Is Poverty the Root of Terrorism?

A common belief expressed by American politicians, and repeated among the American public is that poverty breeds terrorism. Americans are told that the poor Arabs and other “Third World” impoverished peoples are “jealous” of America’s way of life. Supposedly, this jealousy, combined with the lack of hope that “impoverished” peoples of Africa, Asia and the Middle East can attain a higher standard of living, causes them to attack America and its interests, and these attacks are labeled as “terrorism”.

Consequently, according to Condoleeza Rice, George W. Bush, and even leaders of the Democratic Party of the U.S., we need to boost the standard of living in those countries. From a U.S. perspective, Middle Eastern countries, such as Iraq and Syria are woefully “underdeveloped”, and thus if we boost their economies and provide “democracy”, we will rid the world of terrorism.

Such reasoning has many potential flaws. Included among them is the assumption that Islamic culture would readily assimilate Western philosophies such as the infamous view of fictitious movie character Gordon Gecko of “Wall Street” fame, who said: “Greed is good”. Not all cultures would agree. In fact, some Christians believe in simple living, and would quote scriptures from the Holy Bible such as one that says “Having sustenance and covering, we shall be content with these things” and “It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of the heavens”.

Some interesting observations were recorded approximately one hundred years ago by an American Indian named Ohiyesa who received an advanced education and became a medical doctor (calling himself Dr. Charles A. Eastman) before reverting to traditional ways and recording traditional Lakota philosophies late in his life, in a book called “The Soul of the Indian”. Some interesting comments from Dr. Eastman are recorded on the matter of wealth, envy, and Indian philosophy:

According to Dr. Charles A. Eastman (Ohiyesa):

“The native American has been generally despised by his white conquerors for his poverty and simplicity. They forget, perhaps, that his religion forbade the accumulation of wealth and the enjoyment of luxury. To him, as to other single-minded men in every age and race, from Diogenes to the brother of Saint Francis, from the Montanists to the Shakers, the love of possessions has appeared a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and temptation…

It is a simple truth that the Indians did not, so long as his native philosophy held sway over his mind, either envy or desire to imitate the splendid achievements of the white man. In his own thought he rose superior to them! He scorned them, even as a lofty spirit absorbed in its stern task rejects the soft beds, the luxurious food, and the pleasure-worshiping dalliance of a rich neighbor. It was clear to him that virtue and happiness are independent of these things, if not incompatible with them.”

There is much evidence that spiritual Islam, as well as spiritual Christianity is incompatible with the American lifestyle of limitless consumerism. The American way of life might be characterized as consisting of more time spent worshiping at the alter of the Dow Jones Average each week than spent in Church for most Americans.

At the same time, we know that not all terrorists are impoverished. Osama bin Laden came from a very privileged background, not at all unlike that of George W. Bush. Yet bin Laden is willing to personally suffer deprivations, living in caves, and putting his own life in extended imminent danger, and bin Laden quotes his holy scriptures at length in his struggle for his ideals.

This brings us to an interesting contemplation. Perhaps, in a roundabout sense, poverty DOES breed terrorism; i.e., in the sense that impoverished peoples are often the victims of oppression and suppression and repression by wealthy nations and wealthy corporations who wish to exploit those people, and particularly to exploit the minerals and raw materials of lands where those poor people live. The greed of the wealthy, combined with their military might, creates oppression that cannot be fought by conventional military means. If Saddam Hussein, with a billion dollars a year to spend on his military, and tens if not hundreds of thousands of men in uniform, could not slow down the U.S. military in two massive invasions of his homeland, how could bin Laden with a few thousand men and a few million dollars in assets fight the U.S. in conventional war? Is terrorism not the only military option for those fighting for their own way of life against wealthy nation-states with advanced military capabilities?

Are there circumstances in which poor nations could live in peace, without envying wealthy nations, and in which terrorism has no basis to root itself into international relations? It seems evident that poorness in and of itself does not lead to violence or terrorism. Poor people seldom squander their scarce resources to fight powerful people. Only when their own survival and culture is threatened would poor people likely turn to use of force against their oppressors.

So, it becomes clear that the root of terrorism is not poverty, but is oppression, injustice, greed, and violence. The nations who most claim to fear terrorism are often the instigators of it by their own actions.

The writer is a member of several falconry and ornithological clubs and organizations. He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from California, USA.