The rise of ISIS, the war on terror, the attack on Paris — these are symptoms of a civilization in its twilight
This article was originally published at Yes! Magazine.
In much the same way that 9/11 saw the birth of a new era of perpetual war in the Muslim world, the 11/13 Paris attacks are giving rise to a new phase in that perpetual war: a relentless state of emergency, in which citizens are expected, in the words of British Home Secretary Theresa May, to possess “vigilance”—a euphemism for constant paranoia, suspicion, and fear in their everyday dealings with other citizens.
This response would make sense if, indeed, ISIS were merely an unfathomable horde of psychopathically evil barbarians that had popped into existence out of the blue.
But as with any psychopathology, one requires a meaningful diagnosis to offer a prescription with a reasonable chance of success. That chance can be found in the grassroots creativity seen in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy: spontaneous calls for solidarity, with people of all faiths and none coming together to condemn the atrocity, mourn the victims, and rebuild bonds of humanity, regardless of official policies.
But first we must understand how this atrocity happened.
While neither the barbaric nature of ISIS nor its puritanical fanaticism is in dispute, the problem is that the terror-state did not suddenly emerge.
President Hollande’s response—bombs away abroad and permanent emergency at home—is premised on the idea that ISIS subsists inexplicably in a sort of barbaric no-man’s land outside the sphere of civilization.
He is wrong. ISIS is a product of civilization, through and through.
Earlier this year, the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman reported that the Turkish government “has been accused of supporting the terrorist organization by turning a blind eye to its militants crossing the border and even buying its oil.”
A senior Western official familiar with a large cache of intelligence obtained this summer told the Guardian that “direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking ISIS members was now ‘undeniable.’”
In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2014, Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham whether he knew of “any major Arab ally that embraces ISIL.” Gen. Dempsey replied: “I know major Arab allies who fund them.”
In other words, the most senior U.S. military official at the time had confirmed that ISIS was being funded by the very same “major Arab allies” that had just joined the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition—these include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait, which for the last four years have funneled billions of dollars to largely extremist rebels in Syria, with Western support.
Which begs the question as to why Western leaders determined to “destroy” ISIS are avoiding the most significant factor of all: the material infrastructure of ISIS’ emergence in the context of ongoing Gulf and Turkish state support for Islamist militancy in the region.
There are many explanations, but one perhaps stands out: oil.
“Most of the foreign belligerents in the war in Syria are gas-exporting countries with interests in one of the two competing pipeline projects that seek to cross Syrian territory to deliver either Qatari or Iranian gas to Europe,” wrote professor Mitchell Orenstein of Harvard University inForeign Affairs, the journal of Washington, D.C.’s, Council on Foreign Relations.
In 2009, Qatar had proposed a pipeline to send its gas northwest via Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria to Turkey. According to Orenstein, Assad “refused to sign the plan” under pressure from “Russia, which did not want to see its position in European gas markets undermined.”
Instead, Russia put its weight behind “an alternative Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline that would pump Iranian gas from the same field out via Syrian ports.”
Then in 2011, the Arab Spring protests erupted. By July, Assad signed a preliminary agreement for a $10 billion Russia-backed Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline agreement.
Later that year, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel ramped up covert assistance to rebel factions in Syria to elicit the collapse of Assad’s regime from within.
“The United States … supports the Qatari pipeline as a way to balance Iran and diversify Europe’s gas supplies away from Russia,” explained Orenstein in Foreign Affairs.
Assad’s repression of his own people was exploited by foreign powers to fan the flames of this proxy war for black gold. But the popular discontent was amplified by deeper systemic factors.
In Syria, climate-induced droughts over the preceding decade had ravaged agriculture, forcing more than a million poor Sunni farmers to seek employment in the Alawite-dominated coastal cities.
Globally, climate-induced extreme weather had triggered a string of crop failures in major food basket regions, driving global food prices up. The price spikes made staple foods like bread too expensive for the poor majority in many Arab countries, Syria among them.
To compound matters, Syria’s conventional oil production—which had underpinned the vast bulk of the state’s revenues—had peaked in 1996. By 2011, state revenues were hemorrhaging, forcing Assad to slash food and fuel subsidies.
Climate change—and energy depletion—thus had what the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences called a “catalytic effect” on civil unrest in Syria.
It continues to do so, and not just in Syria.
According to U.S. meteorologist Eric Holthaus, ISIS’ rapid rise coincided with a period of unprecedented heat in Iraq from March to May 2014, recognized as the warmest on record. Recurrent droughts and heavy rainstorms have played havoc with Iraq’s agriculture. Iraq’s U.S.-backed Shiite-dominated government has largely failed to address these challenges, even as ISIS has moved quickly to exploit them, for instance by using dams as a weapon of war.
Between 2003 and 2009, according to the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) sponsored by NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, the Tigris-Euphrates basin—distributed predominantly between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and western Iran—has lost groundwater faster than any other place in the world except northern India.
Yemen is also consuming water far faster than it can be replenished, an issue playing a key background role in driving local inter-tribal and sectarian conflicts.
In fact, every single Muslim-majority country experiencing civil unrest from rising Islamist violence is simultaneously experiencing resource shortages linked to food insecurity, reported one peer-reviewed study in the journal Sustainability.
