« New Aids treatment | Gene Expression Front Page | I've been had! »
July 16, 2004

Details and perspective

I stumbled upon The Washington Quarterly website today while browsing some of Scott Atran's publications. He has a long (26 pages, PDF) piece titled "Combating Al Qaeda's Splinters: Mishandling Suicide Terrorism." Atran is a cognitive scientist who tries to connect the "big picture" with the reduced elements from which the former emerges. Since 9/11 the public discourse has been dominated by "big picture" types and certain truisms seem to simply not die. Atran's piece is wide ranging, but this particular passage stuck out for me:


...the majority of Palestinian suicide bombers have a college education (versus 15 percent of the population of comparable age) and that less than 15 percent came from poor families (although aboout one-third of the population lives in poverty)....

...suicide terrorists exhibit no socially dysfunctional attributes (fatherless, friendless, jobless) or suicidal symptons....


Such facts are more difficult to present to the public which only has time for compact but trite platitudes about economically deprived & nihilistic psychopaths or hears them described as "the Muslim equivalent of the KKK" on an evening drama. Atran mentions Hannah Arendt's notion of "the banality of evil," and I do often reflect on the insanity that engulfed the German nation leading up to World War II, because given foresight it would seem almost inexplicable that such a civilized nation could engage in such barbarities. When I was an undergraduate I took several German history courses and was subjected to theorists who posited a "authoritarian German character" as the prime cause behind their leap over the edge and toward the abyss. Such explanations seemed simplistic at the time, and the literature in any case was highly anecdotal and detached from the individual scale (eg; reviews of educational instructional material), rather they focused on sociological aggregates, inferring from that level what the psychology of the typical German might be.

But the big picture is not always so bad, that is, details are important, but one must also look over the horizon so as not to be led astray by short term conditions. That is where the piece Regional Implications of Shi'a Revival in Iraq (again, a large PDF) comes in handy. It is a broad survey of the dynamic of Shi'a vs. Sunni rivalry in the Middle East & South Asia. There are oversights of detail that I found concerning, but at 18 pages it is already rather hefty for an essay. The author notes:


...the Shia's were then associated with anti-Americanism, revolution, terrorism, hostage taking, and suicide bombings. The Shi'a political fervor that emanated from Tehran and the kind of violence that it perpetrated were seen as an extension of the faith's millenarian beliefs and celebration of martyrdom.

By comparison, Sunni Islamic activists appeared less threatening. The West viewed them as socially and politically conservative lacking in the religious doctrines that matched the Shi'a penchant for militancy....


I have made extensive critiques of the extrapolation from doctrine or text to the character of a culture recently. With current hindsight I think one can assert that the perception of an overarching tendency toward Shi'a radicalism was due to the conflation of various epiphenomena that both ranged across ages and were particular to that time.

  • Iran was flexing its muscule as an international power, and it was a Shi'a state, so one lever it was using was prodding Shi'a minorities to agitate through politics and violence.
  • The Shi'a have been an out-of-power minority for most of Muslim history, and so constrained by options (rather than any grand doctrine) they have had to resort to terrorist tactics against more powerful opponents (usually Sunnis).


Today, the Sunni militant radicalism seems to be the teleology of mainstream Sunni thought viewed from several vantage points (both Muslim and non-Muslim). But one must remember that a study of the historical record might show that Shi'a terrorist violence was a pragmatic tendency, less so a doctrinal point, and an observation of the state of Iranian nation after the fall of the Shah might have dispelled the idea that the Shi'a would be in permenant jihad against the West. The same might apply to modern Sunni radicalism.

The primary weakness in the essay was that the author tended to simplify for the audience. For example:


  • There is a non-trivial level of substructure within both the Shi'a and the Sunni. I have previously rejected the Sunni/Shia ~ Protestant/Catholic analogy, in large part because it doesn't serve as a very good model of the genetic relationship between many Shi'a and Sunni groups.
  • The author alludes to the conversion of many Pakistanis to Shi'ism after 1979 and the introduction of Islamic law in Pakistan and the exemption of the Shi'a from many of its strictures. But it might behoove him to remind readers that most Iraqi Shi'a have converted to the faith in the past 200 years as a result of their settlement along the canals and irrigation works of southern Iraq and the transition away from the nomadic life. This suggests that the Sunni-Shi'a aminosities are on some level a proxy for geopolitical rivalries and emerge out of the vicissitudes of history rather than something that is deeply held by the masses.

Addendum: I point readers to this excellent clickable family tree of various Muslim groups. To put a human face on this, Aziz Poonwalla is a Bohra Ismaili while many members of my family have studied within the Hanafi legal tradition of Sunnism. And for the Muslims out there, I know it is a bit simplistic, but it gives people a base....

Posted by razib at 10:52 PM