Friday, April 25, 2008

Crisis, Religious Intensity, and Violence

I want to know, using the method that I know --in case you don't know, it's economics--, why there seems to be a rise in urban Islam fundamentalism after the crisis in Indonesia, that at times sparks social violence. And I come across two papers of this very interesting, yet under-appreciated, economist, Daniel Chen of Harvard.

He wrote (in pdf) that:
Empirically, I demonstrate economic distress stimulates religious intensity by exploiting the fact that rapid inflation caused relative prices to favor growers of staples, namely rice, and hurt sticky wage-earners, particularly government employees, whose salaries are set by federal law. I find that households experiencing a $1 decline in monthly per-capita nonfood expenditures are 2% more likely to increase Koran study and 1% more likely to switch a child to Islamic school. Moreover, participation in other social activities did not increase while labor supply increased, which seems inconsistent with an opportunity cost view of religious intensity.

Instead, using a difference-in-differences strategy, I show that households that increased Pengajian during the crisis have less unmet demand for alms and credit for meeting basic daily needs in the following time period. The effect of economic distress on religious intensity essentially disappears in places where credit is available. And religious institutions appear to facilitate consumption smoothing among villagers, suggesting religious intensity functions as ex-post social insurance.
And here is (in another pdf) the catch-22.
I present an analysis of data from the Hundred Villages Survey and data from the Database on Social Violence in Indonesia 1990-2001. OLS estimates show a large positive relationship between religious intensity and social violence. Because most religious intensity measures are relatively time-invariant and are pre-crisis measures and because villages are unlikely to
build schools, seminaries, or religious buildings in anticipation of social violence, reverse causality is unlikely to explain this association. In fact, a strong relationship between pre-crisis measures of religious intensity and social violence begins after the crisis. In addition, stronger forms of religious intensity are more strongly associated with violence.
These two papers are worth to read completely (skip the math, if you want). And by the way, back to my initial question, on why it is more urban than rural extremism that we observed lately, the first sentence of the first quote partly tells it: economics distress hit the sticky wage earners, the urban feature, more severely.

p/s: you should see the syllabus of his teaching, too


  1. That's a lot of number crunching to get a 2% effect. Here is a paper that finds "fundamentalims" (in this case evangelicals in US) rise during economic downturn and mainstream Protestants thrive during economic boom.

    I don't think you can use Chen's argument to demonstrate the rise of fundamentalism, especially urban. He uses pengajian to denote religious intensity, which is fine. But I don't think it's fair to use pengajian to denote fundamentalism.

    Pengajian, especially among workers in office setting and housewives in dense neighborhood, is more mainstream than evangelical activities in US. In Indonesia, holding a pengajian in your office or asking your neighbor to come to a pengajian at your place is common. If you're a Christian in US and you try to do that, some of your Christian office mate and your neighbors will look at you differently.

    Being mainstream also means peer pressure to attend pengajian is greater.

  2. Aria, I agree that the variable of pengajian is problematic, but perhaps that's the best available information we have. It's subject for further research to be picked up, I guess

    I also agree that religious intensity doesn't always mean extremism or fundamentalism. But the second paper shows that there is large positive relationship between religious intensity and social violence.

  3. interesting stuff, i been curious on this. also share Aria's concern for pengajian as measure, but will read the paper first. or try to.