Terrorism and Human Rights (9): Is Terrorism Caused by Poverty and Lack of Education?

This paper says it is incorrect to state that poverty and a lack of education are the root causes driving people towards terrorism. It’s a highly interesting paper worth to be read in full. I’ll just try to summarize it here.

Terrorism is premeditated violence against citizens intended to cause fear and terror and to influence public opinion and government policies. Given that terrorism is obviously a crime, and given the well-established link causal link between poverty and lack of education on the one hand, and crime on the other, one could assume that there is also such a link between poverty/lack of education and terrorism. However, the link with crime in general, as the paper points out, is stronger in the case of property crime than in the case of violent crime.  And terrorism is a violent crime.

The paper also presents more direct evidence of the absence of a causal link between poverty/lack of education and terrorism:

  • Opinion polls measuring public support for terrorism among Palestinians do not show more support among the poor.
  • Hezbollah members are not, on average, poorer than the rest of the population of Lebanon, on the contrary.
  • The education and income levels of individual terrorists are higher than average:

An explanation for this is that people with higher levels of education and income often feel much stronger about political causes, have more passionate support for political groups etc., partly because such involvement requires knowledge and leisure time.

The most extreme type of terrorist, the suicide bomber, is obviously not motivated by economic gain. But he may be motivated, not by his own poverty and his struggle against it, but by the poverty of his family, people or country (many terrorist groups give money to the families of suicide bombers). The paper calls this “Robin Hood terrorism”. While it is true that the poorer countries produce relatively more terrorists, this correlation disappears when respect for human rights is taken into account.

At a given level of income, countries with greater respect for civil liberties are less likely to be a wellspring for international terrorists. A lack of civil liberties is associated with higher participation in terrorism.

The results of the paper are discouraging in a way, because they cut off one avenue in the fight against terrorism: provide better education and higher incomes. If terrorism isn’t the result of poverty and ignorance, then the struggle against it may prove to be very difficult. It’s easier to do away with poverty and ignorance than it is to remove other possible causes of terrorism, such as indignity, frustration, religion, culture etc. What is encouraging is the link between rights violations and terrorism. One more reason to promote human rights.

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