‘45% of college-educated jihadis are engineers, and it’s because of 3 traits’

Anecdotally, it is often said that engineers tend to lean rightwards in their politics. In their new book, Engineers of Jihad, sociologist Diego Gambetta and political scientist Steffen Hertog back up that gut sense with data. They find that Islamist radicalism and other far-right movements are dominated by engineers, doctors and those with tech backgrounds, while left-wing movements draw people from the humanities and social sciences. They tell TOI why this may be the case

In your study of political radicals in the Muslim world, you found that college-educated Islamist extremists are, overwhelmingly, engineers. How does this challenge the conventional wisdom about jihadis?

We found that about almost half of the Islamist extremists in our sample from many Muslim countries have either a degree or some university exposure, so this means that there is another half that has not gone above high school. It is among those who have a degree or university exposure that 45% are engineers. This means that, relative to other graduates, the odds are about 5-6 times higher that an Islamist extremist has an engineering background. If the term of reference group is the adult male population, rather than graduates alone, then the chances of finding an engineer are 17 times greater.
The conventional idea that poverty fuels Islamism is clearly not borne out by our data. Rather, militant Islamism got its original support from frustrated would-be elites, individuals who had invested greatly in their education, and hoped to play prominent roles in the modernisation of their countries, but who then crashed against the economic downturn that hit Muslim countries from the late 1970s onward. That is also the time when we first witness the emergence of the Islamist movement, both violent and peaceful.

Why is this the case? What kinds of traits does a technical education foster?

Let us break it down into sequential questions: What kind of traits matter? Political psychologists have found that three traits are correlated with being right-wing and conservative: these traits are to be easily disgusted (say, by corruption of customs or by perceived social deviance such as homosexuality), to be strongly in favour of one’s ethnic or religious in-group and against infidels and immigrants from other cultures, and to be intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty – something that psychologists call “need for closure”.

Why does this matter? We have found that the ideology of Islamists and that of far-right militants have very large areas of overlap, while neither has much overlap at all with far left-wing ideology.

What has all this got to do with engineers? We found that engineers are significantly present, not only among Islamists but also on the far right, but not on the far left, where humanities and social science graduates dominate. And at the same time, using the European Social Survey from many European countries, we found that engineers have those three traits to a higher intensity than people with other degrees, and this probably explains why they are attracted by right-wing and Islamist ideologies, which promise to clean up societies of corruption, to strengthen their cultural identity, and to offer an authoritarian order.
Conversely, among humanities and social science graduates the traits are less pronounced – which is the case among women, too, who also end up on the radical left much more frequently.

Lastly, what has a technical education got to do with this? We believe that the degree which one chooses to pursue is a crude window into personality traits, and that people’s traits influence both their political behaviour and their educational choices, rather than the other way around. So a technical education (and the company of like-minded individuals) may reinforce those traits – for instance the idea that every problem has an optimal solution and, hence, the compromise typical of democracies is to be abhorred – but it is unlikely that it creates them from scratch.

Would you suggest that this mindset is drawn mostly to religious movements?

Political psychologists find that different ideologies satisfy different cognitive and emotional needs. Insofar as a religious fundamentalist movement satisfies the three traits mentioned, then it should prove attractive. However, there are also secular groups and institutions that can do the same: while in the US and in the Islamic world, religion and extremist groups are mixed, in Europe extremist groups find their ideological match among nationalistic, populist parties and support strong authoritarian state institutions, rather than religion.
Your data shows that left-wing radicals tend to come from humanities and social science backgrounds. Why do their sympathies veer towards social justice movements rather than religious ones?
It is true that left wingers seem to respond more vigorously to social injustice, while right wingers and Islamists seem to respond more to corruption or breaches of tradition and cultural-ethnic integrity – the former look forward to a future of progress and want to upend existing hierarchies, while the latter look backward revelling in nostalgia for a mythical past orders.’
Your question of whether these differences also predict whether left-wingers will not overall be attracted by religious ideologies is an interesting one; we do not deal with it in the book, but if we were to speculate, we could point out that by and large it seems true that left-wingers are more likely to entertain secular ideologies. Interestingly, however, a religion that left-wingers have been drawn to (and vice versa) – especially in Latin America from the 1970s onward – has been a brand of Catholicism. It is a religion in which social injustice can be invoked, thanks to certain readings of the Gospels, as a relatively more important value than in other religions which tend to more readily accept social and economic hierarchies. So it is not that left-wingers are necessarily averse to religion as that most religions seem to be distant from what matters to them.

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