Late on the night of the Brussels bombing, regulars sitting in a cafe built under the brick arches of a medieval gate in the Medina of Tunis stared blithely at the CCTV and cellphone video scenes of carnage that had been flitting across the cafe’s television screen all day. They refocused their interest only when two Europeans also paused before the screen.
“All these innocents,” one client commented to the Europeans, pointing at the scenes of destruction. “Yet their politicians are the ones who created ISIL.”
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Such passive aggression – blithely implying to two Westerners that the pigeons are coming home to roost as a result of several decades of alternatively disastrous policies and inaction – is hardly unusual in a small country that both exports militants and is on the front line of confronting Islamism.
In 2015, Tunisia was battered by three major terrorist attacks. This month, its army fought off a team of more than 50 gunmen assaulting a border city with the alleged intention of proclaiming an Islamic emirate.
Little Tunisia – more used to catching a cold whenever its mightier neighbours sneeze – pioneered the wave of Arab uprisings that swept the region in 2011.
Yet the country paid for its Libyan neighbour’s revolution and subsequent destabilisation dearly, and is struggling to contain the shockwaves emanating from the resulting civil war.
Democratisation of havoc
Squeezed between the Mediterranean to its North, Libya to the East (where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group has declared an emirate), and Algeria to the west (where the military regime drowned an Islamist insurgency in blood in the 1990s), resource and population-starved Tunis is a prisoner of its neighbourhood.
But as Brussels and Istanbul discovered last week, violence is not just a function of location. Efficient transport networks and video-conferencing have reduced distance, lowered the threshold for disruption and democratised the opportunity to cause havoc.
As Brussels and Istanbul discovered last week, violence is not just a function of location. Efficient transport networks and video-conferencing have reduced distance, lowered the threshold for disruption and democratised the opportunity to cause havoc.
Like-minded, self-selecting online communities can shape real-time information flows into seemingly coherent, agenda-setting narratives, then act upon them within hours.
Digital interconnectivity is so all-pervasive that it has given the butterfly theorem of chaos theory – whereby an event as seemingly insignificant as the fluttering of a butterfly in one country can scale up to defining the parameters of a typhoon in another – a technological boost.
Earlier this decade, European and North American technocrat politicians who were fortunate enough never to have experienced crisis and war in their lifetimes, sought to subcontract away the instability at the edge of the European Union at a time when action could still have been taken.
Instead, a number of regional state actors hoping to fill the American vacuum in the Middle East fuelled crises in already failing neighbours so as to promote their own interests, ideologies and prestige, transforming Iraq, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria into proxy battlefields.
By then it was too late for the Western politicians and United Nations bureaucrats to adapt to the realities of the moment. As a generation of frustrated Middle Eastern youth went from protesting against dictators to fighting for armed groups, the EU and UN opted for containing the fallout.
Old World politicians stuck to old ways of doing things, while others struggled to process what was happening by adopting politically correct or incorrect theories as ideological crutches.
Domestically, nothing but cognitive lag and the fear of coming across as illiberal can explain the lackadaisical way in which the West handled the phenomenon of its own radicalised Muslim citizens fighting in Syria, then returning home unchallenged, or last summer’s spasmodic, hot-then-cold reaction to the refugee crisis by Angela Merkel.
We have entered a perfect storm
A set of systemic factors has contributed to the eruption of the spectacular complex emergency we witness.
Many of the revolutions, civil wars and extreme politics happening now are unrelated to the whimsy that Arab populations suddenly discovered dignity after four decades of living under oppression.
They are much more rooted in the collapse of the unspoken social pact struck between every dictator and a critical mass of their people, whereby the populace agrees to surrender its civil liberties in return for a guarantee of stability, nourishment, shelter and education.
Globally, human population numbers are at historical levels and rising parabolically even as extreme weather and overheating ecosystems drive agricultural yields down and their price up. Meanwhile, global inequality is the worst it’s ever been just as we arrive at the mass automation of most jobs.
But before self-driving vehicles and industrial 3D printers strip away millions of already precarious factory and service industry jobs, we ought to consider tweaking our economic system to allow for the growing number of unemployed to live in dignity even in the absence of an income.
Unless we do that, radicalisation and acts of terror will continue multiplying while electorates in democracies such as India, Turkey and the US will go on being seduced by radical authoritarians peddling soothing identity narratives of a return to imaginary roots.
If we look at the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Istanbul, Bamako and Paris as being frantic alerts from an overheated system that our hyper-networked world can no longer tolerate current levels of inequality and cultural dissonance, then perhaps we can avoid the dystopian and imminent fate of a decoupling of the centre from its periphery.
Wealth-producing urban areas – not just in the West but around the world – will safeguard their privilege through the building of inaccessible, high-technology fortress cores.
Citizens will consent to intrusive electronic monitoring. Beyond the unbreachable digital walls, chaotic hinterlands will lie, populated by self-organising groups of those who were either excluded or opted out of the dominant system – imagine a mixture of rejected migrants, right-wing survivalists and back-to-the-roots leftists.
It is a lurid vision worthy of a sci-fi film, yet it is already happening in Syria, Libya and parts of the Turkish Southeast. It is not too late to stop it and re-inject some levity into a world going mad, but a total reframing of our approach to each other and our world is necessary as a first step.
Iason Athanasiadis is an award-winning photojournalist who covers the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.