Poverty is About More Than Material Well-being

A responder to my blog post about the relationship between religious extremism and poverty asks if my argument holds when a young, educated, affluent, elite such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab , the Nigerian who attempted to blow up a Delta airliner over Detroit, turns to violence. Why do young people who have achieved advanced degrees and attained levels of material comfort want to blow up other people?

While individual motivations remain distinct, a composite is emerging that offers some clues.

It reveals that assimilation into majority cultures isn’t accomplished in short time periods but over generations and, in fact, assimilation doesn’t accurately reflect the give-and-take that is more likely necessary in this age.

Racial sensitivities are not eliminated by affluence and can be aggravated by subtle social distinctions and overt acts of racism.

Cleavages occur within ethnic communities as well as between these communities and the broader culture and can cause some individuals to feel isolated, a condition that among some festers into simmering rage.

There are extremists trolling for those experiencing this social anomie and they are skilled at recruiting and exploiting them for terribly destructive political purposes.

The Internet makes recruitment easier as extreme views and social disaffection can coalesce globally.

There is an unsettling fear afoot not only in the U.S. but across Europe and other regions about loss of community, social influence, economic security and identity that contributes to social discrimination against ethnic communities and conflict between ethnic and majority communities.

Global interconnections and mobility brings people into contact with others who bring new social values and cultural practices that sometimes feel threatening to majorities.

In short, poverty isn’t just about material well-being. We can experience a poverty of affirming relationships that can be as devastating as lack of material necessities. Affluence doesn’t treat poverty of relationships.

This isn’t an excuse for violence but recent events in Switzerland, France and the UK all point to a sense of unease with immigration and assimilation, particularly affecting Muslims, that reveals a more complicated social mix than religion alone. Religion becomes an organizing principle and proxy for this milieu of anomie.

Recently the Swiss banned minarets from building design, the French banned headscarves worn by Muslim girls in public schools and the UK sacked a Muslim female teacher who wore a veil when working with boys banned female students wearing veils . In each case controversy stoked resentment and fear on all sides. It also heightened resentment among young Muslims.

Conversely, fears of economic insecurity, cultural differences and loss of national identity surfaced among those in the majority culture.  Religion is the focal point but wider social dynamics are at work.

In addition, the disputes also lay bare the disconnect between generations within the ethnic communities. Abdulmutallab’s father reported his son’s extreme views to the U.S. embassy and the grandparents of one of the 2005 London bombers told an interviewer she couldn’t believe her grandson’s extreme views and disavowed them sorrowfully.

If there is learning in this, I think it is that we need to work intentionally to create greater understanding, not only between faith groups but between communities through opportunities for conversation, interaction and acting together on things that bring mutual benefit such as public education, jobs creation and community development. We need interfaith dialogue. We need political leaders who speak with diplomacy and concern for the good of the whole, not for narrow political gain among their partisan bases. We need reporting that provides context and does not separate individual isolated events as if they occur apart from this greater social dynamic. We need churches, mosques, schools and journalists who see the world through a global perspective and who interpret our interconnections more holistically and less provincially.

Whether we understand it or not, we are more interrelated today and our relationships and understanding of each other are more important than ever. Poverty is about more than material well-being. Poverty is also about the quality of our relationships and we are seeing how poverty of relationship leads to damaged individuals and damage to the community.

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