Engineers supposedly have a shared mind-set, one that sometimes boils down to negative stereotypes in the public imagination. Engineers have excessively exacting personalities. They can’t communicate well. They wear pocket protectors. You’ve heard them all before. A much more disturbing glimpse of that shared mind-set recently appeared in “Engineers of Jihad,” an Oxford University study that examines the link between engineers and violent Islamic extremism.
Extremism may not be the first word to pop into your mind when you think about your colleagues calmly toiling away at their workstations or sitting next to you in a never-ending meeting. But Sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog have written a study that paints a more controversial picture of the engineering mind-set.
The study traces some of the connections between engineers and Islamic extremist group with roots in the Middle East and North Africa. Examining whether engineers and related technical professionals are over-represented in these extremist groups, the authors compiled a list of 404 known group members, pulling data from a variety of public sources. Their sample spanned 30 nationalities, nine larger Islamic extremist organizations and about a dozen smaller groups.
Gambetta and Hertog then dug up the educational background on as many of the 404 as they could and ultimately managed to identify the subject of study for 178 subjects who had engaged in higher education. Engineering topped the list of studies by a substantial margin. Seventy-eight, or 44 percent, of the 178 had studied engineering. The second most popular course of study was Islamic studies. Thirty-four individuals had pursued that course of study. The also-rans in terms of their Jihad potential included 14 individuals in medicine, 12 in economics or business studies and seven in natural sciences.
Putting those engineering numbers in the context of the adult male population of the Middle East and North African countries they looked at, Gambetta and Hertog found “the share of radical Islamic engineers is no less than nine times greater than the share we could expect if the proneness of engineers to radicalize was the same as that of the male adult population.”
Their data for Islamic extremists in the West followed a slightly different pattern. It reveals that in the West, Islamic radicalism is attracting a set of individuals with a much lower educational profile. “Yet, despite the lower proportion of graduates and the larger proportion of drifters, converts and professionally unaccomplished individuals, the over-representation of engineers occurs not only throughout the Islamic world but even among Western-based extremists. In other words, while the over-representation of university-educated individuals among Islamic extremists varies by country, the engineering over-representation seems insensitive to country variations,” they write.
At the end of the day, the authors found “graduates from subjects such as science, engineering and medicine are strongly over-represented among Islamist movements in the Muslim world, though not among the extremist Islamic groups which have emerged in Western countries more recently. We also find that engineers alone are strongly over-represented among graduates in violent groups in both realms. This is all the more puzzling, for engineers are virtually absent from left-wing violent extremists and only present rather than over-represented among right-wing extremists.”
So what’s going on here? The authors are careful to point out the obvious fact that the vast majority of individual engineers, Muslim or otherwise, don’t join violent groups. But they do offer a theory as to why engineers as a group might radicalize more easily than people with other degrees. And they argue it has little to do with the obvious notion that engineers have technical skills that terrorist organizations would value. Instead, their theory involves an interaction between two forces. One results from social difficulties engineers face in Islamic countries — mostly a lack of professional opportunities and economic prospects. And this one aspect of the study doesn’t draw many objections. “It’s true. Most engineers in the Middle East don’t actually do any engineering. They work in bureaucratic jobs and shuffle papers,” says Dr. Khurshid Qureshi, president of the Assn. of Muslim Scientists and Engineers. Qureshi, who is also the CEO of ZeeWAVES Corp. and a patent-holding engineer with years of experience in the automotive industry, has lately been working on technology incubator projects in the Middle East to address this very lack of professional opportunity.
The other force put forward by Gambetta and Hertog is where the controversy comes in. They theorize a disproportionate share of engineers have habits of thought that predispose them toward radicalization. And these habits of thought are much in demand by the Islamic groups. One example they give involves a tendency among engineers to believe in one best solution or “monism.” Another is a tendency to believe remedies to most problems would be simple if people were only rational — a belief known as “simplism.”
Not everyone is buying their contentions about how this mind-set or how it plays out in the Middle East. “It’s the opposite of what we’re taught as engineers and the opposite of what I believe,” says Qureshi. “The role of the engineer, whether Christian or Muslim, is to be a builder of the world, not to destroy it.” He adds that Muslim engineers in particular are obliged to use their engineering skills for good. “Or else they’re not following their religion,” he says.
Gambetta and Hertog declined to be interviewed about the paper, explaining some of its conclusions had been misunderstood. They offered instead to answer questions via e-mail. But their message comes through loud and clear: Engineers do have a mind-set and under certain social conditions it may nudge just a few of them in the wrong direction.