September 27, 2009
Posted by rivanroyono under Community
, Public policy
| Tags: al-qaeda
, hizbut tahrir
, lack of education
, nordin m top
|  Comments
Special thanks to my best friend, Sherria Ayuandini, who gave me some great insights on the issue and provided one of the major arguments for this piece.
When it comes to identifying the root cause of terrorism, many are compelled to point fingers on poverty and lack of education. The argument, in a nutshell, goes somewhat as follows: Poor, uneducated people are easily lured to promises of heaven and blowing other people up to attain them.
However, such theory does not stand its ground when confronted with facts. Marc Sageman of Foreign Policy Research Institute compiled the background data of around 400 Al-Qaeda members and discovered that three quarters of his sample belonged to the middle or upper class. He further noted that, “[T]he vast majority –90 percent—came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that’s usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways.”
Economists Efraim Benmelech of Harvard University and Claude Berrebi of RAND Corporation also came to the same conclusion when they gathered data on Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel from 2000 to 2005. They discovered that education is very much valued in the “terrorism market.” Better educated individuals are more likely to be successful in carrying out large-scale terrorist attacks and have lower chances of getting caught.
It should also be noted that the alleged leader of the 9/11 attack, Mohammed Atta, had a graduate degree, while both Azahari and Noordin Top, masterminds of the major terrorist attacks in the last decade in Indonesia, were skilled engineers and scientists. None of them were poor; all three came from affluent families.
Obviously, the majority of terrorists in the world don’t fit the poor and uneducated profile. As such, simply expanding education and eradicating poverty would unlikely affect terrorist recruitment. We need to look deeper. In that light, there are at least three issues that are often overlooked, each bearing a consequence in how public policies should be shaped and how we as the community should act in countering the seeds of terrorism.
First, it’s not a coincidence that many terrorist masterminds come from countries with repressive government, like the Arab states and, arguably, Malaysia. Repressive governments tend to bar legal venues of voicing dissent, thus making extreme demonstration of opposition more attractive. When the cost of legal dissent increases—due to threat of legal repercussions—the relative cost of illegal dissent is lowered. Hence terrorism becomes a viable venue.
Therefore, it’s within our interest to allow dissent. Specifically for Indonesia, we need to allow organizations like Hizbut Tahrir and the Islamic Defenders Front to exist. It doesn’t mean we should let them do whatever they want. They still have to be legally accountable for their actions; if and when they employ violence or thuggery, they have to pay for their actions to the fullest extent of the law. We should also continue voicing opposition to their radical stances and gospel of hatred. However, their right to association and voicing dissent should be recognized and upheld. Perhaps it’s worth to remind ourselves that virtually none of the major Indonesian terrorists are affiliated to these legal organizations.
Second, acts of terrorism and suicide bombing require the breaking of the fear of the pain involved in the act and the reservation of hurting other people. An effective way of doing this is by psychological enforcement, most notably by an authority or peers. A common trait shared by terrorists is that they have a figure of authority that they fully and unquestionably respect. It’s also very common for prospective terrorists to join a perverse cause through preexisting social bonds with people who are already terrorists or had decided to join.
So here’s what we need to understand: An education system that puts a very high premium on respect for authority and discourage freethinking would produce individuals that are highly susceptible to psychological enforcement. So while simply more education may not be effective in countering the roots of terrorism, how we educate matters significantly. We need to push, not discourage, our children to question the authorities—their teachers and parents—and the majority—their friends. We need to make them comfortable to be different and to disagree. This will make them significantly less vulnerable to “brainwashing” by radicalism.
Lastly, we should heed the statistics found by Mr. Sageman in his research: An overwhelming majority of the educated individuals in his sample of Al-Qaeda members are engineers, architects, civil engineers, and scientists. People with backgrounds in humanities are grossly underrepresented. Is there anything in humanities that make its students less susceptible to radical, narrow-minded, chauvinistic ideas? In short, the answer is yes.
Students of humanities make a conscious effort to learn different cultures, religions, and values. This leads them to respect people of all walks of life, even if they don’t necessarily agree with the values those other people hold. It’s this spirit of humanities that should be integrated in our education system. Indonesian youth needs to learn, and perhaps even experience, different values. The many live-in programs already conducted by various local NGOs, bringing in students of different religious and cultural backgrounds to stay with families in Aceh, Lombok and Papua, should be expanded. It’s high time for us to not only tolerate diversity, but embrace it.
At the end of the day, it’s really more complex than simply poverty and lack of education. If we’re really serious about addressing the root of terrorism, we need to uphold civil liberty, teach our children that it’s alright to question the authority, and expose them to different values. That’s going to be a challenge not only for the government, but for all of us—parents, teachers, and the community. But nobody ever said addressing the roots of terrorism is easy.
