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Reasons behind Islamic Terrorism: Illiteracy, Poverty and Deprivation?

by Alamgir Hossain

01 September, 2006

The recent surge in religious violence amongst the Muslims, particularly after the 9/11 (2001) attack in New York, has left the world desperately guessing about the underlying reasons behind it. In this hair-splitting brainstorming, pundits from all sections of the society, irrespective of religious backgrounds, have aired their opinions. The four common reasons that have received overwhelming acceptance are: 

  1. Illiteracy: Lack of education amongst the Muslims.
  2. Poverty: Alleged desperate poverty in Muslim countries.
  3. Discrimination: Alleged social and economic deprivation of the Muslim community, especially in the Western countries.
  4. Oppression: Muslims have forwarded another reason which is the oppression against them such as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The fact that 9/11 and many other terrorists attacks took place before the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq easily rules out these two wars (4th reason) from the list of alleged underlying reasons for the surge in Islamic violence. However, Islamist terrorist group have definitely exploited these wars as an excuse to give a boost to their Jihadist recruitment drives. This means that these wars are only secondary reasons, if at all, but definitely not the primary cause of religious violence amongst the Muslims.
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In this essay, I will analyze these views of the pundits in detail to evaluate if those are justifiable causes underlying the present scourge of Islamic violence and terrorism. 


Lack of education amongst the Muslims has been put forward as a prime reason for a sudden radical transformation of the Muslims in recent years with the concomitant increase in violent and terrorist acts. If this reasoning is to be taken as valid, then we must conclude that as compared to now, the Muslim world was more educated in the 1950s and 60s, when there existed much less religious violence in the Muslim community anywhere in the world. But the reality says the opposite. Let us analyze this in the context of the subcontinent. 

During the colonial rule, the Muslims of the subcontinent resisted undertaking the secular education instituted by the British rulers despite desperate efforts by the government. Muslims considered the learning of English and undertaking the secular education un-Islamic and largely kept away from it. The Muslims instead insisted on the religious (Arabic) education so much so that the British rulers were forced to institute the separate Madrassa education for the Muslims of India. Thus, the Muslim community there remained relatively uneducated (in secular education) until the British rule ended in 1947. On the other hand, the Hindus and other religious sections embraced the secular curricula, comprising of science and literature, more openly. Muslims were left happy with the very limited scope of Madrassas education to learn Islamic scriptures in Arabic, which was of little daily-life value. As a result, the Hindus and other non-Muslim communities flourished in India while the Muslims were left behind as a relatively uneducated and backward class.

The bottom-line is that Muslims of the subcontinent were a very uneducated people in the 1950s. Whatever education they had was mainly the religious type. However, Muslims started going to schools in large numbers to study secular curricula in the 1960s onwards in Pakistan and subsequently in Bangladesh. Schools were built at every nook and corner of the country which outnumbered the Madrassas to a great extent despite the fact that there were sharp rise in number of Madrassas after the 1970s, thanks to the oil-money coming from the Middle East. 

When I started going to school in the early 1970s, rarely parents in my village would send their children to schools. As a young boy, I recall people traveling a mile to find someone who can read a letter which they might have received from some sources. By the early 1990s, however, almost every child was going to schools (although many drop out) ‚€“ thanks to the Government‚€™s and various NGOs‚€™ whole-hearted efforts to bring every child to school. As a result, there has been a massive increase in the level of education and literacy amongst the Muslim population in Bangladesh, compared to the situation in the 1950s and 60s. Almost every family in Bangladesh now has a member who can read and write. The same should apply to the Muslims in Pakistan and India. Likewise, literacy rate in Arabic (Madrassa) education has also gone up significantly. Hence, the present level of religious bigotry, fanaticism, violence and terrorism should have been substantially less amongst the Muslims in these countries, as compared to that of the 1950s and 60s. In reality, the opposite has happened. That is, there has been a massive increase in Islamic fanaticism and violence in recent years as compared to the 1950s and 60s. Hence, lack of education can no way be blamed for the increase in fanaticism and terrorism as seen in the Muslim societies at all corners of the world today. 


The next principal reason put forward as the underlying cause of recent worldwide surge in Islamic terrorism is the alleged desperate poverty amongst the Muslims. To analyze this point, I will once again compare the relative wealth and prosperity of the Muslims in the 1950s and 60s to those of the present time. When I was a young boy in the early 1970s, my father was a very ordinary farmer with limited lands and we used to make a hand-to-mouth living often with difficulty during some periods of the year. The income from the agricultural farming was such that when we, the 4 siblings, started going to school (2nd ‚€“ 8th grade, free education); my father was failing to support the family. So, he decided to sell away all the land to set up a small business, which worked much better to feed the family and support our education.

