The Education of Pope Francis
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the bishop of Rome in 2013, he took the name Francis. He was the first man to do so in the two-thousand-year history of the papacy. He was the first, it might be said, to dare to do so.
Shortly after his election, Pope Francis spoke to the press and gave a clear indication of the programmatic intent of his choice of name. People wondered which saint he might have had in mind: Francis Xavier? Francis de Sales? Francis of Assisi? He explained that during the election to choose a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, he was seated next to a good friend, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paulo and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy. After the College of Cardinals provided the necessary two-thirds vote, Cardinal Hummes gave the new pope a hug and a kiss, and said: “Don’t forget the poor!” As Francis explained it to the press: “And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.”
Few apart from Argentines knew the name Bergoglio, but the world seized upon his chosen name: Francis—the name of the great saint of the poor. For the institutional church it was a signal that the era of power and pageantry, scandal and silk-brocaded vestments, was over; instead a new era bearing the Franciscan virtues of poverty, simplicity, humility, charity, obedience, and wisdom was being ushered in. But this was the first non-European pope for a thousand years, the first pope ever from the southern hemisphere, and that had even wider implications for global justice.
There were two other ways in which the name Francis resonated. The saint from Assisi, who famously preached even to the birds and spoke of the sun and moon as his brother and sister, had a particular attitude to the environment. In an anthropocentric epoch he valued something wider—seeing God at work not just in humankind but in animals, plants, and the whole planet set within a wider created universe. He was also, as the new pope noted, a singular advocate for reconciliation and peace. The ambitious missionary from Assisi had set off for Egypt in 1219 with the intention of converting the infidel to bring an end to the Crusades. But the thirteenth-century saint was changed by what his twenty-first-century namesake repeatedly refers to as “the culture of encounter.” Entering into enemy territory, Francis was arrested and taken to Sultan Al-Malik Al-Kamil. The monarch, perceiving his captive to be a holy man, received him with courtesy. After three weeks of dialogue Francis left Egypt. Thereafter he was respectful of Muslims to the point that he encouraged Christians to emulate them in prayer and prostration, and to join Muslims—and others—in service to all, setting aside the differences in their religions. And the future saint specifically told his followers not to try to convert the followers of the Prophet.
Pope Francis was putting down a marker about poverty, the environment, and peace as the leitmotifs of his pontificate. Francis was a name to change history.
The Common Good
Catholic Social Teaching is a particular strand of church teaching, which has been developed over the last hundred years since Pope Leo XIII published Rerum novarum (Of New Things) in 1891 at the height of the Industrial Revolution. It set the church on a course of profound thinking about the relationship between people and profit, between labor and capital, between politics and economics. Over the last century, various popes have developed it into a recognizable philosophical platform.
Catholic Social Teaching sees achieving what it calls the “common good” as the overriding aim of politics—and by that it means rather more than achieving “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people,” which might be said to be the more modest aim of most modern secular politics. For the individual it sees human dignity as the prime virtue to be respected in considering social policy. It has two tools to achieve this. The first is solidarity, which is people acting together, for the good of one another. The second is subsidiarity, a Catholic idea—recently borrowed by politics more generally, most particularly by the European Union—which means that decisions and action should take place in society at the lowest level possible. Central government should not seek to do what can be done by local government, the community, the family, or the individual.
Pope Francis has developed this Catholic Social Teaching in a particular way. It is part of a long journey of change in his own life and through it he is developing it in a manner that is distinct from his predecessors.
In his first interview as pope, Francis sent shock waves round the world with his pronouncement that the Catholic Church had been too “obsessed” (to use his word) with issues of sexual ethics like “abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.” The church had to have “a sense of proportion.” Those issues were important. But there were other issues too. He said, “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” Pope Francis has sought that new balance in a variety of ways. He has changed the tone of the church’s dominant message from one of judgment and condemnation to one of mercy and compassion. It is a church with its arms open to embrace rather than its finger out to wag. It is a church that, he says, must get out of the sacristy and onto the streets to meet people where they are. It is a church whose pastors must smell of their sheep rather than standing above their flock in a clerical or philosophical elite. And he has shifted the focus from sex to money.
Many rightwing Catholics, particularly in the United States, are unhappy with this. They have had decades, under deeply conservative U.S. bishops appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in setting battle lines between the church and the rest of society over hot-button culture war issues like gay relationships, women priests, and abortion. These became considered the distinctive Catholic markers of identity. Perhaps this was because, in a materialist consumerist free-market society, these were easier to seize upon than the altogether more challenging issues of economics, and the moral dimension of the growing gap between the rich and the poor. It lacked, in Pope Francis’s phrase, “a sense of proportion.” In the gospels, Jesus talks about money, riches, and poverty more than he talked about anything else except the Kingdom of God. In response, the right says that Pope Francis does not understand global capitalism—and the role it has played in lifting millions out of poverty in Asia, for example—because he has lived his life surrounded by a corrupt Latin American version they call crony capitalism. That is only partly true. But what is certainly the case is that the life experience of Jorge Mario Bergoglio has shaped his attitudes—and changed them, too.
It is undoubtedly the case that the pope’s view of economics has been shaped by the world in which he grew up, as well as by that century-long tradition of Catholic Social Teaching. Jorge Mario Bergoglio knew about hard times as a child.
His father had emigrated from Italy to join the family business in Argentina but after a few years recession hit and the business folded, leaving the Bergoglios with nothing. The future pope was not poor but his family had few luxuries, no car, and no holidays. He wore hand-me-downs. When he was 13 he was shocked to hear his father announce it was time for him to start work. School hours were from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. so his father arranged for him to work from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. in a hosiery factory, then as a cleaner, then doing clerical work, then in a food laboratory. It taught the young Bergoglio that work confers dignity upon an individual, a theme to which he regularly returned as an archbishop and as pope. “Unemployed people are made to feel like they don’t really exist,” he has said. “It’s very important that governments cultivate a culture of work.” But his strong family background has placed that in a context. Work-life balance is important, too. One of the questions he would ask young parents during confession is whether or not they spend time playing with their children. “Many go to work before the children wake up and come home after they’ve gone to sleep,” he has said. “Too much work dehumanizes.”
As a young priest, Bergoglio was always in tune with those who were just getting by. When, at the age of 36, he became leader of Argentina’s Jesuits, he steered his seminarians toward work among the poor. He had a double motive in that. Unlike many intellectuals among the Jesuits, he saw a great example in the simpler faith of ordinary people with their love for statues and shrines, processions and medals, rosaries and novenas. He thought that as people became educated, there was a danger that they moved further away from God. He believed his seminarians had something to learn about faith from the poor. But he also cared about the physical as well as the spiritual needs of the poor. Bergoglio sent his students into poorer areas on Saturday afternoons. Their main task was to gather children for catechesis and mass. But the students also worked in soup kitchens and distributed medicine and blankets. At one point they were feeding four hundred children a day. Yet the lens through which Bergoglio saw all this was the lens of charity, not justice.
Those in the Jesuits fighting for the political empowerment of poor people embraced the movement called Liberation Theology sweeping through Latin America. One of the great fruits of Vatican II Liberation Theology was a movement that sought to combine the spiritual and material improvement of the poor. It came up with the notion “the preferential option for the poor” and said that poor people should be educated so they could read the Bible for themselves. This was during the Cold War, so its critics—which included the U.S. government as well as the Vatican—branded it as Marxist.
Bergoglio was put in as leader by conservative Argentine Jesuits to stamp out Liberation Theology because he did not approve of its notion that there was a conflict of interest between the poor and the rich. He banned Liberation Theology with its notions of class conflict and its bottom-up approach, which implicitly challenged the top-down authority of Rome. He wanted his seminarians to run soup kitchens. But he banned his priests from working with political organizations, unions, cooperatives, or even Catholic non-governmental organizations in the slums.
Some, like the British Jesuit Philip Endean, see this as a form of Liberation Theology. In his introduction to his translation of Bergoglio’s writings on spirituality from the 1970s and 1980s, Endean sees Bergoglio as one voice “within a diverse and complex school of thought on liberation theology rather than an opponent from the outside.” But most of the young Jesuit’s contemporaries to whom I spoke for my biography described him as conservative. Mario Aguilar, who is editor of the De Gruyter three-volume Handbook of Liberation Theologies, seems to strike the right balance when he describes Bergoglio’s “pastoral openness to other people” as “enormous, warm, and empathetic” but concludes “his theology was traditional and conservative.”
Theology of the People
In his early years, Bergoglio wanted to find an approach that helped the poor, but without priests becoming involved in politics. Moving from that position has been part of the pope’s long journey. Poverty, he was to come to see, was not just material but relational. The poor are poor, in part at least, because of the behavior of the rich. The first step in his transformation came with his interest in teología del pueblo (Theology of the People), a form of thinking being developed by the senior Argentine Jesuit theologian Juan Carlos Scannone.
Teología del pueblo tried to take class conflict out of Liberation Theology. It kept the idea that the gospel displayed a “preferential option for the poor” but where Liberation Theology emphasized political activism for change, teología del pueblo prioritized the popular piety of the common people—the shrines, statues, processions, medals, and the rest of what intellectuals dismissed as “folk religion” which Bergoglio so valued from his upbringing by his Italian grandmother Rosa. And where Liberation Theology wanted to help the poor use politics to gain control over their own destiny, the teología del pueblo did not want to shake the political and economic status quo; instead it wanted to transform the culture of society. Scannone and his peers were fighting a view handed down from Argentina’s colonial masters, which saw local culture as barbaric in contrast to European culture, which it presented as civilization.
But this first phase of the Theology of the People believed that social activism must be rooted in concrete acts of mercy. It insisted that cultural change would eventually bring about structural change. In practice, followers of Liberation Theology were more likely to teach poor people to read and write, to organize self-help. By contrast, adherents of the teología del pueblo in Argentina tended to insist on a great deal of government intervention. Liberation theologians were more likely to concentrate on raising the self-consciousness of the poor; the teología del pueblo was less likely to critique the visible complicity of the church with an unjust social order. Some observer-practitioners, like the Uruguayan Jesuit Father Juan Luis Segundo, a leading force in Liberation Theology, thought that the teología del pueblo was not just incapable of fostering real change but was actually an obstacle to it. All theologies are political, he argued; it is just that some are not sufficiently self-aware to understand what their political stance is.
If teología del pueblo was the first stage in Bergoglio’s journey of change, it was gradual. The second stage was much more dramatic. Bergoglio was a charismatic and dynamic leader of the Argentine Jesuits. But he was incredibly divisive. Some biographers have made out that the deep split that occurred in the Jesuits under his leadership was the fault of leftwing Jesuits who objected to his attempts to hold a middle course between left and right during the military dictatorship that was murdering thousands in Argentina at the time. But in that first interview as pope, Francis acknowledged that his leadership style was the problem.
He admitted: “My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultra-conservative… but I have never been a rightwinger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.” Whatever Bergoglio’s private thinking, as the veteran Vatican reporter John L. Allen, Jr. has observed in his book The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church, in his public positions Bergoglio felt forced on the conservative side of the debate over Liberation Theology.
But the world changed around him. In 1983 the military junta collapsed and democracy was restored to Argentina. The Cold War thawed. The changes of the Second Vatican Council, which had spread rapidly throughout the rest of Latin America, had begun to seep through even to conservative Argentina. The Jesuits there were still deeply split, but Bergoglio’s critics began to outnumber his supporters. In 1990, the Jesuit leadership in Rome concluded that Bergoglio was part of the problem not part of the solution. They sent him into exile in the far-off city of Córdoba for two years, with no job beyond hearing private confessions in the local church.
In his first interview as pope, Francis revealed: “I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Córdoba.” If the process was blurred, the outcome was not. Two years later Bergoglio effectively left the Jesuits when he was made an assistant bishop in Buenos Aires. The man who went to Córdoba as a strict conservative authoritarian emerged back in the city of his birth as an icon of radical humility. He had developed a new model of leadership, one that involved consultation, participation, collegiality, and listening. One of the pope’s closet aides told me: “Córdoba was, for Bergoglio, a place of humility and humiliation.”
Bergoglio went to the slums and spent long hours with the poorest of the poor, wandering the alleyways, chatting to the locals, blessing their paintings and their children, and drinking mate tea with them. This contact with a huge number of ordinary people in their everyday situations changed Bergoglio in other ways. Known as the Bishop of the Slums, he quadrupled the number of priests serving in the shantytowns. He became concerned not just with holy water, as one slum priest told me, but with the water pressure in the pipes. He learned about the impact of drugs and prostitution on poor people—and he learned to see those involved in crimes not simply as the creators of problems but as their victims too. He learned more of the broken realities and frailties of human lives—and that broadened his understanding of the complexity of poverty and its structural causes. Now he backed self-help groups, cooperatives, and unions, exactly the kind of work he had tried to kill off among the Liberation Theology Jesuits twenty years earlier.
Something else was changing too. The church was developing its social teaching and incorporating elements of the Liberation Theology the Vatican had once tried to stamp out. Three major papal documents took significant steps. In 1987 Pope John Paul II published the encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis (The Social Concern of the Church), which borrowed from Liberation Theology the terms “structures of sin” and “option of preference for the poor” in analyzing the widening gap between the rich and the poor under the emerging turbo-capitalism of the 1980s. In 1991, the same pope in Centesimus annus (The One Hundredth Year—to mark the centenary of Rerum novarum) condemned the excesses of capitalism speaking of the “idolatry of the market” and the “insanity of the arms race.” Then in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in veritate (Charity in Truth), writing after the global economic and banking crisis of 2008, tackled issues of global poverty and the arms race but also introduced strong environmental concerns and the concept of “intergenerational justice.” All of these documents were to modify Bergoglio’s thinking on questions of social justice and shift the balance for him on the relationship between the Theology of the People and Liberation Theology. As he grew in confidence over his first decade as a bishop and then archbishop, Bergoglio became increasingly outspoken.
Yet another step on Bergoglio’s journey came with the massive economic crisis in 2001, which forced Argentina into the biggest debt default in banking history. A period of Washington-led free-market economics ended in a spectacular and devastating crisis when Argentina announced it could not pay the interest on almost a hundred billion dollars worth of debt it owed to foreign banks. The country’s economy spiraled out of control. The International Monetary Fund arrived from Washington to police a period of extreme austerity and cuts. Bank accounts were frozen. Half the population was plunged below the poverty line. There were riots on the streets, destitution, and institutional breakdown. Bergoglio witnessed terrible hardship among the ordinary people; he castigated the rich for “rapacity” in attempting to maintain their privileged position as the rest of the nation descended into an economic maelstrom. The conflict between the economic classes was clear. The ax of austerity fell most cruelly upon the poorest people in the land. Bergoglio began to be highly critical of the economic formulae of modern capitalism; he was particularly critical of how it creates speculative financial markets that damage the real economy. He attacked the way that the debt-restructuring process was being paid for by cutting off services on which the poor depended.
He began to make use of the insights of Liberation Theology with regard to economic structures which were so corrupt that they constituted structures of oppression that were themselves sinful. He attacked “unbridled capitalism [which] fragments economic and social life.” What was needed instead, he said, was a solidarity that brought people together. The “unjust distribution of goods,” he lamented, was creating “a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.” That was not all. “Unjust economic structures,” he thundered, were violations of human rights. The buildup of debt on restructured debt was “immoral, unjust, and illegitimate.” Homelessness he described as “structural slavery.” A year after the crisis he declared: “We are tired of systems that produce poor people for the church to look after.” Bergoglio was beginning to sound like a liberation theologian.
