A 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:
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. http://nytweekly.com/columns/intelarchives/01-13-12/
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.
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.