Superfluous young men

You get six minutes at the Herzliya Conference to say something memorable (and there is a clock ticking away at your feet, facing the audience). So I made a memorable argument for the role of population growth in radicalization, a clip of which is embedded below. It’s memorable—but not at all original. I first encountered the idea (and the phrase “superfluous young men”) in the stimulating work of Gunnar Heinsohn (here is one example of many). My discussion of the Palestinian angle isn’t original either. See Heinsohn’s “Ending the West’s Proxy War Against Israel: Stop funding a Palestinian youth bulge, and the fighting will stop too” (here).

There is also one error in my popularized recycling of his thesis. Heinsohn’s rule of thumb is that when 30 percent or more of the total male population is between 15-29 (fighting age), violence ensues. In my talk, I added that I would put it higher, at 40 percent. But that 40 percent should be of the total adult male population (15-64). I doubt that in any of the countries of the region, the 15-29 range accounts for 40 percent of total male population. Heinsohn is right.

An excellent compendium of demographic data on age structure in the Middle East, and a valuable discussion of it, may be found in the Stanford Center for Longevity’s “Critical Demographics of the Greater Middle East: A New Lens for Understanding Regional Issues” (here).

Update, February 22: See my rejoinder to critics of this presentation. It’s entitled “Smear Intifada.”

Update, February 23: The directors of the Weatherhead Center at Harvard: “Accusations have been made that Martin Kramer’s statements are genocidal. These accusations are baseless.” Full text here.

Update, 2018: Read “A Controversy at Harvard,” my retrospective on this affair.

Text of speech as delivered: I’m going to try to pull the focus back a bit. Our panel title implies that indoctrination is the key to radicalism. If we could shut down the jihadi websites and silence the radical preachers, if we could get the Saudis to stop funding extremists and fix the textbooks, the radical fever would subside.

But there are other views. There are those who say that the heart of the problem is despotic governments. If there were more democracy, and less Western backing for kings, emirs, and presidents for life, the radical fever would subside.

Others say that the heart of the problem is America’s unconditional support for Israel, and U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the U.S. were to take its armies out of these lands, if the U.S. were to force Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory, the radical fever would subside.

Now as between these three explanations, you might prefer one to another. I myself have had a running debate with people who think that anger at Israel drives Al Qaeda or recruitment to Al Qaeda. Typical is this view, expressed last week, by a noted, prominent analyst: “We can separate Al Qaeda from the vast majority of Muslims by advancing a just and lasting peace that Palestinians accept.” I don’t know what the Palestinians would accept, and I think the vast majority of Muslims are already separated from Al Qaeda. But in places like Yemen and Afghanistan and Somalia, where Al Qaeda is most deeply entrenched, a “just and lasting” peace for the Palestinians wouldn’t make a shred of difference.

But the indoctrination explanation and the lack-of-democracy explanation also underestimate the problem, by suggesting that our policies can go far to change the dynamic. They can’t, and let me explain why.

The societies in which radicalism thrives differ from ours in many ways, but one way is crucial. The median age in Germany is 44, in the United Kingdom it is 40. In the United States, it is 37. In Israel, it is 29, in Turkey it is 28. That’s for perspective. In Iraq, it is 19. In Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Gaza, the median age is 17. Where the median age drops below 20, Islamist radicalization takes place on a massive scale. The biggest radicalizer is fertility that hovers at 6 or 7, and masses of economically superfluous young men of fighting age, between 15 and 29.

A German demographer, Gunnar Heinsohn, has a rule of thumb, that when 15- to 29-year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population, violence ensues. I would put it higher, at 40 percent—which is exactly where it stands in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Gaza. If the state can’t control these young men, someone else will; if society can’t offer dignified pursuits for the fourth and fifth and sixth sons, someone else will. And it isn’t just the frustration of poverty; it is just as much the shortage of status. Osama bin Laden lacked for nothing, but his father, Saudi Arabia’s biggest contractor, married 22 times and had about 55 children. Osama was number 17. Radical Islam is a way for the superfluous sons to enter history.

So radical Islam answers a demand among frustrated young men, it doesn’t create it. How should that affect the West’s approach to the problem? First, let us not delude ourselves about the prospects of counterradicalization techniques. Afghanistan and Yemen will almost double their populations between now and 2030. What will 28 million more Afghans and 20 million more Yemenis do? What about the nearly 80 million more Pakistanis who will be added by 2030? This explosive growth will drive radicalization through another generation at least, and push it into Europe and America through emigration.

Second, there is hope. By 2030, these societies will have passed through the youth bulge. Fertility is already falling, in some places steeply. And when it falls, the radicals will lose their pool of recruits. A present example is Iran, where a revolt is brewing against the agenda of Ahmadinejad and the hardliners. It is also a place where fertility has dropped from 7 to below replacement, below 2—as steep a drop as China’s. Aging populations reject radical agendas, and the Middle East is no different.

Now eventually, this will happen among the Palestinians too, but it will happen faster if the West stops providing pro-natal subsidies for Palestinians with refugee status. Those subsidies are one reason why, in the ten years from 1997 to 2007, Gaza’s population grew by an astonishing 40 percent. At that rate, Gaza’s population will double by 2030, to three million. Israel’s present sanctions on Gaza have a political aim—undermine the Hamas regime—but if they also break Gaza’s runaway population growth—and there is some evidence that they have—that might begin to crack the culture of martyrdom which demands a constant supply of superfluous young men. That is rising to the real challenge of radical indoctrination, and treating it at its root.