Insurgencies

Insurgency in Paraguay – and Genocidal Agitation Against Brazilians in the Country

Wikipedia’s “list of on-going armed conflicts” (see the previous post) had some surprises for me, as it includes a few insurgencies that I had thought were over. One example is that of the Paraguayan People’s Army, or EEP Rebellion (from the Spanish label, Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo). Wikipedia gives a 2023 death toll of seven for this conflict, and a cumulative count of 145+ since its beginning in 2005. These figures do not seem to be reliable, however, as the listed source for the 2023 figure is from 2022. I was not able to find any information on deaths this year in an admittedly cursory internet search. The Wikipedia article on the EEP, however, emphasizes its continuing activity, claiming that it can field up to 1,000 militants. As the article notes:

[T]he EPP has millions of dollars collected in kidnappings, extortion, expropriations and even contributions from neighbors and supporters. To this day, they continue to gain followers in the area, given the void left by the Paraguayan State.

The EEP is in many respects a typical Latin American Marxist-Leninist insurgency. It aims its attacks on wealthy landowners and security official, both private and public. Its operations have been focused in the central-eastern part of the country not far from the boundary with Brazil (see the map below), a restive region that has seen the development of large, mechanized farms over the past few decades. A few years ago, the EEP gained some global notoriety for kidnapping Mennonite farmers, one of whom was killed when his family was unable to come up with the $500,000 demanded for his release.

Conflict over land use and ownership in eastern Paraguay is an issue of the political far-right as well as the far-left. In Paraguay’s April 2023 general election, the populist and self-described nationalist-anarchist candidate of the National Crusade Party, Paraguayo “Payo” Cubas, surprised many observers by coming in third place, taking almost a quarter of the votes cast. In 2019, then-senator Cubas was impeached after he called for the genocide of Brazilians living in his country. As reported by Folha de São Paulo:

Brazilian bandits, bandits! Invaders! Now deforesting the country,” he shouts. “At least 100,000 Brazilians must be killed here,” he continued, mentioning that 2 million Brazilians are living in the country. The Brazilian government estimates that there are 350 thousand.

Following his failed bid for the presidency, Cubas was arrested for “disturbing the peace” after he refused to accept the election results and led anti-governmental protests. This was not the first time that he found himself in legal trouble. In 2016, Cubas was arrested “after hitting a judge with a belt and defecating in the office of the judge’s secretary.”

The large Brazilian presence in eastern Paraguay dates to the 1960s. These so-called “Brasiguayos” (“Brasiguaios” in Portuguese), many of whom were born in Paraguay, are now thought to number around half a million, a little less than 10 percent of the country’s population. They form the dominant group in several border towns, which are now mostly Portuguese speaking. This fact is almost never noted on language maps of Paraguay, although I did find one somewhat dated example (posted below). This map, not surprisingly, comes from the extensive archives of Reddit’s “Map Porn” community.

The initial Brazilian immigrants in Paraguay were mostly landless peasants who cleared the land for agriculture. They were later followed by well-off farmers who developed mechanized, commercial agriculture, usually focusing on soybeans. As commercial farmers moved in, many of the earlier migrants were forced back to Brazil, where they often found themselves unwelcome. Settling mostly in the new agricultural areas of Matto Grosso do Sul, their plight gained the attention of Amnesty International, which claimed in a 1992 report that were the victims of “illegal detentions, allegations of excessive use of force by the police, intimidation and a possible extra judicial execution.” The irony inherent in the situation has been noted. As one author put it, “Brazilians living in Paraguay wound up being expelled by their own countrymen.”

Anti-Brazilian agitation in Paraguay over the past few decades has generally focused on landownership issues. It seems to have reached a peak between 2008 and 2012, when Paraguay was under a leftwing government, an unusual condition in that country. As noted in a 2012 article in Gazeta do Povo:

The epicenter of the most recent agrarian conflict in Paraguay is located 75 kilometers from Foz do Iguaçu, in the department of Alto Paraná. A group of 6,000 landless Paraguayans, called “carperos”, have been camped for almost a year in the municipality of Ñacunday, on the border between two rural properties owned by producers of Brazilian descent. They threaten to take by force an area of 167,000 hectares spread across the departments of Alto Paraná, Canindeyú and Itapúa on the border with Brazil and Argentina. Armed and willing to radicalize the movement, they claim that the lands occupied by Brazilians belong to the Paraguayan government and should serve the agrarian reform project undertaken by President Fernando Lugo.

Cultural and even racial issue are also at play. As reported in a 2001 New York Times article:

They complain that the only television available locally is Brazilian and that their children grow up rooting for Brazil’s national soccer team instead of their own and speaking Portuguese as their second language instead of the Indian language Guaraní [Note: Paraguay is almost completely bilingual in Spanish and Guaraní].

Radio broadcasts in Guaraní urging landless peasants to rise against the Brazilians continue to be heard here. About 80 percent of San Alberto’s 23,000 residents are of Brazilian descent, and by voting as a bloc they have succeeded in electing one of their number, Romildo Maia de Souza, as mayor. …

One source of friction, all sides agree, is racial. Many of the Brazilians are blue-eyed, fair-skinned descendants of the German, Italian and Polish immigrants who flocked to Brazil’s three southernmost states a century ago. Many of the native-born Paraguayans most resentful of the Brazilian presence are of [indigenous] Indian stock.

Finally, geopolitical implications further complicate the situation. A 2019 scholarly paper by Andrew Nickson warns that Paraguay might be a Brazilian “protectorate in the making,” which seem a bit exaggerated. A big up-coming issue in this regard is the renegotiation of the Itaipú Treaty, which covers the shared Itaipú dam, the third largest hydroelectric facility in the world.

Insurgency in Paraguay – and Genocidal Agitation Against Brazilians in the Country Read More »

Mapping Recent War Fatalities and the Persistence of Current Armed Conflicts

As noted in the previous GeoCurrent post, the civil war in Burma/Myanmar is one of the bloodiest conflicts in the world today. According to a comprehensive Wikipedia table, its death toll thus far in 2023 is 10,790, the fourth highest in the world. It follows only the Ukraine-Russia war (83,637-100,000+), the war in Sudan (11,501), and the multifaceted insurgency in the Maghreb/Sahel (10,868). Given the rapidly mounting number of fatalities in the current war between Israel and Hamas, however, the rankings for 2023 will probably have to be revised. In any event, in 2022 Burma had the third highest death count if one uses the upper range of estimates found in the table (20,206, as opposed to 109,600+ in Ethiopia and 100,000+ in Ukraine).

Burma’s civil war is also extraordinarily long-lasting, dating from 1948. The only on-going wars listed by the Wikipedia as having started earlier are the Kurdish insurgency in Iran (1918), the “Jamaican political conflict” (1943), and the insurgency in Kashmir (1947). The article also lists the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Baloch insurgency (in Pakistan and Iran) as having begun in the same year as Burma’s civil war, 1948. As of October 6, 2023 – when this post was initially written – none of these other armed conflicts had been nearly as deadly over the previous 10 months as that of Burma. On October 6, the Wikipedia table provided the following 2023 death tolls for these persistent conflicts: Kurdish insurgency in Iran, 147; Jamaican political conflict, 295; insurgency in Kashmir, 433; Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 287; and Baloch insurgency, 500. As of today, however, it gives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a fatality count of 1,827. All told, if one combines recent death tolls and conflict duration, Burma’s civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to be the most serious conflicts in the world today.

The Wikipedia article under consideration includes a serviceable map of the “number of combat-related deaths in current or past year” (posted below). It might seem odd to place Mexico in the highest category (more than 10,000 fatalities), but the source includes “drug wars,” an intriguing but questionable move. As the map shows, wars today are concentrated in northern and central Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia, northern South America, Mexico, and Ukraine & Russia. In contrast, East Asia, Central Asia, Europe, southern Africa, southern South America, northern North America, and Oceania (Australia and the Pacific) are nearly free of armed conflicts.

This map, however, as well as the table that was used to generate it, must be regarded as highly approximate. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to consistently and accurately tabulate deaths in armed conflicts. Although the Wikipedia article does an admirable job, it misses some deadly conflicts. It does not list Papua New Guinea, for example, as having experienced any combat-related fatalities over the past two years. In actuality, so-called tribal wars in New Guinea’s highlands are ubiquitous. According to a recent article in The Guardian, more than 150 people died in clashes in one province (Enga) in August 2023 alone.

To help visualize the severity and persistence of current armed conflicts, I made several maps based on the same data found in the Wikipedia article. The first map below is probably the most effective. Rather than shoehorning the data into discrete country-based categories, I placed size-graded stars indicating the 2022 fatality count on the actual location of each conflict, to the extent that that is possible. But it often isn’t, as in the case of the Islamist insurgency in the Maghreb/Sahel, which is listed as occurring in 15 separate countries. At any rate, this map seems more effective at revealing the “clustering” of current conflict than the Wikipedia’s map (posted above). If drug wars are excluded, deadly conflicts in 2022 were concentrated in the “Greater Horn of Africa” (including Yemen), Burma and adjacent parts of South Asia, the northern Middle East proper, central Africa, Nigeria and environs, Afghanistan & Pakistan, and Ukraine.

The map of the duration of current armed conflicts, based on the data in the same Wikipedia table, depicts southern Asia as the area with the most persistent conflicts, followed by Central Africa. The final map shows total fatalities by country in 2021. Whether these maps do a better job of conveying the spatial patterns found in the Wikipedia table than the Wikipedia’s own map is for the reader to decide.

Mapping Recent War Fatalities and the Persistence of Current Armed Conflicts Read More »

Successful Resistance Against the Regime of Burma (Myanmar) by the Karenni People

The civil war raging in Burma (Myanmar) is one of the world’s longest running conflicts, stretching back to 1948, the year of Burma’s independence from Britain. But as hostilities ebb and flow in both time and place, the current war is dated by some as only having begun in 2021, the year of the country’s most recent military coup and crackdown on civil society. But no matter how one measures it, this struggle is bloody and grim. According to the Wikipedia article on “ongoing armed conflicts,” the Burmese Civil War currently has the third highest death toll of 2023, following only the war in Ukraine and the insurgency in western Africa that stretches across more than a dozen countries. Almost 11,000 people have lost their lives this year alone, with a casualty count of perhaps more than 20,000* in 2022. But despite the ongoing and persistent carnage, this conflict rarely makes the news in the United States.

To follow the Burmese civil war, one can consult Burmese sources, available online in both Burmese and English. I especially recommend The Irrawaddy, produced by Burmese journalists in exile in Thailand. One of its most interesting recent articles highlights the importance of the country’s smallest state, Kayah (formerly Karenni), in successfully taking on the Tatmadaw, the brutal Burmese military. The article claims that resistance fighters in Kayah have killed 2,065 junta soldiers while losing only 153 of their own in the past two years. Leading the charge is the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), which was formed shortly after the February 2021 coup. Some of its fighters had previously been affiliated with the Burmese military as border guards but switched sides after the military take-over. As The Irrawaddy notes, the “KNDF supports federalism, or power-sharing between the Union and state governments with self-determination and self-administration for ethnic states.” According to one recent report, the Burmese government currently controls only some ten percent of Kayah state (including its capital, Loikaw), with the rest of it either contested (20 percent) or under the control of insurgents (65 percent). If this report and others like it are true, the Wikipedia map posted below is highly inaccurate, or at least out of date, as it significantly exaggerates the extent of governmental control.

Despite the success of their military resistance, the people of Kayah (Karenni) State have experienced intense suffering over the past two and a half years. (For those interested, the assaults on their state are regularly tabulated and mapped in detail by the Karenni Civil Society Network; see the map below). According to one recent report from a different agency:

At least 180,000 Karenni people have been forcibly displaced, which is more than 40 percent of the estimated total Karenni population. …. Some families have been displaced multiple times, as IDP sites come under attack by junta forces. Based on legal analysis of the data collected, the report finds that members of the Burmese military have committed the war crimes of attacking civilians, attacking protected objects, pillaging, murder, torture, cruel treatment, and displacing civilians in Karenni State.

