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Thomas Piketty: A Security-Minded Response Isn’t Enough

I’m not sure if it’s exactly kosher for me to provide my own translation of a copyrighted article originally published on a major website in another language, but this is an important piece which I’d like to make available in full to an English speaking audience.

Thus, I give you this recent analysis by French economist Thomas Piketty (who became famous for his 2013 study Capital in the Twenty-First Century) in which he argues that the root causes of ISIS-style extremism can be traced to the unequal distribution of resources in the Middle East. His remedy for jihadism is correspondingly simple: economic opportunity and social justice. These are, perhaps, not new ideas, but he presents them in an exceptionally clear-cut way, not hesitating to point out our own responsibility in the West for maintaining inequality in that part of the world.

The original article can be found in French on Piketty’s blog on the Le Monde website, and there have been several discussions of its contents in the American news media, such as in the Washington Post and in New York magazine. For any flaws in the translation, I take sole responsibility. Take it away, Professor Piketty!

A Security-Minded Response Isn’t Enough
Thomas Piketty in Le Monde, November 22–23, 2015

It’s clear: terrorism nourishes itself on the powder keg of inequality in the Middle East that we have contributed a lot to create. Daesh (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is a direct product of the decomposition of the Iraqi regime, and more generally of the collapse of the system of borders established in the region in 1920.

After the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990–1991, the coalition powers sent in their troops to return its oil to the emirs — and to Western companies. In the process they inaugurated a new cycle of technological and asymmetric wars — a few hundred deaths in the coalition that “liberated” Kuwait, versus several tens of thousands on the Iraqi side. This logic was pushed to its extreme during the second Iraq war between 2003 and 2001: around 500,000 Iraqi deaths for more than 4000 American soldiers killed, all that to avenge the 3000 deaths of 9/11, which of course had nothing to do with Iraq. This reality, amplified by the extreme asymmetry in human loss and the absence of a political solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, serves today to justify all the abuses perpetrated by the jihadis. Let us hope that France and Russia, on the front lines since the American disaster, will cause fewer casualties and inspire fewer recruits.

Concentration of Resources

Beyond the religious clashes, it is clear that the entire social and political system of the region is overloaded and weakened by the concentration of oil resources in small territories without population. If we examine the zone running from Egypt to Iran by way of Syria, Iraq and the Arab peninsula, with around 300 million inhabitants, we note that the oil monarchies make up between 60% and 70% of the regional GDP for barely 10% of the population, making it in fact the most unequal region on the planet.

We must further point out that a minority of the inhabitants of the oil monarchies keep for themselves a disproportionate part of the wealth, while large groups (notably women and immigrant workers) are kept in semi-slavery. And these are the regimes that are supported militarily and politically by the Western powers, who are all too happy to get back a few crumbs for financing their soccer clubs, or for selling them weapons. It is not surprising that our lessons of democracy and social justice carry little weight among Middle Eastern youth.

To gain in credibility, we would need to show these populations that we care more for the social development and political integration of the region than for our finacial interests and our relations with the reigning families.

Denial of Democracy

In concrete terms, the oil money must go in priority to regional development. In 2015, the total budget available to the Egyptian authorities for financing the entire educational system of that country of nearly 90 million inhabitants was less than 10 billion dollars (9.4 billion euros). A few hundred kilometers away, oil revenues reach 300 billion dollars for Saudi Arabia and its 30 million inhabitants, and exceed 100 billion dollars for Qatar and its 300,000 Qataris. A development model so unequal can only lead to catastrophe. Condoning this is criminal.

When it comes to lofty rhetoric on democracy and elections, we must stop engaging in it merely when the results suit us. In 2012 in Egypt, Mohamed Morsi was elected president in a fair election, something which is hardly typical in Arab electoral history. By 2013, he was expelled from power by the military, which soon enough executed thousands of Muslim Brothers, whose social work at least served to fill in some of the gaps left by the Egyptian state. A few months later, France set that aside so as to sell its frigates and capture a part of that country’s meager public resources. Let us hope that this denial of democracy will not have the same morbid consequences as the interruption of the electoral process in Algeria in 1992.

The question remains: how is it that young people who grew up in France can confuse Baghdad with the Parisian suburbs, seeking to import conflicts here that are taking place there? Nothing can excuse this macho, bloody and pathetic turn of events. Nevertheless, let us note that unemployment and professional discrimination in hiring (particularly massive for those who checked all the right boxes in terms of diploma, experience, etc., as recent studies have shown; see also here) don’t help. Europe, which before the financial crisis managed to take in a net migratory flow of 1 million people a year, with unemployment decreasing must relaunch its model of immigration and job creation. It is austerity that has led to the rise of national egoisms and identity tensions. It is through equitable social development that hate will be defeated.


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