A popular argument is that terrorism is fundamentally a reaction to US foreign policy – that even if Islamic terrorists couch their anger in religious sentiments, indeed even if they believe that the US is in fact a “Great Satan” which should be subjugated under a worldwide Islamic caliphate, it is only because of American “imperialism” that they lash out with these ideological responses.
The scholar Robert Pape has argued in detail for this thesis in two different books, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism published in 2005 and Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It , published in 2010. The Nation describes him  as “[the] man who studied every suicide attack in the world.”
According to his analysis, “foreign military occupation accounts for 98.5% – and the deployment of American combat forces for 92% – of all the 1,833 suicide terrorist attacks around the world in the past six years [2004–2009].” Indeed, at the time he performed his analysis, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka – which was a secular, Marxist group of Hindu nationalists – were the leading group responsible for suicide terrorism worldwide.
Let’s leave aside the fact that when it comes to Muslim grievances towards US “occupation” of the Muslim world, the American presence in Saudi Arabia is as offensive, if not more so, than its military interventions in other areas.
Why? Do “the Americans and their allies” bomb Mecca? Do they bomb the an–Nabawi Mosque in Medina?
The American presence in Saudi Arabia is offensive because it is “the land of the two holy places,” and it is therefore, in the words of Bin Laden , “an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it . . . to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military . . . in order to liberate the al–Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip . . .”
There are some interesting facts to note about the U.S. “occupation” of Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security , Harvard’s Nadav Safran notes that the flow of Muslims traveling to Mecca and Medina for the annual religious pilgrimage known as the Hajj slowed to a trickle after 1929 as a result of the Great Depression. Saudi Arabia’s dependence on revenue from the pilgrimage is so strong that this slowdown threatened the country’s very existence – so that in 1933, King Ibn Saud granted an oil concession to Standard Oil of California, despite the fact that this agreement “was bitterly opposed by the religious leaders on the grounds that it would let into the country infidels who would corrupt the people and introduce liquor, phonographs, and other instruments of the devil.”
According to the Air Force Historical Research Agency , the end of the Second World War brought a halt to oil development and slowed the rate of pilgrimage once again. Standard Oil then lobbied the US government to provide aid to Saudi Arabia through the Lend–Lease program (which, according to the War Investigating Committee headed by New York’s Senator Mead , had loaned Saudi Arabia aid valued to twelve million dollars by 1945). In exchange, Saudi Arabia allowed American planes headed for the Far East to stop in Saudi Arabia to refuel beginning in 1942. So when the United States later asked Ibn Said if it could build its own air base for this purpose in Dhahran in 1944, the King said yes, and construction was completed by 1946.
Starting in 1959, the US military used this base to provide military training  to instruct Saudi officials in how to defend their own borders, and as documented by Safran, it was the Americans rather than the Saudis who were hesitant to formalize this program at the time. In 1978, it was the Saudis once again  who requested America to help provide regional security (through Senator Robert Byrd, acting as President Carter’s envoy).
Before the building of the Dhahran International Airport (now operated by Saudi Arabia and known as the King Abdulaziz Air Base ), less than sixty thousand foreign pilgrims  arrived in Mecca for the hajj each year – and even this number fell before the Saudis asked the US to step in. By 1950 , this number hit one hundred thousand; and by the 1960s, it tripled to three hundred thousand. While the building of American airbases obviously wasn’t the only factor in this development, it clearly played a role. Otherwise the Saudis wouldn’t have been so willing to bring the Americans in to help with the issue of lagging tourism to begin with – because that is, in fact, a key part of the story of how we got there.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States has simply not been one that could be characterized as fitting any reasonable definition of “imperialism” or “occupation.” The primary root of Muslim grievances against the American presence on Saudi Arabian soil is that Saudi Arabian soil is holy and we are infidels. Where Pape thinks religious language is only window dressing around what are actually geopolitical arguments, the inclusion of the Saudi Arabian case as an instance of “imperialist occupation” is the clearest example one could possibly give where it is actually the geopolitical language that is mere window dressing for the religious arguments. The only reason anyone cares to classify the American presence in Saudi Arabia as an instance of “occupation” at all is because of religion. In at least this one important case, the argument that religious language is just window dressing over geopolitical complaints gets things exactly ass-backwards.
