Terrorism and poverty: Debunking the link
Readers of The Economist will have noticed a recent article exploring the purported link between radical Islamist terrorism and poverty and underdevelopment. Only those who have not been paying attention will be surprised by the resulting resounding rejection of the proposition that “If acts of terror are committed by people with little to lose, then it is reasonable to expect them to be carried out disproportionately by poor, ill-educated people with dismal economic prospects.”
But in fact radical Islamic terrorists are drawn disproportionately from better developed countries in the Islamic world (we are recall that the lion’s share of the 9-11 bombers were middle-class Saudi citizens, and Saudi Arabia ranks 31st in the world income tables according to the World Bank, and 39th according to the IMF. Recent attackers who have attracted a lot of attention include the recent Stockholm bomber, who largely grew up in Sweden and had a degree from a British university. One recent alleged Canadian terrorist had largely grown up in Canada and appeared on Canadian Idol. The famous “underwear bomber” is the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker. The Times Square bomber, Faisal Shehzad has an MBA and comes from the family of a senior Pakistani military officer.
Of course all this may be unrepresentative anecdote. But in fact the empirical evidence backs up the view that such authors of terror acts are drawn disproportionately from the educated and the comfortable, not from the immiserated.
The Economist article cites numerous studies (see e.g. this and this) by social scientists analysing the link between education, income and terrorist acts. Interestingly, trained engineers appear to be one of the most highly represented groups among the ranks of terrorists, a topic deserving a separate treatment. I always knew engineers were weird (-;
Public opinion polling drives home the point about income, education and terrorism by revealing that in several Muslim countries surveyed by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the belief that terrorist bombings of Western targets was justified followed education levels – on the whole, the lower the level of education, the lower the share of people believing such attacks were justified and vice versa.
The article also points out that it may be easier to recruit well-off and educated people into terrorism when economic conditions are poor, so there may be some tenuous and indirect link between such terrorist acts and economic conditions, but we must remember that many of the terrorist acts that have been observed in the past 15 years or so were carried out by people whose personal economic conditions were quite respectable, and the acts were committed during a time when economic conditions in their home countries were not unusual, or were even prosperous, so the argument that they were easier to recruit because of economic conditions is at best a supplementary explanation, and not the main one.
So the reality is that it is the relatively well-off and the relatively well-educated who are attracted to terrorism, and therefore their acts cannot be understood as ones of economic desperation or despair. In fact they are far more credibly understood as acts of ideology, symbolism and values.
There is a lot of evidence (starting with Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs) that as people’s income rises, the things they desire become quite different. When you are poor and starving, effort is directed toward filling your belly with whatever is cheapest and available. As you become wealthier, the focus shifts from the pure calories need to sustain life to eating the kind of foods that indicate what kind of person you are or aspire to be. As income levels rise throughout the world, then, so do levels of meat consumption. But we in the West have long since passed that level and have reached the level of wealth and self-indulgence that we can afford to obsess about our food’s carbon footprint and many more people find themselves wrestling with the moral implications of eating animals.
Ditto for our transportation. As we move up the income gradient, we move from shank’s mare (i.e. walking), to primitive carts drawn by people or beasts of burden, to bicycles, to basic cars, to luxury vehicles and now, in the West especially, to worrying about the moral consequences of consumption or production of greenhouse gases.
The same discussion could be had about the kind of education we choose, how we dress and groom ourselves, the music we listen to and the toys we play with.
In every case the progression isn’t merely from one form of satisfying a basic human desire to another. Each new level of advance comes freighted with an ever greater symbolic significance, each choice becomes increasingly dominated by considerations of what kind of person we wish to present ourselves as to the world, our choices become more informed by our values.
My view is that the poor cannot afford the luxury of a death for its ideological or symbolic value. Their families are often far too dependent on them for the meagre contribution each can make to survival.
So the intellectual and practical dilemma we face in the West when confronted with radical Islamist terrorism is how to combat a value system that for a significant minority becomes a death cult, and celebrates the destruction of Westerners and their institutions as a symbol of “having arrived” as a person.
Brian lee Crowley
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