God and Mammon: Does Poverty Cause Militant Islam?

The events of September 11 have intensified a long-standing debate: What causes Muslims to turn to militant Islam? Some analysts have noted the poverty of Afghanistan and concluded that herein lay the problem. Jessica Stern of Harvard University wrote that the United States "can no longer afford to allow states to fail." If it does not devote a much higher priority to health, education and economic development abroad, she writes, "new Osamas will continue to arise."1 Susan Sachs of the New York Times observes: "Predictably, the disappointed youth of Egypt and Saudi Arabia turn to religion for comfort." More colorfully, others have advocated bombarding Afghanistan with foodstuffs not along with but instead of explosives.

Behind these analyses lies an assumption that socioeconomic distress drives Muslims to extremism. The evidence, however, does not support this expectation. Militant Islam (or Islamism) is not a response to poverty or impoverishment; not only are Bangladesh and Iraq not hotbeds of militant Islam, but militant Islam has often surged in countries experiencing rapid economic growth. The factors that cause militant Islam to decline or flourish appear to have more to do with issues of identity than with economics.

All Other Problems Vanish

The conventional wisdom-that economic stress causes militant Islam and that economic growth is needed to blunt it-has many well-placed adherents. Even some Islamists themselves accept this connection. In the words of a fiery sheikh from Cairo, "Islam is the religion of bad times." A Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmud az-Zahar, says, "It is enough to see the poverty-stricken outskirts of Algiers or the refugee camps in Gaza to understand the factors that nurture the strength of the Islamic Resistance Movement." In this spirit, militant Islamic organizations offer a wide range of welfare benefits in an effort to attract followers. They also promote what they call an "Islamic economy" as the "most gracious system of solidarity in a society. Under such a system, the honorable do not fall, the honest do not perish, the needy do not suffer, the handicapped do not despair, the sick do not die for lack of care, and people do not destroy one another."

Many secular Muslims also stress militant Islam's source in poverty as an article of faith. SŸleyman Demirel, the former Turkish president, says, "As long as there is poverty, inequality, injustice, and repressive political systems, fundamentalist tendencies will grow in the world." Turkey's former prime minister, Tansu Çiller, finds that Islamists did so well in the 1994 elections because "People reacted to the economy." The chief of Jordanian Army Intelligence holds, "Economic develop ment may solve almost all of our problems [in the Middle East]." Including militant Islam, he was asked? Yes, he replied: "The moment a person is in a good economic position, has a job, and can support his family, all other problems vanish."

Leftists in the Middle East concur, interpreting the militant Islamic resurgence as "a sign of pessimism. Because people are desperate, they are resorting to the supernatural." Social scientists sign on as well: Hooshang Amirahmadi, an academic of Iranian origins, argues that "the roots of Islamic radicalism must be looked for outside the religion, in the real world of cultural despair, economic decline, political oppression, and spiritual turmoil in which most Muslims find themselves today." The academy, with its lingering Marxist disposition and disdain for faith, of course accepts this militant Islam-from-poverty thesis with near unanimity. Ervand Abrahamian holds that "the behavior of Khomeini and the Islamic Republic has been determined less by scriptural principles than by immediate political, social and economic needs." Ziad Abu-Amr, author of a book on militant Islam (and a member of the Palestine Legislative Council), ascribes a Palestinian turn toward religiosity to "the sombre climate of destruction, war, unemployment, and depression [which] cause people to seek solace, and they're going to Allah."

Western politicians also find the argument compelling. For former President Bill Clinton, "These forces of reaction feed on disillusionment, poverty and despair", and he advocates a socioeconomic remedy: "spread prosperity and security to all." Edward Djerejian, once a top State Department figure, reports that "political Islamic movements are to an important degree rooted in worsening socio-economic conditions in individual countries." Martin Indyk, another former high-ranking U.S. diplomat, warns that those wishing to reduce the appeal of militant Islam must first solve the economic, social and political problems that constitute its breeding grounds.

Militant Islam reflects "the economic, political, and cultural disappointment" of Muslims, according to former German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel. Former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua of France finds that this phenomenon "has coincided with despair on the part of a large section of the masses, and young people in particular." Prime Minister Eddie Fenech of Malta draws an even closer tie: "Fundamentalism grows at the same pace as economic problems." Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres flatly asserts that "fundamentalism's basis is poverty" and that it offers "a way of protesting against poverty, corruption, ignorance, and discrimination."

Armed with this theory of cause and effect, businessmen on occasion make investments with an eye to political amelioration. The Virgin Group's chairman, Richard Branson, declared as he opened a music store in Beirut: "The region will become stable if people invest in it, create jobs and rebuild the countries that need rebuilding, not ignore them."

Somewhere Near the Stratosphere