12/18/2015 02:51 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2016

A Social Science Response to ISIS

While the Paris attack caught all observers by surprise, the ensuing response of French and European governments followed a predictable pattern. The French government was quick to apportion blame, identify suspects, impose a state of emergency, announce border closures, scale up defense spending and order airstrikes. This "law and order" approach is defensible as a first response, but European states need to go beyond the obvious target, ISIS and its twisted interpretation of Islam, and delve deeper into the complex genesis of violence. Violence is located not just in extremist ideology but also in struggles over the distribution of power within and across nations.

The study of violence -- both its causes and consequences -- has long been a staple concern of academic inquiry from Hannah Arendt to Douglass North. Yet it is rarely applied to the study of contemporary conflicts in the Islamic world. The official mind-set often operates in a settled domain where all questions have been answered, leaving the state to be an efficient executor of strategy, consisting of two simple steps: confronting the perpetrators through military might and ideological reform. The media and think tanks play from a common hymn sheet by reinforcing directed wisdom.

This approach is bereft of the social science logic that is methodologically non-aligned to both sides of the discord, and recognizes the importance of the unobserved and what lies beyond the immediate spectacle. After all, if appearance and reality were the same then social sciences would have no role to play. Following 9/11 a growing divide has emerged between the policy think tanks' strategic discourses and the university-based academic research. The latter furnishes pertinent insights on violence, which are rarely deployed to understanding the contemporary challenges of violence.

In this division of labor think tanks serve as knowledge workers of the state and university research either remains marginal to policymaking or serves the preset mandate of research foundations. It is true that governments have sponsored academic inquires into the radicalization of Islam, the role of transnational networks of Jihad, voices of 'moderate Islam' and the like. But these initiatives are sometimes viewed as securitization of knowledge that take away from the researcher the privilege of raising the first question. Once funding calls from research foundations are announced, scholars quickly volunteer themselves to undertake pre-defined research agendas. In a highly competitive academic market, this creates a culture of spoils that incentivizes young researchers to buy stability in an increasingly precarious appointments regime. However, the really important questions are pushed out of the domain of sovereign knowledge.
Why is, then, social science needed in the age of violence? It is the domain of objective sceptics--those who propose competing explanations, gather new evidence, build counterfactuals, and test hypotheses. The researcher needs to be transparent about both their zones of knowledge and ignorance. It is true that serious research is difficult, if not impossible, to conduct in war zones (with the exception of the embedded social scientist or front line journalist). Even if the researcher lacks data to assess the relative strength of competing explanations or to propose a fully specified theory of non-state violence, it is important to pose uncomfortable questions and to problematize terrorism, its long-term sources and the state's response to it in a common framework.

While the social science input can enrich the policy discourse it is unlikely to spare from critical scrutiny the decision of states to declare war in response to violence. It will also question the established modes of western engagement with the GCC states that generate serious policy trade-offs. Does the fact that these states are important exporters of both arms and ideology to extremist groups around the Muslim world call for a different policy engagement as well as different view of violence? Little social science evidence exists that justifies military interventions to serve institutional reform. In contrast, dominant political economy perspectives suggest that the process of institutional change is painfully slow, messy, and, for the most part, home-grown. For example, it took England about 200 years to make the transition from a minimally effective state to a developed polity. While military interventions might have afforded electoral democracy, they have destroyed whatever limited state capacity existed on the ground. Instead, fragmentation of state structures has created conditions where no group has a genuine incentive to invest in state capacity (whether it is about providing public goods, legal infrastructure, or raising taxes).

Furthermore, if violence is linked to the struggle to control rents, as is suggested by the political economy literature and evidenced by the thriving ISIS-controlled war economy, there is no long-term strategy on the policy horizon that seeks to replace the spoils from war economy with the rents from development. Scholars have argued that dense economic exchange, supported by well-established patterns of economic specialization, is the best antidote to violence as it increases its cost for all actors concerned. In other words: if the enemy is to be controlled, it requires a strategy for welfare, not just warfare. Yet, despite David Cameron's insistence on a "comprehensive strategy" to fight terror, issues of economic development continue to remain a back-end issue of foreign policy.

This underscores the need to problematize the state and its policies alongside their targets of attack. We need to unpack the common sense view of the state as a benevolent agent operating under explicit policy directions. The other side of state, anchored in 'national interest' trumps any countervailing view or policy. On the face of it, who would like to ignore national interest? But the social scientist's discomfort begins when the interests are kept implicit and outside public scrutiny. Precious taxpayer money is put behind war operations, benefiting defense companies and contractors (the cost of the Afghan and Iraq wars ran into 2 trillion dollars alone). Is it the case that, in the presence of these beneficiaries, the state, when it is under attack, is more likely to respond through warfare rather than welfare? Scholars have long recognized that state policies reflect the interests of groups who have the greatest political bargaining power. Does this apply to the foreign policy domain as well?

The courage to ask such questions against dominant wisdom follows from the Kantian spirit of enlightenment. Yet, it is precisely this scholarly nerve that state-sponsored policy research tends to undermine. Since 9/11, global powers seem to be regressing into behaving like ancient empires that drew their self-representation from acts of gods and demons without recourse to rational sciences. There is, indeed, a yawning gap between the official discourse on terror and the social science analysis of violence. This divide, in our view, is as critical as the battle of ideas within the worlds of Islam.

Mohammad Talib is Fellow in the Anthropology of Muslim Societies at the University of Oxford. Adeel Malik is the Globe Fellow in the Economies of Muslim Societies at the University of Oxford