My articles, Syria

Of Maps and Men

islamicmapA few months ago, my friend Joshua Landis wrote an essay for this blog called “The Great Sorting Out,” which generated one of the more interesting discussions we’ve hosted. I’ve been thinking about Joshua’s argument ever since, and trying to make sense of what I find to be right and wrong about it. This piece at The New Yorker tries to address obliquely some of those issues, but perhaps there is more to say in a later essay as well.

Here’s the first paragraph or two. Come back here to comment, if you wish.

Iraq and Syria’s Poetic Borders

The late historian and critic Tony Judt once described Europe before the First World War as “an intricate, interwoven tapestry of overlapping languages, religions, communities and nations.” After the period between 1914 and 1945, as a result of war, ethnic cleansing, and border drawing, a new, more stable Europe emerged, in which “almost everybody now lived in their own country, among their own people.” Thirty million were uprooted and dispersed by Stalin and Hitler between 1939 and 1943, a process that was repeated after the defeat of the Axis armies. Germans, Poles, Balts, Croats, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians, Turks, and many others were shunted around the continent. The result was “a Europe of nation states more ethnically homogenous than ever before.”

Is a similar process of nation formation taking place in Iraq and Syria today? As in Europe, borders were drawn all over the Fertile Crescent following the First World War, and many of those borders have now become notional abstractions as millions of refugees flee conflict zones in Mosul, Aleppo, Homs, and Raqqa. The demographic map of the region is in flux, and analysts have wasted little time in declaring that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham augurs the death of Sykes-Picot, the British-French treaty that established many of the Middle East’s modern borders, its creations now unstitched and exposed in their artificiality. (continue)

Some responses from readers:

Nadim Shehadi: 

Very interesting question QN, put in another way: are we in a period of nation formation like Europe was almost a hundred years ago? Or are we in a period of nation dismantling like Europe is going through now? this begs a different set of questions: are different regions subject to different trends or are there global phenomena or fashions in ideas which find variations in different regions?

So according to one sort of thinking, the Levant would be lagging behind Europe and what we see today is the Levant catching up with Europe and dividing into tidy and neatly organised ethnically homogeneous states after the evil or ignorant colonialists drew the map in a rather messy way mixing Shiias with Sunnis, Kurds, Maronites and others producing such a disordered region.

I am of the school that thinks that history does not move in such an orderly manner and the primary movers are ideas rather than material or concrete elements. The 20th century state as we know it is being dismantled globally and it is not as homogeneous as we might think it is, even in Europe.

At the end of 2011 I evaluated the year as a turning point where the 20th century was being dismantled and that there was a link between all the riots we saw that year on a global.

Lebanon skipped the 20th century and was considered a failed state by its standards, it may now be ahead of the game while the rest of the region dismantles what they successfully achieved and have to get used to the idea of living without it. Lebanon spent most of the 20th century arguing about whether to become a ‘proper state’ or not.

Jim Reilly

Syria, Lebanon and Iraq were ideas or concepts before they became states. This was the reverse of many other state-formations, where ideas (of France, Britain, Egypt, etc.) were molded to fit political faits accomplis. The sudden creation of the post-World War I states meant that these ideas had to be given content and material form on short notice, in a haphazard fashion, and in unfavorable circumstances. The *idea* of Syria or Iraq was more attractive than the reality of the Assad family fiefdom and Saddam Hussein’s rule-by-Tikrit. And so (helped along, again, by unfavorable regional and international circumstances including foreign invasion) they both fall apart.

Benjamin Thomas White:

Josh’s earlier post was thought-provoking, but problematic. Notwithstanding his statement in the comments section that “I didn’t use the word “primordial” and I wouldn’t”, the argument rests on the assumption that the ‘nationalities’ it describes were there, waiting to be disentangled (Winston Churchill’s word for it) and sorted into nation-state boxes.
It also seems to veer into anachronism when it states that the Germans expelled from eastern Europe “had lived in these countries stretching from Poland in the north to the Ukraine and Romania in the South for hundreds of years”: this seems to assume that Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and the countries in between had actually been ‘countries’—ie, independent states—for hundreds of years. They, and Germany, had all emerged in the period since 1870.

