Explaining Jihad as a Networking Problem

After reading Dr. Rich Nielsen’s recent paper Jihadi Radicalization of Muslim Clerics, I had a better understanding of how in certain job markets for Islamic Clerics, networking with militants can be by far the best career move. Dr. Nielsen explains it as “clerics strategically adopt or reject Jihadi ideology in response to career incentives.” (p. 33).

Many think that poverty, or the ideology of cleric’s influences are the primary factors that make one decide to promote extremist ideas, but Dr. Nielsen believes it is the poor strength of their academic and educational networks. Well-connected clerics can get promising prospects within the large state system of religious institutions and have little incentive to adopt an inflammatory ideology that would undermine their career prospects.  

Conversely, those clerics that have less access to prestigious networks of senior religious leaders face more limited career prospects within the state system and are more likely to seek careers outside. This often leads to an irrevocable choice, because of the mounting pressure to adopt Jihadi ideology to signal their independence from the political regime in order to attract the trust of lay Salafi Muslims.

Dr. Nielsen’s most telling finding, in my opinion is that “The model predicts that a cleric with the minimum eigenvector centrality and average values of the other covariates has a 43 percent chance of being Jihadist. If this same cleric instead has the maximum centrality observed in the network, the probability drops to two percent, a statistically significant 41 percentage point change.” (p. 26) I tried to attach his graphs to my post, but couldn’t find a way. They are on page 26 of his paper, and extremely enlightening. 

Dr. Nielsen continues by stating that the standard procedure in many Arab countries for dealing with militant extremists has been arrest and imprisonment. This strengthens the networks among the Jihadi, and does little to turn those away from adopting the ideology. Those clerics facing a choice between moderate teachings and extremism may be swayed by the threat of imprisonment, but those who choose the militant ways are able to strengthen their network and the increased repression and prison time actually increases their credibility. The strength of professional networks is important in all fields. 

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