Gender Inequality and Terrorism: This is Not the Causal Relationship You’re Looking For

December 17, 2015

Julia Santucci, a senior adviser at the U.S. State Department, penned an article this week on the relationship between countering violent extremism and gender equality (“Countering Violent Extremism Means Countering Gender Equality”). I spent much of the early part of my career studying Islamist mobilization — both violent and non-violent. Later, in southern Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to observe the atrocious treatment that most rural Pashtun women there have to endure throughout their lives. I also was able to look closely at U.S.-funded programs meant to empower women in that conservative society. While studies have shown that societies with high levels of gender inequality are more likely to experience instability, there is no evidence the two issues are have a causal relationship. Correlation is not causation. As such, there is nothing to support the notion that improving gender equality will reduce violent extremism or that successful efforts to tackle violent extremism must include advances in gender equality.

This issue draws attention to a resilient defect in the way that the United States approaches the world. Americans are, at heart, idealistic creatures in search of silver bullets. We too often see the world as we wish it to be rather than as it is. When we observe a problem, no matter what it is, we tend to assume that it is caused by a lack of procedural democracy and the freedoms it can bring to the lives of human beings.

But this is simply not the case.

I could not help but wonder what Tashfeen Malik would have thought had she lived long enough to read Santucci’s article instead of being killed by police after brutally murdering over a dozen people with her husband in San Bernardino. Were her acts in the name of the self-proclaimed Islamic State driven by the repression of women like her in her native Pakistan? To suggest so strains credulity.

Further, Santucci does not consider the disruptive effects that challenges to cultural norms and mores can have. While I support equality between men and women and think it should be vigorously pursued and defended in the West, U.S.-sponsored social re-engineering projects in Muslim societies where patriarchy is the norm can lead to blowback and more violence. In fact, I would argue that it already has in Afghanistan.

Efforts to foster liberal change and help women in the Muslim world should proceed only cautiously and without illusions that they can somehow solve violent extremism. If we truly care for values such as free speech and gender equality, we should seek to advance them carefully and realistically. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) needs to be specific and targeted rather than another messy mechanism though which to realize democratization and liberalization outside of the West.  This may not immediately satisfy our admirable desire to relieve the suffering of oppressed people — to include women — but if we push for radical change in the name of these values, we are not actually advancing them, nor are we doing women any real favors. And we certainly aren’t stopping Islamist terrorism.


Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. He also edited the article in question before he decided to chime in with his own thoughts. 


Image: David Dennis, CC