Southwest Asia and North Africa

Immigration and Religion in Turkey’s 2023 Presidential Election

In the Turkish presidential election of May 2023, long-term leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decisively defeated his challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, taking 52.18 percent of the vote to Kılıçdaroğlu’s 47.82 percent. The results were a surprise to many, as in April most polls had put Kılıçdaroğlu ahead, some by a commanding lead. In this election, Erdoğan’s opposition had finally forged a united front. Pronounced inflation, mounting indebtedness, and a devastating earthquake contributed to a widespread feeling that Erdoğan was headed to defeat. Yet in the end, Erdoğan received a higher percentage of the vote than he had in 2014 and only slightly less than in 2018.

Erdoğan is generally regarded as a strongly nationalist, right-wing populist with somewhat authoritarian inclinations, and for good reasons. Kılıçdaroğlu, in contrast, is a figure of the left, having been vice president of the Socialist International from 2012 to 2014. Yet on the crucial issues of immigration and refugees, Kılıçdaroğlu situated himself to the right of Erdoğan, at least in terms of how the left-right spectrum is conceptualized in the United States and Europe. As the election approached, moreover, Kılıçdaroğlu intensified his anti-immigrant rhetoric, telling his supporters that, “We will not abandon our homeland to this mentality that allowed 10 million irregular migrants to come among us.” (The figure is probably closer to five or six million, which is still a huge number for a country of 85 million.) Kılıçdaroğlu went so far as to seek and gain the support of the far-right anti-immigration politician Ümit Özdağ. A few days before the election the two men signed a seven-point protocol, one line of which stipulated that “All asylum seekers and fugitives, especially Syrians, will be sent back to their countries within one year at the latest.” At roughly the same time, Özdağ released a short film showing “a dystopian Turkey, dangerous for Turks and governed by Syrians, where speaking in Turkish is forbidden.” It quickly went viral on social media.

Did Kılıçdaroğlu’s increasingly harsh immigration stance contribute to his defeat? Some observers think so. According to Sinan Ciddi, “Kilicdaroglu’s turn to the political right appeared desperate and inconsistent, and likely turned off some Kurdish voters.” It is also noteworthy that Kilicdaroglu did not do very well in most areas with concentrated refugee populations (see the paired maps below). But overall, anti-immigrant rhetoric probably cost Kılıçdaroğlu few votes. Turkey’s massive refugee population is widely viewed as placing an intolerable burden on social order and the economy. As noted in a 2019 article, “83 percent of Turks said they view Syrian refugees negatively, while only 17 percent said they viewed them positively.”

Many observers credit Kılıçdaroğlu’s defeat instead to his lackluster campaign, a lack of genuine unity in his camp, and his neglect of core economic issues – as well as to the underhanded methods employed by Erdoğan’s campaign. Ciddi, however, claims that “the uncomfortable truth is that Erdogan won because Kemal Kilicdaroglu was his opponent,” arguing that the 74-year-old candidate’s “nomination was imposed from the top, with little to no deliberation.” A more dynamic opposition candidate who had been selected democratically, he implies, probably would have won.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s religious faith also probably contributed to his defeat. He is a member of the minority Alevi sect, a Shia offshoot that is followed by roughly 15 percent of the population of Turkey, otherwise a strongly Sunni country. Alevism is noted for its liberal and cosmopolitan orientation and for its belief that the core tenets of Islam should be interpreted in a decidedly non-literal manner. According to many strict Sunnis, Alevis do not even belong to the Muslim community. By publicly embracing his faith in the campaign, Kılıçdaroğlu took a calculated risk.  As the French political scientist Elise Massicard argues:

He broke a taboo. Until then, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi identity had been seen more as an incriminating campaign argument, as Alevis have a bad and often sulfurous reputation among a predominantly Sunni population. In recent years, they have been largely excluded from the power channels of Turkish President Recep Tayyip [Erdogan]’s AKP [Justice and Development Party] and its associated resources. This “coming out” – when everyone in Turkey knows Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi – is a way of reclaiming that identity and turning the stigma around.

