Duke Professor to Discuss Role of Culture in Understanding Terrorism

Michael Munger, a Duke University professor of political science and economics, claims it is possible to understand terrorism as a rational phenomenon.

Munger will discuss the role of culture in understanding and combating terrorism at 4 p.m. Friday (Sept. 30) in 301 Shatzel Hall. His presentation is sponsored by the University’s Social Philosophy and Policy Center.

Culture, according to Munger, is the key to understanding why terrorist organizations attract recruits and why recruits act rationally in joining them. By the notion of culture, he means the set of inherited beliefs, attitudes and moral structures people use to distinguish outsiders, to understand themselves and to communicate with each other.

Munger argues that within the institutional setting in which they operate, terrorist militias are rational, optimizing responses to the incentives, expectations and constraints created by those institutions.

For example, he says that Islamic nations tend to be committed to an idea of the perfectibility of humans in societies through moral education and imposition and enforcement of moral law based on the Quran. In such settings, cooperation with an enemy, even if it results in mutual material benefit, may be nearly unthinkable.

In Munger’s view, the United States and its allies do not understand the value afforded by cultural obedience. As a result, they are likely to mischaracterize the situation they face and misunderstand the likely actions of opponents or even potential allies. And understanding how culture creates the conditions for terrorist recruitment matters greatly in determining the correct strategy to fight terrorism, he argues.

An important conclusion Munger draws from his analysis is that if participation in terrorist organizations is primarily an in-kind payment for access to goods such as protection and schools, then policies that reduce the value of such goods by breaking up social networks will be most effective.

For more information about the event, visit or contact Nico Maloberti at .


September 26, 2005