His time in Latin America climaxed with a conference of all the bishops across the continent at Aparecida in Brazil in 2007. The meeting ended with a concluding document drawn up by a committee chaired by Bergoglio. Nobody who has read it would be surprised at the initiatives Francis has undertaken as pope. It said the church needed to take the message of the gospel back to the streets. It said the piety of ordinary people—teología del pueblo, the Theology of the People—was a “precious treasure” of the church. But it also endorsed four key principles from Liberation Theology: the preferential option for the poor, the concept of “structural sin,” the need for small Christian communities led by the laity, and the “see-judge-act” method (of moving from social analysis through biblical reflection to political action) which was fundamental to Liberation Theology’s way of working.
It was small wonder that when he became pope one of Francis’s early priorities was to forge a reconciliation between Rome and Liberation Theology. The man who coined the phrase “Liberation Theology,” Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, and the head of the body which is the guardian of Rome’s doctrinal orthodoxy, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, held a public meeting at which Müller said Liberation Theology should “be included among the most important currents in twentieth century Catholic theology.” After three decades of hostility from the conservative pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, this was an extraordinary turnaround. Francis and Gutiérrez said mass together in the Vatican and then had breakfast. Not long afterwards, it was announced that the canonization process for Oscar Romero—the archbishop of San Salvador assassinated by a rightwing death squad in 1980 while celebrating Mass—had been unblocked.
The trajectory of Bergoglio’s thinking continues now that he is pope. That was clear within a few weeks of his election. Within the first two months he had raised the issue of the growing chasm between the rich and poor throughout the world, warning new ambassadors to the Vatican that “while the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling.” The following week, visiting a soup kitchen run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, he denounced our modern “savage capitalism” which seeks “profit at all cost: without looking at the people it exploits or discards.” The month after, on United Nations World Environment Day, he attacked the rich world’s “culture of waste” which consumerism had come to make feel normal. Then he told the UN Food and Agriculture Organization: The hungry “ask for dignity, not for charity. Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures.”
Joy of the Gospel
The development of the pope’s thinking was made clear in 2013 when he published the apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which set out what was effectively the manifesto for his papacy, his Magna Carta for changing the church so that it spreads the gospel more effectively. This spiritual renewal cannot be delayed, he said. And integral to it was that the world’s economy should be made more just. Humanity could “no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.” Welfare was only a temporary solution. Society needed to reject “the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation.” We need to be “attacking the structural causes of inequality.”
The language of Evangelii gaudium was not philosophical or theological. It was plain and forceful. “A generation of young people is being thrown away,” he said in a withering condemnation of global capitalism. It was an idolatrous ideology promoting the “economics of exclusion,” which kept the young without jobs and neglected the elderly. “In this context we can understand Jesus’s command to his disciples: ‘You yourselves give them something to eat!’: it means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor.” That means “small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter.” Solidarity “refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.” Solidarity must be lived as the decision “to restore to the poor what belongs to them.”
“Inequality is the root of social ills,” Francis proclaimed. Unless opportunities are provided for the poor, violence and conflict will inevitably result. This is true not just because inequality provokes violence, “but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. … An evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future.” Most forcefully, he later said in summary: “This economic system kills.”
Conservative political commentators were outraged. They attacked Evangelii gaudium as Marxist. “Pope Francis should stick to doctrine, and stay away from economic ‘redistribution,’” said one Fox News headline. Pope Francis was untroubled. He responded: “The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.” And he said: “There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church.”
But was that true? Certainly previous popes had said similar things and received similar criticisms. A 1967 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Populorum progressio (On the Progress of Peoples), had been described by the Wall Street Journal as “warmed-over Marxism.” Pope John Paul II had criticized “savage capitalism.” Benedict XVI had attacked both capitalism and communism as “systems that marginalize God.” But Francis does go beyond those general philosophical critiques. He attacks specific economic approaches. For instance, the idea that wealth automatically trickles down from the rich to the poor is bogus, he says.
In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting (Evangelii gaudium 54).
Or, as he put it later, the hope that free-market growth will lead to greater social justice in the end invariably disappoints. “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens, instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger and nothing ever comes out for the poor.”
Again he mines down to a deeper policy level than have previous popes. In Evangelii gaudium he writes: “Growth in justice … requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment, and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison.” This criticism of particular remedies or approaches breaks new ground.
His approach on the environment is another example of Catholic Social Teaching being inched forward into new areas. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI had spoken out strongly on the Christian duty to protect the environment. But Pope Francis is the first pope to devote an entire encyclical to the subject. The pope took the name of his 2015 eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, from a thirteenth century prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi, The Canticle of the Sun. It was the first non-country specific papal encyclical not to have a title in Latin—another Francis innovation. The title, like the subtitle, On the Care of Our Common Home, was in Italian.
Even before Laudato Si’ appeared Francis had spoken more frequently and forcefully than his predecessors. “Man … has slapped nature in the face,” he said in January 2015. A month later, he said “a Christian who does not protect creation … is a Christian who does not care about the work of God.” Ahead of the publication of his eco-encyclical, one of those involved in the production of the document—Francis’s close associate, Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences—said: “Today solid scientific evidence exists that global climate is changing and that human activity based on the use of fossil materials contributes decisively to this trend.” Francis had been disappointed in the previous round of international negotiations to reduce greenhouse gases, and wanted Laudato Si’ to influence the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in late 2015.
Conservatives were even more outraged. They were so anxious to get their retaliation in first they coined the term “prebuttal” for their advance responses. One leading free-market economist in Forbes wrote: “Pope Francis—and I say this as a Catholic—is a complete disaster when it comes to his public policy pronouncements. On the economy, and even more so on the environment, the Pope has allied himself with the far left and has embraced an ideology that would make people poorer and less free.”
The alarm only increased when Francis issued Laudato Si’ in May; to the horror of climate change deniers, it endorsed the worldwide scientific consensus that global warming is largely human-created. But the document was concerned with more than climate change. It dealt with wider environmental issues—pollution, the acidification of the oceans, deforestation and desertification, monocultures in farming, the loss of biodiversity, the extinction of species, the lack of access to clean water for poor people. It went wider than the environment too.
On the day it was published, the pope privately told his closest advisors in Rome that the encyclical was not really an environmental document at all. Global warming is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise. The real problem, he insists, is the myopic mentality that failed to address climate change. The rich world’s indifference to the despoliation of the environment in pursuit of short-term economic gain is rooted in a wider problem. Market economics has taught us that the world is a resource to be manipulated for our gain. Capitalism may maximize our choices, he observes, but it offers no guidance on how we should choose. Insatiable consumerism has blinkered our vision and left us unable to distinguish between what we need and what we merely want.
To Pope Francis, capitalism has created “an unjust and unsustainable global economy” which puts profit before people. It has led us into what he calls “a throwaway culture” which treats not just unwanted things but also unwanted people—the poor, the elderly, and the unborn—as waste. Most baldly he once more asserted: “This economy kills.” He argues that what we need instead is to understand that the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are one and the same thing. Laudato Si’ sets out as its core ideal an “integral ecology” that reconnects the earth and its people to the transcendent.
Advocates of an untrammelled free market right saw all this as a full frontal attack on American-style capitalism. They roared with horror. But Francis had learned a lesson from the reaction of some American conservatives who branded Evangelii gaudium as Marxist. He put in place a raft of defenses against his eco-encyclical being dismissed as the work of some kind of leftwing maverick.
His eco-encyclical takes its inspiration, like its name, from the writings of Francis of Assisi. The thirteenth century saint, like his twenty-first century namesake, combined a love for the poor, for peace, and for nature. But if the saint’s theology was new the pope’s is traditional. Moreover, he has taken care to locate his text firmly in the substantial body of teaching set out by previous popes, including two beloved by American conservatives, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Francis also made a point, highly unusually, of referencing the pioneering eco-theology of the Orthodox Church as well as citing no fewer than eighteen teaching documents from Catholic bishops’ conferences around the world. And, after being told by rightwingers that he should leave science to the scientists, Pope Francis did precisely that: he accepted the view of the 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists who say human activity is a major contributor to global warming.
Again he got into detail. Technological solutions fail to address the root problem. They often just change the problem without truly solving it, the pope said. His critics have countered that gas from fracking is less polluting than burning coal. But that is like advocating dieting by eating reduced-fat crisps. Carbon trading, Francis says, may just encourage speculation—and continued over-consumption by the rich.
And when his conservative critics said that capitalism has lifted millions out of poverty in Asia, he points out that it has done so at huge cost. That is shown by the catastrophic air pollution in China, which has seen that country oust the United States from the unenviable position as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Worse than that, poorly regulated capitalism in the global south has left behind millions more—the weakest and poorest.
Population is likewise a red herring, he insists. Poor people make hardly any contribution to global warming, according to one of the pope’s chief advisers, the atheist professor John Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact. A 10 percent cut in emissions by rich nations, he says, would be far more effective in combating global warming than any birth control program.
All this demonstrated Francis’s acute awareness of the importance of skillful alliance-building on such a major issue. You are not, he was telling critics, dealing with just one man here.
Dung of the Devil
In Bolivia last July, Pope Francis delivered his fiercest condemnation to date of contemporary capitalism’s indifference to the poor and the planet. He said:
The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called ‘the dung of the devil.’ An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.
In this “subtle dictatorship” the “mentality of profit at any price” that “sets people against one another” puts the very planet at risk.
More than that, addressing an assembly of political and community activists, he said: “The future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives.” And he added: “Let us not be afraid to say it: We want change, real change, structural change. This system is by now intolerable.” Land, lodging, and labor were “sacred rights.” Calling for change no fewer than thirty-two times in the speech, he said: “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians… it is a commandment. It is about giving to the poor and to peoples what is theirs by right.”
What so irks conservatives about this pope? John Paul and Benedict made the same kind of statements, but economic issues did not seem to be a high priority for them. Their main focus was elsewhere. But a pope who says he wants “a poor church for the poor” will not let the rich off the hook on economics. As one leading U.S. religion commentator, David Gibson of Religion News Service, said: “What they don’t like about Francis is that he takes this stuff seriously.” They think he means it. “Benedict was an ivory-tower academic,” said another commentator, Charles J. Reid, Jr., a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. “He wrote books and hoped they would persuade by reason. But Pope Francis knows how to sell his ideas. He is engaged in the marketplace.”
There are six key ways in which Pope Francis is changing Catholic Social Teaching. I have mentioned two: the vehemence, almost ferocity, with which he speaks; and the specificity of his criticisms of current public policy.
A third way is the context into which he is speaking. Globalized capitalism has succeeded in taking millions of people out of poverty, particularly in Asia. The World Bank says that China has succeeded in lifting four hundred million people out of absolute poverty in just two decades using free-market policies (from 1981 to 2001). But many have been left behind, particularly the poorest people, and particularly in Africa and the pope’s native Latin America. And even in big economies like the United States, the gap between rich and poor is worse now than it was in the late 1920s. As President Barack Obama has said: “Whereas in the past, the average chief executive made about twenty to thirty times the income of average workers, today’s CEO makes 273 times more.” The rich are getting richer. Britain’s superwealthy have doubled their money—from £258 billion to £547 billion—since the global financial crash five years ago, according to the 2015 Sunday Times rich list. The rest of us, statistics show, are just about struggling back to where we were before the 2008 financial meltdown. The dramatic growth in superrich wealth is largely down to a booming stock market, which gives added poignancy to Pope Francis’s remark: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” Invoking the Fifth Commandment, he thunders that we must “say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.”And again: “Such an economy kills.”
The fourth way is the impact his personal style has on the political landscape. The personality of Pope Francis—now an icon of simplicity and humility—is a factor. He strikes the world as full of a genuine authenticity and integrity and pastoral warmth. He connects very directly with people. His lifestyle is seen as embodying the message he preaches. All of this gives even greater credence to his words. As Pat Perriello, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, puts it: “Pope Francis’s writing and speaking style is clear and unambiguous. Everyone knows exactly what he is saying, and it is very difficult to pretend that he really means something else.”
A fifth way—and this is very Latin American—is his insistence on speaking from lived experience rather than philosophical theory. He takes as his starting point real-life experience rather than philosophical or theological ideas. The new Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, put his finger on this highlighting a phrase from Evangelii gaudium: “Reality is greater than ideas.” Cupich adds: “Instead of approaching life from the thirty thousand feet level of ideas, he challenges policy makers and elected officials—indeed all of us—to experience the life of everyday and real people.”
The final shift comes with a new concept in Pope Francis’s analysis. One of the cardinals to whom Pope Francis is closest is Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, a fellow Latin American. Cardinal Rodríguez is the coordinator of the pioneering Council of Cardinal Advisers Francis has created. Speaking about Evangelii gaudium, the pope’s right-hand man offered this analysis:
As a pastor in a very poor country I know how much of daily insecurity is connected with this situation of poverty—insecurity for the children in particular, but also big worries for mothers and fathers that do not know how to get drinking water, food, medical care or school education for their children. Global economy under the conditions of libertarianism excludes such people. Since their point of view a human being is a consumer. If she or he is incapable of consuming, this type of economy does not need her or him, can do away with her or him.
From this, Francis concludes: “It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underclass or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but waste, ‘rubbish.’”
What he suggests lies behind this is something deeper. The rejection of large numbers of people from participation in the global economy is an unstated rejection of ethics, and an unarticulated rejection of God.
After a philosopher pope, John Paul II, and a theologian, Benedict XVI, we now have a pastor. Archbishop Cupich put it this way: “John Paul II told us what to do; Benedict XVI told us why we should do it; Francis is telling us ‘do it.’” That is not all. One of the reformers appointed by the pope to clean up the Vatican finances went to Francis early on and reported that he was encountering huge resistance from the self-interested old guard within the Roman bureaucracy which did not want to see change. What should he do, the reformer asked. Pope Francis, an old man in a hurry, responded with a single Italian word: fretta. It means faster, stronger, more. It sums up Pope Francis’s journey on social justice.
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics and media at the University of Chester and senior honorary fellow at the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester. He was a feature writer and leader-writer at the Independent from 1995 to 2013, where he was also associate editor. He was executive editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1999 to 2000, and was a columnist until 2016. He has contributed to the New York Times, Guardian, Atlantic, Politico, Sunday Times, New York magazine, and Newsweek. He is a director of the Tablet. He is the author of Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism; Pope Francis: Untying the Knots; The New Politics: Catholic Social Teaching for the 21st Century; and Bad Samaritans: First World Ethics and Third World Debt. On Twitter: @pvall.
Our Common Home
I urgently appeal for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation, or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.” All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements, and talents.
The continued acceleration of changes affecting humanity and the planet is coupled today with a more intensified pace of life and work, which might be called “rapidification.” Although change is part of the working of complex systems, the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution. Moreover, the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development. Change is something desirable, yet it becomes a source of anxiety when it causes harm to the world and to the quality of life of much of humanity.
Following a period of irrational confidence in progress and human abilities, some sectors of society are now adopting a more critical approach. We see increasing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature, along with a growing concern, both genuine and distressing, for what is happening to our planet. Let us review, however cursorily, those questions which are troubling us today and which we can no longer sweep under the carpet. Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.
Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths. People take sick, for example, from breathing high levels of smoke from fuels used in cooking or heating. There is also pollution that affects everyone, caused by transport, industrial fumes, substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and agrotoxins in general. Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.
