Poverty and Terrorism: Revisionist Perspectives


This text has been added to The New Centrist’s Reading List.


[an excellent post at Don’t Trip Up]

We Must Know the Why Before the How Can be Deduced

Tyler Cowen, in Marginal Revolution, references an intriguing new book by Alan Krueger on terrorism, What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism. The book’s homepage provides an overview:


Many popular ideas about terrorists and why they seek to harm us are fueled by falsehoods and misinformation. Leading politicians and scholars have argued that poverty and lack of education breed terrorism, despite the wealth of evidence showing that most terrorists come from middle-class, and often college-educated, backgrounds. In What Makes a Terrorist, Alan Krueger argues that if we are to correctly assess the root causes of terrorism and successfully address the threat, we must think more like economists do.

Krueger is an influential economist who has applied rigorous statistical analysis to a range of tough issues, from the minimum wage and education to the occurrence of hate crimes. In this book, he explains why our tactics in the fight against terrorism must be based on more than anecdote and speculation. Krueger closely examines the factors that motivate individuals to participate in terrorism, drawing inferences from terrorists’ own backgrounds and the economic, social, and political conditions in the societies from which they come.

He describes which countries are the most likely breeding grounds for terrorists, and which ones are most likely to be their targets. Krueger addresses the economic and psychological consequences of terrorism. He puts the terrorist threat squarely into perspective, revealing how our nation’s sizeable economy is diverse and resilient enough to withstand the comparatively limited effects of most terrorist strikes. And he calls on the media to be more responsible in reporting on terrorism.

Debunking the popular idea that poverty causes terrorism is surely the greatest achievement of Krueger, as it often forgotten that many terrorists (especially in the West) are well-educated and middle class. Cowen points out that despite its grand claims, the book still has a key failing:

My only complaint is that the book does not deliver on its title; it tells me what doesn’t make a terrorist, but I still don’t know what does make a terrorist.

Knowing what does not make a terrorist will surely help with deducing what does. It allows possibilities to be ruled out and alternatives investigated, stimulating research which might just discover what does make an individual turn to terror (if it is that simple). Cowen makes three good suggestions as to what might contribute:


My crude view sees terrorism as meshed with three factors:

1. The belief that it is justified to kill innocent people for sufficiently important political ends. Of course people who support the fighting of WWII hold this view too.

2. False positive beliefs about how the world works. Osama bin Laden probably doesn’t know the Alchian and Allen theorem, the make-work fallacy, the Heckscher-Ohlin results, nor does he realize that his Islamic Caliphate would not work very well.

3. Some third factor(s), rooted in human psychology.

I would certainly add to #3 a degree of detachment from the world, even sociopathy. For an individual to seek to rain destruction upon the world he lives in, he must feel let down and unfulfilled by that world. Callous indifference, a lack of remorse, deluded or irrational thoughts and egocentricity would be features found in many terrorists, to some degree. They are also the features of a psychopath.

[continue reading]

I’ve mentioned Krueger’s work on the Internet here and here. Many people (on the left in particular but not exclusively) still cling to the notion that poverty causes terrorism. I used to think the same way myself. But there is a lot of evidence to support the position that the real issues are ideological, not social. Many terrorists come from the middle-classes. Rather than (or in addition to) detachment from the world, I would add a large dose of dashed expectations rather than material deprivation that drives people to political extremism and political violence whether of the right, left or religious variety.

Whether Islamist groups like Al Queda, or secular terrorists such as ETA, PFLP, etc. many of these people come from the middle classes and quite a few of them have some level of post-secondary education. These are not the “masses” as is so often assumed. To simplify, these terrorists—whether religious or secular—have a vision of the “good life” that is not reflected in contemporary society i.e. reality. They are quite often educated people who have utopian expectations of their society that are not being met and they resort to violence to achieve their goals.

Walter Laquer, writing in Policy Review Online:

It is not too difficult to examine whether there is such a correlation between poverty and terrorism, and all the investigations have shown that this is not the case. The experts have maintained for a long time that poverty does not cause terrorism and prosperity does not cure it. In the world’s 50 poorest countries there is little or no terrorism. A study by scholars Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova reached the conclusion that the terrorists are not poor people and do not come from poor societies. A Harvard economist has shown that economic growth is closely related to a society’s ability to manage conflicts.

More recently, a study of India has demonstrated that terrorism in the subcontinent has occurred in the most prosperous (Punjab) and most egalitarian (Kashmir, with a poverty ratio of 3.5 compared with the national average of 26 percent) regions and that, on the other hand, the poorest regions such as North Bihar have been free of terrorism.

