To us in the West, all humans are homo economicus — economic beings. In trying to deal with The Rest, we assume they’re basically like us and will respond to economic incentives. We tend to see jihadists in the Middle East as victims of poverty and assume that, if only they lived in more prosperous societies, they would be less resentful, feel less despair and be less liable to strap on a suicide belt. This western blindness — an idée fixe — is pervasive and resistant to change, regardless of the weight of evidence. Even Israelis who live side by side with hostile neighbours have for decades believed that Palestinian terrorism toward them would dissipate if only they could improve the Palestinians’ economic lot.
Not so, explains Newell, a professor of political science and philosophy at Carleton University, who finds the “despair explanation” lacking. “Usually we are told that terrorist acts, while reprehensible, can be traced to ‘root causes,’ that such acts are born of despair over lack of economic opportunity and the peaceful benefits of a pluralistic secular society. This doctrine was reaffirmed in then-candidate Barack Obama’s first major foreign policy speech, The War We Need to Win, and it has been hauled out every time a terrorist attack occurs on American soil. Yet, in almost all these cases, the terrorists were already living in a secular pluralistic society and capable of enjoying its benefits. So how can poverty and lack of opportunity be the ‘root cause’?”That's an excellent analysis as far as it goes, and had the professor thought to mention how Islamic terrorism is motivated by words in Islam's sacred texts which command the faithful to engage in holy war until such time as infidels acknowledge Islam's Allah-decreed supremacy, it would be well-nigh perfect.
Terrorism, says Newell, is instead generally rooted elsewhere: “a hatred born of wounded honour and moral outrage is independently rooted in the human character and is, therefore, an independent variable in violent political extremism.” This insight has a pedigree that stretches back to Plato.