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February 28, 2008

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

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Comments

Reducing poverty won't diminish terrorism. But the United States making a concerted effort to reduce poverty will certainly help our image in the world, and that image is a key component of our ability to combat and control terrorism.

Shadi, poverty is party of the problem. That doesn't mean that terrorists come from the poorest levels of society, as you point out, but it means that educated middle and upper middle class people TAKE NOTE of the extreme poverty suffered by other people around them and are radicalized. In that sense, alleviating the poverty would give these people one less injustice to notice and would, in fact, reduce terrorism.

Good post Shadi.

And I agree with Mike M and Bob. There is a link, just not in the direct, causal way that Courtney Martin (no relation) sets forth.

It is unfortunate that such an issue as this (the link between poverty and terrorism) must become politicized. There is no reason not to try to eradicate poverty -- on both a national and a global scale -- except for fear of that awful spectre, the bogeyman of the right, "redistribution of wealth." Say that phrase in public and prepare to be called "communist."

Seeing a link between poverty and terrorism means seeing a failure in global, unregulated, laissez faire, "free-market" capitalism as it exists today. And so I think there is a concerted effort by those who do not wish for the system as it exists to be changed to stomp out any mention of the possibility of such a link.

Pope John Paul II saw a clear connection between poverty and terrorism. So does the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. So does Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And Mohammed Yunus. And Peter Munya. And John Edwards. And Barack Obama. Even Pervez Musharraf -- pushed into something of a corner these days -- has made the desperate acknowledgement that there is, indeed, a connection between poverty and terrorism.

What I think is most egregious about the denial of this connection is this: fighting poverty is in itself a noble and righteous act, and yet we don't seem to have the moral courage to do it. Acknowledging a link between povert and terrorism provides a very pragmatic and utilitarian impetus to the fight against poverty. I think it is sinful (in every sense of the word) to try to deny the reality of a phenomenon that would actually impel us toward right action -- finally.

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