Economic disparities are a main source of terrorism and “Western nations have themselves largely to blame for that inequality.” So says French economist Thomas Piketty, who came to international notice after writing a book about income inequality (Capital in the 21st Century, Harvard University Press, 2013) in a recent commentary for the French newspaper Le Monde.
There are numerous holes in Piketty’s thesis, but they were left unmentioned and unfilled by a Washington Post column “This might be the most controversial theory for what’s behind the rise of ISIS” (Nov. 30, 2015).
Piketty’s method seems to be drawing broad but questionable conclusions from research conducted on a very short timeline.
Post writer Jim Tankersley notes that Piketty begins his analysis with the first Gulf War in 1991, concluding that Western powers worked to return oil “to the emirs.” This is a curious, stunted timeline from which to extrapolate, but it goes unchallenged by the paper.
In fact, Islamist terrorism existed in the Middle East long before 1991. The Palestinian Fatah movement (created in the late 1950s), the Palestine Liberation Organization (established in 1964), the predominantly Egyptian-based al Jihad (created late 1970s), even al-Qaeda itself, whose nucleus was in place by 1989, among others—all existed prior to the period of Piketty’s review. And all, except Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, already had committed acts of international terrorism prior to 1991.
Nor is Islamist terrorism a solely modern phenomenon purportedly created by Western-imposed economic conditions, as readers of Picketty’s essay—as recounted by The Post—may be led to believe.
Enver Pasha was one of the triumvirate of leaders of the Ottoman Empire in its last days. At its height the empire included the territories of many of what today are nation-states in the Middle East. Enver Pasha called himself the “Commander-in-Chief of all the Armies of Islam, Son-in-Law of the Caliph and Representative of the Prophet” as he led warriors in Eurasia after the empire’s disintegration following World War I.
As historian David Fromkin has noted, Enver sought support on pan-Islamic grounds, telling a conference of delegates in Muslim Azerbaijan in September 1920, “Brothers, we summon you to a holy war.” Fromkin writes that Enver’s goal “was the creation of an independent Moslem state in Central Asia. As always he stressed the unity of the Moslem peoples. His strong Islamic message won him the support of the mullahs, who rallied strongly to his cause” (A Peace to End All Peace, Henry Holt and Company, 1989).
Others before Enver, such as the Mahdi in Sudan in the late nineteenth century, used an Islamist message to rally support against non-Muslims. He did so in a region dominated by a religion, Islam, in which religious and political aspects of life, have been, historically speaking, frequently inseparable.
Piketty’s charge—repeated uncritically by The Post—that the Middle East is the casualty “of a series of wars in the region perpetuated by the Western powers,” falls flat. The Iran-Iraq War, lasting from 1980-1988, was the bloodiest conflict since World War II, with some estimates of casualties exceeding one million. While Western powers and regional powers supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq militarily, they hardly “imposed” the conflict on the region or “perpetuated” it. The war was launched by the Iraqi dictator who feared, not without reason, that the newly created Islamic Republic of Iran would attack his country.
After starting that conflict, Hussein chose to invade Kuwait, with Western powers coming to Kuwait’s aid as requested, just as they came to the aid of the Turkish sultanate when requested to do so in 1840 after another Arab strongman, Muhammad Ali of Egypt, seized Ottoman territory for himself.
Hussein perpetuated the 1991 Persian Gulf War through his own actions. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan did likewise in 2000-2001 by knowingly providing shelter and aid to al-Qaeda, giving it a base from which the group launched the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks that killed 2,977 people in the United States—and inviting a U.S.-led response.
The Post uncritically restates Piketty’s allegations that terrorism is fostered by inequality in wealth caused by dictatorial Middle Eastern regimes, particularly monarchies who are “militarily and politically supported by Western powers.” This overlooks bloody conflicts, such as the North Yemen Civil War (1962-1970), in which Egypt’s strongman Gamel Adbel Nasser, funded by the decidedly non-Western Soviet Union, sent soldiers to assist in ousting Yemen’s monarchy. The conflict, also not “imposed by the West,” lasted eight years and included the use by Egypt of chemical weapons.
The Algerian civil war of the 1990s between the military and Islamists, in which an estimated 200,000 died, was not fought over income inequality or perpetuated by the West. Neither were the Lebanese civil wars from 1975 to 1990, in which an estimated 120,000 people were killed. Both wars included frequent acts of terrorism.
Nasser, like Saddam Hussein and others throughout the Arab and non-Arab world, had his own motivations for attacking another Arab state, of course. Piketty’s assertion, restated by The Post, could allow readers to draw the erroneous conclusion that in recent decades Middle Eastern leaders and other important figures have had no independent agency; they have only reacted to the West.
The Post’s Tankersley recounts Picketty’s argument that Middle East political and social systems “have been made fragile by the high concentration of oil wealth into a few countries with relatively little population.”
Yet, omitted is the fact that many terrorists, especially leaders, organizers and ideologues have not come from poor backgrounds and, as noted above, organized violence under the banner of Islam has predated the oil boom and even widespread Western reliance on crude petroleum.
Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda was the scion of a wealthy Saudi family. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a physician from an established and well-off family. Speaking about the average terrorist recruit, Prof. Meir Litvak of Tel Aviv University has noted, “most of them are not poor; no economic crisis pushed them into despair. Not at all. These youngsters are middle class.”
Piketty claims that a “small slice of people control most of the wealth, while a large [slice]—including women and refugees—are kept in a state of ‘semi-slavery,’” providing “justifications for jihadists.” The Post fails to remind readers that both slavery and vast economic inequality in the Middle East long predated Western involvement in the region. Jihadists don’t need Western supplied “justification” for what they do, even if Western academics are willing to provide it post facto.
s solution to the inequality that he claims causes terrorism? Western countries need to ensure that “Middle Eastern oil money funds regional development, including far more education.” They must work for a reinvigorated “model of integration and job creation.”
This solution—also unchallenged by the paper—fails to note that at least to a great extent, education in the form of a widespread version of puritanical or reactionary Islamic indoctrination, has been a key aspect in fostering terrorism. Since the rise of the OPEC oil cartel in the 1970s, the Saudis and others in the region have funded countless madrassas (schools) that spread Salafism, Wahhabism and other fundamentalist interpretations of Islam that had existed for decades and even centuries in some parts of the Arab Middle East.
Also contrary to Piketty, as relayed by The Post, economic integration does not prevent conflict. The United Kingdom and Imperial Germany were increasingly reliant on each other for growing trade from 1870-1914, yet this did not prevent them from fighting each other in World War I. More recently, economic integration in the former Yugoslavia did not prevent a breakdown along ethnic and religious lines, leading to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Considerable evidence—unmentioned by The Post—exists that counters Piketty’s claim that “terrorism that is rooted in inequality…is best combated economically.”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that an economist known for his controversial work on economic inequality, who has no background in Middle Eastern affairs or counterterrorism studies, looks for inequality as the root cause of terror—and finds it.
More disappointing is The Washington Post’s failure to flag Piketty’s “economic inequality causes terrorism and it’s the West’s fault” argument.