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Jun 14, 2015
Presented by
Haroon Ullah

What makes someone become an Islamic extremist? Is it poverty? Lack of education? A search for meaning? Haroon Ullah, a senior State Department advisor and a foreign policy professor at Georgetown University, shares what he discovered while living in Pakistan.

Pretending that terrorism in the name of Islam has nothing to do with Islam or the Quran makes it harder to fight radicalism.

  • The politically correct notion that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with the religion of Islam only makes fighting extremism more difficult. While the West points to poverty and lack of education and western oppression as the roots of radicalism, the fundamentalist worldview continues to spread in many parts of the Muslim world.View Source
  • If we refuse to confront the ideological root of the problem, we will never effectively combat terrorism.View Source
  • Counter-terrorism experts agree that Islamic religious figures who do not support terrorism or the spread of Sharia are essential in helping to confront the extremist ideology.View Source
  • Related reading: Vying for Allah's Vote – Haroon UllahView Source
  • Related reading: The Bargain from the Bazaar: A Family’s Day of Reckoning in Lahore – Haroon UllahView Source
  • Related reading: The Al Qaeda Reader: The Essential Texts of Osama Bin Laden’s Terrorist Organization – Raymond IbrahimView Source

MYTH: Poverty is the real reason for the spread of Islamic extremism. 

  • One popular rationale for the spread of Islamic extremism – and for crime in general – is poverty. The demonstrably false rationale maintains that the poor come to resent the wealthy, and Islamic extremism provides the tool by which the poor can get back at the wealthy. However, other religious groups show this not to be true: poor Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and Evangelicals do not regularly join radical groups.View Source
  • According to a report from Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency, approximately two-thirds of suspects it was monitoring were “from middle or upper-middle-class backgrounds, showing that there is no simplistic relationship between poverty and involvement in Islamist extremism.”View Source
  • Related reading: Vying for Allah's Vote – Haroon UllahView Source
  • Related reading: Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism – Maajid NawazView Source
  • Related reading: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 – Lawrence WrightView Source

About 2/3 of Britain’s terror suspects are from middle class backgrounds. In other words, poverty is not the main cause of radicalism. 

  • One popular rationale for the spread of Islamic extremism – and for crime in general – is poverty. The demonstrably false rationale maintains that the poor come to resent the wealthy, and Islamic extremism provides the tool by which the poor can get back at the wealthy. However, other religious groups show this not to be true: poor Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and Evangelicals do not regularly join radical groups.View Source
  • According to a report from Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency, approximately two-thirds of suspects it was monitoring were “from middle or upper-middle-class backgrounds, showing that there is no simplistic relationship between poverty and involvement in Islamist extremism.”View Source
  • Related reading: Vying for Allah's Vote – Haroon UllahView Source
  • Related reading: Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism – Maajid NawazView Source
  • Related reading: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 – Lawrence WrightView Source

MYTH: Ignorance and lack of education are the real reasons for the spread of Islamic extremism.

  • A common narrative in the West is that increased access to education will end extremism.View Source
  • The theory holds that as people become more educated, they will not be as intellectually drawn to extremist ideologies, and they will have more economic opportunities, which will make them wealthier and less resentful, further reducing the appeal of extremist ideologies.View Source
  • While increasing education and employment might work in some cultures, this theory has so far not applied to the Muslim world, where much of the highly educated class, particularly in places like Egypt and Pakistan, support terrorism – or at the very least the Islamist ideology that justifies terrorism. For example, most of the 9/11 hijackers were well-educated and grew up in middle class families.View Source
  • Related reading: Vying for Allah's Vote – Haroon UllahView Source
  • Related reading: Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism – Maajid NawazView Source
  • Related reading: Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now – Ayaan Hirsi AliView Source

Is radicalism just a result of ignorance and poverty? Most of the 9/11 terrorists were well-educated and from middle class families. 

