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The roots of terrorism

Updated Mar 03, 2016 07:45am


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A CURSORY analysis of the START Global Terrorism Database reveals that over the past decade, Pakistan has had the highest number of terrorism-related deaths in the world.

In fact, the death toll exceeds the combined terrorism-related deaths for both Europe and North America. Hence, an understanding of terrorism, its dynamics, its causes, the reasons for its escalation and de-escalation is of utmost importance to Pakistan.

Unfortunately, policymakers, academics and politicians in Pakistan increasingly rely on speculation and their intuition alone to deal with this menace. The purpose of this article is to dispel the myth that reforms in education and economic growth alone will bring down terrorism levels.

Most certainly, education and growth policies should be pursued in their own right, but to expect that these policies will reduce terrorism is based on pure conjecture. A myriad of studies go against the “conventional wisdom” view of terrorism. The story goes that it is those poor, young, illiterate and brainwashed teens who have nothing to live for that turn to terrorism. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Linking unemployment with crime and explaining optimal punishment designs had won Gary Becker the Nobel Prize in economics. He showed that criminals “rationally” decide to perpetrate crimes given the probability of getting caught and the severity of possible punishment. He further found that high unemployment and poverty rates are related closely to higher crime rates.

Hence, in a study of terrorism it was natural to study whether a high degree of impoverishment increased terrorism levels. This belief was shared by world leaders and top academics. For example, former US president George Bush argued: “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.”

Similarly, Jessica Stern of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government notes: “(The United States) can no longer afford to allow states to fail … new Osamas will continue to rise.” These views were shared by others such as Bill Clinton, King Abdullah of Jordan, the archbishop of Canterbury and Tony Blair.

Nevertheless, to the frustration of many academics, the simple positive relationship between poverty and (material) crime could not be extrapolated to a positive structural relationship between poverty and terrorism.

Not a single study could make a cogent case that terrorism had economic roots. This lack of evidence culminated in a recent review of the literature by Martin Gassebner and Simon Luechinger of the KOF Swiss Economic Institute.

The authors estimated 13.4 million different equations, drew on 43 different studies and 65 correlates of terrorism to conclude that higher levels of poverty and illiteracy are not associated with greater terrorism. In fact, only the lack of civil liberties and high population growth could predict high terrorism levels accurately.

So does this relation also hold for Pakistan? It appears so. Christine Fair from Georgetown University documents a similar phenomenon for Pakistan. By utilising data on 141 killed militants, she finds that militants in Pakistan are recruited from middle-class and well-educated families. This is further corroborated by Graeme Blair and others at Princeton University.

They too find evidence of a higher support base of terrorism from those who are relatively wealthy in Pakistan. In a robust survey of 6,000 individuals across Pakistan, it is found that the poor are actually 23 times more averse to extremist violence relative to middle-class citizens.

My own work too comes to a similar conclusion. Exploiting the econometric concept of Granger causality and drawing on data from 1973-2010 in Pakistan, I document a one-way causality running from terrorism to GDP, investments and exports.

The results indicated that higher incidence of terrorism reduced GDP, investments and exports. However, higher GDP, exports and investment did not reduce terrorism. The bottom line: when the economy was not doing well, terrorism did not increase and vice versa.

In the present context the Granger causality test ascertains what consistently happens first i.e. do high incomes reduce terrorism in the future rather than higher terrorism reducing incomes in the future and vice versa?

Alan Krueger from Princeton University seems to have an explanation for this “counter-intuitive” phenomenon. After analysing extensive micro- and macro-level data, he too concludes that in fact terrorists are relatively more educated and are recruited from wealthier families.

But he observes another pattern in data: a systematic relationship between political oppression and higher incidence of terrorism.

He relates terrorism to voting behaviour and concludes that terrorism is a “political, not an economic phenomenon”. He defends his results by arguing at length that political involvement requires some understanding of the issues and learning about those issues is a less costly endeavour for those who are better educated.

Just as the more educated are more likely to vote, similarly they are more likely to politically express themselves through terrorism. Hence, political oppression drives people towards terrorism.

To understand what causes terrorism, one need not ask how much of a population is illiterate or in abject poverty. Rather one should ask who holds strong enough political views to impose them through terrorism.

It is not that most terrorists have nothing to live for. Far from it, they are the high-ability and educated political people who so vehemently believe in a cause that they are willing to die for it. The solution to terrorism is not more growth but more freedom.

The writer is an advisor to the Dutch government on macroeconomic policy. His research interests include dynamics of terrorism.

