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February 13, 2016



What causes terrorism?

Faisal Ali Raja wrote an article in these pages (‘Terror and the youth’, Feb 9) which claims that a large youth population and low per capita income perpetuate terrorism. A wide array of literature has examined the relationship between poverty, unequal distribution of resources and mass violence. It is interesting to see whether the relationship between poor economic conditions and terrorism really holds. Is terrorism only caused by poverty and a large number of young people in the population?

There is a decent amount of academic literature that asserts, with empirical evidence, the counter-argument – that poverty is not the cause of terrorism, or that the link between them is tenuous at best. Some of the work is eye-opening.

One of these studies was done by James Piazza, a political scientist. He refuted the argument that poverty causes terrorism. He has made some interesting observations. First, he says that in the list of top ten countries in the world where terrorist attacks happen only three countries have low levels of socioeconomic development – a low GDP and low place on the Human Development Index. Piazza also tried to determine whether factors like inflation, unemployment, HDI, GDP growth, calories per capita, population, population growth, and political indicators etc relate to the incidence and casualty rate of terrorism. He found that not a single economic indicator is a good predictor of terrorist incidents or casualties.

Another prominent study was done by Alan Krueger, a leading economist at Princeton. Krueger suggested that any correlation between poverty, education and terrorism is complicated and probably weak. he also stated that “terrorism is result of political conditions and long standing feelings of indignity and frustration (perceived or real)”. He cited several important results to support his point of view.

First, social science literature finds that hate crimes, such as lynchings of African Americans or violence against Turks in Germany, have little correlation with economic conditions. Second, he cites a study in which Nasra Hassan, a UN worker, interviewed nearly 250 militants and associates of militants involved in the Palestinian cause. Hassan noted that none of the militants were uneducated or desperately poor. Many of them belonged to middle class families; they had jobs that paid – two of them were even the sons of millionaires.

Third, Krueger considered data from public opinion polls, conducted in West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in which Palestinians were asked whether they supported attacks on Israeli civilian and military targets and whether they considered certain incidents acts of terrorism. Data from the polls suggested that a decent percentage of educated people supported the attacks.

Another survey conducted by Palestinian Centre for Policy and Research (PCPSR) asked respondents whether they supported a dialogue between Hamas and Israel. The results of the survey suggested that highly educated individuals were also less supportive of dialogue. The response of the educated class is important because it’s perceived that they are doing well economically.

Alan Krueger cites another PCPSR study in which students, merchants and professionals were a majority among those who supported armed attacks. If poverty or a lack of education were the cause of terrorism then one can infer that the unemployed or the illiterate would have shown the majority support towards these activities.

Furthermore, if we look at the list of countries have high homicide rates it’s clear that there are countries in the list that have a higher homicide rate than Pakistan or other troubled countries yet they still have higher per capita income. This goes against the theory that lower capita income causes mass violence.

Also, if we look at the biographies of the top leaders of some terrorist organisations we notice that some of them came from countries with high per capita income and were also highly educated. Osama bin Laden is a case in point. He belonged to a rich family and went on to study at a university. Even the secondary school he attended was known as a place for the rich and reportedly had a “secular flavor” as noted by Steve Coll in The New Yorker. Even Ayman al-Zawahiri was a surgeon in the Egyptian army (his father was a surgeon as well and mother came from a rich and politically active family).

Improving the economic conditions of people should definitely be a priority but we also have to address the deep-rooted issues of long-standing indignity and frustration. Poor economic conditions inflate the problem but we should also keep in mind that resentment is also present in other stratas of the economy.

According to a comprehensive study on the psychology of terrorism, perceived injustice, a need for identity and a need for belonging lead one to terrorism. We cannot simply walk away by throwing all the weight behind poor economic conditions and a large youth population. Not only do we have to fix issues as outlined in the article by Faisal Ali Raja, we also need to address feelings of indignity, frustration, injustice, lack of identity and belonging.

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