This report will attempt to present the definition of poverty, its dangers and how Islam tackles and provides solutions to this phenomenon. It will then proceed to show how poverty relates, directly or indirectly, to extremism and terrorism and how it could be a factor that casts people into despair, making them easily fall prey to terrorist groups that tempt them with promises of a better life.
First: Definition of Poverty
International organizations define poverty as the economic state where an individual does not get the income that allows him/her to meet the minimal standards of health care, food, clothes, education and the essential needs necessary for securing a decent standard of living.
This concept has become broader and more comprehensive, especially after the Copenhagen Summit in 2006, which stressed the importance of individuals’ access to the minimal standards of decent life, healthy environment and opportunities for democratic participation in decision-making in the aspects of civilian life.
Since man is a reflection of his true state of affairs, personal and behavioral traits and living circumstances, and because social, political and economic variables affect individuals and their personal lives, a poor man in a rich society may feel deprived and alienated. This feeling may lead him to take stances which might be positive or negative, depending on his culture and the extent of containment or negligence he finds in the society where he lives.
Hence, we come to realize that poverty on its own may constitute a direct reason for extremism. It is indeed a very serious phenomenon that negatively impacts all aspects of life and closely relates to ignorance and illiteracy as it undermines education. This in turn undermines health because, according to international reports, those who have been deprived of education find it difficult to protect themselves from diseases and viruses that can cause their death.
Second: Poverty and International Organizations
Due to its danger, the United Nations adopted a number of measures to counter poverty. It announced an International Day of Charity on September 25, which corresponds to the death anniversary of Mother Theresa who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in combating poverty. In addition, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) announced October 16 a World Food Day to raise the global awareness about the global food crisis; draw greater attention to agricultural production in all countries; and, as far as third world countries are concerned, promote development, provide access to technology, combat food crisis and malnutrition and encourage the participation of the inhabitants of rural areas, especially women and marginalized groups, in the decisions and activities that impact their living conditions.
According to a FAO report issued on September 20, 2018, around 820 million people worldwide suffer from poverty, food shortage and famines and are thus in a dire need of foreign food aids. They live in 39 states, 31 of which are African nations, 7 Asian and 1 Caribbean. These statistics show that Africa has the lion’s share of poverty, and meanwhile it is replete with extremist movements to a comparatively great extent, which affirms without a shred of doubt the close connection between poverty and extremism and violence.
Further confirmation of this fact is found in a report by the President of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) as it states that the period 1966-1968 saw 164 violent incidents where force was used and that 163 of them took place in poor countries.
Third: The Link between Poverty and Extremism
Based on the above, it is a safe bet to say that poverty is an ideal condition that makes it easy for the radical groups to attract new members. This conclusion, however, does not apply absolutely as there have been many cases where middle-class, socially stable young people with good, well-paid jobs chose to join extremist organizations.
To explain this, it may be said that the causes of extremism generally constitute a complex and multisided dilemma where personal, religious, social, economic, political and informational factors overlap. It is likely that such young people were not recruited because of poverty, unemployment or destitution – perhaps for some other reasons that can make an individual adopt violence. Such reasons can further be covered in other articles. It is also possible that these individuals happen to belong to the category of “dissatisfied achievers” that encompasses educated and ambitious young people who are deprived of real opportunities for making progress, and who grow even more resentful when they compare their living conditions to those of their affluent fellow citizens or their chances of achieving success in their countries to those in developed countries. This is especially true in cases where government corruption undermines economic growth and good governance.
Poverty may also be an indirect driver of extremism. In a study entitled “Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment” that was done by the United Nations Development Programme to investigate the psychological and educational causes that may lead an individual to join an extremist organization, the researchers reported some important findings, based on interviews conducted directly with African ex-members of terrorist organizations, including: 1) Poverty and marginalization are catalysts of extremism, violence and rebellion; 2) Marginalization and deprivation of social rights, lack of proper understanding of religious texts, educational and economic deterioration, loss of a parent or both parents are all factors that help the terrorist organizations in recruiting new members.
The report’s epigraph has the following words by UN Secretary-General, António Guterres: ‘I am convinced that the creation of open, equitable, inclusive and pluralist societies, based on the full respect of human rights and with economic opportunities for all, represents the most tangible and meaningful alternative to violent extremism.’ Granted, the provision of economic opportunities eliminates poverty, which serves as further protection from extremism.
The study also found that “miserable childhood” may be a motive for young people to adopt violence and join terrorist groups. It goes without saying that poverty and destitution are main factors of miserable childhood that can make an individual feel indignation at his/her society. Again, poverty in this case is an indirect reason for joining radical groups.
Fourth: Islam’s Treatment of Poverty
Islam has introduced several solutions to poverty, on top of which is encouraging individuals not to surrender to poverty and to strive in pursuing livelihood; Allah says, “It is He who made the earth subservient to you that you may travel all around it, and eat of things He has provided; and to Him will be your resurrection." (Quran, 67:15)
Islam requires Muslims, each according to his/her capacity, to pursue work as long as it is lawful. Thus, the order to spread out in the land in pursuit of provision is recorded in the Quran where Allah says, “And when the prayer has been concluded, disperse within the land and seek from the bounty of Allah, and remember Allah often that you may succeed. (Quran, 10:28)
The Prophet is also reported to have discouraged dependence on others for earning livelihood, saying, "No food is better to man than that which he earns through his manual work. Dawud, the Prophet of Allah, ate only out of his earnings from his manual work."
In addition, Islam encourages those who fail to find jobs in their areas of residency to pursue work elsewhere even if they should immigrate; Allah says, “And whoever emigrates for the cause of Allah will find on the earth many [alternative] locations and abundance." (Quran, 4:100) Besides, Islam imposes Zakah as an obligation on the rich, makes it one of its pillars and encourages Muslims to give alms to the charity-deserving categories of people, most importantly the poor; Allah says, "Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect [zakah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the [stranded] traveler." (Quran 9:60)
Islam also encourages the supererogatory giving of alms unrestricted by a certain time or place as Allah says, "… and loan Allah a goodly loan. And whatever good you put forward for yourselves - you will find it with Allah." (Qurans, 20:73) Furthermore, it recommends giving alms in the form of endowments or continuous charity as the Prophet said, "When a man dies, his deeds come to an end, except for three: A continuous charity, knowledge by which people derive benefit, pious son who prays for him."
The findings of the above brief analysis can be summed up as follows:
- It is not possible to combat extremism through security measures and military confrontation only; rather, it is a must to drain its sources, including poverty.
- Religious education is highly important in the course of combating poverty and protecting young people from being polarized by the terrorist and extremist organizations. With that said, the ‘Ulemaa’ (scholars) of religion shoulder a great responsibility as to pointing out the admissible methods that the religion enjoins for combating and resisting poverty.
- It is a must to promote the culture of voluntary and charitable work and encourage all groups of people to exercise it, especially children and youth. In this way, we provide assistance to those in need and at the same time strengthen the sense of humanism of young people and instill in their conscience the culture of "human fraternity" that can protect them from falling into the clutches of extremist groups.
- Combating corruption, nepotism and favoritism, and punishing those who waste public property are all important things that give young people hope for a better tomorrow.
- The media can play a viable role in combating extremism through pointing out successful examples of people who used to be poor but managed to succeed. We have plenty of such examples in our Arab societies.