Myth of the Nation-State

The Afghan “Graveyard of Empires” Myth and the Wakhan Corridor

Map of Greek Kingdoms in Afghanistan and India, Circa 150 BCEThe idea that Afghanistan is the “Graveyard of Empires,” a country that perennially entices imperial conquerors only to humiliate and expel them, is often encountered.  This potent cliché has been thoroughly debunked, yet it refuses to die. An October 7, 2011 Time magazine article, for example, opens with the provocative headline, “Afghanistan: Endgame in the Graveyard of Empires.” And as we saw in Sunday’s GeoCurrents post, the same idea was recently invoked by Thomas Freidman, although he avoided the cemetery analogy.

The “graveyard of empires” idea rests on a shallow understanding of world history. It proponents point to the fact that many empires have tried to conquer Afghanistan, yet none has been able to maintain permanent rule. In its stronger version, the thesis holds that no foreign power has ever subjugated Afghanistan, even temporarily. As a 2009 Cato Institute report put it, “Although Afghanistan has endured successive waves of Persian, Greek, Arab, Turk, Mongol, British, and Soviet invaders, no occupying power has ever successfully conquered it.” Others allow that conquests occurred, but maintain that the conquerors always came to grief, sometimes losing not just Afghanistan but their entire empires in the process. As a 2009 CNN report put it, “And can it only be coincidence that in the wake of their Afghan disasters both the British and Soviet empires … crumbled?” In both versions, the syndrome is depicted as one of long-standing, extending “throughout [Afghanistan’s] history” according to a 2009 Guardian article. Many authors stress the difficulties faced by two of the world’s most formidable empire-builders, Alexander of Macedon and Genghis Khan. As stated in a 2009 article in the New York Times:

Around 330 BC, Alexander the Great and his army suffered staggering losses in fierce battles against Afghan tribes. His astonishing conquest of Eurasia became bogged down in Afghanistan …. Over the next two thousand years, the region was deeply problematic for major empires from the West and the East — from the Arab armies to such legendary conquerors as Genghis Khan, Timur (more commonly known as Tamerlane), and Babur.

           Map of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in Afghanistan and Environs, Circa 180 BCE The “graveyard of empires” canard does rest on a few factual supports. The rugged, mountainous areas of central and eastern Afghanistan have historically been difficult to conquer and control—as is the case in many rugged and mountainous areas across the world. The Pashtun people, moreover, who form roughly half of Afghanistan’s population, do seem culturally predisposed to resist foreign rule, and they have produced more than their share of doughty warriors willing to die for the cause. The British Empire in the mid-1800s and the Soviet Union in the 1970s proved incapable of subduing the region, and the current military efforts of the United States do not seem any more sustainable in the long run. But beyond these limited instances, the “graveyard thesis” does not withstand scrutiny.

The failure of the thesis as a trans-historical generalization is evident in almost any historical era one chooses to investigate. Take, for instance, the forays of the ancient Macedonians and Greeks. Certainly Alexander had troubles in the Hindu Kush, as he did in a number of other areas that he and his troops vanquished. But conquer and rule the region they did. Greek power remained ensconced in the area now called Afghanistan for roughly two hundred years, contributing to an interchange of ideas and practices that enriched South Asian, Central Asian, and Greek civilization. The so-called Greco-Bactrians did fall eventually, succumbing to Yuezhi (Kushan) invaders who absorbed much of their culture. But this was to be expected; great powers ebb and flow, and no empire lasts forever.

Serious authors such as Christian Caryl and Thomas Barfield have turned the graveyard cliché on its head, arguing that Afghanistan is better interpreted historically as both a “highway of conquest” and a “cradle of empires.” Even the British failure to subdue the region has been much exaggerated. As Caryl cogently notes:

[In the] Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), [Britain] succeeded in occupying much of the country and forcing its rulers to accept a treaty giving the British a veto over future Afghan foreign policy. … London, it should be noted, never intended to make Afghanistan part of its empire. Britain’s foreign-policy aim, which it ultimately achieved, was to ensure that  Afghanistan remained a buffer state outside the influence of imperial competitors, such as the Russians.

            The fact that an independent Afghanistan served British interests as a buffer state is evident in the very outline of the country. Northeastern Afghanistan features a curious panhandle, the Wakhan Corridor, that extends all the way to the border of China. Negotiations during the late 1800s, first between Britain and Russia and then between British India and Afghanistan, ensured that the territories of the British and Russian empires would never directly touch each other. As a result, Wakhan was appended to Afghanistan. Today it is a sparsely populated and generally peaceful region eager to welcome tourists, at least according to a recent BBC report.

Map of Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan In 2009, both Afghanistan and the United States asked China to open its border along the Wakhan Corridor to provide an alternative supply line for the embattled Afghan government. China responded to the Afghan request with vague promises of increased cooperation. Its response to the American appeal was less accommodating, noting that it would not consider opening the border unless the Unites States were to agree to change its stance on such issues as Taiwan and the Uyghur militants held at Guantanamo. An October 12, 2011 Strategy Page report, however, claims that China is now reconsidering the issue, promising to open the border provided that “a sturdy road [is] built along the length of the 210 kilometer long corridor.”

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Thomas Friedman’s Afghanistan Fantasies

Wikipedia Map of the Persian Safavid Empire

Wikipedia Map of the Persian Safavid EmpireOn November 1, 2011, noted New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman implicitly placed the United States in “a long list of suckers,” a roster composed of countries that had been foolish enough to invade Afghanistan. Friedman came up with the idea while on a tour of historical sites in northern India. When told by a guide that in the late 1500s a “great battle” had followed a Persian attempt to conquer the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar, Friedman “had to laugh” at the foolishness of the endeavor. Iran, in his mind, had just been added to the register of feckless “countries certain that controlling Afghanistan’s destiny was vital to their national security.” Friedman concluded his column by arguing that the United States would be wise to pull out of Afghanistan and attempt instead to influence local military contingents and regional powers from afar. Such a course, he claims, would be both more cost-efficient and more effective than trying to maintain U.S. armed forces in the country indefinitely.

I have no complaints against Friedman’s recommendations, but that is beside the point, as advocating or criticizing specific policies is beyond the scope of GeoCurrents. I do, however, have major objections against his use of historical and geographical evidence to bolster his position. Rather than engaging in serious geo-historical reflection, Friedman merely trots out the hackneyed idea that Afghanistan is the perennial graveyard of empires, a country singularly resistant to foreign rule. In reducing the complex history of the region to a crude stereotype that pertains at best only to the 19th and 20th centuries, Friedman discredits his own analysis.

Map of Persian Safavid EmpireThe basic errors in Friedman’s historical reconstruction are pervasive and deep. Let us begin with his initial paragraph. Following his Indian tour guide, Friedman states that in the late 1500s “Afghanistan was part of India and the Moghul Empire.” Actually, in the late 16th century “Afghanistan” was nothing at all, as the country did not exist until 1747. More to the point, the western and northern portions of the territory that now forms Afghanistan generally remained outside of the fluctuating boundaries of the Moghul Empire. Through most of  the late 1500s and 1600s, the western region was part of the Persian (Safavid) Empire, which at times controlled most of what is now Afghanistan. As the map of the Safavid Empire shows, the Uzbek Khanate also vied for power across much of the region. In cultural and historical terms, however, Persian-speaking Herat—the “Pearl of Khorasan”— is much more a Persian city than an Afghan one. Herat was not permanently annexed by Afghanistan until the mid-1800s, and without British military assistance the Afghans might have lost the city to the Qajar Dynasty of Persia on several occasions.