Did such a “coming out” insure Kılıçdaroğlu’s defeat? I was told as much by a prominent Turkish intellectual, whose anonymity I respect. What is most clear, however, is that Kılıçdaroğlu performed extremely well in Alevi dominated areas. At the provincial level, his best showing was in Tunceli, the only Turkish province with an Alevi majority. (Although no numbers are provided, this is clear on the Wikipedia map of the election posted below.) The same pattern is more strikingly evident on the Electoral Geography 2.0 district-level map. Yet as this map also shows, Kılıçdaroğlu’s margin of victory was even larger in a few districts located far from Tunceli. Some of these showings, however, are explicable on the same religious grounds. Kılıçdaroğlu scored an overwhelming victory, for example, in Damal in the far northwest, and Damal is a district “populated by Alevi Turkmens.” But at the same time, Kılıçdaroğlu did not do well in many areas in Anatolia with sizable Alevi minorities, which might indicate strong anti-Alevi sentiments among their majority populations.

We shall examine other geographical patterns in the 2023 Turkish election in the next GeoCurrents post.

Immigration and Religion in Turkey’s 2023 Presidential Election Read More »

Turkey’s Dependence on Russian Energy, and Its Recent Natural Gas Discoveries

Turkey (officially, Türkiye) is an energy-poor country. Roughly 85% of its energy supply comes from fossil fuels, roughly equally divided among coal, oil, and natural gas. Coal is mined domestically and imported, but almost all of Turkey’s natural gas and oil comes from other countries. Russia supplies roughly half of its natural gas. Unlike most NATO countries, Turkey has not placed sanctions on Russia, and as a result its natural gas imports continue unabated.

Turkey also figures prominently in Russia’s global energy strategy. Two major pipelines transport Russian natural gas to Turkey, one of which (TurkStream) was recently completed (2020). Moscow and Ankara have hoped to turn Turkey into a major natural gas hub, allowing Russia to export gas to southern Europe without having to move it across Ukraine. The Ukraine War has complicated but not undermined such plans. As recently reported by Natural Gas Intelligence, “Russia is turning to Turkey as a potential natural gas hub partner with a new sense of urgency to find new export outlets for volumes left stranded by damages to the Nord Stream pipelines in September.” The Russian-Turkish energy partnership extends beyond natural gas. In 2021, Russia was Turkey’s second largest supplier of coal, following Colombia. Turkey’s first nuclear power plant (Akkuyu), has been jointly built by the Russian firm Atomstroexport and the Turkish construction company Özdoğu; it is expected to come online in 2023.  Financing has been almost entirely provided by Russian investors.

Political tensions between Russia and Turkey have periodically intruded on their energy collaboration. Most recently, Ankara irritated Moscow by asking for a 25 percent discount on natural gas payments and requesting that all payments be delayed until 2024 due to domestic economic problems. Building a Turkish hub for Russian gas exports also faces external economic and geopolitical obstacles, particularly from other NATO countries. As recently noted by Natural Gas Intelligence:

A Russia/Turkey gas hub would have to secure financing for the billions of dollars needed to construct new subsea pipelines under the Black Sea, which is currently in a war zone. Without access to Western technology and financing, a new pipeline project could take years to build.

Turkey’s energy prospects, however, have recently been transformed by substantial natural gas discoveries in its Black Sea Exclusive Economic Zone. In the final week of 2022, an estimated 170 billion-cubic-meter gas reserve was found at the Çaycuma-1 field. Combined with previous recent discoveries in the Sakarya field, Turkey’s natural gas reserves have been elevated to 710 billion cubic meters. Gas from these fields should become available sometime in 2023, alleviating Turkey’s energy crunch. Discoveries to date, however, are not adequate to meet long-term needs, as the country consumes 50 to 60 billion cubic meters of gas every year. To put recent Turkish discoveries in global context, Russia has proven natural gas reserves of some 50,000 cubic kilometers.

