The Educated Muslim Terrorist
Why so many jihadists are Westernized and come from the upper middle class.
East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. ––Rudyard Kipling
Nidal Hasan, Abdulmutallab and Humam al-Balawi are jihadists who were educated and came from privileged middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Hasan was an American-trained U. S. Army doctor, Abdulmutallab was a London engineering student and the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker, and double-agent Dr. Humam al-Balawi was a member of the Jordanian professional class.
Many Westerners are confused by the willingness of university-educated middle-class Muslims to perpetrate barbarous acts of terrorism. It appears to be a reversal of the usual process: typically college students raised in religious households become more secularized by exposure to the humanities and sciences, and the rationalist values of the European Enlightenment. Yet when embryonic jihadists attend Western universities they graduate with their faith intact: 9/11 terrorists Mohammed Atta and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were both beneficiaries of Western university educations. These men, who sought to advance themselves with Western training and technical skills, ultimately turned against, and attempted to destroy, the very society that provided them with the means to that advancement. Instead of employing their newly acquired learning and knowledge to improve the lot of their fellow countrymen and co-religionists, they turned this very learning and knowledge against their Western benefactors.
This phenomenon begs the question: How do jihadists reconcile such hypocrisy and ingratitude in their own minds?
As the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie proved, the list of Jihad’s grievances against the West is subtle and inventive. The exquisite sensitivities of the faithful guarantee the manufacture of injury and insult without end, providing inspiration for Islam’s perennial street theater; for no sooner does the Arab street grow tired of one threadbare grievance, e.g. Israel, than it discovers another in an irreverent Danish cartoon.
The familiar explanations for the fierce hatred of Muslim extremists for the West—the presence of Western military forces in sacred Arab lands, that holy war against infidels is a duty sanctioned by the Koran, or the millennial fantasy that a supreme caliphate is destined to rule the world—are as irrational as they are implausible. For example, before 9/11, America’s military deployment in Islamic countries, in Bosnia, Kosovo and in Kuwait, had been in the defense of Islam itself; but for the timely intervention of American forces in these three places, tens of thousands of Bosnian and Albanian Muslims would have perished in an orgy ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and Kuwait (and eventually Saudi Arabia) would have become provinces of Iraq. (The only other time Muslims were likely to encounter the U.S. military was when a Navy relief task force arrived with aid for victims of a natural disaster in an Islamic state like Bangladesh.) And though some imams, mullahs and ayatollahs may harbor utopian dreams of world domination and of heavenly rewards for martyrdom, it is hard to believe such apocalyptic visions could motivate educated Muslims.
There is evidently something else at play here.
Genetic biologists tell us that the principle stages of man’s evolution, from the fish to primate, can be discerned in time-lapse photography of the human embryo. The evolution of the educated Muslim terrorist is one of those mysteries that, like human evolution, resides in the terms of the problem itself and is only waiting to be made explicit, i.e. the very fact of the terrorist’s contact with the West. The common strand running through the backgrounds of middle-class jihadists is prolonged and close interaction with Western society, a clue in plain sight that is too often overlooked in the search for esoteric causation, such as religion and culture. Indeed, according to British historian Arnold Toynbee, contact with the dominant universal society is always the first step in the radicalization of Third World revolutionaries and terrorists. Here is the critical path:
Crucial Events in the Evolution of the Terrorist
Intrusive Civilization (Western Society)
Intelligentsia (Expatriate Liaison-Class)
Alienation, Humiliation, Loss of Identity
Voluntary Sorting of Affinity Groups
Concentration of True Believers
Thus, the evolution of Third World terrorists begins with Westernization, out of which emerges an expatriate liaison-class or intelligentsia. The job of this liaison-class is to interpret the dominant society. At first glance this might appear to be a salutary development, a bridging of the divide between East and West that Kipling dismissed as impossible, a convergence and melding of the dominant Western society with the underdeveloped one. But, according to Toynbee, the rise of an intelligentsia is a symptom of social pathology:
"Wherever we find an intelligentsia we may infer, not only that two civilizations have been in contact, but that one of the two is in process of being absorbed into the other's internal proletariat. We can also observe another fact in the life of an intelligentsia which is written large upon its countenance for all to read: An intelligentsia is born to be unhappy.