The study noted mounting evidence that a lack of “access to critical resources, including food, energy, and water, can, in certain circumstances, lead to violent demonstrations.”
It also showed that the rapid advance of Islamist militant groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram in disparate parts of the Muslim world is related to regional food insecurity.
Food crisis, water scarcity, and climate change are not worsening together by accident. Unfortunately, they are symptoms of global system failure.
Civilization’s dependence on fossil fuels is tied to geopolitical relationships with extremist, authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world and is simultaneously complicit in the acceleration of global climate change.
Climate change, in turn, is severely impacting access to water, food, and energy resources, especially in poorer countries of the Middle East and Central Asia. This contributes to the destabilization of the region, catalyzing powder kegs of pent-up frustration and anger at decades of repression.
As regional states fail, unable to deal with populist grievances, economic dislocation, food scarcity, and energy shortages, billions of dollars poured into the Islamist militant network in the unfolding chaos a new and fruitful playground for recruitment and mobilization.
It is in this intensifying trauma that the utopian mania of ISIS’s vision of the End of Days is able to thrive.
Yet the response promised by Hollande looks set to repeat the same actions that helped inflict the regional trauma by which ISIS was midwifed to power.
It is safe to say that not a single one of the post-9/11 interventions, with noble promises to “destroy” terror and promote “freedom,” has succeeded.
Everywhere one looks, the aftermath of Western intervention has seen failed or failing states: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Mali, Yemen, Libya, Syria, an arc of destabilization with power vacuums consistently filled by Islamist militants.
Despite $5 trillion spent since 9/11 on waging the “war on terror,” terror attacks have skyrocketed by 6,500 percent, and terrorism casualties have increased by 4,500 percent since 2002 , U.S. State Department data show.
Our war and their terror have accelerated in symbiosis. They are part of the same system, feeding off each other, fueling one another.
Professor Joseph Tainter, the highly-regarded anthropologist who authored the classic book The Collapse of Complex Societies, has argued that one of the core reasons for the collapse of any civilization is the increasing complexity it creates in trying to solve increasingly complex problems of its own making. New tools, new ideas, new mechanisms, new bureaucracies to solve a crisis require new resources to create a whole new layer of complexity that generates its own new set of crises, challenges, and problems.
To solve those requires yet more problem-solving mechanisms, drawing on more resources, which end up adding yet another layer of complexity, only generating more problems down the line. Eventually, there comes a point where the system becomes so bloated and overcomplicated by its own resource-guzzling problem-solving bureaucracy that it can no longer generate sufficient resources to solve the next layer of problems generated by its own complexity. The historical result, as Tainter shows, is often civilizational collapse.
It need not be. As system theorist Thomas Homer-Dixon has shown in his book The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization, natural and evolutionary processes reveal that breakdown can be a precursor to revitalization. But that requires fundamental systemic transformation: overcoming internal system dynamics that no longer work, breaking out of the old mold, while embracing and creating from within a new system, with new rules, new dynamics, and new vision.
The empirical data, in our case, are unequivocal. The inability of the “war on terror” to address the problem it is purportedly addressing is symptomatic of a deeper, systemic impasse. Terrorism is not a symptom of barbarians “out there.” It is an integral and inevitable feature of the prevailing geopolitical and economic order: the hidden barbarism within the global system.
The “war on terror” dynamic is going through the very process of growth-heading-to-collapse identified by Tainter, compounded by the vicious cycle of systemic crises in food, water, and energy.
More profoundly, though, the symbiotic violence between “us” and “them” is itself symptomatic of a deeper civilizational crisis. Rather than recognizing its roots in an increasingly unsustainable system that inflames the use of extremist ideology as a way to deflect consciousness of its own failings, we have become locked into an escalating clash of civilizations of our own making.
In the process, we have lost sight of the fact that we are busily, quietly creating the End of Days by simply going about our daily fossil-fuel-dependent lives.
By the end of this century, as the scientific consensus warns, on our current emissions trajectory we will face an entirely different, uninhabitable planet, complete with apocalyptic outcomes like major cities flooded under meters of water, drought-driven desertification over much of the planet, the collapse of agriculture, endless forest fires, and methane fireballs erupting from the oceans, to name just a few.
The rise of ISIS, the “war on terror,” the attack on Paris—these are all symptoms of a civilization in its twilight, but still in denial; a window into the bleak future of business-as-usual.
But they also reveal that the vast majority of ordinary citizens across the Western and Muslim worlds do not buy into this bleak future, reject violence on all sides, and embrace each other simply for being human. The countless vigils held around the world, the gestures of mutual love and compassion between people of all faiths and the coming together in rejection of the Paris atrocity point to a different approach, generated through spontaneity, through grassroots creativity, and the simplicity of human contact.
In such displays of solidarity, the seeds of a new civilizational paradigm are being planted.
Nafeez Ahmed wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Nafeez is editor of the crowd-funded investigative journalism project INSURGE intelligence, a weekly columnist for Middle East Eye, and writes the “System Shift” column for VICE’s science and technology magazine, Motherboard. He is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work, and was twice selected in the Evening Standard’s most globally influential Londoners, in 2014 and 2015. His work on international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.