Spokespeople for the current (Obama) administration recently suggested that the “root” cause for terrorism is lack of jobs. I want to address this claim head on.
But first I must issue a disclaimer. Apparently when people stand against that feckless naivete our words are recast as some sort of accusation that all Muslims are terrorists, or that the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition didn’t happen, or Christians all have halos and Muslims all have horns, etc. etc. I make no such claims and don’t believe these historical revisions. I pray the peaceable, non-violent, non-theocratic Muslims of the world have great success in redirecting Islam’s bloody history into peaceful future, forever distancing orthodox Islam from its medieval missteps.
I do not take President Obama, or the typical liberal commentator as an Islamic scholar, so when they interpret the actions of ISIS, or al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, or Hezbollah, or Boko Haram as a “perversion of Islam,” I ask for their authority behind that statement. I’d like to think they are right, but I’m leary since I don’t see the bona fides behind that blanket statement. Maybe one day, Islamic scholarship will undergo a widescale revision, forever distancing modern Islam from its unmistakably militant past. Maybe we will all one day hold hands, drink Coke, and sing Kumbaya. That would be nice. However, it is one thing to claim, baselessly, that Islam has no genetic ties to violence and that no significant minority of its members are violent, but it’s another beast entirely to prove that the life of Muhummad, the teachings of the Quran and Hadith, the practice of Sharia, the Theoractic mode of Islam, or the history of Islam and the Caliphate, leave no normative precedent for violence.
Nevertheless, in spite of that complex debate, one can be agnostic on that issue, maybe Islam is intrinsically violent, maybe it’s not. Maybe it defies the example of Muhammad maybe it dignifies his example. While the debate is about terrorism and poverty, unfortunately, the conversation tends to get commandeered by by non-theologians wanting to debate theology. I want to bypass that interesting offroad to explore a different road today.
The point at issue is whether jobs fix terrorism. The answer is simple. Nope, no, neh, nadda, nope-iddy nope, and No! There are at least three major reasons why terrorism does not spring from lack of jobs, or more specifically from poverty.
1. Terrorism is expensive.
Terrorism costs a lot of money. The poor can’t afford it, at least not when it comes to the large-scale sophisticated terrorist networks we have today. Let’s suppose that modern terrorism involved a whole bunch of poor participants. If there were a whole bunch of poor people serving in the modern fronts of global terrorism–which is predominantly Jihadism (roughly about 70% of the declared foreign terrorist organizations are self-proclaimed Islamic), we can be assured that those poor people were not the chief financiers behind the bombs, the guns, the rockets, the missiles, the training centers, the public relations/media, and the diplomatic sway that help make up modern terrorism. someone had to pay for those things, even if there were a whole crowd of hobos doing the shooting and the detonating.
It’s not particularly clear that poor people are the main ones pulling the triggers either. It’s illicit to assume that the terrorists themselves are economically impoverished. According to a Business Pundit Article, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the infamous underwear bomber, was a millionaire. Osama Bin Laden amassed about $300 million in personal wealth. Yasar Arafat had a net value of $1.5 billion (though, his value as a person wasn’t worth a dime). Al Qaeda affiliate Daewood Ibrahim, of India, aided the Bombay Bombings, and he is estimated as having $6-30 billion in net assets.
Faisal Shahzad, the culprit behind the attempted 2010 Times Square Bombing, was a naturalized American citizen, earned a degree from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and became a financial analyst, having worked for two major companies. He had a wife and kids, all before getting bomb-training in Pakistan and then attempting to detonate a crowded city center. He was living the American dream before attempting to make it a nightmare.
On the lower economic end were the Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston Bombers, but even they were not impoverished. They had secondary education, they had work, they were involved in extra-curriculuars (wrestling and boxing), they had college options. They had family and friends. And they had homes. The more relevant causes seem to be their late devotion to Islam (around 2008 for both Dzhokhar and Tamerlan), Tamerlan’s history of violence, and their family ties to the conflicted Chechen-Russian region. Dzhokhar did amass $20,000 of college loan debt, but he also flunked seven classes, lost his scholarship, and was still about $7-9k under the average student loan debt in America. If student loan debt caused terrorism, we’d have a lot more to worry about than radicalized Muslims.
Still further down the economic scale Colleen LaRose, a.k.a., Jihad Jane, was very impoverished having a troubled background with abuse, prostitution, divorce, joblessness, and vagrancy. She really was impoverished and really did contribute towards terrorism. But she was poor (economically and circumstantially) long before she became a terrorist. The deciding factor, where her troubled past took on a violent forecast, was when she met a (self-identified) Muslim man in Amsterdam who introduced her to radical ideology around 2008. Soon afterwards she began posting threatening and violent videos on Youtube and conspiring in terrorist plots. It was not poverty but a particular brand of Islamic or pseudo-Islamic ideology that more clearly led to her radicalization. To be fair, her poverty may be a relevant precondition for her particular path into terrorism–people tend to be more desperate and anxious when they are broke–but neither is poverty a very clear or relevant cause of her terrorism. The proverbial, “stolen bread” may feed a starving family, but terrorist plots pose no real promise for actually or apparently solving poverty. If poverty were the more relevant cause, then she had every reason to become a terrorist before converting to Islam.