This liaison-class suffers from the congenital unhappiness of the hybrid who is an outcaste from both the families that have combined to beget him. An intelligentsia is hated and despised by its own people because its very existence is a reproach to them. Through its presence in their midst it is a living reminder of the hateful but inescapable alien civilization which cannot be kept at bay and therefore has to be humored. The Pharisee is reminded of this each time he meets the Publican, and the Zealot each time he meets the Herodian. And, while the intelligentsia thus has no love lost on it at home, it also has no honor paid to it in the country whose manners and tricks it has so laboriously and ingeniously mastered."
In short, the liaison-class (chiefly professionals: doctors, lawyers, educators and engineers, etc.) which mediates between the dominant Western society and its own backward society, is welcomed in neither. Jihadists like Atta, Hasan and KSM advertised themselves as the spiritual emissaries of Islam and the Islamic people, but they had actually lost touch with their culture and belonged to neither societies, Western or Islamic. They believed themselves inferior to the Western society to which they have apprenticed themselves, and superior to the one they have left behind, thereby condemning themselves to spiritual homelessness. They flutter back and forth between the two worlds, never landing firmly in either. This keen loss of identity engenders a sense of humiliation and loss of face, which quickly boils over into fierce resentment and rage. They are ideal recruits for self-annihilating acts of terrorism.
In Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century, Marc Sageman notes that eruptions of terrorist violence have little to do with economic social conditions; terrorist movements evolve slowly, spike quickly, and disappear with unexpected suddenness, and "cannot be explained through slow-moving societal forces and cultural templates." Sageman disputes the popular notion that terrorists are mentally ill, poor, uneducated sociopaths: most of the 9/11 terrorist were, like Mohammed Atta, well-educated, many of them university graduates, i.e. psychologically stable individuals from middle-class families. Most telling of all, four fifths of these jihadists were expatriates, or the offspring of expatriates, who had immigrated to the West. In a word, they were members of the intelligentsia, confirming Arnold Toynbee's observation that this class is fertile ground for revolutionary violence.
I gained firsthand knowledge of this phenomenon when I taught English at a teacher training college in northeastern Thailand. Most of the students at the college had come from humble rural backgrounds and never traveled outside the province, let alone the country; but a small percentage of them had spent a year or two as guest students in American schools, and it was always easy to tell them apart from the general student body. Thai students are courteous to a fault, especially to their teachers, to whom they bow; but the repatriated exchange students were sullen, disrespectful and contemptuous not only of their fellow students, but of their instructors, especially their American instructors. I vividly recall a disagreement in a neighboring college so acrimonious that an exchange student was removed from an American instructor’s class and reassigned. I puzzled over this for some time after I left the country. Why should guest students, who had been fortunate enough to travel to, and study in, America, be so bitter and unhappy? Then I came across the passage above in Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History and I thought it mapped well to the problem.
It is not clear if Toynbee’s insight (made in 1934 by the way) will be of any practical value in our current relations with Islam, but as Marshall McLuhan once remarked, "Nothing is inevitable so long as we are willing to contemplate what is happening.” Perpetual conflict with Islam is not inevitable if we are willing to apply sufficient intellectual candlepower to the problem; and it is possible that this window opened on the mind of Islam’s intelligentsia will pay dividends at some future time. America is a technological, military and political powerhouse that does not always know its own strength or understand the daunting effect this has on less fortunate nations. Or as Toynbee put it, “America is a large friendly dog in a small room. Every time it wags its tail it knocks over a chair.”
On the other hand, intellectual objectivity and self-knowledge are not qualities one customarily associates with Islam. Maybe a recognition of its manifest inferiority complex and its pathological jealousy of the West will prompt militant Islam to question its dependence on blind, fanatical hatred as a substitute for reason. Perhaps the failed states of the Middle East will at long last accept the fact that their social ineptitude and political impotence are problems of their own making rather than the fault of Western colonialism. And perhaps the Muslim community at large can be persuaded that Islam’s enemies are not in Israel, Europe or America but within Islam’s own tent. That is a grand hope.
But is it a realistic one? What if Toynbee was telling us something entirely different? I.e. that Kipling was right? That the only place East and West are destined to meet is on the battlefield. What if the monumental misunderstanding that he and Kipling documented seventy-five years ago means the end of cooperative multilateralism and that we are in this fight alone, i.e. that we cannot rely on a rational response from an enlightened Moslem community. If so, we in the West should no longer be shocked and unprepared when educated, middle-class Muslims participate in brutal acts of terrorism. Indeed, we should assume that this modus operandi will be a fact of life for some time to come.
William Fankboner is the author of The Triumph of Political Correctness and A Hypertext Field Guide to Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media. He runs a web site at: http://home.roadrunner.com/~lifetime. His e-mail address is: email@example.com.