Account must also be taken of the pollution produced by residue, including dangerous waste present in different areas. Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic, and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic, and industrial sources. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently, no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.
These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.
Climate Change, a Global Problem
The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides, and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. As these gases build up in the atmosphere, they hamper the escape of heat produced by sunlight at the earth’s surface. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.
Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity. The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain. If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas.
Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political, and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing, and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.
Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption. There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies. Some countries have made considerable progress, although it is far from constituting a significant proportion. Investments have also been made in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread.
Safe Drinking Water, a Universal Human Right
Other indicators of the present situation have to do with the depletion of natural resources. We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels. The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits, and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.
Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for healthcare, agriculture, and industry. Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in the short and long term. Large cities dependent on significant supplies of water have experienced periods of shortage, and at critical moments these have not always been administered with sufficient oversight and impartiality. Water poverty especially affects Africa where large sectors of the population have no access to safe drinking water or experience droughts which impede agricultural production. Some countries have areas rich in water while others endure drastic scarcity.
One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality. Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming, and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls. It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes, and seas.
Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. This debt can be paid partly by an increase in funding to provide clean water and sanitary services among the poor. But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance. This shows that the problem of water is partly an educational and cultural issue, since there is little awareness of the seriousness of such behavior within a context of great inequality.
Greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use. Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken. The environmental repercussions could affect billions of people; it is also conceivable that the control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century.
The earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce, and production. The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. Different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs and regulating environmental problems.
It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.
Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained. Where certain species are destroyed or seriously harmed, the values involved are incalculable. We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration.
Decline in the Quality of Human Life
Human beings too are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity. So we cannot fail to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development, and the throwaway culture.
Nowadays, for example, we are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighborhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic, and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass, and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.
The social dimensions of global change include the effects of technological innovations on employment, social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence, and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking, growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity. These are signs that the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development and an improvement in the quality of life. Some of these signs are also symptomatic of real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion.
Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply, and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue, and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of Internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears, and the joys of others, and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.
The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest.”1 For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources, and in any number of other problems which are insufficiently represented on global agendas.
It needs to be said that, generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media, and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side by side with a “green” rhetoric. Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.
Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health.” Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.”2 To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.”3 Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations, as a result of the interplay between problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources, and quality of life.
Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining. There is a pressing need to calculate the use of environmental space throughout the world for depositing gas residues which have been accumulating for two centuries and have created a situation which currently affects all the countries of the world. The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: “We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers, and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable.”4
The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned. In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The land of the southern poor is rich and mostly unpolluted, yet access to ownership of goods and resources for meeting vital needs is inhibited by a system of commercial relations and ownership which is structurally perverse. The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programs of sustainable development. The poorest areas and countries are less capable of adopting new models for reducing environmental impact because they lack the wherewithal to develop the necessary processes and to cover their costs. We must continue to be aware that, regarding climate change, there are differentiated responsibilities. As the United States bishops have said, greater attention must be given to “the needs of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable, in a debate often dominated by more powerful interests.”5 We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.
These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years. Yet we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what He desired when He created it and correspond with His plan for peace, beauty, and fullness. The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations. The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable; otherwise, the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice.
It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. The Aparecida Document urges that “the interests of economic groups which irrationally demolish sources of life should not prevail in dealing with natural resources.”6 The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy, and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.
Some countries are gradually making significant progress, developing more effective controls and working to combat corruption. People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behavior, which at times appears self-destructive.
In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is. As a result, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”7
It is foreseeable that, once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims. War always does grave harm to the environment and to the cultural riches of peoples, risks which are magnified when one considers nuclear arms and biological weapons. “Despite the international agreements which prohibit chemical, bacteriological, and biological warfare, the fact is that laboratory research continues to develop new offensive weapons capable of altering the balance of nature.”8 Politics must pay greater attention to foreseeing new conflicts and addressing the causes which can lead to them. But powerful financial interests prove most resistant to this effort, and political planning tends to lack breadth of vision. What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?
In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation. These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity, and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.
We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith, and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment.
Extracted from the papal encyclical Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis. Copyright © 2015 by Libreria Editrice Vaticana. With permission of the publisher, Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
1 Bolivian Bishops’ Conference, “Pastoral Letter on the Environment and Human Development in Bolivia El Universo,” Don de Dios para la Vida (March 23, 2012).
2 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
3 Catechesis (June 5, 2013): Insegnamenti 1/1 (2013).
4 Bishops of the Patagonia-Comahue region (Argentina), Christmas Message (December 2009).
5 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good (June 15, 2001).
6 Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops, Aparecida Document (June 29, 2007).
7 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii gaudium (November 24, 2013).
8 John Paul II, Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace.
Pope Francis, née Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has been the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and bishop of Rome since 2013. He is the first pope from the southern hemisphere, the first from the Americas, the first Jesuit, and the first non-European since 741 AD. He was born in 1936 in Buenos Aires into a family of Italian immigrants, and ordained into the priesthood in 1969. From 1992 to 2013 he served as auxiliary bishop and then archbishop of Buenos Aires. He was consecrated a cardinal in 2001. On Twitter: @Pontifex.
How ISIS Will End
Almost daily, the beleaguered leaders of the Islamic State group (commonly known by the acronym ISIS) receive bad news. It is rapidly losing territory. After the fall of Ramadi and then Fallujah this year, the city of Mosul is next on the target of government forces in Iraq, and in Syria the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqah is increasingly under siege. In the northern part of Syria and Iraq, from Kobane to the strategic town of Sinjar, the region has been liberated by Kurdish forces. The vast territorial reach of ISIS in 2015 that encompassed much of eastern Syria and western Iraq has shrunk to a smaller network of outposts with the intervening landscape under questionable control.
Moreover ISIS is losing support both within and outside its territory of control. Military strikes from the United States and its coalition, along with Russian efforts, have crippled the movement’s transportation infrastructure and economic power. The numbers of foreign volunteers have dwindled, in part because they have been killed off in military encounters, in suicide attacks, and by missile strikes. Two of their most famous recruits, notorious around the world for beheading ISIS captives, have themselves been killed by targeted strikes. Scores, perhaps hundreds, have been trying to return home, the men weary of being used as cannon fodder, the women desperate from being used as sex slaves.
The terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Paris, Brussels, Baghdad, and elsewhere have been meant to contradict this bad publicity, to portray an illusion of power. The acts were intended to bolster the morale of the ISIS stalwarts and to show potential young Muslim volunteers from around the world that it is still capable of making a global impact. Yet ISIS, it appears, is on a downward slide.
How, then, will ISIS end? And what will come in its place? To answer these questions we have to look at what ISIS is—not just one movement but at least three different sorts of groups in an uneasy coalition, each with its own agenda and its own possibilities for long-term continuity even after the fall of ISIS’s territorial claims. ISIS is simultaneously a movement for Sunni Muslim empowerment, a global jihadist movement, and an apocalyptic cult.1 The supporters of ISIS are not just temperamentally and ethnically different from one another, they constitute distinctly different movements.2 Each of these groups may be around in one form or another long after the roads from Baghdad to Mosul and from Damascus to Raqqah have been secured.
ISIS as Sunni Empowerment
Though ISIS seemed to come out of nowhere, its territorial claims were very specific: the Arab Sunni heartland of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Before the leaders of the movement shortened its name to “the Islamic State” (or “Caliphate”), it called itself Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi Al-Iraq wal-Sham, an Arabic phrase that can be translated into English as “the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.” The term Al-Sham, or “greater Syria,” includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, the region that the French called “the Levant” which is why its initials in English are sometimes given as ISIL rather than ISIS. It is also called “Daesh,” based on the acronym for the Arabic name for the movement. By coincidence, in Arabic the term daesh also means something like the word for “bullies,” and for that reason ISIS leaders are annoyed by its usage. Probably also for that reason the term persists among those victimized by it.
Though newly empowered in 2014, the origins of the movement date back to the social unrest that developed in Iraq after the invasion and occupation by coalition troops led by the United States military in 2003. At that time the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was greeted by a certain degree of apprehension within Anbar province and other areas of western Iraq where Arab Sunni Muslim communities dominated. When I spoke with Sunni leaders from Anbar province in Iraq in 2004, they told me that they did not mourn the loss of Saddam Hussein, but what they feared was the loss of Sunni power. Even though Saddam’s rule was secular it had favored his own minority Sunni community. In post-Saddam Iraq the Shiite majority in the rich river valleys stretching from Baghdad to Basra had begun to claim power and marginalize the Sunnis.
For this reason any movement that promised power to Sunnis in the region was appealing. The Sunni shining knight that appeared on the scene in 2004 was a militant jihadist from Jordan, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Born into a refugee Palestinian family, Al-Zarqawi turned to a life of drugs and petty theft in his youth, but later underwent a conversion into a strict version of Islam influenced by the rigid moral codes of the Wahhabi form of Islam prominent in Saudi Arabia. Among other things, it allowed for beheading as an acceptable punishment for those who threatened the faith.
The movement he created in Iraq was based on these teachings and on the longing of Sunnis in the western region of the country to be free of both American military occupation and Shiite political domination. He named his movement Al-Qaeda in Iraq, hoping to receive support from the international organization headed by Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, at that time hiding out in Pakistan after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Relations between Al-Zarqawi and Bin Laden were never good, however, since Al-Zarqawi insisted on his own priorities and his own leadership style. The Al-Qaeda leaders were uncomfortable with Al-Zarqawi’s extreme anti-Shiite stance, and his easy adoption of beheading as an intimidation tactic, which Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri thought would alienate the population.
The Al-Qaeda leaders were right, and though Al-Qaeda in Iraq flourished for a time with support from young radical Arab Sunnis, especially after the U.S. destruction of the city of Fallujah in 2004, the Sunni tribal elders were increasingly wary of Al-Zarqawi’s authoritarian leadership and his rigid Islamic policies. In 2006 Al-Zarqawi was killed by U.S. military forces. The new head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq was an Egyptian, Abu Ayyub Al-Masri, who kept the name of Al-Qaeda but announced that the organization would be creating an Islamic state in the region, headed by an Iraqi caliph, Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi. Al-Masri and Al-Baghdadi were killed by a U.S. military strike in 2010 and their movement turned to another Iraqi as leader; he took the name of the fallen Al-Baghdadi, naming himself Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. It is this Al-Baghdadi who later proclaimed himself the caliph of the Islamic State.
For a time, however, the predecessor organization, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was defeated. In 2006 under the leadership of U.S. General David Petraeus, U.S. troops were withdrawn from the Sunni regions of western Iraq and local tribal militias were empowered to turn against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually restored the region to traditional tribal and religious leadership control. The operation was dubbed the “Awakening.”
This solution worked well while the United States was still the occupying force in Iraq, but when the U.S. military withdrew its troops in 2011, the responsibility for maintaining the support of the Sunni tribal leaders fell on the shoulders of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Alas, Al-Maliki abandoned the Arab Sunni leaders, choosing to shore up his political support largely from his own Shiite base by using government funding and positions as payouts to his political supporters. Once again, the Arab Sunnis regarded themselves as marginalized and disenfranchised.
This is where Al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State came back into the picture. The uprising in neighboring Syria that began in 2011 gave him a nearby base of operations as his cadres infiltrated the resistance fighters and built their own jihad army, eventually controlling large sections of Sunni Arab-dominated areas of eastern Syria. Their main competition in that battle-weary country was another movement affiliated with Al-Qaeda, the Al-Nusra Front, with which the Al-Qaeda leader, Al-Zawahiri, urged Al-Baghdadi to collaborate. Al-Baghdadi was determined to go his own way, however, rejecting Al-Nusra and the name “Al-Qaeda,” and proclaiming an Islamic State. In 2014 the movement roared across the borders between Syria and Iraq, and even conquered Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which it plundered for its wealth and military armament.
The complicity of the Sunni Arab population in the ISIS administration in Syria and Iraq has been largely opportunistic, not ideological. When I interviewed villagers in 2015 in Iraq’s Kurdistan who had fled ISIS control, they told me that the only people in their villages who supported ISIS did so for opportunistic political and economic reasons. These Sunnis and their tribal leaders could as easily turn against ISIS as they have supported it, if they were given other options for participation in public life. This is what happened during the Awakening movement, and Al-Baghdadi remembers how fickle the Sunni followers were in abandoning Al-Qaeda in Iraq at that time. For this reason he has instituted a reign of terror in ISIS-controlled areas to intimidate the Sunni populace into compliance.
It’s fair to describe ISIS as a terrorist regime, since it uses extreme acts of violence to intimidate both its enemies and its own population. The savage beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers that were posted on the Internet were matched by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of beheadings of recalcitrant Sunnis under ISIS’s control who refused to go along with its demands and those who dared to be identified as Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities—or even as modern people who liked to dress in a Western style. For ISIS, terror has been an instrument of governance.
But even terror can only go so far in controlling people against their will. So when cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah are liberated, most of the population is relieved to see ISIS go. They are not, however, necessarily pleased to see a Shiite-based government take charge, or to subject themselves to marauding bands of Shiite militia. Hence the long-range future of eastern Syria and western Iraq is open to question. I see three possibilities for resolving the dilemma of Sunni empowerment:
Integration: Return to Syria and Iraq
The governments of Syria and Iraq could exert massive control over the region after the fall of ISIS and forcefully reintegrate eastern Syria into Syria and western Iraq into Iraq. The degree to which the Sunni population will be acquiescent to this reintegration depends on two things: whether the governments in Damascus and Baghdad will be able to force their control on the region, and whether they will be willing and able to change their power structures dominated by Alawites and Shiites, respectively, and allow full Sunni participation in public life. Ideally they would have the wisdom to open up their governments to more Sunni involvement, which would lessen the resentment of Sunnis about being left out of the governments in both countries.
There is some indication that the Iraqi government recognizes that it has to include Sunnis in leadership roles, especially in those areas of western Iraq that are Sunni majority. The invasion strategy undertaken by the Iraq government in Ramadi and Fallujah recognized the problem of Sunni resentment, and in both places the forces that were the vanguard in liberating the inner cities were Sunni tribal militia. In the case of Ramadi, the Sunni tribal leaders were involved in reconstructing the political infrastructure of the city, and although they have quarreled with one another, they have at least provided the impression of Sunni leadership rather than Shiite occupation of their city. Whether this support for Sunni leadership will continue in other areas liberated from ISIS remains to be seen.
However, both the Iraqi and Syrian governments seem to have resisted any suggestion of change or power-sharing, even as Sunni resistance has mounted. When early in 2016 Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi suggested that constitutional reforms should be considered to allow for greater Sunni participation, the government’s headquarters in Baghdad’s Green Zone were invaded by Shiite supporters of the firebrand anti-Sunni cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. Al-Sadr’s supporters staged a protest in the Iraqi parliament, temporarily shutting it down. As the riots show, there is huge Shiite pressure against any attempt to restructure the government to be more open to Sunnis.
In Syria, President Bashar Al-Assad has been similarly intransigent, ignoring the plans presented by United Nations envoys for power-sharing governmental change that might have prevented much of the sectarian strife within his country. Instead he has doubled down on the resistance against what he regards as simply terrorism. Iran could play a key role, however, in changing the minds of leaders in both Damascus and Baghdad. So could Russia, in the case of Syria; the United States still has some influence in Iraq. Whether these global powers will be able to exert their influence to try to find a long-range solution to the integration of Sunnis within Syrian and Iraqi political society remains to be seen. Without a solution, insurgent movements such as ISIS will continue to find a safe haven in the region.
