What Drives the Fundamentalist?

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. 




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

Live on Thursday: Learn innovation with 3-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn

Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live this Thursday at 1pm ET.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to your calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo

Keep reading Show less

US, Russia, China won't join global initiative to offer fair access to COVID-19 vaccines. Why not?

The U.S., China, and Russia are in a "vaccine race" that treats a global challenge like a winner-take-all game.

  • More than 150 countries have joined an initiative to develop, produce, and fairly distribute an effective COVID-19 vaccine.
  • But China, Russia, and the U.S. have declined to join in a bid to win the vaccine race.
  • The absence of these three economies risks the success of the global initiative and future collaborations.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Being in a frisky mood may improve your chances in the dating world

    Positive, romantic thoughts could produce positive, romantic outcomes while dating.

    Credit: 4 PM production on Shutterstock
    Sex & Relationships
    • Fear of rejection, self-doubt, and anxiety are just some of the obstacles humans need to overcome to make a meaningful, romantic connection with another person.
    • According to a 2020 project by a group of psychologists at the University of Rochester (and the Israeli-based Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya), humans see possible romantic partners as a lot more attractive if they go into the interaction with a "sexy mindset."
    • Across three separate studies, this team discovered that this sexual activation helps people initiate relationships by inducing them to project their desires onto prospective partners.
    Keep reading Show less

    A new minimoon is headed towards Earth, and it’s not natural

    Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.

    Credit: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Paitoon Pornsuksomboon/Shutterstock/Big Think
    Surprising Science
  • Small objects such as asteroids get trapped for a time in Earth orbit, becoming "minimoons."
  • Minimoons are typically asteroids, but this one is something else.
  • The new minimoon may be part of an old rocket from the 1960s.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Study reveals alarming link between binge-drinking and anxiety

    New research conducted on mice suggests repeated heavy drinking causes synaptic dysfunctions that lead to anxiety.

    Credit: Pixabay
    Mind & Brain
    • The study was conducted on mice, who were given the equivalent of five drinks daily for 10 days.
    • Images of the alcoholic mice brains showed synaptic dysfunctions related to microglia (immune cells in the brain).
    • The results suggest that regulating TNF, a signaling protein related to systemic inflammation, may someday play a part in treating alcohol addiction.
    Keep reading Show less