You Can't Understand Why People Join ISIS Without Understanding Relative Deprivation

03/25/2015 12:25 pm ET | Updated Dec 28, 2015

The rise of ISIS and particularly the question of why young Muslims from all over the world join this entity have once again ignited a polarized and familiar debate. In one camp, there are those who believe ideology, culture and religion are the main drivers. Radical Islam, jihadism and the clash of civilizations are all integral parts of this camp's narrative. The view that the real clash should be within Islam -- between radicals and moderates -- represents a more nuanced version of the same argument prioritizing ideological factors.

In the opposing camp, social and economic factors trump ideology and religion. Lack of education, unemployment, poverty and absence of upward mobility cause a growing sense of frustration and radicalization. According to this camp, the absence of socioeconomic opportunities matters much more than the clash of civilizations or the war of ideologies.

Both camps make valid points with major implications for policy makers but the key in understanding who joins ISIS is to go beyond simple socioeconomic factors or pure ideology. Instead, the concept of relative deprivation deserves more attention. Unlike absolute deprivation, relative deprivation is all about growing aspirations and expectations. The two camps can find common ground if they agree that ideology becomes much more important when socioeconomic aspirations are on the rise but somehow remain unfulfilled. The growing gap between expectations and opportunities leads to ideological radicalization.

"Those who are educated and with high ambitions but no real prospects for advancement are the 'frustrated achievers' increasingly tempted by radicalism."

Last month, President Obama himself tried to find a middle ground between these two camps in his speech on countering violent extremism. He acknowledged the ideological and religious nature of the threat by emphasizing that groups like ISIS and al Qaeda portray themselves as holy warriors in defense of Islam. He was quick to add that America is at war with people who have perverted Islam and not with Islam itself. In doing so, the President echoed the view that the real ideological war should be between moderates and radicals within the same faith.

After addressing the ideological dimension of the threat, the President also defended the socioeconomic camp with the following words.

A second challenge we need to address are the grievances that terrorists exploit, including economic grievances. Poverty alone does not cause a person to become a terrorist, any more than poverty alone causes somebody to become a criminal. There are millions of people -- billions of people -- in the world who live in abject poverty and are focused on what they can do to build up their own lives and never embrace violent ideologies. Conversely, there are terrorists who've come from extraordinarily wealthy backgrounds, like Osama bin Laden.

What's true, though, is that when millions of people -- especially youth -- are impoverished and have no hope for the future, when corruption inflicts daily humiliations on people, when there are no outlets by which people can express their concerns -- resentments fester. The risk of instability and extremism grow. Where young people have no education, they are more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and radical ideas. Because it's not tested against anything else, they've got nothing to weigh. And we've seen this across the Middle East and North Africa.

"The interconnected nature of the world thanks to information technology and globalization creates an acute awareness about opportunities elsewhere."

It is certainly true that breeding grounds for radicalism and terrorist recruitment emerge not necessarily under conditions of abject poverty and deprivation but rather when negative social, economic, political and ideological trends converge. Dismissing the economic and social roots of radicalization on the grounds that most terrorists have middle-class backgrounds is simplistic and misleading. It is precisely when people develop high expectations, aspirations and hopes for upward mobility that we have to pay more attention to the potential for frustration, humiliation and ideological radicalization. There is a growing body of literature that refers to such individuals as "frustrated achievers."

Relative deprivation is not primarily concerned with poverty or ignorance. Instead, the focus is on growing economic, social and political aspirations and the absence of opportunities to meet such heightened expectations. Those who are educated and with high ambitions but no real prospects for advancement are the "frustrated achievers" increasingly tempted by radicalism. Thus, it makes sense that Tunisia, which has a stronger middle class and education system than most of the Middle East, has disproportionately high numbers joining ISIS.

Similar dynamics of relative deprivation are at play in Europe, where significant portions of Muslim populations are young, frustrated, relatively educated, unemployed and uprooted from any sense of belonging. A small country like Belgium -- with serious national identity, unemployment and Muslim integration problems -- provides a perfect example of a toxic breeding ground where, like Tunisia, a disproportionately high number of ISIS recruits have emerged.

"Geographic proximity to Europe, a sense of historical rivalry and constant comparisons of achievements contribute to a sense of relative deprivation."

The interconnected nature of the world thanks to information technology and globalization creates an acute awareness about opportunities elsewhere. Deprivation is no longer an absolute, isolated phenomenon -- it's relative. Rising inequality and growing awareness about such inequality go hand in hand. The scale of frustration is compounded by a demographic explosion, weak state capacity, growing expectations and diminishing opportunities in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

The religion of Islam adds an additional layer of complexity to relative deprivation. In a sense, Islam as a civilization is a frustrated achiever. Islam has created a great civilization that once surpassed the West in terms of its scientific, artistic, economic and military achievements. Today, however, the Islamic world collectively shares a sense of frustration and humiliation because it has little to boast in terms of economic, political and cultural success.

Yet, Islam still has high expectations and aspirations fueled by past accomplishments. Millions of Muslims share these mixed feelings of pride and shame. Geographic proximity to Europe, a sense of historical rivalry and constant comparisons in terms of achievements contribute to a sense of relative deprivation.

"In a sense, Islam as a civilization is a frustrated achiever."

A strategy to stymie ISIS recruitment must address the lack of opportunity for frustrated achievers -- particularly of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria -- and the integration problems of Muslims in Europe. At the ideological level, the debate should be within Islam and not misconstrued as a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. To that end, it would certainly help to increase the online and social media visibility of moderate and reformist Islamic theologians that counter the extremist interpretation of Islam.

All these ideological, economic, political and psychological factors need to be taken into consideration in analyzing who joins ISIS. Unlike al Qaeda, ISIS claims to have created a state where the caliphate is reborn. More than a terrorist organization, it is an extremist movement and a pseudo-state in search of citizens. Understanding the complexity of relative deprivation -- without exclusively focusing on ideology or economics, but the intersection of the two -- is a first step in fighting the appeal of ISIS for thousands of frustrated achievers in the Arab world, Europe and beyond.

Victims of the Islamic State