As is often tragically the case in Burma, extremist Buddhist monks have been encouraging military assaults and worse. According to a recent United States Institute of Peace report:

Under the hot sun, a Pa-O monk spoke to the rally and characterized the Karenni people as a lower race, describing the KNDF and the Peoples’ Defense Forces broadly as worse than the Islamic State. Another Pa-O monk called for the burning of Karenni villages if the KNDF did not stop the alleged violence, declaring: “They say it is not a religious war. But our three monks have died.” … These alarming speeches carried themes of ethnic hierarchy, Buddhist nationalism and zealous hatred.

Surprisingly, the “ethnic hierarchy” and “Buddhist nationalism” evident in this monk’s speech do not come in their usual form, which is associated with the majority Burman (Burmese-speaking) population and directed against Muslims and members of the so-called hill tribes. In this case, both the Karenni and their Po-O antagonists are historically regarded as “tribal peoples,” both belonging to the larger Karen ethno-linguistic group, at least as it is sometimes reckoned. But the Pa-O people are almost entirely Buddhist and have aligned closely with the Burmese military, which has pursued a “divide and rule” strategy among the country’s minority populations. The strategy had been largely successful before 2021 but is currently failing. The Karenni, in contrast, are religiously divided, with some following Buddhism, others Christianity (of several sects), and others traditional animism/shamanism. They are also, needless to say, firm opponent of the Burmese military.

The success of little Kayah State in resisting the Burmese military probably has roots in colonial history. Kayah was never integrated in British Burma and largely escaped British rule. In the 1870s, the Kingdom of Burma, having been reduced to a rump state after losing two wars against the British, was trying to expand into upland regions. Threatened by this policy, the tiny principalities of the Karenni people sought help from Britain, leading to an 1875 treaty between the United Kingdom and Burma that recognized their independence. In 1892, however, Karenni leaders agreed to accept a stipend from the British government in return for allowing it some local oversight. But domestic policies remained under the control of local leaders. As a result, the Karenni lands were usually mapped as not falling under direct British rule, the only part of Burma generally given that distinction (see the map below). A fascinating 1931 map, however, classified Karenni State as one of four regions in Burma that were “loosely” administered by the British Raj, with two others depicted as “unadministered” (see below). (Intriguingly, Karenni state was reportedly the world’s largest producer of tungsten in the 1930s; geologists affiliated with the Oxford Burma Project currently hope that political stabilization will eventually allow the reestablishment of extensive commercial mining there and elsewhere in mineral-rich Burma.)

As Burma was preparing for independence after World-War II, it sought to incorporate the Karenni states into its coming union. Its 1947 constitution insisted on the amalgamation of these small indigenous realms into one Burmese state, but also allowed the possibility of secession after a ten-year period. But with independence the following year, as tersely noted by the Wikipedia article on the state, “the Karenni leader U Bee Htu Re was assassinated by central government militia for his opposition to the inclusion of the Karenni in the Union of Burma. An armed uprising swept the state that has continued to the present day.”

Despite its formidable power, the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) does not seem to be doing well in the current conflict. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations claims that it has lost half or more of its troops since the 2021 coup, due to death, desertion, or defection, and that it has retreated on several fronts. The Tatmadaw is also evidently having difficulty filling the classes at its military academy. According to one report, the government now has stable control over only around twenty percent of the country’s townships. Due to recent military reversals, the Tatmadaw is now engaging in extensive air attacks, often directed against civilian targets. Such a strategy is of little military significance and greatly intensifies animosity against the regime.

The Council on Foreign Relations report mentioned above also contends that the Burmese government is facing growing international problems:

Even China, which has backed the junta and sees Myanmar as a strategically critical investment destination, is playing both sides of the fence. Beijing has continued to plow money into the country and supplied the military with weapons, despite its pariah status, and it has provided the junta with diplomatic cover at international forums. Yet it has also maintained links with the ethnic militias and their political wings, and its backing of Naypyidaw has grown more tepid as the army continues to lose ground. As for Russia, though it too has supplied the junta with arms, Moscow is facing its own obvious problems right now and may not be able to ship weapons abroad for long.

Due to these reversals, Burma’s military government may be reconsidering its strategy. Or perhaps not. Another article from the United States Institute of Peace nicely summarizes the current situation:

Are conciliatory winds stirring among the leaders of Myanmar’s coup regime, or is the junta engaging in deception and distraction as it struggles on the battlefield against a broad range of resistance forces? The answer is almost certainly the latter. It would not be the first time the ruling generals have sought to stimulate international interest in promoting dialogue solely to enhance their legitimacy abroad.

Successful Resistance Against the Regime of Burma (Myanmar) by the Karenni People Read More »

Religion, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia and Eritrea

Some journalists and scholars have tried to link conflicts in Ethiopia and Eritrea to religious divides that are either insignificant or nonexistent. The most egregious example was that of Samuel Huntington in this famous (infamous?) book, The Clash of Civilizations (1996). Huntington portrayed the war that was then being waged between Ethiopia and Eritrea as a religious/civilizational conflict, one pitting Christian Ethiopia against Muslim Eritrea. Maps based on Huntington’s work thus depict Eritrea as a Muslim country (see the figure below). Most actual assessments, however, find that Eritrea is roughly half Muslim and half Christians, although some sources claim that the country is roughly two-thirds Christian, with almost 58 percent of its people adhering to the Oriental Orthodox Tewahedo Church. But nothing is clear about Eritrean demography; figures for the country’s total population range from 3.6 to 6.7 million.

 

The current Tigray War in northern Ethiopia is based largely on ethnic politics but has little to do with religion. The Tigrayans are overwhelmingly Ethiopian Orthodox, but the Amhara, often regarded as their main opponents, mostly follow the same religion. To be sure, a sizable Muslim Amhara minority does exist, but this religious division does not play a role in the current conflict. Ethiopia’s Amharic-speaking Muslim population is concentrated in the South Wollo Zone, where almost three quarters of the population follows Islam. This Muslim Amhara area is easily seen on a fantastic map of religion in Ethiopia made by an anonymous cartographer and posted on the MapPorn section of Reddit. In the figure posted below, I have lightly edited this map to highlight the Tigray and Amhara regions.

The Oromo, forming Ethiopia’s largest ethnolinguistic group, have played a major role in the country’s recent political dramas. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is Oromo, but the militant Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) has sided with the Tigrayan rebels against the government. Abiy seeks pan-Ethiopian civic nationalism, whereas the OLF champions Oromo self-determination and contains ethno-nationalist elements that would prefer independence. Despite such political divides, Oromo ethnic identity remains strong. Yet the Oromo are deeply split by faith. In the Oromo Region (Oromia), which is roughly 88 Oromo-speaking, 48 percent of the population follows Islam, 30 percent Ethiopian Orthodoxy, and 18 Protestant Christianity, mostly Pentecostalism (Abiy Ahmed is a devout Pentecostal). As the MapPorn religion map shows, different parts of Oromia have distinct religious complexions, with some zones heavily Muslim, others heavily Orthodox, others heavily Pentecostal, and others mixed. In the far south of the region, however, most people evidently follow Waaqeffanna, the indigenous Oromo faith. It is not coincidental that this area is commonly regarded as the original homeland of the Oromo people. As the Oromo moved north into the Ethiopian highland in the early modern period, they assimilated local populations into their ethnolinguistic group, but were themselves often religiously assimilated into the Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox communities of the people that they were assimilating. (Pentecostalism came later.)

The Wikipedia article on Oromia claims that three percent of its people follow Waaqeffanna, the indigenous religion. Standard sources hold that only around a half a percent of Ethiopia’s total population adheres to “traditional” faiths of all varieties. I suspect that the actual figure is much higher. As the MapPorn map indicates, many of the peoples in the southern part of the highly diverse SNNPR Region (Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples) follow traditional religions. Pentecostalism Christianity, however, has been spreading rapidly here in recent years. Indigenous faiths might disappear, but revivals are always possible.

Religion, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia and Eritrea Read More »

The Ethnic Roots of the War in Ethiopia and the Paradox of Tigrayan Ethnic Identity

The horrific and under-reported Tigray War in Ethiopia hinges largely on tensions between ethnolinguistic identity and national solidarity. Under both the Ethiopian monarchy during the Haile Selassie era (1930-1974) and the communist Derg regime (1974-1991), the government foregrounded the minority (30%) Amhara ethnic group and its Amharic language, pushing a harsh “Amharaization” program in many areas. Partly as a result, ethnic militias proliferated and eventually prevailed, toppling the brutal Derg government in 1991. Leading the fight was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which represented the minority Tigrayan people, constituting only around six percent of Ethiopia’s population. The TPLF had allied with other insurgent groups in an umbrella group called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF). After coming to power in 1991, this formerly Marxist-Leninist organization revised its political stance, dropping communism in favor of center-left ethnic federalism. Ethiopia’s old provinces were soon wiped off the map as the country was re-divided into semi-autonomous regions defined primarily on ethnolinguistic grounds.

Ethiopia’s new government performed well. By the early 2000s the country was booming, posting the world’s third highest gains in per capita GDP between 2000 and 2018. But ethnic problems continued to plague Ethiopia. Smaller ethnolinguistic groups, concentrated in the southwest, were unsettled by being amalgamated with other groups in composite regions. This was a particular problem in the linguistically fractured region called Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples. Owing to such ethnic pressure, the Ethiopian government eventually created several new autonomous regions. Elsewhere, ethnic groups clashed over regional boundaries, and anger was provoked when the government tried to shift internal borders. Critics argued that Ethiopia was undermining itself by insistently politicizing ethnicity.

After coming to power 2018, prime minister Abiy Ahmed sought to reorient Ethiopia away from ethnic federalism and toward civic nationalism. In 2019 he disbanded the ruling multi-ethnic coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF), replacing it with the non-ethnic Prosperity Party, which currently holds 454 out of 547 parliamentary seats. The Tigrayans were not pleased by this maneuver. They were already angered by their loss of prominent positions within the government and they now feared that they would eventually lose their regional political autonomy. As a result, they rebelled against the government in 2020, precipitating the current war.

The Tigrayan rebellion thus shows the continuing power of ethnic identity in multiethnic Ethiopia, as well as the relatively weakness of national bonds in many parts of the country. But the current conflict also ironically shows the limits of ethnolinguistic identity and the potential power of national bonding to unravel ethnic ties. The Tigrinya linguistic community that has historically underpinned Tigrayan ethnicity has long been spilt on geopolitical grounds, divided between Ethiopia and Eritrea ever since Italy successfully colonized the latter region in the late 1800s. Although Tigrinya speakers form a relatively small portion of Ethiopia’s population, they constitute roughly half of that of Eritrea, arguably forming the country’s dominant ethnic group. Most Tigrinya speakers in both countries also follow the same “Oriental” Orthodox Christian religion, although it was split into Ethiopian and Eritrean branches in 1991. Despite such cross-border ethnic ties, in the current conflict Eritrea is closely allied with the Ethiopian government against Ethiopia’s Tigrinya-speaking population. Eritrea has militarily occupied a small slice of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region and has reportedly attacked local people with brutality. No evidence of any pan-Tigrinya-speaking ethnic solidarity is readily available. In this case, it would seem that national identity has easily trumped language-based ethnic identity.