One of the most significant critiques of Pape’s work, however, is that he does something called “sampling on the dependent variable.” What this means is that he only looks at cases where suicide terrorism has occurred before attempting to explain them, instead of trying to look at all cases where it has or hasn’t, in order to see what makes the cases where it does occur different from cases where it doesn’t.
This is like evaluating the relationship between gun ownership and violence by only studying those factors that are in play when violence occurs, and given that gun ownership is involved in a large percentage of murders (without categorizing areas with and without high levels of gun ownership separately, so that maybe eighty percent of your sample could be from a region with high rates of gun ownership, and then of course you’re going to find a “correlation”), and then concluding that gun ownership must cause violence. To properly make an analysis like this, you have to at least compare areas where gun ownership is prevalent to areas where it is scarce, and see if going from low-ownership areas to high ones consistently raises the amount of violence. And that’s just in order to properly establish a correlation; I’m not even dealing with the complexity involved in making a leap of inference from correlation to causation yet.
Had Pape performed an analysis like this, he may have noticed that Laos, for instance, is per capita probably the most bombed country on Earth. The US dropped more than two million tons of munitions on Laos over more than five hundred eighty thousand bombing missions during the Vietnam War. This is the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day, for nine straight years. Each and every year since then, there continue to be more than one hundred new cluster bomb casualties  as well.
Has anyone heard about the epidemic of Laotian terrorists attacking US citizens? For that matter, have you ever heard of a single Laotian terrorist targeting Americans? Probably not, because there aren’t any. In fact, some fifty thousand American citizens travel to Laos  each year as tourists without the slightest incident. It bears mention that there are in fact “terrorists” in Laos  as well as both Left- and Right-wing insurgencies  – they just haven’t ever targeted American citizens.
What about the many other countries wrecked by the Nixon Administration’s policies? Cambodia? East Timor? Chile? As Christopher Hitchens wrote  in a rejoinder to Noam Chomsky, “The huge slaughter in East Timor is (at least) comparable to the terrible atrocities that can plausibly be attributed to Milosevic in the earlier wars in Yugoslavia, and responsibility is far easier to assign [to Indonesia, the US, and the UK], with no complicating factors.” If arguments like those made by Pape were accurate, then “they should certainly have been calling for the bombing of Jakarta – indeed Washington and London – in early 1998 so as not to allow in East Timor a repetition of the crimes that Indonesia, the US, and the UK had perpetrated there for a quarter-century. And when the new generation of leaders refused to pursue this honorable course, they should have been leading citizens to do so themselves, perhaps joining the Bin Laden network. These conclusions follow straightforwardly . . .”
Then there was the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile  and the subsequent installation of Augusto Pinochet (who now features in countless memes about throwing Leftists and Communists out of helicopters) as puppet dictator, followed by the bombing and invasion of Cambodia . Why was not a single 9/11 or Boston Marathon-style attack against the US ever committed by a single victim or relative of a victim of any of these atrocities? Nor do individuals from Central Africa commit terror attacks against Belgium, despite the many horrific humanitarian abuses  which took place there.
In the past several years, more than a hundred Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet . There is clearly no shortage of Tibetans willing to end their own lives in resistance to what they see as an unjust occupation, and yet not a single one has ever decided to take a few Chinese civilians with him. Why not? Does anyone really think this choice of strategy has nothing to do with the adherence of those with grievances to the tenets of Buddhism?
Whether it does or it doesn’t, an analysis like Pape’s is simply incapable of telling us, because the basic root premise behind his entire method is a statistical fallacy .
It’s important to bear in mind as well that a person’s attitudes might not be justified by the facts related to some narrative they endorse, because in reality it was those very attitudes which led them to endorse that narrative. One of Osama bin Laden’s other key complaints was that the US sanctions on Iraq deliberately starved children: in a 2004 video , bin Laden called the sanctions against Iraq “the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known.” But what if Osama bin Laden didn’t hate American infidels because he believed they committed a mass slaughter of children?
What if, instead, what happened is that he so easily came to believe that the infidels had committed the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known because he hated them and was therefore willing to believe this? Surely all of us can think of people we know who all too readily believed that someone had done some horrible thing simply because it justified a pre-existing dislike they harbored.