Perhaps the most clear counterexamples to the jobs-terrorism theory is that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 bombing were affluent Saudis. Indeed Saudi Arabia is perhaps the heart of Islam, having the sacred Cities of Medina and Mecca, and the native home of Islam’s sacred language, Arabic, yet along with Kuwait and other deeply Islamic nations, it has historically been a prominent financier of terrorism. It seems, then that affluence not poverty is causing terrorism there. ISIS is now considered the wealthiest terrorist organization, bringing in over $2 billion yearly; while Hamas comes in second at about $1 billion yearly.
This argument here, however, is complex just as terrorist networks are complex. There are chains of command, and the more seasoned veterans and elders may have great wealth and status distancing themselves from the front lines so that they are not doing the kind of footsoldier work that would get them killed. I would not expect such characters to be the “grunts” blowing themselves up in a Jewish deli. It may be that a great number of the bombers themselves are relatively poor, resorting to terrorist activities for lack of other options. But let’s be clear; whether it is poor grunts, or wealthy generals, all of them are terrorists. And, there is no strict rule that only or even mostly poor people make up the terrorists rank and file.
Having established that there’s only a nominal/weak connection between poverty (as a cause) and terrorism, we can proceed to the next point.
2. Terrorism causes poverty.
There is a causal connection between terrorism and poverty, but it doesn’t work in the way the current administration seems to think. Do stopped cars cause red lights? No, it’s the other way around. Red lights make drivers stop their cars at intersections. Mistaking the cause for the effect is a causal fallacy (namely, the Post hoc ergo property hoc fallacy if you were wondering). Just because the two facts are found together doesn’t mean we can interpret causation any way we want. In this case, terrorism and poverty are found together, but terrorism clearly causes poverty whereas poverty does not clearly cause terrorism. Where terrorism is strong, those neighborhoods, communities, cities and even nations will tend to struggle economically in proportion to how deeply devoted they are to terrorism.
Economies thrive where there are free markets, strong trust relations, a good work ethic, socio-political stability, law and order, and innovative and plentiful production. Now imagine a place where all of those features are available in good supply. What happens if, say, 5% of the population somehow were to get enmeshed with terrorism? Every “successful” suicide-bomber is one less employee. But even before detonating himself, that suicide-bomber spends time studying that ideology, networking with like-minded terrorists, and training in bomb-making, or marksmanship, or shopping for weaponry. Those are man-hours not devoted towards generating a marketable product or service, or getting an education aimed at a respectable vocation. When he detonates himself, lets say, at a Jewish deli, that’s one less business offering their goods and services to the community. That detonated store-front is now an eye-sore on local businesses, hampering their sales. The lost sense of safety injuries the trust relations in that local economy to where people are less confident to go out to the market or shop for furniture. The sense of law and order is tarnished as the police now have more work to do, and perhaps, less sense of safety among the citizenry. Business loans and related lending are injured or suspended for a season because of instability in the local economy. The money that bomber spent on his pistols, rifles, vest and explosives are effectively “burnt benjamins,” that money is lost forever, useless shrapnel or, at best, evidence seized by the police. And of course, everything that was destroyed in the blast, every life lost, and every family that that shrank that day–those don’t exactly help the economy either. None of that fallout is “good for business” unless by “business” you mean the anti-economic outcomes of terrorism.
3. Many Other Causes Show The “Jobless Terrorist” Thesis Is Too Simplistic and Off-The-Mark.
So the “Jobless terrorist” thesis is looking pretty weak that this point. This thesis can be effectively replaced by combining the material factors of political tyrrany, whether real or perceived, with political transitions plus socio-economic factors that make life hard or increase a sense of oppression; and then with that tinder in place add a spark in the form of fundamentalist ideology such as Wahabist Islam or pretty much any roots movement in Islam. Historically, some other non-muslim ideologies have been sparks such Irish nationalism, or Tamil patriotism, or Jewish zealotry, or old fashioned apocolyptic cult theology. But there is no mistaking the fact that today, Islam is the overwhelming front runner in this regard.
Alberto Albadie writing for the National Bureau for Economic Research argues that political instability, especially transitions between or into tyrranical regimes, is the relevant precursor for terrorism, meanwhile “the risk of terrorism is not significantly higher for poorer countries, once other country-specific characteristics are considered.” Now this thesis is interesting, and does a good job of accommodating the (allegedly) Islamic cases and non-Islamic cases of terrorism in south India or Ireland for example. Terrorism is bigger and older than Islam, so it would be too cursory to ignore the Tamil Tigers, the BCE Jewish Zealots, or the Irish Republican Army.
