Nationalism

Mapping Language and Politics in Latvia

A comment from a GeoCurrents reader last week mentioned the linguistic situation in Latvia, where almost 40 percent of the population speaks Russian rather than Latvian as a first language. As it so happens, Latvia recently held a referendum on whether to elevate Russian to the status of a second official language. The election attracted a large turnout, more than 70 percent of the electorate, and the proposition was decisively defeated, gaining only about a quarter of the vote. Asya Pereltsvaig has analyzed this problematic vote in a separate post in Languages of the World. In this post, I would merely like to outline the geographical patterns apparent in the referendum.

As can be seen by comparing the three maps posted here, the “yes” vote was heavily concentrated in the urban areas of the country and in the largely Russian-speaking southeastern region. The electoral map, however, does not exactly square with the linguistic map, which was derived from the Muturzikin website. Muturzikin shows much of southeastern Latvia as Latvian-speaking, but the election returns would seem to indicate otherwise. Muturzikin also shows the city of Daugavpils, Latvia’s second largest, as being located in a Belarusian-speaking area, but standard references sources state that city’s population is predominately Russian (ethnic Latvians constitute only 18% of Daugavpils’ residents). More problematic is Muturzikin’s depiction of northwestern Latvia as Livonian-speaking. According to the Wikipedia, Livonian, a Uralic language closely related to Estonian, went extinct in 2009, when its last native speaker died. Ethnologue claims that fifteen people speak Liv, another name of the same language, but gives a 1995 date for the figure. Whatever the actual situation is, I do think that it would be fair to erase Livonian from the language map of Latvia.

I like the Muturzikin language maps because of their comprehensive coverage. I do wonder, however, about their accuracy. One intrinsic problem with linguistic mapping is the fact that languages are going extinct on a monthly basis, and it would be a difficult task indeed to update maps on such a regular schedule.

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Cartography, Slovenian Nationalism, and Its Limitations

Cartography has long been an important tool for nationalism, as nationalist activists have used mapping to help establish the foundations of their national communities in the public mind. In the case of 19th century Slovenian nationalism, struggling against the Austrian Empire, cartography was particularly important; Peter Kozler’s famous map of the Slovene Lands, published in 1854, helped establish the idea of a separate Slovenian nation. The area covered by the map, not surprisingly, is rather larger than the area occupied by speakers of the Slovenian language. The map upset the Austrian authorities, who confiscated copies and briefly imprisoned Kozler.

Slovenian nationalism at the time should not, however, be stressed too much. I have some evidence of such limitations from my own family history; my Slovenian maternal grandfather, born in 1880, always considered himself an Austrian, despite the fact that he spoke no German and had never visited the area that now constitutes Austria (to this day, my elderly aunts call Slovenian “the Austrian language”). I always found this attitude perplexing, but the mystery was clarified yesterday in a talk in the Stanford History Department by Pieter Judson of Swarthmore College, entitled “Everyday Empire: Habsburg Central Europe in the Nineteenth Century.” Judson argued that ethnic-based nationalism in the region has been greatly exaggerated, and that many people, speaking a variety of languages, maintained firm loyalty to the Empire up to World War I. The talk proved somewhat controversial, but based in part on my own family history, I found it largely convincing.

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Scotland’s Past and Future Mapped

British Isles 400 CE Map from Talessman's Atlas

British Isles 400 CE Map from Talessman's AtlasThe best on-line source of maps of pre-modern world history is Thomas Lessman’s Talessman’s Atlas of World History, hands-down. Lessman’s maps are well designed, aesthetically pleasing, and comprehensive. I have posted a magnified detail of his map of the world in the year 800 CE, depicting the British Isles. I do this in part to show the level of specificity found in his maps—although if one wants to see real complexity, Lessman’s depiction of the same area in the year 450 CE would have been a better choice, as it maps twenty-one separate polities. I also selected this area to illustrate a forthcoming GeoNote on place-names in Scotland, focused on what such names can tell us about the ethnic groups of the past and their languages.

The map here depicts the British Isles and environs shortly before the formation of the Kingdom of Scotland, or Alba, which is usually dated to 843 CE. Note that in the year 800 the area now known as Scotland was occupied by four distinct groups. In the west, the kingdom (or chiefdom) of Dal Riata was the territory of the Scots, relatively recent immigrants from northern Ireland who spoke a Goidelic Celtic language closely related to modern Irish (Gaeilge) and the ancestral tongue of Scottish Gaelic. Strathclyde in the southwest was occupied by “Britons” (the northern Welsh), who spoke a Brythonic Celtic language, closely related to Breton, Cornish, and Welsh. (For a fascinating account of this kingdom, see the chapter on Alt Clud in Norman Davies recent book, Vanished Kingdoms). The Picts of the north and east may also have spoken a Brythonic Celtic language, but the Pictish tongue remains controversial; some scholars are not sure that it was Celtic, and a few have even suggested that it was not Indo-European. In the southeast, the Kingdom of Northumbria, which was based in what is now northern England, was dominated by the Angles, a Germanic people speaking a variety of Old English. Not shown on the map were the Viking (Norse) incursions, which were beginning at roughly this time. The Vikings were to raid widely across the region and settle extensively in the north and west; the very formation of Scotland, which ultimately united Scots, Picts, Britons, and Angles, was to a significant extent a response to the Viking threat.

The historical divisions of the northern half of Britain are again in play as the people of Scotland contemplate independence. As has been noted in a GeoCurrents post, the desire for independence is geographically structured, and it has been suggested that certain parts of Scotland might try to opt out of the potential future country. This issue has produced some imaginative cartography. Reproduced here is Martin Belam’s fantasy depiction of a divided Scotland in the year 2058, twelve years after an imagined Scottish Civil War, which in turn followed the envisaged separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom in the 2020s.

Belam’s article is actually something of a parable about names of countries, and as such pertains to the dispute between Greece and Macedonia over the name of the latter country (Greece rejects “Macedonia,” a term that it claims as its own, and instead insists that its northern neighbor be called the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” or FYROM). The comments on Belam’s article are also revealing in regard to lingering tensions and historical arguments between the Scottish and the English peoples.

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Dreams of a Circassian Homeland and the Sochi Olympics of 2014

Map of the Circassian Republics in Russia

Map of the Circassian Republics in RussiaThe resurgence of Circassian identity in recent years faces daunting obstacles. Many Circassians believe that the long-term sustainability of their community requires a return to the northwestern Caucasus, but both the Russian state and the other peoples of the region resist such designs. Circassians are thus focusing much of their efforts on global public opinion, building a protest movement in preparation for the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014.

Requests by Circassian exiles to return to the Caucasus began to pour into Russian consulates not long after the expulsion of the community in the mid-1800s. Until the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, re-migration in any numbers was not feasible. In the early 1990s, however, thousands of Circassians from the Middle East managed to move back, although some later abandoned the effort, discouraged by the poverty of the region. Return migration slowed after the war in Chechnya heated up in the mid 1990s, and was again constricted in the early 2000s by the imposition of restrictive Russian laws. Would-be immigrants must abandon their foreign citizenship and learn the Russian language. Quotas are imposed as well. Local opposition by non-Circassians also inhibits the movement. The “Union of the Slavs,” founded in 1991, seeks to forestall any return, warning others that the Circassian returnees plan to overwhelm the region and then marginalize local Russians. The Union has also fought proposals to increase the autonomy of the existing Circassian-oriented Russian republics, only one of which, Kabardino-Balkaria, actually has a Circassian majority.