In the Arab countries (such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but also in North Africa), the terrorists originated not in the poorest and most neglected districts but hailed from places with concentrations of radical preachers. The backwardness, if any, was intellectual and cultural — not economic and social.

Poverty does not cause terrorism. In fact, in the poorest countries of the world–-with far greater debt-burdens than any of the Middle Eastern countries–-there is little or no terrorism. The majority of Islamist terrorists are educated men, they are not members of the lumpenproletariat.

In opposition to some realists, inluding Robert Page, I do not view terrorists as “rational actors”. In his most well-known book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Page argues that the political behavior of terrorists is similar to our own i.e. expressing oneself as a rational, utility-maximizing, individual.

Notions of rational self-interest and utility maximization do have strong and persuasive power, especially in regards to economic activity. But it is a major mistake to think that terrorists-people who are willing to kill themselves and others for a political cause-think like the rest of us.

Another problem of Page’s work is that it is too broad, lumping disparate episodes of terrorism together in an attempt to draw causal links between U.S. military policy and terrorism. Page contends, “The bottom line, then, is that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation.” (Dying to Win, 23):

Researching my book…[I found]..There is not the close connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that many people think. Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.

In focusing on the policies of the United States, and, by extension the West, Page fails to look at the internal, autonomous dynamics of Islamist terrorism. Page is not unique in this regard. Historian Efraim Karsh (Islamic Imperialism: A History) notes that this perspective is hegemonic in most departments of Middle East Studies in the United States and Europe:

Muslims, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, are merely objects-the long-suffering victims of the aggressive encroachments of others …This perspective dominated the widespread explanation of the 9/11 attacks as only a response to America’s (allegedly) arrogant and self-serving foreign policy, particularly with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Historical context matters. So does ideology, specifically the totalitarianism of the Islamists. To dismiss the desire for establishing a global caliphate as “pure fantasy” (Dying to Win, 244-245), really misses the point. All totalitarian ideologies share an element of dystopian fantasy. For more on this, have a look at Lee Harris’ Civilization and its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.
Karsh contends:

Hamas is neither the embodiment of pan-Arab aspirations nor of Palestinian self-determination. It is not a political movement for national liberation that contains an armed wing. Hamas has articulated the far broader goal of establishing a global Islamist empire. This is in line with it’s ideological parent organisation, “which viewed its violent opposition to Zionism from the 1930s and 1940s as an integral part of the Manichean struggle for the creation of a worldwide caliphate rather than the defence of the Palestinian Arabs’ national rights” (Islamic Imperialism, 213-4).

In Karsh’s final analysis:

Arab and Muslim anti-Americanism, have little to do with U.S. international behaviour or its Middle Eastern policy. America’s position as the pre-eminent world power blocks Arab and Islamic imperialist aspirations. As such, it is a natural target for aggression. Osama bin Laden’s … war is not against America per se, but is rather the most recent manifestation of the millenarian jihad for a universal Islamic empire (or umma) (234).

As is probably clear to most readers, the archival evidence is ultimately more convincing to me than Page’s explanation (blame the West).

An Ideological Struggle

Education is important. Just as important as the money is the type of education. In fact, it is more important. The Saudi government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on educational projects throughout the Islamic world. Unfortunately, rather than supporting a worldview of global prosperity through trade and intellectual interaction they support reactionary fundamentalism and global jihad.

The United States can and does donate money for educational projects in the Islamic world but how is that money spent and on what kinds of programs? In other words, once the resources are allocated, who determines where the resources are allocated? In most cases—except for the weakest of states—the national government We need to support educational projects that support the liberalization of the Islamic world. How can we support those liberalizing forces?

My point is these problems are much more intractable than curing smallpox or polio. We cannot solve them simply through increasing spending and promoting economic development. As during the Cold War we confront an ideological foe with imperial aspirations and one committed to our elimination. But, in agreement with Karsh, I do not view the contemporary struggle with radical Islamism as a “Clash of Civilizations.” At the moment, it is more a clash within Islamic civilization. After all, the vast majority of the victims of Islamist terrorism and state-violence are Muslims themselves.

2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Amanpour’s “God’s Jewish Warriors”: The Problem of Drawing Equivalencies between Mainstream and Marginal « The New Centrist

  2. Pingback: The Difference Between Hamas and the IRA « The New Centrist

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