Separation: The Emergence of Sunnistan
A more radical solution would be the creation of a separate state. The contiguous areas of eastern Syria and western Iraq currently controlled by ISIS do indeed demarcate a cohesive ethnic region which had some autonomy in the Ottoman period and could again be a separate political entity, ideally without ISIS. Instead it would be controlled by a coalition of local Sunni tribal leaders. Since Kurdistan in northern Iraq is already de facto a separate state, there is a move towards the disintegration of Iraq. When I arrived at the airport in Erbil in 2015, for instance, I saw large banners that said “Welcome to Kurdistan” with no mention of Iraq; while I was there I had dinner with a member of the Kurdistan “foreign ministry, ” as they called it, although it is officially the office of external affairs of the regional government of Iraq. So in a similar way, Fallujah could become the gateway to Sunnistan.
It is conceivable that a Shiite government in Baghdad would be relieved to be free from the headaches of western Iraq, especially if there were security guarantees and financial incentives for doing so. It is also possible to see Al-Assad being pressured into shuffling off the eastern region of Syria that has caused such headaches for him as long as he could reassert control over the rich and populous western region. At the same time, elites within the countries want to maintain united control, and there is also pressure from outside against any fragmentation of the two countries. This pressure comes in part from the United States and neighboring states in the Middle East that fear the possible devolution of power if separation ensues. So it’s not clear whether this scenario would get official sanction from either Damascus or Baghdad.
Dissolution: Sunni Control in the Failed States
But a kind of unraveling may occur whether it is officially sanctioned or not. Both Syria and Iraq exhibit some aspect of failed states—an inability to maintain control much beyond their capitals and centers of support. If they are able to uproot ISIS and not dramatically change the politics of the Sunni regions and gain their voluntary support—or if neither Damascus nor Baghdad maintains sufficient strength to force compliance—then de facto control will revert to Sunni tribal leadership. This is the most likely scenario, the result of doing nothing. In the Sunni heartland of eastern Syria and western Iraq, the Sunni tribal leaders will continue to maintain order, however, the way they always have done. There will be a de facto Sunnistan though not one officially proclaimed.
ISIS as a Global Jihadist Movement
ISIS is more than territory, and more than a Sunni Arab enterprise. Al-Baghdadi’s strategy of recruiting young people from around the world to participate in a glorious struggle has succeeded perhaps far beyond his expectations. In the ISIS-related San Bernardino attack, one of the killers was of Pakistani descent and had visited Saudi Arabia and the other was born in Pakistan and grew up in Saudi Arabia; the Paris concert venue and Brussels airport bombers were Belgian of Moroccan descent; the Orlando shooter was an American of Afghan descent; the attackers at the Istanbul airport in June 2016 were from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Dagestan. None were Syrian or Iraqi, the areas where ISIS has its territorial base, yet in those areas foreigners from around the world have come to join the caliphate’s army. The largest contingent is from Tunisia, with large numbers from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. “They are all foreigners,” one refugee told me in describing the ISIS soldiers who captured his village in northern Iraq.
This far-flung network is maintained through Internet communication, through Twitter and closed websites, and through online magazines such as Dabiq that amounts to something of a cyber caliphate. The young people who were lured to this network and who maintain it came with a variety of motives. Perhaps the strongest was the desire to be involved in a great war, a cosmic struggle that allowed them to play out all of their computer game fantasies of warcraft, valor, and gore. But some also came out of a sense of history and piety, a conviction that they were laying their lives on the line for something of transcendent importance for Islamic civilization.
Some of the young volunteers from around the world were attracted to the dramatic vision of apocalyptic cosmic war that animated the inner circle of the movement; others also joined the movement to gain a sense of identity and to be a part of a community. For young people of Middle Eastern parentage who were living in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States, their experience of being alienated and marginalized immigrant youth was overcome by the acceptance offered by ISIS. Initially their main form of participation was through online chat rooms and Twitter feeds.
My student research assistants have monitored these Twitter accounts and found that the conversation was dominated by a sense of the importance of the cause, and the sharp we–they distinction between members of the movement’s community and all outsiders, whether or not they were Muslim. A Canadian research scholar, Amarnath Amarasingam, who has interacted with many young Canadian volunteers on Twitter, concurs that community is a dominant part of the appeal. Many of the Twitter followers called themselves members of the Baqiyah family, using the Arabic term for “enduring” that ISIS employed as one of its hallmarks.
“Trust me, I’ve never felt like I’ve belonged anywhere until I met the brothers and sisters online,” one young volunteer told Amarasingam. “The Internet keeps us connected, keeps us a family.” Then Amarasingam asked the young man to say more about the sense of belonging he felt in the Baqiyah family, and he responded saying that he felt more authentic as a person within the Internet community: “Sometimes it’s like the person online is the real you.”3 Another Canadian research scholar, Marc-André Argentino, who has also been monitoring ISIS-related Twitter accounts, agrees with Charlie Winter’s analysis of the “Virtual Caliphate” that the category of belonging is one of the most important themes.4 “Regularly,” Argentino reports, “images and video are published depicting brothers praying together and eating together, listening to sermons online, of brothers in arms hugging each other after combat operations, or huddled together hands in the middle (an image reminiscent of a sports team).” The pictures show the ISIS brotherhood together in physical space, but the sense of community appears to be almost as strong in the connections provided through the media of cyberspace.
For this reason, the cyber community of ISIS will likely persist long after the physical control of territory in Syria and Iraq has been abandoned. The digital apparatus of websites, cybermagazines, video uploads, Twitter communications, and dark web locations has been well established and though it may be interrupted by ISIS’s territorial defeat, it likely will be maintained in some form somewhere in the world other than in the ISIS-controlled cities of Raqqah and Mosul. There is no reason to think that they will be entirely dismantled.
Indeed, the passion of belonging to the ISIS cyber community might even intensify in the period after the fall of territorial control. Perhaps nothing brings together a community as the sense of being under siege and needing to band together for strength. The Twitter feeds in mid-2016, for instance, were buzzing with the assaults on Fallujah, Raqqah, and Mosul, with rallying cries to defend the caliphate.
One of the strategies employed by ISIS was to use terrorist attacks against the far enemies of the movement—the countries of the United States, France, Turkey, and elsewhere that it regarded as being in league with those local forces that were trying to defeat the Islamic State. For this reason, messages went out early in 2016 for young followers around the world to undertake terrorist actions on their own wherever they were. An ISIS spokesman, Abu Mohammad Al-Adnani, urged followers around the world to make the month of Ramadan in 2016 “a month of calamity everywhere.” Individuals were told that they did not need to check with ISIS headquarters in Raqqah but attack unbelievers in the name of ISIS wherever they were.
The attacks by ISIS sympathizers in Paris, Brussels, Dhaka, and Istanbul certainly seemed to be well coordinated multiple attacks of the sort that the ISIS central command would support and perhaps even help to plan. Attacks in the American cities of San Bernardino and Orlando appear to be less well organized, conducted by one or two people inspired by ISIS ideology. The perpetrator of the Orlando attack, Omar Mateen, did exactly this—he declared his allegiance to the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, by telephone to 911 emergency operators minutes into his rampage. He was said to have been surfing ISIS sites online in the weeks before the attack. And the ISIS news agency quickly proclaimed him a “fighter for ISIS.”
The term “ISIS inspired,” however, might not be quite fitting for the Orlando attack, and for some of the others as well, since “ISIS inspired” implies motives that were primarily related to an allegiance to the ideology of the Islamic State. It also implies that the primary intention of undertaking an act of terrorism is to carry out the broad directive of the movement—in this case attacking unbelievers and enemies of the ISIS cause. There is some evidence that the perpetrator of the Orlando attacks also had personal motives, and attacked a gay bar out of a homophobic rage. In this case, what we can say is that the acts were “ISIS branded,” both by Mateen and by the ISIS leadership, whether or not they were directly inspired by ISIS ideology.
This branding of autonomous terrorist attacks may be part of the dark future of the ISIS global jihadist network. The encouragement of ISIS for individuals to take up bombs against secular and non-supportive Muslim societies leaves room for a plethora of acts of terrorism undertaken for mixed motives but given the legitimization of ISIS ideology through ISIS-branding. Individuals can be comforted by the fact that even though their horrible actions are condemned by most people, including most Muslims, around the globe, their comrades in the online communities forged through Internet connections will digitally applaud their crimes.
ISIS as an Apocalyptic Cult
The reason why some of the foreign fighters are so passionate about the ISIS enterprise is that they are convinced that it is at the leading edge of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will usher in the last days of the planet and signal the arrival of the Islamic savior, the Mahdi. Though only some of the fighters are propelled by this belief, and few Sunnis in ISIS-controlled territory share it, this is a dominant motive of the inner circle of the movement.
This “ISIS apocalypse,” as William McCants describes it in a perceptive book with that title, is a kind of extreme variant of Wahhabi Islamic apocalyptic thinking.5 Soon after the fiery leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, was killed in 2006, his successor, Abu Ayyad Al-Masri, turned to apocalyptic ideas to characterize the movement as the caliphate that would emerge at the end times. He thought that the Mahdi would be coming soon and that the faithful had to act quickly to establish a caliphate to receive him. His successor and self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, shared that view. The name Dabiq, the title of the ISIS online magazine, refers to a town in northern Syria that was the location of the battle of Marj Dabiq between the Ottoman Empire and the Mamluk Sultanate in 1516. It is an ISIS belief that this town will be the location of the final battle between true believers and infidels that will usher in the apocalypse.
The strict code of behavior and extreme brutality in dealing with perceived enemies are aspects of the ISIS movement that are grounded in some instances of medieval Islamic history and practice. The relation between this kind of reign of terror and religion is problematic, however. One can claim that the ISIS policies are vicious because their religious understanding requires the faithful to act this way, or one can say that their need for an intimidating form of extreme violence needs to be justified, and they have found recourse in ancient tradition to do so. Either way it is an eerie relationship between religion and extreme violence.
Many have challenged whether ISIS should be called Islamic. Muslims around the world have risen up to protest what they describe as the non-Muslim attitudes and actions of ISIS. Iyad Ameen Madani, the secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, a group that represents fifty-seven countries and 1.4 billion Muslims, said ISIS “has nothing to do with Islam and its principles.” Similar denunciations have come from leading Muslim clergy in Egypt, Turkey, and around the world. Still, the leaders of ISIS claim Muslim authority for their actions, strict sharia law as the basis of their jurisprudence, and the promise of salvation for those recruited into its ranks.
The religious credentials of Al-Baghdadi give some credibility to this religious appeal. He is a cleric whose tribe can claim ancestry to the family of the Prophet. He received a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad and knows the scriptures and the tradition of Islam better than most jihadists. Osama Bin Laden had no religious credentials, and though he pretended to be an engineer, his college training was in business management; Ayman Al-Zawahiri was a medical doctor; and Al-Baghdadi’s predecessor in leading Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, was a street thug from Jordan. By contrast, Al-Baghdadi looks fairly legitimate. His credentials do not make the movement Islamic, however. Nor do the Islamic whitewashing of the regime’s terrorist actions and cruel restrictions make them Islamic. The judgment is in the eye of the beholder. And to most Muslims, ISIS represents the antipathy of the faith.
Still, every religious tradition has its peculiar extremists. Often these are marginal cults that communicate largely among themselves and do not surface to public attention unless they are involved in some kind of bizarre behavior. The Heaven’s Gate cult in the United States, for instance, believed that they would be taken up into outer space by UFOs in the last days of the world, a prophecy that was ignored by most people until they committed mass suicide in an attempt to collectively hasten their salvation. Similarly, it is quite possible that the apocalyptic ideas of ISIS will live on in small cults that cherish their ideas but do not have the means nor the need to force them on others in a violent way.
Transformation of Cosmic War
The key question in the transformation of ISIS’s inner circle of apocalyptic believers, from a terrorist regime to a benign cult, is whether the image of cosmic war can be contained. Every religious tradition has such images of dramatic existential battle between the forces of good and evil, order and chaos.6 They have been a part of virtually every religious tradition from early times to the present. The sacred writings of the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, and the Hindu epics are rife with them, and the histories of Sikhism and Theravada Buddhism abound in glorified warfare for religious purposes. Yet for most believers in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, these images of warfare are symbolic and metaphorical. For most Muslims, the true jihad is the battle between good and evil within one’s own soul.
But once these images of cosmic war are applied to real situations of territorial struggle and guerilla warfare, can they ever be put back in the metaphorical box? The history of extreme movements, such as the Khalistani movement of Sikhs in northern India that erupted into violence in the 1980s and then became quiescent, shows that it is possible. At the same time, some people within the movements will be convinced that the battles have to be conducted in real time and space in order to be a legitimate form of the cosmic war in which they believe. They will continue to plot schemes of attack, and occasionally conduct them in sporadic, uncoordinated terrorist assaults.
Hence ISIS may end. It may lose its territorial control, and it may not be able to manage the entire communications infrastructure that made it for a time such an imposing force around the world. But aspects of it may remain in forms of Sunni empowerment and in small cells of true believers. For the most part these may be benign. But as recent history has amply demonstrated, it does not take many activists with an extreme agenda and a willingness to lose their own lives in suicide assaults to do a horrendous degree of damage. Thus the specter of ISIS may continue to haunt the world for some time to come.
1 Research support for this project has come from the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project of the department of Peace and Conflict Resolution Research at Uppsala University in Sweden. I appreciate the help from my research assistants, Saba Sadri and Mufid Taha, and from the Pacifica Institute for arrangements assistance in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
2 The kind of people who are attracted to these groups is described in Graeme Wood, “The Three Types of People Who Fight for ISIS,” The New Republic, September 10, 2014.
3 Amarnath Amarasingam, “What Twitter Really Means for Islamic State Supporters,” War on the Rocks (an online news and commentary website), posted on December 30, 2015.
4 Marc-André Argentino, “Terrorism on the Internet: The Use of Social Media by the the Islamic State.” Unpublished paper, 2016. For the category of “belonging” see Charlie Winter, The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy, London: Quilliam Foundation, July 2015.
5 William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.
6 See my discussion of the role of images of cosmic war in terrorist attacks in my book, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Mark Juergensmeyer is professor of sociology and global studies, Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair of Sikh and Global Studies, and the founding director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State and Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence; and co-author of God in the Tumult of the Global Square: Religion in Global Civil Society. He is the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Global Religion and Religion in Global Civil Society; and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Global Religions and The Encyclopedia of Global Studies. On Twitter: @juergensmeyer.
Life and Death of the Euro
The euro is destroying Europe. Ever since the Greek government debt crisis erupted in 2015 between the government of Prime Minister Alex Tsipras and European leaders, that is the inescapable conclusion. The destruction does not come, principally, from the sovereign debt crisis the eurozone has experienced since 2010. Even though that crisis continues, it is held in check—for the moment—by European Central Bank (ECB) policies. The monetary injections performed since fall 2012 have helped reduce interest rates substantially. Purchases of debt securities, and particularly sovereign debt, have helped reduce tensions that existed in the eurozone. Instead, the threat arises from the general economic and social frameworks that the euro favors or imposes in different member countries. It also comes from the implicit political framework that follows with the euro in eurozone countries. Clear examples of this corrosive political framework are the effective seizure of power in European decision-making by the eurozone finance ministers, known as the Eurogroup, an institution that exists de facto and not in any signed treaty, as well as by the ECB.