Map of Kuban CossacksCossacks have long been at the forefront of the anti-Circassian movement. Cossacks—Slavic-speaking people who had adopted the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the steppes—were instrumental in the expansion of the Russian Empire, and the northwestern Caucasus was no exception.  The Kuban Cossack Host, established on the edge of Circassian territory in the late 1700s, figured prominently in the Russo-Turkish (and Russo-Circassian) wars. During this long period, local Cossacks borrowed extensively from their Circassian enemies. Even the uniforms of Kuban (and Terek) Cossacks are a form of the traditional Caucasian garb known as “chokha.” Historical emulation, however, did not entail peaceful coexistence. When the Tsarist government decided to clear out the Circassians in the 1860s, the Cossacks were in the vanguard. Their assaults usually began with the mass theft of horses—according to a local adage, “a Circassian and a horse together cannot be defeated”—and ended with the burning of villages and the expulsion of the people. As a result, Cossack communities acquired some of the best lands in the northwestern Caucasus.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Cossacks themselves became the victims of a fierce “decossackization” program. In an ironic twist, a number of Cossacks fled south from the Kuban region to avoid the purges and ended up assimilating with the Abkhazians, who are closely associated with the Circassians. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Kuban Cossack traditions and identity quickly rebounded. Mounting Circassian activism and return migration immediately after 1991 help provoke the re-militarization of local Cossack contingents, angering and often intimidating the other peoples of the region. According to a 2008 article by Fatima Tlisova, Cossacks now have a privileged position that they use against Circassians activists. Yet Cossack relations with the Abkhazians remain strong. A 2008 YouTube video about the Kuban Cossacks boasts that, “1500 Kuban Cossack volunteers are now serving in aid to Abkhaz freedom.”

Circassian activists have sought to enhance group solidarity by diminishing the differences among the various Circassian sub-groups. The Russian state has long divided the Circassians into four categories: the Kabardins, the Adyghe, the Cherkes, and the Shapsugs. (Three of these terms are reflected in the names of the three “Circassian,” or partly Circassian, Russian Republics: Republic of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkar Republic, and Karachay-Cherkess Republic.) Members of the Circassian community increasingly insist on the ethnonym “Adyghe” for the entire group, and they hope for the eventual unification of the Circassian parts of the three republics. A related movement involves the quest to craft a new literary trans-Circassian language, as currently two standardized official languages, Kabardian and Adyghe proper, co-exist within a broader continuum of local dialects.

The drive for unification encounters a potential snag in the Abazas and especially the Abkhazians. These peoples are historically and linguistically linked to the Circassians, but have generally been regarded as separate groups. Over the past several decades, the general tendency has been to try to fold all of the indigenous peoples of the northwestern Caucasus into one broad ethnic or national formation. More recently, however, tensions have mounted between Circassian and Abkhazian nationalists. Abkhazia is now a self-declared independent country of its own that functions as a client state of Russia, and Russia is seen as the main obstacle to Circassian unification.

A recent article suggests that tensions have arisen between Circassians and Abkhazians over Krasnya Polyana, the main skiing facility of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Some Abkhazian politicians have evidently claimed that Krasnya Polyana is rightfully Abkhazian, while Circassians view it as a monument to their own tragic history, the site of the last major battle in the Russian-Circassian war. In one sense, neither view is fully correct: before the expulsions of the 1860s, the larger Sochi area had been the home of the Ubykhs, the one northwestern Caucasian people to disappear entirely in the diaspora.

Circassian nationalists differ in their ultimate goals. Some demand nothing less than an independent Circassia blanketing the northwestern Caucasus, but others would be content with political and cultural autonomy within the Russian Federation, coupled with a right for members of the diaspora to return. Even these more limited aspirations, however, face long odds. The three nominally Circassian republics all have limited autonomy, two are officially shared with non-Circassian groups, and all include many Russians and other non-indigenous peoples. Such diversity makes for complex local politics, which often devolve into three-way struggles among Russians, Circassians, and Turkic groups such as the Balkars. Russian activists have tried to dismantle the nominally Circassian Republic of Adygea, situated near the middle of Krasnodar Krai. Circassian officials in Adygea subsequently attempted, without success, to annul the immigration quota for Circassian returnees, hoping to bolster their own numbers in the fragile republic.

Although their national ambitions face deep challenges, the Circassian community possesses many resources of its own. The diaspora includes many influential and wealthy persons. The proposed merging of Adygea and Krasnodar Krai, for example, was forestalled in part by the lobbying of Jordanian Circassians. The Circassian internet presence, moreover, is extensive and impressive, conveyed by many websites and YouTube productions. Yet as the lessons of “Virtual Tibet” show, it is extraordinarily difficult to translate internet activism into real political clout when faced with the concerted opposition of a powerful state.

Despite the sophistication of the Circassian outreach program, their cause has hardly penetrated into the consciousness of the global community. I doubt that one person in a thousand in the United States has any knowledge of the Circassian people. But I do anticipate an upsurge in both information and interest as the 2014 Winter Olympics approaches. Circassians view Sochi and especially the ski resort at Krasnya Polyana as the focal points of their tragic history, and they are already denouncing the upcoming “Genocide Olympics.” Sizable demonstrations against the event have occurred in Istanbul and other cities, and more are on the way. Olympic competitions have long served as theaters of political demonstration, and the Sochi event promises to be particularly theatrical.

Protests against the Sochi Olympics will likely draw on historical themes and motifs associated with the Circassian people. Although the Circassians are little-known in the West, that was not always the case. In the late 1800s the group was so famous that it inspired brand names, as we shall see in Monday’s post, the final offering on the Circassians.

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Historical Clues and Modern Controversies in the Northeastern Caucasus: Udi and Ancient Albania

Map of Hurrian Kingdoms, 2300 BCE

Map of Hurrian Kingdoms and Neighbors, Circa 2300 BCEThe Caucasus is rightly called a “mountain of languages.” Linguistic diversity reaches its extreme in the Russian republic of Dagestan and adjacent districts in northern Azerbaijan. The nearly three million inhabitants of Dagestan speak more than thirty languages, most of them limited to the republic. Such languages may seem inconsequential to outsiders, mere relict tongues of minor peoples. Yet a few of them are of historical significance, and the broader linguistic geography of the region provides evidence of important historical patterns stretching back for thousands of years. Historical linguistic relationships here are also implicated in the current-day political struggles of this troubled region.