It is perilous to make such a claim, however, precisely because little information is available. Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive and militarily dominated countries, sometimes put in the same category as North Korea. Its government has worked hard to generate a solid sense of Eritrean national identity and has perhaps succeeded. Its quest to do so was facilitated by its long war of independence against Ethiopia (1961-1991), followed by periodic border conflicts with the same country. But it must also be noted that many Eritreans chafe under their brutal government, prompting vast numbers to flee. As of 2016, an estimated 321,000 Eritrean refugees were living in Europe, with another half million in Ethiopia and Sudan, out of a total national population of roughly six million. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to come to any solid conclusions about ethnic and national identity in Eritrea.

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Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 2)

[Part 1 can be read here. Thanks to Iryna Novosyolova for a helpful discussion of some of the issues discussed in this post.]

 

In 2014, the Russian Federation acquired another Muslim group that may prove troublesome both within Russia and globally: the Crimean Tatars. According to the 2002 Russian census, there were only 4,131 Crimean Tatars living in the country, concentrated in Krasnodar Krai in southern Russia; the March 2014 annexation of Crimea, however, brought with it some 245,000 Crimean Tatars. The referendum, which allegedly showed an overwhelming desire of the people of Crimea to join Russia, was boycotted by Crimean Tatars (various Ukrainian and international media sources reported at the time that 95-99% of Crimean Tatars did not take part in the referendum; see here, here, and here; while Russian media stated that the proposed boycott did not take place). Also, reports surfaced in the social media and Ukrainian news outlets that Russian (para)military personnel were confiscating and tearing up passports of potential voters of Crimean Tatar background (see here, here, here, and here).

Crimean Tatar MapCrimean Tatars have good reasons for viewing the Russian annexation of their homeland with suspicion and worse: since the Crimean Peninsula was first made part of the Russian Empire in 1783, Crimean Tatars have been subjected to massacres, exiles, discrimination, and deportations. By 1897, they constituted only 34% of the peninsula’s population. After the Bolshevik Revolution, persecutions of Crimean Tatars continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, marked by widespread imprisonment and execution. The confiscation of food to supply central Russia resulted in widespread starvation. According to some sources, half of the Crimean Tatar population was killed or deported between 1917 and 1933. Persecution reached its culmination on May 18, 1944, when the Soviet government deported the entire remaining Crimean Tatar population to Central Asia as a form of collective punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis during their occupation of Crimea in 1941-1944 (the reality of this purported collaboration is discussed in my earlier post). The deportation process, as described by the victims in their memoirs, was horrific. More than 32,000 NKVD troops participated in this action. The deportees were given only 30 minutes to gather personal belongings, after which they were loaded onto cattle trains and moved out of Crimea. The expulsion was poorly planned and executed; the lack of accommodation and food, the harsh climatic conditions of the destination areas, and the rapid spread of diseases generated a high mortality rate during the first years of exile. It is estimated than nearly half of the deportees died of diseases and malnutrition, causing Crimean activists to call it an instance of genocide. Even after Crimean Tatars were officially “rehabilitated” in 1967, they were not allowed to return to their homeland until after the fall of the USSR because, as some scholars explain, Crimea was seen by Soviet leaders as too geopolitically and economically crucial. Although many Crimean Tatars have returned to the peninsula since 1991, few managed to move into the areas of their historical settlement. Prior to the deportations, the majority of Crimean Tatars—members of the Tat and Yalıboyu subgroups—lived in the mountainous central and southern parts of Crimea and on the southern coast. These areas, and particularly the coastal region, are climatically favorable, protected by the east-west running mountains from frigid northern winds. But upon their return, most Crimean Tatars had to settle in the less desirable central and eastern parts of the peninsula.

The resentment is further fueled by a new wave of repressions since the 2014 annexation. Many Crimean Tatar activists have been prosecuted by Russian authorities: some face criminal charges in Russia and hence cannot go back to Crimea, others have been subjected to unjustified searches and seizures of their property. As noted in Lily Hide’s article in Foreign Policy,

“The new regime has banned leading Crimean Tatars from the peninsula, and instigated politically motivated court cases against others. It promised to make Crimean Tatar one of three state languages, then reduced hours of Crimean Tatar instruction in schools, closed down ATR, the Crimean Tatar television network owned by Islyamov, and has regularly raided Tatar households and religious institutions in search of ‘extremist’ material. Until a January 2016 visit by a Council of Europe envoy, the new authorities refused to grant access to Crimea to international monitoring organizations and the U.N., though human rights violations have been extensively documented.”

The initial reaction from Crimean Tatars has been “to resist through peaceful means”, says Hide. For example, a long-term media campaign led by Serhii Kostynskyi of Ukraine’s National TV and Radio Committee aimed to “expose human rights abuses and win back Crimea with ‘soft power’”. However, such attempts to draw the attention of international and domestic media to Crimea have been a limited success. The continuing fighting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine has deflected the attention of both politicians and the media, locally and internationally. Moreover, the majority of Crimea’s Russian-speaking population are happy to be part of Russia, even if it brought the peninsula little economic or social development. Thus, Crimean Tatars, who constitute a minority in their historical homeland, have little support within Crimea and have to look for an alliance elsewhere. As noted in Hide’s article, “Crimean Tatar activists and Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary groups” have joined forces in “leading a low-level insurgency against the Russian annexation”. In the fall of 2015, the two groups together imposed a unilateral “trade blockade of the peninsula, stopping traffic, demanding to see travelers’ documents and confiscating goods”; in November 2015, “unknown saboteurs cut four nearby power lines providing electricity to Crimea, leaving the entire peninsula in the dark”. Many Crimean Tatar activists realize that joining forces with the paramilitaries and adopting their tactics “meant giving up the moral high ground”. But Hide cites Evelina Arifova, one of Crimean Tatar activists pushing for a trade and electricity embargo on the peninsula, as saying: “Without their radicalism, we wouldn’t have achieved anything”.

This conclusion in favor of radicalism can be based not only on Kostynskyi’s less-than-successful media campaign in Ukraine on behalf of Crimean Tatars, but also on the contrasting experiences of Muslim groups in the North Caucasus, particularly the Chechens and the Circassians. When I mention the two groups in my classes, I typically get many nods of recognition for the first group and mostly blank stares for the second. As mentioned above, the Circassians, like the Chechens, were subjected to a prolonged war with the Russian Empire and ultimately the majority of them were expelled from their ancestral homeland. The exiled Circassians—those who survived the brutal expulsion—found new homes throughout the Ottoman Empire, especially in present-day Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. Yet unlike the Chechens, today’s Circassian activists chose to follow a peaceful, non-violent path for maintaining their ethnic identity and culture, seeking recognition of the genocide committed against them, and campaigning for Russia to allow some of them to return to their homeland in the Northwest Caucasus (the latter issue is particularly relevant for the Circassians in war-torn Syria). The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where the Circassians’ ancestors were boarding the Ottoman ships, offered them an excellent opportunity to draw international media’s attention to their cause. And yet, most mainstream media organizations downplayed or ignored the Circassian issue, as discussed in detail in Martin Lewis’ earlier GeoCurrents post. The Chechens, in contrast, have gained much more media attention. “They got their PR campaign together”, a student in one of my adult education classes once joked. “By blowing stuff up”, I replied. Here, I agree with Martin Lewis that the media is to some extent complicit in driving nationalist movements to become more radicalized and more violent. As Lewis puts it, “if news source chose to highlight violent responses while ignoring non-violent ones, a perverse message is seemingly sent: ‘If you want our attention, kill someone!’”. While Crimean Tatars have not yet been involved in violence against persons, they are evidently prepared to blow up power lines and destroy goods. It is, however, a step in the radical direction.

Several other factors suggest that we might see a rise in violence perpetrated by Crimean Tatars and an internationalization of their more militant activists. Unlike the Chechens and the Volga Tatars, the Crimean Tatars do not constitute the majority or even a plurality in their region. It is therefore hardly likely that they will be able to gain much cultural or economic autonomy, regardless of whether Crimea remains under Russian control or is transferred back to Ukraine—and independence is entirely out of the question. In fact, the vector of Russian policy with respect to Crimean Tatars is clear from the recent persecutions of the Crimean Tatar activists, including the exile of their leader, 72-year old Mustafa Jemilev, a veteran of the dissident movement. Jemilev is now banned from Crimea by Russian authorities, while his wife remains in Crimea and his son is in prison in Russia. While for now Crimean Tatars align themselves with Ukrainian paramilitaries, it would not be surprising if the more militant wing of their movement begins to look for alliances in the larger Muslim world.

krimea3The comparison between Tatarstan and Chechnya above also suggests that stunted economic and social development facilitates radicalization of Muslim groups. While the authors of a recent article in Foreign Affairs William McCants and Christopher Meserole focus on “political culture”, they too admit that economic factors play a role, particularly the high degree of unemployment. As many other authors have suggested, high unemployment among young males creates a demographic base for jihadi recruiters to draw upon. By all accounts, Crimea was economically underdeveloped already on the eve of the Russian annexation in March 2014, even according to Russian sources such as Russia Today, a media outlet that peddles pro-Putin state-sanctioned propaganda in English. According to their article “Crimea’s economy in numbers and pictures”, published on March 15, 2014, Crimea’s budget deficit at the time constituted $1 billion, while the republic’s annual GDP was only $4.3 billion (see image on the left, reproduced from the Russia Today article). By 2018, Crimea expected Russian investment of about $5 billion. Yet Crimea also had a lot to lose by severing its ties with Ukraine: on the eve of the annexation, 90% of water, 80% of electricity, 60% of primary goods, and 70% of tourism came from Ukraine. The Russia Today article hypothesized that “if Crimea becomes a part of Russia it’ll become a more attractive holiday destination for Russia’s population of 142 million, whose per capita income is more than three times that of Ukrainians”. However, in reality, the hostilities turned off tourists and the logistical difficulties in getting to and from the peninsula with a ferry caused a further drop in Russian tourism. As reported by Segodnya.ua, “almost 60% of tourists from Russia do not consider the resorts of the annexed Crimea … to be a decent replacement for Turkey and Egypt”. Thus, although Sergey Aksyonov, Crimea’s prime minister and an advocate of joining Russia, had hoped that breaking away from Ukraine would transform the economy for the better and would turn the peninsula into another Singapore, this has not happened. The economic sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and several other countries directly against Crimea and Crimean individuals have further inhibited tourism and infrastructure development.

eng_ukraine_mapThe political and economic problems, as well as direct persecutions, have caused many Crimean Tatars to leave the peninsula; according to BBC.com, 10,000 Crimean Tatars have been forced out of Crimea and moved to Kherson, Lviv, Zaporizhye, and Kiyiv districts of Ukraine (see map on the left from travel-tour.com.ua). This mass displacement parallels what had happened in Chechnya in the wake of the two Chechen wars. Thus, the destruction of family and community ties as a result of this relocation may bring Crimean Tatars to the point where religious identity would matter more than ethno-linguistic identity. As is, only a small minority of Crimean Tatars speak their indigenous language, which is considered to be endangered: although it is taught in several schools, it is mostly spoken by older people, according to the Ethnologue. Islam, on the other hand, has always been an important part of Crimean Tatar identity. Historically, Crimean Tatars were described as “diligent Muslims”, but while some important Muslim traditions—charity, fasts (including that of Ramadan), and pilgrimage to Mecca—were strictly observed, others were downplayed or ignored. For example, the German geographer Gustav Radde, who visited Crimea in the mid-1850s and wrote an ethnographic treatise about Crimean Tatars, informed his readers that Crimean Tatars drank vodka and a low-alcohol homebrew, though not wine. Another Islamic proscription that was generally ignored by Crimean Tatars is the ban on gambling, playing cards and dice, which were considered acceptable and indulged in widely, Radde wrote. Yet the treatment of women and the family law in traditional Crimean Tatar society, as described by Radde, is reminiscent of what is practiced in the most strictly Islamic countries. Thus, although Crimean Tatars today have certainly not seen the de facto implementation of Sharia law that has been experienced in Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov, including polygamy and enforced veiling, they could move in the more radical Islamist direction, especially as dislocation, persecutions by Russian authorities, and the continuing loss of their indigenous language make Islam the linchpin of their identity.