  • A common narrative in the west is that increased access to education will end extremism.View Source
  • The theory holds that as people become more educated, they will not be as intellectually drawn to extremist ideologies, and they will have more economic opportunities, which will make them wealthier and less resentful, further reducing the appeal of extremist ideologies.View Source
  • While increasing education and employment might work in some cultures, this theory has so far not applied to the Muslim world, where much of the highly educated class, particularly in places like Egypt and Pakistan, support terrorism – or at the very least the Islamist ideology that justifies terrorism. For example, most of the 9/11 hijackers were well-educated and grew up in middle class families.View Source
  • Related reading: Vying for Allah's Vote - Haroon UllahView Source
  • Related reading: Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism – Maajid NawazView Source
  • Related reading: Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now – Ayaan Hirsi AliView Source
  • Related reading: What ISIS Really Wants – Graeme WoodView Source

MYTH: When recruiting converts, Islamic extremists prefer to target the poor and uneducated. In fact, the opposite is often true.

  • Not only is there no correlation between lower education and Islamic extremism, extremist groups prefer to target well-educated converts. More highly educated and resourced people are generally more capable of being effective political activists, as they can more easily fit into a foreign environment and more effectively recruit.View Source
  • Data on convicted terrorists in England show that an overwhelming number were well-educated: 70% had finished secondary school, and the remaining groups were college or university graduates.View Source
  • Some religious schools in Pakistan— schools funded by wealthy industrialists—“deliberately educate students to become foot soldiers and elite operatives in various extremist movements around the world.”View Source
  • Related reading: Vying for Allah's Vote – Haroon UllahView Source
  • Related reading: Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now – Ayaan Hirsi AliView Source
  • Related reading: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 – Lawrence WrightView Source

A vast majority of convicted terrorists in England were well-educated.

  • Not only is there no correlation between lower education and Islamic extremism, extremist groups prefer to target well-educated converts. More highly educated and resourced people are generally more capable of being effective political activists, as they can more easily fit into a foreign environment and more effectively recruit.View Source
  • Data on convicted terrorists in England show that an overwhelming number were well-educated: 70% had finished secondary school, and the remaining groups were college or university graduates.View Source
  • Some religious schools in Pakistan— schools funded by wealthy industrialists—“deliberately educate students to become foot soldiers and elite operatives in various extremist movements around the world.”View Source
  • Related reading: Vying for Allah's Vote – Haroon UllahView Source
  • Related reading: Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now – Ayaan Hirsi AliView Source
  • Related reading: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 – Lawrence WrightView Source

Islamic extremism has spread in large part because it promises order, radical change, and the rectification of a perceived victimhood.

  • People become Islamic extremists not because of poverty or lack or education, but because it fulfills their desire for meaning, order, change, and their distorted sense of justice—while allowing them to blame others for their political and societal problems.View Source
  • For people searching for meaning, Islamist ideology promises eternal rewards for their extremist actions (like the promise that jihadists will be rewarded in heaven with 72 virgins), which gives them an opportunity to live a life of meaning.View Source
  • Islamists declare that their violent approach will bring about swift and radical change. Utopia awaits.View Source
  • These promises are so powerful in part because they place the blame for problems on others, peddling a sense of victimhood.View Source
  • Related reading: Vying for Allah's Vote – Haroon UllahView Source
  • Related reading: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 – Lawrence WrightView Source
  • Related reading: Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism – Maajid NawazView Source
  • Related reading: Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now – Ayaan Hirsi AliView Source

The only way to destroy Islamic extremism is to be honest about its causes, and for Muslims around the world to courageously confront it. 

  • Effectively combatting Islamic extremism begins with recognizing that poverty and lack of education are not the root causes, as studies continually show.View Source
  • The second step is to expose extremists’ narratives as false. Islamic extremists promise a better life for their followers, but what they inevitably deliver is more suffering, poverty, and death.View Source
  • Third, the government and the media must not euphemistically call terrorists “freedom fighters” – to call them anything but terrorists is to encourage more terrorism.View Source
  • Fourth, parents, educators, and leaders – both political and religious – need to expose these Islamic extremists for what they are, rather than glorifying them or looking the other way.View Source
  • Fifth, Muslim governments must stop blaming their problems on the West, America and Israel. They are responsible for the propaganda on television, radio and in print that portrays Westerners and Jews as omnipotent, evil forces.View Source
  • Sixth, counter-terrorism experts agree that Islamic religious figures who do not support terrorism or the spread of Sharia are essential in helping to confront the extremist ideology. They must speak out courageously to combat extremism.View Source
  • Related reading: Vying for Allah's Vote – Haroon UllahView Source

What drives someone to become a religious extremist, even to the point of becoming a suicide bomber?  Like most people I assumed that there were two overriding answers: poverty and ignorance.

