Why Some Islamists are Violent and Others Aren’t

by Steven R. Corman

For some time people who think about the problem of terrorism have faced a puzzling question: Why is it that some Muslims who hold fundamentalist or radical beliefs about Islam become violent, while others don’t? New research shows that the answer is probably not what you might think.

A popular view is that Islam is simply a violent belief system. For example, in National Review’s blog The Corner Andy McCarthy writes:

[A]s an admirer of the courage of moderate Muslims, it is my most fervent wish that they are successful in reforming Islam. We need to be honest, however, that they are trying to achieve reform precisely because there are problems with Islam as is. The most frustrating thing about “moderate Islam” is that no one seems to be able to say what it entails. The so called “radicals” tell us exactly what they believe and (accurately) cite chapter and verse in the scriptures. The moderates never persuasively refute the radicals — they just say the radicals are too “extreme.” This doesn’t come close to making the case that the radicals have Islam wrong. If your goal is to persuade other Muslims — and everyone seems to agree that only Islam can settle its internal divisions — that’s the case that has to be made.

Underlying this statement is a view that Islam, at least as currently constituted, is inherently violent. If so, then the more people know about it the more likely they are to want to kill non-Muslims, and institutions like madrasas, pesantren, and Islamic universities are little more than jihadist indoctrination camps.

However, Mark Woodward (a frequent contributor to this blog) and colleagues find that, at least in Indonesia, the exact opposite seems to be the case. In the abstract of a paper now under review they write:

The paper refutes the linkage of Muslim education in Indonesia with radicalization, and addresses the commonly held, if incorrect, perception that theological conservatism has a causal relationship with violent extremism. Rather than a causal agent for extremism, Muslim education in Indonesia tends to operate as a protective mechanism against radicalization, as does participation in vibrant religious and cultural celebrations. Students attending the secular universities are most susceptible to extremist discourse, through the process of re-Islamization, and the development of a stark and detached rational understanding of Islam.

So the more people know about the theology and traditions of Islam, the less likely they are to be radical.

Also reflected in McCarthy’s viewpoint is the idea that the Muslim world is divided into two camps, the fundamentalists/radicals and the “moderates.” The former group is large, dangerous and violent, while the latter is small, tolerant and peaceful. But Muslims are thought to make up about a quarter of the world’s population. If any large percentage of 1.2 billion people (let alone most of them) were really dangerous and violent the world would have been a smoking ruin long ago. So why isn’t it?

A recent report by Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell and Michael King of the UK think tank Demos sheds some light on this question. They spent two years examining the differences and similarities between violent and non-violent Muslims in Europe and Canada who hold radical Islamist political views. The biggest difference difference they found was in the approach to religion. The non-violent radicals are more “humble and reflective” with respect to their faith. They also  tend to study subjects in the humanities and have a better understanding of history and other aspects of social context.

The violent radicals are more likely to be dogmatic and to have an uneducated “do-it-yourself” approach to religion. They study technical subjects like engineering and computer science and tend to use pejorative terms to reduce people’s worth. They also have a “bizarre obsession” with texts about how to recognize unbelievers, people against whom any action is justified. They believe the ummah (worldwide Muslim community) is under attack, a view the non-violent radicals tend not to support.

So simply holding strong religious views is not enought to make someone violent. What, then, is the difference that makes the difference? It may be youthful boredom.

Many people who became violent said they did so because it was cool, exciting, and dangerous. Training camps were like adventure camps–a counter-culture experience where they got to hang out in in exotic locations and play with weapons. The camps also provided meaningful structure: A sense of camaraderie and a system for building prestige that they found lacking in their normal lives.

Finally, in a new book my colleague Jeff Halverson (another frequent contributor to this blog) argues that theology (kalam)–the rational debate over Muslim beliefs and readings of the sacred texts–became virtually extinct in Sunni Islam in the late Middle Ages. In the absence of theology extremists can espouse heretical and radical viewpoints under the guise of orthodoxy, and promote highly questionable readings of the Qu’ran and Hadith to support their violent enterprises. One anti-theological or Athari group that emerged in the absence of kalam was Wahhabism – a sect that considers theology “satanic.” Today, few institutions and resources remain in place to challenge these Athari formulations (or innovations) of Sunni Islam. In this kind of intellectual environment, it is hardly surprising that unsophisticated views of religion and a “do-it-yourself” approach can prevail.

So a new view of the role of Islam in violence seems to be developing and it is challenging taken for granted views like those of McCarthy. More education in Islam seems to prevent, not cause, violent radicalism. Many or even most politically “radical” Muslims are just as non-violent as the elusive “moderates,” providing they have a sound education that encourages critical thinking and reflection. Those who become violent often do so not because they believe in Islam per se. Instead they are adolescents or young adults who think it would be cool to be a mujahid, and are influenced by self-appointed religious “authorities.” These people are able to self-appoint because there is a dearth of theological institutions to challenge their views.

On the whole this new research suggests that, ironically, the way to combat violent extremism may be to strengthen Islamic education, theology and religious authority, and to provide more constructive, non-violent outlets for youthful desires and radical beliefs.

7 Responses to “Why Some Islamists are Violent and Others Aren’t”

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  1. Steven, the argument is counterintuitive on the surface but this thesis bears further investigation. You did not spend much time on the fact that violent Islamists tend to be educated in technical and engineering fields while non-violent Islamists focus studies on the social sciences and humanities. Could this point to the mental mindset of the engineer who sees the world as black and white (as in Newtonian physics) vs. the anthropologist who sees the many tones of gray in the world and thus is more accepting of differences? The latter worldview would lean toward a more accepting attitude of differences. The former, an out of hand dismissal.

    • editor says:

      There is almost certainly some kind of correlation there. Yushi Ayash (not sure if the spelling is right), the infamous Palestinian bomber, was an engineer and was nicknamed “The Engineer.” The main guy who tried to bomb the Glasgow airport was a physician. I have seen other cases too, but can’t recall them at the moment.

  2. Rex Brynen says:

    You’ll find some discussion of the correlation, here:


    …including a link to a paper by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog that examines the issue empirically.

  3. Mark Woodward says:

    This is the the link to the issue of Perspectives on Terrorism in which the article Steve mentioned occurs

  4. David Jacobson says:

    Hi Steve, I think it is tricky to conclude “More education in Islam seems to prevent, not cause, violent radicalism” because there is a sea of potential contigencies in that argument. Firstly the data is partial–some countries not others etc. Secondly, “education in Islam” captures a very broad array of pedagogies and ideologies–are, say, madrassas in Pakistan or Afghanistan generating only self-reflective people with no promise of violence? One has to keep in mind very few people, proportionally, commit violence to begin with. But it takes very few people to cause havoc (the IRA at its height had at most 500 “foot soldiers”/terrorists). What are the numbers in each case? Also to make a really watertight argument you’ll need to break down the numbers–how many are studying engineering? How many radicalize? How many turn to violence? Same with various forms of Islamic education. Are they comparable pools of people? A tall order–but otherwise I think it is a fragile reed to build policy on.

    This issue of those who study engineering etc is striking–but to go from there to “More education in Islam seems to prevent, not cause, violent radicalism” is a very big jump without a bunch of caveats and parsing–analytically. From a policy point of view, well, I would be cautious. The next question to ask is what kind of Islamic education?

    Best David


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