8/19 – Elza Maalouf on Integral Design Amidst Chaos, Bloodshed and Revolution

Jeremy Johnson

Jeremy D. Johnson

Jeremy Johnson

Jeremy Johnson

Elza Maalouf gave her ITC2015 keynote on Saturday morning. I was present as the ITC live blogger – and published the bulk of my notes for her talk on my homepage[i] The following is an extended version of that mornings blog post.

As Mark Fabionar mentioned to me back in June, “Elza is a theorist, but she’s an informed theorist, based on her work on the ground… as an Arab woman living in the United States, doing work in the Middle East…we need to listen to her with a generous curiosity.”[ii] Elza Maalouf is the co-founder of the Center for Human Emergence, an expert with Spiral Dynamics integral, and recent author of Emerge!: The Rise of Functional Democracy and the Future of the Middle East. Seeing as she was likely one of the most qualified integral thinkers to explore the question of impact, I met the talk with high anticipation.

Elza began her keynote with an origin story. She described herself as a former “closet Wilberite” who attended integral leadership seminars. Through meeting Don Beck, she was invited to collaborate on a project in the Middle East that would use Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics (Spiral Dynamics integral) as a baseline framework. “Discernible patterns began to emerge”, Elza told us. Functional problems in the Lower Right (via AQAL) quadrant around life conditions, familial structures, tribes, lineages and the contextual circumstances of the region. Her project developed what she and Don Beck describe as “Indigenous Design.” Or, in other words, looking at the specific, socio-cultural and economic problems in the Middle East would require specific, socio-cultural and economic solutions. “Local problems require local solutions,” she told us. In conjunction with Spiral Dynamics integral, she utilized Social Judgment Theory to help mediate and reinterpret conflicts occurring in the Middle East. “From the blueprints of integral design,” Elza and Don Beck were able to discern “indigenous ecosystems” of conflicts in the region, specifically between Israel and Palestine. The failure to discern the reality of these cultural ecosystems, she suggested, resulted in the notorious legacy of Western intervention.

A Brief Memetic History of Islam

Moving on from the introduction, Elza provided us with a brief history of the Middle East. A memetic history, taking us from the Age of Ignorance or Jahiliyyah (pre-Islam, heavy Purple and Red) to the Islamic Renaissance (religious Blue). This latter period reached its culmination in the 11th century, where Islamic civilization made tremendous innovations in science, cosmology, mathematics, physics, psychology and even sociology. Some integralists, may find it interesting to note that the 14th century’s historian Ibn Khaldun developed his own meta-theoretical system of civilizational life cycles in the Muqaddimah and is generally considered to be one of the early founders of modern social sciences.[iii]

There was trouble, however, in the 11th century with the publication of Al Ghazali’s The Insignificance of the Philosophers, a text criticizing the previous openness of earlier Islamic philosophy. “Patriarchal dominance was brought back to the religion”. The rise of the Ottoman Empire brought with it the decline of science and philosophical thinking, and the resurgence of “egocentric Red and religious Blue”.

We jumped ahead to the arrival of Western, colonial powers. With the arrival of the British and French economic and military forces came new problems for the Middle Eastern and North African regions. “The West drew some borders and called them nations… They wanted us to forget centuries of tribal warfare.” Further complications arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries with the rise of Arab Nationalism – no doubt influenced by the development of nationalism in Europe – and its subsequent collapse with the assassination of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Dictatorships emerged, inching us closer to our current memetic pulse in history. Many of the problems in the Middle East were blamed on Israel and the United States, and for the moment, Elza told us, “The Arab Spring has become an Arab Winter. Iraq has turned into the Islamic State”. The region has become overtaken by an egocentric Red, while the emergent Blue is “yet to be known… struggling to define itself”.

I appreciated the precursory detail that this section of Elza’s keynote could afford. After all, you shouldn’t expect to squeeze the historical legacy of a 1500 year old civilization into the span of a university lecture. Islam’s rich, memetic history deserves a conference of its own – and perhaps there is more of the memetic overview offered in Emerge! It is worth noting the impact Elza’s talk had on me, and – I hope – other people in the room: the realization that emergence does not happen linearly; i.e., emergence is not progressive in a step-by-step manner. Retrogrades occur. Blue emerged and collapsed into Red. You can’t skip a stage, but once you have it, you aren’t promised to keep it either. Sit with that for a moment. Emergence is more akin to a  robust but delicate ecosystem– as Elza has intelligently pointed out in her keynote so far.

