On how to be completely wrong about radicalisation: the curious case of Jerry Coyne

v2-IsisOn his popular blog Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne – eminent evolutionary biologist, outspoken atheist, and unrelenting critic of Islam – recently found time between posting pictures of his new boots and the food he’s been eating to wade once more into the muddy waters of Islamic terrorism. He was prompted to dip his toes in again by a comment left by reader Neil Godfrey, who writes on the blog Vridar, in response to a previous post:

Jerry, what concerns me about the various statements made by yourself along with Dawkins and Harris is that they are not informed by specialist scholarship — sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists et al — in Islamic and terrorist studies. Rather, they seem to be fueled by visceral reactions without the benefit of broader understanding and knowledge that comes from scholarly investigations into these phenomena. It almost appears to some of us that your criticisms are willfully ignorant of the scholarship. I find these visceral responses coming from trained scientists difficult to understand.

In reply, Coyne wrote:

What “scholarship” that people like Godfrey and Robert Pape have mentioned or produced has completely ignored what the terrorists say about their own motivations in favor of blaming colonialism—something that self-flagellating liberals in the West love to do. (Not, of course, that the U.S. is completely blameless in oppressing and attacking the Middle East, but neither are we the sole cause of extreme Islamic terrorism.) As I once asked one of these blame-the-West apologists, “What would it take to convince you that some Muslim terrorists are actually motivated by religion?” Clearly the terrorists’ own words don’t count: the “scholars” claim to know better. This unfounded psychologizing clearly shows their motivations.

So now it’s my time to get into the water – and hopefully clean it up a bit.

To kick off, can Coyne please show us some examples from the scholarship produced by radicalisation researchers in which the author simply blames colonialism (whatever that even means), and ignores the role of religious ideology in motivating Islamist terrorists? To be clear, I’m not talking about op-eds from columnists or essays by non-specialists – I’m talking about examples of scholarship. (If you don’t know that literature, or the researchers involved, just shout and I’ll point the way.) I also do not want examples from Godfrey, who isn’t a specialist, or just from Pape, who is but one voice out there.

In fact, it’s easy to show that Coyne is attacking a strawman. He would have you believe that radicalisation researchers are a bunch of “self-flagellating liberals” who ignore the role of religion and the ideologies it informs, and instead want to pin the blame on colonialism, or contemporary foreign policy more generally.

Coyne is talking total bullshit, bullshit he’s simply made up. It wouldn’t be worth responding to except it serves as a useful teachable moment.

What radicalisation researchers actually think
Take these quotes from the recently published “We Love Death As You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists, by Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. In writing about the terrorist cell that carried out the London 2005 bombings, Pantucci says:

The question that has since plagued Britain is what drove this group of young men to such extreme action. Given the volume of people in the country also angry at the government’s foreign policy who chose other forms of protest to express themselves, anger at foreign policy alone is clearly not a sufficient explanation.

Pantucci is clearly not a West-blaming, self-flagellating liberal. Moving onto the general issue of radicalisation and Islamist terrorism, and drawing on the work of Peter Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, Pantucci writes:

Three main drivers usually have to be in place before individuals become involved in terrorism: ideology, grievance and mobilisation … Ideology is in many ways the most important of the three drivers, and within a British context can best be described as the external agent that brought al-Qaeda’s terrorism to Britain’s shores. It can be understood as the philosophy that enables individuals to become involved in extremist Islamist terrorism, a supremacist, takfirist ideology that seeks to impose a global Caliphate and holds that its goals can be achieved by means of terrorism.

Or consider this from a 2013 review on radicalisation by Neumann:

[Th]e role of beliefs and ideology in behavioural radicalization is obvious and well documented. What made Irish Republican Army recruits blow up police stations in Northern Ireland while Tibetans have resisted the ‘occupation’ of their homeland peacefully needs to be explained, at least in part, with reference to the different ideologies that members of the two nationalist movements have come to accept as true. Similarly, what commands political and ‘quietist’ Salafists to pursue their faith through peaceful activism (or no activism at all) while ‘jihadist’ Salafists have joined terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda must be understood by looking at, among other factors, the different strands of their belief system and what they say about the circumstances in which using violence is permitted or even obligatory. Indeed, without reference to beliefs, none of these behaviours make any sense.

Again, these are not the words of someone who wants to remove religious beliefs and ideology from the story of radicalisation, and blame it on colonialism/foreign policy. This is entirely uncontroversial in the world of radicalisation research. If that’s a surprise to Coyne, it’s because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to the radicalisation literature.

