Winter 2008

Poverty is not the root cause of Islamist terrorism

– Walter Reich

“As a group,” Krueger notes, “terrorists are better educated and from wealthier families than the typical person in the same age group of the societies from which they originate.”

The belief that poverty is a root cause of Islamist terrorism has been thoroughly discredited. Numerous studies of terrorism have debunked the notion. Islamist terrorists themselves, as well as those who live among them and know them well, have repeatedly attributed Islamist terrorism primarily to religious and ideological motivations and to the logic ­that—­against America and the ­West—­terrorism is used because it works. As Abdel Aziz ­Rantisi—­a Hamas leader until he was assassinated by the ­Israelis—­said of suicide bombing, “It is the most effective strategy for us. For us it is the same as their F-16.”

Somehow, though, the idea that poverty is the culprit refuses to die. Journalists, academics, opinion makers, terrorism experts, and Nobel Prize winners (including those recognized for economics and peace) repeat it, as have U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair. Imbued with this belief, leaders are inclined to launch or support ­anti­-poverty policies that do little or nothing to stop ­terrorism.

Fortunately, in one small book, Alan B. Krueger, a Princeton economist, has collected much of the evidence that demolishes this argument. In What Makes a Terrorist, he performs a ­much-needed act of intellectual hygiene. Some of the evidence Krueger cites is based on examinations of the biographies of terrorists, as well as public polls and sophisticated economic analyses. A number of studies were carried out by Krueger and his ­colleagues.

It turns out that members of Islamist terrorist ­groups—­Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, etc.—tend to be from relatively privileged backgrounds. “As a group,” Krueger notes, “terrorists are better educated and from wealthier families than the typical person in the same age group of the societies from which they originate.” For example, one study compared 48 Palestinian suicide bombers from Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad with 18,803 fellow Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and found that the bombers were less than half as likely as the general population to come from families below the poverty line, and that “almost 60 percent of the suicide bombers had more than a high school degree, compared to less than 15 percent of the general population.”

The same general pattern holds for terror’s most avid supporters. Opinion polls, Krueger notes, show that “the ­best-­educated members of society and those in ­higher-­paying occupations are often more radicalized and supportive of terrorism than the most disadvantaged. The illiterate, underemployed population is often unwilling to express an opinion about policy issues, probably because they have more pressing matters on their minds.” If anything, it has been the lack of civil liberties in their societies, rather than excessive poverty, that has helped foster terrorism.

Krueger concedes the possibility that ­well-­to-­do terrorists are motivated by the poverty and deprivation that bedevil their societies. But he is skeptical: “A range of socioeconomic ­indicators—­including illiteracy, infant mortality, and gross domestic product per ­capita—­are unrelated to whether people become involved in terrorism.” Besides, if poverty breeds terrorism against the West, why isn’t it being carried out by people from places much poorer than many countries in the Muslim ­world—­large swaths of ­sub-Saharan Africa, for example?

We shouldn’t need Krueger’s book to be persuaded of his conclusions. Arab writers have been making similar arguments for years. Saudi commentator Muhammad Mahfouz, for example, has argued that religious teachings inciting violence, rather than poverty, are the main cause of terrorism among Saudi youth. “These youths,” he writes, “were brought up in a special cultural atmosphere which finds its roots in a stereotyped understanding of religion. This understanding serves as a basic incubator to this group.”

Maybe a distinguished economist, surveying reams of ­social-scientific studies, will finally succeed in convincing Western opinion leaders, many of whom don’t consult Arab sources, of this truth. Perhaps they’ll read Krueger’s book and understand that if terrorism has identifiable root causes, they’re the ones most frequently cited by Islamists ­themselves—­the desire to achieve what terrorists see as holy ends, and the conviction that, in the service of these ends, terrorism works.

I fear, though, that despite Krueger’s definitive and persuasive book, conventional wisdom and wishful thinking will keep alive the idea that poverty causes terrorism. Intellectual hygiene is an honorable enterprise but, alas, often ­unsuccessful—­especially in a world in which familiar, easy, and hopeful explanations that leave us thinking the problem has a ready solution are preferred to explanations that leave us feeling vexed, powerless, and perpetually ­afraid.

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Reviewed: What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism. By Alan B. Krueger. Princeton Univ. Press. 180 pp.

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