Dollars and Devotion

In ancient Egyptian mythology, Isis was the daughter of Geb and Nut. Geb was the God of the earth and abundant harvests, while Nut assisted the deceased in their journey to the heavens and was often depicted as a ladder, offering direction to lost souls. The Salafi jihadist group in Iraq and Syria named ISIS coincidentally bears remarkable similarities in its heritage to the Egyptian goddess. The unique origins and subsequent success of the Islamic State lie in its ability to recruit people in both the Middle East and the West by providing Geb’s material possibility to the former and Nut’s spiritual guidance to the latter.

The lack of economic opportunity in the Middle East has defined an entire generation through its consequences: endemic poverty and severely lacking civil institutions.  This particularly affected those who grew up in the regional turmoil of the Iran-Iraq War and American-led interventions in Iraq. Together, these conflicts lasted almost continuously for more than 30 years. According to the International Labour Organization, the unemployment rate for people in the Middle East between the ages of 15-29 rose to 27.2 percent in 2013. The relationship isn’t arbitrary; youth unemployment and political instability are inexorably linked according to a study conducted by the African Development Bank Group. They found that across regions and socioeconomic conditions, countries seeking to promote stability should focus on “providing employment or educational opportunities for youth in times of economic decline.” Like Al-Qaeda, ISIS took advantage of the disenfranchised, many of whom were enticed by the prospect of political and economic stability which had been lacking their entire lives. Unfortunately, the radicalism ascendant across Iraq and Syria was almost entirely avoidable. It was not the inevitable circumstance of demographics and history, but rather arose as the result of willful ignorance on the parts of Western elites who viewed the region as a collection of commodities and short term strategic choices.

In June of 1972, the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein nationalized the Iraqi Petroleum Company, which dominated oil production in the country and until that point had been owned almost exclusively by Westerners. Between 1972 and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, Iraq’s oil revenue expanded more than 40 fold and per capita income rose by 92 percent. While the Iraqi people undoubtedly profited from the oil crisis that characterized global trade in the 1970s, state ownership also permitted them to share in the fruits of oil revenue in a way that private, largely foreign ownership had not. With this revenue, the economy began to diversify into industries like textiles and steel. However imperfectly attempted, this was the first substantial effort at distributing profits from Iraq’s natural resources in a way that engendered long term viability and national stability.

State control of most of the Iraqi economy, with particular emphasis given to the military, persisted until the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 when the United States and its coalition allies implemented a series of rash and ultimately costly reforms aimed at westernizing the country. When the Coalition Provincial Authority was first set up, Donald Rumsfeld appointed Lieutenant General Jay Garner as its administrator. Garner wrote and spoke publicly about the need to “set an Iraqi government that represents the freely elected will of the people” within 90 days, and about the fact that “[it was] their oil.” In addition, he argued that the Iraqi army should be mobilized to assist with reconstruction efforts and that only the small and political Republican Guard should be disbanded, citing the inherent risk in choosing to “immediately demobilize 200,000-300,000 personnel and put [them] on the street.”

Garner’s loquaciousness didn’t sit well with the Bush Administration, and Rumsfeld replaced him with L. Paul Bremer III in early May. While General Garner had served in the Persian Gulf War by helping maintain peace in the Kurdish north, Bremer had little in the way of either leadership or relevant foreign policy experience. Enter Coalition Provincial Authority Order Number 2.

It immediately dismantled all military and intelligence services of Saddam Hussein’s regime. It came as a surprise to nearly everyone who had been involved with the decision-making apparatus from the beginning of the invasion, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and U.S. Central Command. It directly contributed roughly 4 percent to the unemployment rate, which climbed to over 28 percent in 2004 (although the unofficial number was likely much higher). And it put hundreds of thousands of young men on the streets, with little money and lots of confusion and anger. While the Coalition Provincial Authority attempted to correct its error the following month by providing pensions, they ultimately failed. The Iraqi people clearly needed resources to provide for themselves and for their families, but they also needed employment with dignity that would keep them off of the streets and away from those who would go on to spread sectarian hate and distrust. The offensive lack of basic foresight outlined by Order Number 2 highlights the degree to which the West fundamentally misunderstood the region it occupied and helps explain why the insurgency that became ISIS was so successful.

