About Ian C

I'm a curious bloke.

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.


MMO’s and Conflict Dynamics


It is often said that arguing on the internet is a pointless endeavour. One needn’t delve deep to understand where the sentiment stems from. Take any comment section, whether it is Facebook, YouTube, twitter or a news website and you’ll often find the same dynamic. Not only are discussions rarely about insightful topics, those that are quickly become derailed. Most responses are short and vile. Having ran a facebook group I can tell you that one gets away with the feeling that you have to choose between a group which is highly unstable and eventually inactive  and one that is more active and has potential to grow in numbers but has a demography which tends to lend itself to vile comments where the goal is closer to procrastination than education.

In order not to lock yourself in a dynamic where the conversation always returns to the same stale topics and comments you’d have to introduce rules. These rules however tend to induce hostility by some of the most active, but least thoughtful, members. They also tend to burden those who mean well with the idea that their comment would not be good enough. As such it is hard to reach critical mass and retain growth. So far the problem that has been sketched is largely about demographics: how do you form a structure where the right people find your group and are motivated to write and share ideas.

But as any game theorist will tell you behaviour is in part defined by the options an actor has at it’s disposal. When faced with behaviour which is strongly deviant from real life experience we tend to blame anonymity or the bigger gap between those talking. We tend to blame the lack of facial expressions, body language and the feedback that this brings. I agree that these all play a (vital) role but I believe the discrepancy can not be fully reduced to these differences.

To understand why I believe it is informative to look at different social networks and even games. Because it turns out every MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) has it’s own demographics, social structure, culture and there are big differences in behaviour between these games. There are also big differences within a game in behaviour. The evidence I have is anecdotal, though I believe that the experience from playing Guild Wars & Travian for several years and running a guild does help in assessing the important factors here.

I believe that every game, every forum is it’s own microcosm. And that we should in theory be able to correlate the behaviour of the players with the demographics and the actions the players can perform. A few examples of how I see this working:


  • In Guild Wars and Travian you have Guilds and alliances respectively. These allow people to group together and usually also include a certain hierarchy where officers are placed above members and are able to kick and invite members. This allows for a social control. If any of my members would have acted inappropriately I’d have reprimanded them and kicked them. People are free to leave and join guilds (important!) and this allows for an interesting dynamic. Choosing officers which are unpopular can cause people to leave (or get kicked for no reason). Officers also tend to be older, more experienced players who can work together with younger, more unexperienced players. Given that guild members are much more likely to help each other out and you’re often friends with many of your guild you tend to value membership. Obviously there are a lot of permutations (some people just hop from guild to guild, some are barely active) but the net effect it seems to me is that allowing for people to organize in this (hierarchical) structure induces a civility that is otherwise not present. I’d compare this to experiences of friend who play League of Legends where guilds don’t seem to exist or are less important and the atmosphere tends to be a lot more toxic. A significant portion of the community tends to quit, be it for a short while or permanently, due to these vile remarks.


  • In Guild Wars you had PvP (Player versus Player, competition between groups) in different formats. Here there is a clear difference in behaviour between RA (random arenas) where you are randomly assigned groups, HA & AB (Heroes Ascent and Alliance Battles) where you chose to join other people beforehand and can choose to work with the same people again, and GvG where you have to compete with your guild against other guilds. My conclusion is that randomness does matter. Anonymity matters somewhat. But the effect is smaller than you’d think. In a sense everyone can remain anonymous should he wish to do so. All you need for repeated games is the ability to contact each other, which occurs under a pseudonym.


  • If you look at YouTube or Facebook there tends to be less need for cooperation. Cooperation happens outside, IRL and there is no common goal on Facebook. So the people who do post regularly often have a bone to pick or time to kill. This difference in priorities combined with the lack of hierarchy and therefor social control it seems to me is just as important as anonymity. One can see this simply by looking at comment section on newspaper articles. Most people just post with their real name and picture.

So what seems to be important at first sight? I propose the following:

  • Possibility for cooperation
  • Possibility for repeat cooperation. Reruns with the same people.
  • Social structures and social control.
  • Proportional escalation. The ability to escalate in a way that is proportional if offense is given. If the only option is to mute/block people, this tends to exacerbate offensive behaviour.

What doesn’t seem to work ? I’d say the following:


  • Monetary (virtual or IRL) incentives. It seems this confirms Samuel Bowles his work in that with league of legends you get rewards for good behaviour. However, I suspect people just roll into a cost-benefit analysis then and value the ability to let of steam higher than the rewards you could realistically give. Therefor perhaps even worsening the situation.


I’d also remark that an additional problem is that the pool of potential people to cooperate with is so big that it devalues cooperation in a certain way. It doesn’t matter if you burn bridges with someone, you can always find others. Especially if those people tend to land on another side of the fence (different interests, different (political) opinion, or different guilds. For now, it seems that the civilising influence of guilds is stronger than the possible hostility between guilds. This seems to mimic the outside world where nationalism and religious activities seem to have much bigger gains in parochial altruism than the losses caused by potential hostilities between different groups (on average).

I therefor conclude that the possibilities a player or person has at it’s possibility, whether it is downvoting, commenting, friend-requests, trade or anything may play an important role in the way we behave. Expanding or limiting these interactions may allow us to steer social behaviour towards more favourable realities.

Hope you found this interesting!