In the final analysis, any late 16th century battles over Herat and Kandahar were simply typical struggles along the frontiers of expansive empires, rather than examples of the pointlessness of invading the unconquerable terrain of Afghanistan. Friedman’s secondary contention, that “Afghanistan” was “part of India” in the late 1500s makes even less sense. In the 16th century, “India” was merely a vague geographical expression used by European that included Southeast Asia (“Farther India”) and in some circumstances extended across East Asia to encompass the Americas. Subsequently, India came to be defined (in certain circumstances) on physical grounds as the South Asian subcontinent; “India” in this sense includes southern Afghanistan up to the crest of the Hindu Kush, but not northern Afghanistan, which has instead been classified as part of Central Asia.

Map of the Growth of Afghanistan in the 1800sFriedman’s column moves on from the Persian-Mughal struggles in the late 1500s to the so-called Great Game of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the British and Russian empires vied for influence in the borderlands between Central and South Asia. Once more, Friedman takes a limited historical episode and transforms it into a permanent geo-historical feature: “it is worth … recalling for how many centuries great powers — from India to Persia, from Britain to Russia, and now from America to Iran, Turkey and Pakistan — have wrestled for supremacy in this region, in different versions of what came to be called “The Great Game.” Yes, “great powers” have often “wrestled for supremacy” in the region under consideration, but the same thing can be said about many other parts of the earth. And the notion that Turkey is now seeking “supremacy” in Afghanistan is too outlandish to merit discussion.

After discussing “the Great Game,” Friedman rapidly segues to the US decision to remove its armed forces from Iraq, writing as if it were part of the same story: “Just as I don’t buy the notion that we need to keep playing The Great Game in Iraq, I also don’t buy it for Afghanistan.” Here he unmoors the concept of the “Great Game” from its Central Asian geographical context as well as from its late 19th century historical milieu, framing it as a permanent, trans-historical, trans-regional dynamic. I “don’t buy” this analogy: although there are many similarities between the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, differences also abound. In the end, understanding is not advanced by forcing these conflicts into a common mold based on regional competition between the British and Russian empires in the late 1800s.

As regular GeoCurrents reader have seen, I am suspicious of the idea of the nation-state. In particular, I find the commonplace notion that all countries are automatically united across their territorial extents by the common bonds of national solidarity both simplistic in conception and dangerous when used to guide foreign policy. Afghanistan has never formed a coherent nation-state. It originated in the 18th century as the conquest empire of the Pashtun warlord Ahmad Shah Durrani, founded on the military subjugation of diverse peoples scattered across an vast area that had never previously been politically united. This “Durrani Empire” subsequently weakened and was whittled back to its Pashtun core. Its successor state, the Emirate of Afghanistan, saw its boundaries drastically fluctuate, as mid- and late-19th century conquests brought in Tajik, Uzbek, and other non-Pashtun areas, while British advances subtracted significant areas in the southeast. Borders were finally stabilized in the late 1800s, but they remain contentious to this day; Afghanistan does not recognize the validity of the Durand Line that separates its territory from that of Pakistan. Equally pertinent, many Tajiks, Uzbeks and members of other minority groups in the country have at best marginal loyalty to any entity called Afghanistan, which they continue to suspect as a potential vehicle for Pashtun domination.

If the idea of intrinsic unity is problematic when applied to a state as feeble and disunited as contemporary Afghanistan, it is positively pernicious when retroactively applied to the territory of modern Afghanistan as it existed in previous centuries. Such an idea is implicitly deployed, however, whenever anyone describes the country as the “Graveyard of Empires,” a geo-historical cliché that will be the subject of the next GeoCurrents post.

 

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The Simplistic World-View of Thomas L. Friedman

Ethnic groups in MoroccoIn his April 13, 2011 column in the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman argues that the recent uprisings in the Arab world will probably not lead to the kind of mass democratization that occurred in eastern and central Europe after 1989. Although I must agree with Friedman’s basic thesis, I reject his reasoning, which is both simplistic and geographically misinformed. Owing to the influential nature of Friedman’s work, I fear that his interpretation will muddy rather than clarify the public understanding of contemporary Middle Eastern politics.

Friedman’s argument rests on the idea of the unified nation-state, which he finds lacking in the Arabic-speaking realm but well-established across Europe. As he puts it:

In Europe virtually every state was like Germany, a homogeneous nation, except Yugoslavia. The Arab world is exactly the opposite. … In the Arab world almost all of these countries are Yugoslavia-like assemblages of ethnic, religious, and tribal groups put together by colonial powers—except Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, which have big, homogeneous majorities.

Friedman is correct in noting that most Arab countries were artificially created by colonial powers and hence lack the deep national bonds that characterize genuine nation-states. I also agree that Tunisia and Egypt are exceptions to this rule, although Egypt’s unity is potentially compromised by the chasm separating its Muslim majority from its substantial Christian minority. Morocco, however, does not fit into this category whatsoever, as it is deeply divided between its dominant Arabic-speaking population in the lowlands and its Berber-speaking peoples of the highlands. Admittedly, Morocco does derive some sense of unity from its heritage as an indigenous kingdom. But so too does Oman, an Arab state that Friedman ignores, but which has a more homogeneous population than Morocco. Oman is divided between its dominant Ibadi Muslim population and its Sunni Muslim minority, but that gap is not nearly as wide as the one separating Arabs and Berbers in Morocco.

Friedman is equally misinformed when it comes to Europe. Most of the former Communist countries of the region had significant ethnic divisions in the 1980s, and many still do. The split between Czechs and Slovaks in Czechoslovakia was large enough to break the country apart, albeit in a peaceful manner. Slovakia, moreover, still has a large Hungarian minority, as well as a vocal and politically significant anti-Hungarian, hard-core Slovak nationalist movement. Romania also has a large Hungarian minority, and is still troubled by Romanian-Hungarian tensions. At the time of its revolution, it also had a sizable German population, but most Romanian Germans decamped for Germany after democratization. Hungary’s minority groups are not as large, but far-right Hungarian politicians constantly remind the country’s voters that a third of the Hungarian-speaking population ended up outside of Hungary’s truncated boundaries. Bulgaria has a substantial Turkic-speaking Muslim population, as well as a Bulgarian-speaking Muslim population (the Pomaks); Bulgarian Muslims, moreover, were much more numerous before the expulsions and “Bulgarianization” programs of the 1980s. The Baltic states, especially Estonia, have large Russian minorities, which are often seen as threatening national unity. Albania is divided between the Gheg- and the Tosk-speaking dialect group, and is historically rent by tribalism. And throughout the region, and particularly in Romania and Bulgaria, large Romany (Gypsy) populations remain marginalized, largely outside of the national communities.

It is tempting to wash away such diversity in order to give easy and popular explanations of large-scale social and political processes. But in doing so, we only delude ourselves, doing injustice to the complex world that we all inhabit.

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Russell Jacoby and the Myth of the Nation-State

Map of Sudan Superimposed on EuropeFew ideas are as intellectually pernicious as notion that the citizens of a given sovereign country necessarily share the bonds of common nationhood. As evidence of the confusion that this idea generates, consider Russell Jacoby’s important recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Bloodlust: Why We Should Fear Our Neighbors More Than Strangers” (adapted from Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence From Cain and Abel to the Present [2011, Free Press]).  Jacoby is a fine writer who has made significant contributions to intellectual history, and his essay is illuminating. But it is also compromised by the myth of the nation-state.