Although the languages of Dagestan include members of the widespread Turkic and Indo-European families, most belong to the Northeastern Caucasus family. Many linguists include the Nakh languages of neighboring Chechnya and Ingushetia in the group; others essentially limit it to languages spoken in Dagestan and the mountains of northern Azerbaijan. Despite its restricted distribution, the NE Caucasian family is deeply differentiated, including six clearly separate subfamilies in addition to Nakh. Three of these groupings (Lezgic, Dargin, and Avar-Andic) include one or two “major” languages, spoken by hundreds of thousands of people, along with an assortment of local tongues used by only a few thousand. According to the Wikipedia, four Dagestani languages (Avar, Dargwa, Lezgin, and Tabasaran) are “literary,” employed to some extent for written communication.

As a remote area with many small ethnolinguistic groups, the northeastern Caucasus is distinctive but hardly unique. Other areas of forbidding topography with similar levels of linguistic diversity include the highlands of New Guinea—a vastly larger area—and the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Most such areas are assumed to be historical backwaters, but that is not the case in regard to the northeastern Caucasus. If the “Alarodian” hypothesis is correct, two of the most important  peoples of the ancient Near East spoke languages, now long extinct, that were closely linked to the Northeastern Caucasian family.

The ancient languages in question are Hurrian and Urartian. “Hurrian” may not be a household word, but various Hurrian states were rivals of the Babylonians, the Hittites, and other Bronze-Age “super-powers.” The Hittite Empire itself probably included large numbers of Hurrian-speakers, although its official language was Indo-European. The main body of the Hurrians, living in what is now northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey, also seems to have been over-run by Indo-Europeans, chariot-riders who established the powerful Kingdom of Mittani circa 1500 BCE. The Mitanni rulers had Indo-European names, but they soon adopted the Hurrian speech of their subjects, as revealed by the remarkable Amarna Correspondences preserved in Egypt.

Map of Ancient UrartuThe Mitanni Kingdom of the Hurrians disappeared in the conflagration that marked the end of the Bronze Age, circa 1200 BCE, a time of massive population movement, de-urbanization, and the retreat of literacy. By the tenth century BCE, however, a powerful new kingdom using a closely related language emerged in the area around Lake Van in what is now eastern Turkey. This Iron-Age kingdom of Urartu was noted for its mineral wealth and for its bitter rivalry with the Assyrian Empire. Urartu persisted until it was conquered by the Empire of the Medes, the immediate predecessor of the Persian Empire, circa 590 BCE. At roughly the same time, the land of Urartu seems to have been linguistically transformed by the spread of proto-Armenians from the west, a people perhaps linked with the ancient Phrygians who spoke a language in an outlying branch of the Indo-European family. In the twentieth century, Armenian nationalists began to glorify ancient Urartu as the deep font of Armenian culture. In doing so, they sought to highlight the antiquity of their claims to territory in what is now eastern Turkey. Without endorsing such political claims, it is only fair to acknowledge a close historical connection between Urartu and Armenia.

Map of Albania in the Caucasus and Neighboring Kingdoms, Circa 300 CEThe linkage between NE Caucasian languages and ancient kingdoms is strongest in Caucasian Albania, a state that covered much of what is now Azerbaijan from the fourth century BCE to the eighth century CE. Like Armenia and the Georgian kingdom of Iberia, Albania was politically caught between, and deeply influenced by, the Persian world to its east and the Greco-Roman world to its west. We know from ancient Greek writers that the Albanians eventually acquired their own script, but knowledge of this writing system was lost until 1937. At that time, a Georgian scholar discovered a reproduction of the Albanian alphabet in a medieval Armenian manuscript. Subsequently, a few stone inscriptions were found that used the same script, but the language itself basically remained a mystery until the early 2000s.

Map of the Kingdoms of the Caucasus Circa 300The story of the recovery of Albanian writing begins in 1975, when a fire damaged a number of manuscripts in a neglected basement cell in the famous Eastern Orthodox monastery of Saint Catherine’s in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The heating of the manuscripts helped reveal the fact that some were palimpsests, parchment manuscripts that had been scraped over and then re-inscribed. Fifteen years later, unknown letters were noticed under a Georgian text in one of the documents. In 1996, the Georgian scholar Zaza Alexidze determined that the underlying passages were in Albanian. After several years of concerted effort, he recovered and translated the entire hidden layer of the palimpsest. What he found was an Albanian Christian lectionary, a church calendar with specific scriptural readings keyed to specific dates. Some scholars believe that this long-forgotten and thoroughly erased text, which dates to the late forth or early fifth century, is the oldest Christian lectionary in existence.

Map of NE Caucasian Languages, Including UdiAlexidze’s translation was facilitated by the existence of a living tongue strikingly similar to the language used in the lectionary. The literary language of the ancient Albanians, it turns out, lived on among the Udi, a group of eight thousand persons inhabiting two villages in Azerbaijan. As the years passed, the Udi language diverged from old Albanian, but not by much. The surviving Udi people also retained the faith of their ancestors. Although they live in a largely Muslim area, the modern Udi belong to their own Udi-Albanian Christian church.

Christianity originally spread to Albania from Armenia. The Albanian church eventually separated from the Armenian, affiliating instead with the Orthodox Christianity of the Greek world. After the Muslim conquest of Albania in the 600s, such an affiliation became politically fraught, as the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire was the main principal rival of the Muslim Caliphate. As a result, the Albanian Christian population was again placed under the ecclesiastical authority of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Over time, it seems, much or perhaps most of the Albanian population assimilated into the Armenian community. Those who resisted Armenian religious control seem to have evolved into the modern Udi. Yet the Udi population continued to decline, as many members adopted Islam and were absorbed by the Azeri community. Today, the Udi language is regarded as gravely endangered.

As might be expected, the Albanian heritage of the eastern Caucasus has generated a contemporary political controversy among Armenian and Azerbaijani partisans, focusing on the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Eastern Armenians, according to some Azerbaijani stalwarts, are not so much genuine Armenians as transformed Albanians—like much of the Azeri population. Armenian scholars charge Azerbaijani historians with greatly exaggerating the extent of Albanian assimilation, and with trying to “de-Armenianize” much of the historically constituted Armenian region.

To the neutral bystander, the issue might seem moot; ethnic groups and nations often expand by assimilation, and the mixing of peoples is more the norm than the exception over the long term. Primordialist nationalism, however, retains a strong hold on the imagination, especially when faced with intractable military conflicts. As the “frozen war” between Armenia and Azerbaijani is now going into its third decade, it is not surprising that the ancient Albanians would be recruited into the conflict.

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Mega-Nationalist Fantasy Maps of the Balkans

YouTube Fantasy Maps of the Future BalkansYouTube videos of “greater countries,” which imagine the glorious expansion of existing states, have a distinct geographical distribution. The vast majority of these hyper-nationalistic fantasies come from the region stretching from Pakistan to Hungary. Although a number of “greater” countries outside of this area have been proposed, few are supported at the popular level by YouTube productions. Greater Morocco, for example, is a historically potent and often-mapped idea, but a video search on the subject yields nothing but “greater flamingos” inhabiting certain Moroccan lagoons. The geographical clumping of this YouTube genre no doubt stems in part from the contagion effect; imaginary maps showing the expansion of one country provoke nationalists in neighboring countries to respond in kind.