The Coalition Provincial Authority subsequently began to rapidly privatize large swaths of Iraq’s economy. If Order Number 2 was an individual’s incompetency, the decision to auction off Iraqi assets to Western corporations was collective ineptitude. Several weeks before the invasion, the Heritage Foundation published a report entitled “The Road to Economic Prosperity for a Post-Saddam Iraq.” The authors use the word “privatization” in some form or another 58 times in the six page report, second only to “oil” despite the extra syllables. A litany of fair criticisms of nationalized industry certainly exist, but the idea that “privatization works everywhere” speaks to the hubris with which neoconservatives and Westerners more generally dealt with the invasion and its aftermath.

After auctioning off many of Iraq’s assets to foreign investors, the Coalition Provisional Authority lowered the tax rate on corporations from 40 percent to 15 percent (with complete exemptions for corporations that worked with Bremer’s administration). In 2004, government revenues plummeted nearly 35 percent despite the fact that crude oil was at its highest price in decades. Debt ballooned to 335 percent of GDP, making it even more difficult for the chaotic country to attract private creditors. Essential redistributive services and social safety nets that may have eased the transition to a market economy were halted by high interest and low taxes pushed through by the Western interim government. While we might never know for sure what exactly created fertile ground for ISIS to grow in the next decade, American and coalition policies did little to engender a sustainable peace in the region.

Simply put, unrestricted markets fail in the absence of rule of law and sovereignty. While the Iraqi people were freed from Saddam Hussein’s brutality, they quickly found themselves subject to the ruthlessness of international finance. Powerful countries and their corporations were awarded contracts to much of the economy, but perhaps no aspect was more important or more coveted than oil. Influential (and generally Western) corporations received a disproportionate number of contracts, including ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell. Despite the fact that Iraq’s oil industry makes up nearly two thirds of the economy, 99 percent of government revenue and 95 percent of export revenue, it only provides employment to 1 percent of the Iraqi labor force. The commodity that markets want most out of Iraq is the one that will do the least to improve the security and employment situation. Oil extraction and refining requires much more equipment than it does manpower, so capital inflows over the last decade which have gone primarily to the energy sector have barely dented poverty or scratched unemployment.

Although this evidence focuses on the mistakes of the buildup, execution, and aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, the general carelessness with which the West regarded the region pervades the entire history of its relations with the Middle East. Be it the partition of Palestine in 1947, the overthrow of a democratically elected secular Prime Minister of Iran in 1954, or the endorsement of an autocrat in Egypt for nearly thirty years, the West has treated the Middle East with reckless abandon, moral bankruptcy, and inconsistency. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring erupted, 61 percent of foreign investment between 2003 and 2010 went to the energy sector with predictably similar results. The policies pursued by the West in Iraq and the greater Middle East have only succeeded in destabilizing the region, counter to the concerns of both the people living there as well as Western strategic interests.

But ISIS is unique. While botched Western policies can help explain its rise, its continued success and expansion distinguish it from other extremist groups in the region. In particular, its effective recruitment of young people in the developed world highlights the other pillar of Western failure: the inability of markets to provide meaning in people’s lives. Although one can imagine a world in which policymakers learn from their mistakes and adapt accordingly, there is a certain innate aimlessness in the capitalist system that seriously threatens its hegemony.

Gallup polls indicate that 31 percent of the employed in the United States feel “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.” Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the West has lacked a grand unifying project to engender social solidarity and purpose. Tyler Durden succinctly summarized in 1999’s Fight Club what millions were beginning to feel by the end of the 1990s. He decried a culture that forced them into “working jobs we hate…” while at the same time there was “no Great War. No Great Depression” to inspire them to action. An astonishing number of the generation’s biggest cultural moments like American Beauty, Rage Against the Machine, and even 50 Shades of Gray found similar themes. The Bush Administration’s War on Terror attempted to revive the generational struggle to no avail.