And in point of fact, as (((Michael Rubin))) has documented  in an article for the Middle East Review of International Affairs, “Comparing the impact of sanctions between opposition-controlled Iraqi provinces and the portions of the country ruled by Saddam Hussein indicates that, while the deleterious impact of sanctions upon the Iraqi population has been grossly exaggerated, what problems do occur are a result of Baghdad’s political leadership.”
He goes on to show that claims about mass deaths resulting from sanctions all originate from the Ministry of Health of Iraq – which was part of Saddam’s own administration, and thus had a vested interest in fomenting grievances so as to deflect blame away from itself. All claims about deaths resulting from sanctions had to rely on these Iraqi government reports because “Baghdad also prevented humanitarian organizations to conduct their own fieldwork to verify the claims.”
Nevertheless, to whatever extent those numbers may have been accurate, if they were correct then Saddam would necessarily hold a much greater proportion of the blame. First of all, we have some reason to believe they might not be accurate at all: “northern Iraq also faced both the same international sanctions as did Baghdad, additional sanctions imposed by the Saddam Hussein government, and had poorer medical facilities than the part of the country controlled by the Baghdad regime” . . . and child mortality nonetheless fell. There are two reasons why this might have happened: first, “outsiders can measure statistics in the north.” Thus, the numbers we saw in northern Iraq might simply have been more accurate because they could be verified, and thus more representative of what is happening across the country as a whole, than those for which we are completely dependent on unverifiable central government reports.
But the other possibility would necessarily have to involve differences in how these regions handled the humanitarian aid they were given. Areas in the north received the same humanitarian aid that the rest of Iraq did, and as we’ve just seen, they were fine. So why did the rest of Iraq suffer? The Oil-for-Food program  generated forty-six billion dollars that was intended to go towards humanitarian relief after the implementation of the sanctions in 1990, and “the Kurdish administration not only budgeted oil-for-food income to benefit the population, but also used available discretionary tax revenues for development and services, while Saddam Hussein’s government consistently sought to undermine the oil-for-food program, while using its smuggling and tax revenues to support its military.”
I don’t intend this post to be a comprehensive analysis of the causes of terrorism, and I don’t need a comprehensive theory of my own in order to say that Pape’s attempt to promote the comprehensive theory that “occupation” is the primary cause of terrorism is a failure. I also doubt that anyone has (and possibly will ever have) any such “comprehensive” theory. But I do want to talk about a couple of factors which are prevalent in and relatively unique to Islamic societies which play a role in promoting terrorism. Certainly there are many, and surely not all will be unique to Islamic societies. No “comprehensive” theory of terrorism will try to reduce the entire complex phenomena of terrorism down to one or even a few such factors, and quantifying the relationships between them all is probably too hopelessly complex for the methods of social science to shed much understanding on it. Nevertheless, there are some factors which are unique to Islamic societies which help explain the disproportionate amount of the various social dysfunctions they often produce.
First: polygamy. As Satoshi Kanazawa notes:
[A]ll studies of suicide bombers indicate that they are significantly younger than not only the Muslim population in general but also other (non-suicidal) members of their own extreme political organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, and nearly all suicide bombers are single (Atran, 2003; Berrebi, 2003). Because all primate societies, including humans, are gerontocratic, age is the greatest predictor of men’s social status, and we would therefore expect the youngest men to have the lowest status and thus the dimmest prospect for reproductive success in any organization. (emphasis mine)
Monogamous social norms actually act as a kind of “redistribution” in the context of the social sphere of human behavior. Who benefits the most from the social rule that a man should only take one wife? What happens when this rule is changed? Which men are going to have the best chances of taking multiple wives? Answer the latter question, and you’ve answered the former. Answer the former question, and you’ll understand why polygamy is linked to suicide terrorism.
The answer is that men with the most social status and resources – who are, on average, obviously going to be older – have the best chances of taking multiple wives. If there are a roughly equal number of men and women in a population, then every second wife a man takes means there is another man who will be literally mathematically incapable of finding a wife for himself. Polygamy therefore helps contribute to the creation of an underclass of young, single men who have no hope of creating families – the single most important source of value and meaning in an individual’s life.
