No, Pope Francis, the Economy Doesn’t Cause Terrorism

Islamist terrorism has little to do with economic factors. But it owes much to religion.

By Samuel Gregg Published on August 3, 2016

In his most recent interview on a flight back from Poland, Pope Francis gave a curiously economistic interpretation of the causes of Islamist terrorism. Speaking after the martyrdom of Father Jacques Hamel by two jihadists, the pope said the following in response to a question about what concrete initiatives he would recommend for addressing terrorism:

Terrorism grows when there are no other options, and when the center of the global economy is the god of money and not the person — men and women — this is already the first terrorism! You have cast out the wonder of creation — man and woman — and you have put money in its place. This is a basic terrorism against all of humanity! Think about it!

Here the pope seems to hold that terrorism owes a great deal to economic conditions: that the prevalence of poverty, vast inequalities or unemployment, for instance, are driving some Muslims into jihadism. An earlier remark of the pope in the same interview foreshadowed that claim. “How many young people,” he said, “whom we have left empty of ideals, who do not have work … they take drugs, alcohol, or go there to enlist in fundamentalist groups.” But do factors such as economic poverty and greed really function as major causes of Islamist terrorism?

It’s Rarely, if Ever, the Economy

Following 9/11, political leaders ranging from Al Gore to George W. Bush asserted that poverty was a significant cause of terrorism. A major 2003 academic study of this precise question, however, came to different conclusions. It stated:

… our review of the evidence provides little reason for optimism that a reduction in poverty or an increase in educational attainment would meaningfully reduce international terrorism. Any connection between poverty, education and terrorism is indirect, complicated and probably quite weak.

The groups examined in this study included Hezbollah militants and Palestinian terrorists. In their case, the study found, “the 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.”

Looking outside the Middle East, the same study looked at organizations identified as hate-groups in the United States. Again, it concluded that “the occurrence of hate crimes and prevalence of hate groups are also found to be unrelated to economic circumstances of the area.” The existence of hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan was also identified as “unrelated to the unemployment rate, divorce rate, percentage black or gap in per capita income between whites and blacks in the county.”

Other research cited in the 2003 study analyzed the Red Army in Japan, Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang, the Irish Republican Army, the Italian Red Brigades and the People’s Liberation Army in Turkey. This research determined that “the 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.”

In short, terrorists generally aren’t economically poor or from impoverished backgrounds. Moreover, if 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.

So What Drives Muslim Terrorists?

If your average jihadist isn’t doing it for the money, then, in the words of the Harvard economist Robert Barro, “It is naive to think that increases in income and education will, by themselves, lower international terrorism.” That’s not a reason not to fight poverty. In Barro’s view, however, “The goal of reducing poverty remains laudable, but on grounds other than fighting terrorism. To find a lasting solution for the terrorism problem, we have to continue to look elsewhere.”

On some occasions, Pope Francis has acknowledged that elements of Islamic theology lend themselves to legitimations of jihadist violence. In one interview, for instance, he stated: “It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam.”

Yet Francis immediately qualified his remark by making an odd analogy with the Christian commandment to evangelize — as if spreading the Christian Gospel was in some way comparable to violent jihad. Could the pope be underestimating just how much distinctly-Islamic beliefs contribute to Islamist terrorism?

In an interview following the Nice truck-attack, the distinguished French historian of philosophy and winner of the 2012 Ratzinger Prize for theology, Remi Brague, stated that “there is no true dividing line between Islam and Islamism. It is a matter of degree, not of kind.” Such words — spoken by perhaps the world’s most foremost authority on comparative classical, Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought — may be hard for your average Western liberal to hear. That doesn’t make them any less true.

Another Catholic scholar, the Egyptian Jesuit and Islamologist Father Samir Khalil Samir, has even politely suggested there may be an element of wishful thinking in Francis’s approach to Islamist terrorism. Reflecting on the pope’s 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Father Samir commented:

In [Evangelii Gaudium], he writes: “True Islam and the proper interpretation of the Koran oppose all violence.” This phrase is beautiful and expresses a very benevolent attitude on the Pope’s part towards Islam. However, in my humble opinion, it expresses more a wish than a reality. The fact that the majority of Muslims are opposed to violence may well be true. But to say that “the true Islam is against any violence,” does not seem true: there is violence in the Koran.

To this, Father Samir added: “Those who criticize Islam with regard to the violence are not making an unjust and odious generalization: as evidenced by the present bloody and ongoing issues in the Muslim world. Here in the East we understand very well that Islamist terrorism is religiously motivated, with quotes, prayers and fatwas from imams who encourage violence.”

Quite rightly, Pope Francis doesn’t want to imply that the West, or Christianity in particular, wants a religiously-inspired war with Islam. That would be to play into the jihadists’ hands. Moreover, as Brague stresses, “it is necessary truly and firmly to distinguish between on the one hand, Islam, with all its inflections and levels of intensity, and on the other hand real flesh-and-blood Muslims.” The pope also has to consider the situation of Christians in majority-Muslim nations — though, as George Weigel recently noted, the Vatican’s present approach to the Middle East has done little to stop the persecution of Middle-Eastern Christians by Muslim terrorists.

The vast majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists. But most terrorists today are Muslims whose religious convictions are a major reason why they plunder, torture and murder others — including other Muslims. Imagining that reducing economic inequality in Islamic nations, or that increasing welfare-payments to poor Muslims in Western Europe will somehow diminish terrorism not only doesn’t fit the evidence. It fails to take Islam seriously as a religion.

And that’s of no service to anyone — especially Muslims.


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute and author of For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

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