The Anatomy of a Conflict

 After Elza’s overview of Islam’s memetic history, she introduced us to the “Anatomy of a Conflict”, based on the SDi model. “There are two sides to each conflict,” she began, “and on each side there are six positions”. Intra-conflict is as critically important as inter-conflict. These six positions are (from top to bottom):







Very often, too often even, the top three levels are silenced and only the most polarized sides are heard, “shouting at each other”. Elza described how it was important to build spaces where the top levels are protected in order to make progress towards peaceful resolution. This model, on the ground, goes a long way for pacifying polarization”.

As a reminder, Ezla told us that the way to do this is to look at memetic maps and not geographical ones. This is called the “The Hearts and Minds” strategy: working with the memetics of a culture works and “building an indigenous ecosystem, by its people and for its people”. This building is a “Natural Design System” and follows the “Natural Design Formula”:

HOW does WHO manage/lead/teach WHOM? to do WHAT for WHICH People Living WHERE? and WHEN?[iv]

Taken from the slides, these are as follows:

WHEN: When to intervene, when to observe & when to walk away (LR)

WHERE: The importance of Geography (LR)

WHICH People: The Value Systems of the culture (LL)


WHOM: The role of Indigenous intelligence Experts (LL)

WHO: The type of leader according to function (UL)

HOW: The Leadership Structure of Every Holon (AQAL)

The importance, Elza emphasized, is finding out WHO you can work with. These are the “indigenous storytelling” experts, or the natives of a territory who speak its language, know its culture and the subcultures within it. The integral principles here work with the Natural Design System to respect “local culture while designing for local emergence”.

Elza told us how she hosted a conference with Don and nearly 700 Palestinians at the Shepherd Hotel. “None of them spoke about the Israeli occupation. They spoke about building their nation for Palestinians, and the promise of the future”.

As a final note, Elza reminds us that, when it comes to conflict in the Middle East, it is not about corporations, or even nations. “The next phase for the region isn’t going to be integral 7th Level Yellow, it will be the emergence from Red to Blue”. She suggested that this is the hardest transition in human history.

What was the Impact?

To paraphrase the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, the old epoch is retrieved and miniaturized in the new epoch. 1000 years of Ancient Egyptian history into a Wednesday night special. T.V. dinner. iTunes, YouTube and other products of the digital age dissolve time into a kind of quicksilver; musical styles and decades of media are retrievable as fast as we can think it. Spiral Dynamics integral and Integral Theory proper afford us a tremendous view of the entire history of human consciousness. There is a brilliance and triviality to this intensification of historical consciousness. The dangers are also twofold.

The first danger is to take for granted the immense complexity of historical emergence; it took a lot for us to get here – and it will take a lot for us to leave this world in a better state than how we found it. For those who live it – and I assume we all do – cultural evolution is hardly like a ladder or staircase. We go forward only to retrace our steps. Entire life worlds rise and fall like a video of a forest floor sped up to fast motion. Consider, for a moment, how the 13th century Siege of Baghdad must have felt for those who lived – and died – through it. Those rivers of blood and books scattered across the metropolis. How do we account for this if we’re staying at the mile high level with our maps? Resilient strategies emerge from careful consideration of specific histories and localities.

Now that leads me to the second danger. “The past isn’t over, it isn’t even past”. William Faulkner was spot on here. If we are to take models of consciousness seriously, we have to understand that these are not abstractions. We experience a false security by the cushion of centuries. Those memes aren’t memes, they’re human life worlds. They’re you. The models don’t have impact if we don’t recognize this and take it seriously. Perhaps Elza’s work in the Middle East is exactly what the integral community needs to look at to consider impact.

Yes, it’s complex. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, there is chaos. But if one turns their historiographical lens to any when, let alone where, they will find that same resilient ecosystem of memetic ecologies at play.

About the Author

Jeremy Johnson is an editor at Reality Sandwich magazine and IT specialist for Evolver’s webinar program, the Learning Lab. He received his MA in Consciousness Studies from Goddard College in Vermont, studying the relationship between technology, culture and the human psyche. Jeremy currently serves as treasurer and webmaster for the International Jean Gebser Society.


[i] See my homepage writeup:

[ii] Mark Fabionar Talks the HUB at Sonoma, Integral Impact, & Aesthetic Enchantment:

[iii] See Wikipeida: Ibn Khaldun’s concept of asabiyyah – or “tribalism” – is not unrelated to the Spiral Dynamics memetic developmental spectrum, particularly the earlier Purple and Red tribal societies. It would be interesting to hear if Elza has drawn this comparison.

[iv] This is further fleshed out in Russ Volckmann’s review of Emerge! here at ILR:

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