Jacoby starts out by pointing out that we often assume violent conflicts are most intense and intractable when they take place between societies, especially between two communities that hail from distinct “civilizations.” Foreign opponents are readily dehumanized as alien beings, beyond the pale of moral consideration. Yet in practice, he goes on to claim, the most fierce and protracted struggles occur not between but within societies. Here is how he puts it:

The most decisive antagonisms and misunderstandings take place within a community. The history of hatred and violence is, to a surprising degree, a history of brother against brother, not brother against stranger. From Cain and Abel to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and the civil wars of our own age, it is not so often strangers who elicit hatred, but neighbors…. We don’t like this truth. We prefer to fear strangers…. The notion of colliding worlds is more appealing than the opposite: conflicts hinging on small differences.

So far so good. It is certainly true that civil strife can be appallingly brutal. Apt examples (which he cites) include the Lebanese Civil War, the Bosnian conflict, and the Rwandan genocide; all involved people who had previously lived together in mixed communities. But other instances adduced by Jacoby do not fit the model, and some actually indicate the opposite tendency.

Jacoby’s thesis fails most glaringly in Sudan, which he reference on several occasions. In arguing that civil wars last longer than other conflicts, Jacoby notes that “the conflicts in southern Sudan have been going on for decades.” Elsewhere he writes, “Today’s principal global conflicts are fratricidal struggles—regional, ethnic, and religious: Iraqi Sunni vs. Iraqi Shiite, … Sudanese southerners vs. Sudanese northerners” (emphasis added). The implication is that because the southern and northern opponents are all Sudanese, they are “brothers” engaged in “fratricidal” warfare. “Likeness does not necessarily lead to harmony,” Jacoby concludes. In the end, he asks, “Why do small disparities between people provoke greater hatred than the large ones?”

But it is more than “small disparities” that distinguish the southern and northern Sudanese. While it is problematic to divide the people of Sudan into two groups to begin with (where does that leave the people of Darfur?), the chasm between these southern and northern groups is profound. The Nuer, the Dinka, and other Sudanese southerners have very little in common with the Arabic-speaking, politically dominant population of northern Sudan. Their languages are completely unrelated, their religious affiliations have no commonality, their customs, lifeways, and diets are not at all similar, and they vary significantly in physical appearance and genetic make up. All they share is co-residence within a set of national borders—a map that was imposed by outsiders and has never been accepted as legitimate in the south. By what token could these two feuding groups possibly be regarded as sibling peoples locked in fratricidal violence?

Issues of geographical scale come into play as well. Southern and northern Sudanese are in no meaningful sense “neighbors;” the distances between them are vast. To illustrate, I have taken an equal-area world map (the Peters projection), outlined Sudan on it, and then superimposed the resulting image on Europe. This simple exercise reveals that southern Sudan alone occupies an area roughly equivalent to France, in relation to which Khartoum lies approximately in Slovakia, and far northern Sudan would be situated in central Ukraine. Considering the rudimentary transportation infrastructure, the effective distances are actually much greater in Sudan than in Europe. While we rarely regard the peoples of southern France and central Ukraine as “neighbors,” in the case of Sudan we are misled by the myth of the nation-state.

The Sudanese war came to an end in 2005, when a deal was brokered that would allow the South to vote on separation in early 2011. In the resulting election, over 95 percent of Southern Sudanese voters opted for independence. If the Khartoum government honors its promises, Southern Sudan will emerge as a fully sovereign country later this year. Will further conflict between north and south then cease to be treated as “fratricidal,” and instead come to be seen as a conventional war between different societies? On the other hand, if the Sudanese government reneges on its promises, should we then continue conceptualizing the conflict as a battle between brothers, motivated in their hatred by “small differences?”

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Libya’s Tribal Divisions and the Nation-State


Unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, that of Libya has a strong tribal component. When key tribal leaders rejected his regime, Muammar Gaddafi’spower began to evaporate from large segments of the country.

The phenomenon of tribalism in oil-rich Libya has caused some confusion in the media. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor began by noting that Libya is “considered one of the most tribal nations in the Arab world,” yet went on to assert that “Qaddafi’s greatest and most lasting accomplishment may prove to be stripping [the tribes] of their political power as modernization also diluted their importance.” Only the “current chaos,” the article contends, has allowed tribes to “reassert their importance.” Most reports, by contrast, maintain that Gaddafi sought to manipulate rather than eliminate the country’s tribal structure, bolstering his own power by dividing military command, for example, along clan lines. Yet the consequences of such tribalized power structures for the country’s national government can be perplexing. A recent article attributed to the New York Times portrays them in stark terms: “Under Gaddafi’s four decades of rule, Libya has become a singular quasi-nation, where the official rhetoric disdains the idea of a nation-state, [and] tribal bonds remain primary even within the ranks of the military…” Yet the original Times article, as posted on its website, pulls back from such a blunt assessment, blandly contending only that “under Colonel Qaddafi’s idiosyncratic rule, tribal bonds remain primary even within the ranks of the military.”

Such confusion derives largely from the expectations generated by socio-political theory. Political modernization is supposed to dismantle traditional social features like tribal power structures, replacing them with the systematic administration of the bureaucratic state. Tribes thrive where state power is weak or non-existent, allowing a measure of security in an anarchic environment. By this logic, Libya, with its vast oil wealth, has undertaken a path of state-led modernization that should have undermined the country’s tribes. And to regard Libya as anything less than a nation-state would risk throwing our entire geopolitical world model into question, as all countries are habitually regarded as nation-states, political entities in which primary allegiance is given to the nation as a whole rather than to subsidiary aggregations such as tribes, ethnic groups, or regional communities. Tribal affiliation, by such thinking, is a vanishing feature of a by-gone world.

But despite countless assertions of Libya’s nation-statehood, its political structures have never matched the model. Far from attempting to replicate the forms of the European nation-state, Gadaffi has sought to build a different kind of government, as reflected in his country’s official name: the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” “Jamahiriya,” a term Gadaffi coined himself, is usually translated along the lines of “state of the masses” or “direct democracy.” According to official propaganda, the Libyan political model seeks to transcend not so much the national side of the nation-state model but rather the state itself. Jamahiriya, we are told, is based on “[the] rejection of the notion that the people need the structure of the state in order to regulate their lives. … [T]here is no need for a superfluous state structure which, however well monitored by the people, may threaten the revolutionary achievement of direct democracy….” Such a form of government, Gaddafi has insisted, is fitting for the entire world. As a result, Libya’s official ideology has been deemed the “Third Universal Theory.”

“Direct democracy” in Libya, as elsewhere, has promised much more than it has delivered. In practice, it has entailed autocratic rule, nepotism, and massive levels of corruption, much to the fury of the Libyan people. But by disparaging the normal structures of national government, the Libyan experiment has also left a vacuum of political organization—one that has been partially filled by the tribal groups. It is in this backhanded way that Jamahiriya has reinforced the tribal element in Libyan politics.

Because tribal groups in the greater Middle East have generally been regarded as anachronistic remnants destined to die out, they have rarely been mapped, and almost never in any detail. The 1974 CIA map of ethnic groups of Libya posted above in unusual in that it does show “selected tribes,” but its selective nature reduces its utility. Most of the country’s tribes are not depicted, including the largest, Warfalla, with an estimated one million members. As the continuing importance of tribal politics in the greater Middle East has been demonstrated not just by the upheaval in Libya but much more powerfully by experiences of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, cartographic attention to this aspect of political organization is clearly in order. Thanks to M. Izady and Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, comprehensive mapping of tribal groups in Afghanistan has now been carried out. Further efforts, one can hope, will be forthcoming.

