By Paul Vallely
3 December 2015
What kind of person becomes a jihadi terrorist? Specifically, what kind of educated person? The overwhelming majority of graduates recruited into Islamist terrorism studied engineering, science and medicine. Almost none are social science or arts graduates, according to as yet unpublished research. The insight could have important implications.
Almost half (48.5%) of jihadis recruited in the Middle East and north Africa had a higher education of some sort, according to Immunising the Mind, a study quoted by the British Council; of these 44% had degrees in engineering. Among western-recruited jihadis that figure rose to 59%.
A study of terrorists in Tunisia – where an electrical engineer went on a murderous rampage in June – showed similar proportions. And a study of 18 British Muslims implicated in terrorist attacks found that eight had studied engineering or IT, and four more science, pharmacy and maths; only one had studied humanities.
All this is no coincidence, concludes Martin Rose, the British Council’s senior consultant on the Middle East and north Africa. Immunising the Mind – his report – gathers a wide spectrum of opinion in support of the contention that science education fails to inculcate critical thinking in the way that the debates within arts teaching do. Rose coins the notion of “an engineering mindset”, which makes science students easier prey for terrorist recruiters.
His report draws on a range of academic studies and a British intelligence dossier that describes the ideal recruit as “intelligent and curious, but unquestioning of authority”.
The culture of science teaching, says Rose, resolves all too easily into a right and wrong, correct and incorrect binary. This damages the ability of science and engineering students to develop the skills of critical examination. It is not a phenomenon confined to foreign universities, he suggests, pointing to reports of the growing appeal of creationism for some British Muslim medical students.
Perhaps the imbalance was simply the result of an appeal in September 2014 by the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for “judges, doctors, engineers and people with military and administrative experience” to join his self-styled caliphate. Certainly Isis has need of both oilfield engineers and bomb-makers. But the evidence is that many engineers who have joined have been given non-technical roles.
Perhaps it was simply a reflection of the fact that throughout the Arab world medicine, engineering and natural science – in that order – are the elite university faculties that attract the top students, because traditionally they lead to the most prestigious jobs.
Yet, according to Rose, some 70% of students in the Middle East and north Africa study social sciences. Despite the fact that the teaching is often poorer in those university departments, their pedagogical approach – requiring interpretation and discussion – appears to militate against the black and white certainties of a jihadi worldview. That is perhaps why, in Isis-controlled territory, university courses in archaeology, fine art, law, philosophy, political science and sports have been eliminated, along with drama and the reading of novels.
In one sense there is nothing new in this. In 2003 the UN human development report noted that Arab education curriculums seem to encourage submission, obedience, subordination and compliance, rather than free critical thinking”.
What Rose has done is to highlight three specific traits that characterise the “engineering mindset”: first, it asks “why argue when there is one best solution?”; second, it asserts “if only people were rational, remedies would be simple”; and third, it appeals to those with an underlying craving for a lost order, which lies at the heart of both salafi and jihadi ideology.
But if this is true, where does it take us? Rose suggests that the British Council, the organisation funded by the UK to spread British cultural influence around the world, should involve itself in education reform, to “humanise” the teaching of scientific and technical subjects. A broader-based education would give vulnerable students the intellectual tools to develop an open-minded, interrogatory outlook – and to question authority, whether scientific, political, religious or scientific.
But they will need something that cannot come from western cultural experts. What the report omits to point out is that students will require input from others within their faith – to open up to them the richness of the Islamic traditions that constituted the religion before the arrival of oil-rich salafi fundamentalism.
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