YouTube Map of Greater Albania and the "Albanian Sea" The Balkans and environs form the focal area of the genre. A YouTube search for “future Balkans” returns an especially rich trove of grandiose maps. Quite a few depict multiple “greater” countries. The images at the top of the post, for example, envisage the simultaneous expansion of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece. Maps of this type have a distinctly Christian bias, if not a more narrowly Eastern Orthodox one, as they prophesy the diminution or disappearance of such largely Muslim states as Turkey, Albania, and Kosovo. Macedonia, a country of mostly Orthodox Christian heritage, is usually erased as well. Bulgarian nationalists often insist that Macedonians are actually western Bulgarians, while Greek and Serbian nationalists commonly claim all or part of Macedonia on historical grounds. Western Macedonia, a mostly Albanian-speaking region, is also demanded by partisans of Greater Albania. The most imaginative map of this set takes the further step of inundating Serbia, turning it into the “Albanian Sea.”

YouTube Maps of Greater Greece Depictions of Greater Greece, sometimes expressed under the rubric of the “Megali Idea,” tend to focus mostly on territorial gains in Anatolia. In a number of depictions, Turkey disappears altogether, divided between Greece, Armenia, and other states, real or imagined. One video explicitly calls for the “repatriation of Turks and Azeris to Mongolia and areas of northern China.” Not surprisingly, YouTube maps made by champions of Greater Turkey respond in kind. Several visualize Turkey, Albania, and Macedonia expanding together at the expense of Greece. Although all such visions of the future might seem comically absurd, many have been watched tens or even hundreds of thousands of viewers.

It is not surprising that YouTube dreams of national aggrandizement would center on the greater Balkan region. The Balkans have seen several major geopolitical rearrangements over the past century, beginning with the two Balkan wars (1912-1913) and continuing through the emergence of two of the world’s newest countries, Montenegro (2006) and Kosovo (2008). Complex ethnic mixtures have also long characterized the region, although they have been much reduced by the legacies of war and nation-building. If mega-nationalistic videos are any indication, the geopolitical framework of the Balkans remains unsettled in the popular imagination.

YouTube Maps of Greater Hungary and Greater SlovakiaTo the north of the Balkans, Greater Hungary also has a significant YouTube presence. Hard-line Hungarian nationalists, who make up a significant political block in the country, demand the return of all territories stripped away in the Treaty of Trianon of 1920. A particularly dramatic clip shows an eagle reattaching the lost lands to the current rump Hungarian state. Neighboring Slovakia, scheduled for annexation by the devotees of Greater Hungary, has no genuine YouTube presence. One Hungarian chauvinist, however, has posted a mocking video of Greater Slovakia, placing a truncated map of the country on the South Pole, accompanied by frenetically dancing penguins. The first comment below the video, in Hungarian, states that it would have been better to have placed Slovakia on another planet. Hyper-nationalist rhetoric evidently remains virulent in some quarters of central European society.

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Greater Turkey Vs. Greater Iran

Maps of Greater Turkey fro YouTube Videos Visions of a Greater Iran, discussed yesterday, come into conflict with other imaginings of geopolitical enlargement, particularly that of “Greater Turkey.” Harsh debates are posted under maps of hoped-for state expansion. The following exchange, accompanying a YouTube clip proselytizing for Greater Iran, typifies the more civil end of the argument spectrum:

 Azerigull: Long live Greater Iran, Empire of Iran. To all the turks with illusion that turkey is a nation, you should know that original turks in turkey today are about 5 million that came from China, the remaining population are children of Greece, beloved Iran, and Armania. Long live Empire of Iran, you will Rise again to bring Peace and Harmony to the World.

Agartali Vaiz: Greater Turkey will rise again to form the Small Turan from Bosnia to the Turkish areas of Iran also including Caspian coast; from Aleppo to Turkmenistan, from Crete to Batum, from Tesalonika to Shiraz. After that the project of greater Turan will be the second mission.

            YouTube and blogsite dreams of national aggrandizement form an intriguing genre. The discussion forums, when not disabled, make captivating if disturbing reading. Rival camps of extreme nationalists seem to take delight in grossly insulting each other. Although perhaps dismissible as the fantasies of marginal groups, these clips can reach hundreds of thousands of viewers. Viewer numbers vary tremendously, of course, as does video quality. Some productions are minimal: a single map of a “great state” accompanied by patriotic music. Others use fairly sophisticated cartographic animation to show projected change over time.

Maps of Extreme Interpretations of the Greater Turkish WorldDepictions of “Greater Turkey,” or “Future Turkey,” also vary significantly.  As can be seen in the maps posted above, mega-Turkey is envisaged by some as absorbing such neighboring areas as northern Syria, northern Iraq, northern and eastern Greece, and parts of the Caucasus. A few extremists hope to reclaim all of the lands ever held by the Ottoman Empire—and then some. One map turns northwestward to take in not just the former Yugoslavia, but also Austria, northern Germany, and northeastern France. Some maps of greater “Turkistan” and the “Turkish World” are comically extreme. Most depictions foresee the incorporation of all Kurdish-speaking areas into an enlarged Turkey.

A few proponents of Greater Turkey have gone well beyond drawing imaginary maps. The Turkish ultra-nationalist “Grey Wolves” have long struggled for a more powerful state that could eventually encompass all Turkic-speaking peoples. Turkish authorities have accused the group of carrying out 694 murders between 1974 and 1980. Although declining sharply after being outlawed in 1980, the Grey Wolves were able to prevent the Turkish screening of a film on the Armenian genocide as recently as 2004. Some evidence indicates that the group is resurfacing in western Europe. On October 31, 2011, the International Business Times reported allegations of Grey Wolf attacks against a Kurdish community center in Amsterdam and a Kurdish-owned shop in Saint-Étienne, France.

Map of Greater Turkey and Greater Azerbaijan The Turkic-speaking peoples of Iran and Central Asia, especially the Azeris, are caught between the claims of Turkish and Persian “super-nationalism.” Both sides assert rights to the Azeri-speaking region, although one depiction of Greater Turkey does map out a separate expanded Azerbaijan, presumably envisaged as an ally state. Not surprisingly, Greater Azerbaijan is envisaged separately by a group of hard-core Azeri nationalists. In general, however, Iranian Azeris strongly incline towards Iran. Many of the leaders of the Greater Iran movement are themselves Azeri.

The Iranian political allegiance of Turkic-speaking Azeris in northwestern Iran is not surprising. For centuries, the highest levels of the Persian state were dominated by people of Turkish heritage. The rulers of the Safavid Dynasty (1501–1736) were partially if not mostly of Azeri descent, and those of the Qajar Dynasty (1785–1925) stemmed from another group of Turkic people. Azeri Iranians are in general well integrated; virtually all are bilingual in Farsi, and many occupy high social, economic, religious, and political positions. Of course, not all Iranian Azeris embrace Iranian nationalism, and allegations of discrimination do persist. But Iran can to some extent be regarded as a Persian-Azeri partnership, underwritten by the religious bond of Twelver Shi’ism.