Coal remains one of Turkey’s major energy sources, thwarting its ability to decrease its carbon emissions. Turkey’s domestic coal industry is highly subsidized in order to reduce natural gas imports. Lignite, the least energy-dense and most polluting form of coal, predominates. Coal production surged from 2015 to 2019 but has declined since then. To meet the country’s growing demand, imports have surged in recent years. The war in Ukraine, however, has disrupted supplies and increased costs, generating economic hardship. Particularly hard hit is Turkey’s large and energy-intensive cement industry. CemNet reported in March 2022 that the Turkish cement industry was facing an “imminent crisis.”  In 2014, Turkey was the world’s fifth largest cement producer, following only China, India, the United States, and Iran.

Turkey has made relatively modest investments in renewable energy. Hydropower has long provided roughly 20 percent of its electricity, but recent droughts have reduced the supply. Turkey’s has good climatological potential for solar and wind, and wind power is now growing, providing about 10 percent of the country’s electricity. In 2021 the energy think tank Ember reported that “it is now cheaper to build new wind or solar for power generation in Turkey than running even the most efficient hard coal power plant that relies on coal imports.” Ember’s analysts thus foresee an accelerating transition to renewable power, with a “win-win-win situation” resulting in “lower import bills, lower emissions, [and a] lower carbon levy by the EU.” Such hopes may be overstated. Energy intermittency and the lack of economically feasible storage still poses a major obstacle to solar and wind energy development in Turkey – as in the rest of the world.

Turkey’s Dependence on Russian Energy, and Its Recent Natural Gas Discoveries Read More »

Are the Kurds Linked to the Bronze-Age Hurrians? Is Tattooing Evidence of This Connection?

The Kurdish national myth links the origin of the ethnic group to the ancient Medes, an Iranian people who supposedly carved out a large empire that was quickly supplanted by that of the much better-known (and closely related) Persians in the 6th century BCE. As the Wikipedia article on the Kurds notes:

Many Kurds consider themselves descended from the Medes, an ancient Iranian people, and even use a calendar dating from 612 BC, when the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was conquered by the Medes. The claimed Median descent is reflected in the words of the Kurdish national anthem: “We are the children of the Medes and Kai Khosrow.”

Few if any scholars give credence to this theory. The poorly documented language of the ancient Medes does seem to have been closely related to Kurdish, with both languages placed on the Northwestern side-branch of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language tree. But the Median language does not seem to be any more closely related to Kurdish that it is to any of the other modern languages on the same branch. More to the point, historians increasingly doubt whether the Medes ever created a coherent state, let alone a vast empire. What little is known about their political organization comes from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, with Assyrian cuneiform archives providing a little additional information. Herodotus certainly assigned a prominent position to the Medes, but otherwise evidence about their geopolitical role is essentially lacking.

The Kurdish emphasis on their supposed Median progenitors is not surprising. In ethno-nationalist discourse, powerful and illustrious peoples from bygone eras are often enshrined in an ancestral position to bolster feelings of national pride. Such self-serving stories usually have little historical support and are therefore regarded with suspicion or outright contempt by most impartial scholars.

But if there is no solid evidence that the Kurds are the descendants of the ancient Meads, that does not necessarily mean that they have no cultural, historical, or genetic roots in ancient ethnic formations. Scholarship on such topics is often precarious, however, as the evidence is generally murky and national ideologies tend to intrude. But as long as they are based on some reasonable evidence, such “primordialist” ideas should not be rejected out of hand. Many of them warrant further inquiry, regardless of whether they seem farfetched.