Pantucci are Neumann are not outliers in taking the role of religion and religious ideology seriously. Take the writings of Scott Atran, who Coyne links to in rebutting the claims of Robert Pape. Before going on, it should be noted that Atran is regularly attacked by writers like Sam Harris, with whom Coyne generally agrees on every point, including the roots of Islamist terrorism. Atran is apparently guilty of excusing the role of religion in explaining extremism and terrorism (and, I assume, of pinning it on colonialism or foreign policy) – a view that can only be maintained if you either don’t read Atran, or do read him but ignore what he actually says: “Ideology isn’t the only cause of willingness to die in a terrorist act, but it may be a critical ingredient” (this was written in the context of research showing that while some groups, such as US soldiers, may often act without a “cause” beyond defending their band of brothers, many others do kill and die for a cause, especially one imbued with ‘sacred values’, often framed in religious terms). Read Atran’s books and articles, and watch his talks online, and you’ll see that he acknowledges the importance of ideology all the time – he just wants to know what translates ideology into action.

What Coyne & Co think
Of course, the problem Coyne has with this line is that is doesn’t pin ALL the blame on religious beliefs or religiously inspired ideologies. That’s the line he prefers to peddle. Here are some choice examples of just how monolithic Coyne can be about religious belief, Islam and terrorism, starting with a comment he made after the Charlie Hebdo killings: “it’s almost impossible to pin the murders on anything but blind adherence to religious faith”. (Well, it’s almost impossible if you haven’t got your head around the other causal factors that lead to such acts.)

Coyne makes similar points in other writings:

Unless you are so blinded by what ISIS declares as its motives, or are so contemptuous of the West that any reaction by Muslims can be blamed on colonialism, or are such a reverse bigot that you think that jihadis must be excused for their violent reactions, then you must conclude that ISIS is motivated by one thing: religion—the desire to establish an Islamic caliphate and wipe out the infidels.

And here:

ISIS and the murderers in Denmark and Paris are palpably motivated largely—if not solely—by their religious beliefs.

The message is clear: if you want to understand ISIS and other Islamist terrorists, you need only look at their religious beliefs. That will tell everything about why they’re radicalised, and why they do the awful things they do.

Coyne is far from alone in this view. Douglas Murray, in an essay published in the Spectator after the Charlie Hebdo killings and given a glowing endorsement by Sam Harris, wrote: “the violence of the Islamists is, truthfully, only to do with Islam: the worst version of Islam, certainly, but Islam nonetheless” [emphasis added].

And as Sam Harris wrote in The End Of Faith:

As a man believes, so he will act. Believe that you are the member of a chosen people, awash in the salacious exports of an evil culture that is turning your children away from God, believe that you will be rewarded with an eternity of unimaginable delights by dealing death to these infidels — and flying a plane into a building is scarcely more than a matter of being asked to do it.

Elsewhere, Harris writes:

Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? …. In drawing a connection between the doctrine of Islam and jihadist violence, I am talking about ideas and their consequences … Now can we honestly talk about the link between belief and behavior?

Please, let us! (It should be noted that Harris’s assertion that “As a man believes, so he will act” is not only based on zero empirical evidence, but actually flies in the face of half a century’s research – talk about having an honest conversation!) It should be stressed that the nature of the belief-behaviour link is not an area that radicalisation researchers have shied away from; in fact, it’s central to the field.

Words and deeds, thoughts and actions
Generally, radicalisation researchers distinguish between ‘cognitive radicalisation’, or the process of acquiring extreme, possibly violent, beliefs, and ‘behavioural radicalisation’, the process of becoming someone who will actually carry out violence or terrorist attacks. (Some call these ‘opinion radicalisation’ and ‘action radicalisation’, respectively.)

Behaviourally radicalised individuals or groups obviously pose a clear and present danger. What about cognitive radicals? How are these two aspects of radicalisation connected? Is cognitive radicalisation always necessary as a first step towards behavioural radicalisation – and if not, what other pathways are there to behavioural radicalisation? Is cognitive radicalisation sufficient to create behavioural radicalisation – and if not, what else, beyond belief-based factors, tips people over into behavioural radicalisation?

These are the kinds of questions that radicalisation researchers have addressed. In the 2013 review cited earlier, Neumann wrote:

No serious academic argues that all—or even most—cognitive extremists will go on to embrace violence. The notion of a ‘unidirectional relationship’ between beliefs and terrorism may exist in the minds of some right-wing bloggers, but it has never gained traction among members of the scholarly community. None of the widely used models and theories of radicalization suggest that beliefs or ideologies are the sole influence on or explanation for why people turn to terrorism.