During those days, my mother would require some temporary domestic help during the harvesting season. When she used to send inquiries to the neighborhood about if anyone available to give her a hand, in a matter of hours a few parents would come to our house to request my mother to employ their young daughters, sometimes just for subsistence (3 meals a day). As compared to then, the quality of living in our family has improved no less than ten folds now. My parents live a kind of luxurious life in a beautiful bungalow house on the money sent by three of our well-off brothers. Recently, as my mother became frail with age, she tried to find someone to do the much simpler job of cooking and cleaning the house. She needed six months to find someone to do those simple chores in exchange of subsistence plus a good salary. 

There is definitely poverty in Bangladesh today. However, the situation has improved a lot as compared to the desperate poverty and hunger that existed in the 1960s and 70s. The above example clearly proves this assertion. Hence, if poverty is to be taken as a genuine cause of the current surge in Islamic extremism, then there should have been more terrorism in the 1970s than that of the present time in Bangladesh. But in truth, today Bangladesh is plagued by Islamic intolerance and terrorism almost as much as any other Muslim country in the world. The same parallel also applies to Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and all of the Middle East countries. Indeed, the oil-producing Muslim countries have made massive economic strides with concomitant increase in religious violence. This clearly discounts poverty as an underlying driver of the recent bubble in Islamic terrorism worldwide.

Deprivation/Disenfranchisement of the Muslims

The issue of deprivation or disenfranchisement is more relevant to the context of the migrant Muslims in the Western countries or those living in the countries where Muslims constitute a minority, such as in India. It is true that the Muslim migrants remain relatively poor in the Western countries when compared with other migrants, such as the Hindus from India and the Chinese from the various parts of Asia. Yet, the average Muslim house-hold income is higher than average American house-hold according to a recent report [Washington Post], which would rules out economic deprivation of the Muslims in the US. 

Indeed, there is no concrete evidence of selective discrimination against the Muslims in the Western countries, at least there wasn‚€™t before the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York. Since the 9/11, there has been an increasing skepticism and concern about them as perpetration of acts of violence and terrorism or attempt to do so continue unabated. Yet, there have existed many terror cells across Europe and North America since many years before the 9/11 and their acts became coordinated and bold enough to strike the United States at New York on the 11th of September, 2001. 

If we agree that there is some discrimination against the immigrant communities in the West, such discrimination must apply to all immigrant communities, including the Hindus, the Chinese and so on. However, there has not been any trace of terror cells established by the Hindus and Chinese in the West, nor have they committed or attempted to commit any acts of terrorism to kill unarmed and innocent civilians. 

In Australia, however, the Chinese immigrant community, have faced severe hatred and racism during much of the 1990s and early 2000s, at least on the streets. Other immigrant communities, such as the Muslims, Hindus/Indians etc. did not face the same in Australia. Yet, the Chinese who form a big bulk of the immigrants in Australia are not known to have established any terror cells, nor organized any terror attacks, nor attempted to do so. 

So, it is absolutely groundless to claim that there is a selective deprivation or disenfranchisement of the Muslim community in the West. Yet, they are a relatively poor and less educated community because of their lack of serious interest in education and working hard to improve their economic condition. Hindus of India, the Chinese and other immigrant communities have done better because of their good work-ethics and efforts to excel in studies and careers. It is a common knowledge in the West, especially in Europe, that when Hindu parents of Indian origin remain anxious about their children‚€™s ability to enter into a good university for studying science, engineering or medicine, many Muslim parents of the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent pray that their children be obedient and go to Madrassa to receive religious education. 

In regard to the countries where Muslims form a minority community, such as China, India and Singapore, it will be very difficult to establish that there are serious discriminations against the Muslims in these countries. In stead, discriminations are much more rife against non-Muslim communities in Muslim countries, such as in Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and those in the Middle East. Discrimination against non-Muslims is a state policy in some of these countries whilst in others, it is unofficial and rife. If discrimination, deprivation or disenfranchisement has anything to do with terrorism, then non-Muslim communities should have overwhelmed the countries like Malaysia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia with massive violence and terrorist attacks for clearly justifiable reasons, which never happen. 