* Many thanks to Shine Zaw-Aung for pointing out the discrepancies between the article on the New York Times website and the same article as reprinted in other newspapers.

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Syria Is Not a Nation-State: The Baath Party’s Denial of Kurdish Identity



The official Syrian credo of Arab nationalism may allow safe haven for Christians, provided that they do not defy the state or attempt to convert Muslims. But it gives no such concessions to the Kurds, whose very identity challenges the Baath ideology of the Syrian state, which is based on the political priority of Arabs. Baath leaders in both Syria and Iraq have tended to view the Kurds as alien elements threatening the national essence. As such, the situation of the Kurdish population of Syria remains grim, as it had been in Iraq before the removal of Saddam Hussein and his Baath-party establishment.

Maps reflecting the official Syrian position minimize the Kurdish presence in Syria (see the first map posted above), but in actuality the Kurdish-speaking population of the country is substantial. Most sources put it around two million, or roughly ten percent of the total population, but Kurdish sites peg it at more than 15 percent. Counting the Kurds of Syria is not easy. The Syrian government does not conduct transparent censuses, and it hardly acknowledges Kurdish existence in the first place. According to the Wikipedia article on Syrian Kurdistan, even the United States Department of State and the CIA refused to acknowledge the Kurds of Syria through the 1980s.

The difficulties faced by the Kurds in Syria go well beyond being overlooked by their government. Some 300,000 of them are denied citizenship, relegated to statelessness with no access to passports and, in many cases, governmental services. Evidently, a Syrian census of 1962 found a sizable majority of Kurds in the northeastern Al Hasakah Governorate; considering such a situation intolerable, the government began stripping away the national status of local residents, accusing them of being illegal immigrants from Iraq or Turkey. Fearing that a border-spanning Kurdish nationalist movement could threaten its territorial integrity, Syria also began clearing Kurds away from sensitive areas. It subsequently initiated a program of “Arabization,” importing Arabic-speakers to inhabit the boundary separating Syria from Iraq and Turkey. This resettled border zone is called the “Arabian Racist Belt” by some Kurdish sources (see the second map above).

Most sources concur that the lot of the Kurds of Syria is worse under the rule of Bashar al-Assad than it had been under that of his father, Hafez al-Assad. Their plight intensified after pro-Kurdish demonstrations angered the government in 2004. According to a recent report in Kurdish Aspect, Kurds subsequently began fleeing Syria for Europe and Iraqi Kurdistan, where many remain in refugee camps. A 2009 report from Human Rights Watch highlights the current state of repression:

Syrian security forces have repressed at least 14 Kurdish political and cultural public gatherings, overwhelmingly peaceful, and often resorted to violence to disperse the crowds. Not only have the security forces prevented political meetings in support of Kurds’ minority rights, but also gatherings to celebrate Nowruz (the Kurdish new year) and other cultural celebrations. In at least two instances, the security services fired on the crowds and caused deaths.

Mapping the Kurdish area of Syria is made difficult by such conditions. If some maps show very little Kurdish presence in the country, others depict all of northern Syria as “Western Kurdistan.” This maximal view, seen in the second map, is based on both past distribution and on a dream of eventual expansion. (Note that this map shows Kurdistan extending to the Mediterranean Sea, even though the coastal strip has never had a Kurdish majority.) The final map depicts contiguous areas in Syria with Kurdish-speaking majorities, as reflected in several language atlases.

The situation of the Kurds in Syria has significance beyond that of human rights. It also speaks to the basic world model that structures our diplomatic system, guides our educational efforts, and informs our global news reporting. According to that model, all independent countries are automatically nation-states, their governments legitimized through appeal to the nation, the political community composed of the citizens inhabiting the territory of the state. But in Syria, the “nation” that is identified with the state is far from universal within its own boundaries, as it expressly excludes the Kurds. If one regards Syria as an unproblematic nation-state, one might be accused of accepting Baath ideology and consigning the Kurds of Syria to a stateless position of political oblivion.

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Spain, Bolivia, Iraq, and the Fallacy of the Nation-State


This final posting on regionalism in Spain steps back to reexamine the concept of the nation-state. Spain constitutionally defines itself as a nation-state, insisting that all its citizens belong to the Spanish nation. But as we have seen, many are adamant that Spain is a country of multiple nations. Some sub-Spanish nationalists retain the nation-state ideal, arguing that the independence of Catalonia and the Basque Country is necessary for the creation of genuinely national states. Less extreme partisans reject nation-state status, arguing that Spain should declare itself a plurinational state: one country, in other words, divided into several nations.

The debate sometimes seems unduly semantic. Proponents of plurinationalism point to Switzerland, a country where several nations—speaking four languages—easily coexist in a confederation based on local autonomy. Opponents retort that Switzerland is very much a nation-state, as the vast majority of its citizens are happy to identify themselves as Swiss at the national level. In truly plurinational countries, by this way of thinking, most people place local affinity above loyalty to the state, thereby undermining it. Belgium, perennially near the edge of collapse, is their favored example.

Semantics actually matter here. People care a great deal about how they are classified, whether by themselves, their government, or foreign observers. Visitors are advised to choose their labels carefully; those in Barcelona who refer to their hosts as Spaniards are likely to get a chilly reception. More importantly, classification sometimes takes on real political significance. Bolivia, for example, has officially opted out of nation-statehood, declaring itself the Plurinational State of Bolivia (Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia). This change was accepted by the international community, with the gate-keeping 165-country International Organization for Standardization noting the new name on May 8, 2009 and correspondingly assigning Bolivia a new country identification code (ISO 3166-1 code). According to Bolivia’s revised constitution, Bolivians of indigenous background belong to different nations from those of European or mestizo descent. As one Bolivian website frames the issue, “The nation-state political project failed in Bolivia because there was no Bolivian nation that could sustain it and the first nations were excluded, without a state.”

Unfortunately for Bolivia, such distinctions are lost on most foreign observers. The idea of the nation-state has become so powerful that it has blurred the distinctions between its component elements, impeding understanding and communication. Certainly most people in the United States consider all countries to be nation-states. In common parlance, “nation-state” is actually a redundancy, as “nation” has devolved into a mere synonym for country or sovereign state. This slippage is neither new nor specifically American; it is encoded in the very name of the world’s premiere global organization, the United Nations, as well as that of its predecessor, the League of Nations. But with Bolivia going out of its way to declare its non-nation-statehood, more precise terminology becomes necessary. Referring to contemporary Bolivia as a nation or a nation-state is simply wrong; that is exactly what the Bolivian government has proclaimed itself not to be.

In the idealized world of nation-states, each nation – defined as a group of people with a common political identity – controls its own self-governing state, and every sovereign state extends uniformly across an unambiguous territory. The nation-state concept is thus three-fold, merging identity (the nation), politics (the sovereign state), and geography (the country). But in practice it is seldom realized. As we have seen in dozens of cases, countries, states, and nations often fail to coincide, defying all the norms of geopolitics. (If memory serves, the geographer Marvin Mikesell once quipped that the world’s only perfect nation-state is Iceland.)

