Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Demography of Islamic Extremism

The size of any population is determined by births, deaths, immigrations and emigrations.

Change in population= Births-Deaths+Immigrations-Emigrations.

This is one of the first facts mentioned in any class or text on demography, and is so obvious that we often simply take it for granted. But like many concepts which are obvious in context, this can be easily forgotten.

I am thinking here particularly of the population President Obama refers to as "Islamic Extremists." What determines the global population of these extremists? We can assume that no one is born as a violent extremist, so it isn't births. The Bush administration tended to assume the population of extremists was a declining stock, whose numbers would be determined primarily through deaths. We saw how well that worked out. What the Obama folks seem to understand, and what I believe to be the goal of much of the US's redirected foreign policy and rhetoric, is that the number of violent extremists in the world is determined primarily through immigration (recruitment) and emigration (defections, retirements, going homes, laying down of arms).

Let's assume, again that no one is born a violent extremist. Let's further assume that 1% of the world's 1.5 Billion Muslims have the backgrounds and personality traits such that the proper circumstances could push them to violent extremism. We estimate 15 Million potential extremists. What proportion of those will turn to violent extremism at any one time? The answer is clearly a very small. Depending on how we define our terms, maybe there are 150,000 violent Islamic extremists in the world today. That is if we add together the Taliban forces, al Qaeda, al Shabab, Hamas fighters, Hezbolah fighters and so forth. It is a rough estimate, but will do for now. We estimate that 1% of 1% of the worlds' Muslims are violent extremists.

What if, instead of 1% of potential extremists becoming actual extremists, 2% were? Then we double the number of extremists, to 300,000. If only 0.5% of those with the potential for extremism experienced circumstances causing them to act on that potential? Then we have 75,000 extremists, and our problem of eliminating extremists is half solved.

Nothing the US does is going to kill 75 thousand extremists, or 150 thousand extremists. Not that the US military isn't still trying to kill as many violent extremists as possible, but we seem to kill maybe five thousand a year, if we are lucky. Let's look again at our equation and start plugging numbers into it.

Change in population= Births-Deaths+Immigrations-Emigrations.
Change in population= 0-5000+Immigrations-Emigrations.

Let's plug in numbers for the two scenarios we outlined above.

Change in population= 0-5000+150,000=145,000
Change in population= 0-5000-75,000= -80,000

The number of extremists killed is largely irrelevant in these two scenarios. If we kill 15,000 instead of 5,000, we end up with
Change in population= 135,000 or -90,000

The potential fluxes through immigration and emigration are just so much bigger than the number we kill. Nor are these numbers necessarily independent. One can easily imagine that if brother A has the capacity to be a violent extremist, brother B is more likely than average to have the same capacity. Killing A may increase deaths by one, but it may also increase immigrations by one. If there is a brother C, it may increase immigrations by two.

The point of all this is to say that the most effective way to manage the population of violent extremists is decrease their recruiting and increase the number of their colleagues who go home. Killing them is useful in limiting the damage they can do, reducing their moral and providing alternative opportunities to those who could join them. But the number killed is far less important than the effect that that killing has on recruiting and defections.

I could get into a long discussion of what I think will ultimately influence that (Immigration-Emigration) term, but I won't, as that would stray too far from anything I have any scientific basis for considering. Rather I will simply say that I think the US government has finally caught on that the conditions determining (Immigration-Emigration) are far more important than the number killed, and I think this is a key insight.

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