The Economics of Religious Fanatics

by Peter Gray | 2/19/07 6:00am

News organizations struggle to capture our feeble attentions when yet another suicide attack occurs in Iraq. Let me take you back to a particularly horrific moment in the science of terror to refresh your emotions. On Aug. 31, 2005, as one million Shia Muslims passed over Baghdad's Al-Aaimmah bridge, someone pointed to a man claiming he had explosives strapped to him. The ensuing stampede claimed nearly 1,000 lives as pilgrims were trampled, their blood spattered on the pavement, and as a section of railing collapsed, sending hordes 90 feet into the Tigris to drown. When the costs and benefits to the cause of terrorism are weighed, we must gruesomely assess it as an exceptionally inspired attack. So what makes human beings use their profound intelligence, such lucid analysis, to do such evil?

When terror attacks occur, our politicians and news organizations all have quite a bit to say. There seem to be two responses: a let's-go-git-him saber-rattling and, alternately, a liberal exasperation with such an "irrational" decision. Neither approach is particularly helpful, but American news consumers rarely see a comprehensive effort to analyze the act of martyrdom. One approach presents us with a one-dimensional manifestation of evil to which the only response can be to capture and kill. The latter humanizes the subject to such an extent that we are inundated with possible interpretations. Poverty? Failed relationships? Mental disorders? Flight from modernity?

When we brand religious radicals (and their decisions) as irrational or as one-dimensionally demonic, we actually shield them from scrutiny and analysis. In presenting religion as an economic market, with social entrepreneurs offering the benefits of religious goods to the needs of religious demanders, we can rationalize religious decisions to an extent that a coherent analysis is possible.

Enter Laurence Iannaccone, director of the Center for the Economic Study of Religion at George Mason University. In response to the usual humanist interpretations, he illustrates a failure to place martyrdom into a more concrete framework in which to analyze it. He presents an economic model in his 2006 paper, "The Market for Martyrs," that "helps us understand why (and when and where) violent extremism develops, how it is sustained, why it has proved difficult to defeat and why it arises so rarely."

Our first hurdle is that we do not even have a working definition for "fundamentalism." Iannaccone boils it down to a rough sketch. Fundamentalisms share a sectarian outlook, requiring "stigma and sacrifice" -- stigma against modern trends and the sacrifice that goes with maintaining that alternative perspective.

This rough definition is immediately helpful. Evangelical Christianity, for example, has been vaguely linked to Islamist movements as another fundamentalist group. But we have been hamstrung when it comes to isolating the similarities and the differences. Most importantly, why does one group speak with martyrdom and the other with peaceful disgust at elements of modern culture? What takes fundamentalism over the edge into violence? This is the "$64,000 Question" of our time.

When millions of Americans believe abortion is murder, when the enforcing theology is fully developed and preached across the country, why have the few related acts of violence been random and universally scorned? Iannaccone rejects principle, theology or history for this discrepancy. Rather, the "market conditions" of the United States render abortion violence "unprofitable" to religious "firms." In this way, he assumes the possibility of violence from any group with strong views opposing dominant culture, and then seeks out the exceptional conditions in which these groups opt for violence

His recommendations are helpful, but, of course, theoretical. Competing theologies are the greatest deterrent to militant theologies. How, for example, we might present the Iraqi Shia with an alternative to the ideological clutches of Moqtada al-Sadr remains to be seen.

What Iannaccone does give us is a foundation on which a lucid analysis of martyrdom can be attempted, cutting through the sea of potential causes and isolating those exceptional circumstances in which a society or a group can be brought to condone violent suicide.