A poll by Gallup International covering fifteen countries in the European Union—14,500 individuals, carried out from November 30 to December 3, 2015—reveals significant changes in European attitudes toward Europe and the euro. The results show that we have entered a period of deep instability regarding European institutions. This became palpable with the prospect that, in the wake of the refugee crisis confronting the continent since 2015, Europe may suspend the 1985 Schengen Agreement eliminating border controls among the twenty-six signatory countries—indeed, France, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, and Norway have already unilaterally re-imposed border controls.
One of the characteristics of the present situation is disenchantment with the “European Dream”—the belief that policies promoting concepts like community relationships, sustainable development, and international cooperation would give Europeans an enviable lifestyle and an influential place in the world. Europe, especially in the form of the European Union, is no longer the stuff of dreams; rather, it is a source of worry and even fear. And the euro indisputably carries part of the blame for this change of attitude.
Ever since the common currency was put into place, starting in 2002, by nineteen of the twenty-eight EU member states, growth in eurozone countries has been significantly inferior compared with those European countries that did not join the monetary union (notably, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Sweden) as well as international economic powers like the United States and Canada. This phenomenon is important to understanding public disappointment with the EU. It seems like a negation of the promise of growth loudly proclaimed at the time of the euro’s launch.
Pro-EU politicians like Jacques Delors of France and Romano Prodi of Italy lured Europeans with the glowing predictions of social and economic progress including full employment. Today, most Europeans are aware that the single currency has had negative effects on their economy for years: weak growth and rising unemployment. The eurozone crisis is obvious, even for the most narrow-minded ideologues. Not one of the basic problems first posed has been resolved. For example, the unitary currency system locks the relative exchange rates between countries. Yet it is necessary that countries have the ability to adjust their exchange rates, given the perfectly normal structural differences between states, and due to the absence of a true European budget, that is to say meaningful budget transfers, within the euro area. Without exchange rate adjustments or these budget transfers, it is left to the labor market and therefore wages and salaries to be negatively affected in the search for budget equilibrium.
Partial solutions have been offered, presented as historic steps towards a federal Europe. These solutions propose massive fiscal transfers between eurozone countries, from the richer to the poorer, to deal with the structural heterogeneity of these economies. But such transfers would create more problems than they would solve. For example, there exists a strong heterogeneity between regions within France, which is addressed through net annual internal transfers worth $300 billion. By contrast, such flows in all of Europe currently amount to about $40 billion. The implementation of such a federalization of economies in the eurozone would realistically require transfers of perhaps $300 billion per year. Moreover, these flows would have to be paid mainly by the countries benefiting from the euro. In the domestic French scenario, the burden of the flows is essentially shouldered by the Paris region and the Seine valley. This poses no problem in France, because redistribution between French regions populated by fellow citizens with a common history and identity seems normal. For the euro area, an increase in flows would entail at least 9 percent of Germany’s gross domestic product (GDP), to the benefit of countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and even France populating an area that is deeply heterogeneous. It is clear that Germany would be called on for the lion’s share of the transfers, perhaps as much as 248 billion euros per year. We can’t ask the Germans to do this. They don’t want this burden, which would seriously undermine Germany’s own economy.
An alternative to fiscal transfers would be encouraging so-called competitive devaluations across the eurozone countries—reducing wages and inflation so as to make prices of goods and services more attractive. It would effectively mean applying the suicidal policy of Chancellor Brüning in Germany between 1930–32—a policy that became a breeding ground for Nazism, not hyperinflation. That devaluation was conducted in the name of rescuing the German banks. The banks were saved, but at a monstrous economic price. Yet, these internal devaluation policies are currently being implemented in Europe. It seems inevitable that the eurozone will move toward a deflationary policy, where real wages are pushed down by the combination of low prices, low nominal wages, and of course low employment. In such a situation eurozone countries are destined for a continuous contraction of economic production and high unemployment. This could lead to a rupture between the eurozone and its citizens, and ultimately cause the eurozone to collapse altogether.
The Gallup survey of changing public opinion was especially interesting when respondents were asked how close or how far removed they feel from the EU. There was a strong growth in the number of people feeling removed from Europe. This group is led by Greece, where 60 percent said they felt removed from the EU compared to only 12 percent who felt close to the EU. But this group also includes Britain (38 percent felt removed versus 13 percent who felt close); Netherlands (35-11); Belgium (38-9); and Italy (39-16). The inclusion of these latter countries in the group illustrates the strong rise in euroscepticism at the EU’s very core.
A second group of respondents comprised countries where feelings of being removed from the EU have grown but nonetheless remain in relative balance with feelings of closeness—in Germany (25-19); Spain (25-21); Ireland (25-18); France (31-15). Lastly, a third group comprised countries where more respondents felt close than felt removed—yet even then the highest percentage of feeling close, seen in both Denmark and Romania, was only 26 percent.
The same survey revealed a big loss of appeal for the euro. Opinion against the euro is deeply entrenched in Britain, Sweden, Denmark, and Bulgaria. This shouldn’t be surprising, because these countries are not part of the eurozone. Such is the rising anti-Europe sentiment in Britain that, in June 2016, nearly 52 percent of the British electorate voted in the Brexit referendum to withdraw from European Union membership.
What is unexpected in the Gallup survey is that, in two eurozone countries, Greece and Italy, preference for a national currency trumps the euro. In Greece’s case, this is an important turning point, given that it was the threat of a Grexit—a Greek exit from the eurozone—and potential resulting collapse of the country’s banking system that appeared to convince the government in 2015 to cave in to European institutions and agree to an austerity bailout package. Greeks, until recently, were in favor of the euro. Going forward, it seems that the possibility of a Grexit doesn’t frighten the people anymore. The euro has become a tragedy for Greece, resulting in falling incomes, a sharp rise in unemployment, and a general fraying of the social fabric. The political crisis with the European institutions played a clear role in turning the Greek population against the euro. It is obvious that the bailout agreement has been unable to treat the underlying problem.
Italy’s case also appears emblematic. Italy is a country at the historic core of the EU and the eurozone. A majority of Italians, however, prefer a return to the lira. There is a very deep polarization of the Italian population, manifested in the drastically downgraded social and economic situation in the country. Per capita GDP is stagnant, or dropping, since the early 2000s and investment is now well under its 1998 value. At present, at least two political parties, the Five Star Movement, or M5S, and the Northern League, have publicly and repeatedly expressed doubts about keeping Italy within the eurozone.
Other countries are also concerned. In the Netherlands, the euro wins by only a narrow majority; the country is witnessing a lively debate that partisans of the euro are barely winning over rivals advocating a return to a national currency. The survey suggests that whenever there is a real debate about the euro question, the public expresses declining support for the euro.
Even the attractiveness of the EU itself is waning. The cause comes back to the austerity politics put into place ostensibly to address the sovereign debt crisis and save the euro. The true cost of the crisis will not be only economic or even economic at all. It will spread into political reality. Europe’s handling of the Greek debt crisis exposed as hollow the claim of the EU to be an area of cooperation and solidarity, devoid of conflicts. The eurozone proved to be an instrument of domination sought by Germany with the acquiescence of France. Germany quickly understood the political price for its apparent victory over Greece. In a few days it lost all the respectability, as a responsible country, aware of its past and firmly committed to European integration, it had taken decades to gain.
It is very likely that we will see a sharpening of conflicts within both the Eurogroup (eurozone) and the EU. German leaders are confronted with a choice. Either they accept the transformation of the eurozone into a transfer union, which they have refused since 1999. Or they organize the exit of Greece from the eurozone, under conditions that will quickly cause the implosion of the eurozone. Austerity policies have plunged the countries that apply them into deep recession. Leaders of those countries will have to come to terms with this, and either find ways to regain lost appeal or understand that they cannot keep institutions alive forever against the peoples’ will.
Erecting a federal form of the eurozone is sometimes brought up as “the” solution to the euro crisis. Some see it as the only solution, with the alternative being austerity policies that could lead to the impoverishment of the eurozone’s southern countries. One can understand why German Chancellor Angela Merkel seeks a right to control the budgets of other countries and refuses to consider a transfer union that would however be the logical form a federal structure for the eurozone would take. It is therefore necessary to grasp the consequence: federalism may be desirable, but it is not possible and so it is pointless to debate whether it is a good or a bad solution.
In August 2015, Emmanuel Macron, the French economy minister, shared important comments on the euro in the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung, in which he detailed his policy proposals for a “eurozone government” that had been drawn up in collaboration with his German counterpart, Sigmar Gabriel. Macron’s suggestion that national leaders transfer “more sovereignty” to a “commissioner with a broad mandate” has been widely discussed. Federalism is indeed often presented as the only possible survival option for the euro. In fact, the question of budgetary transfers has already been widely discussed over the viability of the eurozone and is central to the issue of the single currency. If federalism naturally involves political institutions, it also involves fiscal transfers between the federation of member countries, as these transfers in fact exist between regions within the same country. Macron’s comments were nothing new, but following the crisis with Greece they take on particular significance in admitting the political nature of the euro and how this reality must be the framework for economic governance.
The idea of a federal structure matching the eurozone has been around for a while. In an analysis of the matter published in Social Europe last year, economist Michel Aglietta and political scientist Nicolas Leron spoke of the “incompleteness” of the eurozone, which they emphasized had been highlighted by the Greek crisis. Recalling that a currency can also be analyzed as a common good, they added, “A public good par excellence, a currency cannot function without an organic link to political power: it requires a sovereign.” They insisted on going further, explaining that the euro is incomplete (and cannot, therefore, function properly, which allows for crises to be repeated) because it does not have behind it a common social debt. All of this is exactly true.
Yet promoters of a federal Europe do not seem to comprehend the implications of its creation, especially in what concerns the flow of transfers. Transfers already exist between the countries of the European Union. We can note that these transfers are relatively low. It is the net transfer that really matters, the difference between the contributions and EU subsidies. Contribution to the budget is limited to 1.23 percent of GDP, so the EU budget is capped. The annual net transfer to the recipient countries is 43 billion euros. This represents about 0.5 percent of the GDP of EU members collectively, yet a transfer flow of 5 to 7 percent is the absolute minimum for a recipient country to function as an economic entity and single currency.
We must therefore calculate the size of transfers that would entail real federalism across the eurozone. The actual total transfers from four leading eurozone countries—Germany, Finland, Austria, and the Netherlands—would likely be in the range of 280 to 300 billion euros. This suggests that Germany would bear 80 to 90 percent of the cost, or at least 248 billion euros per year—9 percent of GDP in the most modest assumption, and as much as 12.7 percent in more extreme estimates. Germany is not politically capable of financing such a level of transfers. Hence we see the political limits of budget transfers and the problems arising from the abandonment of sovereignty over national budgets.
All of this adds up to one conclusion: federalism is not a real option. That leaves two possibilities. The first is the rapid impoverishment of the southern countries of the eurozone. This could have extremely unpleasant political consequences, especially in the context of the ongoing refugee crisis, and could well lead a challenge to the European Union itself. The second possibility is the dissolution of the eurozone to allow the necessary adjustments without resorting to massive budget transfers. This may be the only way to salvage what is left of the European Union.
The British vote of June 23 to exit the European Union did not occur by chance. It is clear that the euro currency had created strong concern about federalist developments in the EU. Those concerns encouraged even moderate pro-European voters to go along with Brexit.
That European elites were so surprised by the British vote is a tribute to the magnitude of their denial of reality. The habit of denial being what it is, one should not expect a serious questioning of European policy by the very European policymakers who implemented it. But facts are stubborn things: any commitment toward more federalism, toward more supranational governance, will only produce more resistance from the people.
This British vote conveys disapproval for a form of the European project. Logic and common sense would suggest that we take note and act accordingly: that is, return to forms that are more respectful of the sovereignty, and therefore democracy, within the framework of nations that make up Europe.
The pro-Brexit victory was made possible because part of the Labour Party electorate defied the instructions of the party leadership and voted to leave the EU. The Labour Leave movement was critical to the ultimate success of the “Leave” vote. This is a lesson for the forces of the left throughout Europe.
Translated from the French by Amir-Hussein Radjy.
Jacques Sapir is director of studies at the Ecole des haute études en sciences sociales and program head for the Institutions et régulations des systems économiques ex-soviétiques at the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme. He is the author of Souveraineté, démocratie, laïcité; La Fin de del’Euro-libéralisme; Quelle économie pour le XXIe siècle?; and Faut-il sortir de l’euro? He has contributed to Slate, Marianne, Libération, and Le Monde Diplomatique. On Twitter: @russeurope.
Marine Le Pen’s Challenge
All over Europe, radical right populist parties are on the rise. In the French regional elections of December 6–13 last year, the National Front party, known in French as the Front National (FN), scored a historic high of 27.8 percent of the votes in the first round and the support of 6.8 million voters in the second. The day after the final vote, National Front Vice President Florian Philippot bragged: “We are the first party of France, there’s no longer any doubt about it.”
The electoral progression of the National Front is undeniable, yet it is worth remembering that in the December ballot it did not win a single region. It was not victorious in Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie, where National Front President Marine Le Pen herself headed the electoral list, nor in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, where her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, was running—even though the National Front lists in both these regions exceeded 40 percent of the votes in the first round, and surpassed by far the union lists of the left and of the right. Given this paradox, Philippot’s optimism deserves to be qualified: the National Front is not yet France’s top party. In spite of the progress made under Marine Le Pen, notably the strategy to de-demonize the party and attract more centrist supporters, many obstacles remain in the way of the National Front’s ultimate goal of winning the French presidency.
The National Front was co-founded in 1972 by Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the neo-fascist movement Ordre Nouveau (New Order). Their aim was to federate the components of the French extreme right, discredited by the collaboration of many of its members with the Nazi occupation of France and the Vichy regime from 1940 to 1944. The National Front made a political breakthrough a decade later, in reaction to the so-called “socialo-communist” victory of 1981 led by Socialist leader François Mitterrand. Municipal by-elections in the town of Dreux in 1983 brought the moderate right to form an alliance with the National Front to defeat the Socialist mayor, a development that granted political legitimacy to the extreme right. Then in the European elections of 1984, the National Front won nearly 11 percent of the votes and ten seats, with an anti-immigrant nationalist platform defending a “Europe of homelands” and “national preference” policies reserving jobs, social benefits, and public housing to French citizens over foreigners. In the following years, Le Pen’s party would win some 15 percent of French votes whatever the election. In the first round of the 2002 presidential election, Jean-Marie Le Pen not only won a record 16.9 percent of the vote for an extreme right presidential candidate, but he qualified to stand in the second-round runoff, coming in ahead of the Socialist Party candidate, the then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
However, Le Pen’s surprise performance could not mask the fact that the National Front had fallen into deep crisis, partly over how Le Pen’s extremist rhetoric and anti-system positions made the party a political pariah. In 1998, deputy leader Bruno Mégret broke away and formed a rival party, the Mouvement National Républicain, taking half the National Front’s party officials and elected representatives with him. Le Pen, nearly 80 by then, drew hardly 10 percent of the votes in the 2007 presidential election—his fifth and last attempt at winning the Élysée Palace—and his party captured a little over 4 percent in the legislative elections that followed. Meanwhile, more respectable-looking radical right leaders in Europe had begun to steal the spotlight from Le Pen, such as Nigel Farage of Britain’s UK Independence Party, Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom in Holland, or Timo Soini of the True Finns (now called the Finns Party) in Finland.