To my mind, the most intriguing thesis on ancient Kurdish roots is found in the early works of Michael Mehrdad Izadi, one of the world’s most preeminent historical and cultural cartographers (his map collection, found at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, is a cartographic treasure trove). Born to a Kurdish father and Belgian mother, Izadi has deep and abiding interests in the Kurdish people. Some of his early writings on this topic can be found at Kurdistanica.com. Here he expounds his thesis of partial Kurdish descent from the ancient Hurrians, a Bronze-Age people who were associated with a powerful state (or empire) called Mitanni. Although the Hurrians, unlike the Kurds, were not an Indo-European people, some of their leaders, experts in chariot warfare, evidently were; their personal names, and even some of their deities, link them to the Indic (or Indo-Aryan) branch of Indo-European language family.

If Izady’s thesis is correct, the Kurds would have originated from an amalgamation of the ancient Hurrians and more powerful, mostly male, Indo-European-speaking intruders (initially speaking an Indo-Aryan language and later speaking one or more Iranian language). In global historical terms, this scenario fits into a common pattern. The languages of more military powerful peoples often supplant those of less powerful peoples, but other cultural aspects of the original group often survive with relatively little change. This is what Izady sees when he peers into the distant Kurdish past:

The legacy of the Hurrians to the present culture of the Kurds is fundamental. It is manifest in the realm of Kurdish religion, mythology, material and martial arts, and even the genetics. Nearly three-quarters of Kurdish clan names and roughly half of topographical and urban names are also of Hurrian origins, ….  Mythological and religious symbols present in the art of the later Hurrian dynasties, such as the Mannaeans and Kassites of eastern Kurdistan, and the Lullus of the southeast, present in part what can still be observed in the Kurdish ancient religion of Yazdanism, better-known today by its various denominations as Alevism, Yezidism,and Yarisanism (Ahl-i Haqq).

Izady’s interpretation of Kurdish origins and religious beliefs, it must be noted, has been rejected by many experts in the field. The Wikipedia article on Izady includes some crudely dismissive comments, albeit made by some equally controversial scholars. In the long run, it is usually best to neither embrace nor dismiss evidence-based but non-mainstream interpretations of deep historical processes. Most of our key theories in both the natural and human sciences, after all, were once roundly rejected for contravening the established consensus.

When the language of an elite population replaces the language of a subordinated group, traces of the older language often persist in the form of vocabulary elements, sounds, and even grammatical structures. If Izady’s thesis is correct, one might expect to find such a Hurrian “substratatum” in the modern Kurdish language(s) (or, more precisely, a Hurro-Urartian substratum, as Hurrian’s only known relative was the language of the Iron Age Kingdom of Urartu in what is now eastern Turkey and Armenia). As it turns out, evidence does exist for such linguistic traces. Several years ago, the blogsite Within the Lands of Kurda ran a three-part series on this topic, entitled “The Hurro-Urartian Substratum in Kurdish.” Each of these posts is worth quoting:

It has long been shown by scholars that significant portion of Kurdish toponymy originates from Hurro-Urartian; examples are ”Barzani” which was name of a Hurrian god …

Indeed, there are hardly any cases where there is not a ”native” [i.e. Hurro-Urartian] Kurdish equivalent for the superimposed Irano-Kurdish words.

As can be seen, Kurdish language appears to be a creole language formed after an amalgamation of Hurro-Urartian and Iranic languages. The Hurro-Urartian layer, showing itself as an older substratum in which Urartian is stronger, while the Iranic layer, which began undoubtedly with the Scytho-Cimmerian invasion of Urartu emerges as a superstratum. The Iranic layer was further intensified with a wave of clearly identifiable Middle Persian loanwords under the Sassanid period, during which, Iranic aristocrats played a prominent role in local affairs

The author received some harsh criticism, however, in the comments section of the blog, particularly regarding the idea that Kurdish is a creole language. Linguists have very strict rules for determining such matters, and the author probably took a step too far. All that I can conclude from my own cursory investigation is that a major Hurrian-Urartian substratum in Kurdish as an intriguing possibility that deserves further inquiry.