Coyne, despite his strong opinions about Islamist terrorism and its causes, has little time for the views of people who spend their professional lives studying radicalisation and ideologically driven violence, as the quote from the beginning of this post demonstrates.

Instead, he prefers to tilt at windmills. Who, exactly, are the blame-the-West radicalisation researchers – not just someone spouting off on the Internet – that Coyne has so cleverly challenged with his hard-hitting question about religious motivation? To repeat for those who have difficulty reading and comprehending, the scholars Coyne writes off DO NOT DENY that some, perhaps most, Muslim terrorists are MOTIVATED BY RELIGION.

Coyne also maintains the ludicrous fantasy that these researchers do not listen to the words of terrorists. It’s an odd claim since many of them, such as Scott Atran, Marc Sageman, and Anne Speckhard, have travelled the world meeting with terrorists, their friends and families – unlike Coyne who knocks out his polemics from behind his computer screen in Chicago. (Which terrorists is Coyne listening to, exactly? Those quoted on Fox News?)

Yes, terrorists frequently frame their motivations in religious terms – again, a point no one would deny – but they also cite other factors, and sometimes discount the religious aspect entirely. So let’s hear from some terrorists.

“Religion had nothing to do with this. We watched films.
We were shown videos with images of the war in Iraq.
We were told we must do something big. That’s why we met”
Hussain Osman, arrested for plotting a London bombing.

“Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight”
Siddique Khan, 7/7 bomber

“The only reason we have killed this man today is because
Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers”
Michael Adebolajo, who, along with Michael Adebowale,
killed British soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of London.

In this context, it’s interesting to recall some comments Douglas Murray made on the BBC’s Daily Politics show the day after the Charlie Hebdo shootings:

There are a whole set of excuses which at times like this people put into the mouths of terrorists …saying it’s something to do with segregationalism or lack of integration in French society, it’s about the banlieues, they don’t like the suburb they live in so they go into a newspaper office and gun down journalists, people who say it’s about the foreign policy. They’re giving these people excuses they didn’t ask for. It can’t be stressed enough: the people who do this do not do it just for the things we would like them to have done it for … They did it because they want to enforce Islamic blasphemy laws on the free West.

Never mind that the terrorists in question did in fact cite some of these non-religious factors. We can ignore those, and focus on the religious component. That’s OK, because that’s what the killings were obviously about, right?

Let’s follow Coyne in his insistence on listening to what terrorists actually say – which, in any case, radicalisation researchers already do with much greater attentiveness than Coyne ever has. If we do, we have to conclude that they are, in fact, motivated by foreign policy decisions – a point that is obvious if you’ve ever listened to any speeches by Osama bin Laden (as a random example, in explaining why Britain was a target for terrorism, he said: “The British are responsible for destroying the caliphate system. They are the ones who created the Palestinian problem. They are the ones who created the Kashmiri problem. They are the ones who put the arms embargo on the Muslims of Bosnia so that 2 million Muslims were killed. They are the ones who are starving the Iraqi children. And they are continuously dropping bombs on these innocent Iraqi children”). [See Note at the end for a possible objection to this framing, and my reply to it] As always, this doesn’t mean that they’re SOLEY motivated by foreign policy, nor that religious beliefs, attitudes and values are NOT part of the motivational equation (only a massively biased mind would read this that way); it’s simply to say that some Muslim terrorists are actually motivated by foreign policy grievances.

What about colonialism and its legacy? In June 2014, when ISIS declared its new caliphate, it released a celebratory video. It wasn’t called ‘The Triumph Of Islam’ or ‘How We Made A Caliphate’, but ‘The End Of Sykes-Picot’, a reference to the border between Syria and Iraq created by the British and French in the 1916. Another video put together by VICE in August 2014 shows ISIS members taking bulldozers to this arbitrary line in the sand.

I’m no Koranic expert, but I don’t think Sykes-Picot is mentioned in this holy text. It seems that the history of 20th century colonialism, and the way European powers carved up the Middle East, does have some resonance with contemporary jihadists. (If you think my making this simple point is in any way an attempt to claim that ISIS has nothing to do with religion, but only colonialism/foreign policy, you’re beyond help, and beyond having a conversation with. And though it should go without saying, pointing out that people can be motivated in part by historical grievances in no way implies that their historical narrative is accurate, nor that the grievance is necessarily warranted, and certainly doesn’t suggest that violent retaliation for this grievance is justified.)