Lest the fact that suicide terrorists mostly emerge from the ranks of young, single men not be enough to substantiate this theory for you, and lest the general correlation between polygamy and suicide terrorism not be enough to convince you that it plays a role, then read Bruce Hoffman’s discussion  of how Yasser Arafat and the PLO successfully disbanded the elite terrorist organization Black September, which was full of members who were “absolutely dedicated and absolutely ruthless” . . . simply by marrying them off.
They traveled to Palestinian refugee camps, to PLO offices and associated organizations, and to the capitals of all Middle Eastern countries with large Palestinian communities. Systematically identifying the most attractive young Palestinian women they could find, they put before these women what they hoped would be an irresistible proposition: Your fatherland needs you. Will you accept a critical mission of the utmost importance to the Palestinian people? Will you come to Beirut, for a reason to be disclosed upon your arrival, but one decreed by no higher authority than Chairman Arafat himself? How could a true patriot refuse?
So approximately a hundred of these beautiful young women were brought to Beirut. There, in a sort of PLO version of a college mixer, boy met girl, boy fell in love with girl, boy would, it was hoped, marry girl. There was an additional incentive, designed to facilitate not just amorous connections but long–lasting relationships. The hundred or so Black Septemberists were told that if they married these women, they would be paid $3,000; given an apartment in Beirut with a gas stove, a refrigerator, and a television; and employed by the PLO in some nonviolent capacity. Any of these couples that had a baby within a year would be rewarded with an additional $5,000.
Both Abu Iyad and the future general worried that their scheme would never work. But, as the general recounted, without exception the Black Septemberists fell in love, got married, settled down, and in most cases started a family. To make sure that none ever strayed, the two men devised a test. Periodically, the former terrorists would be handed legitimate passports and asked to go to the organization’s offices in Geneva or Paris or some other city on genuine nonviolent PLO business. But, the general explained, not one of them would agree to travel abroad, for fear of being arrested and losing all that they had – that is, being deprived of their wives and children. “And so,” my host told me, “that is how we shut down Black September and eliminated terrorism. It is the only successful case that I know of.”
The second factor: centuries of cousin marriage.
While cousin marriage does and has existed to various degrees in various populations throughout history, it is particularly characteristic of Arab societies. Muhammad even married Zaynab bint Jahsh, who was his cousin . As the Qur’an makes clear : “O Prophet, We have made lawful to thee thy wives . . . out of . . . the daughters of thy maternal uncle and the daughters of thy maternal aunts . . .”
In contrast, the history of Western society is characterized by a wide variety of prohibitions on cousin marriages, an early example of which would be the ban placed on marriages between first cousins by the Quinisext Council of the Eastern Orthodox Church in 692 .
This is a key human biodiversity explanation for many major differences between Western and Islamic or Arab societies. To understand the impact of centuries of cousin marriage on the structure of a human society, you must first ask yourself: how did altruism evolve? Why did people evolve to be nice to most of the people around them, most of the time, in the first place?
We could give instrumental reasons why people act “altruistically”: I don’t steal from my neighbor’s house because I don’t want to motivate him to try to come steal from mine, or to have the cops come after me, or whatever. But for most of us who aren’t psychopaths, this simply isn’t the only thing that stops us from doing things like stealing. Personally, I don’t steal from my neighbor’s home because I genuinely don’t want to cause my neighbor harm. But why? How could a feeling like that evolve?
The answer is that it has its roots in kin selection. We evolved altruistic behavior because we evolved to practice altruism towards kin. As British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane reportedly put it, “I would gladly give up my life for two brothers or eight cousins.” Since you share half of your genes with your brothers and an eighth of your genes with your cousins it actually can serve your genetic self-interest to lay down your life for two or more brothers, because the end result may very well be that even if you die, more of your genes will nevertheless be passed on. Most of the time, we aren’t making decisions as dramatic; we’re usually just making small sacrifices of our own “fitness” to improve our relatives’ “fitness” on the margins.
There are many circumstantial factors that influence the way these patterns might have developed in different societies over time. One key factor involved is how “viscous” the population in question is . In “viscous” societies, family members generally don’t move far away from each other. In a population like this, a mechanism that causes people to behave altruistically by default would be selected for through kin selection, without requiring a mechanism for distinguishing kin from non-kin. If people just evolved to be nice to people around them, kin selection would select for this trait, even though the trait itself doesn’t involve distinguishing between kin and non-kin.
