A Real War on Terrorism

Poverty and the Middle-Class Terrorist
Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Sept. 10 2002 11:53 AM

A Real War on Terrorism

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This is the fifth in a nine-part series on how America should fight the war against terrorism.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, various knee-jerk liberal columnists, including me, asserted that "poverty in the Islamic world" had nourished terrorism. Pesky observers highlighted an apparent problem with our theory: Many of the hijackers had come from the middle- or upper classes of their societies. When you pursue a graduate degree in urban planning, as Mohamed Atta did, it's safe to say that you're not desperately trying to pull yourself up by the bootstraps.

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Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

One fallback position for liberals was that, though the terrorists themselves weren't poor, their local constituents—the masses that exude moral support—were poor. This tactical retreat encountered complications when economists Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova published a paper on pro-terrorist sentiment. Using data from the Middle East, they found that not only were terrorists not likely to be especially poor; local supporters of terrorism were, if anything, more affluent and better-educated than average.

So, does this mean that poverty isn't a big part of the problem? No. It just means it's time for a second tactical retreat, to a more defensible position. Namely, Proposition No. 6: The problem isn't poor people; the problem—or at least part of the problem—is poor nations.Terrorists may not be the poorest people in their nations, and they may not draw most of their support from especially poor people in their nations—but the nations they come from tend to be at the bottom of the world's economic hierarchy.

Even the "poor nations" formulation is in a way misleading. Saudi Arabia, the world's leading supplier of murderous hijackers, has a GDP that, though far below Western standards, isn't down there with North Korea's. Still, like all other nations that 9/11 hijackers grew up in, it is not part of the web of global prosperity. Saudi Arabia has an ossified, statist, protectionist economy whose essential link with the larger world is selling it black goo; it isn't even a member of the World Trade Organization. Though it could once use oil to sustain a per capita GDP of $28,000, by September 2001, that number had fallen below $7,000, and the unemployment rate stood at 18 percent—higher for recent college graduates. Whether terrorists are middle class, like some of the hijackers, or lower class, like many al-Qaida foot soldiers, the ranks of the unemployed are prime turf for recruiting them.

Lack of opportunity is something Saudi Arabia shares with its poorer (in oil and hence GDP) neighbor Egypt, home of Mohamed Atta. In both nations, the private-sector outlet for creativity is so meager that a bright, ambitious young man might as well do graduate study in urban planning. In fact, by the time Atta the urban-planning-graduate-student turned to radical Islam in Hamburg, Germany, he had tried repeatedly, and failed, to get a good job in Egypt.

What does a smart, well-born guy like Atta do if he grows up in Western Europe or America or some other part of the globalized world? There's a good chance he'll wind up flying business class—doing deals with foreigners, and thus finding it hard to sustain the idea that any particular class of foreigners is evil. Even if he stays at some lower level of the business hierarchy, at least he's off the streets. What's more, he'll imbibe the cosmopolitan ethos that trickles down from the top; his nation's economy is richly interdependent with economies around the world, and it has a credo of intercultural tolerance that flows from this fact. So Proposition 6,in refined form, holds that Part of the problem is poor nations—or, at least, underglobalized nations.

A basic law of nature is that young males will seek status and recognition through locally available channels. The object of the game is to make those channels lead to contentment and, ideally, productive engagement with the world. Atta's Egyptian channels didn't. In Germany, he encountered an open and vibrant society, but the cultural barriers proved forbidding. In fact, the encounter may have only fed his inchoate bitterness. Years after he left for Germany an old friend from Egypt ran into him; the friend, according to Time magazine, gathered that Atta "had made few German friends" and was  "depressed about not having a career or a family back home."

To say that the juxtaposition of Atta's economically stagnant home and the vibrant but culturally alien West may have fueled his radicalism is to endorse a part of Bernard Lewis' message. Resentment of Western superiority—economic, technological, military—is central to his explanation of Islamic discontent.

But Lewis is saying something more, and on this some of the policy implications hinge. He's saying that people who grow up in these relatively poor Muslim nations aren't just resentful, they are resentful on behalf of their religion. That's why, in Lewis' view, we face "a clash of civilizations." (Yes, he beat Samuel Huntington to that phrase—it's a subhead in his 1990 Atlantic Monthly piece.) And that's why there's little we can do about the problem—it's rooted in deepest cultural memory.

Is this true? It's true ­that the terrorists had come to identify deeply with Islam—and a  particularly austere version of it—by the time they became terrorists. But it's equally clear that they didn't all start out with that intense identification. So far as anyone can tell, Atta, though already devout, didn't become radically Islamic until he went to Germany. What seems to have happened is that personal resentments and frustrations, themselves products of economic and political forces, latched on to radical Islam as a congenial, affirming ideology, one that made the West a useful scapegoat. Religious ideas aren't passed down through the generations inexorably, from one passive brain to another; in each generation they can be rejected, embraced, or amended, depending on how they mesh with people's socially conditioned needs.

