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Poverty and Terrorism

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

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 6:27 pm, 27th February 2002

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, for sponsoring and initiating such an important debate.

We can all take it for granted that terrorism is evil, and the modern form that it has taken is even more so. It is more indiscriminate, inflicts heavier casualties, makes vague and non-negotiable demands and has turned into something of a spectacle, designed to dazzle and impress. We are all agreed that terrorism must be fought and prevented. Is that enough? I do not think that it is.

Terrorism springs from deeper causes and will continue for as long as those causes are not systematically dealt with. More important, terrorism is often engaged in by people who think little of their life, for religious or other reasons. If there are people who are prepared to throw away their life for worthwhile causes, there is nothing that we can do to prevent it. Terrorism, therefore, cannot be seen in merely military terms. It is not a military problem; it is a political problem. As a political problem, it can be dealt with only by addressing the deeper sense of injustice or the deeper causes from which it springs.

What are the causes of terrorism? In our debate, we seem to have established some kind of connection between poverty and terrorism. My noble friend Lord Desai, with his customary eloquence and flair, highlighted some of the difficulties with that. The poor do not, by themselves, engage in terrorism. In fact, there are few examples in history of the poor engaging in terrorism. Generally, they are too demoralised, too disorganised and too unsophisticated to engage in any form of terrorism.

Although poverty is not directly related to terrorism, there is, however, a connection at a deeper level. That connection springs from the climate in which terrorism grows. The poor have no stake in society and, therefore, tend to fall easy prey to terrorist propaganda. They are desperate and therefore easily seduced by the terrorist fantasy of a Utopian society in which all their problems would be solved. Being disorganised, they can also easily be terrorised into doing things that otherwise they would not do.

Being brutalised by poverty, they tend to see little wrong in terrorist activities, in taking innocent lives. That is because their own innocent lives have been stifled by terrorist factors springing from poverty and the state. In short, the poor provide a readily available and mobilisable material for religious groups who relieve the poverty of the poor only by capturing their souls for fanatical causes.

For those reasons, world poverty needs to be treated as a matter of urgency. That is partly—but only partly, as my noble friend Lord Desai pointed out—because it leads to terrorism. But, more important, it is morally obscene. It creates instability in the regions concerned and produces weak states and, equally important, because prosperity in one part of the world is closely tied with prosperity in others.

While poverty is one cause of terrorism, it is not the only one. People react violently when they feel humiliated, used as pawns in an international power game, unjustly treated, marginalised or trampled upon. We in the West built up and used the mujaheddin in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and we have not been entirely even-handed in our approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have also supported obnoxious and repressive regimes in many parts of the world and stifled secular and progressive forces.

Sometimes we have trained and funded terrorists and have given state terrorism legitimacy. We have taken advantage of the vulnerabilities and ignorance of developing societies by manipulating them, either by imposing unfair terms of trade or using them for our own purposes. All these tend to provoke bitterness, anger, rage and hatred in some parts of the world and create a climate in which the likes of bin Laden have taken unscrupulous advantage of the people involved.

In short, while tackling world poverty, we must also address these and other causes of terrorism. We need to respect other societies, to treat them as equals, to cherish their cultural diversity and not think in terms of imposing our own way of life on others. We must stop intervening in the affairs of other societies in order to promote our own interests and we must be fair in our approach to international conflicts. Above all, we must abandon the isolationist illusion that somehow we can create an island of peace and civility in a world seething with desperate poverty, injustice, marginalisation and humiliation.

We now know that the caves of Afghanistan were closely connected with the World Trade Centre in New York. Just as the rich and prosperous cannot live happily in gated communities in their own societies, the rich and powerful nations cannot isolate themselves from the rest of the world. In a globalised world, we are interdependent and share a common fate. While we pay lip service to the rhetoric of human unity and interdependence, I do not think that we have even begun to grasp its full economic and political logic. Unless we do so, terrorism in one form or another will continue to haunt us.