What Drives the Fundamentalist?

Extremism is fueled not by poverty or piety, but by politics.
  • Transcript


Dalia Mogahed: The characteristics that define people who sympathize with extremism are very counterintuitive. So for example, they are no more likely than the population at large to be religious. So religiosity does not correlate with sympathy for extremism, which the conventional wisdom says it’s all about religious fanaticism. And that simply isn’t seen in the empirical data.

Another interesting finding is that those who sympathize with extremism are, on average, more educated and more affluent than the general population. What we discovered through our analysis is that what is driving sympathy for extremism is neither poverty or piety, but instead political perceptions.

We haven’t actually talked to people who actually would or have committed acts of terrorism. But what we have done is looked at those who were maybe likely recruits because they sympathized with the tactics of terrorism. And this group is not driven at all by a greater sense of personal piety, or a greater importance of religion in their lives.

On the contrary, when we ask people, “Do you think 9/11 was justified?” and then ask a follow-up question, “Why do you say so?”; those who say that 9/11 was not justified – those who condemn 9/11 – actually justify that answer by citing religious theology.

Things like the Koran prohibits killing women and children; murder angers God.

But those who condone the attacks and say that they are justified don’t cite religion at all. They actually cite political grievances. They call America an imperialist power. They discuss things like its support of the state of Israel, but don’t ever go and cite a verse from the Koran to justify their statement that 9/11 was justified.

So what we’ve found is that first, those who sympathize are no more religious than the rest of the group. But even more than that, the justifications they actually give for their position are also not religious justifications.

Well, I think when Islam is used to further someone’s own political or social power, then that core message of serving only God and being true to a message of selflessness is therefore forgotten. So I think that in claiming superiority over other human beings, and in claiming a monopoly on the truth, that that core message is lost and distorted.

I think religion – especially today – is often blamed for what human beings decide to do that usually has very little to do with religion. So if I look at several studies; and I just go back to the empirical evidence, and even outside of Gallup to a recent study done at the University of Michigan. It showed that sympathy for extremism – the same thing that I’m studying – there is absolutely no predictive value of religiosity. There is no predictive value even of religious orientation, meaning are you conservative or liberal.

So I think we put too much blame on religion and fall into the scientific mistake of mistaking correlation for cause. Yes, there is a correlation between people who commit violent acts and the fact that they claim to be religious. But correlation and cause are two different things.

It might be more likely that this is the dominant social currency of the Muslim world; is Islam, just as Arab nationalism was 30 years ago. And 30 years ago when the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] would carry out a terrorist act, they did it in the name of secular nationalism. Today, that same act is now done in the name of Islam.

The big difference is it’s a different social currency, a different social milieu that these two acts are occurring in. And so the terrorists – being somewhat clever people, although not very smart – use the vehicle that is most convenient at the time. And it will always be what resonates with people around them.

I think it’s even more important, though, to point out that it essentially hasn’t worked, because the vast majority reject the tactics of terrorist groups in this part of the world.


Recorded on: July 3, 2007.