- Deadly Clerics: Blocked Ambition and the Path to Jihad by Richard A. Nielsen
Why do people become jihadi scholars? This is the question at the heart of Richard Nielsen’s book Deadly Clerics. Jihadi scholars pay great costs for their stances: many end up losing their livelihood and are thrown into prison, some are forced into exile, others become targets for assassination. It is thus a surprising individual choice that — given the important role jihadi clerics play in groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qa‘ida — deserves serious exploration.
Nielsen notes that although many scholars study the reasons for laypeople’s radicalization, only a tiny fraction of these works explore the radicalization of clerics, an important subset of jihadis. The few exceptions examine the trajectory of particular scholars (e.g., the Jordanian ‘Isam al-Barqawi, known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), but because they do not lend themselves to generalizations, they cannot address the broader question. So, Nielsen’s work fills a gap in the literature, being the first to explore the radicalization of jihadi clerics.
Nielsen divides jihadi clerics into two groups, each presenting a different pathway to radicalization. In the first group are individuals who first become jihadis and only afterward seek to be scholars. Because their radicalization precedes efforts to produce religious knowledge (which is how Nielsen conceptualizes the role of clerics), Nielsen argues we could apply the set of explanations for laypeople’s radicalization to these clerics as well. The decision of individuals following this path to become clerics is much less puzzling considering they are already enthralled with jihadi ideology. Moreover, for a jihadi the clerical path is a sensible one; becoming a scholar not only carries the promise of greater knowledge, but can also bring elevated status, prestige, and influence. [End Page 718]
The second group of jihadi scholars comprises individuals who choose to pursue a clerical career and only later turn to jihadi ideology. It is the motivation beyond members of this group that captures Nielsen’s primary interest. He proposes blocked ambition as an explanation for clerics’ path to jihadism. Understanding clerics as academics who aspire for professional success, Nielsen’s theory suggests those who see their professional ambitions frustrated — either because they do not have a robust professional network or because they lack an insider track to advancement — are more likely to look to jihadism as an alternative path through which they could raise their profile and gain prestige.
The argument is based upon the assumption that clerics’ professional success largely depends on their links to the states they operate in. For religious scholars, especially in the Middle East, professional advancement means jobs in government-sponsored academic institutions or in the public service. State control thus provides disincentives for clerics to anger the state leadership. However, scholars who have seen their career plans thwarted are more likely to resent the state and to search for alternative ways to establishing their worth. Because state-sponsored clerics must toe their regimes’ line or face severe consequences, they usually stand for relatively moderate interpretations of Islam that accommodate their states’ interests. Thus, an estranged, resentful cleric is likely to find radicalism a desirable path to personal fulfillment.
To support his argument, Nielsen creates a large dataset of all Muslim clerics online, totaling 10,000. Of these, he uses a representative sample of 200 to test his theory of blocked ambition. He then demonstrates the viability of his explanation by using sophisticated research methods and by utilizing specially tailored computer programs to analyze the enormous amount of data collected, much of it in Arabic. But, noting that the operationalization of his thesis requires understanding the world these scholars operate within, Nielsen does not settle for quantitative analysis. To gain contextual knowledge, Nielsen, admirably, goes to great lengths. In addition to spending a considerable amount of time getting familiar with the content of clerics’ works, he also conducts ethnographic research in Egypt’s al-Azhar University (one of the two most prominent Islamic institutions in the...