Global Islamist terror is today an intellectual, social, and political pursuit, and not merely a romantic idea unemployed and uneducated Islamists believe in.
"If you don't give people a vision in the 21st century, somebody else will. And that's the real risk of excluding a large number of people from the development process," said Rahul Gandhi yesterday to his audience at the Bucerius Summer School in Hamburg, Germany. In leading to this statement, Gandhi had said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had excluded minorities from development and had thus created space for insurgencies. He then went on to explain this point with his theory of how the terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), came to be born.
That he cited no source for his claim of the Modi government excluding minorities from development, and that the claim in itself is dubious, is a matter for another article. What concerns us in this piece, is Rahul Gandhi’s belief that ISIS was created because its members ‘were left out of the development process’. What happened here is this - the president of the principal opposition party of India tried to rationalise Islamist terror.
And he needs to be called out on that.
Are acts of terrorism really committed by people who literally have nothing to lose? It would make sense to understand it thus if we see terrorism as a nihilist pursuit. But, terrorism in fact is political, militantly political, with a clear modus operandi, strategies and set-in-stone objectives. That is why reducing terrorism to be the refuge of the poor, the uneducated and the unemployed is insincere considering that rabid Islamist or Naxal ideologies are not merely romantic. Assuming that they are such would lead to the understanding that it is easy to brainwash people and hence lack of education could be a factor. But, in both cases, the ideologies have transcended mere romanticism and have become a legitimate intellectual pursuit. Education is no longer a barrier for extremism, but perhaps an enabler to give the intellectual heft and normalisation that an extremist ideology demands.
The hue and cry signifying some sort of state induced moral decay follows wilful ignorance of numerous studies on education and extremist behaviour. In fact, just a cursory look at some of the most infamous terrorists would show that education has little to do with preventing Islamist radicalisation and may in fact propel it further. Osama Bin Laden was a chemical engineer. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, has a PhD in Islamic Studies. The mastermind of 9/11, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and the Camp Chapman suicide bomber, Humam-Khalil Al-Balawi, were both medical doctors. The Pakistani origin ‘Times Square’ bomber, Faisal Shehzad, had an MBA and the assassin of Daniel Pearl, Omar Saeed Sheikh, was studying Statistics at London School of Economics.
In 2016, at the peak of the ISIS devastation, a World Bank study based on leaked internal records of the ISIS found that recruits to the group were highly educated and relatively wealthy with suicide bombers being the best off among the lot. Less than 15 per cent of the 3800+ recruits covered in the sample had dropped out before high school. The report concluded that ‘neither inequality nor poverty was a driver for recruitment in violent extremism’.
Education and wealth brings in the privilege which allows people to move away from concerns of mere economic subsistence and allows them to be fully devoted and committed to any militantly extremist cause. Look at the case of Kobad Ghandy and Anuradha Ghandy. Both were from extremely privileged backgrounds and highly educated and went on to lead the armed Maoist struggle in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh.
Islamist terrorism and Naxal activities in India are both extremely complex pursuits and require a high level of intelligence rather than indoctrinated foot-soldiers. The Islamist movement in Kashmir, for example, is no different than what is happening globally. Impoverishment or lack of awareness has nothing to do with such politics. In fact, a heightened sense of awareness and an intellectual legitimisation of the goals could be propelling more educated youth towards terrorist activities. Look closely and you will see that what Rahul Gandhi is doing, intentionally or otherwise, is justify the ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’ slogans.
As a report in the Economist in early 2010 had put it, “The Sword is mightier with the Pen”.