Twitter: @mrsultan713

Comments (19) Closed

ahmed41 Mar 18, 2013 04:07am
"----It is not that most terrorists have nothing to live for. Far from it, they are the high-ability and educated political people who so vehemently believe in a cause that they are willing to die for it. The solution to terrorism is not more growth but more freedom.__" The article has its great points~~~~BUT, it has to tell us more about this magic bullet called " FREDOM" WHat type of freedom is needed to avoid encouraging terrorism ? The article is incomplete on this *freedom* aspect !!!!!!
khanm Mar 18, 2013 05:45am
The main cause of terrorism in Pakistan is Zia ul Haq and his legacy. Think twice before you leap. not to blindly follow our mentors. Hope one day we will realize the follies and would not repeat the same mistake again but then again Hope is the only bee that makes honey without flowers
pathanoo Mar 18, 2013 06:48am
Excuse me. But isn't terrorism a far more bigger problem is Muslim countries? And, is it not in the name of the Muslim religion? Why is there no discussion of intolerant strain in Islam and blind and fearful submission to it as imposed by the Mullahas. Do these have an impact? There is no, NOT A SINGLE ONE, Non-Musliim country in the world which has a one Thousandths of religion based terrorism problem compared to the Muslim countries. When would the Muslim journalists and scholars stop ignoring the elephant in the house of Islam? I don't mean to suggest that it is the only cause of terrorism in the Muslim countries but it is a substantial contributor to terrorism.
Ann Mar 18, 2013 06:57am
Very insightful article but fails to answer the question it poses - what precisely is the root of terrorism?
Feroz Mar 18, 2013 07:13am
Excellent article ! I have repeatedly said that Education and Poverty do not adequately explain the growth of Terrorism. While Terrorism through the ages was associated with Political demands, the current Terrorism is strictly Religion based with followers wanting to use religion by injecting it into Politics and the political structure. The demands of this kind of Terrorism is that it impinges and infringes on the Civil and Human Rights of the population and like a Cancer destroys society, taking a heavy toll on innocent lives in the process. The use of Religion as a tool to try and control people, stop their empowerment and use it for Power grab is dangerous. It is dangerous because it acts as an opiate to create illusion and delusion and derail the process of rational thinking.
Rai Mar 18, 2013 08:04am
Interesting article with food for some thought. The 2012 UN human development index puts both Pakistan and Bangladesh level at rank 146 with India only marginally better on 136.
Raoul Ciao Mar 18, 2013 08:37am
the last line is just mentions that "...not growth but freedom..." is the key to reduction in terror. In Pakistan, the issue is that the religious freedom is not guarded - religious freedom for the majority is unbridled to the extent of misusing blasphemy laws and killing those of other religions/sects..... and that the Courts, the Intelligentsia, the Middle Class which produces the maximum terrorists, all live in denial of this fact. Religious lack of freedom stalks Pakistan in the garb of a narrow interpretation, preferably Arabic led, of the majority Sunni sect Islam. Nothing will change till this is NOT addressed. Till religion is removed fro public life and public office and the business of government. And made a private matter.
Leo Mar 18, 2013 08:57am
We knew it all along ...
MSAlvi Mar 18, 2013 09:31am
The article seems to be more academic than practical.
uchak Mar 18, 2013 11:36am
I believe the economically and better educated ones, are the ones who have a better and higher exposure to Arabic. It also follows that they are the most likely to understand what is being told or taught to them at their religious classes. Hence (I believe) the higher incidence of terrorism from their class.
Sultan Mar 18, 2013 12:22pm
Thanks Ann. Glad you find it interesting. what precisely is the root of terrorism? Political/social Oppression and high population growth. Actually the editors changed the title from Dispelling the poverty terrorism myth to roots of terrorism.
Sultan Mar 18, 2013 12:22pm
950 word limit :)
@mrsultan713 Mar 18, 2013 12:39pm
psb Mar 18, 2013 01:15pm
Osama-bin-Laden was an highly educated and from a very rich family, is the best example to support this theory....
DKS Mar 18, 2013 01:54pm
So? Knowing the cause can only be the basis of any future corrective action.
Muhammad arif Mar 18, 2013 02:30pm
I mostly agree with the writer's perspective. Howevere, he should have explained with more details and examples how does terrorism is related to lack of political freedom.
P N Eswaran Mar 18, 2013 05:22pm
The writer has stimulated the discussion on the genesis of terrorism very eruditely. Terrorism as a reaction may be more proximate to political conditions than poverty conditions (though not to economic conditions). The urbanization in an agrarian economy leads to the formation of the urban middle class which are more literate/well informed and and economically well placed in a relative sense. The next aspiration of the middle class is political in terms of civil liberties and political say. This phenomenon is common to both Muslims and non-Muslim societies. What remains un-answered is why Muslim societies alone resort to terrorism as a political weapon. This leads to the fact that ideology is the prime cause for setting the political agenda to be achieved through violent means and terrorism is one of them.
Gerry D'Cunha Mar 18, 2013 06:57pm
what precisely is the root of terrorism? who is a true muslim and who's islam is right!!
pathanoo Mar 18, 2013 09:20pm
Fantastic, Feroz.