This isn't to say that Islam isn't in any sense part of the terrorism problem. Obviously, had radical Islam not been in the air, Atta would have found some other, presumably less lethal, outlet for his frustrations; he might even have vented them productively, by assimilating into the West, rather than attack it. But for radical Islam, he might today be chairman of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce!

Still, it is wrong, and unduly depressing, to see the problem as being Islam in some large historical sense—to trace the origins of 9/11 all the way back to morally primitive Quranic passages that have supposedly poisoned the minds of men ever since the seventh century AD. The Holy Bible has passages every bit as morally primitive as anything in the Quran. (I've assembled a small sample.) The history of Islam, like the history of Christianity, is a history of people in some times and places focusing on morally primitive scriptures and people in other times and places focusing on loftier scriptures. Islam attained its economic and technological dominance during the Middle Ages in part by focusing on the loftier ones, extending a tolerance to Christians and Jews that, at the time, was on the cutting edge of intercultural understanding.

If we want to know why people's interpretations of their own religious doctrines vary so much from decade to decade, we have to look at what is going on in the world around them. In the case of modern radical Islam, we find no shortage of explanations, ranging from economic stagnation to political repression to an American foreign policy that over the past few decades has paid roughly zero attention to Muslim opinion (unless you count the opinion of Muslims who happened to be in charge of armies or oil wells). What we don't find is any sense in which religion is an exogenous variable, an autonomous force that floats above the social landscape and, generation after generation, mysteriously bends the minds of men to its will. (Is that last sentence a caricature of Bernard Lewis' opinion? Well, yes. Click here for my more nuanced characterization and a corresponding critique.)

The view I'm advancing is, broadly speaking, a Marxist view—that religious beliefs are largely a function of underlying economic and political circumstances, as mediated by psychology. It's also a hopeful view. Because it means we don't have to figure out how to "change Islam"—a disconcertingly amorphous task, and one that would probably backfire. Lewis is right about the hopelessness of intervening at that level. We can instead intervene at the level of economics and politics, and if we're successful, then the radical variants of Islam will lose support; radical "memes" will find fewer brains willing to host them. Hence, for example, Policy Prescription No. 6: Draw Islamic nations—and for that matter all nations—into the web of global capitalism.

This would have several benefits: 1) It would give young men an outlet for economic ambition, diverting them from radical pursuits. 2) It would give young men an outlet for political ambition by abetting pluralism; after all, global capitalism brings modern information technologies that are powerful tools of political expression and of interest-group formation. 3) It would expand person-to-person contact with the West in a natural, enduring way; when it comes to nurturing multicultural tolerance, there's nothing like doing a mutually profitable deal with a foreigner. 4) It would expand the number of affluent Muslims who, by virtue of dependence on trade, have a stake in preserving world order against terrorist disruption, and in nourishing their country's reputation as a stable place for foreign investment.

This last benefit is especially important. Ultimately, the war against Islamic terrorism has to be conducted within Islamic nations in order to be lastingly successful, and it has to be conducted in an organic, virtually unconscious way. Though there is short-term value in America's using carrots and sticks to get rulers to fight the obvious kind of war—with wiretaps and arrests and shared intelligence—in the long run the war must be one of ideas, fought via the evolution of political, moral, and religious beliefs. A large chunk of the population has to see its interests aligned with order and international concord.

Even if this analysis is in some ways Marxist, and even if it rejects the implication of "benign neglect" that makes Lewis' analysis so popular on the right, it will disappoint many leftists. Because one of its implications is Policy Prescription No. 7: Emphasize trade at least as heavily as aid in fighting the kind of economic deprivation that breeds terrorism.

Foreign aid is good for lots of things—like keeping people from starving, and fighting disease, both of which, as Gregg Easterbrook has noted, are their own reward. But one thing aid has generally not done, as the economist William Easterly showed in The Elusive Quest for Growth, is make a clear contribution to lasting economic development—to the market-driven modernization that tends to be lacking in terrorism-exporting countries.

Nor has aid dramatically contributed to the freedom and democracy that are also lacking in terrorism-exporting countries. In fact, when aid passes through the hands of dictators, a large chunk has a way of winding up in the hands of their cronies, consolidating autocratic rule. According to calculations reported by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Hilton Root in The National Interest, "every dollar of per capita foreign aid improves an incumbent autocrat's chance of surviving in office another year by about 4 percent."