An edited version of this article (with some colorful comments, I might add) is available at Jakarta Globe.
September 20, 2009
This is the third in a series of articles on the economics of Ramadan. The other two are on Ramadan-induced inflation and how charity can hurt the poor.
When I was little, Ied Al-Fitri was always one of the most fun days of the year, mostly because my entire extended family would all gather in one place to celebrate it. The minimum set would be eighteen cousins, brothers and sisters, eight adults, and the matriarch, my grandmother. As with a typical West Sumatran family, mine was all over the place and it always took quite an effort to move ourselves to a designated place.
That was about twenty years ago, when the Indonesian population was around three-quarters of today’s and urbanization was relatively limited. At the time, while the traffic might increase during the ritual homebound exodus of Ied, it never reached the extent of what we experience today, where cars line up bumper to bumper, with swarms of motorcycles zigzagging wildly, mortally threatening everything in their paths, and where the length of a trip can quadruple that of any other given day.
Yet these days, under such excursion nightmare, hundreds of thousands still mobilize themselves every single year. They are willing to wait in line for hours to get tickets; get cramped in busses, trains and ships, many without air conditioning; get completely stuck on the road; and literally risk serious injuries—and even death—due to accidents.
Irrational? Actually we are observing quite a rational behavior.
Individuals take action after considering the personal cost and benefit. For many of us, the cost of the annual homebound trip—which includes not only the actual fare but also the long hours, exhaustion, and risks—is worth the benefit of celebrating Ied with family. When said individuals bear all the cost and reap all the benefit themselves, then whatever they decide is their own business. The thing is, as we shall see, this is not the case with the annual homebound exodus.
Every time an individual decides to take the long trip home, they contribute to the traffic jam, which in turn put tremendous strain on the roads, which are built and maintained by our tax money, and inject tons of toxins and carbon into the atmosphere, poisoning the air and increasing global temperature. Said individual would also significantly increase the risk of accidents happening, since with each additional bus, car or motorcycle on the street, the probability of collisions increases proportionately. In 2008, the exodus saw over 1,300 road accidents with more than 600 fatalities, all occurred within a week, which constitutes about 100 deaths per day—had this been due to terrorist attack, drastic measures would’ve been taken. These costs are not incurred on the individual deciding to join the exodus bandwagon, but on innocent bystanders. And this is where the problem starts.
The additional costs of the Ied exodus that are borne on other people are more commonly known as negative externalities. Exodus travelers only cover for the cost of tickets, fares, gas, personal time and physical exhaustion; while the rest of us cover for the cost of traffic jams, road damages, poisonous air, increased global temperature, and risk of fatalities. These externalities should have been accounted for by the respective individuals when they weigh the cost and benefits of taking the homebound exodus; unfortunately, they are not.
In order to address the problem, the real cost incurred on the individuals taking the exodus must be increased, taking into account all the externalities. This can mean taxing tickets and fares, setting up temporary toll booths on major roads, and even temporarily increasing gas price for several days before, during and after Ied. The additional revenue should then be channeled to road maintenance, clean air campaigns, and deployment of additional police personnel.
Now you might protest because some people would then not be able to afford taking the trip home. Well actually that’s the entire point. Many people should decide that the cost—the true cost—of going home outweighs the benefit and choose to stay put. Thus we would have less poison in the air and fewer deaths. What is truly scandalous is the fact that not only the government—with our support—decides not to increase the personal cost of Ied exodus, it actually decreases it, by minimizing hikes in tickets and fares. Since the cost of exodus is set considerably lower than it should be, there are significantly more people than it should be out there on the road.
The idea that there should be less people taking the Ied exodus is actually quite popular, especially if you’re one of the unfortunate ones who have ever experienced accidents on what is supposed to be a joyous occasion. In 2008, the Indonesian Council of Ulemmas (MUI) considered making the exodus makruh—an action that is divinely discouraged. Unfortunately, most people respond better to worldly incentive than divine sanctions.
I will not downplay the benefit of celebrating Ied with our loved ones. Being able to share the love, joy, and a sense of triumph after a month fasting with the people you call home is truly a blessing. But then again, is it worth 600 lives?
My extended family now numbers more than fifty. Today we’ve made a conscious decision not to make it necessary anymore to have a big gathering during Ied. Again, this is a rational decision—the cost, and risk, of having such familial exodus during the traffic peak of the year outweighs its benefit for us. So we celebrate Ied in different places, making use of the wonder of today’s information technology to share our love and happiness with each other. We do, however, agree to have a family gathering four times a year, scheduled deliberately outside Ied. And we always have as much fun as we did twenty years ago.