If we want to understand what happened then, and be in a position to draw meaningful comparisons with what’s happening now, it’s at least as useful to start with the internal development and external clashes of states, and see how that affected populations and the way they understood themselves. Doing that enables us to see just how much effort states had to put, not just into massacring or expelling populations they came to consider as disloyal, foreign, or unwanted, but also into hammering populations they wanted into ‘nations’. This was done by means ranging from the schoolroom to aeriel bombardment: it’s still within, or barely beyond, living memory that teachers would beat Breton schoolchildren for speaking Breton and not French in the classroom, and Turkey’s attempts to persuade Kurds that they’re ‘mountain Turks’ have been extremely brutal into the much more recent past. (For that matter, repressive states have probably done as much as Kurdish nationalists to persuade the religiously diverse speakers of two related languages that they share one ‘Kurdish’ identity—by no means a finished process.)

Of course, the populations persecuted or expelled by one panicking dynastic empire or emergent nation-state often ended up in a state that wanted them—but this doesn’t mean that that state was simply ‘theirs’ or that they belonged to it, wa khalas. West Germany had to do a lot of work to make expellees from eastern Europe lose their Polish or Czech accents; into the 1970s Anatolian Greeks in Greece were still marrying among themselves, and not with ‘Greek’ Greeks (among whom the term ‘turkospouroi’, ‘Turkish seed’ was often used to describe the transferees), while the work of persuading Greek-speaking Cretans, say, whose ancestors had converted to Islam several centuries earlier that they were and always had been ‘Turks’ and must speak Turkish took the Turkish Republic generations—during which time some of the most emphatic missionaries of the Turkish national project were from families which only a generation or two earlier had been Circassian, Daghestani, or Balkan. More recently, post-unification Germany often used some pretty crude criteria when deciding which Russian-speaking immigrants from Kazakhstan to accept as ‘Germans’. For many modern national groups, it took the shared experience of mass displacement, occurring at one or several points across the period Josh discusses, to accelerate—if not begin—the process of political self-definition as a ‘nation’.

So Tony Judt’s point that in Europe after the late 1940s “almost everybody now lived in their own country, among their own people”, like some of Josh’s arguments, seems misguided, unless it’s hedged about in the original by qualifications (which it may be, as Judt was usually pretty sharp about these things). It ignores too much history. And I haven’t even dwelt on just how debatable it really is that the post-1945 European nation-states were mononational. In France, durable immigration from colonial possessions had already begun before the war, but the much larger part of France’s immigrant population—which by 1930 was proportionately the largest in Europe, despite France’s status as the locus classicus of the nation-state—was from other European countries: Russians, Italians, Belgians, Poles, Spaniards, Portuguese, and others, all in numbers ranging from many tens of thousands to a million (not counting those who were naturalized as French).

You might think that further east, especially east of the Iron Curtain, immigration was less a feature of post-1945 nation-states—and perhaps that’s true. But the extremely large numbers of people of each state’s ‘nationality’ living outside the state mean that it’s no truer to say that “almost everybody now lived in their own country, among their own people”. When over half a million Poles moved to Britain after Poland’s accession to the EU a decade ago, it was widely heralded (or condemned) as the largest and fastest wave of immigration in British history—but something like 700,000 Poles, mostly people who’d served in the Allied armies and their families, moved into Britain in the late 1940s rather than going, or being sent, ‘back’ to the new-look, partly relocated Poland. This influx dwarfed the ‘Commonwealth migrations’ that began at around the same time (while Britain, incidentally, continued to be a major exporter of emigrants in this period, to Australia, the USA, South Africa). A lot of Poles lived in Poland—’in their own country, among their own people’—in 1950, some of whom had out of desire or necessity passed for German during the Nazi occupation. But the number of Poles who didn’t live in Poland—the post-1945 Poland whose existence as a modern national state, albeit on a somewhat different tract of land, could only be traced back to 1919 (the same year that Alsace and Lorraine became ‘French’ after fifty years of being ‘German’)—was probably in the millions: certainly over a million between Britain and France, let alone the US, Canada, and so on.