Clearly, there won’t be one universal explanation for how altruistic behavior evolved, because different human populations were subject to different circumstances over evolutionary time, including very different levels of viscousness. A highly viscous population wouldn’t need mechanisms for distinguishing kin from non-kin in order for altruistic behavior to evolve through kin selection (as behaving altruistically would entail that they were aiding kin and therefore encouraging the passing on of their own genes by default). A less viscous population, however, might be more reliant on mechanisms for distinguishing kin from non-kin, since life in a population like this one would tend to select against blanket altruism – altruists would tend to be exploited by the non-altruists around them.
Further evidence of how kin altruism operates can be seen in the first two premises of my succinct argument for ethnonationalism :
- People tend to get along better with others who are behaviorally and psychologically more like themselves. (Source )
- Since behavioral and psychological traits are heavily influenced by genes, people therefore tend to form deeper friendships with others who are genetically more like themselves. . . . Indeed, studies have confirmed that people tend to form their closest relationships with people who are as genetically similar to them as fourth cousins. (Source )
Even in our day-to-day friendships, all of us are being extremely genetically selective.
So how do we get from all this back to cousin marriage?
Think about what cousin marriage does to the genetic structure of a society: if everyone in a given population is intermixing, then to some degree that entire population will become a kind of literal genetic “melting pot.” All of them will be shuffling their genes around, making the whole population gradually move towards increasing degrees of genetic similarity. Of course this is never going to happen perfectly, because people still tend to mate with people who are more like themselves in various ways than the average, but the basic trend nevertheless exists all the same.
Human beings split off into different racial categories  because at some point, people split off into groups that, relative to the rest of the human population, are relatively “inbred” among themselves (but not with the members of other, outside groups). After humans first left Africa, they encountered a new set of selective pressures, and then they mated among themselves more frequently than they did with the populations left behind in Africa. So what cousin marriage does is to produce families that are increasingly genetically isolated from the rest of the population around them. On a very small scale, it’s exactly like that population is stratifying into a few hundred thousand different “races.”
The more my family’s genes have been “kept in the family” through inbreeding, the more genetic similarity we are all going to share. And the more a society is characterized by families that keep their genes “in the family” through inbreeding, the less genetic similarity is going to exist between those different families, all of which share a large amount of genetic similarity with each other. The resulting lineages are something less than distinct “races,” yet they are also something more than merely distinct “families.” It may be more accurate to describe them as “clans.”
The way in which altruistic behavior evolves to function in the society that results from this are profound. The more inbreeding there is in my society, the less evolutionary sense it makes for me to commit personal sacrifices for the benefit of people who aren’t my immediate relatives, and the more personal sacrifices I’ll be willing to commit for the benefit of those relatives.
Let me be clear: this is a well-validated topic of scientific study, not some half-baked hypothesis cooked up in the far reaches of the Internet. Serious researchers have actually quantified the exact correlation between the amount of cousin marriage in Arab population histories and how likely democratic political forms are to flourish in those regions. In ”Consanguinity as a Major Predictor of Levels of Democracy: A Study of 70 Nations ,” published by Michael A. Woodley and Edward Bell in The Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, we read:
This article examines the hypothesis that although the level of democracy in a society is a complex phenomenon involving many antecedents, consanguinity (marriage and subsequent mating between second cousins or closer relatives) is an important though often overlooked predictor of it. Measures of the two variables correlate substantially in a sample of 70 nations (r = -0.632, p < 0.001), and consanguinity remains a significant predictor of democracy in multiple regression and path analyses involving several additional independent variables. The data suggest that where consanguineous kinship networks are numerically predominant and have been made to share a common statehood, democracy is unlikely to develop. Possible explanations for these findings include the idea that restricted gene flow arising from consanguineous marriage facilitates a rigid collectivism that is inimical to individualism and the recognition of individual rights, which are key elements of the democratic ethos. Furthermore, high levels of within-group genetic similarity may discourage cooperation between different large-scale kin groupings sharing the same nation, inhibiting democracy. Finally, genetic similarity stemming from consanguinity may encourage resource predation by members of socially elite kinship networks as an inclusive fitness enhancing behavior.