Why do people become terrorists?
It’s an urgent question.
From Nice to Pakistan, from London to Baghdad, terrorists are murdering victim after victim. And we never know where – or who – the next target will be. And so, we grasp for answers. We want to know why people would massacre their fellow human beings, in the hope of minimizing the threat.
Now one common answer is poverty. If someone is poor, we’re told, they’re desperate and angry – and ripe for radicalisation.
Another answer is a lack of education: ignorant people are easily brainwashed into radical ideologies.
And so, the thinking goes, underprivileged people are more likely to become terrorists.
But is that really the case?
1) Do Poverty and Lack of Education Lead to Terrorism?
The facts don’t point in that direction.
The problem with the ‘poverty and lack of education’ thesis is summarised by Acton Institute researcher Samuel Gregg, when he writes:
[I]f poverty or absence of economic opportunity drove people to immolate themselves and innocent bystanders, drive trucks into large crowds, slit priests’ throats, execute nuns or axe Jews to death, you’d expect similar events to occur regularly in places such as China’s rural impoverished Eastern regions, large swathes of India or downtown Detroit for several decades. But they aren’t.’ [Emphasis added].
Poverty and lack of education, on their own, don’t explain why people are drawn terrorism.
It’s a fairly obvious point when you think about it – and there’s academic research to confirm this:
2) The Shocking Statistic: 50-66%
Around 50-66 % of terrorists come from educated and economically privileged backgrounds.
Samuel Gregg points to one of the few major academic studies that closely examined the assumed link between economic and educational disadvantage and terrorism.
The study looked at Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists. It concluded:
[T]he available evidence indicates that, compared with the relevant population, members of Hezbollah’s militant wing or Palestinian suicide bombers are at least as likely to come from economically advantaged families and have a relatively high level of education as to come from the ranks of the economically disadvantaged and uneducated.” [Emphasis added].
Further research cited by the above study looked at other terrorist groups, and came to an even higher statistic:
[T]he vast majority of those individuals involved in terrorist activities as cadres or leaders is quite well educated. In fact, approximately two-thirds of those identified terrorists are persons with some university training, university graduates or postgraduate students.” Indeed, over two-thirds “came from the middle or upper classes in their respective nations or areas.” [Emphasis added].
(University education as a predictor of terrorist activity, anyone?)
In other words, terrorists are just as likely – and in some cases more likely – to come from privileged backgrounds.
3) So What About Social or Political Oppression?
Don’t they inevitably lead to terrorism?
Do social alienation and political oppression lead inevitably to terrorism? Again, the facts don’t seem to point in that direction.
Both the LGBTI and indigenous communities: have been – and in some cases still are – deeply alienated and socially oppressed. Yet they don’t terrorise white, straight cis-gender Australians.
Clearly, alienation and oppression don’t inevitably lead to terrorism.
4) Then what causes terrorism?
The elephant in the room: worldview.
Neither economic disadvantage, nor lack of education, nor political or social oppression lead inevitably to terrorism.
Instead, the academic report gives this conclusion:
Instead of viewing terrorism as a direct response to low market opportunities or ignorance, we suggest it is more accurately viewed as a response to political conditions and long-standing feelings of indignity and frustration that have little to do with economics.[Page 1, emphasis added].
It’s all about your response – how you respond to ‘political conditions and long-standing feelings of indignity and frustration’.
But what drives your response to bad situations?
A major factor is your worldview – and in particular, your view of right and wrong.
So, if achieving your political, or environmental goals through violence is acceptable according to your worldview, then you’ll be more open to terrorism.
If you believe violence is acceptable – even required – when someone offends you or your religion, then you’ll be more open to terrorism.
Current [British] policy on the Middle East is seen by almost every [moderate British Muslim] I speak to as unfair and unjust. Such a sense of injustice plays into the hands of extremists.”‘
In other words, Khan implicitly believes that 21st century, moderate, westernized Islam is a worldview that opens the door to terrorism – just add feelings of injustice over British foreign policy.
Think about that for a moment:
Would you be tempted to commit mass murder because you felt upset about your government’s foreign policy?
According to Khan, moderate, western Islam could lead you down that path.
And that’s the power of worldview.
Closing the Door on Terrorism
Like many a terrorist, Saul of Tarsus came from a privileged and educated background. And yet, like many a terrorist, he was a murderer – persecuting Christians for religious ends.
But something changed. His worldview was turned upside down – or rather, right side up. Listen to what he says:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.
If the ‘worst’ of sinners can be rescued from his violent ways, then anyone can. Even terrorists. And so Christians should pray for the fanatical ‘Saul’s’ in the terrorist world – that they too might encounter Christ Jesus.
The one who came to save terrorists.