Concerns about foreign policy and colonialism on the one hand, and religious ideology on the other, hardly exhaust the range of motivations of jihadists. Analysts Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, unlike Coyne, have interviewed dozens of ISIS associates in Syria and Iraq. “[W]hat draws people to ISIS could easily bring them to any number of cults or totalitarian movements, even those ideologically contradictory to Salafist Jihadism,” they write in ISIS: Inside The Army of Terror. “Far from homogenous, the organization spans an array of backgrounds and beliefs systems, from godless opportunists to war profiteers to pragmatic tribesmen to committed takfiris [Muslims who believe they can diagnose and kill apostates]”.

The fact that Coyne is absolutely deaf to all of this doesn’t tell you anything about the motivations of the researchers who have brought this to light, as he suggests in the quote at the top. But they tell you everything about Coyne’s. Arguing that religious ideology is not the SOLE motivator of jihadist terrorism is not an example of “uninformed psychologising”, as Coyne would have it. It’s Coyne who is uninformed, and who is guilty of baseless psychologising. The level of ignorance is embarrassing, especially from a tenured professor.

The big picture
Let’s back up a bit. It’s not just that Coyne is wrong about what radicalisation researchers say about the multi-factorial causes of terrorism (Islamist or otherwise), but that he – like Harris – only ever talks about the doctrines of Islam/Islamism, and the religious beliefs held by terrorists, when talking about radicalisation, violent extremism and terrorism. If every time we mentioned women to a friend he started talking about their breasts, we’d be entitled to think that this was all he was interested in when it comes to women. The same goes for Coyne (and Harris’s) almost exclusive focus on religious beliefs in the context of Islamist terrorism.

Perhaps Coyne will be tempted to reply along these lines: “I’m not saying that Islamic religious beliefs are the SOLE CAUSE of Islamist terrorism; I’m just saying that the religious beliefs and ideological commitments of terrorists play a causal role in their behaviour, and that these beliefs are genealogically related to Islam”.

Well, congratulations on making the most banal and unhelpful contribution to the radicalisation literature – and one that is already a guiding assumption of most radicalisation research.

To see just how impotent this supposedly profound and controversial insight is, let’s consider some of the key questions that keep radicalisation researchers in business. We can start with the issue of cognitive radicalisation. Various polls, often cited by writers like Harris as well as radicalisation researchers, suggest that a minimum of 15–20% of Muslims globally accept an Islamist or Jihadi ideology — making for somewhere between 240 million and 320 million cognitive extremists. One obvious question is why just 15-20% accept this ideology, while the vast majority reject it. Saying “Jihad is the product of beliefs derived from Islam” doesn’t even engage with the question, let alone provide an answer.

More broadly, why do religious ideologies that preach violence in the name of social change appeal to some religious people and not others? Is it something to do with the personalities of the people involved, or does it turn on more situational factors related to identity at transitional points in people lives? What role do social networks, including both family and friends, play in the appeal of jihadist ideology, over and above the content of the doctrines? Why does the appeal of such ideologies vary over time, and from place to place, and how do they relate to social, cultural and historical changes? Again, you can’t even begin to think about these questions if all you’ve got to say is that Islamist violence is only to do with Islam.

The problems for this simplistic refrain are even more evident when it comes to behavioural radicalisation. A report published in July 2014 by the RAND Corporation estimated that there were 100,000 Jihadists active at the time — a terrifying number — but even if we assume that there are twice as many, that translates into just 0.06–0.08% of cognitive radicals (240-320 million) becoming behavioural extremists.

If Harris is right — that “as a man believes, so he will act”, and “certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder” — why aren’t the millions of people who hold extreme beliefs going round killing people? As Charles Kurzman puts it, where are “the missing martyrs”? Is it really that they simply haven’t been asked to carry out an act of terrorism, or just lack the means to launch one themselves? If not, what might differentiate between those who hold extreme beliefs who refrain from violence, and those who embrace it? Pointing out that “some Muslim terrorists are actually motivated [PARTIALLY? EXCLUSIVELY? LET’S LEAVE IT CONVENIENTLY AMBIGUOUS!] by religion” is of no help.

The focus on beliefs, and the totally unwarranted assumption that beliefs cause behaviour in an almost law-like way (or at least reliably, whatever that means), gets you nowhere in explaining the disconnect between belief and behaviour. Indeed, it can’t, because it tries to hide that very disconnect, or pretend it isn’t there. But it is. (I’ve written more about this here.)

Radicalisation researchers are keenly interested in explaining behavioural (or action) radicalisation, which after all is the real threat to safety and security. The kind of researchers that Coyne would happily wave away actually spend their time going to places like Iraq and Libya to find out what drives intense commitment to both causes and groups, and have revealed how social, group-based processes can fuse groups into tight ‘bands of brothers’ who will kill and die for each other, just as you might for your family (another kind of radicalism, but a more acceptable one). If you keep banging on about beliefs, you’ll never hear what these researchers, who put their necks on the line in a way that Coyne wouldn’t dare, have to say. (Some relevant research is described in a feature I wrote for Nature a while back; see here and here for recent examples from Scott Atran.)

