A body on the street after twin explosions rocked a bus terminal in Kampung Melayu, East Jakarta, on May 24, 2017. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

What Causes People to Become Extremists and Suicide Bombers?


JULY 03, 2017

Jakarta. Terrorism has become an all too common occurrence in many countries, including in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

The archipelago saw several terrorist attacks, with the most recent an attack on two police officers at a mosque near the National Police headquarters in Jakarta and the twin explosions in Kampung Melayu in East Jakarta, both part of a global terrorist onslaught.

Professor Haroon Ullah of Georgetown University and a senior advisor at the US State Department, shared in 2015 what he discovered while living in Pakistan about how people become Islamic extremists.

Although the five-minute YouTube video may have been uploaded quite some time ago, his findings as set out in the video that has attracted 1.5 million views, offer an interesting insight.

Ullah, who has authored some books about extremism in Pakistan, argues that based on his observations while living in the world's second-largest Muslim nation, poverty, inequality and lack of education do not play major roles in driving a person to become a suicide bomber.

It was instead a powerful desire to see quick change in a country plagued by chaos and corruption, that intrigue young middle-class people, rather than the poor, to approve of violent acts against those believed to be responsible for the misery in their country.

"Places like Pakistan are submerged in chaos and corruption. Islamists promise clear-cut solutions to every problem, such as: here is how things will change if you follow these rules, and only these rules," Ullah says in the video.

"Many of those that I met who subscribed to religious extremism and prepared to murder and die for their cause are from the middle class, while many had a university education," he says.

His findings contradict a long-believed theory by experts that grinding poverty from which there appears to be no escape fosters resentment against those who are better off and that this triggers a notion if the only choice is to die as a martyr or as a beggar, the first option wins out.

Many analysts also believe that inequality led to the poor having limited opportunities in getting a decent education, thus making them more susceptible to manipulation by better-educated people. Terrorists will exploit this dissatisfaction, making it easier to indoctrinate people.

But again, the professor who earned a doctorate in comparative politics and public policy  from the University of Michigan in 2008, emphasizes that it is not poor and uneducated people who are attracted to extremist ideas, but rather middle-class people, who are "well-fed and well-read."

Ullah shares an experience he had with a middle-class Pakistani family. The father was a small business owner and the mother a nurse, who had given their son a good life.

"They told me that during dinner with family a few days earlier, their son noted how a person who was murdered deserved to die. Why? The son replied: 'Because he had spoken out on behalf of religious minorities.'"

The professor says the parents were shocked to hear this and wondered "how could their son, who had been well-educated, well-raised, think that."

"So, if poverty and ignorance do not drive people into extremism, what does?" he says.

Ullah says in times of chaos and mounting disappointment, Islamists step in with the promise to create a new form of government, cultivating a strong sense of victimhood with jargon such as: "We are not responsible for the sorry state of our country," and "Others have brought us down," which satisfy the public's desire.

Ullah gives examples of tyrants and demagogues such as Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler and Osama bin Laden, who have all adopted a similar approach with their followers.

"So, what to do about all this extremism?" he says in the video.

The professor says the first step is to change the false narrative of poverty and education, then take another perspective on the narrative of extremist groups.

"They promise a better way, but what do they deliver?" Ullah says. "The answer is always more death, more suffering and more poverty. In other words, young people need to see these extremist groups for what they are. Only then the recruitment numbers will start to go down."

The media also has a vital role in preventing terrorism, as it can stop treating extremists as freedom fighters, which is commonly done in places such as Pakistan.

Moreover, teachers and parents share an equal responsibility to be vigilant at to instill moderate and pluralist values in children.

He says politicians will also have to stop blaming their countries' problems on the West, while confronting endemic corruption from within.

Probably the most important, is for Muslim religious figures to stop looking the other way, or worse by glorifying the so-called "martyrs" – Muslims who murder innocent people – almost always other Muslims, in the name of Islam.

"Muslim leaders must promise these murderers eternal damnation," he says.

Ullah concludes by saying that the people in Muslim-majority countries have real grievances, but extremism only makes things worse.

"It is not poverty and misery that create religious extremism, it is religious extremism that creates poverty, misery and death."

Ullah is widely recognized as an American author, educator, scholar, diplomat and researcher who focuses on South Asia and the Middle East, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan.

He has conducted field research in many places, including Pakistan, where he studied the roots of Islamic extremism.