The poverty line goes like this: grinding poverty from which there appears to be no escape fosters seething resentment against who those have more.  If your choice is to die a martyr or die a beggar, martyrdom is the clear winner.

The ignorance lines goes like this: the poor have no chance to get a decent education and thus are susceptible to easy manipulation.  Clever people play on their prejudices and superstitions.  Once the extremist gets this ignorant poor person in his grasp, indoctrination is easy.  

Since there's plenty of poverty and plenty of ignorance around the world, that's a lot of people to draw from.  This is how the source of terrorism is explained.

Then, I went to Pakistan and actually lived in the world from which extremists recruit.  And I found something much different than I expected.  Poverty had little to do with who became an extremist; lack of education even less.

Many of those that I met who subscribe to religious extremism -- and are prepared to murder and die for their cause -- are from the middle class; and many had a university education.  These are not poor people and these are not uneducated people.  They are well fed and well read.

So, if poverty and ignorance don't drive people to extremism, what does?

One is a desire for meaning and for order.  Places like Pakistan are submerged in chaos and corruption.  Islamists promise clear cut solutions to every problem: here's how things will change if you follow these rules.  And only these rules.

Another is a desire for change.  The old corrupt order, the narrative goes, must be overthrown and that can only happen through violent action.  Again, it is Islamists that step in -- with a promise to create a new form of government.

Then throw in a strong sense of victimhood -- we are not responsible for the sorry state of our country; others have brought us down -- and you have a toxic brew that many willingly imbibe.  These, of course, are the same easy answers that tyrants and demagogues -- from Lenin to Mussolini to Hitler to bin Laden -- have always offered their followers.

I saw this played out one day while living in Pakistan.  After one of the many assassinations of a major figure there, I was sitting with two middle class parents.  The father owned a small business and the mother was a nurse.  They had given their son a good life.  He wanted for nothing.

They told me that during dinner with the family a few days earlier, their son noted how the person who was murdered "deserved to die."   Why?  Because he had spoken out on behalf of religious minorities.  They were shocked.  How could their son, who had been educated and well raised, think that?  This story is all too typical.

So what to do about this extremism?

The first step is to get off this false narrative that this is first and foremost a poverty or education issue.

The second is to take on the narrative of the extremist groups.  They promise a better way, but what in fact do they deliver?  The answer is always: more death, more suffering and more poverty.  In other words, young people need to see these extremist groups for what they are.  Only then will recruitment numbers begin to go down.

Third, the media have to stop treating extremists as freedom fighters, a narrative that is all too common in places like Pakistan.

Fourth, teachers and parents cannot assume that just because they reject religious extremism, their children and students will, too.  Middle class parents and teachers have to be vigilant in instilling moderate, pluralist values in their children.

Fifth, politicians have to stop blaming their countries' problems on the West and have to confront the endemic corruption that destroys countries like Pakistan from within.

Sixth, and probably most important, Islamic religious figures have to stop looking the other way, or worse, glorifying so-called "martyrs" -- Muslims who murder innocent people -- almost always other Muslims -- in the name of Islam.  Muslim religious leaders must promise these murderers eternal damnation, not some sort of twisted heavenly bliss.

The people of Pakistan and other Muslim majority countries have real grievances.  But extremism only makes things worse.  Always and everywhere.

It is not poverty and misery that creates religious extremism.  It is religious extremism that creates poverty and misery.  And death.

I'm Haroon Ullah, adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service for Prager University.

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