I’d like to start wrapping up with some excerpts from a review paper by Randy Borum, Professor of Strategy and Intelligence Studies at the University of South Florida, which ties together much of what’s said above (you can access his excellent two-part review here and here).

[Radicalization into violent extremism] refer[s] to the processes by which people come to adopt beliefs that not only justify violence but compel it, and how they progress—or not—from thinking to action. Doing this successfully requires some understanding of the purveyors and the targets of violent extremism. This effort must seek to understand not only what people think, but how they come to think what they think, and, ultimately, how they progress— or not—from thinking to action. It is not a task for a single theory or discipline. Any useful framework must be able to integrate mechanisms at micro (individual) and macro (societal/cultural) levels. It must account for the fact that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to creating a violent extremist.

Sometimes the concepts of radicalism and terrorism become conflated. In this paper, the term radicalization is used to refer to the process of developing extremist ideologies and beliefs [DJ: What I called cognitive or opinion radicalisation above]. The term action pathways (or action scripts) will refer to the process of engaging in terrorism or violent extremist actions [DJ: What I called behavioural or action radicalisation]. Some people with radical ideas and violent justifications—perhaps even most of them—do not engage in terrorism. The best available global polling from organizations like Pew and Gallup suggest that there are tens of millions of Muslims worldwide who are sympathetic to “jihadi aspirations,” though most of them do not engage in violence. Conversely, some terrorists—perhaps even many of them—are not ideologues or deep believers in a nuanced, extremist doctrine. Some have only a cursory knowledge of, or commitment to, the radical ideology. They are drawn to the group and to the activity for other reasons. Ideology and action are sometimes connected, but not always. We need to understand the distinctions between them.

A focus on radicalization [DJ: cognitive radicalisation], however, risks implying that radical beliefs are a proxy—or at least a necessary precursor—for terrorism. We know this not to be true. Most people who hold radical ideas do not engage in terrorism, and many terrorists—even those who lay claim to a “cause”—are not deeply ideological and may not “radicalize” in any traditional sense. Different pathways and mechanisms operate in different ways for different people at different points in time and perhaps in different contexts. Radicalizing by developing or adopting extremist beliefs that justify violence is one possible pathway into terrorism involvement, but it is certainly not the only one. Informed policies and practices to mitigate and prevent the spread of violent extremism require an understanding of these kinds of variations, not just general trends. The broader question is how people become involved, stay involved, and sometimes disengage from terrorism. Studying the processes of terrorism involvement is not purely an “academic” exercise; it provides a foundation for the “next wave” of global [counter violent extremism] efforts—those focused on prevention.

If you find any of this objectionable, please spell out exactly what, and why. This is the context into which Coyne & Co wade with their one big insight, namely, that Islamist terrorists hold beliefs that are related to Islam, and these beliefs are the cause of their behaviour. In this formulation, the big insight is simply mistaken: beliefs do not simply cause behaviour, and the behaviour of terrorists have multi-causal roots. If it’s rephrased less dogmatically as “Islamist terrorists hold beliefs that are related to Islam, and these beliefs are part of the motivational mix that drives their behaviour”, then it’s not an original or contentious contribution to thinking about radicalisation, and it’s certainly not a corrective to the thinking of most radicalisation researchers. So why does Coyne act like it is? Partly because it gives him something to kick back against for the pleasure of his readers, but also because he doesn’t know the field well enough, and has become obsessed by the idea that people are trying to “let Muslims off the hook” and instead want to beat the West for creating the monster is Islamist terrorism. Coyne’s beef has little to do with reality. And his arguments, like those of Harris, have absolutely nothing to offer in tackling violent extremism.

Again, Coyne and others who hold a similar view may want to say, “We don’t object to what the radicalisation researchers cited here think; we’re responding to people who say that beliefs and ideology have nothing to do with violent extremism and terrorism”. If so, then that’s what Coyne should say, and he should note that the view of such researchers stands in direct contradiction to what people like Sam Harris have written, as well his own comments (like “ISIS is motivated by one thing: religion—the desire to establish an Islamic caliphate and wipe out the infidels”). It might also be worth reflecting on the fact that if you only ever focus on religious beliefs and ideology, and dismiss out of hand researchers who talk about other processes and mechanisms of radicalisation, then your readers will naturally think that’s what you think the key issue is. If you don’t, expand the scope of your conversation, show people that you take a broader view. And if you take the narrower view, make that explicit.

