The False Poverty-Terrorism Link
Posted by Shadi Hamid
Courtney Martin has an article well worth reading in yesterday's American Prospect. She poses the question
Why is it that we keep talking almost exclusively about suicide bombers and Orange Alerts, and totally ignoring the looming question of long term prevention? Why haven't we stopped to ask: What would enlightened national and even global security actually look like?
These are the right questions. But, unfortunately, her answers (or at least some of them) are off the mark. She makes the case for linking global economic insecurity and the war on terror, and hails Obama for his promises to cut extreme poverty in half within the next 7 years. It is unclear what this has to do with stopping terrorists from blowing things up. Yes, it is an intuitive thing to think that poverty is a main cause of terrorism - except, well, it isn't. In fact, extreme poverty probably has the opposite effect of actually making extremism and political violence less likely, all other things being equal. The poverty-terrorism hypothesis is well-meaning, but it clouds our understanding of what the fight against terrorism requires.
Extremism and terrorism have traditionally tended to be middle class and upper-middle class phenomenons. This was the case with communism, and it is the case today with Islamic radicalism. It's a complicated discussion, but, briefly, the main thing worth noting is that higher levels of education (a proxy for economic status) are linked to greater political awareness and perceived injustice at the state of affairs, which is what drives movements that require from their members a passionate commitment to a cause. It's not exactly an accident that universities are hotbeds of radicalism, and, sometimes, revolution.
The poor and destitute are consumed with the task of surviving on a day-to-day basis. A more comfortable economic situation makes it easier to to devote time to a political cause. (Again, it's not exactly an accident that the primary "producer" of terrorists-for-export in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, which enjoys one of the highest GDPs per capita in the region). There are other reasons, and the ones listed here are probably not very well-articulated. So, for more on the matter, take a look at Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova's 2003 study on the roots of terror (as well as Alan Krueger's book What Makes a Terrorist?). Another excellent place to start is Peter Bergen and Michael Lind's article in Democracy.