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Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Root Causes of Terrorism

This past week the Obama administration hosted a three-day conference on "Countering Violent Extremism," and it repeated the conventional wisdom that terrorism results from a lack of opportunities and poverty (not all of the attendees did, however) although over a decade of studies have found this to be the case. Rather, the average terrorist (not just the leaders) tends to be well educated, to have come from a middle class background, and to have attended a secular, rather than a religious, school as a child. So much for stereotypes.

For instance, Marc Sageman's 2004 study of terrorist groups ("Understanding Terrorist Networks") found that most Islamic terrorists came from a middle-class backgrounds, attended secular grade schools, weren't terribly religious as children, and attained a higher level of education than average person from their respective countries of origin. Other studies have turned up similar evidence:
  • The 2004 Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed adults in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey and discovered that there is no evidence that sympathy for terrorism is greater among economically deprived individuals -- instead, more schooling correlated with more sympathy
  • In a 2006 study, Swati Pandey and Peter Bergen examined the educational background of 79 terrorists responsible for five of the worst anti-Western terrorist attacks of the modern era -- the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the 9/11 attacks, the Bali nightclub bombings in 2002, and the London bombings on July 7, 2005, and they found hat more than half had attended college, making them as well-educated as the average American. Two had doctoral degrees, and two others had begun working toward their doctorates. None of them had attended a madrassa.
  • In 2007 Claudia Berrebi of the RAND Corporation compared the characteristics of of suicide-bombers recruited by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from the West Bank and Gaza to the general Palestinian population and found that almost 60% of the suicide bombers had a high school education, which is a higher percentage than the general Palestinian population (approximately 25%). She also found that they were less than half as likely to come from an impoverished family as a typical man from the general population
  • In a 2008 study Alan Krueger of Princeton University found that there is little evidence that terrorists are poor or poorly educated
  • And recently New America studied the backgrounds of 250 US-based militants since 9/11 who have been indicted or convicted of some kind of jihadist terrorist crime and found they were middle class, reasonably well-educated family men with kids
As Peter Bergen puts it, asking, "'Who becomes a terrorist?' is a lot like asking, 'Who owns a Volvo?'" A summary of these and other findings can be found in the December 18, 2010, issue of the Economist ("Economic Focus: Exploding Misconceptions") and a recent article by Peter Bergen ("Nonsense about Terrorism's 'Root Causes'"). Also quite helpful is Scott Atran's book, Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)making of Terrorists.

What these studies suggest is that if we treat terrorist organizations as if they're run by ignorant fools, then we'll probably lose the war on terrorism -- or, it will last a lot longer than it has to. They also suggest that focusing solely on economic development in poorer countries will not reduce terrorism's appeal. Instead, we need to respect what others hold as sacred. We don't have to embrace such values, but we surely need to respect and try to understand them. As Scott Atran puts it (pp. 400-401),
Finding ways to reframe cultural core values so as to overcome psychological barriers to symbolic offerings that show respect for the other side’s sacred values is a daunting challenge. But meeting this challenge may offer greater opportunities for breakthroughs to peace than hitherto realized. “Mere” words and symbols may prove more powerful than billions of dollars in aid or bombs and bullets—at least in opening up opportunities for practical solutions. Though difficult, creatively reframing sacred values mayprovide a key to unlocking the most deep-seated conflicts. That’s the kind of insight that the anthropology and psychology of religion and sacred values could bring about. There may be few more urgent fields of study in the world today than “the science of the sacred.”
Respecting the values of others should not be confused with political correctness, however. I've known many a mainline Christian who will feign respect in the beliefs of minority religious groups, such as Muslims (e.g., a belief in angels and the efficacy of prayer) and then turn around and deride the beliefs of Mormons, evangelicals, and conservative Catholics (e.g., a belief in angels and the efficacy of prayer), evidently believing (incorrectly) that Muslims and members of other minority religious groups don't notice such hypocrisy. In my mind, respecting the sacred values of others means affirming shared values, while at the same time being willing to be critical of values one disagrees with without making fun of those who hold them. It sounds hard, I know, but I think that, at least in part, is what it is going to take.

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