A disproportionate percentage of Islamist radical actors, including suicide bombers, come from an engineering background. Why?
Right wing and Islamist extremism seem to share this and other traits, while left wing extremism is more commonly associated with individuals from the humanities and social sciences.
This is what we learn from “Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education“, by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog.
An obvious reason that engineers may be more often associated with groups that carry out bombings is that such groups recruit engineers because they would be the idea bomb makers. This, however, is not the case. Indeed, many of the famous goofed up bombing attempts of recent years were carried out by those with engineering backgrounds, while many of the more competent bombers were did not come from an engineering background.
Also note: We keep seeing the term “engineering background” because many of these individuals are not engineers. Many are students who studied, or even got degrees in, engineering, though they may not have ever worked as such. And many are civil engineers, or other kinds of engineers, or studied these professions, rather than some sort of bomb-oriented engineering (though civil engineering might be helpful in designing a bomb-based attack on something).
The basic explanation works something like this. In the Arab/Islamic/Middle Eastern world, there are two professions that men often aspire to for status. Medicine and engineering. Getting a BA or BS is a status symbol, but if one gets a BA or a BS in engineering, that is a better status symbol. Men get this degree, disproportionately, even if they are from a background, and embedded in a family or subculture, where they are not likely to ever work in that profession.
Meanwhile, there seems to be an association with something we might broadly describe as failure to meet one’s own expectations, and getting all cranky and jihadi. You think you are cool. You are cool. And smart. And going up in status. You get you degree. You try for an engineering degree, and maybe you barely get past the hurdles and achieve it. But, you are entering a world where more than just an engineering degree, or your own massive coolness, is enough to succeed. The global Bush-Cheney Recession is upon us, and everyone is suffering.
But the thing is, you are not supposed to be suffering. You are cool. You are from a good background. You have a degree. In engineering!
So, you experience what psychologists of yore called “Relative Deprivation.” It is kind of a first world problem. You should be father along, higher up, better situated, than you are. But the system, the economy, the government, the godless infidels of the west, have kept you down.
So you get all cranky and jihady and blow them up.
I don’t mean to make light of this idea or its consequences. Rather, my snark leads to another point. The people who set bombs and kill innocent bystanders in airports and such are not “cowards” as is often said by Secretaries of States and Presidents and such. Why are spoiled brats. Not that this matters a lot, but one needs to get these things right.
Anyway, Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education is a very interesting academic treatment of the question of the link between engineering and jihad. Since it is rooted firmly in data, the book serves as well as an interesting historical account of much of the terrorism of the last several decades. More importantly, it is one of the rare full treatments of the nature and psychology of this sort of behavior.
I noted that “relative deprivation” is a concept of yore, and it is. The authors have, dangerously perhaps (because this sort of thing is dangerous in Academia) pulled out and dusted off an old concept that was found wanting in its earlier incarnations. But they have modified it and applied it well, so it is more of an homage to earlier workers to call it this. But the name is appropriate. Relative to your life long expectations, you are screwed. So you react, at out, victimize someone else. And you happen to be male and muslim (both traits of the patriarchal fundamentalist islamic world) and maybe you know somebody who knows somebody, and next thing you know you are in a training camp in war torn Syria.
The set of jihadists examined in this study is not everybody, but rather, a subset with common defining characteristics. So, for example, this study does not pertain to ISIL.
And, other extremists may have a similar pattern of association with certain areas of study and their radical decisions, but come from different backgrounds. There is a vague association between being a Nazi in the early days and being in law, history, or economics. Indeed, the pattern of extremist behavior, historical context, and educational or work background is very complicated, not very well understood, and there is no way I can give it justice here. Must read Chapter 5.
Education (of one type or another) does not cause extremism. This is not nearly so simple of a situation. But the link between academic orientation, educational effort, a few other things, and extremist views and action is not random, and does make sense, in the context of the revised and updated theory of relative deprivation. Have a look, I think you’ll be convinced.