Sunday, November 8, 2009

Eli Berman's "Radical, Religious, and Violent"

Eli Berman is Professor of Economics at the University of California, San Diego, and Research Director of International Security Studies at the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Radical, Religious, and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Radical, Religious and Violent explains by analogy the most surprising insight I know of in the analysis of terrorist organizations, by analyzing radical religious communities from the inside. It examines the hypothetical case of a young man who wants to marry into a radical religious sect, putting the reader in the role of the prospective bride's parent. The parent is concerned that the prospective son-in-law will pretend to be a committed member of the religious community in order to benefit from the comprehensive social services provided to members, but will shirk on his duties to community and family once safely married with a few children. Radical religious communities such as Hassidim, Amish and Radical Islamists solve the shirking problem by insisting on up front signals of commitment, which typically involve surrendering years of valuable secular education by instead studying holy texts, or not studying at all.

That theory is supported by evidence: comparing religious denominations, we know from numerous studies in the sociology of religion that the more costly the signal of commitment, the tighter is the social service provision network within the community.

The example illustrates the idea of an efficient sacrifice. Sacrifices are wageful in the narrow sense; they destroy value and opportunities. Yet a social norm in which individuals destroy personal opportunities is useful in the broader sense. It allows people to demonstrate their commitment. That explanation covers the ancient practice of sacrificing animals. It also explains current practices common to religious radicals: sacrificing years of secular schooling to community service, years of study in religious seminaries, and years of missionary work. The idea of an efficient religious sacrifice is (economist Laurence) Iannaccone's second great insight into religious sects. He must share some credit, though with the great Jewish rationalist scholar Moses Maimonides. As the epigraph at the beginning of the previous chapter indicates, Maimonides hinted at a similar conclusion some eight centuries earlier, in Egypt.

(I was unaware of the Ford Madox Ford's "Page 99 Test," but luckily enough 99 is a great page!)

What does all this have to do with terrorism? The key to understanding terrorist organizations is to realize that they are incredibly sensitive to defection, which is why so few remain viable once governments start bribing members into defection and squealing. The book goes on to explain that religious communities which provide social services have the potential to assemble terrorist organizations that can successfully resist defection -- since shirkers were not allowed to join the community in the first place, as the example illustrates. That may sound alarming; fortunately most radical religious communities which provide social services never engage in violence.

The book lays out the evidence for those arguments. It also explains the strong implication for Afghanistan and other conflicts: provision of basic social services by governments adds a critical, nonviolent component to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies -- competent, honest governance -- undermine the violent potential of religious radicals without disturbing free religious practice or endangering civilians.
Read sample chapters from Radical, Religious, and Violent, and learn more about the book at the official website and

--Marshal Zeringue