All in all, Chechnya has experienced significant radicalization and internationalization of its rebels, Tatarstan seems to be experiencing the same phenomena in a milder form, and the Crimean Tatars may be beginning to move in the same direction. Such developments may be driven as much by Russia’s repressive policies and the international media’s silence on non-violent protests as by internal causes such as economic and social underdevelopment. I think the conclusion of the authors of the Chatham House summary about the North Caucasus applies as well to Crimea:

“The causes of radicalization in the North Caucasus mean the situation is unlikely to change until Russia itself changes and Moscow is able to offer an alternative vision to the people in the region. If religious repression continues, so will the insurgency.”

“Russian political culture” may yet prove to be as deadly as the French one, albeit not by banning the veil but by allowing it—and by leaving little room for moderate Muslim identity based on history, culture, traditions, and language rather than jihad.

 

 

 

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 2) Read More »

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 1)

[Thanks to Iryna Novosyolova for a helpful discussion of some of the issues discussed in this post.]

 

A recent article in Foreign Affairs listed the use of the French language as the best predictor of a country’s rate of Sunni radicalization and violence, and particularly of the percentage of a country’s Muslim population that joins in the international Jihad. According to ICSR estimate, of all Western European countries France has supplied the largest number of foreign fighters to ISIS in absolute terms, whereas Belgium leads in per capita terms (40 per million population). The authors of the Foreign Affairs article, William McCants and Christopher Meserole, claim that Francophone status is a better predictor of foreign fighter radicalization than wealth, education or health levels, or even Internet access. The French language itself, the authors state, is obviously not to blame, but is rather a mere proxy for the “French political culture”. Policies such as the French ban on face covering (adopted in September 2010), which prohibits wearing niqābs, burqas, and other veils covering the face in public places, are said to create a fertile ground for drafting recruits into the militant Islamist movement.

religion in russiaBut France and Belgium may not be the only countries where the assimilatory or discriminatory policies adopted by the state encourage the radicalization of the Muslim population. In fact, Russia has been experiencing the same phenomena: a growth of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists at home and an increasing recruitment for Jihad outside Russia. As mentioned in an earlier GeoCurrents post by Evan Lewis, Russia has been one of the top recruiting grounds for ISIS. According to ICSR estimate, some 800-1,500 foreign ISIS fighters came from Russia. In absolute numbers, this estimate surpasses the corresponding numbers for United Kingdom (500-600), Germany (500-600), Belgium (440), and possibly even France (1,200). Another recent source cites Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs official Vladimir Makarov as saying that 3,417 Russians have been recruited by ISIS to fight in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, a major increase from the 1,800 Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in September 2015. According to Makarov, some 200 of these Russian ISIS fighters are new converts to Islam who “do not come from the regions where this religion is traditional”. Cases such as that of Varvara Kraulova, a student who attempted to cross into Syria to join ISIS in the summer of 2015, are widely publicized in the media (see, for example, here and here), but they constitute a minor fraction of Russian citizen who have pledged themselves to the so-called Islamic State. As noted in the report on foreign fighters compiled by the New York-based Soufan Group in December 2015, the overwhelming majority of the Russian ISIS fighters come from traditionally Muslim areas of Russia, especially from the Northeast Caucasus (Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan). Other areas with large and historically rooted Muslim populations, such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Middle Volga region, have also provided substantial contingents of ISIS fighters, as did the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. According to Voice of America, Russian-speaking jihadists from the former Soviet republics have formed their own community within ISIS, located in Al-Raqqah (the de facto capital of ISIS), with schools and even prayers in Russian.

Russian authorities primarily adopt a punitive approach to the problem, conducting criminal prosecution of ISIS fighters upon their return to Russia. According to Russia’s Chief Prosecutor Yury Chayka, 650 criminal cases were open against Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in November 2015; by March 2016, this number was up to over 1,000. Attempts are also made to drive recruitment down by publicly humiliating those who join in the form of “shame boards” that feature “photos of those traitors [who] dishonor” their names, their families, and their clans by joining ISIS. The anti-terrorism forces also work with the religious authorities in the North Caucasus to certify imams based on their attitudes towards terrorism, reports the Kavkaz-uzel.ru (“Caucasian knot”) website. Yet such anti-terrorism measures seem to be less than consistent, according to the September 2015 Roundtable Summary by Chatham House, as “the Russian security services mostly appear to be looking the other way when North Caucasian fighters travel to Syria, possibly because these potential troublemakers are at much greater risk in the Middle East than at home”.

Moreover, wittingly or unwittingly, Russian state policies also exacerbate the problem by creating a fertile ground for radicalization and jihad recruitment, especially among the youth, as reported by Kavkaz-uzel.ru. The Soufa Group report cited above also points out,

“the North Caucasus has a long history of Islamist extremism, and the increased flow of  fighters from this region is in many ways unsurprising. Local grievances have long been drivers of radicalization in the Caucasus, and as the strong centralized security apparatus of the  Russian government limits the scope for operations at home, the Islamic State has offered an attractive alternative”.

Russia has had a long history of exclusionary and discriminatory policies towards—and even wholesale deportations of—its Muslim populations. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Islam in Russia,

“the period from the Russian conquest of Kazan in 1552 to the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762 featured systematic Russian repression of Muslims [in the Middle Volga region] through policies of exclusion and discrimination – as well as the destruction of Muslim culture by the elimination of outward manifestations of Islam such as mosques.”

Map of Circassian RepublicsWith the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762, the focus of these policies shifted to the North Caucasus. Here  war was waged by the Russian state against the indigenous Muslim groups for a hundred years, until Chechnya was finally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1859, and most of the Circassians in the Northwest Caucasus were exiled to the Ottoman Empire in 1864. During the Soviet period, Islam, like other religions, was suppressed. During World War II, several Muslim ethnic groups, including Chechens, Ingush, and Crimean Tatars were deported by Stalin’s security forces from their homelands to Siberia and Central Asia. According to Stanford historian Norman M. Naimark, up to 40% of the Chechen nation perished in the process; comparable numbers in other deported ethnic groups died as well. In 1956, during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program, members of the deported ethnic groups who had not perished during their harsh exile were “rehabilitated” and some of the groups (for example, Chechens but not Crimean Tatars) were permitted to return to their homeland. Nonetheless, the survivors of the exile lost economic resources and civil rights, and continued to suffer from discrimination, both official and unofficial.

At the time of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, several Muslim-majority republics within Russia, such as Tatarstan and Chechnya, asked for independence, yet the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation declared such attempts to gain sovereignty to be illegal. (Crimea, which had been part of the Ukrainian Union Republic within USSR, remained part of newly independent Ukraine.) In February 1994, Russia offered an autonomy agreement to Tatarstan and Chechnya, promising a broad range of rights and policy-making abilities, but stopping short of full independence. Tatarstan accepted the agreement but Chechnya did not, and the paths of their subsequent histories took different directions, as discussed in detail in my earlier posts on Tatarstan and Chechnya.

As HNN’s David R. Stone summarizes,

“the end of Moscow’s authority meant that the Chechen people, well-equipped with historical grievances to drive their discontent, found themselves in the Russian Federation due to the accidents of history and map, but badly wanted out.”

Over the course of the First (1994-1996) and Second (1999-2000) Chechen Wars, Chechnya was increasingly driven in the radical separatist direction. But the wars also resulted in the installation of a new puppet Chechen administration under the cleric Akhmad Kadyrov, who broke with the anti-Russian resistance movement, in part over its increasing religious radicalism, and began working with Russian authorities. His son, Ramzan Kadyrov, who took over after his father’s assassination in February 2007, continued the policy of apparent cooperation with Moscow, which pleased neither the Chechen separatists nor the Russian loyalists. But he has never been a “Kremlin puppet”, as some pundits have depicted him. Some observers, such as Viktor Shenderovich, even suggest that the younger Kadyrov may be to some extent the puppet-master, pulling the strings in Kremlin. His recent speech on February 23, 2016 (the 72nd anniversary of the Chechen deportation), in which Kadyrov laid a curse on Joseph Stalin and the chief of the Soviet security apparatus Lavrentiy Berya, certainly indicates that Kadyrov has his own agenda and does not always dance to Putin’s tune. Some pundits claim that the speech aimed to further fuel the popular campaign for Kadyrov to remain in power after his term ends later this year.

Still, Kadyrov has largely remained, in the words of journalist Yulia Latynina, “an all-powerful barbarian warlord at the court of a once-powerful but now rotten empire”, and a peculiar symbiosis of Russian and Chechen leadership has emerged in the wake of the two Chechen wars. The current Chechen government accepts that full independence from Russia may never happen, while Putin’s administration continues to use Chechen insurgents as the much-needed enemy figure. Since this situation does not please Chechen separatists, they continue their struggle by resorting to violence, both at home and in other Russian regions, even in Moscow itself. Chechen terrorists perpetrated several horrific terrorist attacks, most notably the October 2002 seizure of the Nord-Ost musical theater in Moscow, where over 800 spectators—many of them children—were taken hostage, and the seizure of an elementary school in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia on September 1, 2004. These terrorist attacks—and the botched rescue attempts by the Russian security forces—claimed the lives of some 130 hostages in the Nord-Ost theater, and 385 children and teachers in Beslan. These horrific terrorist attacks ended whatever hope might have still existed of winning broad international support for the cause of Chechen independence.

The death of the old-style Chechen nationalism during the rule of the Kadyrovs, father and son, the economic devastation of the republic that forced many residents to flee into neighboring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan, and the rise of criminal gangs engaging in lucrative trade in people, weapons, oil, and drugs have all helped push Chechnya in a more radical direction. Historically, Islam in the North Caucasus was Sufi-oriented, tolerant in its practice, and not especially strict, but the pressure of war resulted in a surge of fundamentalism, as noted in a recent report on the North Caucasus by Konstantin Kazenin and Irina Starodubrovskaya, who claim that the Chechen wars not only gave some younger people in the region military training and battlefield experience, but also contributed to the inclusion of the North Caucasus in the global jihadist networks. Moreover, David R. Stone points out that “the traditional family and clan links that tied Chechen society together frayed and broke as a result of death and displacement”. Chechens who fled into other areas of the Caucasus found themselves in environments where ethnic and clan identity mattered less, and religious identity mattered more. As a result, many Chechen refugees were turned to radical Islam, “a vision that goes far beyond a concrete local struggle for specific, attainable goals to see instead a worldwide struggle between good and evil”. While refugees flowed out of Chechnya, foreign Islamist fighters flowed in to aid what they saw as a Muslim fight against the infidels, be they Russians, Americans, or even relatively secular Chechens. In the words of an Islamist militant leader Said Buryatsky, an ethnic Buryat and an ex-Buddhist convert to Islam,

“gone are the times when we fought for the freedom of Chechnya, for this pagan notion. Now we fight for Allah. Gone are the times when every Chechen was our brother. Now a Russian is our brother if he is a mujahideen, and a Chechen if he’s a kafir is our bitter enemy.”

Framed now mostly as an international radical Islamist movement, Chechen terrorism continues to hold its grip on Russia, perpetrating attacks such as the Domodedovo International Airport bombing in 2011, which killed 37 people, and supplying numerous foreign fighters for ISIS.