Perhaps the most interesting line of evidence for the Hurrian roots of the Kurdish people comes from the realm of tattooing. Tattoos are haram, or forbidden under Islamic law, but Muslim Kurds – particularly women – have nonetheless maintained this ancient practice to this day, although it does seem to be slowly disappearing. Traditional Kurdish tattoos, primarily placed on the hands and face, are called deq. They are based on an elaborate symbolic system, sometimes deemed a “secret language.” Izady sees a clear Hurrian linkage here as well:

It is fascinating to recognize the origin of many tattooing motifs still used by the traditional Kurds on their bodies as replicas of those which appear on the Hurrian figurines. One such is the combination that incorporates serpent, sun disc, dog and comb/rain motifs. In fact, some of these Hurrian tattoo motifs are also present in the religious decorative arts of the Yezidi Kurds, as found prominently engraved to the wall at the great shrine at Lalish.

Regardless of any connections to the ancient Hurrians, deq tattooing is a fascinating topic in its own right. Several recent articles have focused on this endangered cultural tradition. I will  conclude this post with quotations from two of these publications. First, from The Bajer:

DEQ is a secret language, mainly among women. … In some cultures, tattoos stand for religion, power, and joy; others believe the practice of DEQ has therapeutic power. According to some women I have interviewed, DEQ is a reminder of loss, a way to immortalize their loved ones. They keep essential memories constantly in mind with powerful symbols on apparent parts of the body, such as the face, feet, arms, hands, and chest.

DEQ differs from the modern tattoo with its unique ingredients and recipe, which varies across different ethnic groups. DEQ tattoo ingredients include sheet metal soot or ash, coal dust, milk from a lactating mother who has weaned a female baby, which is believed to make the tattoo stick permanently, and liquid from an animal’s gallbladder. The application of DEQ includes embroidering the mixture into the skin through one to three needles.

Second, from Daily Sabah:

Deq symbols have different connotations but most of them are believed to protect women from evil forces. They are said to bring good health, cure illnesses and be associated with fertility and tribal affiliations. The figure of an eye is said to divert the evil eye, while an image of a gazelle brings luck. The figure of the sun or the moon refers to an endless and healthy life and an illustration of a millipede is associated with good housekeeping. For beautification, the figure of the moon or a star is preferred. The common “V” symbol is a tribal identifier. Certain geometrical figures or animal images refer to fertility. “Deq” is seen as an accessory, something that elderly women in Turkey’s southeast proudly show. Jodi Hilton, an American photojournalist, visited Syrians who have been displaced by the DAESH [ISIS] siege and now live at refugee camps in Turkey. There, she documented some of the last-remaining tattooed women from the Syrian town of Kobani.

Are the Kurds Linked to the Bronze-Age Hurrians? Is Tattooing Evidence of This Connection? Read More »

Iran’s Kurdish Population: Anti-Regime in the Northwest; Pro-Regime in the Northeast

Many maps of the current Iran protest movement have been published and posted, showing both cumulative and daily events. Although such maps are highly useful, the patterns that they indicate are not easily discerned. Protests have been happening in so many places that a map of their occurrences approximates a population density map of the country (see the excellent population density map by Michael Izady posted below). Close analysis, however, shows a distinct concentration of protests in the historically Kurdish region in northwestern Iran (see especially first map posted below). This is no surprise. Mahsa Amini was herself Kurdish, and Iran’s Kurdish population has long been noted for its relatively liberal and anti-regime sentiments.

Protests have been relatively sparse, however, in North Khorasan province in northeastern Iran, which is almost half Kurdish. North Khorasan is not part of historical Kurdistan; Kurds were deported from their homeland to this region in the early modern period by Safavid shahs who wanted their help in protecting their empire against Turkmen and Uzbek pastoral peoples from Central Asia. Evidently, pro-Kurdish and anti-regime sentiments are much less pronounced here than they are in the solidly Kurdish regions of the northwest. Population distribution probably plays a role. Although many of the Kurds in North Khorasan live in Kurdish villages, the province’s cities are ethnically mixed, counting many Farsi-speakers and Turkmens. This mixing has perhaps diminished ethnic identity among the region’s urban Kurds.