Thinking straight about radicalisation
Coyne is clearly a smart man in many ways. He can do all the maths required to model complex evolutionary phenomena, and also seems to have a pretty good grasp on large swathes of the physical sciences. Yet when it comes to talking about what makes humans tick, and what drives some of the most extreme forms of human behaviour, he’s totally out of his element.

If you want to understand the radical mind, and the behaviour it produces, I’d recommend starting with the short but excellent Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us, by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, which outlines 12 mechanisms of radicalisation that drive people to extremism (and not just religious extremism – these mechanisms are more general, and explain both religious and non-religious extremism), as well as providing lots of case studies. You might also want to look at Scott Atran’s Talking To The Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What It Means To Be Human, and Anne Speckhard’s massive Talking To Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers and “Martyrs”. The final chapter of the revised edition of Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda: The True Story Of Radical Islam is also very insightful (again, he’s someone who has spent years in the field reporting on jihadists). Then there’s Pantucci’s “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. It’s also worth reading contemporary accounts of ISIS, such as Weiss and Hassan’s ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror, as well as Patrick Cockurn’s somewhat polemical The Rise Of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, the substantial ISIS: The State Of Terror, by Jessica Stern and J.M Berger, and the slim volume The Islamist Phoenix: The Islamic State and the Redrawing of the Middle East, by Loretta Napoleoni.

In the examples I gave where terrorists cited foreign policy issues as the reason for their violence, an easy response is to say, “Ahh yes, but they were talking about protecting ‘my’ people, and that group is defined religiously – ergo, it was still purely religiously motivated!”. This is a facile and deeply misleading reply. If the claim is simply that religion factored into the identity of the people killing to avenge other Muslims, then this is uncontroversial – the role of identity and how it brings people into extremism is a central issue for radicalisation researchers. What we need to know is why, out of millions of Muslims, only a small number incorporate violent jihad into their identity, and are actually moved to action. Once more, you cannot begin to answer this question by simply repeating, ad naseum, that it all boils down to Islam.

If, on the other hand, you’re claiming that the only causal factor that needs to be taken into account in explaining why people turn to militant Islamism is that they’re infatuated with Islamists beliefs, you’re just not part of the empirically based conversation about the pathways into behavioural radicalisation.


About Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a freelance science writer
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21 Responses to On how to be completely wrong about radicalisation: the curious case of Jerry Coyne

  1. Neil Godfrey says:

    I’m glad to see your post, Dan. Jerry Coyne denied my request to reply to both his own remarks and those of his commenters on his own blog. One of the points I hoped to make was that Robert Pape is only one of the many sources I have shared in my own posts on Islam and terrorism and which I was wishing critics like Coyne would seriously address. (Even with respect to Pape Coyne suggests Pape ignores what terrorists themselves say, indicating Coyne has not even read Pape’s research.) For the record, and in addition to the specialists you have mentioned, names I wished to suggest to Coyne and like-minded critics include:

    Talal Asad — anthropologist and author of scholarly works on Islam and suicide terrorism

    Scott Atran — anthropologist who has been advisor and confidante to many governments and government bodies.

    Jason Burke — investigative reporter on Al Qaeda

    Thomas Copeland – assistant professor of Political Science and Geneva College.

    John Esposito — professor of religion and Islamist studies; draws upon Gallup polling

    Fawaz Gerges — Professor of Middle East Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science

    Jeroen Gunning — Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and Conflict Studies at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London.

    Mohammed Hafez — political scientist specializing in studies of Muslim societies in Middle East

    Ghassan Hage — anthropologist with interesting insights though some of his views relating to suicide terrorist motivations have been superseded by subsequent researchers

    Fred Halliday — specialist in politics of the Middle East

    Paddy Hillyard — Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast.

    Stephen A. Holmes, Professor of Law and Political Science, New York University

    Riaz Hassan — sociologist drawing upon a Flinders University Database 0f terrorist actions as well as other polling studies

    Richard Jackson — Deputy Director at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies

    Robert Pape — political scientist responsible for a landmark study of all suicide terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2003.

    Alexander Spencer — Sociologist at Geschwister Scholl Institute for Political Science at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

    Lily Zubaidah Rahim — researcher of South East Asian politics and Islam

    Also works by
    Naim Ateek — a Palestinian Christian and theologian
    Marc Sageman — expert on terrorism and counter-terrorism
    Abdel Bari Atwan — Arab journalist and editor

    Neil Godfrey

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  3. mark says:

    Excellent article, well done. Coyne is fairly unique among higher-profile Islamophobes, in that he isn’t making a dime off of it. He’s a true believer.