Tatarstan_locationTatarstan, which accepted the autonomy agreement with Russia in 1994, has been given many of the institutions of a full-fledged sovereign state, including a constitution, a legislature, a tax code, a national bank, and a citizenship system. At least in theory, it can conduct its own relations with foreign states and can set its own foreign economic policy and trade relations. But when push came to shove in the wake of Russia’s current confrontation with Turkey, which began in November 2015, central Russian government began to dictate to Tatarstan what it can do in relation to Turkey. For example, the Russian Ministry of Culture circulated a “recommendation” to all republics with Turkic titular populations, including Tatarstan, to break off relations with the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY). It remains to be seen how long Tatarstan can manage to maintain its current “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” position in relation to Russia and Turkey. Because of its ambivalent situation, Tatarstan has also experienced some radicalization of its Muslim population, similar to what has been happening in Chechnya, albeit in a milder form. According to various sources, including the FSB, a substantial number of ISIS recruits—perhaps as many as 200 or more—came from Tatarstan and the other Middle Volga republics. Ironically, ISIS recruitment for the war in Iraq and Syria resulted in a sharp decrease in terrorist attacks within Tatarstan since the early 2014.

Also as in Chechnya, the focus of the militant movement shifted from ethnic to religious identity. Historically, Volga Tatars have been fairly moderate Muslims, yet they have succeeded in retaining their ethno-linguistic identity despite almost half a millennium of Russian rule: according to the 2002 population census, 96.3% of Tatars still speak their ancestral language, compared to only less than half of the Khanty people, a quarter of the Mansi, and 12% of the Itelmen. But in recent decades this situation has been changing, as more extreme forms of Islam have been gradually gaining ground in Tatarstan. The internationalization of Tatarstan’s Muslim culture has been studied in detail by Rais Suleimanov, an expert on influences of foreign Muslim groups within Russia, particularly in the Middle Volga region; his multi-part article on how “Turkish emissaries for decades influenced the minds and hearts of our [Tatar] compatriots” can be read here and a shorter version of it is found here. According to Suleimanov, religious ties between Tatarstan and Turkey, which began on the basis of the ethno-linguistic and cultural connections between the two peoples, have allowed a more internationalist form of Islamist ideology to penetrate Tatarstan.

Several factors, however, mitigate Islamist radicalization in Tatarstan. Compared to Chechnya, Tatarstan has both more de jure and de facto rights (for instance, only Tatarstan retained the right to call its head a President; Kadyrov is known simply as “the head of Chechnya”, not its president). Also, in sharp contrast to the war-torn Chechnya, whose economic and social development has been stunted by the armed conflict, Tatarstan ranks relatively high in terms of economic and social development indicators. For example, Tatarstan’s GDP per capita is more than 4.5 times higher than that of Chechnya. According to Rosstat data, average per capita income in Tatarstan in 2013 was 26,161 rubles per month, whereas in Chechnya it was only 17,188 rubles per month; moreover, nearly half of Tatarstan’s residents’ personal income comes from salary and business profits, whereas in Chechnya only about a third of personal income comes from those sources, with a bigger chunk (38.1%) deriving from “other sources of income”, including currency operations and “hidden” money streams. In Tatarstan more than three quarters of the population live in towns and cities, whereas in Chechnya only about a third  do. Unemployment is nearly 7 times lower in Tatarstan than in Chechnya (4% vs. 26.9%). An average Tatarstan resident enjoys 6 extra square feet of living space compared to Chechnya. The availability of physicians and nurses per capita is 1.5 times greater in Tatarstan than in Chechnya, and the percentage of students in higher education institutions in Tatarstan is twice that in Chechnya. It may be for those reasons that Tatarstan has supplied 5 times less foreign fighters for ISIS in absolute terms, and 15 times less in per capita terms than Chechnya.

(To be continued…)

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 1) Read More »

ISIS Lectures Slides in PDF

ISIS nameAs several readers noted that they were unable to open the PowerPoint version of my ISIS lecture slides, I tried to post them in the original Keynote format.  Unfortunately, the file was too large to post.  As a result, I decided to export the file and post it instead as a PDF.  That version is available here at the link.

(You can now vote on your favorite topics here.)

 

Slides in PDF:

ISIS Lecture PDF

ISIS Lectures Slides in PDF Read More »

Lecture Slides on ISIS

ISIS LectureDear Readers,

For the next 10 weeks I will be teaching a lecture course on the history and geography of current events, which is offered in two versions, one for Stanford students and the other for the community at large through Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program. This class is very demanding on me, as I must come up with new 70-minute lectures each week on a wide variety of topics. As a result of such burdens, I will not have time to put up regular GeoCurrents posts during this period. I will, however, post my weekly lecture slides. At the link below, one can get my images from last night’s talk on ISIS/ISIL/DAESH. These slides were made in Keynote but were exported to the more commonly used PowerPoint format. The conversion process is not perfect, however, and as a result some details have been lost and some text has been slightly altered.

The slides themselves cannot of course convey the full scope of the lecture, but I do hope that they can be useful for some readers.

Class TopicsNext week’s lecture will be on the current crisis in Brazil. After that, topics have not yet been determined. I have posted a list of possible topics, however, and I am polling students on what they would like to learn about, whether on the list or not. GeoCurrents readers should feel free to offer their own suggestions as well. (You can now vote on your favorite topics here.)

 

Slides:

ISIS,March29,2016

 

 

 

Lecture Slides on ISIS Read More »

Mapping ISIS at the Institute For the Study of War

(Note: This post is by Evan Lewis, not Martin Lewis.)

ISIS has proven to be as difficult to conceptualize as it has been to counteract. It has defied easy classifications and has been misunderstood and underestimated repeatedly by most of its opponents, often with disastrous consequences. In the effort to understand ISIS, its tactics, strategies, goals, and weak points, no one is doing as thorough and as impressive of a job as The Institute for the Study of War, or ISW. The ISW staff has conducted a variety of research projects on conflicts ranging from Ukraine to Afghanistan, but their ISIS investigations are particularly impressive, both in their analysis and their array of detailed maps. We present here a set of ISW maps from the last few months depicting different elements of the global struggle against ISIS. To read the full ISW articles, please visit their website at www.understandingwar.org.

evan1The first ISW map reproduced here depicts nearly a year’s worth of ISIS-directed terrorism in Europe, including both foiled attempts and successful attacks. While the color schemes might be unintuitive, the map conveys an impressive amount of information. The color of each country depicts the number of known local residents who have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Note the high level of recruitment in France, Tunisia, and Russia (in the latter case, mostly from the Caucasus). The explosion icons fit into a four-fold matrix of attacks, indicating whether they were ISIS directed or merely ISIS inspired, and whether they were successful or not. As can be seen, attacks have been most heavily concentrated in northern France and southern Turkey. According to the information provided, Turkey has been notably unsuccessful in thwarting attacks. The map also depicts changes in national security status, countries that have been specifically mentioned by ISIS as targets, and every ISIS-linked arrest on record. The concentration of ISIS-related arrests in Turkey, England, Spain, southern France, and western Germany is noteworthy. All in all, this map impressively depicts Europe’s daunting security challenges. My main criticism is purely cartographic: most islands are not depicted as parts of the countries that they belong to.

evan2The next ISW map, showing ISIS’s global strategy, is a fine example of macro-scale cartography, arresting for its simplicity. Unlike many ISW maps, it does not delve into details within countries and instead uses a simple three-layer, global approach. It depicts ISIS ambitions at their full extent rather then a realistic assessment of their present influence. The group’s heartland is portrayed as the red “interior ring,” which extends over not just Syria and Iraq but also Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. While the actual area of ISIS control within this zone is much more confined than what is depicted, it does represent a historically coherent region. This greater Syrian area also has profound ideological ramifications; the very title of the ISIS magazine, Dabiq, refers to a town in Syria that the group links to the culmination of human history. As noted in the Wikipedia:

In Islamic eschatology, it is believed that Dabiq is one of two possible locations for an epic battle between invading Christians and the defending Muslims which will result in a Muslim victory and mark the beginning of the end of the world. The Islamic State believes Dabiq is where an epic and decisive battle will take place with Christian forces of the West, and have named their online magazine after the village.

The second zone on this map covers the “near abroad” of ISIS ideology, an area that will prove crucial to any serious attempt to defeat the organization. Each black star here represents an official ISIS wilayat, a term that conventionally denotes a province or governorate, but which in practice refers more to the ISIS strategy of “franchising” and hence incorporating local jihadists. This map, from September 2015, depicts eight such governorates stretching from Algeria to Afghanistan and from Nigeria to the Caucasus. Experts at ISW think that ISIS will probably announce several new wilayats in the near future, based in Tunisia, Somalia, and Bangladesh, which would represent a dangerous expansion of its worldwide jihad. The map’s final category is the “far abroad” ring, which includes any country against which ISIS holds a grudge. In this region, the group seeks mainly to spread chaos, which it has achieved with marked success in several areas.

evan3The next map from ISW provides an interesting contrast with the previous one by retaining a wide focus while simultaneously showing regional details. Many of the areas depicted as ISIS governorates are too small to be analyzed here, but what stands out is the dense web of ISIS activity in Iraq-Syria along with the wide distribution of small pockets of ISIS support throughout the region. Other characteristics of note include the band of ISIS control, depicted in red, in Libya, as well as pockets of support throughout the rest of northern Africa. Zones of “control” on this map indicate areas from which ISIS is able not only to launch attacks but also control territory and form rudimentary governments, regarded as true expansions of the caliphate. The only other control zone shown outside of the Levant and North Africa lies along the Afghan-Pakistan border, which is surrounded by a smattering of “support territories,” indicating that this is an area of potentially rapid ISIS expansion. This map also shows surprisingly large ISIS support territories in both northeastern Nigeria and the northeastern Caucasus, two zones far from the group’s heartland. Finally, the map shows with green stars areas in which ISIS might declare future governorates. Somalia is no surprise in this regard, as it has been a bastion of jihadism for years, but Tunisia and Bangladesh are both relatively well-governed states that, if destabilized by a sustained ISIS campaign, could have disastrous consequences for their respective regions.

evan4The next ISW map, depicting Afghanistan, is a fine example of the high resolution and detail that characterize the institute’s cartographic program. This map of Afghanistan is not specifically centered on ISIS, but it does depict the group’s presence as ominous black figures, visible in several scattered locations. The primary goal of this map is to show Taliban power and influence throughout the country, with ISW’s usual distinction of “control” and “support” zones. What jumps out from this map is the wide swath in which the Taliban has substantial support, although this is admittedly a vague term, as well as the fact that this zone almost encircles the entire country. The only large area in which no Taliban support is indicated is the highlands of central Afghanistan, dominated by the Shia Hazara people.

The map indicates that the main area of ISIS power in Afghanistan lies in Nangarhar Province along the border with Pakistan. Here ISIS fighters have been known to attack—and behead—Taliban militants. According to an October 15 article in The Diplomat:

In Nangarhar, even as Taliban and ISIS clashed, they continued fighting the government. The clashes between them and against the government have turned Nangarhar into a volatile province, with the Taliban dominating some parts, while others have an ISIS presence. Thousands of families have been displaced and violence has doubled. This indicates that although they are rivals, Taliban and ISIS could make gains in different regions, creating separate fiefdoms, while remaining enemies just like ISIS and Al-Nusra in Syria.

Overall, the Afghanistan map gives immediate clarity to the severity of the challenge facing the besieged Afghan government. It also highlights the difficulty of rooting out ISIS strongholds, which appear to be mostly ensconced in territories beyond the government’s control. The scale and intensity of the conflict can also be seen in the large number of district centers that have either changed hands or have been attacked recently, depicted as circles of various colors. All in all, this map illustrates a sobering but crucial theater of conflict that is often overshadowed by the struggles occurring in Syria and Iraq.

evan5The final ISW map, depicting Syria, is highly detailed and serves a particular purpose. It starts with a depiction of Kurdish, government, rebel and ISIS territory, as well as contested grounds, over the more populated areas of Syria. An overlay shows the location of every observed Russian air strike in Syria over a nine-day period. The cartographer divides the strikes between those that can be pin-pointed with high confidence and those that cannot, also dividing the strikes between two separate temporal windows, one from October 27th to November 3rd and the other from November 4th to 5th.