According to the once-conventional potted history, the nation-state can be traced back to the early modern era, when the kingdoms of England, France, Spain, and Portugal, along with the Republic of the Netherlands, gradually crystallized as territorially distinct national states. In the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s failed effort to unify Europe, the ideals of nationalism coalesced and spread eastward among peoples who were divided or subdued politically yet united by language or race (as it was framed at the time). Subsequent national awakenings led to the unification of Germany and Italy in the 1870s and contributed to the break-up of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires in the early 1900s. With the end of European colonization in the mid-twentieth century, the idea of the nation-state spread around the world, with former colonies supposedly reconstituting themselves as nationally based sovereign states.

But even in its supposed European heartland, the nation-state model is more troubled than we might expect. State-level nationalism has been compromised by the rise of both supranational affiliation (at the level of the EU) and sub-state loyalties—and not just in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Scotland. Large parts of Southeastern Europe, too, suffered paroxysms of violence through the 1990s as unsatisfied nationalists fought to remake political geography. Especially where national identity is assumed to be based on ancient bonds of kinship, language, or culture, locally distinctive groups are often eager to proclaim their own nationhood.

Few of the new countries to emerge out of the European colonial realm after WWII had strong national foundations, and many had none at all. These states were therefore left to construct their nations, largely by teaching their people that they belonged to a single nationality and had an equal stake in national citizenship. On the surface, such efforts were usually rather successful. Those who received national educations usually thought in national terms. People schooled in Chad, for example, generally report on surveys that they think of themselves as Chadian. As a result, outside observes declare Chad a nation-state. In actuality, merely reporting such inculcated sentiments does not mean that they have real significance, much less that they outweigh claims of ethnic, clan, or village loyalty. In many instances, nationalism generated from above remains largely negative, based more on antipathy to people of other countries than on common bonds within the so-called nation. Pakistan, as we have seen, is an excellent example of such a country; Ivory Coast is another.

In the post-colonial world of the 1950s and ‘60s, it was simply expected that all new countries would build national identities and thus become nation-states. The dangers of that assumption are now clear. In early 2003, Iraq was widely viewed in the US foreign policy establishment as a well-developed nation-state: one in which Iraqis would readily band together to run a modern democracy if only their repressive rulers could be removed by force. Recent events have exposed that view as rank fantasy. Regarding nation-states as realities, rather than ideals, generated a make-believe model of the world.

The concept of nation-building has gone through transformations of its own. Originally referring to efforts to generate a sense of national belonging, nation-building came to denote the construction of effective governmental institutions: state-building, in essence. In the wreckage of Iraq and Afghanistan, the term is apparently being downgraded again, this time to focus more narrowly on physical infrastructure. In an August 31 op-ed piece in the New York Times, the usually incisive David Brooks declared nation-building in Iraq a relative success, noting that the country now has many more internet connections and telephones than it did under Saddam Hussein.

The nation-state ideal is attractive in part because it is so simple. Things would surely be easier if the world were actually divided into unambiguous units that were at once nations, sovereign states, and countries. Geocurrents is dedicated to the proposition that the world is a good deal more complex – and vastly more interesting.

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Contested Regionalism in Andalusia, León, and Asturias

Controversies over identity and territory in Spain are not limited to the Catalan- and Basque-speaking areas. Calls for regional autonomy, nationality recognition, and even national status are being voiced elsewhere, too.

Andalusia in southern Spain is one such place. Some seek to enhance the autonomy of Andalusia as a whole, while others seek to divide it into two separate communities. Andalusia’s distinctive speech is classified as a dialect of Spanish — sometimes even as Castilian (see map above). As a result, it was not initially identified as one of Spain’s historical nationalities, much to the consternation of its people. Andalusia’s statute of autonomy was finally amended in 2006 to proclaim its historical nationality, but some Andalusians go further, demanding recognition as a nation. Their main political vehicle is the Andalusian Party; the smaller Nación Andaluza seeks outright independence.

The differentiation of the Andalusian people from other Spaniards is based in part on historical class identity. Andalusia was a land of large estates worked by hired labor, with few of the small-scale peasant proprietors common in northern Spain. Long noted for its flourishing anarchist and socialist movements, today it still votes solidly left. But both large estates and Andalusian nationalism characterize the western lowlands much more than the rugged lands to the east. An organization calling itself The Platform for Eastern Andalusia regards the lowland-based regional government as overly centralized, accusing the political elite in Seville of exploiting the eastern uplands. This group calls for the creation of a new autonomous community to be constructed out of the provinces of Jaén, Granada, and Almería.

Elsewhere, linguistic differences reinforce historically based claims for new autonomous units. In northern Spain, advocates of “Leonesism” seek to build a self-governing community in the provinces of León, Zamora, and Salamanca, which currently belong to Castile and León. This area, they point out, had been the core of the independent kingdom of León, once the strongest Christian state in Iberia. León was annexed by Castile in 1301, but it persisted as a subordinate territorial unit until 1833. Autonomy advocates also stress the distinction of the Leonese language. Although Leonese is given some encouragement and protection by the existing autonomous community, it does not have the official status that its proponents desire. A few hard-core Leonese nationalists call for independence, but such a view is not popular.

Leonese national identity confronts a problem in the distribution of the Leonese language. Most residents of both León and Zamora, and almost all of Salamanca, speak Spanish rather than Leonese as their first language; others grow up speaking Galician, which is sometimes viewed as a dialect of Portuguese. Linguists also debate the status of Leonese. The most common view is that it is merely a local form of speech in a continuum of dialects known as “Astur-Leonese,” whose center is located to the north in the Autonomous Community of Asturias.

It should come as no surprise that local partisans in Asturias proclaim the distinction of their own tongue, alternatively called Asturian or (yes!) Bable. Since 1980, the “Academy of the Asturian Language” has sought to codify and standardize this form of speech, and to stop its gradual replacement by Spanish. Even though Asturias is an autonomous community, Bable has no official standing, although it is sometimes used by the local civil service. The local government is also gradually changing official place names from their Spanish to their Asturian variants. But even if one excludes Spanish-speaking areas, not all of Asturias is Asturian-speaking. In the western part of the province, one finds dialects of Galician so distinctive that they are sometimes classified as forming their own language, Eonavian.

The Astur-Leonese group of dialects extends to the east of Asturias through much of the autonomous community of Cantabria. But again, debates over linguistic status abound. Some authorities view Cantabrian as a language in its own right, others as a dialect of Asturian, and others as an “ancient dialect of Castilian.” Due to the spread of modern Spanish, UNESCO has classified Cantabrian as a “language in danger of extinction.” As is true in neighboring regions, the diversity of speech forms here is notable; the Wikipedia map of linguistic map of Cantabria, reproduced above, locates seven distinct dialects.

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Catalonia: Nationality or Nation?

The Spanish policy of preserving national unity by devolving power to the regions faces three main challenges. First, some groups remain unsatisfied, pressing for enhanced self-rule or even outright independence. Second, members of several smaller unrecognized groups seek to hive off their own autonomous communities. Third, the borders of the existing autonomous communities poorly correspond with those of the cultural groups on which they are ostensibly based, as discussed yesterday in Languages of the World.

The big problem is the call for outright secession in the Catalan- and Basque-speaking areas. Most Basques and Catalans want more autonomy, and many would be content with nothing less than full sovereignty. Independence-seekers in these two regions have adopted divergent strategies. Hard-core Basque nationalists have long embraced militancy, attacking the Spanish state and its institutions with bombs and guns. Catalan nationalists, on the other hand, have almost entirely eschewed violence in favor of public demonstrations and electoral politics. In an important recent article in Foreign Policy, Paddy Woodworth argues that the former policy has been a dismal failure and the latter a marked success. Not just Spaniards at large, he contends, but the majority of Basques themselves have been so disgusted with the terrorism of the separatist ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) that the movement for Basque nationhood has lost its impetus. Catalan nationalism, by contrast, is gaining ground.

