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Socio-Economic Roots of Radicalism?: Towards Explaining the Appeal of Islamic Radicals

Authored by Prof. Alan Richards. | July 2003

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Why do ?Islamic radicals? enjoy so much sympathy in the Middle East and wider Muslim world? The author argues that such radicalism is a political response to the deepening economic, social, political, and cultural crisis in the Muslim World. Rapid demographic growth, educational changes, government policy failure, and rapid urbanization are among the causes of high unemployment, and increasing poverty, which, together with other other forces, have alienated large sectors of Muslim youth. The regional crisis has deep historical roots, and simple ?solutions? do not exist. A long-term strategy is needed. Elements of that strategy include recognition of the limits of American power in the face of this multidimensional crisis, concrete steps to resolve the Palestinian problem, and improved intelligence cooperation and covert actions. The future of the region belongs to young Muslims: we should ask of any proposed policy: how will they interpret our actions?

Introduction: The Debate Over ?Roots.?1

Why do ?Islamic radicals??including the partisans of alQaeda and other followers of Osama bin Laden?enjoy so much sympathy in the Middle East and wider Muslim world? Obviously, understanding such a phenomenon is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for crafting a strategy to cope with the murderous violence of September 11, 2001. Some analysts?including this one?believe that explaining this?or any other?large-scale social movement requires a nuanced, complex historical analysis of social, economic, political, and cultural factors. Space and professional competence sharply constrain the analysis offered here, which will focus more on economic, social, and political factors than on cultural and ideological aspects.

Any reader of journals and op-ed pages of newspapers knows, however, that perspectives such as this have hardly gone unchallenged. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, attempts at analysis of any kind were often denigrated as symptoms of cowardice or treason. Pundits and policymakers suggested that to argue that phenomenon such as al-Qaeda had social roots was to excuse, or even condone, their apocalyptic actions. As the political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon pointed out, such arguments are ?grade-school non sequiturs.?2 After all, historians who study Nazism do not justify Auschwitz, and students of Stalinism do not exonerate the perpetrators of the Gulag. Understanding is simply better than the alternative, which is incomprehension. If we fail to grasp the forces behind the attacks of September 11, we will fail to respond wisely.

A charitable interpretation of such breathless anathemas would be that the authors were simply traumatized by the shock of the events of that terrible day. While this may well be true, I think that something else is also involved. The title to this monograph has a question mark, not because I think that there are not such roots, butbecause there exists an influential school of writers and thinkers who continue to argue that such roots do not exist. One can distinguish two broad types of arguments here: 1) arguments about specific roots (i.e., the debate on the role, if any, of poverty in fostering Islamic radicalism?discussed below), and 2) a broader denial of the idea that terrorism (or crime, or any social pathology) has any interesting social origins. The first perspective is certainly welcome: it is always useful, indeed necessary, to challenge and question any particular historical analysis. Such analysts are, at least, engaging in reasoned debate and analysis, however one may assess the validity of their arguments.

The second perspective is, of course, one much beloved by (grossly misnamed3) neo-conservatives. In their jihad against ?liberalism? and ?permissiveness,? they fear that any sociological or economic explanation for behavior will lead to ?softness,? or to an insufficiently muscular (in this case, military) response. At a deeper level, they seem either to argue that evil?such as the attacks of September 11?is itself uncaused, or, following a venerable tradition that extends back at least to St. Augustine, the product of pride. This latter perspective is particularly prominent in discussions of the question, ?Why do ?they? hate us?? Allegedly, ?Muslims? ?hate? the United States because we have been successful, and they have failed. Such explanations, of course, imply that we in the United States need not change any significant aspect of our behavior, most particularly including our energy and foreign policies. We simply have to keep bashing the miscreants militarily often enough, and then they will come to understand that we are right and they are wrong. It is, in essence, an American version of the ?Iron Wall? strategy which Vladimir Jabotinsky advocated for the Yishuv in Palestine.4

Of course, the wrong diagnosis will typically lead to the wrong prescription. The American version of the Iron Wall is likely to be no more successful than it has been in Israel, where, 50 years after the proclamation of the Jewish state, Israeli citizens feel at least as insecure as ever in their history. While military action, and, even more, covert operations may well be appropriate elements of a longterm strategy, they are hardly likely to be sufficient. The reason, of course, is that the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism indeed hasdeep, tangled, historical roots, and that our behavior has, and can again, exacerbate rather than ameliorate the problem.