However, neither would it be especially precise and helpful in understanding the pressing global threats arising from self-proclaimed Muslims. Saudi Arabia hadn’t been under any drastic regime shift in 2000-2001, yet it was sponsoring, at that time, the largest single terrorist act on American soil (9/11). Even PBS admits an overwhelming, and telling, correlation between Islam and terrorism. Since at least the onset of the modern Jewish state in 1948 and recharged in 1967, islamic-themed terrorism has escalated commiserate with Israel’s proven ability to defend itself. Direct military conquest grew infeasible so the anti-semitic and anti-western angst common to much of Islam was pressed to find different objects of aggression besides Israel and it’s army. Civilians could be targeted. But typical muslims around the world aren’t especially violent, or conspiratorial, like we would expect from terrorists. However, the typical muslim is not literate in Arabic, not well conformed to the life and teachings of Muhammad, and–like with any mainline religion–not very devout. I would not expect the typical Muslim to follow Muhammad’s warring lifestyle any more than I’d expect the typical Christian to follow Jesus’ chaste lifestyle. How then can self-proclaimed Muslims begin targeting civilians for violence?
If this question baffles you, I contend that you do not know Islamic history, Scripture, or the life of Muhammad very well. Islam has always had, at least as a significant minority, a very bloody contingent. Muhammad was nothing less than a war lord. According to Muslims he was a prophet of God, justified in his religious, political, and military actions, but there is no getting around the fact that he had the blood of hundreds and thousands of people on his hands. And only some of those people were active military enemies. Some of them were wives and children of soldiers. And many of Muhammad’s followers committed terrorist-type acts, kidnapped women, killed children and so on, with Muhamad’s approval. Such infidels participated incidentally or complicitly evils of that enemy. Besides the example of Muhammad, the Quran and Hadith have some very brutal teachings typically in the later passages (in the Meccan period) which, by the principle of abrogation, are thought to be more authoritative than the earlier more peaceful teachings (of the Medinan period).
Across the history of Islam pretty much every border is a bloody border; lands adjunct to predominately Muslim territories have expansion-minded Muslims on that border trying to stoke unrest, and typically, before long, that area becomes a terrorist front. This is true of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Chechnya (bordering Russia), former Russian republics like Kazakhstan. Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, Pakistan (formerly Northern India), Afghanistan (bordering Pakistan and India), Nigeria and Sudan along with the rest of Central Africa (where Christian populations border the Islamic North), more recently in France, England and the Netherlands. And of course, there was a bloody trail along the militant spread of Islamic during the Caliphate and in its gradual growth since then. This genetic tie to violence is so strong, that it even extends to denominational differences between Shiite and Sunni Islam, for example in the violent fronts of Syria, Libya, Iraq and Iran.
Now the ties between Islam and violence are complex and they are rarely strictly religious, but neither are they secular either. While there can be political ideologies, and socio-cultural convictions swirled into that causal mix, it is outright head-in-the-sand denial to pretend that Islam, actual historic orthodox Islam, has no normative ties to terrorism. I know this is a bold claim, and I remind you that I’m not saying that all or even most Muslims are terrorists. I’m comfortable with anywhere between 0.1% to 10% estimates where a relatively small portion of Muslims actively or passively support terrorism. But I am not comfortable with the willful disregard of the plain fact that the vast majority of terrorists who are self-proclaimed Muslims are acting on the precedent or teaching of Muhammad, adhering to conservative readings of the Quran and Hadith, following the five pillars, devoting their efforts to Allah, with no later prophet or scripture in mind as they shout “Allahu akbar!” as they target infidels in violent attacks.
Put another way, when Muslims become devout and return to the strict life and teachings of Muhammad–a roots movement–they become more violent. Meanwhile, if Christians were to do the same, becoming more faithful as Christians by following the life and teachings of Jesus they would become more peaceable. The only blood on Jesus’ hands was his own.
The same holds true for other religions. Whether Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism, the B’ahai World Faith, Shinto, Taoism, or what have you–none of these have the kind of pressing terrorist ties that Islam does. All of them have their “skeletons in the closet” but none of them can be so neatly and swiftly associated with the bulk of world terrorism like Islam can. Whatever the complex theological and practical debates may exist over the nature of “true” Islam, we cannot safely say that all terrorist acts by self-proclaimed Muslims are theologically abberant, since a cursory survey suggests they might just as well be denominational differences; that is, these people are fundamentalists not radicals; they are not extremists but extremely Muslim.
In conclusion, joblessness and terrorism relate not as cause to effect, but the other way around. Terrorism impoverishes people; bombs and guns cannot be eaten no matter how much one’s family is starving. Explosions and gunfire destabilize societies. And the millions of dollars that could have been building houses and feeding families in the Gaza strip, for example, fail as charitable goods when funneled, instead, into miles of concrete tunnels to smuggle rockets into firing range of Israel. With all the socio-economic factors that can help empower terrorism, the most clear and common causal spark in those settings seems to be fundamentalist Islam.