An edited version of this article is featured in Jakarta Globe
September 1, 2009
This is the second in a series of articles on the economics of Ramadan. The other two focus on Ramadan-induced inflation and the externalities of Ied exodus.
Begging on the street is haram—forbidden by divine sanction—and beggars will be cracked down by the authority. At least that is what’s going to happen if the Indonesian Council of Ulemmas (MUI) and the Indonesian government can have it their way.
It appears that only several days into the holy month of Ramadan, major cities all over Indonesia are already flooded with seasonal beggars. Seemingly as a response to that, the government announced that they endorsed all efforts to take beggars off the streets, including MUI’s move to declare begging haram.
I’m quite certain there will be people who would highlight how the MUI and government are misguided with their plans. So allow me to focus instead on what I believe to be one of the main reasons—although most certainly not the only one—why we have the whole problem with beggars, especially the seasonal ones, in the first place: ourselves and our perverse sense of charity.
Let’s start from the beginning and make one thing clear: begging is a job. Beggars may be officially referred to as the unemployed, but by all economic definitions, they are service providers. Begging requires capital, time, and hard labor. If you don’t believe me, try waiting on the side of the street for eight to ten hours a day in the baking sun, inhaling toxic fumes, while soliciting potential “clients.” It also provides service; beggars supply us with a venue to delude ourselves that we’re helping the poor, compensate our sense of guilt for not helping enough, and—this is my personal favorite—help us secure a nice spot in heaven. Ramadan allegedly doubles that last benefit; this perception, as we’ll soon see, pushes behavior with some unintended consequences.
Individuals choose jobs based on their personal cost-benefit analysis. Beggars choose begging because it’s the “best” job for them; the job provides them with the highest return per unit time, taking into account the condition of the job market, the resources available to them, and the skills that they have. The higher the return gets, the higher the attractiveness of begging as a job. And many of us have done plenty to make that return really high.
While academic research is lacking, various journalistic investigations indicate that begging can bring up to Rp. 100,000 in one day. That’s about Rp. 2,500 per 15 minutes for a ten-hour day of work, which is quite a reasonable figure. That income generation can increase dramatically during Ramadan, in which somehow a lot of people believe their alms are more valuable than in the rest of the months in the lunar calendar. As a comparison, a car mechanic earns about Rp. 50,000 in average per working day. Even if a person has other employable skills, begging would still be a very lucrative job. So you can stop wondering why we have hordes of beggars, seasonal or otherwise; you might very well contribute to the phenomenon.
If that’s all there is to it, there should be no problem. If begging is a legitimate job, let beggars beg. But there are at least two serious consequences of seasonal begging. First, they crowd out the urban poorest, who unlike the seasonal beggars have absolutely no alternative but begging. Second, there is an increased use of children, either as beggars or as props, thus denying them of time for education and exposing them to extremely hazardous condition. Many people’s tendency to give more alms to children and baby-carrying beggars is certainly not helping either. Your alms during Ramadan, even if they really do increase your chance of going to heaven, end up depriving the poorest of the poor and endangering children back here on earth.
At this point I wish to make a disclaimer that I’m not making a case against giving. Rather, I’m making a case against giving incorrectly. My real contention is that it’s almost always better to channel your alms through respectable charity organizations than to give the same amount of money directly to beggars—at least if your intention is to really help the poor.
Charity organizations that channel alms can do so more effectively than individual alms-givers. The pooled alms that they manage are significantly large that they can use them to fund well-planned programs, both short and long-term, that are more sustainable. Most of such organizations do more than simply help the poor survive day by day; they also have an eye on the horizon, providing financial assistance for education and even capital to start small businesses.
If you still prefer giving directly to beggars because they’d get all your money without having to pay the service of a middle man, think again. Like any underground economic sector, seasonal beggars are organized. And they have to pay a fee for the “organizers.” Under such arrangement, a beggar would typically get a meager 30 percent of what they earn. An accountable charity organization would spend most of your alms on their targeted beneficiaries; and they would show you their financial report to prove it if you asked for it. Give directly to beggars and you’d most likely give less.
At the end of the day, perhaps the best litmus test is your own conscience. So the next time you feel the impulse of giving small change to street beggars instead of giving the same amount of money to a respectable charity organization, ask yourself, “Am I doing this because I really want to help them and I’m certain that my petty coins would bring a significant impact to them, or am I doing this simply to make me feel good about myself and perhaps increase the probability of securing a nice place in the afterlife?”
Then again, if MUI and the government push forward with their respective plans, we might not have the opportunity to ask that question at all.
An edited version of this article is featured in Jakarta Globe