Part of the difficulty, of course, is the very complexity of the phenomenon (or phenomena) which confront us. As a number of excellent recently published articles and books have reminded us (it is a damning commentary that we needed reminding), Muslims who deeply dislike various aspects of the international order, their domestic political system, and/or U.S. foreign policy are a highly diverse lot.5 Since at least one of seven human beings is Muslim, how could it be otherwise? This very complexity makes it hugely difficult to generalize, yet generalize we must if we are to identify courses of action that are likely to increase, or decrease, our security. It may also be that the very complexity (and fluidity) of the phenomenon of ?Islamic radicalism? contributes to disagreement about the relative weight of various social factors, simply because different analysts are?perhaps unknowingly?discussing different groups of people.

For example, it may be useful to distinguish between the following groups, thought of (perhaps) as concentric circles:

  1. ?Jihadist Salafis??such as the followers of al-Qaeda and like-minded local groups;
  2. ?Salafis??those who believe that the imitation of the behavior of the Prophet?s closest companions should be the basis of the social order;
  3. ?Islamists??a still broader category, which includes anyone who thinks that the precepts of Islam?however interpreted? should be fundamental to the political and social order; and,
  4. ?Discontented Muslims??people who identify themselves as Muslims, and who are unhappy with their life prospects, with the justice of their societies, and/or with the state of the wider world.

Presumably, the goal of American policy should be to isolate the first group from all the others. This alone would suggest that understanding the social origins of the other groups, and the origins of their discontents, should be a high priority for Americans. Doing so requires us to have some understanding of the vast, multidimensional crisis which is unfolding in the Muslim world.


1. ?I am more fearful than ever that I will hopelessly repeat myself, over and over again,? Vavclav Havel, ?A Farewell to Politics,? New York Review of Books, October 24, 2002, p. 4. Unlike Mr. Havel, I know that I am repeating myself: I draw heavily here on several previous pieces: ?Socio-economic Roots of Radicalism,? Naval War College Review, Vol. LV, No. 4, Autumn, 2002; ?The Political Economy of Economic Reform in the Middle East,? Santa Monica: RAND, October 2001; and ?At War With Utopian Fanatics,? Middle East Policy, Vol. VIII, No. 4, December 2001. An earlier version of this monograph appears as a Global Policy Brief, Center for Global, International, and Regional Studies of the University of California, Santa Cruz. I am repeating myself, but events in Washington and elsewhere suggest that the material bears repeating.

2. Thomas Homer-Dixon, ?Why Root Causes Are Important,? Toronto Globe and Mail, September 26, 2001.

3. There is nothing ?conservative? about these people, particularly in the context of American policy toward the Middle East. They are, in fact, revolutionaries.

4. Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall, NY and London: Penguin Books, 2001.

5.See especially Guilain Denoux, ?The Forgotten Swamp: Navigating Political Islam,? Middle East Policy, Vol. IX, No. 2, June 2002, pp. 56-81; Michael Scott Doran, ?Somebody Else?s Civil War,? Foreign Affairs, January/February 2002, pp. 22-42; Quintan Wiktorowicz, ?The New Global Threat: Transnational Salafis and Jihad,? Middle East Policy, Vol. VIII, No. 4, December 2001, pp. 18-38; Graham Fuller, ?The Future of Political Islam,? Foreign Affairs, March/April 2002, pp. 48-56; Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002; Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror. NY: Random House, 2002.