Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Terrorist networks, part n   posted by Razib @ 10/04/2005 06:53:00 PM

Matt McIntosh pointed me to this correspondence to Nature from Scott Atran and Jessica Stern eludicating some of their ideas in relation to terrorist networks. They dovetail pretty well with Marc Sageman's argument. Here is an interesting point:

...We ask questions such as: "What if your family were to be killed in retaliation for your action?". Almost all answer that, although they have a duty to their families, their duty to God comes first. "And what if your action resulted in no one's death but your own?" The typical response is "God loves you the same". Such reasoning is not very sensitive to standard cost−benefit calculations or moral trade-offs.

These individuals are clearly not utility maximizers in a way we can relate to. In A Theory of Religion Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge develop a model of the growth and decline of religious "firms" borrowing rational choice terminology. Roughly, they argue that religions offer a bundle of supernatural goods and services (clerics are middlemen), and the success of a given denomination is determined by the nature of the goods and services that it provides to its customers. There are problems with Stark and Bainbridge's model, but, for the particular sort of believer that Atran and Sagemen have focused on it, it might be a decent approximation. I have already noted that Islamic fundamentalists of the transnational sort are often drawn from technical backgrounds, so they are well versed in structured propositional thinking. As Sagement documents the core of Al Qaeda tends to be sliced off from the intellectual elite of their respective peoples. Now, note this:

... A burgeoning literature in economics argues that bounded cognition can explain many observed empirical deviations from rationality. Consistent with this hypothesis, we show that individuals with greater cognitive ability behave more closely in accordance with economic decision theory. However, even the most cognitively skilled individuals display significant biases.

I have gone on record multiple times that I think theologies are usually quasi-propositional in character, that their "rationality" is to some extent achieved via scholarly consensus, not through the transparently obvious deductions inferred from the axioms. After all, it was long "obvious" that slavery was compatible with Christianity, and it has now been "obvious" that slavery is not compatible with Christianity (you can find appropriate chapter and verse for the former view, and crisp logical deductions for the latter). Nevertheless, over the full range of choices of quasi-propositional systems a literalist, but operationally antimonian, form of Islam is available and attractive to a particular subset of Muslims. This form of Salafist Islam is often highly reduced in character, paired down to a few core mandates and a host of supporting behavioral strictures. Extracted out from any social context (it has traditionally even assaulted the indigenous practices of Arabia itself!) it is a "product," a one-size-fits-all ideology that is easily exportable to the rest of the world because of its chilling simplicity. But this ideology is only a necessary condition for transnational Islamic radicalism, not a sufficient one. Social networks and communal rituals are the matrix in which the ideas bear poisoned fruit. Remember, smart people can implement dumb things better and more efficiently than stupid people.

This is not to say that I believe that Sageman and Atran are necessarily correct. Nevertheless, I think they offer the most textured and subtle of the models out there, and it seems to me that they do capture at least the principle component of the vector aimed at the heart of the West. We need to start somewhere as far as model building goes, we've taken succor from empty platitudes for far too long.

Addendum: Something Atran seems keen to emphasize that 80% of the post-9/11 Al Qaeda sympathetic activists seem to have an association with the Muslim Diaspora and their social networks are only 20% family. The latter number is pretty mind-blowing considering the cultural milieu that jihadists come from where extended family networks are paramount to the point of exclusionary toward non-kin ties. What one is seeing I suspect is the emergence of a new "cult" within Islam.

Related: Profile of Salafi jihadists.... Atran expands on his views in this piece.