Electoral returns, however, indicate that deeper factors are at play. North Khorasan, like most of the rest of northeastern Iran, is a conservative area that gives most of its votes to hardline, pro-regime candidates. Reformist candidates would not do so poorly in this province if they received widespread support from the local Kurdish population. Posted below are three Wikipedia maps of relative fair Iranian presidential elections, all of which show moderate/reformist candidates winning in the historically Kurdish northwest yet doing poorly in heavily Kurdish North Khorasan. The 2001 map, which shows vote percentages at the district level, best illustrates this pattern. As can be seen, the most heavily Kurdish areas of the northwest gave more than 84 percent of their votes to Mohammad Khatami, the incumbent champion of relatively free expression, civil society, and a “dialogue among civilizations.” North Khorasan, however, gave Khatami fewer than 39 percent of its votes. Intriguingly, nearby areas to the south and east, with much smaller Kurdish populations, gave Khatami a significantly larger share of their votes.

The relative conservatism of Iran’s northeastern Kurds is an interesting phenomenon that has received little attention in the English-language literature. I can only wonder whether Iranian scholars, pundits, and political activists have examined it.

Iran’s Kurdish Population: Anti-Regime in the Northwest; Pro-Regime in the Northeast Read More »

Iran’s Striking Decline in Religiosity

The GAMMAN survey on religious beliefs in Iran, discussed in yesterday’s post, has some interesting and unexpected results. According to conventional sources, over 90 percent of Iran’s people follow Shia Islam; according to GAMAAN, only around a third of the Iran people actually believe Shia doctrine. Most of the rest are supposedly either non-religious or religiously heterodox in one way or another. If these results are accurate, Iran is much more similar to Europe in terms of religiosity than it is to most other Middle Eastern countries. Although the GAAMAN results may be exaggerated, it is clear that many Iranians have turned away from religion. They have done in part because of the brutality and incompetence of their country’s theocratic government. Tensions with the Arabic-speaking world also seem to play a role. Many Iranians stereotype Arabs as prone to religious extremism, and some blame them for politicizing Islam and thus contributing to the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution. This attitude puts pressure on Iran’s own Arab minority, and in turn pushes them to respond. As reported in the Wikipedia article on Iran’s 2016 pro-monarchical Cyrus the Great protests:

Despite the anti-Arab slogans chanted by some, a perception by many Iranians that Arab cultural dominance has entered Iran through the government’s political Islam, Iranian, Arabs, traveling from as far west as Khuzestan, gathered in support of the protest, chanting slogans in Arabic in support of indigenous minorities and the use of their native languages, which has often been repressed by the Iranian government in favor of Persia.

The GAMAAN survey puts Iran’s Sunni Muslim minority at five percent of the total population, which is similar to the conventional figure. If these figures are correct, Sunni religious beliefs in Iran have not appreciably declined, unlike those of the Shia community. As can be seen on Michael Izady’s map of religion in Iran, Sunni Islam is followed mostly by members of ethnic minorities: Baluchs in the southeast, Turkmens in the northeast, and Kurds in the northwest. Note also that Izady pegs Iran’s Sunni population at 11 percent. Other sources suggest that it could be as high as 25 percent, a figure that, if true, is concealed by the Shia establishment. If these higher numbers are accurate and if the GAMAAN figures are also correct, then Sunni Islam has also experienced a pronounced erosion of belief in Iran. If this is indeed the case, I suspect that the drop in Sunni religiosity is most pronounced in the Kurdish northwest. The Kurds in general are a relatively secular people who are also inclined to religious heterodoxy.

The most surprising aspect of the GAMAAN survey is the prominent position of Zoroastrianism. It found that almost eight percent of Iran’s people claim to follow this faith, which had been the predominant religion of Iran before the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. According to official statistics, Iran’s Zoroastrian community is tiny: roughly 25,000 people out of a national population of almost 87 million. It is inconceivable that millions of Iranians have converted to this venerable but dwindling faith, commonly regarded as in some danger of extinction. But increasing numbers of Iranians do express solidarity with, and interest in, Zoroastrianism. They do so both to distance themselves from the Shia clerical regime and to show their loyalty to a deeply rooted version of Iranian nationalism. Zoroastrianism has also seen something of a revival among the Kurds of Iraq, and perhaps in Central Asia as well.

