahiri 2001, quoted in Smith et al. 2005, our emphasis).
The authors then consider whether personal dispositions and styles of thinking make engineers more susceptible to joining radical Islamist networks, and look at some (rather outdated) global, comparative data for clues on whether engineers can be said to have particular political-ideological worldviews. They find that engineers, economists, scientists and doctors are much more likely to be on the political right (and in the case of engineers, also more religious) than those with similar levels of training in other disciplines, and dig up a survey from 1940s Egypt that shows a similar leaning toward fascism:
Some old evidence suggests that the same right-wing bias occurs in the Middle East: a 1948 survey of 3890 Cairo University students recorded the highest sympathies for fascist ideology among engineering students – 9 per cent, followed by 7 per cent among science students and 5 per cent among agriculture and medicine students (Botman 1984: 70).5
(The equation of Islamism with “conservatism” may be a bit simplistic in itself, because there’s a good deal of innovation and reinvention in putatively conservative Islamist projects, and “conservative” social leanings can translate into a defensive quietism as well as radicalism). There follows a discussion of whether Islamism is essentially similar to right-wing extremism in its preference for “monism” and “simplism,” and of how an engineering background is likely to encourage a “social-engineering” worldview of a united, strong nation that can be managed “rationally.” They then return to the status inconsistency argument and consider the relatively higher prestige of engineering in the Arab world, and attribute the fact that engineers in Saudi Arabia tend not to get so radicalized to the better job opportunities that they enjoy. They also suggest that dissonance between Western knowledge and lifestyles is more keenly felt by engineers in the Arab context, as they are more “exposed” to the way the rest of the world lives, and behaves, having often been educated in the West. Some regressions showing that frustrated engineers are more likely to be radicalized as a result of their relative deprivation follow, but by this point the paper is essentially going over all the traditional (and rather over-determined) explanations for why anyone joins an Islamist movement. And it ends up asking whether there’s a particularly good vibe between the engineering mindset and an inclination to respond to relative deprivation and repression and availability of Islamist frameworks, and all that.
An American science blogger expresses surprise at the finding that engineers are more prone to conservatism all around, observing that most of the engineers he’s known have leaned towards libertarianism. That may well be, but in my experience, scientists and engineers are also overrepresented among committed, activist secularist-atheist groups, and manage to combine a certain libertarian social-economic outlook with a rather strong sense of political “right and wrong” and “good guys and bad guys” – not to mention a fervent devotion to rationality as the sole means of organizing society, with little use for relativism or the idea of multiculturalism and plural paths to truth. (The other overrepresented group, by the way, seems to be ex-priests, but that’s another game). And I’d say that scientists are also more likely to show up among the people I’ve met in the US who are most inclined to perceive a Unitary Fundamentalist Islamic Threat. So perhaps the scientific-engineering worldview does work in similar ways in different contexts, even if the outcome – i.e., which part of the political spectrum people find themselves on – is determined contextually.
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