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The loyalty of the terrorist

Published: 
Thursday, February 23, 2017
The cover of Eli Berman’s Radical, Religious, and Violent.

This is one of those books which seems to have started as an academic paper and which a publisher thought could make a profit if its thesis was extended to book form in a layperson format.

This works more often than you might think, since writing for laypersons forces academics to clarify their arguments.

Eli Berman, an economist, either does a good job of writing conversationally or had an excellent editor who converted his prose.

At the same time, his argument is so succinct that the book is necessarily padded, mostly by a history of terrorism which, while interesting in itself, is not absolutely germane to the issue.

The problem Berman explains is simply this: how do terrorist organisations prevent betrayal?

This is crucial to their effectiveness, and he argues that the Taliban were only able to take over Afghanistan, when superpowers America and the Soviet Union failed to do so, because of Taliban members’ loyalty.

What is counter-intuitive is that Berman does not attribute this loyalty to religious faith.

“Regardless of denomination or faith,” Berman writes, “radical religious groups typically share a common organisational design, which makes them magnificent providers of social services through mutual aid.”

This organisational structure starts with requiring members to make great sacrifices before being allowed to join, which helps seal their loyalty, partly because of the psychology of sacrifice and partly because the sacrifice itself— giving up all one’s property, for example—cuts the member off from returning to the wider society.

Berman rejects religious belief as the basis for commitment, citing secular (ie Marxist) groups which have achieved similar results, including persuading members to commit suicide for the cause with no belief in an afterlife, let alone 27 virgins.

This is, in fact, the main weakness of the book.

Apart from the fact that Marxism has all the attributes of a religion except a supernatural belief in an afterlife, Berman, either because of political correctness or genuine ignorance, glosses over the specific traits which have made Islam the main source of terrorists in the 21st century. For example, he writes: “One of Mohammed’s first goals was to emancipate women”—a risible claim when all gender surveys show that women in the Middle East have the least freedoms in any region.

Berman’s other core question is: “Why are religious radicals, who often start out appearing benign and charitable and generally avoid conflict, so effective at violence when they choose to engage in it?”

He notes that many terrorist groups actually started as charitable organisations, providing much needed social services in their countries.

It is this which allowed these groups to get loyal recruits, Berman argues. “Social services are not only a source of recruits,” Berman writes, “they also provide leverage over veteran members.”

He concludes: “I think it must be that these individuals are altruists—at least in respect to their own communities...the attackers truly believe that their courageous act will bring great benefit to some cause, and that their neighbours, community or country will benefit.”

Although his thesis is limited, several of Berman’s arguments can be adapted to deal not only with radicalisation in Trinidad, but the issue of gang violence as well.

​Review by

KEVIN BALDEOSINGH

​Radical, Religious,

and Violent by Eli Berman.

The MIT Press, 2011

ASIN:B002XQ2944;

315 pages.