As you may have heard or read over the weekend, the New York Times Sunday Magazine did something unprecedented with its most recent issue. The Times devoted the entire issue to one article, which explores the widespread meltdown of the mostly Arab nations of the Mideast.
Scott Anderson, the writer of the piece, chose a cast of characters from across the region and told the intertwined tale of what happened to each of them in hopes of both humanizing and illustrating the widespread regional plague of wars and terrorism growing out of what was once optimistically called “the Arab Spring.” It’s a powerful tale, and this link will get you to it, although to tell you the truth, I found it overwhelming.
The British and the French
But one fact that Anderson noted almost in passing early in the piece, and then came back to occasionally, struck me as very powerful, perhaps became I’m somewhat obsessed with historical background. That fact is the basic story of how the map of the Arab/Muslim world was drawn, not by Arabs, not by Muslims, not by Mideasterners at all, but by the victorious World War I European powers, basically the British and the French. Here’s an excerpt from Anderson’s piece that explains why this is important:
While most of the 22 nations that make up the Arab world have been buffeted to some degree by the Arab Spring, the six most profoundly affected — Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen — are all republics, rather than monarchies. And of these six, the three that have disintegrated so completely as to raise doubt that they will ever again exist as functioning states — Iraq, Syria and Libya — are all members of that small list of Arab countries created by Western imperial powers in the early 20th century.
In each, little thought was given to national coherence, and even less to tribal or sectarian divisions. Certainly, these same internal divisions exist in many of the region’s other republics, as well as in its monarchies, but it would seem undeniable that those two factors operating in concert — the lack of an intrinsic sense of national identity joined to a form of government that supplanted the traditional organizing principle of society — left Iraq, Syria and Libya especially vulnerable when the storms of change descended.
… The process began at the end of World War I, when two of the victorious allies, Britain and France, carved up the lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire between themselves as spoils of war. In Mesopotamia, the British joined together three largely autonomous Ottoman provinces and named it Iraq. The southernmost of these provinces was dominated by Shiite Arabs, the central by Sunni Arabs and the northernmost by non-Arab Kurds.
To the west of Iraq, the European powers took the opposite approach, carving the vast lands of “greater Syria” into smaller, more manageable parcels. Falling under French rule was the smaller rump state of Syria — essentially the nation that exists today — and the coastal enclave of Lebanon, while the British took Palestine and Transjordan, a swath of southern Syria that would eventually become Israel and Jordan. Coming a bit later to the game, in 1934, Italy joined the three ancient North African regions that it had wrested from the Ottomans in 1912 to form the colony of Libya.
To maintain dominion over these fractious territories, the European powers adopted the same divide-and-conquer approach that served them so well in the colonization of sub-Saharan Africa. This consisted of empowering a local ethnic or religious minority to serve as their local administrators, confident that this minority would never rebel against their foreign overseers lest they be engulfed by the disenfranchised majority.
This was only the most overt level of the Europeans’ divide-and-conquer strategy, however, for just beneath the sectarian and regional divisions in these “nations” there lay extraordinarily complex tapestries of tribes and subtribes and clans, ancient social orders that remained the populations’ principal source of identification and allegiance.
Much as the United States Army and white settlers did with Indian tribes in the conquest of the American West, so the British and French and Italians proved adept at pitting these groups against one another, bestowing favors — weapons or food or sinecures — to one faction in return for fighting another. The great difference, of course, is that in the American West, the settlers stayed and the tribal system was essentially destroyed. In the Arab world, the Europeans eventually left, but the sectarian and tribal schisms they fueled remained.
Built to fail
In short, he argues (and I don’t disagree) that Iraq, Syria and Libya were built to fail as nations. They made no sense. They are aggregations of groups that don’t get along, separated by a combination of ethnic and religious differences, generally ruled by dictators from minority groups that can hold power only by force, discrimination and oppression and, in the early period, by relying on outside powers.
The word “nation” has an important meaning other than a territory contained within lines drawn on a map. It means a people, often united by ethnicity, language, culture and history. The Kurds of the Mideast are such a “nation,” and they mostly live within one geographical zone. But, instead of drawing a boundary around that zone and calling it “Kurdistan,” the Anglo-French mapmakers divided the Kurds across four “nation-states,” Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, where they live under Turks, Arabs and Persians, all of whom have mistreated them horribly. Saddam Hussein used poison gas against them. Turkey, for many years, refused to acknowledge there was any such ethnicity, refused to call them Kurds, and tried to stamp out the Kurdish language. No one other than the Kurds seems open to the idea, but it would be a great act of historic justice to draw a boundary around the one contiguous territory in which Kurds predominate and give them a shot at governing themselves.
I’ll never fully understand why the Shiite Arabs who predominate in southern Iraq and the Sunni Arabs who predominate in central Iraq can’t get along, but they never really have since the birth of Iraq as the brainchild of the Anglo-French mapmakers. It seems that the denominational divide is as powerful as the ethnic/nationality divides elsewhere. The perpetual crisis of Iraq in the post-Saddam era seems substantially about that denominational divide, which seems to have taken on the flavor of an actual ethnic/national/language divide.
I expect some to react to this particular rant of mine by suggesting that reopening the map of nations will destabilize the region — but have you looked at the region?