Accessibility links

Terrorism: Religious and Poverty Roots? - part 2 of 3

Over the past decade, analysts and government officials agree that the threat posed by Islamist terrorism has grown. But does Islam play a role in recruiting terrorists? Or are the underlying conditions of poverty more important? Leta Hong Fincher looks at some of the arguments in the second of her three-part series on the roots of terrorism.

Scholars in the Islamic world and in the West have long debated the root causes of terrorism. Many argue that poverty, marginalization, and a sense of hopelessness are to blame. But most al-Qaida-linked terrorists came from middle-class backgrounds and received a college education; including Osama bin Laden, a Saudi multimillionaire and trained civil engineer.

Benjamin Barber, a democracy expert at the University of Maryland, says there will always be small groups of zealots who want to commit acts of terror. The larger problem is that in today's global environment, terrorist acts are often applauded by people he calls "tacit terrorists."


"Terrorists themselves, like all vanguards, are usually wealthy, well-educated and privileged, but the people they represent and people who allow them to speak for them are themselves almost always impoverished, in despair, marginalized and disempowered and finally, that crucial word, humiliated by the rest of the world in which they live."

Opinion polls in the Middle East show that Osama bin Laden is often more popular than government leaders. Mr. Barber argues that because so many Muslims regard bin Laden as a hero, he remains uncaptured more than three years after the September 11th attacks.


"If he were a lone nut out there, he would have long ago been found, captured and brought to justice. But the fact is he lives in what we might call safe villages, safe provinces, safe countries."

This kind of safe environment can be found in Pakistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding. Pakistan is a key ally of the United States in its war on terrorism. It is also home to endemic poverty and many Islamic schools--or madrassas--that preach hatred of the United States.

Muslim boys at this school recite the Koran and are taught the extreme ideology of Wahabi Islam. In 2002, Pakistan launched a crackdown on hardline madrassas believed to be breeding Islamist terrorism.

But some say it is a waste of effort to target Islamic schools without addressing the underlying socioeconomic conditions. Omer Taspinar is a scholar of Islam at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.


"Someone who goes to a madrassa in Pakistan can have a much more radicalized, confrontationalist, narrow interpretation of Islam. That's why education is key and upward mobility is key. People who become richer, people who have a job, people who have hope usually don't have such a radicalist interpretation of Islam."

Some moderate Muslims say Islamist radicals have perverted the message of Islam, which Mr. Taspinar says does not teach revolution or terrorism.


"The message of Islam the way I see it as a progressive Muslim coming from Turkey, is one of unity, of compassion, which is trying to reveal the last message coming from God to humanity saying that we are brothers, that all the other monotheistic religions, Jews and Christians included, are people of the book, therefore we need to find ways of coexistence."

Mr. Taspinar argues that the rise of terrorism has less to do with Islam than with repressive governance. He says socioeconomic deprivation leaves many young Muslims vulnerable to extremist ideology. And in the absence of democracy in the Middle East, dissatisfied citizens can only oppose dictatorships by organizing around their mosque.

Mr. Taspinar calls this trend the "Islamicization of political dissent."


"When you have dictatorships, authoritarian dictatorships in the Middle East, the mosque becomes the only institution where people can come together and actually have a sense of political agenda, a sense of opposition, dissent to the current government."

Political analysts may disagree about what causes terrorism. But most say the United States will play a crucial role in determining whether terrorism flourishes or fizzles out.

Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation think tank in Washington D.C.


"Until we adopt a strategy that has very much long-term goals as well as short-term tactical aims we've been very successful with in reducing the threat of terrorism today, until we embrace that strategic dimension, we are going to be locked in a war that will last for generations."

More on U.S. policies in the third and final report of this series: the Roots of Terrorism.