Catalan stalwarts have long insisted on recognition as a nation and not a mere nationality, generating untold tensions with the central government. Where Catalonia leads, other regions tend to follow. The current Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, strongly backs regional autonomy, encouraging the Catalan parliament to press its demands. With Zapatero’s support, the Spanish parliament recently accepted Catalonia’s status as a nation. In July 2010, however, the Spanish Constitutional Court overruled the maneuver, arguing that there can only be one nation in Spain. The decision prompted outrage in Barcelona, inciting an estimated one million people to take to the streets. As Woodworth observed,

[The protests] were led by José Montilla, leader of the PSC, the Catalan chapter of Zapatero’s party, who described the decision of Spain’s highest court as “offensive.” The tone of the march suggests that many Catalans who would have been content with even the watered-down statute are now shifting towards demands for complete independence. Montilla was repeatedly abused by pro-independence demonstrators, who appear increasingly to reflect the popular mood.

Other sources have ascribed an economic rationale to Catalonia’s surging independence movement. Catalonia is one of the wealthiest parts of Spain, its tax receipts subsidizing the poorer parts of the country. With Spain’s current economic crisis, many of the region’s residents feel that they can no longer afford to support Extremadura and other poor neighbors. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, this is one issue that binds indigenous Catalans with migrants from other parts of Spain: “Newcomers from Andalusia or Aragon may shrug at warm-hearted appeals to protect Catalan culture, but they respond to hardheaded arguments about their tax money being spent on schools or hospitals far from Catalonia.” But as the map posted above shows, economic considerations cannot explain the different trajectories of Basque and Catalan nationalism, as the Basque region is even more productive than Catalonia.

Whatever the reasons for Catalonian separatism, it will be interesting to see whether Woodworth’s assessment of surging support will be confirmed in upcoming elections. In the 2008 Spanish General Election, the independence-seeking Republican Left of Catalonia lost five parliamentary seats, taking only three. But as the Electoral Geography map posted above shows, most Catalonian districts rejected the nationally dominant center-left and center-right parties to support the local coalition called Convergence and Union, which supports augmented autonomy while remaining ambiguous on independence.

Even if Catalonia were to become an independent country, the aspirations of hard-core Catalonian nationalists would not be satisfied. Such people seek sovereignty not merely for their existing autonomous community, but for all Catalan-speaking areas: the Països Catalans. In addition to Catalonia proper, this region includes the Balearic Islands, most of Valencia, and parts of both Murcia and Aragon in Spain; it also potentially encompasses the entire micro-country of Andorra, most of the French department of the Pyrénées-Orientales, and even the Italian city of Alghero on the island of Sardinia. Sentiments in favor of such a greater Catalonia, however, do not run strong outside of the autonomous region itself. In the early 1980s, the possibility that much of Valencia might be incorporated in an expanded Catalonia prompted an anti-Catalan reaction and even a few physical attacks. Inhabitants of Valencia opposed to the Països Catalans idea insist that Valencian is a language in its own right, not a dialect of Catalan.

Even within the autonomous community of Catalonia, a common national identity is far from universal. Many residents hail from other parts of Spain, and feel put upon by the constant cultural demands of local nationalists. And in the far northern Catalonian comarca (county) of Val d’Aran, the indigenous inhabitants have their own speech, Aranese, considered a dialect of the southern French language of Occitan. The commentator “Ninja,” writing in response to the Foreign Policy article cited above, argues that, “There is also a nascent movement for the independence of Val d’Aran as they speak a different language, Occitan, and have an unique identity.” With a population of 7,130, Val d’Aran would make Andorra seem like a populous country.

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The Nation, Nationalities, and Autonomous Regions in Spain

In everyday speech, “nation” and “nationality” are largely synonymous terms. “Nationality,” my desktop dictionary informs me, is “the status of belonging to a particular nation.” In Spain, however, the Spanish equivalents of the two terms have come to convey distinct meanings through political fiat. The official differentiation of the Spanish nation from several distinct Spanish nationalities is bitterly contentious, potentially threatening the Spanish state.

When Spain began to democratize after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 it faced an existential crisis. Franco had presided over a centralized state that suppressed regional languages and identities – in turn intensifying secessionist sentiments. Basque- and Catalan-speakers especially tended to insist on their nationhood, seeking political autonomy if not outright independence. To maintain the integrity of Spain yet satisfy regional aspirations, the country’s new leaders crafted an intricate terminological and geopolitical compromise, which they institutionalized in the new constitution. Spain, they declared, was an indivisible nation that joined together several territorially defined nationalities. “Nationality,” in the process, was redefined to refer not to a group of people possessing or aspiring to political sovereignty, but rather to a region whose inhabitants have a strong, historically constituted sense of identity.

The changes pushed forward were not merely rhetorical. Initially, the three most linguistically distinct regions were offered substantial autonomy as historical nationalities: Catalonia in the northeast, the Basque County in the north-center, and Galicia in the northwest. Autonomy was promised to Spain’s other regions as well, but at a reduced level; it also had to be gained through a more involved process. Such unequal treatment proved unpopular in several areas. In Andalusia, a million-and-half-person protest broke out as residents clambered for similar consideration. As a result, Andalusia joined the “fast track” to regional autonomy as its own nationality. Elsewhere, provinces were allowed to establish their own foundations for self-rule, either by themselves or in conjunction with neighboring provinces of similar background. Through this process, the internal political geography of Spain rearranged itself between 1979 and 1983, with seventeen “autonomous communities” coming into existence. The process reached completion in 1996, when Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa were reconstituted as “autonomous cities.” Spain is now a highly decentralized state in which most tax revenues are spent not by the central government put by the first-order political subdivisions, the autonomous communities. Spain’s fifty provinces still exist, but they serve more as geographical referents than as administrative units.

As the reorganization of Spain proceeded, different regions based their self-government claims on different grounds. Aragon, Valencia, and the Canary Islands, each of which emerged through the union of two or more provinces, declared in their statutes of autonomy that they too formed nationalities. So did the Balearic Islands as a single province. Extremadura and Castile-La Mancha emerged from provinces banding together as “regions of historical identity,” as did Murcia as a single province. The new multi-province aggregation of Castile and León selected the term “historical community,” as did the provinces of Asturias and Cantabria. La Rioja claimed autonomy as a “province with historical identity.”

Only one Spanish province did not officially become “autonomous,” whether in its own right or as part of a larger region: Navarre. Instead, Navarre reemerged as a “chartered community,” updating and expanding on the historical autonomy that it had long maintained. In practice, however, it functions as if it were an autonomous community. Navarre’s official name is Comunidad Foral de Navarra (or, in Basque, Nafarroako Foru Erkidegoa). “Foral” is usually translated into English as “chartered”: it stems from “fuero,” the traditional rights (or privileges, depending on one’s perspective) that were historically granted to certain regions of the Spanish kingdom, especially those in the Basque-speaking north-center (see the map showing “Foral Spain”). In the case of Navarre, such rights were bestowed when the formerly independent kingdom of Navarre was divided between Spain and France in the 1550s; to ensure the loyalty of its new subjects, the Spanish monarchy allowed them to retain their traditional customs and laws. Navarre’s fueros were subsequently whittled back and contested, but the basic idea has persisted.

