Extremism’s Strange Bedfellows

FLORENCE – Nowadays, we associate far-right politics with fervent Islamophobia. But this was not always the case. In fact, the relationship between the extreme right, particularly in Europe, and Islamist radicalism runs deep, with adherents of both groups sharing some important traits.

These links have often been obvious. Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1937, maintained close ties with the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany. Many Nazis found refuge in the Middle East after World War II, and some even converted to Islam. And Julius Evola, the reactionary Italian thinker whose work has inspired Europe’s post-war far right, expressly admired the concept of jihad and the self-sacrifice it demands.

After the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, neo-Nazis in both the US and Europe fêted the attackers. An official of the National Alliance, America’s premier neo-Nazi group, said that he wished his own members had “half as much testicular fortitude.” In France, celebrations of the attacks were held at the National Front’s headquarters, and German neo-Nazis burned US flags. The Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir was banned in Germany in 2003, partly because of its contacts with the far right.

Common enemies – Jews, the US government, the alleged “New World Order” – have sustained this unholy alliance politically. But closer examination of its ideological and psychological components reveals deeper connections.

Unlike liberals and the left, right-wing and Islamist ideologues promote an authoritarian, hierarchical, and often ritualized vision of social order and daily life. They promise to purge society of the corruption that has separated it from its glorious past. And they believe that their racial or religious “supremacy” justifies the subjugation, and even enslavement, of others.

According to political psychologists, conservative and right-wing views tend to be accompanied by a tendency to be easily disgusted, a “need for closure” (a preference for order, structure, and certainty), and sharp delineation of one’s “in-group” and “out-groups.” While such research focuses on peaceful individuals, there is evidence that right-wing and Islamist extremists also possess these personality traits.

Start with the Islamists. Several jihadi operatives are known for their obsession with cleanliness. Faisal Shahzad, who planted bombs in New York City’s Times Square, took meticulous care of his apartment in Bridgeport, Connecticut, before leaving for his failed bombing mission. Mohamed Atta, the chief hijacker on 9/11, left instructions for his burial, demanding that no woman approach his body and that the men washing him touch his genitals only with gloves.

Salafi jihadis structure their lives according to a literal reading of Islamic scripture – a simple way of satisfying their “need for closure.” As for the obsession with identifying the “in-group,” there is al-wala’ wal-bara, a core doctrine of Salafism that commands believers to dissociate themselves from non-believers, including impure Muslims.

The need for certainty extends beyond religion. As we explore in our book Engineers of Jihad, since the 1970s, a disproportionate share of Islamist radicals have pursued hard technical fields rather than softer subjects that offer fewer clear answers. Both Shahzad and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian “Underwear Bomber” who attempted to detonate explosives on a flight in 2009, studied engineering. Of the 25 individuals directly involved in the 9/11 attacks, eight were engineers, including the two leaders, Atta and Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

To establish whether something systematic was going on, we examined the education of more than 4,000 extremists of all stripes around the world. We found that, among Islamist radicals born and educated in Muslim countries, engineers are found 17 times more often than they are among the general population; the proportion of university graduates among radicals is four times greater.

Within the Muslim world, more engineers tend to join radical groups in countries where economic crisis is undermining employment opportunities for elite graduates. They are especially likely to join at the outset of such crises. Among all university graduates, engineers (and, to a lesser extent, doctors) seem the most frustrated by the lack of opportunities, perhaps reflecting the ambition and sacrifice required to earn such a high-level degree.

But this is not the whole story. Engineers also comprise a disproportionate share of Islamist radicals who have grown up in the West, where employment opportunities are greater. They are also less likely than other graduates to defect and leave violent Islamism behind.

And, critically, radical Islamists are not the only group with a disproportionate share of engineers. Among radical right-wingers with a university education, engineers are similarly overrepresented. Meanwhile, there are almost no engineers among radical left-wing groups, which are more likely to attract graduates in humanities and social sciences.

Analyzing poll data on 11,000 male graduates from 17 European countries, we found that, beyond being on the political right, engineers score, on average, more strongly than other graduates on almost all measures relating to the tendency toward disgust, the need for closure, and a strong in-group preference. These traits are much weaker among humanities and social sciences graduates.

The traits are also weaker among women, who have a strong presence on the radical left, while being nearly absent among both radical Islamists and right-wing extremists. The correlation among psychological traits, academic disciplines, and presence in different radical groups is nearly perfect.

Of course, most people who study engineering or have a strong preference for order will not become radicalized, meaning that these factors cannot be used effectively in profiling. But such insight into the psychology of radicalization remains important. Western and many Arab governments employ hundreds of people to dissuade would-be radicals, without a clear understanding of the psychological needs these ideologies serve. Much research remains to be done, but gaining such an understanding could help reveal better ways to meet those needs, before or after radicalization occurs.