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Poverty and Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:21 pm on 27th February 2002.

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Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench 6:21 pm, 27th February 2002

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, for his powerful introduction to the debate. It would be helpful to find a consensus about the causes of terrorism. No doubt some links between third world poverty and terrorism can be shown. However, they do not explain why relatively affluent Britons and Americans should rush off to join Al'Qaeda. They do not explain why, in the past, rich, well educated Germans and Italians joined the Baader-Meinhof gang or the Red Brigade. The long-standing use of terror in Northern Ireland, the Basque country and Corsica seems to have little to do with poverty. Nor does the extreme violence of some animal rights campaigners in this country.

Poverty is a depressing and depersonalising situation, but I doubt whether it is a prime cause of terrorism. Terrorism is more closely connected with powerlessness and injustice, with a sense that all channels of non-violent or political progress have been blocked off. Basic human needs theory maintains that subsistence needs are the most immediate and pressing. Once those have been satisfied, even inadequately, people try to meet their non-material and spiritual needs. Prominent among such higher needs is the quest for identity, which is both personal and corporate. It concerns the identity of the family, the tribe or the nation. Identity is denied if people are obliged not to use their own language or culture. Their identity is threatened if they feel that they have no economic or political rights. When identity is denied, people often become violent. Ideology or religion then provides the spark for terrorist violence, even suicidal violence.

I shall give some examples. In Northern Ireland discrimination and unemployment over a period of 45 years from 1922 led to nationalist alienation. There was fertile ground for IRA violence, once civil rights marchers had been attacked. Now, after the Belfast agreement, we are trying to cope with Unionist alienation. In South Africa, the ANC long maintained a non-violent stance. Only when apartheid became a wholly closed system, withholding the franchise and freedom of movement from most black and coloured people, did the ANC reluctantly agree to somewhat half-hearted terrorism. Later, when negotiations began to dismantle apartheid, some whites and some black leaders felt their identities to be deeply threatened. They too responded with terror. Now, thanks to great statesmanship, combined with Christian patience and forbearance, we can hope that those days are gone, in favour of a multi-ethnic democracy.

Israel, as has been said, provides another case study. When the Jews felt that they had no more than a toe-hold in their promised land, they produced their terrorists, in the form of the Stern Gang and the IZL. Israeli victories, in turn, generated Palestinian terrorism. The Palestinians saw themselves as second-class citizens in Israel, as a people under military occupation and rule in the West Bank and Gaza or as refugees and exiles in other countries. It is not surprising that they produced the PLO, the PFLP, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Palestinian terrorism has ebbed and flowed with the prospect of a political solution. There was hope at the time of the Oslo agreement and for a while afterwards. Now, we can only trust that those on every side will appreciate that war is unwinnable and that peace will have to be negotiated.

I hope that I have said enough to make it clear that people become violent when their identity is denied or suppressed. Terrorism in the hands of the powerless is seldom mindless; often, it is precisely calculated. Reactions to oppression and discrimination are similar in widely varying cultures. Terrorism that has popular support can rarely be suppressed by force and security measures alone. When that is tried, violence is likely to recur in the next generation. Poverty is not, in itself, a major cause, although relative poverty and envy may be an ingredient. Ideology and excessive religious zeal often trigger terrorism. Of course, we should not ignore poverty, but, as far as concerns terrorism, it is more important to pay attention to the loss of identity and self-respect, often accompanied by a burning sense of injustice.