Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Do Muslim militant organizations employ a class bias?

There are two conflicting narratives that seem to resound within security, terrorism, international relation and political science discussions (both academic and non-academic) surrounding the proximate and ultimate causes of global Muslim militancy. The first emphasizes the role of social, political and economic stagnancy and instability in the Muslim majority states as the primary cause of militancy. Extremist organizations within these communities harness these grievances towards militancy against individuals, communities and states that are considered as the perpetrators of this injustice. The second narrative embraces the "clash of civilizations" suggesting that Islam as a religion is incompatible with the foundations and mores of modern Western civilization, such as secularism, constitutionalism, human rights and democracy. It suggests that Muslim militancy is a response to the supremacy of the "infidel" Western civilization. This narrative argues that even if Muslim majority states were to gain equal footing with "the West" economically, militancy would still be rampant.

Both these narratives employ stock characters. In the first narrative, the stock character is a poor, uneducated, disenfranchised in a system that favours the powerful over the weak. This person is drawn into extremist organization and ends up participating in militancy. The purveyors of the second narrative employ the "every-Muslim" character. The education level, social and economic status and political power of the person do not matter. The only important factors in determining militancy is their religious beliefs, i.e. are they Muslim or not?

The problem with these narratives and their stock characters is that they tend to partially describe a profile of individuals involved in Muslim militancy. Not all involved in Muslim militancy come from underprivileged or  backgrounds (see Osama bin Laden, Mohammad Atta and Khaled Shiekh Mohammad) However, there is a definite link between political, social and economic instability and participation in Muslim militancy. The madrassah system in Pakistan, a primary source of recruitment for extremist organizations in the country, owes its success to the failure of the state education program.

Which leads me to the title of this post. While Muslim extremist organizations recruit across social boundaries, anecdotal evidence (my own!) suggests that some sort of class bias is involved especially in terms of leadership and assignments. Militants from privileged background or with  post secondary education often populate the leadership. Marc Sageman's 2004 study on the social composition of important Al Qaeda operatives (under US  surveillance and suspected to have direct or indirect links to OBL) found that 72.5% of them belonged to upper or middle class backgrounds. Only 9.4% of these individuals had religious education and almost a third had completed some form of post secondary education. At this level of the organization, very few individuals had been involved with religious fundamentalist madrassahs such as those in Pakistan. Anecdotal evidence also suggests Al Qaeda's preference for educated upper and middle class individuals when it comes to transnational militancy. Note that 13 of the 19 hijackers  involved in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center (see individuals profiles) attended either post secondary institutions, or came from middle class backgrounds.

I am by no means asserting that individuals from impoverished backgrounds, with lack of formal education are being passed over by Muslim militant organizations such as Al Qaeda. However, there does seem to be a glass ceiling in place.  As Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy highlighted in her recent documentary "Children of the Taliban", these individuals, especially if they happen to be children are often used in attacks at a smaller scale i.e, local or regional. Additionally, different militant organization have different preferences. Local organizations such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) do not seem to distinguish by class or educational background in assigning leadership positions (again anecdotal, if someone has any data please send it my way).  In fact, given the roots of Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi; both rose as a response to the feudal system of Jhang, Punjab which was dominated by Shiite feudal lords and Sunni serfs, I would be surprised if both of these organizations did employ some sort of class bias. I am unsure about class preferences with the Haqqani network. I suspect that given the class and educational background of Jalaluddin Haqqani,  militancy experience and tribal allegiance would seem to be a greater factor here (again unconfirmed).

There is no one narrative that can be used to explain militancy within Muslim societies. Social unrest, economic instability and political stagnancy cannot solely explain the numeracy of individuals from educated upper-middle class backgrounds at leadership positions within some Muslim militant organizations. Likewise, religious fervor cannot be considered as a principal factor in militancy given the involvement of individuals from uneducated and underprivileged backgrounds, especially in terms of violence at a local and regional scale. A closer study of Muslim militant organizations on an individual basis  focusing on goals, structure and recruitment will be helpful in parsing the proximate and ultimate causes of militancy within Muslim societies.