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A new approach to studying religion and politics

MIT political scientist Richard Nielsen combines ethnography and big data to analyze clerics and preachers in the Islamic world.
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Caption: MIT political scientist Rich Nielsen studies the radicalization of Muslim clerics, with a particular interest in how women become leaders in a conservative religion.
Credits: Images: Gretchen Ertl

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Rich Nielsen
MIT political scientist Rich Nielsen studies the radicalization of Muslim clerics, with a particular interest in how women become leaders in a conservative religion.
Images: Gretchen Ertl

Associate Professor Richard Nielsen is an MIT political scientist with an innovative research program: He studies clerics in the Islamic world, combining textual analysis, ethnographic insights, on-the-ground research in the Middle East, and a big-data approach to charting online tracts.

This method has generated novel conclusions about religious doctrine and authority — although Nielsen, who has graduate degrees in both government and statistics and does his primary research in Arabic, downplays his versatility.

“I basically tell people that I’m not the best in the world at any of the things I do,” Nielsen says. “It’s just that there’s a real dearth of people who are trying to do all of them.”

Nielsen’s first book, “Deadly Clerics: Blocked Ambition and the Paths to Jihad,” published in 2017, drew praise for both its insights and methods. After scrutinizing the online writings of about 200 radical clerics, Nielsen concluded that a substantial portion of these clerics had come from academic backgrounds, but found their career paths blocked. Disenchanted, many became jihadists, preaching war against their perceived enemies.

Nielsen’s follow-up book project, in progress now, looks at authority in the Islamic world, with an increasing focus on women who have become online preachers.

“Most people don’t think of Islam as having female preachers,” Nielsen says. However, he notes, “They’re helping this movement expand. These people help reach new audiences on the Internet. So the question is … how do women gain authority in these conservative religious spaces?”

As with his first book, this project combines a close study of society with large-scale analysis of textual trends. Nielsen has refined many of those analytical techniques over time, and has published numerous papers about data and research methods as well. 

“The ethnographic type of approach is not often combined with the statistical approach,” Nielsen observes. “My personal view is that’s where a lot of scientific discovery happens, from people who are willing to try multiple things.”

For his research and teaching, Nielsen was granted tenure at MIT in 2020.

No place like home

Long before he became a professor, Nielsen spent some quality time at MIT. Nielsen’s father received a PhD in chemistry from MIT and lived in campus graduate housing along with his young family.

“It’s really a homecoming for me to be here, because my earliest memories are of living in Eastgate and Westgate [apartment buildings] as a toddler,” Nielsen says. Another memory: “The MIT boathouse master taking my mom and me out in one of the motorboats, which I thought was an amazing thing. They let me hold the steering wheel, and that’s the first thing I think I remember.”

After MIT, the Nielsen family moved around a bit. They lived in upstate New York and eventually San Jose, California, where Nielsen attended high school and became an avid surfer, finding some overlooked breaks on the Northern California coast.

Nielsen attended college at Brigham Young University, and after watching the terrorist attacks of September 2001 unfold on television became interested in studying the politics of the Islamic world. That alone might not have led him into academia. But one summer, when Nielsen was working part-time as a campus security guard, a professor of his stopped by a campus event, saw Nielsen monitoring the door, and asked him, “Would you like another job?”

That professor — Daniel Nielson, an expert in international politics — had a National Science Foundation grant to study foreign aid; he encouraged Nielsen to jump into serious research. By the time Nielsen graduated from college, he had presented work at conferences and helped co-author a paper that would be published in the American Journal of Political Science.

“That was a huge break for me, and really when I cut my teeth on research,” Nielsen says. “He [Nielson] gave me and a couple other people really meaningful opportunities.”

That also helped Nielsen get accepted into Harvard University for graduate school. Nielsen received a master’s degree in statistics in 2010 and his PhD in government in 2013. He made two trips to Egypt during his dissertation research, starting by grasping the dynamics of a prominent teaching mosque.

“On the ground, watching students interact with their teachers is where I had the core insight of my first book, that these people, who I had thought were so different from me, were really just students and professors,” Nielsen says. “The story I was hearing about the folks who got more extreme in their beliefs was that they weren’t making the connections they needed to, so they got frustrated, [leading to] more extreme religious and political beliefs. I took that insight which I’d had qualitatively, back to this very large corpus of [textual] data, and could confirm that pattern was indeed happening.”

Nielsen joined the MIT faculty in 2013; his dissertation research became the basis of “Deadly Clerics.”

Riding the waves

At the Institute, Nielsen teaches a range of graduate and undergraduate classes, and describes his students as “the sharpest” people imaginable.

“I teach a fairly large undergraduate class on introduction to international relations,” Nielsen says, “and every time I get up at the beginning, I say, ‘All of you are smarter than me, I’ve just been doing this for longer.’ And every time, it’s true.”

While teaching, Nielsen is continuing with the second book project, which was also helped by a prestigious Carnegie Foundation fellowship in 2017. Nielsen’s new work took shape in part because he noticed that some online female preachers had larger audiences than their male counterparts; those female preachers, Nielsen says, generate “a lot of positive reactions and fairly minimal negative reactions.”

Nielsen adds that there clearly is “a broader segment of the Islamic world that is interested in women’s authority. And I think that is because people do things on the internet that they would feel awkward about if meeting in public. … Women are asserting their authority to speak to women’s experiences and more generally to a broad Islamic experience that commenters are not aware of. I’m not saying this a bastion of classic liberal feminism. It isn’t. But I do think there are the seeds of new perspectives happening in the preaching of these women.”

If that were not enough, Nielsen is also working on an additional project, about female white nationalists in the U.S., analyzing some 15,000 videos to better understand how and why women join the movement.

“I love working on multiple projects,” Nielsen says. “I think it’s a creative stew for myself. And I’m really glad MIT sees the promise in the whole stew.”

When Nielsen is not teaching, doing research, or at home with his family, he is likely doing one other thing: surfing. Having learned to surf in California, Nielsen still seeks out good waves in Massachusetts. To this day, Nielsen says, surfing clears his mind of everyday worries, including the Covid-19 pandemic.

“During the shutdown it was almost the only reason I was leaving the house,” Nielsen says, adding: “It’s been my sanity outlet all the way through grad school, and the tenure track. … It’s one time when my mind stops thinking about work.”

And when he’s back on land, Nielsen recognizes how well his distinctive brand of political science fits the interdisciplinary ethos of the Institute he again calls home.

“MIT is a special place to me and has given me opportunities I couldn’t have imagined almost anywhere else,” Nielsen says.

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