The rebirth of the National Front started when Marine Le Pen won the leadership election and succeeded her father as party leader in January 2011. She sought to rebuild the National Front, expand its shrinking electoral support, and above all “de-demonize” it—that is, get rid of the labels of racism, anti-Semitism, and extremism that had long been associated with the party. Marine Le Pen’s strategy became a point of contention with her father, who considered that “a ‘nice’ FN will interest nobody.” A decisive break with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s approach came after his April 2015 interview for the extreme right journal Rivarol, in which he defended Vichy Marshal Philippe Pétain and his followers and called the Nazi gas chambers “a minor detail of the history of World War II.” After a long legal battle, the National Front expelled Jean-Marie Le Pen from the party he had founded and which his youngest daughter now headed, and a page of French political history turned.
Rise of the Right
Since Marine Le Pen took over, the National Front’s electoral comeback has been nothing less than spectacular. Its support climbed to 18 percent in the first round of presidential balloting in 2012; to 25 percent in the 2014 European elections and in the 2015 departmental elections; and almost 28 percent in the first round of regional elections in December 2015. Since the last European elections, the National Front has been overtaking Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republicans party and the ruling Socialist Party in the number of ballots. And the “new” political style of Marine Le Pen is appealing to citizens that her father repelled. Among Roman Catholics, the gospel was a rampart against a vote for the extreme right. Yet in the first round of the 2015 regional elections, nearly one-third of Catholics as a bloc, and a quarter of all regular churchgoers, usually more obedient to the precepts of the Christian faith, voted for the National Front. Among voters of Jewish faith, aware of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s anti-Semitism, only 6 percent cast ballots for the National Front in the 2002 presidential election; by contrast, Marine Le Pen’s candidacy for president drew 13.5 percent of Jewish voters in 2012. According to recent surveys, support for the National Front has also been rising among gay voters. Even in the public sector, a traditional stronghold of the French Left, the National Front is making headway, especially at the lower levels of the civil service hierarchy. Among members of leftwing unions such as the General Confederation of Labor, the National Front drew one-third of the votes in the 2015 regional elections.
Women have been traditionally more reluctant to support the National Front, and other far right parties throughout Europe; that has been a serious challenge, given that women represent more than half of the electorate. In the 2012 presidential election Marine Le Pen overcame this gender gap. Presenting herself as a working woman, young, modern, and quasi-feminist, she won almost as many votes among female and male voters (17.5 versus 19 percent).
Marine Le Pen’s goal was to show that her party had shed its racist, xenophobic, and extremist overtones and was open to all. The reality is more complex. She has repeatedly and strongly condemned anti-Semitism. But she voices the same anti-immigrant positions that were a trademark of her father, and advocates Jean-Marie’s same “national preference” policies. She has gone even further than her father in condemning the Islamization of French society, comparing the street prayers of Muslims to an “occupation”—meaning the German occupation. Her voters reject foreigners, immigrants, minorities, and especially Muslims, as intensely as her father’s did. In the 2015 regional elections, only 36 percent of the National Front voters entirely agreed that “French Muslims are as French as everyone else” (versus, respectively, 53 and 73 percent among moderate right and leftwing voters). Ninety-one percent of National Front voters thought there were “too many immigrants in France” (compared with 60 percent of the moderate right voters and 22 percent of the leftwing voters). This fear in turn colored their perceptions of the European Union, seen by 90 percent of National Front voters as an open door for immigration (versus 58 percent of the moderate right voters and a quarter of the leftwing voters). Anti-immigrant feelings are a necessary condition for such voter support, as they were at the time of her father. This explains why the level of education remains the best predictor of National Front votes and why the party gets less support from the middle and upper-middle classes. Education teaches one to think rationally, to accept complexity, to fight prejudice. And it conditions employment and social status. In the 2015 regional elections, the National Front’s results were three times higher among voters who did not pass the baccalaureate, the doorway to higher education, than among those who went on to university. And it drew more than half of the votes of the manual blue collar workers, compared to 20 percent among higher-level executives and professionals.
The resistance of the old patterns is even more obvious if one looks at the party members and followers. In the 2015 departmental elections, more than a hundred National Front candidates were prosecuted for their blatantly racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic comments. Surveys among declared sympathizers of the party, before and after Marine Le Pen took the lead, show that they are the most inclined to reject people of another race, religion, or culture. They score higher on anti-Semitism and ethnocentrism scales than do the supporters of other parties. National Front supporters embrace the most extreme forms of racism, such as the belief in a hierarchy within the human race. The data suggests that despite Marine Le Pen’s impressive results, there are limits to what her de-demonization efforts can achieve.
An Anti-System Party
Despite its electoral successes, the National Front lacks some basic internal and external political resources. Since 2011, it has expanded and renewed its membership, attracting women and youth. In July 2015, the number of party members paying their dues on time had risen to 51,551—that’s ten thousand more members than in 1998, before the split in the party. Yet this is still far less than the Socialist Party (roughly 170,000) or the Republicans (200,000). And the political infrastructure required to rule is missing. In terms of elected officeholders, the party’s representation remains marginal, at the municipal level (controlling eleven municipalities out of more than 36,000), as well as at the departmental level (sixty-two counselors out of 4,108, in fourteen departments out of one hundred) and the parliamentary level (two deputies out of 577, two senators out of 348). If in the last regional elections the National Front tripled its number of regional counselors (from 118 to 358), it still does not govern a single region. The deficit in party staff is striking, notwithstanding the National Front’s efforts to recruit among civil servants, business owners, and academics by creating thematic networks with catchy names (“Racine” for teachers, “Marianne” for students, “Audace” (audacity) for young activists, “Clic” in the cultural sector, etc.). Even within the National Front, some party officials privately question its ability to act at a national level, believing that Marine Le Pen, regardless of what she says, is not ready to govern.
Likewise, public opinion still does not see the National Front as able to govern France. In the 2016 annual TNS Sofres Barometer on the National Front’s image, 54 percent of the respondents saw it as “a party who can only gather together protest votes” versus 36 percent who saw it as “a party with the ability to participate in government”; only 22 percent agreed that Marine Le Pen would make “a good president of the Republic.” If the National Front’s image is less frightening since Marine Le Pen took the party’s helm, a majority of French people still considers it extreme right, racist, and “a danger for democracy” (56 percent).
The National Front remains fundamentally an “anti-system” party, in the sense given to the term by the Italian sociologist Giovanni Sartori. It is at odds with the basic values of the French Republic, due to its doctrine of “national preference” and its de-legitimization of the other parties. This posture keeps it in political isolation, all the more in a country like France with its two-round majority voting system. While the National Front gains an increasing number of votes in the first rounds of elections, in the second rounds it is regularly defeated because it cannot win alone, and cannot form alliances. The 2015 regional elections offer a good example. In Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the National Front came ahead in the first round with more than 40 percent of the votes; the candidates of the Union de la droite (Union of the Right) came next with around a quarter of the votes. The Socialist Party opted to withdraw from the second round, allowing Union of the Right candidates Xavier Bertrand and Christian Estrosi to win, rather than take the chance to let the National Front win. More than 75 percent of Socialist voters switched to supporting the two conservative candidates.
Within the party itself, the possibility of a strategic shift divides opinions. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen stands for a platform that is economically more liberal, socially more conservative than Marine Le Pen. And she favors an alliance encompassing all the components of the right, while Marine Le Pen favors a “neither left nor right” approach.
The presidential election is the keystone within the French system, mobilizing the most voters. Less than a year away, the context at first sight seems promising for Marine Le Pen. The unemployment rate lingers around 10 percent, and is more than double among young people entering the labor market. This generates resentment and fear of the future. A series of unprecedented terror attacks in 2015 and 2016—killing more than 230 people at Charlie Hebdo, the Hyper Cacher, the Bataclan, the Stade de France, the seafront in Nice, and the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray—feed the fear of jihad, and suspicions of French Muslims as a whole. The widening flow of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa favors nationalistic drifts and reflexes of closure. The success of the Brexit campaign in Britain to quit the European Union comforts the eurosceptics. And disaffection towards the political class has reached historical heights, with 89 percent of the electorate sharing the feeling that the political class “does not care about what people like us think.” Over two-thirds believe that democracy does not function well, and trust neither the left nor the right to govern the country.
According to a TNS Sofres survey in June 2016, Marine Le Pen should easily top her 2012 showing by some ten percentage points, and she can expect to make it to the second round in the 2017 election. She comes out ahead in the first round under all scenarios save one: if the conservative ex-Prime Minister Alain Juppé runs as a candidate; in such a case, he would garner around 35 percent of the vote and Marine Le Pen 29 percent. But she would be widely beaten in the second round, when matched up against any potential candidate.
Such early polls should be taken with a grain of salt. Yet they are revealing about the National Front’s evolution. France’s radical right party is at a turning point, its political mutation unfinished. For the old guard of the party, starting with its founding father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the de-demonization strategy has gone too far, the party has betrayed its ideals. For the mainstream parties and their voters, it has not gone far enough to rid itself of racism, anti-Semitism, and extremism. Marine Le Pen hence faces a strategic dilemma. Going further—changing the name of the party, openly repudiating its doctrine of “national preference”—could eventually lead to a new split in the party, as well as make it less attractive for the voters seduced by its anti-system attitude. Yet, without such moves, the National Front will find itself unable to build on its successes and come to power.
Translated from the French by Amir-Hussein Radjy.
Sylvain Crépon is a lecturer in political science at Université François-Rabelais de Tours, affiliated with the Laboratoire d’Etude et de Recherche sur l’Action Publique. He is the author of Enquête au coeur du nouveau Front national, and co-editor of Les faux-semblants du Front national: Sociologie d’un parti politique.
Alexandre Dézé is a lecturer in political science at the Université de Montpellier, affiliated with the Centre d’études politiques de l’Europe Latine. He is the author of Le Front national: à la conquête du pouvoir?; and co-editor of Les faux-semblants du Front national: Sociologie d’un parti politique.
Nonna Mayer is emerita director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. She is a political scientist affiliated with the Center for European Studies at Sciences Po. She is the author of Ces français qui votent Le Pen. She is co-editor of Les faux-semblants du Front national: Sociologie d’un parti politique; Le Front national à la découvert; and Extreme Right Activists in Europe: Through the Magnifying Glass.
An unlikely, seven-hundred-page bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century delivers an explosive argument against our global economic system. Its publication in 2013 made French economist Thomas Piketty an international celebrity—an unlikely achievement for academics who labor over sets of data. Piketty’s big idea—that the return on investment outstrips the rate of economic growth—seemed to offer an elegant answer to why the “1 percent” have amassed such power and wealth in recent decades.
Piketty’s provocative conclusion is that we are working our way backwards in time. If current trends in the growing concentration of wealth continue, our societies risk reverting to a kind of Dickensian “patrimonial capitalism” where wealth, and privileges like education and property that come with it, will rest overwhelmingly with the elite few. Piketty based his analysis on three centuries of income and wealth distribution starting with the Industrial Revolution. Some economists, detecting an unpleasant whiff of Marxism, have criticized Piketty’s findings as ideologically motivated; others have objected that his policy prescriptions, like a global wealth tax, are nowhere near radical enough and would only paper over a deeply rotten system.
Controversy has fueled more interest in what Piketty has to say. On his recent visit to Egypt, for the launch of Capital’s Arabic translation, he delivered a lecture to a standing-room-only audience at the American University in Cairo. Cairo Review Associate Editor Amir-Hussein Radjy interviewed Piketty in Cairo on June 2, 2016.
CAIRO REVIEW: In 2015, the global rate of absolute poverty was predicted to drop below 10 percent for the first time. Given this statistic, should we readjust our definition of inequality? And what could inequality mean in a world with, theoretically, no absolute poverty?
THOMAS PIKETTY: Poverty is a relative notion. The notion of poverty we use in these statistics we keep changing over time. Look, to me, we have to adopt a very pragmatic viewpoint on this issue. We want to do the best we can to improve the life opportunities and the situation of those in the world, and in each country, that have the worst situation. So inequality is not a problem as long as it is in the interests of the poorest group, but on the contrary, as long as we can rearrange our policy and our organization and our education system and our tax system, so as to do even better, and to reduce poverty even more, and to increase living conditions for the poorest groups even more, then we should do it. So we should redefine what we mean by poverty and our objective, depending on what target we can achieve. But we should not be satisfied with the fact that people have just more than one dollar per day, to give you a short answer. I think we can do better than that.
CAIRO REVIEW: You argue, famously, that growing wealth concentrations are inherent to capitalism. Yet one of your suggested main policy solutions of a global wealth tax seems unlikely to happen, at least anytime soon. Is meaningful reform actually possible?
THOMAS PIKETTY: There are many different ways to organize capitalism. If you take the European Union, you have twenty-eight countries, so you have twenty-eight different ways to organize capitalism. If you look at Sweden or Denmark, at one extreme, you have 50 percent of the GDP in tax revenue and public services, and these are the richest countries in the European Union.
If you take the poorest countries in the European Union, like Bulgaria or Romania, they have very small government, 20 percent of GDP in tax revenue. So if it was enough to have a small government to be rich, then Romania and Bulgaria would be richer than Sweden and Denmark. What you can infer from this—it’s not that you always want a bigger government—depends on what you do with the money. If you use the public revenue to have efficient public services, to invest in universities, to invest in a system like Denmark and Sweden, then I think a big government is certainly not bad. In the case of France, where the public services, the public sector, are not as well organized as in Sweden, or Denmark, so then I think a big government is not necessarily good—it depends. If you have a big government, and it’s completely corrupt, then of course that’s very bad. So it all depends.
The evidence we have from history is that there is no country that has become rich with minimal government. This just does not exist. If you take rich countries today, whether in the United States, in Europe, or in Japan, the size of their government is between 30 and 50 percent of GDP in tax revenue. There’s no country that has become rich with a government that has 10 percent of GDP. When we are taking India, or sub-Saharan Africa, and saying you should just have minimal government and everything should work fine, you know, this is ideology because this is not a recipe that rich countries would apply to themselves.
Regarding global wealth tax: Can we do better than the current situation in terms of international tax coordination? Yes, I think we can do better. I think when you look at the Panama Papers [some 11.5 million documents from a Panamanian legal firm leaked to journalists revealing how the world’s rich and influential use offshore entities to avoid paying taxes and in some cases to engage in criminal activities], etc., we could have a much better exchange of information. Does this mean we are going to go all the way to a global wealth tax? No, certainly not. But in between there’s a lot of progress that can be made.
And yes, I think we will go in this direction, because there is a strong citizen demand for this. The tax injustice, the feeling that many members of the middle class have that the richest people pay less than they do, I think that this is something that’s really threatening the basic social fabric.
The government in Greece or France is another issue. We could talk a lot about it. But I think it’s important to take a long-run historical perspective than this, and again, understand that there are very different forms of capitalism. Extreme laissez-faire capitalism is certainly not the most successful in history.
CAIRO REVIEW: Capital today, within the global system, enjoys more freedom of movement than people. Is that a justifiable policy?
THOMAS PIKETTY: I think it’s difficult to justify. I think capital mobility should come with more transparency. I mean, it’s okay to have capital mobility as long as you know who owns what from where. But if capital mobility means that you have no information on who owns your company and your real estate, because it all goes through financial opacity and tax havens etc., then I think that this cannot work. So I am in favor of the mobility of capital and labor, but I think this has to come with more transparency and more fiscal justice.
CAIRO REVIEW: The Panama Papers again showed a lack of transparency about private wealth and how this clearly abets corruption. Why has the international community been unable to resolve this problem?