The Iranian government is not happy about the revival of interest in Zoroastrianism. According to a recent article in Swarajya magazine, it is “the religion that the Iranian mullahs fear the most.” Iran’s theocratic regime is also worried about Yarsan, a mystical faith with some connection to Zoroastrianism that is followed by up to one million Iranian Kurds. As IranWire recently noted, “Official report calls Yarsan religious minority a ‘security threat.’”

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Could Iran’s Government Fall?

In lecturing last night in my Stanford University Continuing Studies (adult education) class on the current protest movement in Iran, I asked one big question and provided three different possible answers. The question was: “Could massive, determined and prolonged protests bring down the Iranian Government?”

The first answer was “extremely unlikely.” Massive protests have been occurring almost continually in Iran since the so-called Green Movement of 2009, but none has shown any sign of appreciably weakening the Iranian government. In comparative terms as well, protest movements rarely result in such a major change. Repression generally works well in quelling dissent, and the Iranian government is more than willing to use harshly repressive measures. It also has a huge internal security apparatus ready to carry out its directives.

My second answer was, “certainly possible.” Massive protest movements have in the past brought down governments, the most compelling example being the “Islamic Revolution” of 1979 in Iran itself, which took down the repressive regime of the Shah. After a little more than a year of huge protests, strikes, and civil disobedience, the government was no longer able to function. It therefore essentially disbanded itself without facing an actual armed rebellion or possible foreign intervention. Even if hundreds of protests are brutally repressed and therefore seem insignificant, one successful movement can topple a regime and thus change the course of history. In retrospect, such an event can seem inevitable.

My third answer was “likely, sometime within the next twenty years.” My reasoning here is based on both the determination of the Iranian protesters and the high level of support that they seem to be getting from the population at large. The government’s increasing repression and elimination of the country’s veneer of democracy in favor of complete theocracy is also pushing Iran to the tipping point. Before 2021, moderate and even relatively liberal candidates often won Iranian presidential elections, giving the people some hope for reform from within. In 2021, however, the major reformist figures were barred from competing. As a result, relatively few Iranians bothered to vote. Yet it still seems that extensive manipulation of the vote was necessary to ensure a solid victory for the regime’s favored candidate, Ebrahim Raisi. An extreme hard-liner, Raisi openly brags about his key role in the execution of between 2,800 and 30,000 political prisoners in 1988.

As a result of such developments, support for the current Iranian regime seems to be evaporating. The main demands of the protestors have thus changed from redress of grievances to wholesale political transformation. More important in the long run, evidence also indicates that the Iranian people are not just abandoning faith in their government, but also faith in the religious beliefs that underlay the Islamic Republic. Although conventional assessments hold Iran to be an overwhelmingly Shia Muslim country, a recent survey indicates that this is no longer the case.  Instead, the country has shifted in decidedly secular direction. A 2020 article in The Conversation, based on research conducted by The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN (GAMAAN) contends that only a around a third of Iranian citizens now follow Shia Islam. The rather astounding results of this research project can be seen in the two figures posted below. (Some of the oddities found in the pie chart, such as the high figure for Zoroastrianism, will be discussed in tomorrow’s post.)

If these findings are accurate, it becomes questionable whether Iran’s nakedly theocratic regime can persist for long. In such circumstances, heightened repression could easily result in increased opposition. Eventually, the dam will break. Such a momentous event will probably not happen in a few months, but within a few years or at least a few decades, Iran will probably undergo another protest-led revolution, this one of a secular and democratic nature.

