One of the oft-heard tropes about ISIS recruits is that they’re poor, uneducated, and desperate. But like so many other liberal pieties about radical Islamic terrorism, it turns out this just isn’t true.
Last week, the World Bank released a study on the country of origin, marriage status, skills, and education level of foreign ISIS recruits who joined the jihadist group between early 2013 and late 2014. It found no correlation between education level or poverty and joining ISIS. While this may not come as a surprise to those who have been following the development of the Islamic State, it delivers a crushing blow to the left’s assertion that the root cause of “violent extremism” is economic.
ISIS Recruits Aren’t Who You Think They Are
The documents, which were smuggled out by a disaffected ISIS member, come from the vetting and interviewing process of 331 foreign recruits during the time period in question. The study not only didn’t find poverty to be a motivating factor in becoming an Islamist fighter, it showed that wealthier countries were more often a source for recruitment than poorer ones.
The documents also disprove the theory that Islamist fighters are largely uneducated. According to the study, 69 percent of recruits had received at least a high school education and many of those from the Middle East and North Africa went on to study at a university. The World Bank study also compared the education levels of the recruits to the average education levels of citizens in their country of origin, and found that the recruits were significantly more educated.
What is most shocking, however, is that those who expressed a desire to become suicide bombers in their entry-interview were found to be the most well-off. This shouldn’t be surprising, given the background of violent Islamists like Osama Bin-Laden, a millionaire who was educated in elite Saudi Arabian schools. But it might be a surprise to the Left’s pet theory that poverty is driving young Muslim men to desperation and into the arms of Islamist groups.
What Motivates Young People to Join ISIS?
But if it’s not poverty that’s inspiring young men to become suicide bombers, what is? This is the question that liberals in America and Europe have been avoiding for 15 years. Now, with a study featuring such a large “participant” size, the question should be harder to ignore.
Progressives have insisted for years that the primary motivation for joining violent Islamist groups, whether ISIS or Al Qaeda or any other, is economic injustice. According to their playbook, if we could just resolve the economic woes of the world, people would have no reason to make what, in the mind of the Left, is a desperate move. Relatedly, if these recruits were able to get an education they would have no reason to want to blow themselves up.
Progressives can be myopic about the role of wealth and education as determiners of all things in a person’s life. For them, it’s difficult to see anything else that could come into play—except, perhaps, discrimination. This is partly due to their ongoing crusade against capitalism and wealth. But using poverty and inequality as scapegoats to explain the appeal of “violent extremism” has another purpose. By steering the conversation toward income inequality, progressives can avoid talking about that most uncomfortable of topics: religion.
We Can’t Ignore the ‘Islam’ in ‘Islamic Extremism’
Examining the religious motivations for joining explicitly religious groups, like ISIS or Al Qaeda, should seem like a given. Yet the left cannot believe that people are still motivated by religion. In progressive metaphysics, the world is moving ever forward, progressing toward a better state of existence. This means giving up silly beliefs about God, and instead looking toward scientific, social, and economic justice. If they are to be true to their own dogma, progressives must reject the idea that man can still be motivated by his faith to do anything—much less give up his own life. So they have to find an alternative narrative.
Acknowledging the role of religion in inspiring violent jihad would also distract from the core leftist principles they’d rather focus on. This centers on social justice and the perfection of society through government programs and education. Religious radicalism doesn’t fit into this picture.
What’s more, if Islamism does have to do with religion, then we’d have to talk about—and unavoidably criticize—some sects of Islam. This, above all else, is what the left wants to avoid. It violates their multicultural credo that all beliefs are equal and equally beneficial.
The World Bank study appears to soundly refute this. That’s not to say that poverty and disaffection don’t come into play. The path that leads a person to join ISIS is certainly more complicated and varied than we often acknowledge. But it appears that lack of income and education are not the primary motivating factors.
How Does This Help Us Fight ISIS?
Where this insight really matters is in our strategies for combatting homegrown terrorism. Up until now, progressives have mainly wanted to focus on income and education. This isn’t just an approach held by the media or academia—the Obama administration has adhered to it, as well. In 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry identified poverty as the culprit in recruiting ISIS members. Last year, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said this:
We need…to go after the root causes that lead people to join these groups, whether it’s lack of opportunity for jobs…We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people.
But this strategy just got blown out of the water, so now what? We need to reexamine our tactics and change our focus, by looking at the status of Islam in America. This means zeroing in on the ideological battle happening within Islam and playing out in American mosques and community centers.
Political Correctness Hinders Our Fight Against ISIS
The Muslim Brotherhood, with ample Saudi funding, influences Muslims via its network of mosques, imams, and Muslim organizations like the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for decades. CAIR was also linked with the Holy Land Foundation, a “charity” that was found guilty in 2008 of financing terrorism. Instead of lending its ear to CAIR, and thereby legitimizing it, the U.S. government ought to foster credible and truly moderate voices within the Muslim-American community. It should also limit Saudi funding of mosques and sponsorship of Imams here in America.
What’s more, the government should stop insisting on the censorship of the U.S .intelligence community, which has been instructed to use euphemisms like “violent extremism” in place of “Islamist” and has scrubbed Islamic terms from hundreds of Department of Homeland Security documents. Islamic terms like “Islam,” “jihad,” or “sharia,” have also been banished from DHS training materials, as well as from a new $100 million effort to reach out to Muslim millenials. This denial of the link between terrorism and Islamism needs to stop.
Of course, none of this can be done unless we first acknowledge the link between religion and terrorism. And this requires rejecting education and poverty as the primary motivators of Islamist terrorism. While the World Bank study should change plenty of Americans’ views on this, it will likely fall on deaf ears in the Obama administration—as it has for nearly eight years.