THOMAS PIKETTY: I think it’s a lack of political will. I think that the people who are benefiting from financial opacity have been more efficient at lobbying governments in the United States and Europe to keep the same system. But this doesn’t mean that this will stay like that forever. There are different possible political trajectories. I don’t believe in deterministic trajectories; I think political mobilization can make a difference. But so far it has not made a difference.
I think on this issue of tax havens and financial transparencies there are two mistakes that we can make. One mistake is some people say, “Oh, okay, we have already solved the problem, this is behind us,” and this is wrong. This is a big mistake to say that. And the other mistake is: “Oh, we cannot do anything, it’s impossible.” And sometimes, those same people say both at the same time, a complete contradiction. The reality is in between. We can make a difference but we have to be really precise about what we’re asking.
I think the kind of global registry for cross-border financial assets that I am proposing in my book is realistic. At least the European Union and the United States, which together make almost half the world GDP, and an even bigger share of financial assets, could have this automatic exchange of information between them so that we know who owns what financial assets. This would also be useful for doing business. It’s useful to have transparency, also for the interest of doing business.
CAIRO REVIEW: Absolutely. But it’s fundamental to democracy, too.
THOMAS PIKETTY: Yes, yes.
CAIRO REVIEW: In France, in Europe, in the United States, I think it’s fair to say across the West, it seems democracy is in crisis. Is bad economic policy, decades of neoliberal policies, primarily to blame?
THOMAS PIKETTY: Yes. In the case of Europe, I think we need much closer political union, in particular within eurozone countries. If you want to have a common currency, then you also need to have a common corporate tax, you need to have a common public debt, you need to have a eurozone parliament which can vote a common corporate tax, which can vote common financial sanctions against tax havens. It’s because we didn’t do this reform we still have nineteen different interest rates on our public debt, on which financial markets can speculate, and nineteen different corporate taxes in competition with one another.
The consequence is that we tried to reduce our deficits too fast in 2011, 2012, 2013. We have created, we have transformed a financial crisis which initially came from the U.S. private financial sector into a European public debt crisis, in spite of the fact that initially there was no more public debt in Europe than in the U.S. or Japan or Britain. So these are really bad policies, and yes, I hope we can do better in the future.
But I’m very concerned about the rise of nationalism and anti-migrant feelings, anti-Muslim feelings—certainly in a number of European countries. To me, this is the main danger with inequality, that if you don’t address it in a peaceful way, then you have all this temptation to go for politics of hate, politics of blaming specific groups. That’s a big danger.
CAIRO REVIEW: There’s a widespread feeling that Europe has failed to economically and socially integrate immigrants. Yet Europe has an aging population. Do migrants represent an opportunity for boosting chronically low growth?
THOMAS PIKETTY: Until 2008, the inflow of migrants was very large and unemployment was actually declining. So everything was working well in a way, and integration was working well, and this was good for everybody, both for migrants and for Europe, because in particular in countries like Germany, but also in other countries, you have a decline in population which in the very long run is, of course, a catastrophe. So this was working.
The problem is that because of bad macroeconomic policies in Europe after the crisis, too much austerity, there was a big reduction in growth and a big increase in unemployment, and this happened in a way at the worst time, around 2010–2012, which is just the time when because of Syria, because of the crisis in the Middle East, there would have been a need for actually more refugees, and more migrants coming into Europe. So this has been really a disaster because right at a time when there was a need to open the frontiers even more, in fact just the opposite happened, and Europe became, you know, more xenophobic and more closed to migrants.
But the good news is, it could be different. I think if there was a different policy, a different macroeconomic policy in Europe, we could have more growth, more job creation, and at the same time Europe could be more open to migrants.
CAIRO REVIEW: The refugee crisis seems to underline another systemic question. Is profit or human welfare the primary goal of economic activity? Are the two compatible?
THOMAS PIKETTY: The primary goal is clearly human welfare. Profit maximization in some cases, if it is well regulated and limited by the public policy, by democratic institutions, by the tax system, it can be a tool in order to increase innovation and in the end to serve human welfare. But this can work only if we have strong democratic institutions which put market forces and innovation into the common interests. We cannot take this as a given, this is something which needs to be checked very carefully.
CAIRO REVIEW: Should we be concerned that technology is creating new forms of social and economic inequality, and can this be prevented?
THOMAS PIKETTY: This is a risk, and it can be prevented, again, by adequate public policy in a number of domains. Certainly access to skills, access to education, is absolutely key, and so if you have a well-funded public education system with open access for children, for students, for poor backgrounds, then this is of course going to work much better than a very unequal education or social system with a very complicated access for people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
Now education is not enough, it is also the organization of production, the labor market institutions, the tax system, the regulation, all determine to what extent technology will benefit broad segments of the population or not.
CAIRO REVIEW: Following Brexit, the European Union and the eurozone, for that matter, have entered deeper into crisis. Would a more democratic union in Europe really create a more just economic policy and help stop the wave of euroscepticism?
THOMAS PIKETTY: I think we have to rethink our political institutions in Europe. I think maybe one of the mistakes in European integration is that we should rely more on our national parliaments in order to build a new European parliamentary chamber. You know we have a European parliament, but it is completely separate from the national parliaments, so I think we should probably actually have two chambers: there should be the European parliament as it is today, that is elected separately and directly by the citizens of Europe, and then we should have a second chamber, which would be the great European chamber, which would be made up of members of national parliaments which would be in proportion to each countries’ population, say, in the eurozone, and in proportion in the different political groups in the national countries. I think this could make a big difference, because you know otherwise it’s very tempting for the national parliament members, of course in Britain in Westminster, but also in Paris or Berlin, just to complain about Europe, and not to feel part of Europe and be really invested in European union. I think it is important if we want to build a strong political union, and if we want to build some parliamentary sovereignty and democratic sovereignty at the level of Europe, this must be built upon national parliamentary sovereignty rather than against them.
And in the end, if we want to have a common corporate tax in the eurozone, if we want to have a common policy to the public debt and the restructuring of public debt, all these kinds of policies need the approval of national parliaments. You know the Bundestag needs to agree, the French Assemblée Nationale has to agree. Instead of having different veto powers for each national parliament, which is the reason why it is so difficult to take decisions and agree, to take decisions on common corporate tax, we want to put these national parliaments in front of the responsibility, and allow them to sit with one another, and take decisions on a majority basis, maybe with qualified majority rules. In any case, it will be better than the sequence of national veto power for each national parliament which we have today.
So this can seem like technical issues, but in fact I think it’s constitutional design issues that are really important, and I think the problem is not the people, but the institutions. With better institutions we could have more solidarity, more and better policies. It’s not just that the people are selfish and there’s nothing you can do with them. I mean sometimes, people are selfish of course, but I think although people are good, the problem is the institutions which make them behave badly or in an inefficient manner.
CAIRO REVIEW: You have said that the Middle East suffers from one of, if not the highest, levels of socioeconomic inequality worldwide. What are the causes of this?
THOMAS PIKETTY: I think the Middle East is probably the most unequal region in the world, and this comes from basically the extreme concentration of oil resources in small territories with sometimes very limited population, and so a few hundred kilometers away you can have a very poor country, like Egypt, or to some extent Iraq or Syria, and then a few hundred kilometers away you have Saudi Arabia, the oil emirates, or Qatar, with the highest per capita GDP level in the world. I think this is really striking to see in the end if you take inequality for the Middle East as a rule, you find an inequality level that is even higher than in countries like Brazil, South Africa. In a way oil has created a level of inequality that is even higher than apartheid in South Africa, or the legacy of slavery in a country like Brazil. This shows how far the consequences of oil and arbitrary frontiers, to some extent, how far this can go.
The solution is complicated but I think part of the solution is regional political integration. And of course the Middle East is not going to become one country, but I think if there was, there could be a parliament one day at the level of the Middle East or the Arab League, or some broader set of countries, which could organize solidarity and some form of regional investment farms and financial solidarity. I mean, it will never be complete, and certainly the European Union is not a perfect model, and it’s not always working well, but at least you have regional redistribution and regional forms, you don’t need to go and beg Saudi Arabia and Qatar every other year for a little bit more money. I think one day this will have to be put in place. At least it’s worth thinking about this.
A Moroccan Love Letter
Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco. By Lawrence Rosen. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2015. 400 pp.
There’s a good deal of truth in Lionel Trilling’s claim, Lawrence Rosen says, that “every person we meet in the course of our daily life, no matter how unlettered he may be, is groping with sentences toward a sense of his life and his position in it.”
Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco is an anthropological validation of this claim. It is Rosen’s love letter to his four friends, two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew; to a country, Morocco, undergoing profound changes from a medieval monarchy in the late nineteenth century to a modernizing postcolonial nation of the late twentieth; and to his anthropological career, begun in the mid-1960s, which he sums up as “unrepentant eavesdropping,” a term used by Paul Theroux. As with any love letter there is poetry—lyrical intricacy is the only way to convey a “surface seething with life and movement.” The lives documented, the time and place they live in, are not fixed. It is the complexity that Rosen wants to acquaint us with, the understanding that identities are intertwined, that it is “possible to live in a world in which groups that appear incommensurable are, by the terms of the socio-logic they practice, workably compatible.” In Sefrou, the small city in central Morocco where Rosen conducted his fieldwork, we see Jews interact with Berbers and Arabs, friendships across wealth and culture, differences celebrated.
Haj Hamed Britel is an elderly raconteur with a cornucopian knowledge of Morocco stretching back to the late nineteenth century; Yaghnik Driss a teacher and devoted lover of his Muslim faith; Hussein ou Muhammad Qadir a savvy Berber entrepreneur; and Shimon Benizri a kindly Jewish cloth dealer. Each of them revels in the differences they collectively represent. Each of them constantly inquires of himself, and others, how best to live his life, the nature of good and evil, the role played by culture and religion, how to make moral choices. The layers of validations and insecurities, hadiths, and history lessons exhibit the very unordinary nature of ordinary men and women.
Morocco was pushed unceremoniously into the twentieth century. The first Morocco we are introduced to, through the Haj’s memories of his boyhood, is on the edge of change. Sultan Hassan, hailing from a dynasty that ruled Morocco independently from the seventeenth century until the French protectorate, was living his last few years. There were no paved roads or bridges, increasing European domination, and chaotic tribal fragmentations. By the time of Rosen’s first encounter with Morocco in the mid-1960s, the initial fervor that marked the years after independence from France in 1956 had passed and the realities of a diminished postcolonial economy were settling in. The majority of Jews and the French had departed, corruption was rife, and political elections were dominated by personal alliances. By the next decade, a combination of drought and rising population strained national resources, which were further weakened when three hundred and fifty thousand unarmed civilians marched into the Western Sahara to assert Moroccan sovereignty.
Rosen makes his last visit in 2008. By this time, the country has witnessed colonization, decolonization, civil war, industrialization, “modernization,” urbanization, bureaucratization. Increasing disparities between rich and poor and an overreaching king provide the context for rising religious fundamentalism. Morocco is on an uncertain trajectory. The middle path, of the Arab Yaghnik’s urban education and religious piety, and Hussein the Berber’s rural entrepreneurship, is threatened both by religious radicalism and increasing bureaucratization. The traditional social fabric we have become acquainted with throughout the course of the narration is in danger.
Rosen describes relationships between men of different cultures working like an electrical grid whose “contrasting charges energized their lives and united their disparate networks by their shared assumptions and modes of fabrication.” Religious interchange is part of this. The Haj is a practicing Muslim, but his idea of his faith is one of tolerance, a focus on persons and not their faith. Hussein the Berber describes his jocular relations with his Jewish friends in more direct terms—he could say things to Jews that he could not say to fellow Muslims. For Yaghnik, the most pious of the quartet, he is as certain of his faith as he is open to understanding those of others. Where others may see contradictions, he sees compatibilities; where others sense discord, he synthesizes.
This social landscape informs the political. Power is intensely personal. The strength of an office is dependent on attachments that characterize the personal connections of the officeholder. The aftermath of a sultan’s death is described as a “reshuffling of a deck of cards” as alliances are tested, confirmed, or reconfigured. It’s denoted in Arabic by the word fitna—a pattern of disorder. Some Moroccans see society as held together by a series of knots that are stronger than any single strand, such that the gaps that open up, like the differences among men, contribute to the strengthening of the whole. It is these human relationships too, Rosen suggests, that explain the lack of an enduring middle class in the Arab World, since networks cannot be passed along to an offspring.
But this inclusionary style has a problem—if you respect a man because of how much other people respect him, because of the direction of the crowd, then change and revolution become near impossible. “We have a saying,” Hussein the Berber told Rosen. “Every shout drives the cattle.” There are plenty of people, Hussein concludes, who are foolish enough to be driven in just this way by any politician with a loud voice. The loud voice of tyranny, Moroccans seem to say, is preferable to chaos. It was this ambivalence that was on display during the French occupation, and ultimately the answer to Rosen’s own question of why did so few people know about the inhumane prison conditions that political prisoners endured for their views.
The navigations of inquiries, balancing of integrities, pursuit of ideals amongst the “ordinary” (if there is one thing we can take from this book it’s that this word as a signifier should be banished) is what constitutes a polity. What does Morocco as a “nation” mean to these men? “It was never for the Haj or his compatriots exactly a question of national identity in the contemporary political sense but of a more or less definable zone within which the game could go forth,” Rosen writes. “It was as if everyone was involved in the same set of circumstances and rules, and it was this singular, uniting pursuit that made all the difference.” Hussein the Berber does not necessarily view his fate as tied to that of his nation. His attachments remain with the local, whether in forging associations, his vision of safety, or in his memory. Indeed this shift to the local and private concerns is something that Rosen notes more generally after his 2008 visit—a result of disillusionment of wants being met at the national level.
But throughout the course of Rosen’s fieldwork trips the people-centered politics was also beginning to change. While previously making deals in the world revolved around kinship, increasing movement meant people had to establish ties of friendship instead. By the 1980s it had become about money. Hussein the Berber talked in terms of entering “the game” and needing money to earn respect and a desire for give and take. The word mes’uliya, which had previously been translated as “responsibility,” was being spoken frequently on the streets to denote the failure to treat others with the courtesy that always made it possible to form alliances with whomever, wherever beneficial.
The picture we are left with is that the very “entanglement” of the title—messy and constantly shifting networks of relations and interconnections—may be forced into being tempered into something less complex. Rosen cites the more moderate worlds of Yaghnik and Hussein as being the most likely to endure in Morocco or, at least, “two versions of a single alternative their successors may choose to accept.” He acknowledges that the ability to live in difference may slowly dissolve, but that the emotional and organizational benefits it provides won’t be easily replaced. He offers a stark warning that if that middle course Yaghnik has walked (dressing in trousers in one setting and native garments in another, eating with a fork at one person’s house and with his fingers at another) is to be a path of stability rather than one that borders on the chaotic, he will have to find a way to continue his own style of compromise without compromising. And, in order to avoid the dangers of radicalization so prevalent across the Muslim world, a way to convince others that such a course is both possible and authentically Islamic.
This is a very personal account. Rosen is quick to admit the difficulties he found in writing another person’s story, and detaching his own interpretations and expectations from the representation. It is not a collection of biographies but rather a celebration of his relationship with each man and his own process of nurturing as an anthropologist. This makes it hard to gauge how representative these four men are of Moroccan society and how much their portrayal is more a reflection of their specific relationship with Rosen. It’s easy to get lost. This is the intention, to more effectively convey the density and complexity of such human networks. Women are invisible in Rosen’s account—this is something he acknowledges as an inevitable consequence of being a male researcher without intimate access to their world. While their battles are acknowledged, they are not dwelt upon and the eradication of the possibility of their ultimate role in the future of Moroccan society is highly limiting.
