How Islamic is the Islamic State ? A biochemical perspective.

The recent Paris massacre has sparked a public debate on the motivations of these killers. One of the questions that has been posed repeatedly is how Islamic the actions of Islamic State really are? I hope that I will be able to provide a framework that can, to some extent, help in analysing the motivations of these people.

I’d like to begin with taking a step back. What do we mean with Islamic? What separates one religion from the other? Well let’s start with the basics. As Stephen Gaukroger aptly describes in his book on the enlightenment the way we analyze religious beliefs and practices goes back a long while and we’ve been so accustomed to thinking about religion in this way that we don’t even notice that in fact: we are using certain intellectual tools. And we weren’t born with them. These intellectual tools, more on this later, were a response to very specific problems. Problems which we’ve forgotten but which are still relevant today.


We reduce religion to it’s cognitive content. In this view one’s religion is a bag in which certain propositions, beliefs about the nature of reality, ethics and all the important questions are stored. To determine the religion of an individual we turn over the bag and look at what comes out.

  • Belief in one God above all others. “Ah this makes him a monotheist!”
  • Belief in the personal relationship between god and his people, the people of Abraham. “Yes, clearly an Abrahamic religion”
  • Belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God. “Ok, we’re dealing with a Christian here.”
  • Belief in the institution of the Roman Catholic church. “Aha! A catholic, not a protestant.”

And the list goes on. Now this approach is actually useful. It was developed at a time where European Christians had to deal with increased contact with non-Christians. They where clearly monotheistic, so that made them different from normal pagans. But can you really say these followers of the prophet Muhammad are Christian? Are they just a sect, a bunch of heretics? Well no, they’re from a different religion.

So then the need arises to analyze these different religious beliefs and find patterns. The problem posed here is the same problem we face within the field of biology. How do you deal with such an overwhelming diversity? How do you classify these different organisms? On the basis of structure? On the basis of genetic composition? Perhaps on the basis of behavior? Religion, like an organism, is a complex thing. In biology one needn’t understand the inner workings of every cat-like creature. It can be reduced to species, sub-species and with some small errors we can infer the dietary needs as well as the threats posed for every cat-like specimen we have yet to encounter. Even those that have yet to be born.

In the case of analyzing religious practices and the behavior of all these people a reduction had to be made. We simply do not have the resources to understand every single person in all his or her complexity. So a statistical summary is in order. Well here you have it. This is the question that had to be answered. And I think knowing this already gives you some idea about both the incredible power and the limitations of reducing this complex phenomenon to it’s cognitive content (it’s beliefs).

In this sense, from the perspective of a botanist or an evolutionary biologist we should say that the Islamic State is indeed Islamic. Their beliefs, their DNA, does indeed overlap considerably. We shouldn’t deny this in the name of tolerance. But this is not where the story ends. What we are interested in is not (just) the % of overlap. What we’re interested in is the behavior. And not just behavior either, we do not hate ISIS because they pray 5 times a day. No, we want a specific subset, the set of behaviors that are pathological and clearly harmful for the precious fabric of our society. And to understand this, we can’t limit ourselves to taxonomy. Nor can we limit ourselves to understanding the gene pool. What we need is the interactions.

Now the analogy works here as well. The famous example here being the similar DNA of both humans and chimps. Not only is that tiny % of difference very important, it doesn’t code for what you’d think it does either. Most of it is not spent on differences in intelligence or brain structure. In fact, very little is. Instead what we get is very crucial genes which regulate cell division and the amount of cell divisions playing a huge role in explaining the difference. But we don’t have to restrict ourselves to chimps. When looking at bacteria things get even more interesting. We humans are, metabolically speaking, a boring species. Where bacteria might use iron, sulfur, sunlight and sugar. Where you’ll find different kinds of fermentation processes (a chemical alternative to aerobic respiration which allows an organism to build what it has to build) within the same species with bacteria, humans are another story. We take sugar, and we burn it. We’re basically a slow fire run amok.

Now this is a digression but it is an important one. Small differences in genetic composition can make the difference between an E.Coli which will kill you on it’s own and the E.Coli which will populate your gut and with which you have a long and endearing friendship. This is what I’m getting at. You can have species which are absolutely nothing alike, yet function for all intents of purposes very alike. And you can have species which are 99% the same genetically , yet one will kill you and the other is required for your survival. I believe this is the case with Islam. But the story is not done. Not yet. We can push the analogy even further.

Anyone familiar with evolution theory will have learned of the term “convergent evolution”. Here completely distinct species, a fish and a mammal for example, will show similar traits because they are faced with a similar problem. There are only so many ways to optimize the solution to a given problem. Whether that problem is metabolic (how do I, a bacterium, survive in these wretched conditions?) or physical of nature (How do I minimize friction/resistance when swimming?). So the question becomes: When do we see suicide terrorism? Ideally what we’d want is a theory which is not bound to the idiosyncrasy of Islamist terrorism but which instead applies equally well to both ISIS and the Tamil Tigers.


It turns out this is exactly the question that Robert Pape asked himself in his book Dying to Win. His conclusions are rather counter-intuitive (something he had to come to terms with himself). There is a unifying trend. It is not religious beliefs, important as these may be for the individuals themselves. Instead what we see in aggregate is that 99% of all suicide terrorist attacks occur by the hand of males between 15 and 35. They are performed because the terrorist in question believes that a community which he holds dearly is being oppressed and invaded by an outside party. This is the statistical summary Robert Pape came to when he put all terrorist attacks he could gather from the last few decennia in a database and looked for similarities. Now this does not mean that the individual has one single motivation. It does not mean that the people at the top of ISIS hold no real religious belief and are simply lying. It only means that if you look at when these attacks occur they almost always occur after a (usually military) invasion of some sort. The common motivations their perpetrators give is the perceived invasion of a certain community. Within this view these attacks are a form of pathological altruism.

So in summary, what does it all mean? I’ll be honest. I don’t think this text has provided a quick answer to the question whether ISIS is indeed Islamic or not. In communication we do not confine ourselves to the most literal interpretation. Saying it is Islamic might be interpreted as saying that moderate Muslims merely suffer from the diluted poison. That somehow their worldview is but a dilution of what Islam “really is”. In this view these people are potential accidents, waiting to happen. I believe this view to be absurd and extremely harmful for the fabric of our society. On the other hand saying it isn’t might be interpreted as denying evident truths. Yes, these people do call themselves Muslim and cite the Qur’an. Whilst their motivations are diverse, ranging from terror tourism to religious convictions, they didn’t just happen to wake up with them one day. Many of the most influential figures within the organization are scholars and have developed sophisticated arguments in defense of the inhuman.

This all boils down to whether you trust the person you’re communicating with. In a conversation one is expected to read between the lines. And this means we have to trust people enough not to be philosophically naïve (on purpose). This is a heuristic. And like any heuristic it isn’t perfect. But I believe it’s preferable to what we’ve seen so far. A discussion where everyone assumes the worst. Where  a defense of the religious beliefs of civilians is taken to be wilful naivety, the critique of fringe as bigotry and racism. There’s a lot of both in the public debate. But it’s self-enforcing. And I hope that perhaps we can develop a framework to break this cycle.


Awaiting your feedback!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s