The Best and Brightest Fanatics

In Britain and Australia, several Muslim medical doctors and engineers have been arrested following a series of failed car bombings. The arrest of these well-educated professionals, together with the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri’s role as al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, raises questions that go far beyond disaffection among Muslims and the consequences of America’s misadventures in the Middle East.

Doctors and engineers, after all, are professionals. They are well-off, well-established members of society, not marginal figures whom we might expect to be drawn to desperate acts of violence. Moreover, they come from a scientific background, and science is usually not associated with religious zeal or political fanaticism.

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Of course, only a minority of zealous Muslims espouses political violence, and only a tiny number of Muslim professionals set off bombs. Nevertheless, the presence of doctors and engineers in fundamentalist movements stands out. In fact, fundamentalist leaders often have professional backgrounds. Doctors who organize groups based on literalist readings of scripture and engineers who lead Islamist political parties are familiar figures throughout the Muslim world.

One reason for this is the difference between the cultures of basic science and applied science. Throughout the world, physicists and biologists tend to be more skeptical and less religious. Among engineers and biomedical professionals, however, conservative, even fundamentalist religious leanings are not so unusual.

This phenomenon is not unique to Islam. In the United States, literalist Christians with engineering backgrounds have long led opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Compared to biologists, the ranks of medical doctors include a much larger proportion of creationists.

Likewise, in Muslim countries, it is not unusual for engineering professors to denounce Darwin as a fraud, and many well-known doctors argue that modern technological and scientific developments are prefigured in the Koran.

In the Muslim world, applied science has even more religious and political entanglements. In their effort to overcome centuries of military and commercial backwardness, Muslims have sought to industrialize, rationalize administration, and adopt modern forms of political life. However, a constant concern has been to adopt these changes without corrupting Muslim culture – to become technologically adept and yet remain devout Muslims.

In this effort, professionals in applied science, as people who would help Muslim countries catch up with the West, have enjoyed enormous prestige. Engineering programs are in high demand, and engineers enjoy a status comparable to lawyers and doctors in the West. The best and the brightest young Muslims go into applied science, while basic science languishes.

With their important role in modernization, applied scientists engage in cultural debates as well. A doctor may choose a secular path, or try to integrate a traditional faith with a modern profession. Such choices are directly connected to debates over the direction the whole society should take.

To complicate matters further, the Islamic world is in a period of religious experimentation. Traditional doctrines and supernaturalism remain vigorous, but the structures of religious authority are changing. Today’s fundamentalism is a modern way of being religious, more suitable to a literate, urban population than a peasantry guided by traditional religious scholars.

Traditionally, Muslim scholars achieved status by mastering socially useful knowledge, which was Islamic law. Today, however, applied science is also useful knowledge for the modern world. As a result, in a modernizing environment, doctors and engineers can find themselves in positions of religious authority, leading a Koran study group and interpreting scripture.

The Muslim world is home to many successful movements that combine doctrinal conservatism with a modern outlook that supports capitalism and embraces technology. Professionals have been integral parts of such movements, because modernization encourages action rather than resignation. Political ideas are easily translated into religious language, and in extreme circumstances, violent jihadism is used to express political frustrations.

But the possibility of violence should not distract us from noticing that fundamentalist convictions also motivate positive political activism. Islamists (such as those in Hamas) gain credibility among Muslim populations because of the social services and community support that they help to organize. Indeed, fundamentalist professionals often excel in such activism. Their puritanical religious style sets forth an ideal morality with clear-cut rules that are similar to the constraints of an engineering project. Engineers set out to change the world according to a blueprint, as they were trained to do.

Religiously colored political violence will always attract some professionals. But, again, it is a tiny number. The majority of observant Muslims are peaceful, and most Islamists today have adopted more moderate, democratic politics.

Increasingly Islamism is becoming a form of right-wing populism. But, like right-wing Christians in the US, Islamists can be legitimate parts of a democratic political landscape. Indeed, one virtue of democracy is its ability to dampen violent tendencies. If we are to encourage democratic trends in political Islam, we must learn to think of Islamists as political opponents rather than as violent adversaries who may have medical and engineering degrees.