A Case of the Mondays: It’s Not Oppression Alone

In previous installments of this column, I’ve written about racial oppression, and about how European racism against Muslim minorities is the primary fuel of modern Islamist terrorism. But now I feel I must explain that violence and extremism in general do not follow from oppression alone. Oppression helps nurture both, but what is important is not so much the reality of oppression as the perception of oppression, and the expectation that violent extremism can usher in a non-oppressive situation. This explains why many of the symptoms of Islamist extremism in Europe also exist among Christian conservatives in the United States, even though they are far from being downtrodden.

First, the narrative of oppression is central to every radical ideology. Almost invariably, every radical of any kind believes he is being suppressed by some abstract enemy: the Jews, the liberals, the West, secularism, science, communism, capitalism, white people. This belief has nothing to do with reality, and even when the group the radical claims to represent is oppressed, the radical will seldom join in more mainstream action to combat oppression, or recognize when things get better. Black nationalists decried Martin Luther King’s marches as displays of obsequity; Christian fundamentalists gloss over the ACLU’s protection of civil liberties in face of sometimes hostile school superintendents; communists refused to cooperate with social democrats even when Hitler was throwing both to concentration camps equally.

So the question of what causes violence is not the question of what causes radical ideologies to appear, but what causes large numbers of people to accept them. Real oppression certainly helps, since there tends to be an inverse correlation between the level of inequality between a country’s majority ethnicity and its minorities, and the level of violence minorities engage in. Put another way, the two countries where there is relatively little socioeconomic discrimination against Muslims by Western standards, the United States and Canada, are the two countries where Muslims are least likely to enlist in Jihadi organizations.

But a theory of what causes violence has to be more complex than that. Atheists and homosexuals, two marginalized minorities in most countries with a strong religiously conservative streak, have never engaged in terrorism, unless one counts communists who also happened to be atheists. African-American riots are an exceedingly rare phenomenon. In forty years, radical feminists have produced exactly one terrorist, mentally unstable Valerie Solanas. Before partition became obvious in India, anti-colonialist activism was non-violent. And in contrast, the KKK was never oppressed.

In all cases where terrorism occurred, there was a strong perception of oppression, even if it was really practiced by a dominant group that considered equality oppressive. Klansmen seriously considered the fact that black people could vote a bad thing for white people. Various factors then pushed many Southern whites toward radicalism, such as being told by Northerners first not to enslave black people and then to desegregate. In similar vein, the Nazis could scapegoat Jews and communists as responsible to the misery of Germany, and thus convince large numbers of Germans that these two marginalized groups were actually oppressing the German people.

In contrast, any form of oppression that does not have an element of socioeconomic inequality or obvious legal marginalization will be glossed over. In the United States, secularist activists usually understand how the government routinely violates separation of church and state, but most nonreligious people can easily live their lives without seeing these violations as a yoke. Even when inequality is glaringly obvious, as in the case of gays and lesbians, without systematic impoverishment people have too much to lose from engaging in violence.

Groups that are not really being oppressed find their most zealous supporters among the lower classes. I’ve already noted that the lower classes are likelier to engage in crude racism against lower-ranked groups than the upper classes; this also applies to terrorism, since not only do they have relatively little to lose from committing terrorist acts, but also they already tend to view their situation as miserable and are susceptible to scapegoating. Upper-class whites in the United States don’t need to vent their anger by committing hate crimes against black people, and upper-class American Christians are comfortable enough with their material situation that they are in no rush to embrace Dominionism. Dominionist leaders are upper-class, but they fall under the rubric of radicals, so the important question is not about them but about their followers.

So at a minimum, the idea that marginalization causes violence and terrorism should be refined to “the perception of marginalization, mediated by socioeconomic inequality, causes violence.” But even that is not enough, because it can’t explain why there has been relatively little black terrorism in the United States, and why Islamic terrorism only flourished in Europe in the aftermath of 9/11.

In my post about Islamism’s watershed moment, I noted that European Jihadism arose after 9/11 because of Bin Laden’s inspiration. The same can be said in the other direction about marginalized groups that elected to resist oppression with civil disobedience. Just as Bin Laden became a role model for disgruntled Muslims, who then started to emulated his terrorist tactics, so did Martin Luther King inspire African-Americans and Gandhi inspire Indians to be non-violent. Neither of the latter two inspirations worked perfectly, but their presence correlate with far below average levels of violence on the part of these two groups.

Finally, the last complication to this model is that the perception of change can easily color the perception of oppression. In communist Eastern Europe, the people didn’t revolt at the height of poverty and repression; they revolted when things seemed to be slowly getting better, but then stagnated or improved too slowly. Without the inspiration of a leader who can convince people to undertake direct activism, regardless of whether it’s violent of not, people who are steadily oppressed accept their oppression as a fact of life. They start trying to change things only when they feel that good things go away—that their privilege is evaporating, in case of groups that are not really oppressed, or that equality is proceeding too slowly and politicians’ support for it is duplicitous, in case of groups that are truly oppressed.

This explains why extremism, both violent and nonviolent, arises, even when the group that practices it is far from oppressed. It’s a more accurate rendition of the thesis that religious fundamentalism is merely a reaction to encroaching secularism; in fact it’s not a reaction to encroaching secularism or to the economic failures of modern capitalism, but a consequence of scapegoating certain classes of people. Christian fundamentalism in the United States, Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East, and Hindu fundamentalism in India arise not from the failures of secularism, but from charismatic leaders who cause people to focus on hated outsiders.

On the other hand, the formulation that oppression causes extremism is a fairly good approximation. From a historical perspective, the role of perception is critical. From a policy one, the government can change none of the factors influencing violence, except the actual level of oppression, and, by proxy, the perception that things are improving. By and large, we can take oppression combined with the right inspiration to be the main cause of violence, and then say that some perception-related factors can cause oppressed groups not to commit terrorism and non-oppressed ones to engage in violence.