“Why are there so Many Engineers among Islamic Radicals?” by Diego Gambetta & Steffen Hertog, European Journal of Sociology (2009)

Written by admin on January 12th, 2010

Engineers and engineering students — particularly if they are Muslims – may soon encounter more troubles when boarding their next airline flight.  In a study sure to catch the eye of airport security administrators, the European Journal of Sociology finds that engineers are more apt to join, and are disproportionately represented, in violent, Islamic extremist groups.

Its frequently been noted that many past radicals or revolutionaries had professional backgrounds – Che Guevara was physician as was George Habash, Fidel Castro a lawyer as was Mohandas Gandhi and Vladimir Lenin, and Frantz Fanon a psychiatrist. The authors of the present study identified the educational background of members of violent Islamist groups and found that 69% had higher education degrees or attendance. And of that percentage, 44% were engineers. The number of engineers was more than the combined number of individuals enrolled in Islamic studies, medicine, business, or the sciences.

When examining Islamic extremists in Western countries (either residents or citizens), the study found that while the educational level of the extremists were lower than their counterparts in Muslim majority countries, engineers remained overrepresented. When examining non-violent Islamic movements, engineers were far less dominant in number, having been joined by other professionals. This suggests to the authors that engineers “seem more prone to end up in violent groups.” Among non-Islamic extremists, there were almost no engineers among left-wing extremist groups but they did have a presence and often played significant leadership roles in right-wing extremist groups.

The authors posit two reasons for why engineers are overrepresented in violent jihadist groups. First, engineers’ possess a “mindset” exhibiting “a corporatist and mechanistic view of the ideal society,” uncomfortable with ambiguity, and favoring technical and logical approaches to problems solving. Such attributes easily coalesce around narrow, fundamentalist ideologies such as contemporary Salafalism.  Second, the juxtaposition of the particularly high level of social prestige and expectation conferred on engineers in Muslim majority countries with the dearth of employment opportunities leave engineers frustrated and resentful. This classical explanation for what sparks rebellion seemingly is confirmed in Saudi Arabia: it’s the only country where engineers are gainfully employed and not overly represented in violent radical movements.

The final critical factor added to this mix is the “harsh repression on the part of the authoritarian Islamic governments.” Repression, radical Islamic ideology, and the “engineering mindset,” suggest the authors, blend together in a way that tips engineers toward violent jihadism.

Critics may object to the survey’s small sample size or the outdated material sometimes relied upon, and civil libertarians will protest the ensuing ethnic profiling, but the study’s provocative findings cannot lightly be dismissed.  Either way, much hassle awaits Muslim engineers at international airports.

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