Again, Muslims cannot be discriminated, deprived or disenfranchised in countries where they form the majority. Yet, Muslim countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia etc. have seem massive rise in intolerance and terrorist activities unleashed not by the severely discriminated and deprived non-Muslim communities but by the privileged Muslim community itself. Thus allegation of selective deprivation or disenfranchisement of the Muslims neither exist, nor can in any way form the basis of the surge in Islamic intolerance and violence ‚€“ be it in the West or the East, in the Muslim-dominated or Muslim-minority countries.

Education and Economic prosperity: remedy or cause?

Pundits have overwhelming supported the theory that illiteracy and desperate poverty are the principle reasons behind the recent upsurge in Islamic violence after the relative calm during past few decades. If this proposal is to be taken as valid, then better education and economic prosperity would act as the remedy to the Islamic intolerance that we have witnessed in recent years. But as I have discussed with clearly verifiable examples in the context of the subcontinent that Muslims are much more educated and much better-off economically today as compared to the situation of the 1960s and 70s. Yet, countries in that region have experienced a massive surge in violent activities from the religious-motivated Muslim groups in recent years as compared to the 1960s and 70s.

Be it Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia or any other Muslim country of the Middle East, the level of education and economic prosperity have significantly improved across the masses since the 1960s and 70s. We do not see the desperate poverty and hunger and lack of education that existed in many of these countries in the 1960s and 70s. With the increase in level of educational and economic prosperity, the level of religious bigotry and intolerance, accompanying with violence and terrorism, have seen proportional increase amongst the Muslim populace of these countries. Hence, the more logical theory would predict that better education and economic prosperity might act as the cause and definitely not as the remedy for terrorism. That is:

Level of Education & Wealth ‚‰° Islamic intolerance & violence

Education and Wealth as primers of Islamic terrorism

Howsoever, unbelievable this theory may sound; it requires a thorough examination before accepting or rejecting it. The following points would be helpful in arriving at a conclusion on this supposedly contentious and incredible hypothesis: 

  1. Education and Wealth in 1960s and now: The first compelling support to this theory comes from the fact that when compared with the situation of the 1960s and 70s, Islamic intolerance and violence have proportionally increased with the improvement of education and economic condition of the Muslims.
  2. Terrorism, Asia vs. Africa: When compared with Asia and the Middle East, some Muslims countries of the African continent has seen a serious decline in economic condition since the 1970 and early 80s, after the Western colonial powers left those countries. Yet, those countries have experienced much less increase in violence of the Islamic nature, if at all. However, there has been an increase in violence between various factions of tribal nature for the control of economic resources as in Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Chad etc. On the other hand, the relatively better-off Muslim countries or region of Nigeria, Morocco and Sudan have seen an increase in violence and terrorism of religious nature amongst the Muslim community.

One notable exception is Somalia, which is in desperate poverty and at the same time, has experienced significant increase in religiously-motivated violence. It needs to be noted, however, that until 1992, when UN peacekeeping forces were sent to Somalia to establish law and order, the desperate chaos that exited there was absolutely of tribal nature for grabbing power and control over regional territories and resources. Such violence typically emanates from desperate poverty and lack of functioning Government in a territory. However, after the UN forces landed there in April 1992, violence and chaos in Somalia took the color of religious variety. This religious turn in violence there did not originate locally but instead was exported from the overseas shores by the terrorist groups of the better-off Muslim countries of Asia and the Middle East.  Osama bin-Laden‚€™s al-Qaeda group sent money, weapons and fighters to Somalia to fight the UN peacekeepers in Somalia leading to latter‚€™s forced withdrawal after taking heavy casualty. Hence, terrible economic turmoil by itself did not give rise to violence and terrorism of Islamic nature in Somalia. Poverty cannot be blamed as the seed of Islamic terrorism as witnessed there.

