Muslim clerics hold a lot of power. As interpreters of the Koran, they issue religious rulings, or fatwas, that can sway millions of people. Yet in the study of religious extremism, remarkably little work has been done to determine why some clerics become radical and others do not.
Rich Nielsen, a doctoral student at Harvard University, aims to change that. His dissertation, Clerics of the Jihad, explores that question by poring over the scholarly works and biographies of high-profile clerics. His conclusion: It’s all about career opportunities. Those with poor networks are much more likely to preach extremism.
“Jihadi ideology is often perceived to be the result of immutable, irreconcilable conflicts between fundamentalist Islamism and Western society,” he writes. “But my findings suggest that this interpretation, while rhetorically convenient for actors on both sides, is mostly false.”
His research is getting a lot of notice among political scientists. If clerics are indeed swayed by professional incentives, that could have significant implications for policy makers. For example, Arab governments might find employment opportunities more effective than prison in their efforts to tamp down radical clergy.
Terrorism experts have their doubts about Nielsen’s conclusions, but they say his methodology could be groundbreaking.
Nielsen, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in government, says he came to the question after running into a genre of Web sites known as fatwa banks. Fatwas are nonbinding legal rulings issued by clerics on all aspects of Muslim life, private and public. The online repositories are vibrant and growing sources of guidance for millions of Muslims who, he notes, aren’t averse to shopping around for rulings that appeal to them.
Nielsen, who studied Arabic as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, had an interest in Islamic radicalization, and these writings called out for analysis. Unlike many academics who study religious extremism, he is “a numbers guy,” he says, with a master’s in statistics. So he designed a method to mine thousands of texts for jihadist ideology.
He focuses on a group of about 100 Arab clerics who, through fatwas, articles, and books, have a significant online presence. He looked particularly at Salafi clerics, conservative Islamists who follow a strict interpretation of the Koran.
He collected their writings—nearly 30,000 documents in all—and ran them through his text analysis, searching for words commonly found in a separate collection of jihadi texts known as the “Mujahid’s bookbag.” They include words like “apostasy,” “jihad,” “infidel,” and “killing.” Each cleric then received a score that indicated how extreme, or not, his writing was. Nielsen checked the scores against a list of known jihadi clerics to determine the accuracy of his rating system.
From there he built out a biography for each cleric. Again the Internet proved useful. Clerics typically publish brief biographies, describing their training, their teachers, and their appointments.
Supplementary information came from online bulletin boards where people looking for information about a cleric might ask others about his background. With those materials, Nielsen was able to map the clerics’ educational and professional networks.
He added other potentially explanatory variables to his model, such as how well versed they were religiously, how much exposure they had had to the West, whether they came from clerical families, and a measure of their poverty.
But when he ran the numbers, he found that the best predictor of whether clerics became radical or not was what he called their “network centrality.” The more educational and professional connections a cleric had, the less likely he was to preach violent jihad.
Why is this? Nielsen notes that in Arab countries, religious institutions are largely state-run. Anyone who wants to make a career within those networks would be committing professional suicide by preaching violence. And the incentives to work within the system are considerable: a steady job, reputation, and other perks.
That hit home during two monthlong stints in Cairo, where he spent most days inside the mosque at Al-Azhar University, one of the most esteemed Islamic institutions in the world, listening to top clerics teach and talking to students.
“Being in Ali Gomaa’s crew is really the way to move up right now,” one student told him. “That’s how you get appointed to teach, how you get a position” in the Egyptian fatwa ministry, “which gets you a nice car.”
Jihadi clerics, Nielsen theorizes, may become radicalized because their weak connections force them to work outside the system. Unable to get government jobs, they must build a following. And the most available source of new followers are Salafi Muslims, who dislike mainstream Islam. The more one is seen as theologically independent, the more one gains credibility, the theory goes.
Nielsen’s model finds that someone with a good network and an insider job is only 5 to 7 percent likely to preach jihad. That likelihood increases to 50 percent for someone who has no academic network to speak of and works completely outside the system.
Nielsen says his model probably overestimates the likelihood that someone who works outside the system will turn to jihad. Plenty of clerics toil in obscurity, their work mainstream but not publicly available.
“The ideal thing would be to trace cohorts of entering students and see what happens to them,” he says. “But that’s very difficult.”
While far from conclusive, Nielsen says, his research knocks down some stereotypes: for one, that clerics who preach violent jihad are ignorant.
“A lot of non-jihadists will say, ‘Look, these guys are hacks, they don’t know what they are saying. They’re just kind of losers.’” But when he looked at their abilities and educational records, he didn’t find any differences. “So I don’t think this is about ability.”
“I can’t go anywhere and meet an American political scientists without anybody asking me what I think” about Nielsen’s paper, says Thomas Hegghammer, a leading expert in terrorism and political violence. He is a fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
Hegghammer thinks the appeal of Mr. Nielsen’s research is that it’s counterintuitive, although he himself doesn’t buy the conclusions. “In the particular paper I’ve seen, I don’t think he proves the argument he’s making,” says Hegghammer, who is also a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.
“There are alternative hypotheses that he doesn’t consider and for which we don’t have good data, such as economic situations, geographic origin, tribal origin, level of education in the family—all of the normal things that determine what students study,” Mr. Hegghammer says.
But he applauds Nielsen for his methodological rigor. “My concern at this stage is that the data he feeds into the methodology isn’t good enough. It doesn’t mean that the methods themselves aren’t worth developing. This is a classic case of an opportunity for collaboration between a method specialist, like Rich, and a qualitative researcher who knows more of the empirics. It’s really hard to do both.”
William McCants, an expert on Al Qaeda, terrorism, and Middle Eastern politics with CNA, a nonprofit research organization, also has mixed feelings. On the one hand, he doesn’t think Nielsen’s analysis reflects what is known about jihadist ideology. (McCants produced the “Militant Ideology Atlas,” which Nielsen used to check his own work.)
“Just the very utilitarian nature of picking up the ideology doesn’t make sense,” McCants says, adding that it could be quite likely that the causality is backwards: “Were they on the outs because they developed extreme views, or did they develop extreme views because they were on the outs?”
Still, he says, “the nice thing about Rich’s paper is that at least it puts down a marker. He’s not throwing out more untestable hypotheses.”
Nielsen acknowledges in his dissertation that his research couldn’t capture every factor, and he sees it as a work in progress. “I hope there’s an army of graduate students who say, ‘Wow, this is terribly flawed. I can do better.’” he says, with a laugh. “And I salute them.”
Correction (5/23/2013, 10:45 a.m.): This post originally included a misworded description of a stereotype about clerics that Nielsen says his research knocks down. The stereotype is that they are ignorant, not that they are not ignorant. The text has been corrected.