Following terrorist-linked attacks in France and the United States in less than a month, understanding the motives behind terrorism is as relevant as ever.
Thomas Piketty, whose book, “Capital in the 21st Century,” made him into what the New York Times called an “overnight intellectual sensation," has weighed in on the debate. He published an essay last week arguing that economic inequality causes terrorism and reopened an ongoing debate about the root causes of terrorism.
Many have been quick to criticize Piketty’s essay, pointing out that millions of people live in poverty and in economies with dramatic inequality and yet very few become terrorists. Still others, including many politicians, see merit in Piketty's position.
The French intellectual wrote that “it is obvious that terrorism feeds on the Middle Eastern powder keg of inequality we have largely contributed to create.” He argued the entire political and social system of the Middle East has been weakened by the region being "the most unequal region (on) the planet,” with 60 to 70 percent of regional GDP controlled by “barely 10 percent of the population." He went on to say that the inequality has largely risen out of mismanaged conflicts between the West and the Middle East.
Piketty concludes that to fight terrorism, Western governments should demonstrate that their interest in the “social development and political integration of the region” is greater than their financial and business relationships with the ruling families.
His essay set off a back and forth in a debate that actually goes back decades. Presidents from Bill Clinton to Barrack Obama have linked poverty to terrorism. In a speech six months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, former President George W. Bush linked poverty and terrorism, saying, “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.”
Three months after Bush’s statement, Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova released a now frequently cited paper in the New Republic concluding there was little evidence indicating a reduction in poverty would equal a reduction in terrorism. They argued that terrorism is a violent form of political engagement and “people from privileged backgrounds are more likely to participate in politics.”
Many academic studies have come to similar conclusions. A 2006 study found that poor countries did not produce more terrorists than rich countries. A 2009 report from the RAND Corporation commissioned by the Department of Defense said “terrorists are not particularly impoverished, uneducated, or afflicted by mental disease.” The RAND report goes on the say that “terrorist leaders actually tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds.”
Obama was actually more nuanced in making the connection. “There are millions of people — billions of people — in the world who live in abject poverty and are focused on what they can do to build up their own lives, and never embrace violent ideologies” he said earlier this year. “What’s true, though,” he added, is that when people “are impoverished and have no hope for the future the risk of instability and extremism grows.”
Though there is little causal evidence between poverty and terrorism, some studies have found a correlation between the two. One 2011 study found a positive relationship between unemployment and extremist crime in Germany. An older study from the 1970s found exceptions to the idea that terrorists generally come from middle or upper class backgrounds.
Earlier this year in Time magazine, David Sterman, a researcher at New America’s International Security Program, argued that despite the evidence against poverty as a motive for terrorism, it shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.
“One size will never fit all," he wrote. "Searching for single-category, causal explanations for terrorism and dismissing correlated elements like poverty and mental illness as irrelevant is likely to obscure other patterns that could shed light on extremist behavior.”