    An example of this is that he clearly cannot tolerate well argued positions contrary to his own (outside of his expertise). He regularly makes fun of the low hanging fruit of simpleton creationists and right-wing Christians. But challenge him on his opinions of Israel or Islam and he will ban you from his blog (he hates the neologisms blog and tweet) for being mean to “the host.” He clearly has a large ego as the boot pornography attests. And he relishes dividing the field into opposing and irreconcilable tribes that can only be defeated, never engaged with.

    Perhaps he shares some of these same personal (or even genetic?) traits with those Islamists who are cognitively radicalized. There goes Coyne but for the grace of God.

    • Dan Jones says:

      Thanks, Mark. I think you’re spot on about Coyne’s cognitive style, and also about the ego and narcissism that bleeds out of almost every post he knocks out. (In the early days of his blog, he noted that he’d originally planned to write on it relatively infrequently, but that his narcissism got the better of him – he clearly loves the feedback and adulation from his readers, some of whom post up to 2,500 comments a year, or 6 comments a day! I’m not sure that’s a healthy audience.) Finally, his glee at taking on every idiot on the internet, while ducking people who make serious criticisms of his ideas, leaves me dumbfounded.

    • Neil Godfrey says:

      Ah yes, I work with academics and should know by now that a number of them are the most insufferable snobs imaginable. The trouble is so many of them are also very respectable, civil and professional human beings that it is easy to forget this when attempting to engage online.

  4. Dutch Delight says:

    There is a bit of a problem in your post here. You introduce 3 quotes that are supposedly terrorists pointing to non-religious reasons for their actions. But what you then produce is two quotes where they declare that they are doing this for their fellow believers, and another one that just barely stops short of saying the exact same.

    From a western point of view, you might be tempted to read over the distinction
    that they care about their fellow believers, not necessarily human beings in the broad sense.

    • Dan Jones says:

      ‘Dutch Delight’ – sounds like a variety of weed! (Nuthin’ wrong with that, jus’ sayin’.) I take your point, and tried to address that in the ‘Note’ at the end of the essay. But to re-argue what I said: yes, the terrorists I quoted did indeed make clear that they were acting on behalf of ‘their’ people. and they were defined religiously (well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but we can take that as a starting point). The point I’m trying to make is that identity itself, while it certainly can and often does have religious dimensions, is itself not reducible to religious beliefs – the thing, I keep saying, that Coyne et al focus on.

      Surely it’s an interesting question why some self-identified Muslims develop a sense of identity that moves them to fighting and killing for their brothers and sisters, and why others do not. Again, you can say, “Ahhh, well it’s because the former pick up some jihadist ideology, while the others don’t'”, but then we need to explain that difference too! And, as I argued over and over in the essay, there’s no necessary leap from ideology to action, from words to deeds. That’s where the real danger lies (at least in the immediate term), and explaining how people become behaviorally radicalised takes more than an appeal to beliefs.

      And finally: remember, I’m not denying that beliefs and ideology – and certainly identities that connect Muslims separated by thousands of miles – are part of the causal story of radicalisation and violent extremism. So the fact that the terrorists I cited fused both foreign policy concerns with a very strong Muslim identity is no embarrassment for the position I;m pushing for.

  5. Chandra Sekhar says:

    Good article.
    1) New Atheist leaders pay lip-service to some of the other causal factors, esp the causal factor that they can influence the most (i.e foreign policy)
    for e.g Sam Harris in his recent exchange with Noam Chomsky

    We have surely done some terrible things in the past. Undoubtedly, we are poised to do terrible things in the future. Nothing I have written in this book should be construed as a denial of these facts, or as defense of state practices that are manifestly abhorrent. There may be much that Western powers, and the United States in particular, should pay reparations for. And our failure to acknowledge our misdeeds over the years has undermined our credibility in the international community. We can concede all of this, and even share Chomsky’s acute sense of outrage, while recognizing that his analysis of our current situation in the world is a masterpiece of moral blindness.

    But they wont follow up and do a thing to influence foreign policy. Did Sam Harris or Jerry Coyne write anything to advocate changes to foreign policy?

    2) They cannot empathize with Muslim men. They can not see them as humans like everyone else, who love their families and spend much of their time working and providing for wife and children.
    When I look at New Atheist writings, they are obsessed with “how muslim women are slaves of their men”. This just goes counter to my experiences and understanding. While I am an Atheist now, I started off as a barely-religious Hindu growing up in India, with several Muslim schoolmates and friends, some even atheists. I can see through American Mainstream Media propaganda.
    In one article, Sam Harris says

    Any time a woman comes away from an encounter with a man saying that he gave her the creeps, I trust her. This is not mere chivalry on my part: It is a judgment based on an understanding of human nature…But having been raised by a single mother since the age of two, I have always had a very visceral sense that men have a responsibility not to be evil jerks. And when they are, they should be sorted out—physically, if need be—by good men. Call me old-fashioned.

