A Matter of Pride
Why we can’t buy off the next Osama bin Laden.
While there are deep and divisive fissures across the political spectrum over how to combat terrorism, there is a surprising level of agreement as to its cause. "We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror," George W. Bush told an audience in Mexico in 2002. "Today, billions of people live on the knife’s edge of survival, trapped in a struggle against ignorance, poverty, and disease. Their misery is a breeding ground for the hatred peddled by bin Laden and other merchants of death," Howard Dean declared during his 2004 presidential run. Kim Dae Jung, the former dissident who became the president of South Korea and won the Nobel Peace Prize, agrees: "At the bottom of terrorism is poverty." And the editors of the New York Times, arguing that reducing duties on exports from Pakistan can play a significant role in the war on terrorism, wrote in 2004, "Economics cannot be separated from national security. Young Pakistanis who can’t get jobs in factories that export to America sometimes go to training camps to learn how to kill Americans."
This analysis, at its root, is an optimistic one. It holds out the prospect that widespread prosperity can be a universal solvent for political violence employed by stateless actors and states alike. Conflict, in this view, is not endemic to the human condition; it is simply a relic of primitive stages in social development, which can be corrected by enlightened policy. Liberals tend to prefer the idea of a global or regional "Marshall Plan," while conservatives and libertarians claim that cutting subsidies and promoting free trade will produce development in poor countries. Despite their different prescriptions, many on the left and right agree that fighting world poverty is important in the fight against transnational terrorism since it removes the attractiveness of these revolutionary and utopian worldviews.
But it is a mistake to treat human beings as profit-maximizing rationalists who can be persuaded to put aside their differences in order to collaborate on a common project of promoting global prosperity. Individuals and communities often have incompatible secular or religious visions of the good society. And, for better or worse, human beings are social animals, deeply concerned about rank and status, both as individuals and as members of communities. Ambition and humiliation, personal and collective, inspire more political conflict than economic deprivation. In short, if our goal is to understand the conditions that give terrorist movements popular appeal and to understand how virulent ideologies spread from madmen and isolated sects to mass movements, our emphasis must be on subjective perceptions of national, religious, and ethnic humiliation, rather than on the humiliation, genuine as it may be, which is associated with poverty.
In order to understand the roots of both terrorism and war, we must free ourselves from conceptual confusions. Terrorism and war are tactics that have been used to promote radical ideologies, depending upon whether revolutionaries control a government or not. And to understand radical ideologies, it is necessary to understand radical ideologues, few of whom have been found among the ranks of the poor.
A stateless group that uses terrorism while out of power may, if it gains control of a state, attempt to promote the same goals by the instruments of traditional statecraft, such as war, espionage, and perhaps state-sponsored terrorism. Communist leaders like Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong went from being underground terrorists to heads of state, and in doing so changed their tactics for expanding control drastically, even while their revolutionary ideologies remained relatively intact. In a similar vein, Osama bin Laden and the other al Qaeda leaders would prefer to control at least one government as opposed to being forced to operate as a stateless organization. Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s chief strategist, concluded his 2001 biography, Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, with the following observation: "Liberating the Muslim nation, confronting the enemies of Islam, and launching jihad against them require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land that raises the banner of jihad and rallies the Muslims around it. Without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing more than mere and repeated disturbances."
The key factor, then, is not whether a group is stateless or controls a state, but whether or not it is promoting a revolutionary ideology that justifies both terrorism and interstate war to promote its goals. If today’s militant Islamism is understood in these terms–as a revolutionary ideology whose adherents seek to gain state power and exercise it to realize their vision–then it can be viewed as the latest in a series of revolutionary political doctrines of the past few centuries, which included radical Jacobin liberalism, anarchism, communism, and fascism and other forms of radical nationalism.
While some of these revolutionary faiths found their greatest support in poor countries, others took root in some of the richest and most educated societies in the world. And even in poor countries, revolutionary extremists have almost invariably come from the comfortable and well-educated upper or middle class. Revolutions may be waged in the name of the poor and dispossessed, but they are usually made by the relatively rich.
The members of al Qaeda are no exception. They are not the dispossessed, but the empowered. Many studied for high-end careers in medicine and engineering at universities, rather than at some dirt-poor madrassa. The top lieutenant to bin Laden is an upper-class Egyptian doctor; al Qaeda’s top military planner has a degree in psychology and spent time in California as an IT specialist. Rifia Ahmed Taha, an Egyptian terrorist and a co-signatory of bin Laden’s 1998 declaration of war against America, is by training an accountant. Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, another top al Qaeda official, studied electrical engineering in Iraq and went on to a successful business career. And even bin Laden himself studied economics and later spent time working at his family’s giant construction business.
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