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HomeTalking PointPoverty and terrorism: A dangerous assumption

Poverty and terrorism: A dangerous assumption

alaa-alghambdi|By Alaa Alghamdi| There can be few more crucial yet intractable conundrums in the world today than the question of the root causes of terrorism. Terrorism seems to strike out of the blue, and sometimes with devastating force; dealing with its effects after the event is very far from being a tenable strategy. If there is a way to deal with terrorism it is to prevent it, and that involves the investigation of its causes. And that, unfortunately, is where over-simplification and pre-conceived notions stand in the way of solid reasoning.

For example, the notion that terrorism arises out of poverty is a popular one, not least because it is in keeping with the goals and strategies of global peacekeeping. If one can improve the standard of living in a society, advocates argue, the toxic discontent that gives rise to the instigation of terrorist acts can also be avoided. People will feel content and empowered, particularly if they also live within a system that offers the opportunity for civil and political participation.

The idea has a certain logic. Unfortunately, it is far from being borne out by evidence. As Saad Eddin Ibrahim pointed out, the roots of terrorism are primarily political rather than economic. In fact, a large number of terrorist leaders have been wealthy or middle class rather than impoverished.

It is sometimes tempting to apply a psychological model to a group or political dynamics, with the individual acting as analogy for a group. Of course, to do so has only a limited validity, as group dynamics are inherently different from individual responses. However, if one may propose such an analogy for terrorism, it is clear enough that the terrorist group acts as a ‘bully’ to the rest of the society, employing violence and fear-based tactics to impose their will.

A bully, to be sure, is hardly likely to hold a privileged position in the community. More likely, he is a neglected or abused individual, who takes his anger out on others. Some teachers and parents, dealing with a school bully, assume that it is low self esteem and a feeling of disenfranchisement that cause him to act that way; psychological research, however, gives a different account.

Rather than feeling powerless, poor and small, the bully is far more likely to be a person with an inflated, though fragile, ego. When his megalomania is challenged, he reacts in anger, often with violence.

Might not the same dynamic contribute to terrorist acts? Of course, individual circumstances vary. But my suggestion would be that we keep an open mind regarding the various causes of terrorism, and not go quickly to the easy conclusion that disempowerment and poverty are the issue. Infusions of economic aid may simply not touch the issue of poverty; in the worst case scenario, where systems are most corrupt, funds and resources may even be funneled in the direction of terrorist groups. Raising living standards is an honourable cause, but we must accept that we don’t know whether it will fan the flames of terrorism or douse it. And it is, certainly, no substitute for routing out the fundamental societal causes.

(Dr Alaa Alghamdi is an academic and political commentator based in Saudi Arabia.)