Does Economic Development Reduce Terrorism? Becker
Face-to-face interviews of an apparently random sample of the Pakistani population were conducted in August 2007 for Terror Free Tomorrow, a non-partisan Washington policy organization (www. TerrorFreeTomorrow.org). Those interviewed were asked questions about Al Qaeda and other issues facing Pakistan. The results indicate that more than a third of Pakistanis have a favorable view of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and bin Laden, and that President Musharraf is the least popular political leader in Pakistan. Respondents also have a decidedly unfavorable view of the US-led war on terror, for they believe that its real purpose is to kill Muslims, break Muslim countries, and achieve other related goals. There are many causes of such attitudes, but I want to explore the effects of economic development on the degree of support for terrorism.
Many surveys of populations in poor nations give a distorted picture about attitudes in these countries toward controversial issues because they are confined to urban areas that are safer and more easily accessible, and where inhabitants tend to be more educated and better off economically. By contrast, this survey of Pakistani opinions seems to be a reasonably representative sample of about 1,000 Pakistanis age 18 or older in urban and rural areas in all four provinces of Pakistan. The vast majority of these respondents are married Sunni Muslims who live in towns and villages, and have 10 or less years of schooling. A little less than half are women. Unfortunately, the results so far published from this survey do not separate answers by years of schooling, income, urban-rural location, gender, or other useful personal characteristics.
Pakistan is a very poor nation that is low on international rankings of both per capita income and the extent of economic and political freedoms. According to the World Development Report of the World Bank, Pakistan's purchasing-power-adjusted real per capita income is considerably below India's, and is less than one half of China's. Evidence from changes in other countries that have developed indicates that if Pakistan experienced a prolonged period of rapid economic growth, behavior and attitudes on many issues would change radically, regardless of the fact that it is a Muslim nation in Asia.
Consider what happens to the family in response to economic development. The family organization and structure that are the foundation of traditional societies evolved over hundreds, indeed thousands, of years. Families are by no means the same in different cultures, but in all poorer nations, birth rates are high, and the extended family is usually close. Yet regardless of culture, birth rates greatly decline, and extended families evolve into much greater reliance on the nuclear family, in every country that has experienced sizable economic development. Examples of sharp declines in family size include the Chinese cultures of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China (although birth rates in China were partially forced down by government pressures on families to have only one child). Big declines in fertility also occurred in India, Turkey, and Malaysia ( Malaysian birth rates are still relatively high), Malaysia and Turkey being the main Muslim countries that experienced sizable economic development without having large resources of oil or natural gas. What happened in Malaysia suggests that poor Muslim countries, like Pakistan, or Morocco, or Egypt, would also have rapid falls in birth rates if they managed to have serious economic development.
The power of economic development is also shown by the well-established finding that countries become more democratic when their economies undergo significant development. This finding is illustrated by Taiwan, South Korea, and Chile, all countries that started growing rapidly under non-democratic governments, and evolved into vibrant democracies. China has had significant expansion of civil and economic freedoms since it started developing rapidly in 1980 (about the time when I first visited there, and I was impressed by how restrictive conditions were). I believe China will open up further, and will attain greater political freedom if it continues to grow rapidly. Similar changes toward greater economic, political, and social freedom will take place in Pakistan, Egypt, and other Muslim countries if they too take off economically.
Terrorist groups rely on populations that are sympathetic to their cause to hide and protect their members. They also recruit disaffected youth in significant numbers who are willing to commit suicide to destroy enemies. Just as economic progress greatly affects family structure and the amount of freedom available, it also sharply reduces the willingness of people to hide or otherwise protect terrorists because they have more to lose if they are caught. Although leaders of terrorist organizations usually come from more educated classes, these organizations rely on numerous foot soldiers to do a lot of the dirty work. They are generally recruited from younger and less educated groups. It becomes much harder to recruit many of these soldiers when good jobs are available, especially if these recruits are asked to commit suicide.
To be sure, Al Qaeda and other radical violent groups have attracted members from the richest nations: Great Britain, France, Germany, and even the United States. Certainly in the US and Great Britain, Muslims have been rather well integrated into their economies, and both countries provide very good opportunities for advancement to younger Muslims. For this reason, in both countries, and even in France and Germany, only tiny numbers of their Muslim populations have been recruited to active participation in radical causes.
If better opportunities reduce the attractiveness of suicidal terrorism, how does one explain that all the participants in the 9/11/01 suicide attacks were college-educated Muslims, and generally they were in their late twenties? Posner and I show in a paper on suicide why educated terrorists with good economic opportunities would be unwilling to engage in run of the mill terrorism or ordinary suicide attacks because the cost to them would be too great. Such types can only be attracted to terrorist organizations by influential leadership roles, or by dramatic and exceptional missions, as the 9/11 terrorist mission. That is why the education-age backgrounds of the 9/11 terrorists are the exceptions, not the rule, for the profiles of suicide terrorists. A strong counterexample comes from the backgrounds of suicide bombers during the first Intifada against Israel: they were mainly young and unmarried (the mean age of male bombers was 20), and few had a college education.