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Afghanistan and the Ethnolinguanymic State

Map of Ethnolinguanymic StatesA recent GeoCurrents post noted that Afghanistan is not a nation-state, lacking the requisite solidarity. Yet the very name of the country might lead one to expect a relatively high level of cohesion derived from a common ethnic background. To coin a term, Afghanistan is an “ethnolinguanymic state”—that is, a state named after a dominant ethnic group that speaks a distinctive language and maintains a sense of common identity. Most ethnolinguanymic countries can make credible claims to nation-state status, founded on ethno-national solidarity. To be sure, such solidarity is routinely compromised by resistant minority groups, contested ethnic boundaries, and so on. But the case of Afghanistan is extreme. The identification between the Afghan people and the country of Afghanistan—“land of the Afghans”—is both tenuous and troubled.

Before delving into the Afghan situation in the next GeoCurrents posts, it seems worthwhile to spend some time on the admittedly idiosyncratic idea of the “ethnolinguanymic state.” Here is my working definition: an ethnolinguanymic state is an independent country whose official name (in English) incorporates the name of its dominant official language, spoken as mother tongue by more than half of its population. Some countries fit the definition quite well; in others the situation is more complicated, as the map indicates.  The patterns that appear here are perhaps best explained on a region-by-region basis.

As can be seen on the map, most European countries are unambiguously ethnolinguanymic. This is to be expected, considering the long European history of nationalism, nation-building, and ethnic cleansing. Yet not all countries in the region qualify. Switzerland and Belgium are multi-ethnic states without languages of their own.* Austria and Kosovo are more ethnically unified, yet they also lack their own languages (although many Americans, including the current president, often become confused on this score). Ireland and the UK are also out. Irish may be the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, but few speak it. English is the language of Britain, yet England has not been sovereign since it united with Scotland in 1707. A few other European states are of insecure ethnolinguanymic status. Fewer than seventy percent of the people of Estonia, for example, are Estonian-speaking ethnic Estonians; the same holds for Latvia. Almost all citizens of Luxembourg do speak Luxembourgish, which is also an official language of the country, but by linguistic criteria it is generally classified as a dialect rather than a language. The same is true of Moldovan, a dialect of Romanian. Serbian, Croatian, and Montenegrin were considered to form one language before the break-up of Yugoslavia, and they are still linked by a dialect continuum. Bosnia is in the same group, yet Bosnia is unmarked on the map, as fewer than half of its people speak “Bosnian.” By the same token, Macedonian can be taken to be a western Bulgarian dialect—and only about sixty-five percent of the people of Macedonia are Macedonian-speaking ethnic Macedonians.

The Western Hemisphere, by contrast, is virtually without ethnolinguanymic states, reflecting its deep heritage of European colonialism and the imposition of European languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French and English). The only exception is Haiti, where Haitian Creole, along with French, is an official language. The list would expand, of course, if other “creole-speaking” Caribbean countries were to elevate their own local patois to official status.

Like the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa also has few ethnolinguanymic countries, again reflecting the history of European colonialism and boundary-making. Several indigenous African polities based on particular ethnic groups, however, did endure the colonial period to reemerge as sovereign states. Almost eighty percent of the people of Botswana, for example, speak Tswana (or Setswana), which has official status in the country along with English. By the same token, Swaziland is closely identified with the Swazi (or Swati or siSwati) language, just as Lesotho is indentified with Sotho (or Sesotho). The situation is a bit more complicated in Rwanda and Burundi, where two ethnic groups, Tutsi and Hutu, have historically shared a dialect continuum; the dialect deemed national in Rwanda is Kinyarwanada (or Rwandan) while that in Burundi is Kirundi (or Rundi). The situation is similarly complex in Madacascar, where one language (Malagasy) prevails, yet numerous ethnic groups, with distinctive dialects, divide the land. Somalia, on the other hand, is ethnolinguistically united around the Somali language, yet is a sovereign state only in theoretical terms.

A number of ambiguous situations are also encountered in Asia. Cambodia is an ethnolinguanymic country to the extent that Khmer is interchangeable with “Cambodian,” as it is generally taken to be. A similar situation obtains in Bhutan (Dzongkha =Bhutanese) and the Maldives (Dhivehi=Maldivian). It is more of a stretch, however, to regard Hebrew as synonymous with “Israeli,” and as a result I remain uncertain as to how Israel should be classified. China is also a difficult case; “Chinese” is actually a family of related spoken languages (deemed dialects) that share a written but not an oral basis. “Standard Chinese” (Mandarin, or Putonghua), to be sure, is a single language, albeit one spoken by less than seventy percent of the people of China as their mother tongue. Other Asian countries are coded to show the presence of large minority groups speaking non-national languages. Only about half the people of Nepal speak Nepali as their mother tongue, just as only about half the people of Malaysia claim Malay (Malaysian) as their first language. For Burma and Kazakhstan, the comparable figures are closer to two-thirds. The Philippines and Indonesia are excluded because fewer than half of their people speak Filipino and Indonesian, respectively, as their mother tongues. Iran is trickier, as it is an ethnolinguanymic country only to the extent that Persia is considered synonymous with Iran, and Farsi is reckoned synonymous with Persian. And even so, only about half the people of Iran speak Farsi/Persian as their first language.

But it is Afghanistan where the situation is most difficult to parse out, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

*Although one could argue that Swiss German and Flemish do qualify.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tr7zhnctF4c

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Lozi (Barotse) Nationalism in Western Zambia

Political Map Southern Africa 1750, Detail from DK Atlas of World HistoryThe deeper roots of dissatisfaction in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip (discussed in the previous post) extend to the colonial dissolution of the Lozi Kingdom of Barotseland. Centered in what is now western Zambia, Barotseland was one of the strongest indigenous polities of southern central Africa, controlling a broad swath of territory that encompassed the Caprivi Strip. Although the Strip was never predominantly Lozi in terms of ethnicity, the Lozi tongue (Silozi or Rozi) did become its common language. Barotseland also developed an incipient sense of national identity, which extended beyond the Lozi proper to include some of the kingdom’s affiliated ethnic groups. As a result, some Caprivi people look north to western Zambia rather then southeast to Namibia proper as the heartland of their political affiliation.

The Barotse issue, not surprisingly, burns much hotter in Western Zambia than it does in Namibia. In January 2011, clashes between Zambian security forces and demonstrators linked to a pro-secession group resulted in several deaths. Lozi leaders have demanded an apology from president Rupiah Banda for the killings, and they accuse him—like previous national leaders—of ignoring the developmental needs of the region. Such grievances are exacerbated, they maintain, by the fact that Banda won the last presidential election in part through the support of the Lozi electorate. A militant group called the Linyundangambo has discussed declaring the independence of Barotseland. Tensions are currently running so high in western Zambia that one risks a beating for singing the Zambian national anthem in public rather than the Barotse anthem.