    My criticism of Islam—for which I have been vilified by many of the same people who are now attacking me over my remarks about gender—is largely inspired by my concern for women. And I consider it one of the most sickening effects of political correctness that so many liberals appear to care more about the (nonexistent) rights of Muslims to not be offended than about the rights of women to not live as slaves. This malignant derangement of liberal ethics can be seen whenever a “feminist” expresses reservations about (my friend and hero) Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

    This is plain-old emotional-bias-in-favor-of-women (a.k.a “Women are wonderful” effect. For all the New Atheist talk of overcoming cognitive biases, they are big-time slaves to this WAW bias. Seriously.. these guys need to read Psychologist Roy Baumeister’s 2010 book “Is there anything good about men? How cultures flourish by exploiting men”, where he debunks this “women are oppressed” conventional wisdom.

    • Dan Jones says:

      Thanks, Chandra. I appreciate that Coyne, Harris and even Dawkins have, as you say, apparently paid lip service to a more nuanced view than I’d suggest. The problem is, when they do, it’s not always quite the endorsement of a multi-causal picture of religious violence. So when Harris says, “We have surely done some terrible things in the past. Undoubtedly, we are poised to do terrible things in the future. Nothing I have written in this book should be construed as a denial of these facts, or as defense of state practices that are manifestly abhorrent.” – well, that’s not quite the same as saying “To understand religious violence we need to attend to many more things than religious beliefs”. It’s entirely possible to say, “US foreign policy has made some blunders, and yet the explanation of Islamic State lies in the beliefs the group adheres to”. In fact, Harris at other times is out dismissive of taking the conversation away from belief:

      In any conversation on this topic [Islamic State and religious extremism], one must continually deploy a firewall of caveats and concessions to irrelevancy: Of course, U.S. foreign policy has problems. Yes, we really must get off oil. No, I did not support the war in Iraq. Sure, I’ve read Chomsky. No doubt, the Bible contains equally terrible passages. Yes, I heard about that abortion clinic bombing in 1984. No, I’m sorry to say that Hitler and Stalin were not motivated by atheism. The Tamil Tigers? Of course, I’ve heard of them. Now can we honestly talk about the link between belief and behavior?”

      So, once you’ve done away with all this irrelevant stuff, you’ll be left disucssing the link between belief and behaviour – at which point Harris is ready to step in and tell us just what this link is: “As a man believes, so he will act”.

      Similarly, I’ve seen Dawkins pushed on why he gives the impression that he thinks beliefs are the sole cause of religious violence, but in reply he says something like “Obviously I don;t think all wars are caused by religion – World War II for example”. But that’s tangential: you can easily accept that the two world wars had nothing to do with religion, and see think that the explanation of contemporary Islamist terrorism is to be couched entirely in terms of religious belief. And remember, I’m not just saying that it’s about more than religious beliefs, but about much more than beliefs generally, whether they’re about foreign policy or whatever. There’s a whole bunch of social psychology that’s got very little to do with explicit beliefs at play here. So I’m not convinced that their very minor concessions are anywhere near enough.

      As for NA’s attitudes to Muslim men, you speak from a lot more experience than me, so I’ve got nothing to add – but thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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  8. Mal Francis says:

    Hey Dan,

    Just wanted to say, I was completely blown away by this post. It’s really excellent – I’ve never read such a concise (but accessible) piece on the current state of radicalisation research, as well as such a strong rebuttal to the likes of Coyne and Harris.

    It amazes me that these two men – scientists and smart men by all accounts, and supposedly committed to “reason” (Sam being the founder of Project Reason) – can be so committed to positions not based on the facts, and indeed which are entirely contradicted by actual scholarship on the subject. Harris, for instance, has scathingly criticized Atran – a man who has actually speak years researching the subject and meeting with terrorists and radicals! – as being “preening and delusional,” while (like Coyne) he has no actual experience of his own to draw from.

    It strikes me as really irresponsible that these two continue to push their baseless positions, given the public platform and influence they enjoy.

    In any case, Dan, you’ve got a new fan of your work in me. Very much looking forward to taking in more of your writing. Cheers

  9. Jedi Master says:

    Very excellent stuff.

  10. Pingback: Science writer scorches Jerry Coyne, doesn’t worship him | Uncommon Descent

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