This map is helpful in forming a mental image of the geography of the Syrian conflict, but more importantly for showing the true target of Russian attacks in Syria. Both the Syrian government and most rebels groups are largely concentrated in the west, the area of greatest population density, while the Kurds control a thin band along the Turkish border, leaving a huge swaths of eastern Syria largely in ISIS hands. This entire area of ISIS sway saw only a tiny fraction of Russian air strikes, the majority of which were located in areas controlled by the al-Nusra Front and other smaller rebel groups. (Although this map only covers a brief nine day window, the patterns present here are highly typical of Russian airstrikes, for which ISW releases new maps regularly.) While many news sources have reported that Russia is preferentially targeting non-ISIS fighters, seeing this pattern clearly demarcated on a map sends a much more powerful message.

The subtlety and detail of these maps show a commitment to the kind of accurate understanding that a good map can provide. Rather then applying a “one size fits all” model to mapping ISIS, ISW cartographers tailor each map to convey specific information, and then update those maps on a nearly weekly basis. When mapping terrorist strikes in Europe, they retain a country-based framework while employing a wide variety of graphics to depict the varying threats each nation faces. In their two maps of global ISIS influence, they show both the broad range of countries under threat and the specific areas in conflict, as well as the sheer spread of ISIS influence. Their map of Afghanistan depicts areas of both Taliban and ISIS support and control is great detail, and in so doing provide as clear a picture as possible of the current situation. Lastly, ISW cartographers use a map of Syria to send a clear message about Russia’s present actions in the region and the difference between Russian propaganda and the facts on the ground. Overall, this excellent set of maps will enhance the understanding anyone who takes the time to study them.

Mapping ISIS at the Institute For the Study of War Read More »

Superb Maps from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Kurdish Issue

Iraq War November 2015 ISW MapI have been generally quite impressed with the mapping of the current war in Iraq and Syria. This is a complicated and rapidly changing conflict, and I find it highly convenient that major newspapers, magazines, websites, think tanks, and the indispensible Wikipedia provide comprehensive and often-updated cartographic coverage. The best maps that I have found come from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which describes itself as “a non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organization.” Although non-partisan, the institute does in general advocate forceful military actions by the United States. According to its mission statement, the ISW believes that:

[G]round realities must drive the formulation of strategy and policy. In pursuit of this principle, ISW conducts detailed, open-source intelligence analysis to provide the most accurate information on current conflicts and security threats. ISW researchers spend time in conflict zones conducting independent assessments and enhancing their understanding of realities on the ground. Through reports and timely events, our research educates military and civilian leaders, reporters, and the public to enhance the quality of policy debates.

(Although it is rather beside the point, the ISW is unusual in the field of security analysis in that is dominated by women. Three of its four leaders are women, and its founder and president is Kimberly Kagan, wife of Frederick Kagan, who in turn is the brother of Robert Kagan and the son of Donald Kagan, both of whom are well-known writers on security issues. Three of the six analysts at the ISW are female as well.)

As an example of the cartographic excellence of the ISW, I have reduced and reproduced here one its more recent maps of the situation in Iraq, by analyst Patrick Martin. Like many of the better maps depicting this conflict, it differentiates populated areas from sparsely inhabited zones while emphasizing the control over cities and transportation corridors. Its level of detail, however, is unsurpassed, especially when it comes to the Kurdish-controlled north. Although many maps of the current war in Iraq group the various Kurdish forces together, they are actually divided into several cooperating but still somewhat competitive contingents. Four Kurdish groups appear on this map. Two are based primarily in northern Iraq (the Kurdish Democratic Party [KDP]) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK]), one is based in northern Syria (the People’s Protection Units [YPG]), and one is associated primarily with southeastern Turkey (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK]). As can be seen on the map, several areas are under the combined control of two or more of these organizations. The situation is especially complicated in Sinjar, the main Yezidi area that was recently retaken from ISIS.

The ISW also produces detailed descriptions of its maps. The extended caption of the ISW map highlighted in this post (by Patrick Martin) is worth reproducing in full, as it captures many of the complexities and challenges encountered in the struggle between Kurdish and ISIS forces. As can be seen, ISW analysts are concerned about tensions existing among the various Kurdish contingents and among the region’s different ethnic and religious groups:

Kurdish forces recaptured the Yazidi-majority district of Sinjar, west of Mosul from ISIS on November 13 [2015]. Confrontations between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) will grow increasingly likely as both seek to control Sinjar, while Kurdish control over the mixed-demographic district is already leading to heightened tensions between Yazidis and Sunni Arabs. Kurdish forces included Peshmerga affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP); PKK-affiliated fighters from the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG); Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) forces; and local Yazidi militias. The city of Sinjar remains under mixed KDP Peshmerga and PKK control. Areas east of the Sinjar were recaptured primarily by the Peshmerga, with the exception of Tel Qasab, a village southeast of Sinjar, which was captured by a YPG-affiliated Yazidi militia. However, areas west of Sinjar reportedly involved few Peshmerga. These areas remain primarily under the control of the PKK, YPG, and PKK-affiliated local Yazidi militias. Villages north of Sinjar and Sinjar Mountain contain forces from all Kurdish fighting forces excluding Peshmerga affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and it is unclear as to what specific villages are controlled by which forces. Areas north of the mountain have been under mixed Peshmerga and PKK control since before the Sinjar operation, which ISW is retrospectively representing on this map. ISW has also retrospectively assessed that the KDP Peshmerga do not have control over the Kasak intersection area, northwest of Mosul, which is still held by ISIS. KDP Peshmerga control the town of Kasak itself, but not the surrounding roads. ISW has thus adjusted the depicted control of terrain in the Kasak area.

ISW maps of other conflicts, such as that of Afghanistan, are also superb, as will be noted in a forthcoming post.

 

Superb Maps from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Kurdish Issue Read More »

GeoCurrents Editorial: Recognition for Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland

(Note: GeoCurrents is a non-partisan blog devoted to providing geographical information, particularly in reference to current global events. On rare occasions, however, opinion pieces are posted on the site. This is one of those occasions. As I regard this issue as extremely important, this post will remain at the top of the GeoCurrents page for at least the next week.)

Now that Joe Biden is a possible candidate for the 2016 U.S. presidential election, attention is again falling on a 2006 editorial in which he and Leslie Gelb advocated dividing Iraq into three ethnically based regions. At the time of its publication, the Biden-Gelb essay was widely misinterpreted as a call for dismantling Iraq altogether and replacing it with independent Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, and Kurdish states. But Biden, Gelb and their defenders were quick to insist that their intention was actually that of saving Iraq by restructuring it as a federation, giving substantial autonomy but not outright independence to these three regions.

 

As this controversy made clear, any proposal for the actual dismemberment of Iraq was essentially unthinkable at the time for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. The existing geopolitical order had to be maintained, such thinking had it, in order to preserve stability. If the Kurds of Iraq were to acquire their own country, what would prevent countless other disgruntled ethnic groups from demanding the same? If the international community were to consent to Kurdish desires and recognize their independence, anarchy could spread across the region and eventually, perhaps, the entire world. As a result, the mere mention of partition was generally dismissed out if hand.

Kurdistan Independence InevitableMore recently, this inflexible consensus seems to be yielding, although in an understated manner, with little discussion of underlying principles. Major media sources are now wondering whether the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is not inevitable, regardless of the warnings of international-relations experts. Some writers have taken a step further, advocating the immediate recognition of Kurdish sovereignty in northern Iraq. Consider for example, Andrew Stuttaford’s offhand remark in a recent National Review essay on the ISIS threat: “The Kurds (independence and enhanced military support for them already, please) are the only benign, and reasonably effective, fighting forces in the region, but they are unlikely to want to stray too far from Kurdish territory.”

But despite such rumblings, most foreign-policy analysts still shudder at the thought of breaking up Iraq. Certainly the current U.S. administration remains committed to the country’s unity. As the indispensable Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported on August 1, 2015: “The White House has reconfirmed its position on maintaining a unified Iraq in a firm rebuttal to a 100,000-strong petition asking the United States to support Kurdish independence Tuesday.”

http://rudaw.net/english/world/01082015

geopolitical anomalies map 10Fusing Iraq back together would require considerable force and would probably result in massive bloodshed, as well as the suspension of the dream of democratic governance. Can we reasonably imagine that the Peshmerga would be willingly folded into the Iraqi military, as would be demanded if a truly unified state were to reemerge? Does anyone who understands the actual situation think that the Iraqi Kurds would voluntarily submit to Baghdad and allow the dismantling of the essentially sovereign state that they have struggled so hard to create? By the same token, is it reasonable to assume that the Sunni Arabs of the northwest would acquiesce to a united, democratic Iraq in which the Shia majority holds electoral sway? The events of the past 12 years certainly indicate otherwise. I, for one, would be willing to bet a considerable amount of money, and at unfavorable odds, that Iraqi unification will not occur within the next 10 years — or any other time period that one might specify.

The Bosnia & Herzegovina Option

Bosnia and Herzegovina MapThe best hope for rebuilding some kind of state within Iraqi’s recognized boundaries would be something on the order of the Biden-Gelb plan, allowing the three main regions to enjoy de facto but not de jure sovereignty, sharing little more than membership in international organizations. The result would be a largely fictional country, similar to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which the main groups maintain largely peaceful relations mostly by limiting their interactions. But any such arrangement would be viewed by most Iraqi Kurds as a temporary expedient, a mere a way-station on the route to actual independence.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, moreover, does not make a good exemplar, as it is more a sliced-up protectorate than a real country. As GeoCurrents reader Vatroslav Herceg writes, “In Bosnia and Herzegovina you have coffee bars that are for Croats, coffee bars that are for Bosnians, and coffee bars that are for Serbs in the same city.” Given this situation, Herceg foresees the return of political violence:

I am not a nationalist, but if Bosnia and Herzegovina is left like this there will be another war in the Balkans. I don’t want another war, my family already suffered in the 1990s war. Just look at the artificial flag* of Bosnia and Herzegovina, [which] shows that this entity is a EU and USA protectorate.

 

Put differently, the diplomatic charade embodied in the creation of an artificial federation that forces mutually hostile groups into the same “country” might buy time, but it will not solve the underlying issues. This is not to argue, it is essential to note, that there was anything historically inevitable about the mutual antipathy found among Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina (or, for that matter, among Iraq’s Sunnis Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds.) Given different historical circumstances, a sense of Yugoslav identity might have prevailed, leading to the perpetuation of Yugoslavia. But that did not happen, and the events of the past quarter-century cannot be wished away. Yugoslavia is gone for good, and Bosnia and Herzegovina appears to be headed in the same direction. A curiously vegetative state, Bosnia and Herzegovina is kept alive only by the artificial life-support system of the international community. Should we wish the same for Iraq?

The Delusion of Reunification

Iraq and Syria Political Situation MapThe insistence on maintaining the superficially existing geopolitical framework flows from an exhausted doctrine that has itself become a major obstacle to peace. Recent events have made a mockery of the idea that the partition of Iraq could be dangerously destabilizing, as complete destabilization—and far worse—has already occurred. The terror state of ISIS that has spread its tentacles over a vast swath of Syria and Iraq draws much of its strength from the international community’s insistence that these imperially imposed entities remain inviolate regardless of the desires of their residents or the realities on the ground. The break-away state of Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other hand, is a refuge of stability and effective governance, not the font of insecurity imagined by those who sanctify preexisting borders. The idea that rewarding such success with diplomatic recognition would somehow prove disruptive to some imaginary Iraqi peace process is laughable.