  1. Education and Economics of the Terrorist Masterminds. The most compelling evidence that supports the ‚€œEducation and Wealth as the primers of Islamic terrorism‚€ thesis is the level of education and economic prosperity of the major terrorist masterminds across the world. All the leading Islamic terrorist figures including Osama bin-Laden, his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Sheikh Abdur Rahaman & Bangla Bhai (Bangladesh), the militant leaders of Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups etc. are all moderate-to-well educated and belong to moderate-to-highly well-off families. Osama bin-Laden belonged to one of the richest and highly influential family of Saudi Arabia and is an engineer by education and training. His deputy al-Zawahiri is medical doctor by training from Egypt. Sheikh Abdur Rahaman & Bangla Bhai ‚€“ the two terrorist masterminds of Bangladesh are known to have traveled to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia of education. Such opportunities are rather uncommon in Bangladesh. Poverty and hunger have never been an issue in their lives that might have driven them towards terrorism out of desperation. And their level of education is enviable to the overwhelming majority of their countrymen.
  2. Money flow for terrorism: There is no secret in the fact that Islamic terrorism bubbled across the world as a result of money-flow from the Arab world, which made stunning economic prosperity through the sales of oil during the last few decades. Another source of money have been the so-called Muslim charity organizations, which mushroomed in the Western countries after Muslims arrived there in big numbers and achieved better economic prosperity than that they have in their home countries. This once again shows ‚€˜how relative economic prosperity drives the Muslims towards investment in terrorist organizations‚€™.
  3. Saddam‚€™s Pay-checks and the Suicide Bombing in Palestine: When Saddam Hussein announced big bounties for suicide bombing against Israeli targets, Muslim militants in Palestine launched waves of sustained suicide bombing against Israel. As soon as the checks from Iraqi coffer stopped after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, there has been a sharp decline in the suicide bombing operations against Israel. Thus, when there are money-checks for organizing terrorist operations, there will be terrorism. When money dries out, there won‚€™t. Another reason is that when these terrorists get a big check in their hands so that their family can leave in comfort, they can dedicate themselves to the cause of his/her God. When economic solvency or security is there, Muslims can dedicate themselves to campaign of martyrdom for a straight-landing in Islamic heaven.

Concluding Remarks

The prominent Jihadists in the rank of bin-Laden, al-Zawahiri and al-Zarqawi have repeatedly and loudly claimed that they are fighting Jihad in way of Allah to defeat the Western infidels such as the Zionist and Crusader coalition in Palestine as well as to establish the Koranic law-based and Western influence-free puritanical Islamic society in countries like Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bangladesh, Somalia and throughout the Middle East. The latest al-Qaeda video demanded that Americans convert to Islam or suffer, clearly spelling their desire to expand the domination of Islam to all corners of the world which is line with Prophet Muhammad‚€™s incessant effort to spread Islam through ceaseless wars against the non-Muslim communities and territories in his life-time. Defying these repeated and loud declarations of the terrorist masterminds, the so-called educated moderate Muslims and their infidel sympathizers from the Communist, leftist and liberal coalition of the West and elsewhere, have repeatedly sought to sell the illiteracy and poverty amongst the Muslims and alleged discrimination and deprivation against them as the underlying causes behind the massive rise of Islamic violence in recent years. The thorough examination of the circumstances and facts regarding the Muslim populace, both in the West and elsewhere, discount these na√Įve excuses as the underlying causes of Islamic violence and terrorism with absolute certainty. 

Better education and wealth seem to have a positive link with the recent surge in violence by the Muslim groups, instead of being the remedy for it. It can be said with good degree of certainty that had Osama bin-Laden been a pauper who had to slog round the day to support his family, in stead of being a wealthy sheikh, he would never have gone on to set up such huge terror network having cells at every corner of the world. Other big terrorist masterminds ‚€“ who might have come from relatively humble family ‚€“ have been given huge sums of money by the richer terrorist leaders, supporters or the so-called Islamic charities, to launch their Jihadi campaigns. Financial security for the family and financial capability for organizing terrorists acts clearly seem to work as the primers of terrorism amongst the Muslims.

And almost invariably, all of the terrorist masterminds have been well-educated in the community they come from. Education probably helps them analyze their religious duty better in the contexts of the religious Scriptures and the historical events right from the beginning of Islam. Prophet Muhammad‚€™s life was characterized by more 100 wars and raiding expeditions against the infidel communities, territories and caravans, which are well-recorded in Islamic annals and literature, support such a hypothesis. Further, the fact that these terrorist masterminds are well-versed in the religious matters who frequently quote Koranic verse, Ahadiths (Sunna) and historical events to justify their actions, reinforces the notion that better education are likely inspirational factors behind Islamic terrorism that we witness today. On the other hand, the uneducated Muslims, who cannot read the Islamic Scriptures, the Sunna and the Islamic historical background and who have to slog hard to support the family, are rarely found to be a founder of any Islamic terror cell anywhere in the world. 

The bottom-line is that better education and prosperity of the Muslim populace is definitely not a solution to the violence unleashed by the Muslim terrorist groups across the world but instead, are very likely to work as the recipe for worsening violence and terrorism by them.

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