Apologies for the very long comment: this has obviously been on my mind since I read the original post. The point is that the twentieth-century European experience (or the nineteenth-century Balkan experience) of state formation and population displacement doesn’t offer any neat lessons for what’s happening in the Levan now. The seemingly ‘solid’ post-1945 European nation-states—and, pace Nadim, I’m not convinced that they’re being dismantled right now, though they’re certainly being re-tooled—depended for their stability on American and Soviet dominance, military and diplomatic, and at least in western Europe on superpower financial backing too; more, I’d argue, than on their debatably ‘mononational’ character. The EU has—as it was intended to—provided a supranational framework for them since the cold war ended, as Alan Millward argued, though it’s had its problems recently. In the Levant at the moment there’s no prospect of either a stable, superpower-backed ‘freezing’ of the state system (one reason it’s collapsing) or of a locally-based regional framework emerging. Everything is up for grabs, including control of individual states. The clashes over and between states will be understood by the populations of the region in different ways and will affect them in different ways; different actors will try out different ideologies and practices in order to mobilize support—whether that’s machine-gunning Yazidis in the name of the Caliphate, barrel-bombing cities in the name of Syrian or Arab unity, or, heaven help us, attempting to maintain a national or international dialogue for the sake of peace and democracy.

In the meantime, QN’s short and poetic article reminds us that mental and cultural geographies don’t depend only on the existence of a state authority, and aren’t formed only by violence.


810 thoughts on “Of Maps and Men

  1. And to provide a link out of courtesy, here’s the Charles Krauthammer article I mentioned above. I will grant that it might have its hard-to-describe intellectual merits that Krauthammer is perhaps best known for (what do you call this stuff? philosophy? political theory? government?), but from a strictly climate scientific perspective, there is nothing redeeming here at all. It’s pure garbage:

    P.S.: I assure people who might be getting frustrated with my comments here that I plan to go quiet imminently and don’t worry, I am not going to blab about climate any longer! I’ve said my piece and I’m done for now! My work and my life beckon … 🙂

    Posted by Samer Nasser | November 17, 2014, 9:52 pm
  2. Samer,

    Sorry if my POV offends you. Near as I can tell, no one here is upset or tired of your posts. Conversely, we enjoy them and appreciate them.

    I started looking at your link and decided to read more about sea level change. And as expected, I am more confused. Apparently, sea levels have been HIGHER in the past than today. Sea levels rates have also been higher. All these changes before man discovered metal arrowheads.

    How were sea levels and rates so high thousands of years ago?

    Since the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, sea level has risen by more than 120 m (averaging 6 mm/yr) as a result of melting of major ice sheets. A rapid rise took place between 15,000 and 6,000 years ago at an average rate of 10 mm/yr which accounted for 90 m of the rise; thus in the period since 20,000 years BP (excluding the rapid rise from 15–6 kyr BP) the average rate was 3 mm/yr.A significant event was Meltwater pulse 1A(mwp-1A), when sea level rose approximately 20 m over a 500-year period about 14,200 years ago. This is a rate of about 40 mm/yr.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | November 17, 2014, 11:10 pm
  3. Akbar Palace,

    Of course there were times in the “distant past” (ie. thousands, millions, billions of years ago) when the Earth was warmer and wetter than it is today. Earth’s temperature over long time scales has been all over the place in both hot and cold directions.

    So yes, your statement that sea levels were higher say, 5,000 years ago, is correct! The difference between then and now is today there are trillions, if not tens of trillions, of dollars of infrastructure accomodating hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people along coastlines that are vulnerable to sea level rise and the associated storm surges that will come with it.

    You have to understand that the anthropogenic climate change movement is not concerned with long time scales. It recognizes that it has no control over what happened slowly and naturally thousands of years ago or what might happen slowly and naturally thousands of years from now. The anthropogenic climate change movement is far more modest in its ambitions, and just wants to survive to the end of this century (ie. 2100). In such a short time-frame, relatively benign long-acting climate influences like Earth orbital changes or intensifications of volcanic activity don’t hold as much sway as the very dramatic human activity we are witnessing.

