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Poverty and extremism

November 06, 2011

THE plethora of studies of terrorist labour in Pakistan and elsewhere provide vague empirical assessments of links between education, poverty and other aspects of socio-economic status and popular support for terrorism.

Militancy is often an organisational phenomenon. Terrorist organisations in Pakistan may utilise Mesquita’s quality ‘game’ approach to indoctrinate and train their human resource, with young suicide attackers in Pakistan’s tribal belts being impoverished and under-educated. Organisations are constrained to use whatever human material is available.

Popular support for suicide in Afghanistan and Pakistan is low since it is considered sacrilegious. This is in contrast to Palestinian and Lebanese territories, where a correspondingly higher popular support for suicide attacks means that terrorist organisations are not supply-constrained. Thus, empirically examining just one variable other than poverty which can promote extremism, it is easy to see how different trajectories can affect the outcomes of variables in different theatres.

How, then, does one empirically correlate educational attainment and poverty with a tendency to become radical? During poor economic times, relatively better-qualified, better-educated individuals may add to the ranks of the unemployed. This decreases the opportunity costs for relatively accomplished individuals in participating in seeking simple solutions to complex problems, for example engaging in crime to relieve financial burdens or joining terrorist organisations.

While a lack of educational attainment is disruptive of economic mobility, educational attainment without comparable  employment opportunities is even more dangerous; expectations are raised which, if left unfulfilled, cause cognitive dissonance between the reality-expectation nexus.

It is important to remember at the outset that several layers of indoctrination and ideological permeations operate to make extremism a complex process, which should not be explained by the simplistic reliance on single variables. It is not within my ambit to correlate links in education and socioeconomic status with the supply of terrorist labour; I simply submit that the permeation of radical ideas amongst the poorer populations of Pakistan exposes them to extremism if certain other factors are present.

Contemporary literature review has tended to suggest that the post-9/11 presumed link between a reduction in poverty and an increase in educational attainment, and a simultaneous de-escalation of international terrorism, is quite tenuous. Recent profiles of terrorists suggest that the latter are not the stereotyped impoverished and uneducated youths as  generally presumed, but are the progeny of years of frustrated political aspirations and indignity.

Much scholarly research has been done in the quest for answers as to what produces terrorists; many theories have been put forward. These range from crime-related theories of terrorism as a rational choice model, homicide (and violent terrorism as a manifestation of it) as being de-coupled from economics, and the demand and supply of hatred.

Economic models which pertain to crime have also been applied to international terrorism. However, economic theories which interpolate terrorism as a variable, which could be defined by a rational economic choice model, have all tended to stray from the point that economics by itself cannot explain away terrorism; clearly more complex variables are needed.

Studies using hate crime as a determinant of economic conjugation of terrorism with poverty also tended to come up with findings which indicate a de-coupling of the two factors mentioned above. Researchers Jefferson and Pryor concluded that “[E]conomic or sociological explanations for the existence of hate groups in an area are far less important than adventitious circumstances due to history and particular conditions”. These projections support Lerner’s classic hypothesis that the “the extremists are not simply the ‘have-nots,’ suggesting rather that they are the ‘want-mores’”. Lerner has also hypothesised that “poverty prevails only among the apolitical mass”.

A simplistic rational choice model of terrorism for economically deprived, uneducated individuals does not even apply unambiguously to the most extreme form of terrorist: the suicide bomber. According to Nussra Hassan’s seminal study, “None of them [Palestinian suicide bombers] were uneducated, desperately poor, simple-minded or depressed. Many were middle-class and, unless they were fugitives, held paying jobs”.

These results resonate well with Berrebi’s econometric models of Palestinian suicide bombers; the study concluded that the bombers tended to have a higher high school and college attendance average than the general Palestinian population, and were less likely to come from poverty-stricken families.

Studies utilising a broad-based sample representative of many different cultures and terrorist organisations have also tended to project little direct relationship between terrorism and poverty. US researchers Krueger and Maleckova postulate that terrorism is primarily a political, rather than an economic phenomenon.

It has been suggested that whilst linkages between poverty and militancy have not been demonstrated conclusively in the case of the Islamist leadership or elite, poverty and illiteracy may still be important factors in the motivations of the ranks and file of radical organisations. It has also been argued that militancy evolves in a conjunctional environment of many factors particular to a specific region or ideology, and thus needs to be studied at sub-national rather than international levels.

However, some studies suggest the opposite: that poverty is indeed a significant predictor of terrorist activity. The definitive nuances between religious conservatism, political Islamism and radical Islamist militancy also need to be contextualised.Lipset has pointed to several mechanisms by which poor people are prone to joining militant movements. The factors he points out are a low level of education, which tends to promote a simplified worldview of politics, and an uncompromising nature due to economic insecurity, which leads to a heightened state of stimulus to perceived disturbing events.

This insecurity leads to a search for immediate solutions to problems, including taking up arms. Lipset also postulates that impoverished people are isolated from the activities and controversies of society at large, which effectively cocoons them from the intricacies of political problems.

This also has deleterious effects on acquiring a spirit of tolerance. The lack of tolerance and the propensity to look for short cuts to politically intricate problems promotes a worldview within which ideologies, especially dogmatic ideologies which tend to provide simplistic revivalist philosophies, manifest themselves amongst other ways in radicalisation.

The writer is a security analyst.