Iran Is Restricting the Social Sciences: Is a New Wave of Terrorism Coming?

For some time now, Iran has been clamping down on the social sciences and invoking the names of various social scientists in their show trials of reformists.  The Chronicle of Higher Education has suggested that the underlying reason for this is that the Iranian government wishes to clamp down on efforts to justify any civil society independent of the government.  This very plausible argument roots the Iranian government’s motivations in raw secular politics.

Now, however, Iran is banning universities from opening new departments in twelve fields and further announcing that curricula in these fields will be utterly revamped, all on the grounds that these various fields are Western or else are being taught from a Western perspective.  An official of the Ministry of Education explained that “The content of the current courses in the 12 subjects is not in harmony with religious fundamentals, and they are based on Western schools of thought.”  In other words, these subjects are purportedly un-Islamic.  Apparently this follows remarks last year by Grand Ayatollah Khamenei that these subjects can lead Muslims to doubt their faith.

The particular social sciences in question include law, philosophy, management, sociology, psychology, political science, women’s studies, and human rights.

I rather wonder whether this will eventually lead to an increase in the number of terrorists and extremists.  There has been much discussion in recent years about how a disproportionate number of terrorists are engineers.  Gambetta and Hertog’s “Engineers of Jihad” got the ball rolling.  (It’s important to note that their paper was not just talking about Sunni Muslim extremists and that, in fact, most of its data came from well before 9/11.)  British intelligence several years ago also observed that “extremist recruiters” on college campuses in the UK were focusing on people in the engineering and IT fields.

Now, it’s not clear which direction the causal arrow points.  Do people become radicalized because they are engineers?  Or do they become engineers because they are radicalized?  Or, for that matter, do they become radicals and engineers because both phenomena are caused in parallel by some other variable?

If, however, the answer is the first of these three, that radicalization is a result of being an engineer, I rather wonder if the impending eviscerati0n of Iranian social sciences isn’t going to lead to another wave of terrorism.  More generally, might it lead also to a future wave of particularly doctrinaire Iranian government officials.  (Ahmedinejad was trained as an engineer, by the way.)  After all, some proportion of those students who can’t study the social sciences will go into engineering.

As an aside, it’s interesting to compare Iran’s view that these sciences are un-Islamic with the views of Sayyid Qutb (a Sunni Arab) and his acolytes in the al Qaida world.  Qutb wrote in Milestones that some sciences such as psychology were un-Islamic, essentially because these sciences spoke about the soul, which was an intrinsically religious topic.  Other fields, however, were just fine because technical knowledge, he thought, was neither good nor bad, neither Islamic nor un-Islamic.  Indeed, his various followers have gone on to use this understanding in their pursuit of the jihad.  Abu Bakr Naji, for instance, urged jihadists to read books on management.  Quite a number of jihadists have talked about political science.  (In fact, I have argued that the default jihadist view of the Christian world has strong realist elements to it.)

In any event, the Iranian government is clearly shooting the country and the Iranian people in the foot .  The only question, really, is whether this should evoke in us feelings of pity or also feelings of alarm.

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 6:41 AM  Comments (5)  

American Suicide Bomber…50 Years Ago

Just a quick comment on something interesting I just ran across.  There’s an interesting article on about a man named Richard Pavlick who planned to blow up himself and President-elect John F. Kennedy in 1960 with a suicide car bomb.  He actually came quite close to doing it on Sunday 11 December 1960 but at the critical moment Kennedy walked out of his residence in the company of Jackie and children Caroline and John Jr.  Pavlick didn’t want to kill the wife and children so he held off and didn’t drive his car filled with dynamite at JFK.  He was arrested a few days later.  Because there was a major plane crash over New York the day that his arrest was announced, the story never got much attention.

This incident is yet another illustration of the fact that suicide bombing is not an exclusively Muslim phenomenon, as Robert Pape has been telling us for some years.  That’s old news, however.  What I find more interesting is that this happened long, long before suicide bombing hit the newspapers.  This was, it would appear, a truly homegrown, utterly indigenous event.  Moreover, Pavlick came to much the same solution as today’s best and brightest terrorists have as.

There are at least two routes by which innovation in military and terrorist affairs happen: either through borrowing ideas from others or by inventing ideas out of whole cloth.  Lots of work has been done–some of it by me–on how terrorists read history, foreign doctrinal manuals, etc., and learn from others.  Less exciting, but comparably important, however, is the the fact that the morphology of a problem will often lead people separated from each other in space and time to develop similar solutions.  That’s what we saw with Pavlick.

One of the pieces of received wisdom in the world of terrorism studies is that terrorist’s tend to be “operationally conservative,” that is to say that they repeatedly use guns and explosives to do their work and seldom, in fact, use more exotic bits of equipment.  In my opinion, there are many problems with this argument, but let me just note one.  If isolated people come up with similar solutions to similar problems, is that a sign of some sort of cosmic conservatism that afflicts all terrorists or is it instead a logical consequence of the fact that these problems are all alike?

I vote for the latter choice.

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 1:01 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Intelligence is Cramping Al Qaida’s Style

The second issue of Inspire the English language magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) popped up online on 11 October….It is striking how much the various authors featured in the magazine seem concerned about the threat posed by the intelligence and security services, both of the United States and of Arab countries.  They make clear that the security forces have tremendous advantages that impinge on virtually every part of the jihadists’ lives….

For the remainder of this posting, please go here to the website of the International Spy Museum where I am the Historian.

Published in: on October 22, 2010 at 3:09 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Off to Gettysburg

I’m going to go up to Gettysburg tomorrow in preparation for a staff ride that we’ll be leading for our students next month.  This will be my third trip there.  I’ve been on two staff rides up there before, on led by the great Jay Luvaas.  I was too young and ignorant at the time to appreciate what a remarkable experience I was having, but now it is a cherished memory.  I find that visiting Gettysburg is somewhat like reading Clausewitz: each time I get something more out of it.

Anyway, in the course of my preparation for this trip, I ran across a short essay by Mark Grimsley entitled “How to Read a Civil War Battlefield.” I recommend it to those who are interested in visiting Civil War battlefields but who aren’t particularly expert in the Civil War.  Aspects of it should be useful, too, for those lucky enough to visit Napoleonic battlefields, I imagine.  Make sure to follow the links at the bottom of the essay to see the photographs that illustrate particular ideas such as “dead ground.”

Published in: on October 17, 2010 at 11:59 PM  Leave a Comment  

Social Media and Negotiations between Enemies

I just ran across a devastating satirical video about Israel’s efforts to get kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit back from Hamas.

It’s well worth looking at and it adds an interesting perspective to the ongoing debate about whether social media such as Facebook empower the forces of liberalism (note the small “l”) at the expense of the forces of oppression, aggression, and reaction or vice versa.  The debate has largely focused on how social media affect the interaction between opposition groups and governments.  However, this video points out that social media can also affect the interaction between governments and other governments (or government-like entities such as Hamas) by tying the hands of the more liberal party.

Published in: on October 8, 2010 at 7:04 PM  Leave a Comment  
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