Somalia Political Situation MapNor is Iraq the only country in the larger region that has collapsed beyond the point of reconstitution. Yemen and Libya might remerge as coherent states, as their fall was recent, but I would not count on it. Syrian reunification is even more of a long shot, as its national unity is too weak and its mutual antipathies too entrenched. And what of Somalia? Like Iraq, Somalia ceased functioning as real country nearly a quarter-century ago. Since then, its geopolitical contours have remained in flux, with territories passing among its weak provisional government, Islamist forces, and autonomous warlords. But Somalia also contains, like Iraq, one relatively well-run, stable government that acts as a sovereign power despite its lack of international recognition: Somaliland. The reunification of Somalia, difficult as that is to imagine, would probably require the crushing of Somaliland, as Hargeisa (Somaliland’s capital) would be no more willing to submit to Mogadishu than Erbil (Hewler, in Kurdish) would be willing to give in to Baghdad. Attempting to revive the moribund states of Iraq and Somalia would, in all likelihood, prove far more disruptive than acknowledging the functioning states of Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland.

World Political Map ProblemsIn the end, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the dream of reunifying Iraq and Somalia is deadly delusion, a mirage generated by viewing global political geography not as it actually is, but rather as the diplomatic establishment thinks it should be. Such a blinkered worldview is unfortunately ubiquitous, encoded in our basic world-political maps. In the United States, these ideologically laden documents not only show a country that collapsed decades ago (Somalia), but even depict a country that has never existed, other than in the imaginations of diplomats and insurgents (Western Sahara). How many years—how many decades—have to pass before we can acknowledge reality and drop our geopolitical illusions? Abandoning pretense and facing the truth is a necessary precondition for achieving peace and stability.

The Matter of Precedent

Those who fear the recognition of Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan usually invoke precedent. If a precedent is set by the division of officially recognized countries, they ask, where will the process end? As dozens of countries are plagued by secession movements, they dread the opening of a veritable Pandora’s box of anarchy and rebellion.

The precedent argument, however, fails from the outset. It greatly exaggerates the power of the international order while ignoring key events of the past thirty years. In that period, newly independent countries have sprouted over much of the world, while a number of states dissolved completely when their constituent divisions all gained independence. The USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia no longer exist; Eritrea, East Timor, Kosovo, and South Sudan have successfully detached themselves from the countries to which they formerly belonged. Other new states could easily emerge in the near future; as has been made clear, both Scotland and Quebec will be allowed to gain sovereignty if a majority of their voters so decide. If these occurrences somehow inspired militant secession movements, resulting in an uptick of violence and anarchy across the globe, it somehow escaped notice.

Yet as it so happens, a precedent has been established: the partition of countries is perfectly acceptable provided that it occurs in a certain manner. The general conditions are that the government of the country slated for losing a particular territory must agree to it, while the people of the seceding region must voice their support, preferably through the ballot box.** But as South Sudan clearly shows, violent resistance to the existing geopolitical framework can be the precipitating process. South Sudan gained independence largely though warfare, grinding down resistance in both Khartoum and the international community through decades of struggle. Gaining sovereignty in such a manner may have set a bad precedent, but set it was, with no way of being erased. That precedent, moreover, was largely created by the same foreign-policy establishment of the United States that vigorously opposes the independence of Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan. As The New York Times reported in 2014, “South Sudan is in many ways an American creation, carved out of war-torn Sudan in a referendum largely orchestrated by the United States, its fragile institutions nurtured with billions of dollars in American aid.”

 

But South Sudan makes a fraught example, as its independence has hardly been successful. Indeed, the Fund for Peace currently ranks South Sudan as the world’s most “fragile state,” considerably more fragile than even Syria. Although this particular claim is difficult to take seriously, given that Syria has been shattered beyond recognition, it does indicate the severity of South Sudan’s challenges. One might therefore conclude that independence was a major mistake, and perhaps even extrapolate this insight to the rest of the world, reckoning that it is best to maintain the world political map exactly as it is, discounting any possible benefits that might result from the partition of failed states.

Many solid reasons, however, can be found for dismissing any conclusions drawn from the debacle of South Sudan. I retain some hope that the “world’s youngest country” can repair its cleavages and begin to heal and develop. I am also relieved that its unfortunate people are no longer under the thumb of the Khartoum government, unlike those of Darfur and South Kordofan (the Nuba Hills), who still suffer attacks of almost genocidal intensity. But regardless of its dire predicament, South Sudan makes a poor comparison with either Somaliland or Iraqi Kurdistan. The people of South Sudan made their case for independence on the basis of the oppression that they had long endured along with their tenacious military resistance. They had no experience, however, in running an effective government, holding elections, establishing an independent judiciary, and so on, all of which have been accomplished with some success by both Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan. Both of these entities have successfully built their own states over the past several decades, doing so in a chaotic regional environment and with little help from international developmental agencies. In the case of Somaliland, Peter J. Schraeder, persuasively argued years ago that such accomplishments merited the recognition of sovereignty. In the intervening years, little has changed.

Problems Behind, Problems Ahead

1995 Divided Iraqi Kurdistan MapIn constructing their own unrecognized state, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have had to overcome deep divisions within their own society. In the mid-1990s, the region’s two main political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), mostly representing the Kurmanji-speaking north, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), mostly representing the Sorani-speaking south, fought a brief war. But although regional tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan persist, civil strife is no longer a threat. On both sides of the linguistic/political divide, most people have concluded that Kurdish identity and secular governance trump more parochial considerations. In the intervening years, the Kurdish Regional Government has managed to construct a reasonably united, secure, and democratic order. Much the same, moreover, can be said of the government of Somaliland. Such achievements deserve acknowledgment, ideally by the recognition of full independence.

The recognition Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan would, of course, generate its own diplomatic complications. The African Union would take quick offense at any country offering formal ties with Somaliland, while Turkey would be furious at any state proposing to do the same with Iraqi Kurdistan. If such a newly independent country were to include any of the Kurdish territories of northern Syria (Rojava), Turkey might even threaten war. But no major foreign-policy initiatives are ever risk free, and all necessarily generate irritation and anger among some interested parties. Considering the horrific and seemingly interminable conflict that has chewed up Iraq, Syria, and much of the Horn of Africa—generating a refugee crisis of global scope—a new approach is required, even if it carries risks of its own. I would suggest that such a new policy begin by abandoning the fantasy map of the foreign-policy establishment and instead recognize the global geopolitical framework as it actually is. Unlike the internationally recognized but non-functional country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan are genuine states, taking orders from no other power and running their own affairs as they see fit — and doing so with more capability and liberality than most of their neighbors. As such, they deserve immediate recognition.

Flag of Bosnia*As noted in the Wikipedia article on the flag: “The three points of the triangle are understood to stand for the three constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.[2] It is also seen to represent the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina which is shaped like a triangle. The stars, representing Europe, are meant to be infinite in number and thus they continue from top to bottom. The flag features colors often associated with neutrality and peace – white, blue, and yellow. The colors yellow and blue are also seen to be taken from the flag of Europe; the color blue was originally based on the flag of the United Nations. The present scheme is being used by both the Council of Europe which owns the flag and the European Union which adopted the Council of Europe’s flag in 1985.”

** Exceptions exist, as the first condition was not met in the case of Kosovo. As a result, many countries do not recognize the Kosovo’s independence.

 

 

GeoCurrents Editorial: Recognition for Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland Read More »

The Ahl-e Haqq Minority Faith Fights for Its Homeland in Northern Iraq

Daquq Google EarthEarlier this week, Kurdish Peshmerga forces launched an offensive against ISIS in the Daquq district of Iraq, some 40 kilometers south of Kirkuk. Aided by airstrikes from US-led coalition warplanes, Kurdish forces took over a number of villages. As reported in the news service Rudaw:

Hismadin said Kurdish reinforcements streamed in once the Peshmerga’s heavy fighting began. He added that members of the Kurdistan regional parliament and many volunteers were also on hand. “We will not stop until we push out ISIS,” Jaafar Mustafa, commander of the 70th Peshmerga Forces, told Rudaw.

Kirkuk area religion mapAlso participating in the offensive was the 630-strong First Kakai Battalion of the Peshmerga, whose members have been fighting “to protect their ancestral lands along the Daquq frontline” despite being woefully underequipped, as noted in another Rudaw article. The Kakai (or Kaka’i) belong to a little know-known but significant religious minority, roughly one million strong, that is concentrated in the Kurdish region of western Iran. This faith is more commonly called Ahl-e Haqq, although the term Yarsan is often encountered as well. It is sometimes more loosely grouped with the Yezidi faith and other local religions under a “Gnosticism” label. Michael Izady’s map of religion in Iraq shows a sizable area of this faith just to the south and east of Kirkuk. It does not, however, include the city of Daquq in the Kakai/Yarsan/Ahl-e Haqq area. The Wikipedia article on the town, however, claims that, “The majority of the 50,000 inhabitants are Kurds from the Kakai faith.”

 

The exact nature of the Kaka’i/Ahl-e Haqq/Yarsan sect is hotly debated. Some scholars view it as an offshoot of Shia Islam, whereas others consider it a fundamentally non-Muslim faith with a mere Islamic veneer. The latter view is found in the Wikipedia article on the group:

Among other important pillars of their belief system are that the Divine Essence has successive manifestations in human form (mazhariyyat) and the belief in transmigration of the soul (dunaduni in Kurdish). For these reasons, the members of Ahl-e Haqq faith cannot be considered as part of the religion of Islam. The Yarsani faith has no common belief with Islam other than the ghulat Shia Islamic assertion of the divinity or godhead/godhood of Ali, although it can be identified as Kurdish esoterism which emerged under the intense influence of Bātinī-Sufism during the last two centuries. ….

The Yarsani faith’s unique features include millenarism, nativism, egalitarianism, metempsychosis, angelology, divine manifestation and dualism. Many of these features are found in Yazidism, another Kurdish faith, in the faith of Zoroastrians and in Shī‘ah extremist groups; certainly, the names and religious terminology of the Yarsani are often explicitly of Muslim origin. Unlike other indigenous Persianate faiths, the Yarsani explicitly reject class, caste and rank, which sets them apart from the Yezidis and Zoroastrians.

Yet according to the scholar Jean During, “Ahl-e Haqqism” is firmly rooted in mystical Islam, and is best seen as “an offshoot of a kind of Sufism which adapted itself to Kurdish customs.”* But During’s article also makes it clear that the faith deviates strongly from all orthodox interpretations of Islam. In its theology, the “divine manifestations” encountered in world history include not only Jesus, Abraham, and a number of Muslim figures, but also Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Plato. Equally intriguing, as During explains, is the fact that:

Elitism is part of the Ahl-e Haqq culture: they have a conviction that they stand above standard Islam, and belong to a kind of avant-garde. They possess the key of understanding of historical events, which permits them to interpret all contemporary events in a sometimes paradoxical way. …. This leads them to subversion. They never fear the law nor the blame… . They often like to show themselves as provocative, professing shocking beliefs or non-conformist practices” (During p. 124).

Kurdish Languages Map 1According to most sources, most adherents of Ahl-e Haqq speak Gorani, which is also the main language of their religious writings. Although Gorani is often considered to be a Kurdish dialect, it is not interintelligible with the main Kurdish tongues, Kurmanji and Sorani. But then again, Kurmanji and Sorani are not interintelligible with each other, meaning that Kurdish is best viewed as a language group rather than a distinct language in its own right. But this expanded definition of “Kurdish” does not necessarily include Gorani, even though its speakers are counted as ethnic Kurds. As noted in the Wikipedia, “A separate group of languages, Zaza-Gorani, is also spoken by several million Kurds, but is linguistically not Kurdish.” As this quotation makes clear, Gorani is most closely related to Zaza (or Zazaki) of central-eastern Turkey, another “Kurdish” language that is closely associated with a highly heterodox Muslim sect (Alevism, in this case). As can be seen in Izady’s map of Kurdish dialects, Gorani is spoken in the Ahl-e Haqq area of Iraq just to the south of Kirkuk.

