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August 01, 2007

Terrorist Doctors
Posted by Shadi Hamid

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to say a few words about Stanley Kurtz’s somewhat involved two-part essay on “terrorist doctors," where he discusses the root causes of extremism, and makes some more general points about economic-political stagnation of the Middle East. It’s actually pretty good, in the sense that it meets the very low bar that conservatives have unwittingly set for themselves: it is moderately thoughtful, and in some sentences, even nuanced. 

You’ve probably forgot about it by now, but last month, there was the big hullabaloo about the fact that the British terrorist plotters were well-educated, doctors. This prompted one of the dumbest news headlines I've ever seen (from NBC): "UK Terror Suspects Include 2 Doctors." The fact that this would surprise anyone provides further evidence that we’re totally lost when it comes to the Muslim world. In the ranks of terrorists, doctors and engineers have always been disproportionately well-represented. This is not unique to the Muslim world; the professional classes have usually been the engines of anti-system political activity for a long time. European communists were not led by peasants, but by middle-class and upper-middle class activists, usually quite well-educated.

Kurtz, like most conservatives, dismisses the theory that poverty causes terrorism. He is right to dismiss it because poverty doesn't actually cause terrorism (again, this is Middle East Politics 101; the fact that people are still advancing this dubious causal link is, quite frankly, bizarre). That said, poverty is one factor which contributes to political violence, and more generally to the popularity of violent, extremist groups. Terrorists draw their support through appeals to a sense of collective humiliation (see Lind/Bergen’s excellent piece on this), and poverty certainly contributes to a sense of economic and political impotence. For this reason – and this is reason enough – international poverty alleviation should be a
priority for American policymakers.

But while poverty may not be a major root cause, that is not the same as saying that economic factors are inconsequential. Doctors and engineers may not be poor, but they are relatively poor. As Kurtz notes, “Egypt’s huge new generation of doctors, lawyers, and engineers may not have been poor, but after years of study and sacrifice they were seriously underemployed. The emergence of Islamism is less a tale of abject poverty than a classic case of social revolution fomented by rising expectations.”

This, again, should not be a surprise for there are parallels to be found in most societies that have had to contend with rapid modernization. In political science, there is the notion of the growing gap between “want formation” and “want satisfaction.” In other words, a new class of should-be upwardly mobile young Arab men – products of universal primary (and even college) education - begin to expect more from life, at least economically- speaking. After all, they are doctors. But the system lacks the absorptive capacity to incorporate them, so the result is a whole class of people for whom the modern, secular nation-state has been a failure. On an individual level, the greater the gap between want formation and want satisfaction, the greater the likelihood that an individual will turn to extremism. The resort to extremism is one way of reducing cognitive dissonance, of closing a gap that is perceived as both unjust and humiliating.

This is a case of “blocked aspirations,” of Arabs not having legitimate economic or political outlets to constructively channel their energies, aspirations, and, yes, their burgeoning anger and frustration. This is where the lack of democracy comes in and makes a difficult situation much worse than it would otherwise be. These men, for a variety of reasons, are angry, yet they have no political outlet with which to express their grievances. Again, a case of “blocked aspirations.” If blocked aspirations are the problem, then it shouldn't be too difficult to think of how you would go about "unblocking" them.


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It is doubtful that the thoughtful, intellectual rationalizations presented here for the Islamofascist terrorists have any real-world value. Yes, one can imagine many, many root causes for the maladies of man; nevertheless, only the organized, hate-filled motivations of modern-day radical Islam can take credit for the vast majority of recent worldwide terrorism.

I prefer not to attack individuals, because there are millions of decent Jews, Christians, and Muslims--many of whom are deeply religious human beings...and all believing, presumably, in the same God. Civilized society must focus on identifying those weaknesses in our respective national infrastructures which may be vulnerable to terrorist infiltration and attack. In the area of modern health care, I have conducted just this exercise in my upcoming book, "Jihad and American Medicine--Thinking Like a Terrorist to Anticipate Attacks via Our Health System" (Greenwood Publishing Group, November 30, 2007). But preventative measures can only be expected to help so much. In the end, we must always be prepared to fight and defend our democracy and our way of life. Many of the terrorists are well-educated and highly intelligent, but don't confuse their intellectual capability with a sensibility that meshes with Western culture. These people are prepared to die for a way of life that has long since died off in our 'world', and we must have the resolve to recognize the real threat which they pose.

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