Gary Becker argues that terrorism should decline with improved economic development because the supply of terrorist foot-soldiers falls with the implied demographic transition and the opportunity cost of such things as suicide missions rises when you have a good job and good prospects. Becker argues that those who are well-educated and earning high incomes will only participate in ‘special event’, ‘high-profile’ terrorism such as September 11 and that the bulk of terrorists are male, single and poor – sexually-frustrated nobodies whose lives are going nowhere.
I have posted on this idea before.
Richard Posner is not so sure about the role of demographics and economic development. He argues that the demand for terrorism is grievance-driven by fantasy, as well as such things as foreign occupations, and that educated people are likely to be particularly sensitive to such grievances. Extremist Islamic beliefs may be the primary creator of terrorists with economic and demographic factors being secondary. Posner does concede however that demographic transition will increase average age which is a positive factor reducing supply.
Both of these types of arguments have validity. Certainly economic development turns the minds of young Muslims to other things as the Dubai experience indicates. Religious fanatics at high socio-economic levels will be attracted to terrorist pursuits but the cannon-fodder foot-soldiers will probably choose terrorism because of a lack of other worthwhile options. And terrorist fanatics anywhere depend on community support for survival. Foot-soldiers and the community-at-large will be less inclined to support terrorism and suicide missions if they have strong economic opportunities.
I agree with Posner that extreme Islamic beliefs are important independent causes of terrorism – this is impossible to deny. But I am not persuaded that ‘good Islam’ – here defined as the mainstream beliefs of many Muslims - is not also partly to blame. In fact the perennial claims of Muslims that terrorists are only those who have distorted the peaceful message of Islam seems something of an overworn excuse and an exaggeration.
While international support among Muslims for terrorism is on the wane, significant proportions of the population in Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon continue to support terrorist attacks in the US. In Pakistan and Jordan support for bin Laden has actually increased and this growth has been grass roots.
Mainstream beliefs based on a well-established religion cannot be solely viewed as fanaticism.