The poverty-terrorism link

Shadi Hamid, of Democracy Arsenal, criticises the attempts to tackle terrorism which link it to poverty:

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.

I agree broadly with what Hamid is saying: if it were possible to remove poverty completely there would still be something we could call ‘terrorism’. But this is why there needs to be a distinction between so-called ‘international terrorism’ and ‘domestic terrorism’ as noted by a commentator at Eteraz’s blog:

Maybe we need to distinguish between international and domestic terrorism; the former requires more sophistication and skills that are likely to be correlated to education and wealth. Domestic terrorism, like hurling grenades into open markets in Karachi, don’t… poor, unemployed madrassa students make for able recruits. In Pakistan, jihad, state-sanctioned before, is now becoming privatised – a tempting source of income for a martyr-wannabe and his family. A university graduate may have more political awareness, but an unemployed young man has more time, need and bitterness enough to “terrorize.”

Clearly, there is a difference between someone who is British born, university educated and with a full-time job, and someone who grew up in a refugee camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border or under foreign and/or illegal occupation where there is widespread breakdown in law and order. Take a look at the news report I linked to earlier regarding terrorism and extremism in Iraq:

[A]t least part of the religious violence in Baghdad had money at its heart. An officer at the Kadhimiya detention center, where Muath was being held last fall, said recordings of beheadings fetched much higher prices than those of shooting executions in the CD markets, which explains why even nonreligious kidnappers will behead hostages.

“The terrorist loves the money,” said Capt. Omar, a prison worker who did not want to be identified by his full name. “The money has big magic. I give him $10,000 to do small thing. You think he refuse?”

So, while merely combating poverty is not enough, doing so should be part of a multi-pronged approach.


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