Does joblessness and poverty really fuel terrorism?

A familiar tune that is endorsed by politicians all across the globe is that joblessness and poverty is a primary cause for the growth of terrorism across the world. Despite evidence glaring at us in the face, it appears to be a myth that simply refuses to die. The latest person to claim such a thing was the Congress President, Rahul Gandhi. At a gathering at Bucerius Summer School in Hamburg on Wednesday, Gandhi insinuated that the formation of ISIS was a consequence of a lack of development and linked joblessness with terrorism.

Raul Gandhi said at the event, “A law that stopped a particular tribe in Iraq from getting government jobs…the network that was excluded from jobs in Iraq…the Tikriti tribal network linked up with the cellphone network of Iraq and with the network of artillery that was left in Iraq and you got an insurgency that fought to the United States and caused massive casualties to the Americans. That insurgency slowly entered empty spaces. It entered the empty space in Iraq. It entered the empty space in Syria. And, it, in the end, connected with the global internet to form the horrific idea called ISIS.”

Firstly, it is preposterous of the Congress President to claim that the Narendra Modi government is trying to stop any particular community from getting government jobs.

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Secondly, Rahul Gandhi is factually wrong since there was no ban on members of the Tikriti Federation from getting jobs, the ban was restricted to only the members of the Baath party, the party of Saddam Hussein which was accused of persecuting other religious minorities and even that was repealed later. Thus, to claim that ISIS was the consequence of that ban is a blatant considering the ban was enforced by an interim government that came into power after Saddam’s demise in 2003 while the origins of ISIS can be traced back to 1999.

The evidence on the matter of whether poverty inspires terrorism points otherwise. According to a research published in the Journal, ‘Studies in Conflict & Terrorism’ by Charles A. Russell, PhD and Bowman H. Miller at the Office of Special Investigations, U.S. Airforce, terrorists have at least a partial university education and belong to an affluent middle or upper-class family.

The abstract of the study which was published online in 2008 states, “Statistics compiled on over 350 known terrorists from eighteen Middle Eastern, Latin American, West European and Japanese groups revealed the composite terrorist as a single male, aged 22 to 24, with at least a partial university education, most often in the humanities. Terrorists who have practised vocations have generally been in law, medicine, journalism, teaching and—in only Turkish and Iranian groups—engineering and technical occupations. Today’s terrorist comes from an affluent middle‐ or upper‐class family that enjoys some social prestige.”

Another study published in the Journal, ‘Terrorism and Political Violence’ by James A. Piazza, PhD who is currently a Liberal Arts Professor of Political Science at The Pennsylvania State University, asserted that there was no relationship as such between economic development and terrorism.

The abstract of his study published in 2007 states, “Employing a series of multiple regression analyses on terrorist incidents and casualties in ninety-six countries from 1986 to 2002, the study considers the significance of poverty, malnutrition, inequality, unemployment, inflation, and poor economic growth as predictors of terrorism, along with a variety of political and demographic control variables. The findings are that, contrary to popular opinion, no significant relationship between any of the measures of economic development and terrorism can be determined. Rather, variables such as population, ethno-religious diversity, increased state repression and, most significantly, the structure of party politics are found to be significant predictors of terrorism.”

Furthermore, Piazza’s research on India found that terrorism here is not a ‘clear product of poor economic development’. The abstract of the study states, “Poorer states in India are not necessarily more prone to terrorism, but states that have outstanding and poorly addressed political disputes do experience a disproportionately high level of terrorist activity.”

Most classifications of Terrorism nowadays include ‘state-sponsored terrorism’ to describe a situation where a state machinery indulges in the violent persecution of its own citizens. The most obvious example that comes to everyone’s mind if Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia which slaughtered millions and millions of their own people on an industrial scale. As is obvious, a state cannot be managed by uneducated individuals and the senior leadership are definitely not poor. Thus, the biggest refutation of the ‘joblessness and poverty’ theory of terrorism are the perpetrators of state-sponsored terrorism.

Even a cursory glance at the recent terrorist activity in India and elsewhere in the world demonstrates that poverty and economic deprivation has little to do with terrorism. In Kashmir, for instance, the primary motivator for Jihad is the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. Regarding Left-wing terrorism, there is a well established intellectual network in place that felicitates cohesion between different wings of the terrorist groups and provides a shield under which they can operate.

Terrorism, at the heart of it, is War. And a war cannot be waged efficiently in the modern era if the senior leadership is uneducated or illiterate. The foot-soldiers may well be poorly educated but the senior leadership cannot afford to be and as we can learn from Islamic terrorism, Baghdadi has a PhD in Islamic studies, Osama bin Laden was university educated as well and reports suggest he earned a degree in civil engineering as well. The fact of the matter is, terrorist groups cannot survive without a strong ideological foundation that it is established on and a senior leadership which is highly skilled.

The curious case of Antifa in US of A cannot be ignored as well. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI warned state and local officials in 2016 that Antifa had become increasingly confrontational and was engaging in “domestic terrorist violence.” Despite Antifa clearly being a terrorist organization, it has widespread support among the mainstream media in America and has credible support even among significant sections of the Democrat party. And in the case of Antifa, the leaders of the movement include professors at Universities who endorse the use of violence against others who are merely exercising their freedom of expression.

The political aspects of terrorism cannot be ignored as well. Supporting terrorism and fueling terrorist sentiments remains a lucrative avenue for certain political players. As we can see in Kashmir, the senior leadership of the Hurriyat stands to gain from the conflict in Kashmir. And the longer they can keep the charade going, the better it is for them personally. At the international level, terrorism is used by countries to wage wars against other nations. It is an open secret that the United States of America is arming terrorists in the Middle East to remove Bashar al-Assad. And it is also known that Pakistan uses terrorist to wage a proxy war against India.

Terrorism is hardly a modern phenomenon. Scholars disagree on the exact moment of the origin of terrorism or who the first terrorists were but it is agreed that actions that we would now classify as terrorist activities can be found all too easily in the annals of history.

One of the earliest examples of embracing violence to achieve a certain ideological objective is Moses. The Bible says, “He (Moses) told them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each of you men is to fasten his sword to his side, go back and forth through the camp from gate to gate, and slay his brother, his friend, and his neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people fell dead. Afterwards, Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for service to the LORD since each man went against his son and his brother; so He has bestowed a blessing on you this day.” And then there were the Sicarii zealots who are said to have massacred 700 women and children by the Roman Historian Flavius Josephus during their revolt against Roman rule.

In more recent times, we have Maximilien Robespierre, the infamous architect of the Reign of Terror, who extolled the virtues of terror and even deemed it a necessity for governance. And if we are to accept certain modern classifications of terrorism, the Mughal regime among other Islamic kingdoms would certainly be held guilty of indulging in ‘state-sponsored terrorism’ or whatever variant is applicable to that era. As is clear, using violence to achieve specific ideological objectives is certainly not a modern phenomenon.

Terrorism is, thus, best understood in terms of a War that is primarily driven by serious ideological motives. The manner in which the War then manifests itself is influenced by multiple factors. Even among the multiple factors that influence terrorism, poverty is found to have minimal impact. Thus, to reduce the various complexities of terrorism to mere joblessness and poverty is turning one’s face away from the realities of existence because they are much too difficult to bear. Therefore, the sooner we abandon the myth that poverty and joblessness fuels terrorism, the better it will be for all of us and the more we can focus on the real causes that motivate individuals to embrace terrorism.

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