Gangland slayings in the Palestinian territories this week have pitted the Islamist gunmen of Hamas against the secular forces of Fatah. The killings defy civilised norms: in December even children were targeted for murder. But the killings also defy political common sense. Ariel Sharon’s wall cuts terrorists off from Israeli targets and what happens? The violence – previously justified with the cause of a Palestinian homeland – continues as if nothing had changed, merely finding its outlet in a new set of targets. This makes it appear that Palestinian violence has never really been about a “cause” at all. The violence is, in a strange way, about itself.
Gunnar Heinsohn, a social scientist and genocide researcher at the University of Bremen, has an explanation for why this might be so. Since its publication in 2003, his eccentric and eye-opening Sons and World Power* (not available in English) has become something of a cult book. In Mr Heinsohn’s view, when 15 to 29-year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population, violence tends to happen; when large percentages are under 15, violence is often imminent. The “causes” in the name of which that violence is committed can be immaterial. There are 67 countries in the world with such “youth bulges” now and 60 of them are undergoing some kind of civil war or mass killing.
Mr Heinsohn’s theory accounts for the way “idealistic” wars of national liberation can shift imperceptibly into “pointless” civil wars – as in Ireland 90 years ago or in Africa after decolonisation or in Latin America in the 1980s or in Palestine in recent months. In a broader historical perspective, it explains how a half-dozen fast-growing European countries gradually seized control of almost the entire known world after 1485 and why the fast-growing North American colonies revolted in the 1770s, using as a pretext their “rather silly outrage over taxation without parliamentary representation in London”.
If you follow this argument to its logical end point, then the religion of Islam, the focus of so much contemporary strategic discussion, is a great red herring. Islamic countries are certainly growing in importance. They will make up a quarter of the world a decade from now. Of the 27 biggest youth-bulge nations, 13 are Muslim. But if there is a clash between civilisations, it is not a civilisational clash. Religion can be a convenient rationalisation for violent people who do not want to think of themselves as conventional criminals, but this problem is not unique to Islam. In the New World 500 years ago, Mr Heinsohn notes, Spanish conquistadores, too, bowed down and prayed before carrying out slaughters.
Wow. This theory is parsimonious, it has huge explanatory power (its predictive power, of course, is yet to be tested), but we have no idea why it’s true. It’s a lot like the democratic peace theory: a fascinating and important empirical observation in need of an explanation. And this author, as fascinating as his research is, does not provide one. The fact that this only affects men and not women points to an evolutionary psychological root. But it could just be that a high concentration of young men is heavily correlated with other, more salient variables. In any case, more research is needed, but this may be a promising field of inquiry for international relations theorists.