ISIS has responded to this existential angst through both its tactics (intentionally) and ideology (incidentally). They have spent manpower, time, and financial resources courting young people on the internet and enticing them with promises of a fuller life. The FBI reports that ISIS “typically preys on Western youth who are disillusioned and have no sense of purpose or belonging,” including 23 year old Alex. When she spoke to the New York Times, she talked about the daily and incessant loneliness, the desire for community, and the elation she felt when she converted to Islam and her “brothers and sisters” warmly welcomed her on Twitter. Although Alex’s family intervened and she failed to make it to the Middle East, more than 4,000 Westerners like her have left their home countries to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. ISIS targets and offers solace to individuals who feel trapped by that tedium and emptiness of life in the developed world. To people like Alex, it represents more than an exciting family vacation to the beach. It offers the possibility of a life beyond morning commutes, beyond dull LED lights, beyond cubicles, and beyond the hegemony of monotony.

Jihadists in Iraq and Syria supplement these efforts with a fixation on the apocalypse that seems bizarre to Western observers. They believe that the armies of “Rome” will assemble outside of the small town Dabiq, where they will battle the armies of Islam shortly before the Day of Judgment. This aspect of their ideology is unique and has been actively rejected by other Islamic groups, including Al-Qaeda which, according to Brookings fellow Will McCants, “really played down apocalyptic thinking.” Regardless of the significance of the town or the battle, Dabiq and the apocalypse play “a major part of the Islamic State’s recruiting pitch.” The emphasis that they place on the prophecy, which has inspired military action that would make little sense without it, reminds us why ISIS terrifies the West. More than the reprehensible violence or archaic law, the jihadists offer a way of life beyond capitalism. Like communists or fascists, they dare to reject what has been the singular dominant force in economics, politics, and culture for more than 100 years. And people are listening.

ISIS is not the final harbinger of Western decline, but it is a warning. The emptiness that characterizes so much of so many lives in the West has given rise to a number of “solutions” which, like ISIS, are terrifying. Nationalism across Europe and the United States will continue to provide cover for violence against minority communities of Muslim and Jewish faith. All of this speaks to the need to shift priorities in the developed world. We must begin to value each other over the bottom line and transition to a world focused on family, community, and the environment. We must begin to provide basic economic security for all and restrict the amount of time in the office and on the job. Automation in the coming century will provide an opportunity for these dreams to become realities, and we must seize it.

As was often the case of family trees in mythologies of the ancient world, the relationship was incestuous; Geb and Nut were siblings, both children of Ra who ruled the world. Geb helped ISIS fight the failure of market fundamentalism in the Middle East, while Nut provided spiritual and emotional satisfaction that the affluent West has not. Their parent has enveloped the world with highly destructive and unpredictable results. It is the ideology of commodification, which claims that life only has value insofar as it can be quantified and that an individual’s worth lies in his ability to produce. This concept now dominates rhetoric and culture in the developed world and has been the source of both generational malaise and economic turmoil.

Markets have ushered in the greatest period of relative peace and prosperity in the history of mankind. Across the world, poverty has plummeted, women are enrolling in schools for the first time, and there are fewer casualties from war or disease than ever before. But recent events in the Middle East and elsewhere remind us that human welfare is not a given and its flourishing is not an effortless task. To expose the systemic failures of neoliberalism is not to absolve those who commit terror of their sins, rather it is to illustrate the full breadth of today’s moral crisis. Despite the insistence of the West, extremism will not vanish when the dust of combat boots and cruise missiles clear. Geb and Nut also gave birth to the siblings of Isis, gods and goddesses of war and death. If we want to defeat them, we must overcome their heritage and replace it with financial security and purposeful lives for all.

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