Published July 10, 2007
How could doctors, pledged to heal, conspire to murder and maim? In the wake of the foiled British terror plots, that is the question on everyone’s lips. It’s anything but an idle query. On the contrary, if we attend not to the plot’s specifics, but to the larger questions raised by the paradox of murderous healers, the solution to the terror-doctor puzzle takes us deep into the mystery of Islamism.
The doctors’ plot shocks for several interconnected reasons. The paradox of the murderous healer is part of it. Yet there’s also the conviction that terrorism stems from poverty. The fashionable notion that terrorists must somehow be poor is mistaken. Numerous studies have concluded that Islamist terrorists tend to be relatively well-educated members of the middle and upper classes. Since the doctors’ terror cell was uncovered, it’s been widely noted that Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a physician, as have been numerous leaders of Palestinian terror groups (for example, Dr. George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Why, then, despite repeated disconfirmation, does the “poverty theory” of terrorism persist?
In part, of course, there’s the conventional liberal preference for rooting crime in material deprivation, rather than culture. Terrorists are criminals, so they must be poor. That theory makes it easy to downplay politically incorrect links between terrorism and Islam. Yet there’s something else at work as well.
Deep down, many of us believe that history has a direction — that it slowly but surely moves toward greater freedom, democracy, economic advancement, and social liberalism — in short, toward “modernity.” President Bush is convinced that people everywhere yearn for freedom. And many liberals, even if they oppose the President’s policies, believe that expanded education and economic development will gradually nudge the world’s peoples toward a liberal governing vision. If human beings are fundamentally rational and good (rather than inescapably torn between good and evil), then in the long term, freedom and prosperity should solve our problems. So free and prosperous terrorist doctors are an affront to our fundamental faith in the future — and our belief in humanity itself.
Conservatives, it’s true, are virtually defined by their conviction that the forward movement of history exacts social costs that ought to be moderated, offset, or opposed. And many, especially religious, conservatives see human beings as torn, struggling, and flawed creatures. Yet in America, even conservatives are “liberal,” in the sense that they favor the gradual, world-wide expansion of free markets and democracy. So we tend to regard well-educated and well-remunerated professionals as the epitome of humanitarian and freedom-loving middle-class moderns. What does it tell us that the terror doctors are anything but that?
To unravel the mystery of the terror doctors, we’ve first got to go back to 9/11…September 11,1992, that is. On that day, in free and fair elections, representatives of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood gained control of the Egyptian Bar Association, Egypt’s last great organized bastion of middle-class secular liberalism. That election victory was the capstone of a decades-long process whereby the Muslim Brotherhood — the world’s first and foremost Islamist organization — gained control of Egypt’s prestigious professional unions. (See, for example, Mobilizing Islam and No God But God.)
The Medical Association came first. Back in the 1950s, the Muslim Brotherhood had been famously steered and radicalized by Sayyid Qutb (in the aftermath of his exposure to American square-dancing). In 1966, Qutb was tried, convicted, and hanged for plotting to overthrow the government. Yet by 1984, a resurgent Brotherhood had secured just over a quarter of the seats on the executive board of Egypt’s prestigious doctors’ union. By 1990, the Brotherhood was in full control of the Medical Association, with the engineers’ union and (more tenuously) the Bar Association soon to follow. On the other hand, large unions of teachers, veterinarians, and agronomists remained under control of leaders sympathetic to the government of Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.
So here we have some puzzles. How did the anti-government Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood manage to take over Egypt’s most prestigious professional associations? How did some of the larger professional unions evade the Islamists’ grip? And why was the Medical Association the first to fall to the Islamists, while the Bar Association turned Islamist last, and least completely?
To find the answers, we’ve first got to put aside the American image of professional education. Before entering medical school, an American doctor will typically have taken courses on a wide range of subjects at a liberal arts college. A history major with a stint on the debate team might have a leg up on admission to the best American schools of medicine and law.
Yet few colleges in the Arab world offer an education that is “liberal,” in any sense. Arab higher education features extreme vocational specialization — in medicine, engineering, and science. Rounded training in the world of ideas is largely absent. The preferred techniques are lectures, memorization, and repetition. Students don’t ask questions so much as they’re told what to think. Problem-solving and creativity are not on the syllabus. So the structure of Arab higher education is authoritarian, while its content is largely bereft of reference to modern, democratic values. Lawyers are the chief exception, since the rule of law’s meaning and importance necessarily forms the very substance of legal education.
The British experience in India provides a useful point of comparison. Precisely because they hoped to create a class that could eventually rule India as a democracy, the British set up a system of English-language education that was liberal in the broadest sense. Indian students were exposed to English history, literature, and particularly law. After all, the British were recruiting Indians to run a modern bureaucracy and legal system. Gandhi, Nehru, and most of the leaders of India’s independence movement, were British-educated lawyers, who yearned to apply their training in democratic principles to a free nation of their own. So even without a conventional undergraduate liberal education, Egypt’s attorneys necessarily embody some of that same liberal spirit. Yet Egypt’s lawyers are the exception.
From Village to College
The moderately liberal character of Egyptian legal education may help explain the Bar Association’s relative resistance to Islamism, but it only begins to get at the appeal of Islamism to the rest of Egypt’s rising generation of educated professionals. To make sense of that we’ve got to go back several decades, to the entry of a massive new generation of students into Egypt’s colleges and universities.
Determined to modernize Egypt under the banner of secular Arab nationalism and socialism (of a sort), Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and his more market-oriented successor, Anwar Sadat, launched major expansions of Egyptian higher education, running from the 1950’s through the early 1980’s. The idea was to transform Egypt by creating a large modern and secular middle-class. So, in fulfillment of Nasser’s quasi-socialist vision, every graduate of secondary school or college was promised a government job.
By the 1970s, mass secondary education was funneling students into colleges in record numbers. The previous generation of Egypt’s professionals had been upper-class scions of senior military officers, or sons of high-ranking bureaucrats. This new generation was different. These students lacked the money and high-level connections of their predecessors, and were far more traditional in outlook. Most were the first generation in their families with substantial education. Many hailed from villages. Their families had made huge sacrifices to get them to college — all in the hopes that the family’s star student would one day secure a high-paying professional job, and forge connections useful to the folks back home.
Many of the female students at these secular, urban universities were daughters of barely literate villagers. Their mothers typically wore the veil. Unused to living on coeducational campuses — and worried about protecting their reputations and keeping themselves marriageable — these young women experienced the call of Islamist student organizations to don the veil as a welcome return to familiar ways. In general, the Islamist groups that came to dominate Egypt’s college campuses in the 1970s provided students fresh from villages with a sense of community in an otherwise disorienting urban, secular, individualist environment.
By the mid-1980s, the first big generation of organized Islamists had entered the professions. The stage was set for the Muslim Brotherhood to displace the modern, secular, and in some cases liberal, ethos of Egypt’s professions with its own. Instead of higher education modernizing Egypt’s villagers, Islamist students were traditionalizing Egypt’s professions.
Is that all there is to the growing appeal of Islamism to medical professionals, and other members of the Middle Eastern middle class? Not by a longshot. To find out more about how highly educated professionals turn to Islamism, and sometimes terror — and what, if anything we can do about it, stay tuned for Part II of “Doc Jihad.”
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.