Because it’s unfashionable to blame Islamic jihadist terror attacks on militant Islamism, social commentators have had to find themselves a scapegoat. Their chosen scapegoat is inequality. Supposedly, adverse economic conditions create a prime environment for radicalization. I’m prepared to concede this. But, unlike Karl Marx, I don’t think that people are mere products of economic forces. I think we have agency, and that we also have needs and wants besides material needs and wants. We have appetites for meaning, as well as for food. Deprivation of either can lead to the desperation that eventually results in ideological possession.
Osama Bin Laden was the son of a billionaire. Ayman al-Zawahiri came from a well-to-do family. If inequality is really what all of this Islamic terrorism is about, then shouldn’t we expect the young men carrying out attacks against civilians in the West to go after their wealthy leaders instead? And shouldn’t we be shocked that Bin Laden and Zawahiri became leaders of Al-Qaeda, despite their upper-class backgrounds? Or is this really about the need to see oneself as part of a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil?
The simple fact is that, while economics does play a role in the ideologies people adopt, the need that people have to identify themselves with a cause is far more powerful. What’s more, it cannot be eliminated, unless we cease to be human. No amount of economic progress or income equality will take away our deeply ingrained need to do battle with and triumph over our enemies. As far as I can tell, the only way to deal with this fact of human existence is to insist at all times that the greatest enemy we have to contend with is the enemy within.
Militant Islamism does the exact opposite, identifying Evil with the infidels in the West, and Good with Islam. Any ideology that identifies evil as an external force that can be eliminated by doing away with a group of people is dangerously simplistic. And the allure of such an ideology does not depend on economic inequality. The SJW ideology that has taken hold of the minds of some left-wing students, for instance, is of this sort. Its appeal lies in how easy it makes it to be a “good” person instead of an “evil” person. Just use the right language and you’re golden. But the people who adopt this ideology are not poor, oppressed people, but students at top universities–future members of the ruling class.
Destructive ideology can be boosted by economic inequality, but it does just fine without. We need to remember that if we’re going to effectively deal with militant Islamism.