The Zambian government, not surprisingly, stresses the need to maintain national unity, proclaiming “Nobody breaks away from Zambia; it’s a legal entity. Secession is not part of our constitution.” In attempting to defuse tensions in July 2011, President Rupiah Banda met with the Litunga of Barotseland, the region’s traditional monarch, who maintains a largely ceremonial position bolstered with extraordinary cultural prestige. Although many Lozi have hoped that the Litunga himself would advocate secession, his position has been more moderate. Instead, the BRE—the “Barotse Royal Establishment”—has demanded a review of the Barotse Agreement of 1964 that brought the kingdom into the newly established Republic of Zambia. The BRE claims, in a complex argument, that while the agreement did establish a unitary state, such a state was supposed to allow a regional government in Barotseland and reserve significant powers for the Litunga and his staff. Such legal claims, even if accepted by the Lusaka government, seem unlikely to satisfy demands of the more adamant Lozi nationalists.

Image of Barotseland FloodplainThe Lozi kingdom is historically rooted in the distinctive environment of the Barotse Floodplain, a vast wetland some 230 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide, located along the middle stretch of the upper Zambezi River. In the pre-colonial period, few areas of southern central Africa offered an environment productive enough to support the concentrated settlements and surplus foodstuffs necessary to underwrite a powerful, centralized polity. Soils are poor over much of the region and tsetse flies abound, preventing intensive cattle production. The Barotse floodplain, however, presents a different kind of environment. The river floods annually, turning the basin into a shallow lake and depositing a fresh layer of fertile silt. Flooding also prevents tree growth, which in turn precludes tsetse flies. Farming, fishing, and especially cattle herding on the Barotse Plain are quite productive, allowing relatively dense settlement. Flooding presents its own challenges, of course, as entire villages must seasonally relocate from the center to the margin of the plain. Intriguingly, Lozi oral traditions link the establishment of such annual migrations to the transition from female to male royal authority.*

Map of Mfecane Once the Lozi, themselves 17th century immigrants to the region, learned how to take advantage of the floodplain, they were able to establish a powerful kingdom that exercised authority over a broad area. As was typical for the region, the Lozi polity was ethnically inclusive, able to fold various groups into its proto-national formation. The state was not without rivals, and in the early 1800s it fell to the Makololo, a southern people propelled north in the Mfecane, the scattering of southern African peoples occasioned by the rise of the Zulu kingdom and the depredations of the Europeans. The Makololo were overcome in 1864, but not before spreading their language. The modern Lozi tongue, Silozi, is closely related to Sesotho (the language of Lesotho and adjoining areas of South Africa). The original Lozi language seems to persist only in the rituals of the royal court.

Map of Barotseland; Lozi Kingdom at Its Height The British established relations with the Lozi during the Makololo interregnum. The famed doctor, explorer, and missionary David Livingstone was impressed with Barotseland and especially its monarch. In the late 1800s, the British South Africa Company gained an early mineral concession from the kingdom, which Cecil Rhodes and company regarded as tantamount to annexation. As the scramble for Africa reached its final stages at the turn of the century, Britain imposed a protectorate over the Lozi kingdom, allowing its monarchy to retain circumscribed authority.

The subsequent relationship between Britain and Barotseland remained ambiguous; as Wikipedia puts it, “Although having features of a charter colony, the treaty and charter gave the territory protectorate status although not as an official protectorate of the United Kingdom Government.” In any event, Barotseland was affiliated with other British holdings in an area known as Northern Rhodesia, which became Zambia when it gained independence in 1964. Throughout the colonial period, Lozi leaders pressed for autonomy as well as separation from the rest of Northern Rhodesia. As independence was being discussed in the early 1960s, some Lozi leaders expressed a preference for remaining under British “protection” rather than joining the new country of Zambia. Accession to Zambia came in 1964 with the signing of the Barotseland Agreement, but its terms were not followed. In 1968, the Zambian government changed the name of Barotse Province to Western Province, a move widely seen as deliberately insulting the Lozi people.

Lozi authorities would like to encourage tourism in the region, but they are hampered by its extremely poor infrastructure. As Barotseland.com unflinchingly puts it, “Vehicles on [the road from Lusaka] vary in reliability. Journey time can vary between 6 and 10 hours. Breakdowns are a frequent problem but this is still the most reliable mode of transport into the heart of Barotseland.” Zambia is currently trying to build a causeway across the Zambezi floodplain to increase accessibility, but thus far the project has been stymied by flooding and the lack of local rock and gravel. Much of southwestern Zambia, however, is slated for inclusion into the massive Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, a development that could substantially augment its tourism prospects. For such potential to be realized, infrastructure would have to be improved and security enhanced. Considering the frustrated aspirations of the Lozi people, such developments do not seem likely in the near term.

*Female royal authority is still found elsewhere in Zambia. In recent weeks, Zambian papers have been running multiple stories on the on-going feud between President Rupiah Banda and Chieftainess Nkomeshya Mukamabo II of the Soli people. The comments on the article linked to above from the Lusaka Times make interesting reading.

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Greater Syria and the Challenge to Syrian Nationalism

Map of Greater Syria

Map of Greater SyriaSyria faces challenges to its geopolitical integrity beyond those posed by its religious and linguistic diversity. Like Iraq, it owes its statehood and geographical boundaries largely to the actions of European imperial powers in the early 20th century. Modern Syria essentially covers the area grabbed by France from the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The territory was officially awarded to France as a “mandate” by the League of Nations, with the provision that it would be prepared for eventual independence. French control, however, had already been as promised in a secret British-French war-time agreement—infuriating Britain’s Arab allies, who had cleared Ottoman forces out of most of the region during the conflict. As can be seen in the maps, the British-French partition ignored the Ottoman Empire’s administrative districts.Map of Ottoman Syria

France’s Syrian mandate was larger than the modern country of Syria, including Lebanon as well as the Turkish province of Hatay. French authorities immediately began rearranging the geopolitical blocks of their new land, creating statelets based in part on religion. The Alawite area came to be governed separately, as did the Jabel Druze—Mountain of the Druze—in the south. France was especially keen to establish political space for the largest Christian group, the Maronites. The Ottoman Empire had previously allowed the Maronite region a degree of autonomy as the “Mutasarrifiyet of Mount Lebanon.” French authorities expanded this area, creating a Greater Lebanon that encompassed Shia, Sunni, and Druze districts but retained a Christian majority.Map of French Syria

The division of French Syria was not locally popular, nor were French policies. Anger at imperial rule erupted in the Druze-led Great Syrian Revolt of 1925-1927. France prevailed, but agreed afterward to amalgamate Damascus, Aleppo, the Alawite state, and the Druze zone into a single entity. In 1936 Paris promised eventual independence for Syria, which was realized in 1944. In the late 1930s, France also yielded to pressure from Ankara and relinquished Alexandretta (Hatay) in the northwest, which Turkey annexed in 1939. The Syrian government has never accepted this loss, regarding—and mapping—this area as unredeemed territory. Greater Lebanon also remained outside the control of Damascus, gaining its own sovereignty a year earlier than Syria itself. Many Lebanese Muslims objected, and some still demand unification with Syria. Syria, in turn, thinks of Lebanon as a client state, and Syrian troops militarily occupied much of the country during and after the Lebanese Civil War (from 1976 to 2005).Map of Syria's territorial losses

More extreme Syrian nationalist aspirations extend well beyond Lebanon and Hatay. Advocates of a Greater Syria dream of uniting all of the historically Arabic-speaking lands of the eastern Mediterranean. The broadest claims, with the maximal ideological justifications, are advanced by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). The SSNP has designs on a vast territory, encompassing not just the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, but also all of Iraq and significant parts of Iran and Turkey. As is detailed on its website:

“[Syria] has distinct natural boundaries and extends from the Taurus range in the northwest and the Zagros mountains in the northeast to the Suez canal and the Red Sea in the south and includes the Sinai peninsula and the gulf of Aqaba, and from the Syrian sea in the west, including the island of Cyprus, to the arch of the Arabian desert and the Persian gulf in the east.”

