The past decade has seen terrorism emerge as a serious threat to global security. The events of September 11, 2011 where terrorists devastated the city of New York especially highlighted the devastating effects of terrorism on social life. Since then, governments and scholars alike have tried to discover the underlying causes of terrorism by non-state actors.
The Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (NDRE) acknowledges that discussions on the causes of terrorism are controversial with different people seeing various underlying causes as the primary causes of terrorism (7). Trying to perceive the major motives of terrorist organizations is paramount to understanding and responding to terrorism (United Nations General Assembly 1).
This paper sets out to determine what the primary reasons for terrorist political violence in the modern world are. This paper asserts that terrorists carry out political violence primarily due to identity grievances of religion, culture, and ethnicity. I will show that identity grievances are the major causes of terrorism by analyzing some of the most prominent terrorist organizations in the world.
Next, I will offer some counterarguments that claim that economic grievances are the primary motivators for terrorism and proceed to rebut these counterarguments through examples. The paper will conclude with a summary of the points made and a discussion of the implications of the arguments made.
Identity Grievances as the Primary cause of Terrorism
Religion is the most important motivation for terrorists in our era. Brown notes that religion has emerged as “the predominant impetus for terrorist attacks” with present day terrorists demonstrating an increase in fanaticism (33). The fanaticism of the new terrorism has made it more dangerous and unpredictable with targets chosen in an indiscriminate fashion.
Berman and David assert that religious terrorism has built on the already strong affiliations that individuals seek with their religion (1945). In a clash between the religious beliefs and those of the state or a foreign power, the religious beliefs are likely to triumph and garner the support of the majority.
While religious grievances are not restricted to any one religion, Islam has stood out as the religion most inclined to use violence to highlight their grievances. Islamic Fundamentalism has led to the creation and proliferation of terror organizations such as Hamas and Al-Qaeda (Lutz and Brenda 132).
These organizations use an overt religiosity to justify and rationalize all forms of violence that they commit against innocent people. Brown reveals that by use of clerical guidance and Islamic scriptures, these groups are able to rationalize their acts of terror and elicit the support of the public (34). Because of their religious convictions, terrorists are able to carry out acts of religious violence such as suicide bombings.
The most devastating act of terrorism, the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, were carried out by suicidal terrorists who were willing to kill themselves for an expressed religious duty (Sabucedo and Corte 557). The surge of Islamic terrorism in the Middle East aimed against the perceived theft of Arab resources by the Western world is justified through religious grounds where foreign companies are deemed to be defiling Muslim land (NDRE 26).
The Taliban, which emerged as a liberating force in Afghanistan during the 1990s, emphasized on religion as the basis for its actions and authority. The first 12,000 recruits for this terrorist organization were “students from the religious schools of the radical Islamic Juma’at al Islamiya of Pakistan”.
The Taliban case demonstrates the potency of religion since in this case, a group of less than 1000 religious students with little military experience were able to create an effective militia that at its peak controlled 90% of Afghanistan and caused trouble for Western forces (Berman and David 1946).
Cultural grievances have served as major causes of terrorism in the world. Culture plays a major role in the lives of individual since it influences the manner in which people behave, what they think and how they respond to what they encounter every day. A person’s understanding of life is greatly informed by his cultural influences since culture defines the rules by which the society lives by and the things that are considered important.
Culture dictates the manner in which people view and relate with issues such as race, gender, sexuality, age, and religion. That is why individuals from a traditional Arabic culture might be offended by sexual conduct or orientations that are permissible in Western countries.
Cultural homogenization, which aims at integrating different cultures into one whole, has been responsible for much strive among individuals of differing cultural backgrounds (Sherman and Terry 23). Kuran and Sandholm highlight that conflicts can develop when people are presented with and forced to conform to cultures they do not approve of (221). This is evident in most of the Arabic nations where some aspects of Western culture are viewed negatively.
The prevalent culture contributes to the engagement in terrorism activities by community members. This observation is supported by the fact that terrorist behaviors are likely to be perpetuated in areas where political strife and actual terrorist activity are already commonplace.
Victoroff documents that the culture of public glorification of terrorists in regions such as the Middle East has led to many youths seeking to engage in terrorism (18). It is hard to stop terrorism in a culture where songs celebrating the exploits of suicide terrorists who are hailed as heroes and martyrs of the people (18) are made.
Hamas, arguably the deadliest terrorist organization in Palestine, engages in terrorism partly due to cultural grievances. Berman and David observe that this organization was formed to fight the “insidious force of assimilation into materialism Western culture” (1946).
The organization emphasized on the supremacy of Islamic cultural practices and prohibited practices such as gambling, consuming of alcohol, and adultery. The group was able to gain significant public support due to this focus on cultural practices that are endorsed by the Muslim community.
Ethnicity acts as a direct cause of terrorism particularly when discontent and perceptions of injustice exist within an identifiable sub-group of the population. When such a group has no means of political participation, it might resort to terrorism as a means of airing its grievances. Engene observes that ethnicity is based on “distinctions between groups of people in terms of common ancestry or history, or shared linguistic, religious or even racial characteristics” (36).
Research indicates that terrorism is more likely to take place in states that are experiencing ethnic tension. Ethnic polarization leads to a division among people based on their differences and peculiarities leading to a formation of bonds of loyalty between groups in society (Cohen 1). The probability of ethnicity serving as the basis for terrorism is high especially in societies where resources are divided inequitably amongst communities.