Madrid presented a conundrum for Spain’s geographical reorganization. Historical linkages called for its inclusion into either Castile-La Mancha or Castile and Leon, but the other Castilian communities were wary of being overshadowed by the capital and its environs. In the end, the province of Madrid was granted autonomous status in its own right, supposedly to uphold the “national interest” of Spain.

Spain’s reconstruction as a decentralized nation of regions and nationalities has been at best a partial success. Its basic structure is compromised by the geographical mismatch between ethnicity and autonomy; the autonomous communities were built out of preexisting provinces, several of which are themselves divided by language and identity. Navarre, for example, is Basque-speaking in the north and Spanish-speaking in the south, resulting in a considerable dissatisfaction. More pressing is the demand for greater autonomy – and recognition – among certain groups. Many Catalans, as we shall see tomorrow, are adamant that they constitute not a nationality but a full-fledged nation, thus roiling Spanish politics. When it comes to matters of political identity, terminology matters.

Note on sources: The Wikipedia has a number of excellent articles on this issue. Of special note are its competing articles, Nationalisms and Regionalisms of Spain and Nationalities and Regions of Spain.

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The Problem of National Identity in Pakistan

“Despite Pakistan’s economic, political and social problems, … [Pakistanis] are considered to be one of the most patriotic people in the world. The people within Pakistan as well as the Pakistani disapora remain loyal and supportive of Pakistan… Most of modern-day Pakistani patriotism and nationalism is centered around a common Indo-Iranic identity and heritage of 99% of the population.” – Wikipedia, “Pakistani Nationalism.”

“That national identity remains evasive for most of us is a foregone conclusion. The Pakistani national identity, so carefully constructed over the years by the state, has largely failed to find any large scale acceptance to bridge our regional differences and shape us into one nation. It is hardly news to anybody that the people of Balochistan and interior Sindh feel alienated from the idea we call Pakistan. What is that idea of Pakistan?” – Fahd Ali, writing in Daily Times: A New Voice for a New Pakistan, July 28, 2010.

At first glance, the statements on Pakistani nationalism by Fahd Ali and the anonymous author of the Wikipedia article seem completely contradictory. Wikipedia claims that Pakistanis are among the most nationalistic people in the world; Ali isn’t fully convinced that they form a nation at all. Both positions have an element of truth. Pakistani nationalism burns strongly, but largely in an oppositional sense; fear and loathing of India bind together the people of Pakistan much more strongly than any putative “Indo-Iranic identity.” Internally, deep ethnic and religious divisions continue to threaten the county’s basic integrity.

Pakistan’s national roots do not run deep. Founded in 1947 as the national home for the Muslims of what had been British India, its population includes many post-partition migrants. Its name was contrived from an acronym,* yet its government has never controlled central Kashmir—the region that puts the “k” in “Pakistan.” The official language (Urdu) is new to this part of the subcontinent, having originally been the tongue of the Muslim population of the central Ganges Valley in India. And the country’s borders have already drastically changed once, when its eastern annex (now Bangladesh) broke away in 1971.

Pakistan’s founders tried to build a strongly centralized state that would trump regionally based sentiments and antagonisms. As Haider Nizamani explains in another recent Daily Times essay, Mohammad Ali Jinnah – father-figure of the country – denounced “‘the curse of provincialism,’ and wanted to ‘rid’ Pakistan “of this evil. … This ideal solution backed by the state’s coercive arm expects all Pakistanis to erase their Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi and Pashtun pasts and become Pakistanis as defined by Islamabad.” Such nation-building from on high has not worked very well, Nizamani contends, for “the central government has seldom been a government that various ethno-linguistic groups could comfortably call their own.” The ethno-national sentiments of some Pakistani groups have been incorporated more successfully into a larger Pakistani nationalism than others, but none are stable. Even the Punjabis, who are widely viewed as controlling the state, often identify more closely with Punjab than with Pakistan. As Nizamani puts it, “Such are the limits of the prevailing over-centralised state of Pakistan that even Punjab will find it increasingly difficult to subsume its economic and political interests under the rubric of Pakistani nationalism.”

If Pakistan’s national cohesion is as weak as Fahd Ali and Haider Nizamani claim, one ought to see evidence in voting patterns. In countries in which regional affiliation outweighs national solidarity, electoral returns are generally highly skewed, with different areas strongly supporting their own candidates. Regionally focused political parties also tend to thrive in such circumstances.

It is thus striking that the map of Pakistan’s 2008 election appears to show little regional variation, with all the major parties remaining nationally competitive. Both the secular, quasi-socialist Pakistan Peoples Party and the various splinter groups of the moderately Islamist Muslim League campaigned successfully across provincial and ethnic lines. (The accompanying map is derived from the invaluable website, ElectoralGeography.com; I have superimposed some of the country’s more significant ethnic divisions on the original.)

Closer inspection, however, reveals significant rends in the national fabric. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Pakistan’s only socially liberal party, took Karachi – the country’s largest city (population 18.5 million) and financial core – but triumphed nowhere else. MQM’s uneven returns were hardly unexpected, as the party is closely associated with the Muhajirs, Urdu-speaking post-partition immigrants from northern India who came to dominate Karachi, and who struggle against the mega-city’s other ethnic groups, particularly the Pashtuns. A Balochi nationalist party, moreover, took one of Balochistan’s most important districts, while the historically Pashtun-nationalist Awami Party triumphed in a number of districts in the northwest. The extreme Islamist party Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal won the majority of votes in several other Pashtun parts of the country.

The evidence from the electoral map is merely suggestive, but it does indicate that national consolidation in Pakistan remains partial and insecure. With several ethnic and regional “nationalisms,” as well as anti-national extreme Islamism, challenging state-oriented nationalism, Pakistani identity must rely on solidarity against foreign enemies, real or imagined. Fahd Ali frames the resulting dynamics in terms of conspiratorial beliefs:

“The creation of Pakistan is almost articulated as a divine intervention or at least something that had divine patronage. As per this theory, Pakistani Muslims must then prepare themselves to fight against a host of conspirators who are there to harm them. These conspirators usually appear in the form of American Imperialism and Hindu Zionism (sic) that are eagerly helped by the ‘real’ Zionist, aka the Israeli state. All three forces are conspiring against not just a Muslim nation but also against a nation-state that was founded as the last bastion of Islam.”

To the extent that Pakistan’s nationalism derives less from the internal solidarity of the Pakistani people than from their opposition to other states, militarism becomes integral to its functioning—and peace between India and Pakistan becomes highly unlikely. Without the Indian threat, Pakistan could easily collapse into a number of hostile states.

* “P” for Punjab, “a” for “Afghania” (Pashtun areas), “k” for Kashmir, “s” for Sindh, and “tan” for Balochistan. “Pakistan” also means “land of the pure” in Urdu.

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Underfit Nation-States

The boundaries between so-called nation-states rarely correspond perfectly with those of the ethno-linguistic groups for which they are named. In most cases the discrepancies are relatively minor, with external members of a given ethno-national group forming a small minority relative to those inside the country in question. In some cases, however, they are more substantial. At the extreme, the majority of a given nationality is found not within the state named for that group, but rather in a neighboring country. For instance, there may be more Tajiks in Uzbekistan today than in Tajikistan – and there are certainly more Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. To draw an imperfect analogy from fluvial geography, we might call Tajikistan an “underfit” nation-state (an underfit stream being one that is disproportionately small relative to the size of its valley).

