The economic causes of Islamic extremism

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: June 22, 2017 21:01:36 | Updated: October 23, 2017 18:27:10

Economic resources can produce Islamic extremism in at least four ways: the very absence of any meaningful economic resources; the extension of economic resources for non-economic purposes; the diversion of economic wealth; and economic wealth directly instigating extremism.
The absence of meaningful economic resources actually refers to marginalised groups or individuals. They could be refugees, or immigrants, so alienated in the host country as to be left, virtually perpetually, on the fringes of society. Both groups have put West Europe on the flow forefront, some Australia, yet others the North American countries of Canada and the United States. Western developed countries are not the only platforms of would-be terrorists: Afghani refugees during the Soviet occupation also exposed how Pakistan particularly, but also Iran, the Soviet Union, and Turkey became refugee hosts. The West European case emphatically, but also Canadian and U.S. incidences sporadically, will be treated in greater detail in the next article of the series. Addressing social causes, what is important here is that the absence of an income source not only truncates the future of many refugees and migrants in societies depicting plenty or prosperity, but also drives them deeper into the desperation they thought they had buried by landing on safe shores in the first place. It whets the extremist's appetite since these groups represent opportunities falling from the sky. It opens the mind of hapless groups to any nirvana promised by anyone. As we observe, the Islamic State (IS) capitalised on Syrian refugees passing through Turkey to Europe, utilising them for terrorist acts or radicalising them amply as to keep them the unassimilated bug in their new 'home'.    
Something else we noted in the 2016 Bangladesh Holey Artisan Bakery instance is the drift towards terrorism of educated students from affluent families. There may be other cases, many of them, but the underlying nature should not be missed: something either in the education itself, or in the society the recruited person originally belonged to before embracing terrorism, had completely turned that person off, so much so that shifting to a diametrically opposite mindset becomes all the more attractive. Such a person may have been seduced/induced by a religious preacher a la madrasa pedagogy, or a free-wheeling individual. In this case, the wealth does not necessarily fuel or fund the terror actively directly, but it helps profile upper-echelon terror victims while also breaking the holy perception that 'wealthy people do not do such an outrageous thing'. Generally, any convert from a wealthy class not only carries the instrument of chipping in, no matter how symbolically, to the terror programme, or even a specific incident, but also serves to uplift the status of terrorism, like a free advertisement for any global corporation: if the rich can do it, as the untrained mindset may deduce, so can we at lower social tiers. That person's association with fellow-travellers improves terror prospects and shine.
Diverting economic resource has been a very popular terror funding channel. It was not just of the types of Osama bin-Laden diverting money his father's business had earned legitimately, but also of the IS revenue collected from Iraq's oil-sales, money that should have gone to the Iraqi public through the government. Here one might also add indiscriminate and illegal tolls imposed by terror organisations for ostensibly public purposes, but easily diverted to terror campaigns.
These terror campaigns need not be like the dramatic events in New York's 9/11, Madrid's 3/11, in London or Paris: they may simply be used to hold westerners for ransom in Raqqa, Mosul, or Kandahar, then feeding them until beheading day. A footnote on ransom money, though, is that it goes directly into the terror treasury, and therefore, belongs more to the next category than this one on diversion.
Directly contributing money for terror purposes has taken many forms: ransom collected, as just mentioned, is an obvious type; but so too cultivating poppy for sale in Afghanistan; and if we add to that the large private donations of wealthy, particularly, Arabs, we can get a clearer sense why terrorism is more than just a despicable political platform/agenda: that it can easily be turned into a business. For example, any given wealthy Arab may make pay-offs to eliminating a personal competitor, or any foreigner.
Arabs are not being singled out unnecessarily: there are more cases of Arabs, particularly wealthy ones in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, funding terrorists even as their political leaders embrace U.S.-sponsored anti-terror campaigns/crusades. This might be the anti-terror Rubicon: very much like any anti-ballistic missile system providing a leaky umbrella of protection against nuclear radiation, anti-terrorist campaigns against the typical perpetrators thus far (Russians, such as from Chechnya; or Qataris, Pakistanis, Saudis, and Tunisians), get completely undermined if they continue being neutralised by wealthy donors from within those countries. A Saudi businessman or a Pakistani intelligence officer aiding/abetting terrorism completely disrupts the entire global chain: the terrorism cancer grows even as western countries boast the bombing deaths of this or that terrorist leader.
Ultimately, withholding the economic support upon which terrorism grows can become a very effective constraint: if all countries pledging support for anti-terror campaigns remain true to their word and then scrutinise money-flows carefully, a major dent can be made in feeding the geese that lay the golden terrorist eggs. That, unfortunately, is not happening: any 'defection' or the casting of a blind-eye can also disrupt the entire global chain. More pinpointed, dissuading some of the disgruntled Arab princes from chipping in can reduce any terrorist 'fire' in size and effects. No tides can be stemmed if tiny leaks crop up here and there: they only exacerbate and expand the illegal flows.
Yet, the economic causes also reflect a social structure: if the economic taps cannot be controlled, perhaps scrutinising the social setting more rigorously can help us understand part of the reasons why. That is the task of the next article, the fifth in this series.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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