Developing a Taste for Stability

Friday, April 18, 2008

An August 2007 survey by Terror Free Tomorrow, a nonpartisan policy group in Washington, offered a window into Pakistanis’ views about Al- Qaeda and terrorism. Many surveys in poor nations give a distorted picture of people’s attitudes toward controversial issues because the surveys are confined to urban areas that are safe and easily accessible, and where the inhabitants tend to be educated and better off economically. By contrast, this face-to-face survey of Pakistani opinions seems representative, in that it interviewed about a thousand Pakistanis, age 18 or older, living in urban and rural areas in all four provinces. The vast majority were married Sunni Muslims who lived in towns and villages and had ten or fewer years of schooling. Slightly fewer than half were women. (Unfortunately, the results published so far do not separate responses by years of schooling, income, urban-rural location, sex, or other useful personal characteristics.)

More than a third held favorable views of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden; at the same time, President Musharraf was cited as the least popular political leader in Pakistan. Respondents also had a decidedly unfavorable view of the U.S.-led war on terror, expressing the belief that its real purpose is to kill Muslims, undermine Muslim countries, and achieve other related goals.

There are many causes of such attitudes, but I want to explore how economic development alters support for terrorism and how such development could work in Pakistan.

Pakistan is a very poor nation. It ranks low on both per capita income and the extent of economic and political freedoms. According to the World Bank’s World Development Report, Pakistan’s real per capita income, adjusted for purchasing power, is considerably below India’s and less than half of China’s. Evidence from similar developing countries indicates that if Pakistan were to experience a prolonged period of rapid economic growth, behavior and attitudes on many issues would change radically.

Terrorist leaders need foot soldiers, but it becomes harder to find these younger, less-educated soldiers when good jobs are available—especially if the soldiers are urged to commit suicide.

Consider what happens to the family in response to economic development. Families are by no means identical in different cultures, but in all poor nations birthrates are high. Yet in every country that has experienced sizable economic development, regardless of culture, birthrates have declined greatly. Having fewer babies leads to more and better jobs for young people, and as family size shrinks the average age of the population increases. Both are stabilizing forces.

Examples of sharp declines in family size include the Chinese cultures of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China (although birthrates in China were partially forced down by government pressure on families to have only one child). Big declines in fertility also occurred in India, Turkey, and Malaysia (Malaysia and Turkey are the main Muslim countries to have experienced sizable economic development without large resources of oil or natural gas). The Malaysian example suggests that poor Muslim countries like Pakistan, Morocco, or Egypt also would have rapid declines in birthrates were they to experience serious economic development.

Moreover, countries become more democratic as their economies undergo significant development. Witness Taiwan, South Korea, and Chile, all countries that started growing rapidly under nondemocratic governments and evolved into vibrant democracies. China has significantly expanded its civil and economic freedoms since it began developing rapidly in 1980, about the time I first visited there and was struck by its restrictive conditions. I believe that China will open up further and will attain greater political freedom, if its rapid growth continues. Greater economic, political, and social freedom will occur in Pakistan, Egypt, and other Muslim countries when they too take off economically.

In every country that has seen sizable economic development, regardless of culture, birthrates decline greatly.

Just as economic progress affects family structure and the amount of available freedom, it also sharply reduces people’s willingness to hide or otherwise protect terrorists, because they have more to lose if they are caught. Terrorist groups rely on sympathetic populations to hide and protect their members; they also recruit disaffected youths who are willing to commit suicide to destroy their enemies. Leaders of terrorist organizations, who usually come from the more educated classes, need foot soldiers to do the dirty work, and it becomes harder to find these young, less-educated soldiers when good jobs are available—especially if these recruits are urged to commit suicide.

Although Al-Qaeda and other radical violent groups have attracted recruits from the richest nations—Great Britain, France, Germany, even the United States—they are few. In the United States and Great Britain, Muslims have been rather well integrated into the economy, and both countries provide opportunities for advancement to younger Muslims. Thus in Britain and the United States, as well as France and Germany, only a tiny portion of the Muslim population has been drawn into active participation in radical causes.

Yet that raises a question about the September 11 terror conspirators, all of them college-educated Muslims in their late twenties. Why did they find suicidal terrorism attractive? Richard Posner and I show in a paper on suicide that educated terrorists with good economic opportunities are unwilling to engage in run-of-the-mill terrorism or ordinary suicide attacks because their costs would be too great. Such individuals would be attracted to terrorist organizations only if offered influential leadership roles or dramatic and exceptional missions like the 9/11 attacks, which is why the educational and age backgrounds of the September 11 suicide terrorists are the exceptions, not the rule. Far more typical were the suicide bombers of the first Intifada against Israel: mainly young and unmarried (the mean age of male bombers was 20), and few with a college education.