This doesn't mean aid will have no role in the war on terrorism. For one thing, some people, such as economist Joseph Stiglitz, contend that we're learning more and more about how to make aid more conducive to growth and less conducive to kleptocracy. For another, one can imagine forms of aid that, regardless of their effect on GDP, specifically help fight terrorism. Those madrassas, the often-radical schools that are the only educational option for many poor parents in Pakistan, are begging for a subsidized alternative—schools that entice parents with free hot meals and medical care and don't teach hatred (though here American funding, as opposed to funding from non-governmental organizations or multilateral institutions, might carry a counterproductive taint).

Still, if economic modernization is your goal, trade works more reliably than aid. As economists Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner showed years ago, developing nations with the most open, least protectionist economies—the nations most plugged in to the global economy—grow the fastest.

Yet the West makes it hard for poor nations to fully plug in. Heavily subsidized agriculture in the United States and Europe stifles what is an important sector in virtually every developing country. (Egypt pretty much invented cotton farming, but the world won't give its cotton farmers a fair shake.) Heavily protected textile markets also hurt lots of poor nations. In general, according to the World Bank, economically advanced nations levy tariffs against developing nations that are four times as high as the tariffs they levy against other advanced countries.

In this light, American policy after 9/11 was a study in how not to conduct a long-term war on terrorism. The United States denied General Pervez Musharraf's pleas to open its textile markets to Pakistan as a reward for his vital support in the Afghanistan war. Instead, we handed him $1 billion in aid—aid that may help an ally maintain control in the short run but that probably won't help Pakistan become less hospitable to terrorism in the long run and could even do the opposite, by slowing progress toward pluralism and ultimately democracy. Then, in June, Congress passed, and President Bush signed, a $100 billion subsidy to American farmers that a New York Times reporter called "one of the biggest reversals to free trade in decades."

Now that Bush has been given "fast-track" trade authority, there's a chance that the United States, and the West more broadly, will lower trade barriers to developing countries. Still, the administration's focus is on trade deals with Latin America, a worthy goal, but certainly not worthier or more urgent than doing deals with Muslim countries.

Trade is no cure-all. Many Latin American countries that embraced market economics, while seeing real growth, have also seen rising income inequality (though the commonly repeated claim that, as nations globalize, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,"seems to be, strictly speaking, a myth). We have a lot to learn about easing developing nations along the path to modernity, as do the developing nations themselves.

Still, whatever the shortcomings of capitalist development, you didn't see any Brazilian hijackers on Sept. 11. Latin American economies by and large provide economic opportunities for a would-be Mohamed Atta. And if they fail, and enough people get economically frustrated, there are democratic outlets for rage; their leaders are held in power by the ballot box, not by repression and an unholy alliance with the United States.

Of course, there's always the possibility that the key difference between Brazil and Saudi Arabia is religion, not economics or politics. This explanation might be favored by those who put a Lewisesque emphasis on the power of religious doctrine. But if the problem is Islam per se, then how do you explain Turkey? It's a Muslim nation, but in terms of exporting terrorists it ranks down around Brazil (even if one does come across the occasional Turkish terrorist). Maybe the explanation is that in terms of economic vibrancy and political freedom Turkey also ranks closer to Brazil than to Saudi Arabia (though Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who nearly a century ago put Turkey on the path to modernity and showed that the character of a nation's religion can change sharply within a generation, used a top-down, statist approach to get the ball rolling). This explanation could also apply to the 150 million Muslims in India, who by and large are much less sympathetic to radical Islam than nearby Pakistani Muslims; India is a paradise of economic and political liberty compared to Pakistan.

In light of such examples, it isn't really necessary to finally resolve the debate about what role Islamic doctrine plays in inspiring terrorism. After Sept. 11, I argued in these pages against the "Islam is the problem" position held by many Lewis admirers (even if that phrase oversimplifies his own position). But suppose, for the sake of argument, that we stipulated that "Islamic doctrine" is a pre-condition for a certain species of anti-American terrorism. Examples such as Turkey and India would still show that, even if Islam is a necessary condition, it's not a sufficient condition. And the point of these most recent two installments in this series is that, judging by the 9/11 hijackers, there are at least two other conditions that appear to be necessary—a lack of political freedom and a lack of economic opportunity. And by definition, if we successfully address any necessary condition, it won't matter what other necessary conditions may or may not exist. Focusing on politics and economics will get the job done—and the moderation of radical Islamic doctrine, I maintain, will then take care of itself.

All this suggests that abetting globalization, and its natural concomitants of economic and political liberty, is a big part of any successful war on terrorism. Unfortunately, globalization also has some terrorism-abetting properties, a subject we'll address in the next installment.