Economic opportunity may be antidote to radicalism

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald

The recent killing of two Canadian soldiers by self-professed, radicalized young men who became enamoured with a violent interpretation of Islam will bring up multiple assertions about the “root cause” for such attacks.

Some will declare that battles and wars in mainly Muslim countries are the cause. Others might claim Canada is inhospitable to those whose background or present creed is Islamic. And some might point to a perceived lack of opportunity for the young in Canada and abroad.

The first allegation will need to be answered elsewhere; that is a complex cause-and-effect, “chicken-and-egg” question worthy of a full, separate analysis. On the issue of hospitality, the answer likely varies depending on who you ask. Someone who emigrated from Pakistan to Canada in the 1970s as a young man might have faced more discrimination then and yet persevered through it. His present-day grandson who reads jihadi websites likely faces less discrimination (and certainly no government discrimination which is illegal) but doesn’t know it.

Even then, there is no straight line between societal or personal barriers (real or perceived) and acts of terror. Chinese, Japanese and Jewish citizens in Canada faced consistent personal and institutional discrimination, at least until the 1950s, but terror attacks have never sprung from these communities.

The last assertion, that a lack of opportunity helps explain at least some terrorist recruitment and activity, can be more easily analyzed starting with a general look at the potential for prosperity.

For example, we can compare countries and territories on economic freedom (in essence, opportunity). The Economic Freedom of the World report produced by my colleagues at the Fraser Institute is helpful here. It measures the economic freedom (levels of personal choice, ability to enter markets, security of privately owned property, rule of law, etc.) of 152 countries and territories.

Economic freedom is the cornerstone for both personal and a wider prosperity. A young Egyptian woman with a sewing machine who doesn’t have enforceable property rights and has her machine stolen by the competitor and bully at the factory down the street is doomed to poverty. The Tunisian fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself in 2010 needed the rule of law to be enforced. He supported eight people on less than U.S. $150 per month and just wanted to sell his fruits and vegetables. Instead, Bouazizi was harassed by three street cops looking for a bribe, was slapped, and had his goods confiscated.

So economic freedom and the institutional “pillars” that undergird it matter. Here, there is reason for guarded optimism: Some Arab countries have risen in the report’s rankings. For instance, Hong Kong is the most economically free jurisdiction but several Arab/mainly Muslim countries also score highly: the United Arab Emirates (sixth), Jordan (ninth) and Qatar (15th).

Nevertheless, some Arab or mainly Muslim countries are demonstrably worse than others on economic freedom. Saudi Arabia ranks 87th out of the report’s 152 jurisdictions followed by Yemen (118), Pakistan (124), Iran (147) and Algeria (148th). Some of those nations are prime recruiting grounds for terror groups.

Does a lack of economic opportunity help create an environment where malcontent youth can become radicalized?

The Economic Freedom of the World index does not address any potential link between a lack of economic freedom and terrorist motivations. It does, however, helpfully address the link between free markets and civil peace more generally.

In the 2014 report, Indra de Soya and Krishna Chaitany Dallamannati analyze the link and note that “empirical results show that economic freedom has a statistically significant negative effect on the onset of conflict and discourages states from violating people’s right to physical integrity.” In addition, they found that “economic freedom also encourages greater calm between distinct ethno-linguistic and religious groups within countries.”

So prosperity can help calm a particular society’s “waters.” That is encouraging, even if prosperity is not sufficient to thwart terrorism in specific, this because terror recruitment has multiple causes. That includes non-economic reasons such as nationalism, perceived or real injustices, and others.

Which is where we should bring Canada and the recent terror attacks back into the discussion: Canada scores the seventh highest of 152 surveyed countries and territories. It provides much economic opportunity—especially relative to the rest of the world. It also has some of the world’s lowest unemployment rates for young adults. Which means the cause, or inspiration, for homegrown jihadis lies elsewhere.

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