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The Intersection of Economics and Religious Fundamentalism – Professor Hussein Solomon

January 3, 2016

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The Intersection of Economics and Religious Fundamentalism

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 4 (2016), Number 1 (January 2016)

2015 ended with more terrorist attacks by the likes of Boko Haram and Al Shabaab. Moreover, Islamic State is winning over more recruits on the African continent. The African Union continues to be little more than a talk shop with little concrete counter-terrorism measures on the ground. Where such concrete steps are taking place, such as with the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), it is heavily subsidized by the United States and various European powers. Understanding the central role played by Islamist ideology in securing more recruits, governments worldwide have focused on countering violent extremism.

One area not receiving sufficient attention is economics – more specifically sustainable economic development and how this can undermine Islamist rhetoric. In my view, too much attention is being placed on the ideology itself without understanding that without legitimate grievances such Islamist rhetoric would not find fertile soil to grow and plant its seeds of hatred and destructive violence. Consider the case of Mali here. In 2012, Islamists seized northern Mali. Analysts noted how quickly the north fell, how Malian soldiers lacked the will to fight and how quickly ordinary civilians turned their back on political elites in Bamako, the capital. This however was hardly surprising. Since 1994 the living standards of ordinary Malians deteriorated at alarming rates. Unsurprisingly, a 2008 Afrobarometer poll noted that 74 percent of Malians agreed with the statement that `the government’s economic policies have hurt most people and only benefitted a few’[1]. In Nigeria and Tunisia, similar economic variables are making the youth susceptible to Islamist propaganda.

As we move into 2016, the narrative of a rising Africa with a burgeoning middle class is increasingly proving hollow. True, Africa has been growing at close to 5 percent for 15 years but Jonathan Rosenthal[2] has noted that it has not been evenly distributed. This is especially the case given the countless predatory African political elites who are more concerned with lining their own pockets than the welfare of their citizens. Moreover, Rosenthal adds, `most poor Africans were in such deep poverty that even a doubling of income (from say $1 to $2 a day) is not enough to lift them out of it’[3]. Factor in falling commodity prices and the economic prospects for Africa do not look so bright. At the same time, bleak economic prospects with its concomitant social agitation and political alienation will serve to strengthen the appeal of Islamist ideology.

Economics then must play a more central role in any comprehensive counter-terrorism framework. Whilst many have recognized this truism, the form such economic assistance has generally taken in Africa has often exacerbated the problem. Let me be frank, economic aid and assistance to African states often do not reach the most needy in their societies. Aid is siphoned off by individual politicians or alternatively is used by ruling parties to build vast patronage networks to allow them to tenaciously cling to political power. What is needed is greater support for African entrepreneurs not African governments. Across Africa, the private sector is stepping in to do the work that governments have failed to undertake. Hapless parents faced with failing government schools are turning to private schools mushrooming everywhere charging as little as US $75 per annum. The education provided in these schools is generally of higher quality than government schools. The information technology sector is bringing mobile phones and mobile banking to distant rural communities. The private sector is increasingly playing a major role in health care whilst government clinics and hospitals are under-resourced and grow increasingly dysfunctional.

What is needed then is for the international community to not only support Africa’s blossoming private sector but to also put pressure on African governments to provide the necessary legislative environment to allow private sector entrepreneurship, investment and growth. As African states grow increasingly prosperous, as secular states working in partnership with the private sector demonstrate that they can increase living standards of ordinary people, the allure of Islamism will increasingly lose its shine.

[1] Hussein Solomon, Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Africa: Fighting Insurgency from Al Shabaab, Ansar Dine and Boko Haram. 2015. Palgrave Macmillan, London, p. 71.

[2] Jonathan Rosenthal, “A revolution from below,” The World in 2016. The Economist. London, p. 75.

[3] Ibid.

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