Last year’s release of Capital in the Twenty-First Century catapulted Thomas Piketty to international stardom. In the 700-page tome, the French economist argued that inequality is a grave social evil and capitalism is the root of all inequality. Now he’s added a spurious spin to his thesis: inequality is responsible for the rise of ISIS. As the Washington Post reports, Piketty asserts in a recent Le Monde column that “Inequality is a major driver of Middle Eastern terrorism, including the Islamic State attacks on Paris earlier this month—and Western nations have themselves largely to blame for that inequality.” Piketty’s supposedly revelatory argument is symptomatic of the materialist mindset that transfixes the Western elite and thus leaves the West vulnerable to—and hapless against—the global jihad.
Piketty claims that Middle Eastern wealth, concentrated among several oil monarchies governing small populations in “semi-slavery,” has created conditions ripe for jihadism. In Piketty’s reading of history, the West is responsible for driving oil “to the emirs” through military interventions such as the first Gulf War, and then backing such petro-regimes “militarily and politically.” The Obama administration was derided earlier this year for promoting what critics called “jobs for jihadis” as a means of tackling the “root causes” of terrorism. But while poor economic conditions may typify Europe’s most fertile jihadist breeding grounds, poverty in itself isn’t the cause of jihadism. Throughout history, billions of people have lived in squalor without strapping on suicide bombs or taking up arms against “the infidel.” Wealthy Muslim regimes in Saudi Arabia have financed jihadist groups, and Osama bin Laden was born to a wealthy family.
In his focus on inequality, Piketty fails to consider a factor more potent than economics. Though many Muslims in the Middle East express dissatisfaction with their economic prospects and disdain for their political leaders, Sharia remains popular. Sharia principles are anathema to those of liberal Western regimes based on individual liberty, property rights, and limited government. Might Sharia compliance explain at least part of the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few in the Middle East? Totalitarian regimes of all political and religious stripes tend to be marked by wealth concentration and economic immobility.
More fundamentally, Piketty succumbs to the widely held belief that the global jihad can be understood through a Western prism rather than on the jihadists’ own terms. This Western prism is obscured by a materialist screen, which assumes that all peoples are ultimately driven by the same motives, desires, and ambitions—namely economic ones. We in the West believe that a love of freedom is sown into the hearts of all men, and that we all seek a good job, a nice house, and a fine education. But liberty is not a universal ideal; upper-middle-class values aren’t shared by everyone. For the pious Muslim, according to the jihadists, the great overarching goal is to bring the whole world into Dar al-Islam, the House of Islam, ruled by Sharia under Allah. Subscribers to theopolitical Islamic-supremacist ideology are expansionistic because it is their religious duty to be so.
To understand the jihadis’ goals better, Piketty and his ilk might put down their economics texts and consult a core Islamic-supremacist text such as Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones or an essential work on Sharia law like Reliance of the Traveller. They could pick up a briefing or book on jihadis’ beliefs from Stephen Coughlin, a military intelligence officer with expertise in Sharia and the global jihad. They could watch any ISIS propaganda video. Or they could simply note that in practically every jihadist attack, the perpetrators are reported to yell Allahu Akbar, not “workers of the world unite!”
Jihadists are willing to subordinate earthly concerns in the name of Allah. Turning back the jihadist tide will require the West to remove its blinders and examine the jihadists’ worldview honestly. The United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Paris just days after ISIS murdered 129 people, surely did nothing to shake the jihadis’ belief that they are on the winning side of a battle with an unserious enemy. Nor are they likely concerned with the force of history, despite progressive proclamations that jihadis are “on the wrong side” of it.
That Piketty would come to such an ill-conceived conclusion that jihadism is attributable to “inequality” may be a mere reflection of his myopia—indeed anyone heavily invested in a particular area of study may imagine linkages in other areas. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that a socialist interprets the jihad according to first materialist principles. But it should disturb us that many in the Western elite—including President Obama—either share such sentiments or are willing to mislead us for political purposes.