Even the eastern Mediterranean itself, the SSNP insists, is rightly called the “Syrian Sea.”

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party, founded in 1932 by the Lebanese-born Christian politician Antun Saadeh, is a secularist and stridently nationalist organization. Long outlawed in Syria, the SSNP was legalized in a symbolic liberalization move in 2005 and now forms the second-largest political party in the country, with an estimated 100,000 members. Long a political player in Lebanon, the SSNP is now affiliated with the anti-Western, pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance. It is usually classified as a far-right organization. A recent article in Canada’s anti-extremist website The Propagandist refers to it as an “unambiguously fascist party.” Political gadfly Christopher Hitchens agrees, arguing that a better name for the organization would be the “Syrian National Socialist party,” reflecting its Nazi proclivities. In 2009, Hitchens was attacked by SSNP toughs in Beirut after he defaced one of the party’s swastika-like banners.

As unsavory as the SSNP may be, it deviates from traditional “national socialism” in several regards. Most importantly, it eschews racialist thinking, and even denies the significance of ethnicity in the formation of the Syrian nation. Instead, it foregrounds geography, arguing that a long history of living together within the same naturally bounded space has melded the various peoples of the region into a single nationality.  As explained by Saadeh, the party’s founder:

“The Syrian nation denotes this society which possesses organic unity. Though of mixed origins, this society has come to constitute a single society living in a distinguished environment known historically as Syria or the Fertile Crescent. The common stocks, Canaanites, Chaldeans, Arameans, Assyrians, Amorites, Hiffites [sic], Metanni and Akkadians etc…whose blending is an indisputable historical fact constitute the ethnic-historical-cultural basis of Syria’s unity whereas the Syrian Fertile Crescent constitutes the geographic-economic-strategic basis of this unity.”

Saadeh’s inclusive attitude toward minority groups had it limits, however. While he opined that “immigrant” groups such as the Circassians and Armenians would fully assimilate into the Syrian nation, he expressly excluded Jews from this category. His statements on this issue reflect virulent anti-Semitism:

“But there is one large settlement which can not in any respect be reconciled to the principle of Syrian nationalism, and that is the Jewish settlement. It is a dangerous settlement which can never be assimilated because it consists of a people that, although it has mixed with many other peoples, has remained a heterogeneous mixture, not a nation, with strange stagnant beliefs and aims of its own, essentially incompatible with Syrian rights and sovereignty ideals. It is the duty of the Syrian Social Nationalists to repulse the immigration of this people with all their might.”

All things considered, the Syrian geopolitical environment reveals—yet again—the inadequacy of the standard model of global politics, where all sovereign countries are assumed to be nation-states. The Syrian state may be relatively strong, but the Syrian nation is a tenuous affair, deeply contested by multiple parties with sharply contrasting visions.

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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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Nationalism and Language in Egypt


Those who doubt that the recent uprising in Egypt will lead to a stable democracy often cite the poor state of democratic governance in Iraq. Those optimistic about Egypt typically counter by contrasting democracy as imposed by a foreign conquest with democracy as derived from a popular uprising. Equally pertinent is Egypt’s status as a nation-state. A large majority of Egyptians, whether Muslim or Christian, strongly identify with the Egyptian nation. In Iraq, on the other hand, regional and religious affiliations often take priority. Iraq, after all, was cobbled together after World War I by British agents – especially Winston Churchill – out of three former Ottoman provinces. Egypt too was formerly under Ottoman (after 1517) and then British (after 1882) dominion, but it had always been a distinctive place with its own political identity. Scholars who emphasize the deeply rooted or “primordial” nature of ethnic groups and national identities argue that Egypt functioned as a nation-state even in ancient times, a status that it would periodically lose and then regain as foreign empires waxed and waned. To the geographical determinist, Egypt is all but destined to nation-statehood, its population isolated from others by forbidding deserts and crowded into a narrow, fertile valley.

But Egypt has never been a perfect nation-state. Nor do all permanent residents of Egypt identify themselves primarily as Egyptian today. According to the Wikipedia’s basic data sheet, 99 percent of Egypt’s people are Egyptian, 0.9 percent are Nubian, and 0.1 percent are Greek. The actual situation – no surprise – is more complicated, as demonstrated in the “demographics” section of the same article:

Egyptians are by far the largest ethnic group in Egypt at 91% of the total population. Ethnic minorities include the Abazas, Turks, Greeks, Bedouin Arab tribes living in the eastern deserts and the Sinai Peninsula, the Berber-speaking Siwis … of the Siaw Oasis, and the Nubian communities clustered along the Nile. There are also tribal Beja communities concentrated in the south-easternmost corner, and a number of Dom clans…

The discrepancy between the two figures (99% and 91%) of Egypt’s Egyptian population stems in part from the imprecision of the country’s statistics. But it also derives from the problems inherent in classifying national identity. A number of the “non-Egyptian” groups are considered Egyptian in certain circumstances, and several are in the process of becoming Egyptian. The Abazas, for example, are a Circassian/Abkhazian people whose ancestors fled Russian assaults in the Caucasus in the 19th century; although they have long maintained a distinct identity in Egypt, the future of the group is uncertain. Population estimates for the Doms, relatives of the Gypsies/Romanies of Europe, vary tremendously, from tens of thousands to a more than a million, suggesting uncertainly about categorization. Many Doms hide their identity to avoid discrimination. According to a prominent Dom website: “in Egypt, most of them claim to be Palestinian to justify their acquired Egyptian accent [and] to help them secure a smooth social integration among their communities.”

Minority groups that occupy their own territories more easily maintain their identities. The Siwis in western Egypt, for example, isolated in their large oasis, have retained their Berber language. Egypt’s far south, another remote environment, was long dominated by linguistically distinctive Nubian peoples. Only with the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970 was their hold on the region diluted.

Egyptian nationalism has also been compromised by the broader linguistic and religious communities to which most of its citizens belong. Ethnic Egyptians are Arabic-speakers, but the Arabic-speaking realm extends over all or part of more than twenty countries. The Arab nationalism that infused political discourse in the mid-20th century framed the “national community” in pan-Arab terms, diminishing the significance of state boundaries and identities. From 1958 to 1961, Egypt and Syria actually joined together under the banner of Arab nationalism to form the United Arab Republic. While Arab nationalism may be a largely spent force today, Islamism also works against the Egyptian nation, as it disparages nationalism in general. Here the community of the faithful, not the nation-state, is promoted as the proper source of identity and political action.

