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.


In 1925, while studying as a postgraduate student at Cambridge, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the great physicist and one of the most brilliant minds in history, attempted to poison his tutor. 

The motive behind this exceptionally alarming action was in fact quite trivial.  Oppenheimer’s forte and passion was in theoretical physics; conversely, he was virtually inept in experimental physics.  His tutor, who happened to be the future Nobel laureate Patrick Blackett, was apparently oblivious to this and kept assigning him to laboratory works.  Out of frustration, Oppenheimer laced an apple with poison and left it on his tutor’s desk.  Fortunately, Blackett did not eat it.  The university authorities were aghast nonetheless.

A hearing was commenced.  Attempting to poison someone was surely more than a simple misdemeanor; it was a serious crime.  Sanction was to be given to young Oppenheimer, and no doubt expulsion was considered.  However, in the end, all he received was probation and a compulsory consultation with a psychiatrist.  Malcolm Gladwell attributed Oppenheimer’s escape from a murder rap to his “practical intelligence”—the savvy to know what to say to whom at what time.  Some historians claimed it was his father who pulled the string.  Regardless, Cambridge decided to give Oppenheimer a second chance.

Oppenheimer went on to become a leader in quantum mechanics and helped pave the way for the advancement of theoretical physics. In 1942 he was assigned as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which discovered the way to harness energy from the very building blocks of matter and subsequently built the world’s first atomic bomb.  That bomb triggered a series of events: the end of World War II, the downfall of the Nazi, the unconditional surrender of Japan, and subsequently, the independence of Indonesia.

Fast forward over six decades later and we see that very same Indonesia finding its leading university in science and technology in a precarious situation.  The Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) discovered that at least 14 of its students were involved in “jockeying”—getting paid to help prospective university students cheat during the national enrollment test or take the test in their stead.  The news brought tremendous shame to the university.

Like Cambridge, ITB now have to deal with their students’ serious offense.  Unlike Cambridge, however, ITB seems to be bent on ensuring that the students get no second chance.

At the time of this article’s writing, ITB’s Student’s Code of Ethics Commission has come up with a recommendation to expel 11 of the 14 students; it is almost a certainty that the recommendation will be carried out.  An ITB official claimed that “expulsion was the only option.”  Deputy Rector Widyo Nugroho went even further as to suggest that the students be blacklisted from all Indonesian universities, effectively denying them access to higher education in the country.

Is all that really necessary?  Nobody is denying that the students committed a serious mistake and that a sanction is in place.  But the sanction that ITB concocted is grossly disproportionate—it’s something that should be reserved for students who, say, attempted to poison someone.  And while the fact that most of the students were poor and hence found it hard to resist the lure of big cash cannot justify their actions, it should be taken into consideration in determining their sanction.  At the end of the day, these young people are not criminals and they do not deserve to be treated as such.  They do not deserve to have their entire future taken away.

And it’s not like Indonesians are alien to the concept of giving second chances; at times we even went overboard.  We looked pass the alleged involvement of former military officials in past human rights violations, focused on their leadership quality, and allowed them to join the presidential race.  We were willing to pardon a dictator’s regime of fear and silence, highlighted his good deeds, and considered making him a national hero.  We released a religious hatemonger from jail, downplayed his involvement in past terrorist attacks on the country, and made him an acceptable religious figure.  But when a bunch of young people helped others cheat a test, we rain down hell on them.

“Expulsion is the only option”?  How about temporary suspension and probationary period?  How about 1,000 hours of community service, say, tutoring high school students?  How about assigning the students to schools in the local area to work as teacher assistants until they graduate college?  Any of these sanctions—and more, if one is willing to be creative and employ common sense—would be proportionate to the students’ misconduct and be a sufficient deterrence for others.  And nobody’s future needs to be destroyed.  But no; somehow it had to be expulsion.

Whereas Cambridge gave Oppenheimer a second chance, ITB is giving its students none.

History notes that after the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer became a staunch detractor of the weapon he helped built and refused to support the development of the even more powerful hydrogen bomb.  He paid dearly for his decision.  A McCarthy-ist witch hunt was launched at Oppenheimer, humiliating and stripping him of his security clearance.  Thus, one of America’s most brilliant scientists, one who had dedicated his life to public service, was branded as a traitor by his own country based on evidence amounted to hearsay. 

That second chance for Oppenheimer given by Cambridge in 1925 was indeed a gift to the world, for we were given the opportunity to learn from him not only of quantum mechanics, but also of human compassion and bravery, as the great physicist chose to be publicly humiliated than to support the application of science in mass murder. The man who tried to poison his tutor in college put back mankind’s faith in science.

