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Economics and terrorism

Mar 02,2015 - Last updated at Mar 02,2015

It is important to study the causes and underpinnings of terrorism, which is considered a manifestation of extremism.

Research shows that it is not religion that causes the violent acts being witnessed, nor is it economics, in terms of poverty and unemployment, as one would have quickly thought.

The reasons are slightly more complex.

The study “Alienation, religion, economics and politics: Testing theories of radicalisation in polls of US Muslims”, conducted for the US Department of Homeland Security in 2009, found that sympathy for jihadist terrorist acts was more associated with a negative assessment of US foreign policy towards Muslim countries than with religiosity.

The study tested alienation (discrimination within the US) and found it only weakly associated with a war upon Islam; religiosity, as indexed by importance of Islam in one’s life and the frequency of visits to the mosque, was determined to be unrelated to the jihadist mindset; and economic grievances (low education and family income) were found to be weakly related to suicide bombing and a favourable opinion of Al Qaeda.

On the other hand, political grievances (opposition to war in Afghanistan, US policy towards Israel) were determined as the best predictor of a political judgement that the war on terrorism is actually a war on Islam and thus the cause of a positive opinion of Al Qaeda.

Interestingly, the results of the study were consistent with a study by Tessler and Robbins, “What leads some ordinary Arab men and women to approve of terrorist acts against the United States?”, of 2007, who found, based on a surveys in Jordan and Algeria, that a negative assessment of US foreign policy was a significant factor determining support for terrorism in these countries.

Politics is thus more important in a narrow sense than economics in the making of sympathy towards terrorist acts.

Tessler and Robbins found that approval of jihadist terrorism was not linked with gender, economic situation, religiosity or support for political Islam; “rather it was younger respondents and those with negative views of American foreign policy and local politics who were more likely to approve of terrorism”.

The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) Report, which is produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), provides a summary of the key global trends and patterns in terrorism over the last 14 years (2000-2013).

The report utilises the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), which is the most comprehensive dataset on terrorist activity globally. 

In addition, the report evaluates several factors as causes of terrorism, yet, unlike the above study which focused on the US, the report is globally focused and bases it views on the 125,000 terrorist acts that were codified in the GTD.

The report states that countries with higher levels of terrorism were found to have three statistically significant factors: greater social hostility among the different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups in society; lack of intergroup cohesion; and high levels of group grievances — lack of equity, rentierism, etc.

Additionally, state-sponsored violence, political terror and human rights abuses also lead to extremism and terrorism.

Lack of security, leading to higher deaths from organised conflict, violent demonstrations, violent crimes and perceptions of criminality, leads to terrorism. 

On the other hand, as above, poverty has little explanatory power for taking up terrorism.

The report, underscores that worldwide, weak political systems, lack of political legitimacy and the presence of state-sponsored violence are more significant in explaining the rise of terrorism than the general economic environment.

Acts that produce lack of equity and greater exclusion tend to produce terrorists.

It is not religion, but the perception of an attack upon one’s religion that spurs people into extremism.

It is not poverty, but policies of discrimination and inequity that galvanise grievances and lead to terrorism.

And it is relations within groups that need to be safeguarded with respect and empathy. 

Ignorant, discriminatory remarks hinting at the inferiority of one religion to another should be avoided by the wise and caring.

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