Had it not been for the dampening influence of Islam and pan-Arabism, Egypt might have developed a stronger form of nationalism buttressed by a national language. The linguistic unity that extends from Morocco to Oman exists at the formal but not the popular level. Official speech across the Arab World uses Modern Standard Arabic, based on the language of the Quran, but that is not the language of the home or the street in any country. Local dialects prevail, and linguists regard many of these “dialects” as separate languages in their own right, including Egyptian Arabic. In the early twentieth century, a few steps were made to develop Egyptian Arabic into a literary and quasi-official language, but this movement came to an end with the rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. Pan-Arab sentiments as well as reverence for the classical Arabic of scripture ensured that Egyptian Arabic would remain a mere dialect, with no pretension to national status.

Yet had Egyptian Arabic been transformed into a national language, it would have potentially strengthened the unity of the country’s core while weakening bonds with the periphery. Not all Egyptians speak Egyptian Arabic. As can be seen on the language map, four distinct dialects of Arabic divide the country. Relatively few Egyptians speak Libyan Arabic or Bedouin Arabic, but as many as 19 million speak Sa’idi, or Upper Egypt Arabic, the dominant tongue of southern Egypt. Egyptian Arabic and Sa’idi Arabic are roughly as different from each other as Spanish and Portuguese. According to the Ethnologue, Egyptian Arabic speakers from Cairo cannot understand Sa’idi Arabic, although Sa’idi speakers can generally understand Egyptian Arabic to some degree.

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Russian Xenophobia and the History of the Finnic-Speaking Peoples



Hostility toward foreigners is a major problem in Russia today. Xenophobic attitudes are common across a broad segment of the population, and violent assaults by skinheads and self-styled neo-Nazis on individuals perceived as foreign are common. People from the Caucasus region, stereotypically linked with organized crime and Islamic extremism, are often singled out; the dark hair and eyes associated with the region can be enough to provoke attack. Other groups are also targeted, leading many of the vulnerable to avoid subways and other places of frequent assault.

Some evidence indicates that such hostility has peaked and is now declining. According to one survey, only eighteen percent of Russians condemned the phrase “Russia is for Russians” in 2003, whereas thirty-two percent did so in 2009. To the amazement of many, a man of African heritage, Jean Sagbo, was elected to public office in a Russian town in 2010. But others find such optimism premature. On December 9, 2010, soccer fans in Moscow targeted migrants from the Caucasus, openly beating dozens of people in the streets. Russian security forces, concerned that such violence could jeopardize the country’s 2018 Soccer World Cup, soon rounded up more than a thousand suspected hooligans. Critics contend, however, that the Russian state maintains tight links with bands of xenophobic toughs.

While bigotry in contemporary Russia often focuses on migrants, many of its victims are deeply rooted in the land. In its more virulent guises, Russian chauvinism scorns all non-Russians, including the indigenous minorities of central European Russia. Although physically indistinguishable from Russians, the Volga Finns suffer their share of attacks. In 2005, a group of Mari musicians were set upon by skinheads in Yoshkar-Ola, capital of Mari El. As reported by the Information Center of Finno-Ugric Peoples:

The skinheads said they did not like songs performed in the Mari language, started offending the artists, and hit some of them. A new attack followed when other artists and organizers of the concert walked home along a parkway. And all of them, including women, were beaten unmercifully by a group of thirty Russian skinheads.

According to the report, the extremist group responsible for the assault received support from the Mari El president, an ethnic Russian from Moscow. His regime, opponents claim, “has been marked by a chain of assaults, murders and constant persecution of political and cultural figures of the local nationality, the Maris.”

Unlike many non-Russians, the Volga Finns have long had the option of “becoming Russian.” By doing so, of course, they lose their identity and threaten the future of their ethnic groups. But Finnic-speakers, whose lands once encompassed all of northern and eastern European Russia, have been acculturating into the Russian ethnos for more than 1,000 years. Some scholars think that the Russians themselves are descended as much from Finnic- as Slavic-speaking populations.

The origins of the Russian people and state, most agree, can be traced back to the 9th century CE, when Swedish Vikings began to push through the rivers of western European Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, seeking opportunities to raid and trade in the Black Sea region of the Byzantine Empire. According to the conventional story, the Norse provided the initial leadership of the region’s emergent kingdom of Rus’, but they soon submerged into the dominant Slavic-speaking population that they ruled. It is now clear, however, that many Finnic-speakers were also incorporated into this state. According to the Estonian-American political scientist Rein Taagepera, “The Scandinavians provided the leaders and the name Rus’; the Slavic languages prevailed; and a major part of the genetic pool came from the Finnic tribes” (p. 46) (The “genetic pools” of the Finns, the Norse, and the Slavs, however, are much the same).

Another major infusion of Finnic peoples into the Russian ethnic formation came during the late 11th and early 12th centuries. By this time, the once-united Rus’ state had splintered into smaller principalities. After a powerful new confederation of Turkic-speaking nomads (the Cumans) moved into the southern grasslands, Russians began to relocate to the northeast, pushing into the upper Volga territories of Finnic-speaking Merya, Muroms, and Meshchera. Over the next several hundred years, these eastern Finns gradually disappeared, their populations merging into that of the Slavic-speaking Russians. In the 1300s and 1400s, this ethnically mixed upper Volga area emerged as the focus of a new Russian state that would eventually transform into the Russian Empire (see the maps posted above).

Unlike the Merya and Meshchera, the Finnic groups living further to the east—the Mari, the Mordvins, and the Urdmuts—were able to resist acculturation, maintaining their languages and ethnic identities to this day. But many of their villages and individuals did assimilate over the centuries, a process that the Russian government periodically pushed.

Repression of the Volga Finns lessened in the 1920s, and Lenin’s policy of limited autonomy for minority groups allowed a degree of secure cultural space. All of that was to change under Stalin, who feared—or claimed to fear—that “imperialistic” Finland was aiming to annex the lands of the eastern Finns.* As a result, he liquidated their leadership and intelligentsia. Conditions improved in the aftermath of Stalin’s death, but assimilation continued. As Robert Kaiser showed, “linguistic Russification” between 1959 and 1989 was particularly prevalent among groups speaking languages in the Finno-Ugric family (see Figure 6.2 of his Geography of Nationalism in Russia and the USSR).

Such policies have not entirely disappeared. Russia’s autonomous areas have recently been reduced in number, and what little autonomy they enjoy has been declining as the central government assumes more power. Education in local languages is being slowly whittled back. As was recently explored in Languages of the World, authorities shuttered the only Mari-language school in the Perm region in 2010, an action that outraged the broader Finnic community. According to the main Mari website:

Legislation developed since Vladimir Putin came in power in 1999 has been openly hostile to the minorities…. Russian has been declared the only official language of the country and is compulsory in all official communications. The language legislation of the republics has lost its legality when the laws of the administrative districts and republics have been harmonized with the constitutional laws of Russia.

* See Antal Bartha. 2004. “On Eastern Finno-Ugric History.” In The Finno-Ugric World, ed. György Nanovfszky. Teleki László Foundation

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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.

Contested Regionalism in Andalusia, León, and Asturias Read More »

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.

Catalonia: Nationality or Nation? Read More »