Background, Salafism and Free Will

Leiden, a.d. III Id. Nov. MMDCCLXVIII A.U.C.,

For both practical as well as academic reasons I want to know why some people become fundamentalist muslims, and why a subset of those people decide to murder innocent people. The practical reason is of course that once we understand why people make these decisions, we could hopefully implement policies that prevent further terrorist attacks. The academic reason is that it is interesting to find out how people make decisions. So, for the sake of the argument, let’s assume that terrorists are rational individuals, with preferences we can learn about and who make decisions we can understand once we know their preferences. In other words, people are not led to become terrorists, nothing ‘makes’ them or turns them into a terrorist, except their own conscious decision to kill innocent people with the aim of instilling fear.

In a rational choice framework you need to know the preferences, beliefs, feasible set (that is, possibilities) and institutions (that is, rules and norms) in order to explain behaviour. Terrorist attacks, even suicide attacks, can be completely rational actions. If you hate the West to the bone, it makes sense to want to hurt it as much as possible, even if that means killing yourself. Your own life does not end anyway, you will be rewarded with eternal bliss, so from the terrorists’ point of view, committing, what in our eyes are, heinous crimes is perfectly sensible. So the million dollar question is why do terrorists have such preferences and beliefs that they think it is sensible to attack, in our eyes, innocent people?

It is here that the controversy starts. If preferences and beliefs can to a large extent explain behaviour, does explaining why people have preferences and beliefs not take away their responsibility and agency? I have seen arguments along this line a lot recently. Whenever someone provides a sociological explanation of the preferences and beliefs of terrorists, for instance that terrorists radicalized in the first place because they grew up in less fortunate circumstances, because they see that people they identify with are killed, because they felt Western values were imposed on them, others will a-priori discard those arguments because they think such arguments take away the responsibility of terrorists. It is not strange that explanations of the behaviour of terrorists are interpreted as such, given how deterministic sociology can be at times. I agree with those latter people that terrorists are responsible for the crimes they commit, a traumatic childhood is no excuse to kill others.  So the clue to the answer to the million dollar question can lie in those sociological accounts, but we must not let those arguments cloud our vision about the rationality of extremists. Terrorists do make decisions, and they are responsible for those decisions.

On the other hand we have people who argue it is Islam, as one homogeneous ideology, that causes people to murder. Firstly, I doubt Islam is a monoform ideology, it is absolutely pluriform, and branches within Islam have been fighting about those differences for ages, both in highly civilized written form, and barbarous violent form. Secondly, it raises the question why certain people are more susceptible to fundamentalist Islam than others. What makes one person accept radical arguments, while another dismisses it as violent nonsense? At the same time, it is very likely that fundamentalist Islam influences the behaviour of terrorists. If they blow up people in the name of their god, then surely their religion has something to do with. IS’s preferences are absolutely formed by salafist ideology, we cannot explain their behaviour without understanding fundamentalist Islam. Like Dutch Imam Elforkani said: “Arguing that what IS bases itself on is not present in the theological texts, is the wrong strategy. The texts exist, it is the interpretation that matters.”

So, we know that a a sizeable minority of muslims thinks that suicide bombings against civilian targets can be justified, and this is probably not because they are happy with their lives. We see a divide between developing and developed countries in terms of who is likely to radicalize. In Western countries it is the Muslims in areas that are socio-economically isolated and underdeveloped, while in majority Muslim countries members of the middle class, with an education and stable means of living radicalize. Yet, I think that in both countries it is the combination of socio-economic background and being exposed to radical Islamic propaganda which causes people to have more extreme opinions. In the developed world the lack of socio-economic prospects likely plays a role, while in the developing Muslim countries the lack of economic development and wide spread corruption might play a role. However, what I have been missing so far in the public debate is the causal mechanism between socio-economic background and becoming salafist. I can imagine that growing up in a bad neighbourhood makes you unhappy with the way society works. But why do these extremists pick Islamic fundamentalism, and not communism, or libertarianism, or social democracy as a way to address legitimate issues? It must be something about salafism that attracts those people. We know that preferences and beliefs people have, are formed by socialization and information people receive and accept. Therefore we should look at how socio-economic background affects socialization and the information people receive, and how fundamentalism is disseminated to people with such ‘fertile’ socio-economic backgrounds.

So does looking at socio-economic background of terrorists negate their responsibility? It certainly can, if you believe in a structuralist universe, but I, for one, do not. Firstly, coming from a bad neighbourhood does not mean you are destined to become a terrorist. If anything, Western societies excel lifting people out of social isolation and poverty. You have more freedom to develop yourself in the banlieues of Paris than as an average citizen of the large majority of countries on this planet.  If you work hard at school, you can make social and economic progress in all Western-European societies. You are not destined for destitute. Meanwhile, if you decide to read the Quran under the guidance of a fundamentalist, and decide that only the pieces about killing the kafirs are true, you are not innocent. Nobody prevents you from reading about other ideologies on the internet, wikipedia is really easy to browse. Just keep clicking and inform yourself about why killing other people is morally wrong. Of course people from less fortunate backgrounds are less likely to do exactly that. Moreover, often these youngsters want to be part of a group, they feel left out and excluded from the ‘party’, then another identity offers itself, which (at least at face value) respects and values them. Meanwhile, in many autocracies it is very difficult to find information on political issues except through fundamentalist networks exactly aimed at political subversion, while communism and liberalism have failed as viable options. Still, looking at the background of IS supporters and terrorists does not negate their responsibility. As John Oliver said, they are ‘gigantic fucking arseholes’, and their background forms no excuse whatsoever for their outrageous crimes against civilization. Yet it does explain why they are unhappy with their situation, how they obtain information, and how they aim to change their situation.

This means that, without negating that people do have the choice to obtain other information, to move into different social circles, and, most of all, not kill innocent people, governmental policy should not just be focused on hard power, but also on preventing radicalization. This is both a matter of socio-economic policy, and an ideological battle between two fundamentally opposed value systems, liberal democracy and fundamentalist Islam. This realization has implications for foreign policy. Invading countries at random, like a US led coalition did in Iraq, or carelessly killing people with drone strikes are out of the option as they are likely to anger a lot of people for understandable reasons. It also has implications for domestic policy. We really need to invest massive amounts in our education, we need kids growing up in poor neighbourhoods to have a real chance at integrating economically and culturally in our societies. We need to teach them to think critically, to develop a shield against violent propaganda. We need to make sure that if they hold grievances against the current political economic system, they see democracy as the solution to ameliorate that system. Democracy beats radical Islam in relieving poverty and giving people influence over their government hands down. As we are also fighting an ideological battle, moderate Muslims also have a great responsibility, like Imam Elforkani and Rotterdam mayor Aboutaleb said. Muslim parents, Islamic community leaders and Imams have the responsibility to debunk salafist ideas whenever they encounter them, to cooperate with the police, social services and teachers as much as is need to combat radical Islam. Just like everyone has the duty to speak up when someone else around them starts saying racist or sexist things. It just so happens that a lot of muslims happen to be in circumstances which allow them to intervene when they see others radicalize. Mind you, this is no ‘leftie’ nonsense, there is nothing left wing about preparing people for a competitive job market and helping them to become well informed, critical citizens.

Bottom Line: If we assume that Muslim fundamentalist terrorists are rational actors, we need to find out how they form their opinions. Their socio-economic background probably does play a role, but this does not mean fundamentalism does not play its sinister role too, or that terrorists are not responsible for their own decisions.


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