A Nigerian and an engineer:
What can hindsight tell us?

In its Daily Number feature today, Pew Research is reminding us of a finding it reported in July 2009:

Support for suicide bombings and other acts of violence against civilians in defense of Islam has declined substantially since 2002 among most Muslim populations surveyed by the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

But against the trend, support for suicide bombing among Nigerian Muslims increased by 11 percentage points between 2008 and 2009, rising from 32% to 43%, rebounding to about where it was in 2002 (47%). Only in the Palestinian territories does a higher proportion of Muslims (68%) express support for violence targeting civilians, according to the 2009 survey. Moreover, while confidence in Osama bin Laden has fallen sharply since 2003 among every other Muslim population surveyed, a 54%-majority of Nigerian Muslims express confidence in the al Qaeda leader, up from 44% in 2003.

Digging a bit deeper (p. 84 of the July 09 report) you find that only nine countries were surveyed, and one of those was Israel.

Slate asks, “Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees?” It turns out its not because their skills per se.

Gambetta and Hertog propose that a lack of appropriate jobs in their home countries may have radicalized some engineers in Arab countries. The graduates they studied came of age at a time when a degree from a competitive technical program was supposed to provide a guarantee of high-status employment. But the promises of modernization and development were often stymied by repression and corruption, and many young engineers in the 1980s were left jobless and frustrated. One exception was Saudi Arabia, where engineers had little trouble finding work in an ever-expanding economy. As it happens, Saudi Arabia is also the only Arab state where the study found that engineers are not disproportionately represented in the radical movement.

What else might account for the radical, violent politics of so many former engineering students? Is there some set of traits that makes engineers more likely to participate in acts of terrorism? To answer this question, Gambetta and Hertog updated a study that was first published in 1972, when a pair of researchers named Seymour Lipset and Carl Ladd surveyed the ideological bent of their fellow American academics. According to the original paper, engineers described themselves as “strongly conservative” and “deeply religious” more often than professors in any other field. Gambetta and Hertog repeated this analysis for data gathered in 1984, so it might better match up with their terrorist sample. They found similar results, with 46 percent of the (male American) engineers describing themselves as both conservative and religious, compared with 22 percent of scientists.

Gambetta and Hertog write about a particular mind-set among engineers that disdains ambiguity and compromise.

So what makes Nigeria stand out? Could it be that “the promises of modernization and development [and oil wealth] were often stymied by repression and corruption”?

Shouldn’t the Muslim and Christian clerics have focused on these issues throughout the last decade? That would have been hard. Much easier, as one primate did, to bask in the adulation and power trip of attacking The Episcopal Church, for one. Hindsight tells us that energy and talent was misspent.

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