As for the eleven brilliant young minds facing expulsion from ITB, we can only wonder what contributions they could in the future give to their families, their communities, their country, and even perhaps the world if they were to be given a second change.  But that would be the tragedy, wouldn’t it?  If we could only wonder.

An edited version of this article was featured in The Jakarta Globe

The Indonesian government’s decision to grant more autonomy to universities and reduce subsidy for higher education has been under fire ever since the policy was introduced. The majority of the public, further fueled by mainstream media, seems to be enchanted with the notion of subsidized universities, believing it would bring equality to a segregated community and increase overall welfare. Perhaps it is time to disenchant this seemingly noble idea of higher education subsidy and try to analyze the impact of such policy objectively.

Proponents of a blanket subsidy for higher education hinge their arguments on erroneous conventional wisdoms: that there are hordes of poor students that do not enter college because they cannot afford the tuition fee; and that putting more and more individuals through college will increase overall public welfare. As most conventional wisdoms, these ideas are appealing and popular but are not necessarily correct. Let’s take a closer look.

First, evidence shows that there is only a very small fraction of the poor that graduate high school and thus is eligible to enter college. The number of poor people going to school decreases significantly as the level of education increases. In Indonesia today, there are nearly 90 percent of children coming from the two poorest income quintiles graduate from primary school, but only approximately 60 percent of the same group continues to junior secondary school. The number keeps decreasing until only about one out of ten young people age 16 to 18 years old from the two poorest quintiles graduate from senior high school and is eligible to enter college. Of this number, probably only half would decide to continue to college.

Now unlike what most people would like to believe, the main reason the number of poor people decreases with level of education is not because they cannot afford the tuition fee, but rather because the poor cannot afford the opportunity cost of education. Going to school means forfeiting income; and for poor households, this is a big deal. Six years of primary school means six years of lost income—twelve years of basic education means twelve years of lost income. That is the main reason why only a small fraction of the poor would decide to go to college, even if we make the fees exceptionally low.

It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to figure out that a blanket subsidy for higher education would benefit mostly students from well-off families. The very poor don’t go to college; the middle and upper classes do. Subsidizing higher education won’t make universities become less exclusive; it will only make the exclusive pay less.

Furthermore, the idea that massive expansion of higher education would lead to higher level of general welfare also needs to be re-examined. True that the private benefit of higher education is significantly large; on average, a college graduate makes about twice as much as their high school graduate counterparts over a lifetime. It does not follow, however, that having more and more individuals going to college leads to higher level of welfare for all.

What we need to understand is that education is a “positional good”—one whose value depends on whether you have more of it than other people—and is not just about acquiring knowledge and skills in absolute terms per se. The reward you reap from your education does not solely come from the skills and knowledge you receive, but also depends greatly on whether you’re somewhere “at the top.” The catch is, it’s impossible to have everyone at the top.

To put it simply, an ambitious expansion of tertiary education would lead to a decrease in value of a college diploma. We’re already beginning to see the signs today. Some occupations that only required high school diploma just a couple of decades ago—security, sales promotion, taxi drivers—are now beginning to require some college degree. In the worst case scenario of tertiary education expansion, one can only hope to get a job, any job, if they had gone to college. This would not help the poor; indeed it would suffocate them for then they would have no choice but to forfeit income and spend even more money to go through college if they expect to get any decent job at all.

We should all pause for a moment before blindly demanding the state to heavily subsidize higher education. Such policy is indeed a “feel good” policy—one that gives us the illusion that we’ve done something good when in fact we would only be giving money to the middle and upper class families, and would very likely hurt the poor in the long run.

A better—though perhaps less politically appealing—policy is to focus on basic, including preschool, education. Participation in quality early childhood education has been strongly correlated to higher level of success in adult life, while the opportunity cost borne on poor families is very low (since toddlers can’t work for money anyway). Meanwhile, we are still falling behind in terms of primary education quality and secondary education participation.

With regards tertiary education, yes we should still strive to attain capable and willing individuals from the lower economic brackets to continue to higher education, but a blanket subsidy is not the way to do it. Instead, we should expand targeted subsidies through scholarships, financial aids and establishing affirmative action in universities for individuals from lower socio-economic background.

Public policies are supposed to benefit the society as a whole and provide the most assistance to its most vulnerable members. A large subsidy on higher education is neither a prudent public policy nor a good spending of public funding. It is imperative that the Indonesian public understands this lest we end up pressuring the government to spend our own tax money to help rich children get richer and add more burden to the poor in the long run.

* An edited version of this article was featured in The Jakarta Post