Militant Islam is an ideology embraced by political and economic elites, including those who hold American passports.
Unfortunately, much of the academy refuses to acknowledge this fact, championing instead "hopeless poverty" and "economic deprivation" as "root causes" of violence committed by Islamist terrorists. Some examples:
• Karen Armstrong, a faculty member at London's Leo Baeck College Center for Jewish Education, writes, "fundamentalist extremism has risen in nearly every cultural tradition where there are pronounced inequalities of wealth, power, and status."[i]
• John Voll, Georgetown University Professor of Islamic History, argues, "Part of the appeal of bin Laden is that he can look people in the eye and say: "I know you live in a police state, I know you're living in poverty…so come join my holy war"."[ii]
• Frances Stewart, Oxford University Professor of Development Economics, maintains, "It is a question not only of horizontal inequality but also of poverty and, particularly, unemployment, which provide a fertile ground for al-Qaeda's mobilizing support."[iii]
But the evidence reveals that the relationship between poverty and religiously motivated violence is weak. Radicals and revolutionaries historically have emerged from the middle to upper classes of society. After a critical examination of the supposed connection between poverty and terrorism, Princeton University econmics professor Alan B. Krueger and Middle East specialist Jitka Maleckova concluded,
terrorism is less like property crime and more like a violent form of political engagement. More-educated people from privileged backgrounds are more likely to participate in politics, probably in part because political involvement requires some minimum level of interest, expertise … all of which are more likely if people are educated enough and prosperous enough to concern themselves with more than economic subsistence.[iv]
The spread of Islamist radicalism in the United States, where demographic surveys indicate that 66% of American Muslims earn over $50,000 per year, confirms this thesis.[v] Moreover, the top ten Muslim occupations in America include engineering, medicine, and corporate management.[vi] Daniel Pipes, a scholar of Islam, notes, "In socioeconomic terms, certainly, Muslims can find little fault with America. They boast among the highest rates of education of any group in the country—a whopping 52 percent appear to hold graduate degrees—and this translates into a pattern of prestigious and remunerative employment."[vii]
However, in keeping with Krueger and Maleckova, this progress has hardly insulated America's Muslim community from extremism. In 1999, at a forum sponsored by the State Department, Sheikh Mohammed Hisham Kabbani, a courageous Sufi cleric and opponent of Wahhabi Islam, argued that 80 percent of all mosques and Muslim charities in the United States had come under the influence of radical Islamic agents.
For this statement, Sheikh Kabbani endured severe criticism and even a death threat.[viii] Other Muslim scholars, like Khalid Duran and Tashbih Sayyed have also received death threats for their criticisms of Islamist radicalism. Sayyed warns, "Militant Islamist organizations in the US have created the perception that they are the sole voices of Muslims in the US, making their opposition [to] US efforts to eradicate fascist and totalitarian Islamist regimes a popular Muslim trait."[ix]
Other troubling examples of the affluence of American-based Islamic militancy:
- Socially advantaged Americans join the jihadist ranks. Consider the case of former Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh. According to The New York Times, Lindh grew up in an "old, moneyed Marin County suburb" and his father is a "corporate-lawyer."[x] The Boston Globe described the place of Lindh's upbringing as a "comfortable home" located in a county prominent as "an address for millionaires."[xi] Like Lindh, Mike Hawash, recently sentenced to seven years in prison on "charges of conspiring to wage war against the United States"[xii] enjoyed affluence as a software engineer for Intel.[xiii]
- Jihadists have set up sophisticated networks. The Washington Times explains "The terrorist organization Hamas invested millions of dollars during the past decade in real-estate projects nationwide, including in suburban Maryland, as part of a scheme to raise cash to fund acts of terrorism."[xiv] The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement testifies that BMI Leasing, Inc., BMI Real Estate Development and others "conducted financial transactions with persons who were or are now Specially Designated Terrorists or Specially Designated Global Terrorists, including Yassin Kadi, Mousa Abu Marzook and Mohammad Salah."[xv]
Americans who turn to militant Islam as a way of life are not looking to improve their socioeconomic status but for identity, meaning, solidarity, and solutions in a utopian moral order. To win the war on terrorism requires doing combat against the real enemies of the West – the jihadists, the networks that support their cause, and sympathetic regimes – and not non-existent "root causes."
Zachary Constantino is a student research associate with Campus Watch. He is presently pursuing a B.A. in political science with a minor in international politics at American University in Washington, DC.
[i] Karen Armstrong, "Our role in the terror: The west must accept its share of the blame for the growth of fundamentalist violence," The Guardian, September 18, 2003.
[ii] Robert Worth, "The Deep Intellectual Roots of Islamic Terror," The New York Times, October 13, 2001.
[iii] Frances Stewart, "Terrorism will thrive while economic inequality continues between Arab states and the west," Financial Times, March 19, 2004.
[iv] Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckova, "Does Poverty Cause Terrorism?: The economics and the education of suicide bombers," The New Republic, June 24, 2002.
[v] "American Muslims, Demographic Facts,"
[vii] Daniel Pipes, "Are Muslim Americans Victimized?" Commentary, November 2000.
[viii] Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe, prior to September 11, noted that CAIR and other bad actors "are…swift to attack anyone who is critical of Islamic extremism – even when the "criticism" is mere reporting." Morever, according to Jacoby, such organizations consistently fail to "attack specific Islamic terrorist or radical groups" revealing "their real agenda." (Jeff Jacoby, "Islam's Unheard Moderates," The Boston Globe, January 6, 2000). Post-September 11, Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times observed that Sheikh Kabbani was vindicated even though his comments at the forum hosted by the Department of State had resulted in condemnation from nine American Muslim groups. (Laurie Goodstein, "A Nation Challenged: The Cleric," October 28, 2001).
[ix] Tashbih Sayyed, "The Silence of the Faithful," Pakistan Today, April 25, 2003,
[x] Evelyn Nieves, "A U.S. Convert's Path from Suburbia to a Gory Jail for Taliban," The New York Times, December 4, 2001.
[xi] Tatsha Robertson, "Liberal Rearing Urged Religious Exploration," The Boston Globe, December 10, 2001.
[xii] Lynn Marshall and Tomas Alex, "One of the ‘Portland Seven' expresses sorrow for trying to join the Taliban after 9/11," Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2004.
[xiii] Free Mike Hawash,
[xiv] Jerry Seper, "Hamas linked to Area Housing," The Washington Times, March 26, 2004,