It is tricky to determine the number of such countries, due in part to the politics of ethno-national assignment. Tajik nationalists in Uzbekistan may insist that thirty to forty percent of that country’s residents are Tajiks, but the government in Tashkent claims that the figure is only five percent. In the posts that will follow, I have defined ethno-nationality rather broadly, counting the Isan of northeastern Thailand, for example, as a subgroup of the Lao. By such reckoning, I count seven additional countries named for a particular ethnic group that is in fact more numerous outside its boundaries than inside them. Thus one can find more Mongols in China than in Mongolia, more Lao in Thailand than in Laos, more Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan, and more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan (this last case, fitting the category only to the extent that Afghan = Pashtun). The other cases all concern South Africa, which is home to more Swazi than Swaziland, more Basotho than Lesotho, and more Tswana than Botswana.

Countries that contain the external majorities of nation-forming ethnic groups can face problems of national cohesion, as we shall see over the next several days.

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The Limits of French Nationalism

France is often regarded as a model nation-state. Its national identity is pronounced, its government has long claimed to represent the national will, and its state structures are strong and centralized. But even in France, the nation-state remains an incompletely realized ideal. France’s colonial holdings and overseas department most clearly challenge the identity of state and nation (see the previous posts on New Caledonia and French Polynesia). Yet even Metropolitan France ­– the republic’s European core – falls well short of forming a complete nation state.

French nationalism emerged more slowly than is often realized, not reaching general consolidation until the late nineteenth century. In the early 1800s, most citizens did not speak French, communicating instead in a variety of local dialects and other languages. As Eugen Weber argued in his influential 1976 book, Peasants into Frenchmen, the French government –and army – gradually melded the inhabitants of the country into a self-conscious nation. Although this process was successful overall, it never reached completion. Small but vocal minorities in outlying regions still reject French nationalism. Claiming that they form their own nations, some citizens demand autonomous areas if not outright states.

In Metropolitan France, anti-French sentiments are strongest in Brittany and Corsica, two areas noted for their distinctive cultural and linguistic traditions. Minor but occasionally violent secessionist movements persist in both areas. In the March 2010 French regional elections, the pro-independence party Corsica Libera won almost ten percent of the local vote, while the regionalist Party of the Corsican Nation received nearly twenty percent. Breton nationalist parties did not do as well, but the secessionist Breton Party took almost five percent of the vote, while Terres de Bretagne received another 2.4 percent.

Regionalist political movements, some seeking independence, can be found wherever languages other than standard French persist. Groups and political parties seeking either autonomy or secession can be found in the Basque Country (Abertzaleen Batasuna [AB], Batasuna, Eusko Alkartasuna [EA], Parti Nationaliste Basque), Burgundy (Mouvement de libération de la Bourgogne), Alsace (Alsace d’Abord, Forum Nationaliste d’Alsace-Lorraine, Union du Peuple Alsacien), Normandy (Le Mouvement Normand), “Northern Catalonia” (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya), Savoy (Savoy Region Movement, Savoyard League), Occitania (Partit de la Nacion Occitana, Partit Occitan, Iniciativa per Occitània, Anaram au Patac, Hartèra), and French Flanders (Le Bloc Représentatif du Nord-France et Flandres Frances). Although few of these groups enjoy widespread support, their very existence challenges French national unity.

Secession movements in France are linked to a variety of political positions. Older secessionist movements are often leftist, whereas newer groups tend to the right. Some are, or at least claim to be, more ideologically ambiguous. A case in point is Alsace d’Abord (Alsace First), a new party that seeks regional governance as well as local bilingualism in French and Alsatian (a Germanic dialect). Alsace d’Abord, which contests immigration and opposes Turkey’s membership in the European Union, is generally regarded as hard right. The organization, however, disputes this classification. In fact, it has called for the annulment of the recent election in Alsace, alleging that it was given the incorrect official designation of “extreme right” instead of its preferred self-designation, “regionalist.” On issues of national identity and regional autonomy, the left-right divide evidently obscures as much as it reveals.

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DR Congo: A Potemkin State?

The ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is reputed to be the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. Most observers estimate the death toll at around 5.4 million deaths; some figures put the toll as high as 6.9 million. One controversial 2009 report—from the Human Security Report Project of Simon Fraser University—claims that the actual death count was less than a million. Such wild discrepancies suggest how difficult it is to collect accurate information in a place as anarchic as DR Congo.

The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t much of a democratic republic, but that’s not its major problem. More serious is that it doesn’t really function as a country at all. The government hardly governs even in the portion of its territory that it actually controls. Our reference works mislead us when they classify the DRC is a “developing nation-state,” as they habitually do. It certainly isn’t developing (see the chart above), and its governmental apparatus remains miniscule; the DRC takes in less revenue annually than Haiti ($700 million as opposed to $961 million), a deeply impoverished country a fraction of its size. National identity is weak at best. Those Congolese who went to school learned that they constitute a Congolese nation, a lesson that many have apparently taken to heart, but when push comes to shove regional and ethnic cleavages deeply divide. To put it bluntly, since independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a de-developing, non-national Potemkin state: a façade of a country with scant substance.

The DRC owes its existence to the wild greed of Leopold II, king of the contrived state of Belgium. Desperate to put his mark on the globe, Leopold unleashed his agents, starting with Henry Stanley, to cut a swath of terror across central Africa. Local people were forced to collect vast amounts of wild rubber; if they failed to meet quotas, hands were chopped, and often heads as well. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, Bismarck and the other European leaders simply awarded Leopold the bulk of central Africa as his personal domain, calling it the Congo Free State (ironies run deep here). After word of the carnage in the Congo reached global attention, Leopold lost his African estate to his own government, and in 1908 the Belgium Congo was born. When Belgium abruptly withdrew from Africa in 1960, the Congo almost immediately split in four (see map). It convulsed with violence through the first half of the 1960s, as regional leaders turned to either the Soviet Union or the United States for support. Che Guevara came to mentor Laurent Kabila, founder of the DR Congo, in the arts of revolutionary war.

Relative stability, but little else, came to Congo in 1965 with the dictatorship of Western-backed Joseph Mobutu, who renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko just as he rechristened his country Zaire. Reportedly the third highest grossing kleptocrat (thief-ruler) in world history, Mobuto made off with an estimated $5 billion in his 32 years of rule; only Indonesia’s Suharto and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos stole more. But when one considers the vastly greater resources of Indonesia and the Philippines, Mobutu must take first place. While Indonesia prospered and the Philippines merely stagnated under kleptocratic rule, Mobutu’s realm steadily declined. When the Cold War ended, its economy collapsed. In the mid-1990s, Zaire collapsed as well. Its demise came in 1997 when Rwanda-backed Joseph Kabila, no longer a Marxist, seized control. A year later, his disappointed Rwandan backers sent another army to replace him. As Rwandan forces were closing in on Kinshasa, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe (with a little help from Chad and Libya) stepped in to defend the Kabila regime. By the beginning of the millennium, DR Congo had fractured into a complex welter of militia-run territories – the geography of which no map adequately conveys. Increasingly, these militias came to fight, with extreme brutality, over access to resources, particularly coltan (a rare mineral used in the manufacture of electronics).

It is quite telling that Rwanda – a country a fraction the size of DR Congo that had just endured its own genocidal hell – could treat the vast DR Congo as its pawn. This is not something that would have happened to a genuine nation-state. (To be continued.)

DR Congo: A Potemkin State? Read More »