Clamping down with law and order will not be enough

by Thomas Piketty, Le blog de Thomas Piketty, Le Monde online, November 24, 2015

Confronted with terrorism, the response must involve security measures. We must hit Daech and arrest those who are members. But we must also consider the political conditions of this violence, the humiliation and the injustices which result in this movement receiving considerable support in the Middle East and today gives rise to murderous vocations in Europe. In the long run, the real issue is the establishment of an equitable model for social development both there and here.

One thing is obvious: terrorism thrives on the inequality in the Middle-East which is a powder keg we have largely contributed to creating. Daech – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) –is a direct consequence of the break-up of the Iraqi regime and more generally, of the collapse of the system of frontiers set up in the region in 1920. After the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990-1991, the coalition powers sent their troops to restore the oil to the emirs – and to the Western companies.

In passing, we started a new cycle of technological and assymetrical wars (a few hundred dead in the coalition forces in the ‘liberation’ of Kuwait, as against several thousand on the Iraqi side). This approach was pursued to the limit during the second war with Iraq, from 2003 to 2010: roughly 500,000 Iraqi dead as compared with 4,000 American soldiers killed; all this as revenge for the 3,000 who died on 11 September despite the fact that they had nothing to do with Iraq. This reality, compounded by the extreme asymmetry of loss of lives and the absence of any political way out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is used today to justify all the abuses perpetrated by the Jihadists. Let us hope that France and Russia, who have taken over after the American fiasco, will do less damage and generate fewer vocations.

Concentration of ressources

Over and above the religious confrontations, it is clear that the whole political and social system of the region is over-determined and weakened by the concentration of oil resources in small unpopulated areas. If we take the area extending from Egypt to Iran and running through Syria, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, approximately 300 million people, we see that the GNP of the oil monarchies amounts to between 60% and 70% of the regional GNP for barely 10% of the population; this makes it the most unequal region in the world. Furthermore, we should point out that a minority of the population in the oil monarchies appropriates a disproportionate share of this oil wealth, while large groups (women and immigrant workers in particular) are maintained in a state of semi-slavery. These are regimes which are supported militarily and politically by the Western Powers who are only too happy to get a few scraps from the table to finance their football clubs, or else to sell them arms. It is not surprising that our lessons on democracy and social justice have little resonance amongst Middle-Eastern youth.

To gain in credibility, we would have to show these populations that we are more concerned with the social development and political integration of the region than with our financial interests and our relations with the reigning families. In concrete terms, the oil wealth should go in priority to regional development. In 2015 the total budget available to the Egyptian authorities to finance the whole of the educational system of this country was less than $10 billion dollars. Just a few hundred kilometres away, the oil wealth amounted to $300 billion dollars in Saudi Arabia with a population of 20 million, and exceeded $100 billion dollars in Qatar with a population of 300,000 Qataris. Such unequal development models can only lead to catastrophe. To support them in any way is criminal.

Denial of democracy

It would also be better to stop making resounding declarations about democracy and elections only when the outcome suits us. In 2012, Morsi had been elected president in a free and fair election, which is unusual in the electoral history of the Arab world. As early as 2013, he was removed from power by military personnel who immediately executed thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the fact that their social actions had often enabled to compensate for the shortcomings of the Egyptian state. A few months later, France decided to overlook this in order to sell its frigates and appropriate part of the country’s meagre public funds. We can only hope that this denial of democracy will not have the same morbid consequences as the interruption of the electoral process in Algeria in 1992 had.

One question remains: how can young people who grew up in France confuse Baghdad with the suburbs of Paris and try to import here conflicts which are taking place there? Nothing can excuse this blood-thirsty, macho and pathetic evolution in behaviour. All we can state is that unemployment and discrimination in hiring for jobs (particularly widespread for people who have ticked all the right boxes in terms of qualification, experience, etc., as recent surveys show) in no way helps. Before the financial crisis, Europe succeeded in taking in a net flow of one million immigrants a year, together with falling unemployment. We must now reactivate Europe’s model of integration and job creation. Austerity has led to the rise in national egoisms and tensions around identity. Only an equitable model for social development will overcome hatred.

Translation of an op-ed published in Le Monde, November 22-23, 2015