Richard Nielsen on Deadly Clerics
Date: May 6th, 2018

Political rebellion and violence in the Middle East has recently been associated with religious belief and rhetoric, often spurred on by the writings and recordings of Muslim clerics.  What motivates imams to advocate such tactics?  Prof. Richard Nielsen, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, answers this question with reference to previous theories of revolution and an examination of the career paths of imams who advocate violent jihad.  His findings reveal fascinating insights into what prompts individuals down the path of violence and suggests possible solutions to mitigating terrorism.

Our discussion begins with Rich recalling how he, himself, was led down an academic path of studying violent jihad.  Initially on a STEM path, his experience watching the September 11 terrorist attacks unfold and a chance encounter with a professor at a Harry Potter film moved him in the direction of studying political science and international relations.  He noted that most work on political violence in the Islamic world focuses on lay radicalization, so he turned his attention to what motivated various clerics to radicalize.  Rich lays out the parameters of what constitutes an imam in Sunni Islam, pointing out that there is no central authority to determine membership in a priesthood exactly.  We learn that “imam” means “to be in the front,” which opens up the definition of who speaks for Islam officially to a wide range of individuals.  Rich observes that many people who are not formally trained in theology often present themselves as religious scholars (e.g., Osama bin Laden), sometimes employing the mundane tactic of posing in front of bookshelves to present an intellectual aura.  We also discuss what a fatwa is, correcting some of the misperceptions that Westerners have.  (Rich also reveals what the topic of the most downloaded fatwa is, and the answer may surprise you.)

Following this discussion, we move into a theoretical discussion of why men rebel.  Rich covers the various existing explanations for why Muslims have joined militant movements in recent decades, including ideas that such behavior is inherent in the theology, that it is a response to modernity and secularizing pressure, and the rise of transnational philanthropy.  Rich finds little credence in the theological uniqueness of Islam, though he does note that faith can motivate people to undertake actions that overcome pure self-interest.  In contrast to these pre-existing theories, he advances a claim that builds upon the work of Ted Gurr who argued that rebel leaders are often prompted into their career paths when they face relative deprivation — expectations about where they should be in life do not match with their current circumstances.  Prof. Nielsen then argues that many of the Muslim imams who have turned to advocating for political violence started out with academic ambitions that were frustrated by state action.  He illustrates this with a few examples.  Our conversation then turns to the use of social media in spreading jihadist thought, and whether or not Gurr’s theory of “relative deprivation” (or Nielsen’s notion of “blocked ambition”) is more noticeable now given that the costs of organizing collective action have decreased with telecommunications technology.  Rich points out that sustaining collective action still requires organizational incentives, but it is now more possible for aggrieved individuals to get their message out, be it by Twitter or (a few decades ago) cassette tapes.

We finish the conversation with Prof. Nielsen’s reflections on how political violence can be combatted.  He argues for less involvement of religion in politics, something he doesn’t see as a realistic option in Islamic nations in the near future.  Another option, though, is to not block that intellectual pathways of budding scholars and clerics.  We both note how this is very reflective of our own academic industry.  Rich then finishes with some reflections about what he has learned over the course of his studies in the past two decades, noting how individuals often have post-hoc rationalizations for the actions they undertake, and how he started as a firm rational choice scholar devoted to statistical methodology, but developed an appreciation for social psychology and anthropological methods to research (without abandoning his former theoretical and methodological frameworks).  Recorded: May 3, 2018.

(Note: At one point during the discussion, Tony accidently attributes “relative deprivation theory” to Charles Tilly and more institutional explanations to Ted Gurr, a mistake that should reveal that he wasn’t paying attention in graduate school.)



Prof. Richard Nielsen’s bio at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Deadly Clerics: Blocked Ambition and the Paths to Jihad, by Richard Nielsen.

Why Men Rebel, by Ted Gurr (mentioned in podcast).

The Audacious Aesthetic, by Flagg Miller (mentioned in podcast).

Masters of the Word, by William Bernstein (mentioned in podcast).


Ron Hassner on Religion on the Battlefield.

Ron Hassner on Religion in the Military.

Ron Hassner on Sacred Spaces and Holy Conflict.

Sean Everton on Dark Networks.

Nathan Brown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Jason Klocek on Religious Violence and Repression.

Religious Liberty and Violent Religious Extremism.

Eli Berman on Religious Terrorism.

John Owen IV on Confronting Political Islam, Lessons from the Past.

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