Kurdish languages map 2A relative new (posted 2014) Wikipedia map of the Kurdish languages, however greatly restricts the extent of Gorani. Instead, it maps most of the area usually depicted as Gorani-speaking under the category of “Pehlewani,” or “southern Kurdish.” The Wikipedia article on Southern Kurdish also claims, contrary to most sources, that it, rather than Gorani, is the main language of the Ahl-e Haqq: “It [Pehlewani] is also the language of the populous Kurdish Kakayî-Kakavand tribe near Kerkuk [Kirkuk] and most Yarsani Kurds in Kermanshah province [in Iran].”

 

This situation is confusing, and I can only conclude that more research is needed. Minority faiths and languages in this part of the word deserve much more attention than they have received. The Yezidis, owing to the atrocities that they have suffered, have at long last been noticed by the global media. Other groups deserve the same consideration. For those interested in the topic, I cannot recommend Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms highly enough. I only wish that Russell could have included a chapter on the Ahl-e Haqq.

*. The quotation is from page 114 of: Jean During, 1998, “A Critical Survey on Ahl-e Haqq Studies in Europe and Iran.” In Tord Olsson, Elisabeth Ozdalga, and Catharina Raudvere, eds. Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious, and Social Perspectives. Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul Transactions, Vol. 8.

 

The Ahl-e Haqq Minority Faith Fights for Its Homeland in Northern Iraq Read More »

Dhofar: Religion, Rebellion, and Reconstruction

Darbat Waterfalls Dhofar OmanAs mentioned in the previous post, Oman’s Dhofar region is highly distinctive in terms of both language and climate. It is also differentiated from the rest of Oman in regard to religion. Most Omanis follow Ibadi Islam, a branch that is said to predate the Sunni/Shia split, whereas most Dhofaris are Sunni Muslims. Dhofar also has a distinctive political history, and was essentially an imperial possession of Oman until 1970. From the early 1960s until the late 1970s, a major although largely forgotten Marxist revolution in Dhofar shook the foundations of the Omani state, forcing the country at long last to enter the modern world. Today Dhofar, like the rest of Oman, is generally quiet and peaceful – quite in contrast to the situation in neighboring Yemen. Yet it remains in many ways a land apart; as the Dhofari feminist blogger Nadia recently put it, “Our society in Dhofar is dismissive of outsiders, be it someone from another part of Oman or someone from another country…” (Nadia’s website, Dhofari Gucci, also has the best photo that I have seen of the region’s wet conditions during the monsoon season, reproduced here.)

Islamic Sects and Madhhabs MapMost sources claim that roughly 75 percent of the people of Oman follow Ibadi Islam, the faith of the country’s ruling establishment, although some state that the figure could be as low as 50 percent. Historically, Ibadis have often tended to stand apart from other Muslims, as those of Algeria’s M’zab oasis still do, but that is not the case in Oman. Most observers stress modern Ibadism’s unusual combination of strict orthodoxy and tolerance: as the Wikipedia article puts is, “Ibadis have been referred to as tolerant puritans or as political quietists due to their preference to solve differences through dignity and reason rather than with confrontation, as well as their tolerance for practicing Christians and Jews sharing their communities.” Dhofar at one Middle East Religion Maptime evidently had a significant Ibadi presence, but the region has long been dominated by Sunni Islam of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence (madhhab), which extends across most of the Indian Ocean realm. The Wikipedia map of Muslim sects and school of jurisprudences posted here, although excellent overall, overlooks the non-Ibadi nature of Dhofar. Mike Izady’s map, on the other hand, does capture it, although it misses the substantial rural population of the humid upland belt located to the north of Salalah.

 

Over the course of the past few centuries, Dhofar has sometimes been Omani Empire 1856 Mapindependent and sometimes under the rule of neighboring powers, particularly those based in the Hadhrahmaut (to the west) or in northern Oman. In the ancient and medieval periods it often enjoyed marked prosperity based on the trade in aromatic resins, as it was, and is, the core area of frankincense production. Dhofar definitely came under Omani rule after 1750, when that sultanate created a remarkably powerful maritime empire. (The map of the Omani Empire posted here, however, exaggerates the extent of this realm in many areas, although it perhaps downplays the reach of Omani power in the Great Lakes region of central Africa). The website British Empire provides a useful overview:

Between the 1750s and the 1850s, Oman re-established its authority over the islands of the Strait of Hormuz, leasing them from the Persians, secured more than 100 miles of the Makran coast of Baluchistan, reasserted its claims to Dhofar and to the ports of East Africa, and even attempted to take Bahrain. The Mazrui rulers of Mombasa were repeatedly attacked and finally submitted in 1837. The Omani fleet once again became the most powerful local force in the Indian Ocean, if not throughout the East. The architect of this remarkable Omani expansion in the early nineteenth century was the Sultan Seyyid Said, who reigned from 1804 to 1856. He ordered vessels from Indian shipyards, including, for example, the 74-gun Liverpool, launched in 1826, which from 1836 became the Royal Navy Imaum. He possessed in all fifteen western-style warships, as well as a vast fleet of Arab vessels, which could be used for both commercial and military purposes. He could probably embark as many as 20,000 troops. When the Sultan arrived at Zanzibar in East Africa in 1828, his fleet consisted of one 64-gun ship, three frigates of 36 guns, two brigs of 14 guns, and 100 armed transport dhows with about 6,000 soldiers. [Emphasis added regarding Dhofar.]

By the time the Sultan moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1840 he had established a highly successful economic system there: an Omani emigrant plantocracy was cultivating cloves, successfully introduced into Zanzibar in 1828, and Indian agents and capitalists, for centuries familiar in Oman and on the East African coast, were capitalising the ivory and slaving caravans which tapped the animal and human resources of the far interior of East Africa.

 

After the mid-1800s, however, Omani power withered in the face of British expansion, and Oman itself eventually became a protectorate of the United Kingdom. It did maintain a few odd corners of its empire, however, not relinquishing the port of Gwadar in what is now Pakistan until 1958. It also held firmly on to Dhofar; Said bin Taimur, sultan from 1923 to 1970, even based his court in Salalah, the main city of Dhofar. But, as noted in the Wikipedia, “Dhofar itself was a dependency of Oman and it was subjected to severe economic exploitation. Moreover, the population of Dhofar …were subjected to even greater restrictions than other Omanis.”

The restrictions faced by Dhofaris and other residents of Oman were at the time exceptionally harsh, and the country had one of the world’s lowest levels of socio-economic development. As Chris Kutschera, writing in the Washington Post in 1970, described Oman of the 1960s:

Everything, it seemed was forbidden. The inhabitants of the coast were forbidden to travel inland, and those of the inland valleys could not go to the coast, or even from one valley to another. No one was allowed to go to Dhofar, in the extreme southwest.

There were, in all Oman and Dhofar, three primary schools and not a single secondary school. Students who wanted to pursue their studies had to leave their country illegally and start a long life of exile in the Persian Gulf or Kuwait. It was forbidden to build new houses, or to repair the old ones; forbidden to install a lavatory or a gas stove; forbidden to cultivate new land, or to buy a car without the Sultan’s permission.

No one could smoke in the streets, go to movies or beat drums; the army used to have a band, but one day the Sultan had the instruments thrown into the sea. A few foreigners opened a club: he had it shut, “probably because it was a place where one could have fun”, says one of his former victims. Three hours after sunset, the city gates were closed.

No foreigner was allowed to visit Muscat without the Sultan’s personal permission, and sailors on ships anchored at Muscat could not land. Not a single paper was printed in the country. All political life was prohibited and the prisons were full. Sultan Said was surrounded by official slaves in his palace at Salalah, where time was marked in Pavlovian fashion by a bell which rang every four hours.

Dissatisfaction in Dhofar with the rule of Sultan Said bin Taimur steadily mounted, especially among the Shehri-speaking (or Jibbali-speaking) indigenous population of the mountains. In 1962, an open rebellion broke out, aided initially by Saudi Arabia. Within a few years the sultan retreated to his palace, ordering his troops to burn villages and destroy wells in rebel-held areas. The rebellion gradually took a more leftist direction, receiving support from Nasser in Egypt and after 1967 from both the People’s Republic of China and the communist-run People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (or South Yemen, which was actually eastern Yemen in strictly geographical terms). By the end of the decade, Omani forces in Dhofar controlled little more than the city of Salalah, with the entire upland region having fallen into rebel hands.

Dhofar Rebellion1970 saw the deposition of the Sultan by his son Qaboos bin Said Al Said in a British-orchestrated palace coup. With substantial British aid, the new government immediately changed tactics, embarking on a “hearts and minds” campaign to win the support of the Dhofari people. Dhofar itself was transformed into a regular province of Oman, and appeals were made to both Islam and traditional tribal values in order to counter communist ideology. Rebels who surrendered were give cash bonuses, and some were reorganized into counter-insurgency squadrons. Oman’s newly upgraded air force was also effectively used against rebel positions. Military assistance was provided by Jordan as well as the UK, and in 1974 Iran sent a contingent of some 4000 troops. Oman also recruited troops from Baluchistan in Pakistan. The rebellion was officially defeated in 1976, although skirmishes persisted until 1979.

Operation Oman Dhofar RebellionAlthough the Dhofar Rebellion was largely forgotten in the West, memory of the struggle is now being revived through film, memoirs, and blogging. As noted in the blogsite MySecretWarDhofar :

“Only those who have been to Dhofar can fully appreciate the severity of the conditions in which the polyglot force fought and flew; at times extreme heat; at others cold, wet, permanent cloud and rugged terrain, the equal of which it would be hard to find anywhere…Those who fought there, including those who were wounded or died, did not fight in vain.”

Michael Carver – Field Marshal

 

Sultan Qaboos did far more than merely defeat the Dhofar rebellion. Using oil money he launched Oman on a crash-course modernization drive, which proved extraordinarily successful. Some Omanis no doubt chafe at their lack of freedom and worry about corruption and absolutist rule, and numerous protests broke out during the Arab Spring of 2011 and subsequently – although most were apparently focused on wages and the cost of living. But Qaboos is widely revered, and great concern surrounds the issue of succession. The sultan is ailing, allegedly from cancer, and he has not named an heir. He has no children and is widely believed to be homosexual. The future of Oman is thus quite uncertain, as is that of the country’s monarchy.

 

The mood of the country is perhaps best captured by the blogger Nadia, mentioned above, who writes at Dhofari Gucci. As she wrote on November 11, 2014:

But you must understand one thing if you are not Omani. You must understand what this man [Sultan Qaboos] means to us. He resembles the only form of true leadership we know. He is the only person we feel our country is safe with. He is the one person Omani trust. Did Oman promote diverse leadership over the past four decades? Not really. We have been dedicated to him as a leader and only him.

I’ll tell you why. People like my family will tell you why. My father was born in a cave. He lived a primitive and difficult life until he was an adult. No electricity, no running water, no warmth, living in the mountains of Dhofar sharing his shelter with animals. At times he was very hungry. There was never enough food.

Today, he has a career, a big car, several houses, children, and a very comfortable life. No matter how happy he is now, he will never forget where he came from. People will never forget what Sultan Qaboos did for them and how he led this country from the darkness to where we are today. You need to understand that. …

For 44 years this man has paved the way for our future. He had a vision. He still has a vision. The past few months have been so difficult for Omanis. We have been walking around with heavy hearts. There are no other visible leaders in Oman. There is no clear successor. We don’t want a successor. Not now. Not yet. None of us, young and old, can imagine Oman without him. None of us can even begin to comprehend our reality without this great human being in our lives.

 

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