SHORTLY after Sept. 11, 2001, a soon-to-be familiar figure appeared in the news media. He was a young Muslim who wanted nothing more than to strap on a belt laden with explosives and blow himself up in an area crowded with infidels. He thought his reward would be eternity in paradise with 72 virgins.
But was he truly the face of Islamic terrorism? Eli Berman, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, says otherwise in “Radical, Religious, and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism” (M.I.T. Press, 300 pages).
“The pious Jihadist, programmed with an ideology of hate to be a human guided missile, or dreaming of virgins in heaven, makes for compelling news broadcasts and emotional sound bites, but in concept does not stand up to scrutiny,” he says.
Professor Berman has written an engaging book that brings new insight to an extremely polarizing subject. He argues that many terrorists are actually more rational than we might like to think. And that, of course, is a chilling notion.
The author is neither a pacifist nor an apologist for terrorists. He says, however, that if we stop looking at them as cartoon characters, we may do a better job of deterring them. In his view, we need to understand the economic forces that govern their behavior.
Professor Berman says that some of the most effective and resilient groups with terrorist links are in some ways economic clubs, run by “radical altruists.” He puts Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban (the United States has tied all three to terrorism) in this category. Some of these militant soldiers of Islam may sometimes commit atrocities. But Professor Berman contends that they genuinely want to help their members. They raise money from foreign governments — or, in the case of the Taliban, by selling opium — and provide social services and jobs to adherents.
The author notes that in South Lebanon, Hezbollah operates two private hospitals and a number of schools. It collects garbage, provides water and even manages an electricity grid. He says the Taliban operate 13 “guerilla law courts” in Afghanistan where locals can have disputes resolved.
Granted, the Taliban’s underground judicial system may not be as expensive to operate as a hospital or a garbage pickup service, but it has the same effect of forging a tighter bond of between the operation and its constituents.
However, Professor Berman writes, radical Islamic groups extract sacrifices from their members that have economic consequences. Families are encouraged to have lots of children, and the women are less likely to get jobs and have money to spend.
Professor Berman says that these organizations also prefer that their members send their children to Islamic schools, whose graduates are less likely to obtain jobs that pay them enough money to explore the market and its temptations. Indeed, he says, these are some of the ways that radical believers ensure that their followers remain loyal.
Now there have been many so-called terrorist groups. But most of them don’t last because the authorities find someone who will give them information, which short-circuits the activities of the groups.
Professor Berman points out that Israeli security forces had little trouble shutting down the Jewish Underground, a less tightly organized group linked to terrorist acts, because its members were more willing to become informants than many of their Islamic peers. Al Qaeda does not offer social services, he says, and it has had more trouble historically with disloyal members.
So what does Professor Berman think should be done to put terrorists out of business? He says we need to do more to stop their revenue streams. He recommends that we discourage gulf states from contributing money to Hamas and cut off the Taliban’s inflows of cash from illegal activities.
In Professor Berman’s opinion, the United States needs to compete by offering the same kind of social services in Iraq and Afghanistan, though he concedes that terrorist groups will do everything to stop such efforts. He says aid providers must be protected — and he concedes that this will be expensive. But he points out that we are already spending billions of dollars on domestic security.
“In the long run,” Professor Berman writes, “those constructive approaches may well be cost-effective for the United States and other developed countries that are subject to international terrorism, because they are potentially sustainable.” In other words, they could be good investments.
Professor Berman is shrewd enough not to repeat the left-wing fallacy that terrorism itself is a product of economic deprivation. He seems reluctant, however, to explore why Islam is such a breeding ground for these practices.
He says the rise of militant Islam is just another wave of religious extremism, the likes of which have occurred throughout history. As he points out, the peace-loving Mennonites belong to a branch of Christianity that was once considered radical and dangerous.
Then again, today’s terrorists may soon get their hands on a nuclear device. Would Mennonites of old have detonated it? We don’t know. But Professor Berman’s “radical altruists” might.