This is the nature of an ethnographic account. The way categorizations—of kinship and residence, religious logic—are intertwined, cross-cutting and diverging, and the manner of intellectual richness which exists within them, confounds stereotypes and an easy method of documentation.
Helen Mackreath is the Middle East correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books. She has contributed to the Economist, White Review, openDemocracy, E-International Relations, Forced Migration Review, and Jadaliyya. On Twitter: @helenmackreath.
As Paul Vallely writes in “The Education of Pope Francis,” the lead essay in our Summer 2016 edition, the bishop of Rome has made quite a stir in the name of social justice since his election three years ago. He has warned of growing income disparity, denounced “savage capitalism,” and admonished us that the hungry “ask for dignity, not for charity.” He has even waded into U.S. domestic politics. Commenting on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, Pope Francis exclaimed: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
In our Special Report: A Pope for the Poor, we take a close look at Pope Francis’s views on the impoverishment of man and his habitat. In cooperation with the Vatican, we are honored to publish “Our Common Home,” an extract from the pope’s 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si’ in which he delivers a strong call for protecting the environment, addressing climate change, and reversing a culture of waste.
Speaking of concern for the poor, Associate Editor Amir-Hussein Radjy caught up with French economist Thomas Piketty, who was in Cairo for the launch of the Arabic translation of his acclaimed treatise on economic inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In The Cairo Review Interview, Piketty explains how tax injustice is “threatening the basic social fabric.”
Other articles discuss issues of pressing interest in a summer of discontent. Mark Juergensmeyer assesses the prospects for the Islamic State group in “How ISIS Will End”; Jacques Sapir examines Europe’s ongoing political and financial crises in “Life and Death of the Euro”; and Sylvain Crépon, Alexandre Dézé, and Nonna Mayer profile the French National Front leader (and France’s future president?) in “Marine Le Pen’s Challenge.” In “The Fantasy of Disengagement,” Thanassis Cambanis argues that President Obama’s minimalist response to the Middle East crisis has undermined global security. Finally, in “The Death of Qandeel Baloch,” Rozina Ali surveys the continuing scourge of so-called “honor” killings in Pakistan after the murder of one of the country’s most popular social media stars.
At age 11, Caroline Maher began an unlikely quest. After seeing other little girls kicking up a storm at a Taekwondo class, she took up the sport and quickly began piling up tournament victories. Over the next dozen years she competed in thirty-nine countries, won nearly 130 medals, and was ranked third worldwide. In 2013, the fifth-degree black belt champion became the first African and Arab woman to be inducted into the Taekwondo Hall of Fame.
Achieving her dream inspired Maher, now 29, to help others find the same fulfillment and acceptance in society. She became a founder of Helm (the word for “dream” in Arabic), an Egyptian non-profit organization that advocates for Egyptians with disabilities and their families. When she became a member of Egypt’s House of Representatives last fall—appointed by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as part of a tradition to boost minority participation—she was determined to be a voice for the voiceless in the Egyptian parliament. “What Helm and myself are looking for is an inclusive society in which our abilities and competencies are the only way to be perceived,” Maher, a graduate of the American University in Cairo (’09), explained in an interview. “I dream of a world that would accept us all, no matter how different we are.”
To Maher, one of the main challenges facing Egypt is how to tolerate differences. “We as a society need to understand that each and every one of us has our own rights,” she said. “We are all entitled to the same rights, regardless of the physical state we are in. I can always bring the critical issues that I have learned about through my work with Helm into the parliament, being a voice for people with disabilities on the inside, not from my point of view but from the point of view of people with disabilities.”
Maher is aware of the daunting task of serving in parliament amid the political turmoil that has roiled Egypt over the past five years. “This parliament came after the new constitution and two revolutions, which has caused its performance to be scrutinized,” she said. “In addition to that, most of the MPs are either trying to find a new way to do things in order to separate the present from the past, or, like myself, are still exploring the political world and focusing on how to do things well and properly, as fast as possible, in order to achieve what we aim for.”
She sees her role as championing people with disabilities but also advocating for all of her constituents who share common everyday struggles. “My life so far has exposed me to all shades of Egyptian society,” she said. “Being on the street as a normal person every day also helps me understand people’s needs and concerns. From that viewpoint, I will make sure to exert an effort [to guarantee] that all our policies are not only necessary, but considerate of the people.”
In spite of the ongoing political and social conflict, Maher is optimistic about Egypt’s future: “I tend to trust that once we figure out how to manage everything properly, there will be no stopping us.”
Oriental Hall, etc.
Egyptian actress and social activist Yousra gave the undergraduate commencement address at AUC’s Spring 2016 graduation ceremony. She delivered a message on the importance of the arts for planting seeds of empathy, expression, tolerance, and understanding. “Art is an international language that does not know racism or intolerance,” said Yousra, whose birth name is Civene Nassim. “Art is a language that has no barriers and needs no translators. The language that rejects violence and terrorism. The language of the heart, it’s the language that celebrates life.” The actress, known for her work with Youssef Chahine and other Egyptian directors, and who serves as a goodwill ambassador with the United Nations Development Programme and UNAIDS, told the graduates to continue educating themselves in matters of the heart. After receiving their diplomas, she said, the graduates would be enrolling themselves “at a bigger school, the school of life. This is the school where the most difficult homework is to learn from your mistakes, realize your potential, and give back.”
International legal institutions and human rights standards won’t resolve the conflict in Palestine, warned Jason Beckett, assistant professor of law at AUC, during a May lecture at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo. He explained that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, which is deemed illegal by international law, is in many ways solidified and supported by those same mechanisms of international law: by fighting occupation through law and courts, Beckett noted, the occupation is legitimized and the Palestinians end up bartering away more rights than they’ve been given. The two forces of international law and human rights norms, he argued, operate, ultimately, as instruments of colonial power.
The Death of Qandeel Baloch
On July 4, in what would be the last post on her Facebook page, Qandeel Baloch wrote, “It’s time to bring a change because the world is changing. Let’s open our minds and live in the present.” The post is eerily ominous. The Pakistani model and social media star seemed to have been pleading with society to not see her as an affront to public morals but a pioneer charging forward.
Soon afterwards, Baloch’s brother killed the 26-year-old in their home in the province of Punjab. Implicit in reports of Baloch’s death were justifications for why she had been killed in a patriarchal society: she was a model who wore “inappropriate” clothing; she was “Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian”; she posted suggestive pictures of herself on social media; she posted selfies with a Muslim cleric while wearing his hat.
It is the latter that appears to have pushed Waseem Azeem, Baloch’s brother, to murder her for “dishonoring” the family. In June, Baloch visited a Muslim cleric, Abdul Qavi, in his hotel room, posting pictures of the two of them on her social media pages. The image ignited controversy and Qavi was suspended from religious committees and councils. The cleric denied any wrongdoing, saying that Baloch had insisted on the meeting and wanted spiritual guidance; Baloch said Qavi had wanted to see her. She seemed to enjoy poking fun at the unarticulated hypocrisy of Pakistan’s male-dominated society. But she also knew the cost of doing so. Baloch reportedly asked the local government for protection after she received death threats.
It became obvious there was no safe place for her, not even her home. Her brother confessed to killing her because she brought “shame” to the family. “I have no regrets,” he told journalists in a press conference.
There have been many women, unnamed or unknown, before Baloch who have been murdered or attacked because they have allegedly brought “shame” on the family. In June, a mother burnt her daughter to death for marrying her boyfriend. In May, 15-year-old Ambreen was strangled and burned for helping her friend elope. In April, a Karachi man stabbed his 16-year-old sister. In March, a man executed his two sisters because he “doubted their characters.”
Supposed “honor” killings are a regular occurrence in Pakistan. It doesn’t matter what a woman wears, who she takes pictures with, or what she says. Women are at once supposed to preserve the honor of the family, while being so dispensable that over a thousand can be killed in a year and society—and sometimes the law—will argue whether the murderers were justified. It is a commentary in itself that one week the country will rightly reel from the death of an 88-year-old man (the great humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi), and in the next week will find the death of a 26-year-old woman predictable.
Honor killings have been on the rise in the country. A report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) found that 1,100 women were killed in honor killings last year, up from 869 in 2013. According to the head of HRCP, honor killings are also spreading beyond rural areas to urban centers like Karachi and Lahore—places where the state has a presumably stronger presence. But the rise in these killings parallels the jump in attacks on other targets: musical artists, writers, and journalists. Baloch was an intersection of the two, pushing boundaries of entertainment and social norms.
Such killings are relatively recent in Pakistan’s history, and though they have not been an embedded feature in Pakistani society, they are threatening to become so. The country has a problem of patriarchy, but also one of extreme intolerance, as different groups try to lay claim to the country’s identity. In the backdrop has been a country at war for at least fifteen years, unraveling cities and social structures. A generation of men and women is growing up in the midst of frequent bombings and regular violence. As an HRCP official told me, the brutality of attacks on women is worsening. It seems there is a growing belief that not only do these women deserve death, but they deserve a tortured death.
Baloch was the breadwinner of her working-class family, and her father called her his “son” as a form of pride. Whether it’s because of this, or the outrage among certain circles over her death, Baloch’s murder is meeting an unusual response. While under Pakistani law the victim’s family can pardon the killer (which often happens if victims and killers are related), the state has barred Baloch’s family from doing so, and her father is pressing ahead with murder charges. Police have widened the investigation to another of Baloch’s brothers and, surprisingly, to Qavi as well. Qavi, being a Muslim cleric, almost seemed untouchable in the case; after all, in the hotel photo controversy, he represented a religious authority against the word of a “shameful” woman.
All of these actions lead to a seductive hope that the investigation will yield punishment, and will be a win for women in the fight between clergy and women, between patriarchy and women. But at the very least, what comes next may have lasting reverberations that will reverse the rise of such murders, will champion women’s lives as valuable, and finally see men as complicit in preserving a family’s and country’s honor as much as women. After Baloch was killed, Qavi told CNN that her death “should be a lesson for all those who point fingers at someone’s honor.” One hopes the court orders him to look at his own finger.
Rozina Ali is on the editorial staff at the New Yorker and is a contributing editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. She has contributed to Al Jazeera America, Foreign Policy, and Guardian, among others. On Twitter: @rozina_ali.
The Fantasy of Disengagement
A generational war has engulfed the Levant. The ruination of Iraq and Syria is akin to a core meltdown within the Arab state system, with consequences that already have rocked the world: new wars flaring across the Middle East, political ferment in Turkey, a global refugee crisis, and the rise of the Islamic State group, to name just a few.
Today we can begin the sad work of taking inventory of an American presidency that aspired to a humane and humble foreign policy. President Barack Obama didn’t start the Levantine conflagration—that ignoble credit belongs to his predecessor—but he has kept America fighting in Iraq and deployed forces in Syria to support a vast, billion-dollar covert proxy effort. All to little effect.
The long, horrific war that President George W. Bush launched in March 2003, with his illegal invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, has shattered the cradle of civilization beyond all recognition. During the subsequent occupation, U.S. officials dismantled the pillars of the Iraqi state, including its military and bureaucracy, and then stood by as newly empowered sectarian warlords and mob bosses tore apart the country. Many wars flared simultaneously in Iraq, some of which spread to neighboring Syria after the popular uprising sparked there in 2011.
President Obama’s signal intellectual and policy contribution was his minimalist response towards the chaos left behind by Bush. American policy at turns sought to contain the implosion of Syria and the ongoing fighting in Iraq, and at others accelerated or tried to steer the conflict, often by trying to balance ethnic or sectarian militias in a manner that, perhaps inadvertently, deepened the hold of sectarian warlords.
The president’s lackluster attitude has poisoned much of the serious policy conversation in Washington. His policies have spread the spurious conviction that whatever happens in the Middle East is not a core U.S. or international interest, but rather a sad and regional affair. Days before Mosul fell to ISIS, an expert with the White House’s ear insisted to me that the jihadi movement was a containable local problem.
The folly of the Obama doctrine is reinforced by the conviction that violence in Mesopotamia and the Levant is neither of America’s making nor America’s responsibility to manage. Yet state failure in the wealthy, oil-rich, politically interconnected Arab heartland has fundamentally diminished global security—unfortunately just as some Middle East experts predicted.
What happens in Iraq doesn’t stay in Iraq. Politics and war are dynamic processes. There is mirroring, learning, exporting, and knowledge sharing among all manner of actors, including authoritarian rulers, local warlords, non-state militias, and terrorist movements. The experience gained by fighters of many stripes in Iraq’s first stage of civil war and anti-American resistance, from 2003 to 2006, has fed conflicts and militancy far afield in the Arab World. Today, the wars in Iraq, Syria, and surrounding the Islamic State cannot meaningfully be considered separate conflicts, as U.S. policymakers still vainly try to do.
American policy in a fragmenting wider Middle East has systematically failed to bridge the gap between its rhetoric and realities on the ground. In principle, the Middle East has been “right-sized” on the foreign policy agenda as a midlevel interest behind global warming, trade, and China, among others. In practice, Obama’s national security and foreign policy teams have focused the plurality of their energy on the Middle East.
Yet through all this dislocating turbulence, characterized by levels of murder, death, and displacement not seen since the Second World War, President Obama has demurred that there isn’t anything more that the United States could do to cushion or even shape the partial disintegration of the Arab state system. Obama, reasonably, wanted to repair the toxic legacy of his predecessor. He was driven by negative aspirations—a desire not to invade more Muslim countries, not to waste lives and colossal resources in military folly, not to behave as if the military were America’s only foreign policy tool. But that does not justify his belief that the Middle East is less important than claimed by foreign policy experts, whom the president’s close adviser Ben Rhodes collectively dismisses as “the blob.” The president appears to believe that the United States cannot direct events in places like Iraq and Syria, and when it does try to steer events through military intervention, the result is a tragic parade of errors.
It’s understandable that President Obama harbored a fantasy of washing his hands of the whole mess. The United States failed to achieve its goals in Iraq and Afghanistan despite killing many people and committing a great deal of resources. The results in Libya are more equivocal and America’s responsibility more broadly shared, but hardly make a case for successful U.S. intervention.
But the alternative to reckless interventionism cannot realistically be disengagement. The region’s conflicts implicate the United States and plenty of other foreign powers, along with the whole ethnic, sectarian, and ideological panoply of a region that, despite generations of ethnic cleansing, hosts a staggering amount of diversity. America bears heavy responsibility as Israel’s guarantor power, which inextricably ties Washington to Israel’s conflicts with Palestinians and other regional players.
Far too late in the game, Obama has learned that saying that something doesn’t matter doesn’t necessarily make it so. Efforts to cauterize the Middle East and keep it at arm’s length have proved even more destabilizing (and attention-sucking) than a full-fledged policy commitment from the get-go. On what subjects do Obama and his national security advisers spend their time? Grudgingly, the Levant and its neighborhood. Obama’s agenda since 2011 has been hogged by, to a name few, Israel’s expansionism and its conflicts with Palestinians and others; the Arab revolts; Iran, the nuclear deal and its rivalry with Saudi Arabia; and the Yemen war. Grinding all along at the heart of the unending crisis is the Levant war, which is America’s responsibility.
The fantasy of American disengagement in the Middle East is just that: a fantasy.
Thanassis Cambanis is a fellow at The Century Foundation, and author most recently of Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story. He has contributed to the New York Times, Atlantic, and Boston Globe, among others.