    According to climate science, our greenhouse gas emissions are forcing the Earth’s climate in a given direction in a very short amount of time. Plus, there is a lot of inertia in the system so we need to plan what we do very carefully and well in advance. For example, even if greenhouse gas emissions were to magically stop today, there is enough inertia already in place that the world will continue to warm for decades at least and the seas will continue to rise accordingly. Granted, there are still a lot of complexities to be sorted out in the science, but they are relatively minor. For example, if you ask a researcher why he is bothering to study the dynamics of melting ice sheets at the poles, he will simply respond, “I want to know how much time we have.” He basically understands that eventually coastal cities are going to get flooded worldwide, but he wants to have a better handle on when and how it will happen.

    The whole idea of the climate change movement right now is to buy time for humanity to wean off existing carbon-based energy sources, find a way to scrub carbon dioxide from its atmosphere, and hence master its climate moving forward. Granted these are all very ambitious technical goals with very long odds of success, but if we don’t achieve them within 50 years or so, for all practical purposes, and pardon my profanity, we’re f*cked!

    I recognize that there is a lot of legitimate, libertarian fear of stupid, corrupt, authoritarian climate change mitigation strategies that won’t even work, which is why I am very tolerant of climate change political dissent, provided it is, and here is the caveat, scientifically literate. The Charles Krauthammer (CK) tack of labelling opponents “white-coated propagandists” who worship a “man-made religion” and “false messiahs” is very stupid and needlessly hostile (as is the adversarial counter-argument that CK-types are “spineless and sociopathic shills for big oil and big coal”).

    Then you get sophisticated dissenters like Bjorn Lomberg and Matt Ridley who argue that yes the long-term view is dismal but in the intermediate-term the “cure” to climate change is worse than the disease, and it is strategically preferable to adapt. Of course this flies in the face of the inertia problem I mentioned above, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and hear them out a little. They argue things like “More people are living through warm winters than are dying in summer heatwaves” or “on an inflation-adjusted basis, storm damage is no more expensive today than it was a generation ago”. And when I say I’m not interested in the politics, I mean that I am not erudite enough to audit or validate these assertions, let alone question whether they will still apply 85 years into the future, let alone try to convince any constituency to endorse a given policy (which I don’t even have) based on information like this. I bow out of these discussions entirely, and find that I’m only interested in the climate and Earth science. The intersection of the science with economics and then politics is a complete mess as far as I’m concerned. But it’s not my job to sort it out.

    Posted by Samer Nasser | November 18, 2014, 1:44 pm
  4. It’s not a conspiracy … it is a reality of demand and supply that only the Saudis understand. Not the Russians. Not the Iranians. Not the Americans.

    It’s just business.

    Posted by Ray | November 19, 2014, 11:46 am
  5. I’m not sure what one should make of a Lebanese Sunni leader that advocates interfaith marriage amongst Lebanese, but would never condone his children marring outside his/their Sunni faith.



    Posted by Ray | November 19, 2014, 1:24 pm
  6. Anyone caught wind of the Haaretz editorial yesterday?

    Posted by Ray | November 20, 2014, 12:23 pm
  7. A good article on Walid Joumblatt’s foray into the Twitter world.

    A man that always adapts to the changing environment around him, brilliantly.

    Posted by Ray | November 21, 2014, 7:32 am
  8. The Wise Foreign Minister of the Wise Kingdom tutored, in the last two days, Russian Putin on matters concerning world affairs. Putin was very appreciative and receptive to the words of wisdom he heard from the wise minister.

    Among other things, The Wise Minister raised the level of Putin’s understanding on how the world should look like especially in the Syriac region. An agreement was struck on removing the obstacles impeding the resolution of the Syrian problem. Syria will have as a result of this agreement a future free of Assad thuggery and tashbeeh.

    Putin was very grateful for the visit of the Wise Minister and wished such visit took place much earlier so that Russia and much of the world could have avoided the many pitfalls that they went through. Russia, in particular, suffered greatly as a result of its deprivation from wisdom for quite sometime, but now brought to it by the recent visit.

    Posted by Mustap | November 21, 2014, 11:49 am
  9. That explains the uptick in Oil prices today 🙂

    Posted by Ray | November 21, 2014, 3:13 pm
  10. Demand and Supply.

    Such a democratic process.

    Posted by Ray | November 21, 2014, 3:17 pm

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