Stop Pretending That Jihadism Is About Good Government and Jobs

The secularized West finds it hard to believe that religion motivates people. But the facile economic explanations for jihadist violence don't stand the test of facts.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
Palestinian militants from the Islamic Jihad are dressed as suicide bombers during a rally in the West Bank city of Jenin April 10, 2006.
Palestinian militants from the Islamic Jihad are dressed as suicide bombers during a rally in the West Bank city of Jenin April 10, 2006. Credit: Reuters
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

What makes the world go round? Or, more to the point, what makes people act and think as they do? In the 21st-century Western world, the indisputable top three are money, sex and fame (power used to be up there, but with the rise of the Internet and social media it’s lost some of its allure).

There are lots of other things that motivate people. Love and hate are certainly two important ones. Boredom, altruism and thrill-seeking are a few others. But religion? The liberal establishment of the secularized West has trouble believing that faith can be the real reason for someone’s actions. If rabbis isolate their followers by depriving them of a secular education, or contact with outsiders, for instance, they are assumed to be motivated by a lust for power and control. If a fundamentalist Christian looks askance at homosexuality, it’s because of visceral hatred or sexual repression, not because he believes in the Bible. Likewise, if an Islamic zealot beheads his boss, or shoots down 38 people on a beach, or blows himself inside a mosque, there must be a good economic or psychological reason for it -- faith is just a façade.

Now, let’s not get two things confused. Islam is not a violent religion, certainly not more so than any of the others. It has a poor image problem, some of it its own doing, like those Islamic State beheading videos, and some due to the intense media coverage of every terror attack perpetrated by Muslims. Yet in spite of all the hysteria about European Muslims running off to Syria to join Islamic State, out of a European Muslim population of some 45 million only 5,000-6,000 have actually done so.

The least likely way to die

In the United States, a report last week pointed out that only 26 people had been killed since 9/11 by “jihadist” attacks, versus 48 by patriotic American rightists. Being struck by lightning is the proverbial least likely way to die, but during those same years, 460 Americans died by a bolt from the blue. So: An American is far, far more likely to be hit by lightning than murdered by an enraged Muslim, yet people nonchalantly walk outdoors during thunderstorms while fearing to sit next to a veiled woman on the plane.

Yet to ascribe the rare violence perpetrated in the name of Islam to economics, boredom, hopelessness or poor governance is silly, though that is what leaders in the U.S. and Europe do reflexively. Thus, back in February State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, responding to a question about what can be done to stop Islamic State from slaughtering people, said, "We need ... to go after the root causes that lead people to join these groups, whether it's lack of opportunity for jobs," and going on to say that the U.S. should work with other countries to "help improve their governance" and "help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people."

Jobs? Better governance? Let’s look at the profiles of the latest crop of jihadists.

Not starving

Seifeddine Rezgui, who moved down 37 people on a Tunisian beach last Friday did indeed come from a poor family supported by the father’s earnings as a day laborer. But Seifeddine himself was getting his master's degree at a local university in what looks like a classic case of social mobility. The Tunisian economy is struggling and youth unemployment is hovering at 40%, but it is also democratizing, making it a rare ray of light emitting from the Arab Spring.

This image, from a militant website associated with ISIS extremists, posted June 27, 2015, purports to show Tunisian gunman Seifeddine Rezgui. (AP)

Yassine Salhi, who beheaded his boss and tried to blow up a chemicals plant near Lyon the same day was employed as a deliveryman and married with three children. Salki wasn’t at the top of the economic ladder, but nor was he at the bottom. At age 35, he probably wasn’t looking for the several-minutes of adventure he would get from murdering his boss and blowing up a factory, nor does his family life hint that he was alone or adrift.

Less is known about Fahud Suleiman Abdulmoshen, who blew himself up in a Kuwait mosque that same Friday, taking 27 lives with him. But we do know he was a Saudi citizen, which means he was living, on the one hand, in one of the world’s least democratic societies, but on the other, in a country that provides a materially comfortable life. The Saudi government spends billions of dollars of its oil revenues every year on make-work programs, housing, unemployment benefits, university scholarships and other programs.

The first two and probably the third were not economic-distress cases as far as we know; all were evidently motivated by their interpretation of faith. In any case, if any of the three were aspiring to better government or job opportunities, as Harf would contend, it’s hard to see exactly how ISIS would answer their needs. It’s even more repressive than the regimes it opposes and makes no serious claims to have a formula for creating a thriving economy.

Islam is a 1,500-year-old faith, but the history of suicide bombings and beheadings that Islamophobes harp on goes back a bare 30 years, which hardly makes such practices a bedrock of Muslim faith.

But the Islamic world is going through a difficult period, which is not only manifested by acts of jihadist terror but by with anarchy ripping through Libya, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Finding everyone a job, even if that were possible, won’t solve the problem.

The problems Muslims face is how to reconcile their very real religious faith to the foundations of a modern society – democratic government, liberal values, free market economics and a dose of social welfare. To the distress of many a good Muslim, all of these are inextricably associated with the West and therefore tainted, which complicates the job. But as the rising powers of Asia have shown by adopting them, to one degree or another, those principles seem to be the only route to creating a prosperous, functioning society in the 21st century. Marxism, the big attempt of the last century to find an alternative, crashed and burned. Unless Muslim religious leaders and scholars can find a way to meld their religion to those same foundations, Islam could go the same way.

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