Ethnic terrorism, if not effectively dealt with, might lead to full-scale civil war (Kirwin and Wonbin 2). Byman observes that Ethnic terrorists attempt to “influence rival groups and hostile governments by forging alliances based on some ethnic identity and fostering ethnic mobility” (150). The communal bonds created by ethnic terrorism make it very dangerous and hard to fight.
When governments take up action against the ethnic terrorists, the perceived persecution that follows gives the ethnic terrorists the much needed public attention and leads to increased support for their cause. Ethnic terrorism presents a major threat since any reaction to it by the government could heighten awareness of the terrorist’s cause and increase their support therefore making them even more dangerous than they were before (O’Boyle 27).
The case of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lankan demonstrates the significance of ethnicity in terrorism. This group was created in 1976, engaged in terrorist activity with the aim of seceding from Sri Lanka and forming an independent state for the Tamil people.
Hanley, Kongdan and Caroline document that the ethnic strife sparked by government policy led to the popularity of the LTTE (13). In a bid to create a monoethnic Tamil state, the LTTE engaged in acts of terror against civilian and ethnic cleansing operations. In spite of the atrocities carried out by the Tamil population, this terror group continued to receive the support of Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad, demonstrating the great role that ethnicity plays in political violence.
Proponents of economic grievances as the primary cause of terrorism declare that rampant poverty predisposes people to engaging in terrorism. They argue that the income inequality experienced in some countries leads to political violence by the lower classes as a form of protest against their economic condition.
This suggestion is supported by studies that indicate that there is a correlation between support for political violence, and personal economic well-being with individuals with lower GDP are likely to support a revolt compared to those with higher GDPs (NDRE 28). Solimano notes that the risk of terrorism incidents decreases as the level of economic development in a country increases (19).
Such studies propose that economic deprivation makes it easy for people to turn to terrorism in order to protest their conditions or make a living. The economic motivation of terrorists has also been called into question considering the fact that some of the most infamous terrorist organizations are very well funded and organized. Even individual terrorists sometimes come from affluent families.
For example, the world’s most renowned terrorist, Osama Bin Laden did not come from a poor background but rather from a rich family that had connections to the Saudi royal family (Mamdani 770). Further negating poverty as a cause of terrorism, Benmelech, Claude and Esteban reveal that many suicide bombers in the Middle East come from privileges backgrounds and it is inconceivable that their terrorist activities are motivated by financial considerations (114).
The incidents of terrorism in Latin America both during and after the Cold War years are also proof enough that economic conditions are not the main cause of terrorism. Many Latin American countries were faced with multiple incidents of terrorism perpetrated against the state (Salimano 23). Scholars blamed these acts on the Cold War, which had led to poor economies and economic inequalities.
However, terrorism incidents continued to prevail even after the end of the Cold War. Researchers therefore contend that there is no association between economic conditions and incidents of terrorism in Latin America (Feldmann and Maiju 101).
Some scholars suggest that high unemployment rates and a lack of job prospects even among the educated are the root causes of political terrorism rather than identity grievances. High unemployment leads to resentment of authority by the many people who are unable to make a living due to the poor economic conditions that exist.
Enders and Hoover argue that unemployed people might perceive that others limit their economic prospects and therefore turn to terrorism as a way to protest this (267). Unemployment also fosters terrorism by creating a large human pool from which terrorist organizations can recruit.
Benmelech, Claude and Esteban document that when unemployment rates are high, there are more educated and mature people willing to take up terrorism and act as suicide terrorists (116). This argument is reinforced by revelations by Tawil that the crumbling economy in Yemen has led to high rates of unemployment, which has made it easier for Al-Qaeda elements to find sympathizers in the country.
Even when unemployment is rife, it is ideological grievances that encourage acts of terrorism. This point can best be elaborated upon by comparing the terrorism rates in an impoverished country like Haiti and the Middle East. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and the country’s economy has been in disarray due to the political instability suffered by the country for decades.
The country has an unemployment rate of over 50% and even the employed few have very low-income levels. In spite of this rampant poverty and unemployment, the citizens of Haiti do not engage in terrorism to air their grievances. On the contrary, Palestinians engage in acts of terrorism against the Israelis.
The religious component among the Palestinians explains their tendencies to resort to terrorism. Capella and Emile state that while tactics such as suicide terrorism are not confined to religious groups; religion offers significant motivation and increases the willingness of the terrorist to sacrifice themselves for their cause (277).
This essay addressed the primary reasons for terrorist political violence in the world and argued that terrorists carry out political violence primarily due to identity grievances of religion, culture, and ethnicity. Through this paper, I showed that religion is the major motivator for some of the most infamous terrorist organizations in the world.
I also proved that cultural grievances serve as a major cause of terrorism, especially in the Middle East where some Western cultural practices are abhorred. The essay demonstrated that ethnicity also contributes to terrorism since it divides people along some shared characteristics and leads to polarization.
Preventing terrorism means dealing with the primary causes and for this to occur; these causes have to be articulated. Once the primary grievances are identified, it is possible for effective preventative measures to be adopted.
The arguments made in this paper have important implications for the development of successful counterterrorism measures and policies by governments. Research needs to be pursued on measures through which this primary grievances can be alleviated and therefore mitigate the incidents of terrorism in the world.
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