Could Iran’s Government Fall? Read More »

ISIS Lectures Slides in PDF

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

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

 

Slides in PDF:

ISIS Lecture PDF

ISIS Lectures Slides in PDF Read More »

Lecture Slides on ISIS

ISIS LectureDear Readers,

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

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

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

 

Slides:

ISIS,March29,2016

 

 

 

Lecture Slides on ISIS Read More »

Customizable Maps of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Indonesia

Provinces of Iran MapToday’s GeoCurrents post provides free customizable maps of the provinces of Iran, the provinces of Indonesia, the states of Malaysia, and the regions of Saudi Arabia. An additional map shows the major cities of Iran as well as the country’s provinces. These maps are constructed with simple presentation software, available in both PowerPoint and Keynote formats. To obtain these customizable maps, simply click at the links at the bottom of the post.

 

I hope to provide the remainder of the GeoCurrents customizable maps next week.

Regions of Saudi Arabia MapProvinces of Indonesia MapStates of Malaysia MapProvinces and Cities of Iran MapCustomizable Maps Iran Saudi Arabia Malaysia Indonesia

Customizable Maps Iran Saudi Arabia Malaysia Indonesia

Customizable Maps of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Indonesia Read More »

Mapping ISIS at the Institute For the Study of War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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GeoCurrents Editorial: Recognition for Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Bosnia & Herzegovina Option

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

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

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

 

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

The Delusion of Reunification

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

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

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

The Matter of Precedent

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

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

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

 

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

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

Problems Behind, Problems Ahead

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Kurdistan and Balochistan: Is National Self-Determination a Left/Right Issue?

I have been wondering for some time how the issue of self-determination for so-called stateless nations fits into the standard, one-dimensional political spectrum. Historically, those on the left have been more favorably disposed to “national liberation struggles” than those on the right, who have more often advocated stability and the maintenance of the geopolitical status quo. By the same token, most of the best-known groups of the late 20th century that sought the independence of their homelands staked out positions on the left, and often on the far left. Prominent examples here include the Kurdish separatists in Turkey, Catalan and Basque separatists in Spain, and Quebecois separatists in Canada. Even support for Scottish independence tilts left, and I suspect that most international advocates of a “Free Tibet” lean in the same direction.

Recently, however, several opinion pieces have made me wonder whether the poles might be shifting on this matter. Is the left becoming suspicious of the idea of self-determination for stateless ethnic groups, just as the right warms up to it? Two problematic and utterly opposed articles command my attention in this regard. From the left comes Max Fisher’s “Why DC Loves Biden’s Terrible Plan to Divide Iraq,” published in Vox on August 5, 2015. From the right comes Josh Gelernter’s “Balochistan: Captive Nation,” published in The National Review on September 4, 2015. One should, of course, be wary of reading too much into such a limited selection of idiosyncratic writings. As such, the current post should be read as merely exploratory rather than as conclusive in any way.

Before examining these two articles, it is necessary to consider the political spectrum itself. I am intrigued by the uncertain position of the self-determination question in part because it unsettles the very idea of a one-dimensional continuum of political belief, a notion that remains omnipresent no matter how often and how effectively it is challenged. As has often been noted, the extreme left and the extreme right often bear more resemblance to each other than they do to either the moderate left or the moderate right respectively. Equally significant, there are no logical reasons why many of the various beliefs that constitute the current mainstream “left” and “right” viewpoints necessarily belong together. A number of specific positions that were once counted as firmly “left” are now more often deemed “right,” and vice versa. To be sure, the political beliefs of most people can readily be placed on such a spectrum, but there are millions who simply don’t fit—as well as entire political movements premised on thwarting the very notion of a right-left continuum (that of the libertarians being the most prominent example).

Max Fisher’s Vox article, “Why DC Loves Biden’s Terrible Plan to Divide Iraq,” takes a rather extreme position against the self-determination of ethnic groups, or at least those that happen to be found in Iraq. Joe Biden’s “terrible plan” in question, proposed with Leslie Gelb in 2006, was designed to preserve rather than eliminate Iraq as a country. But Biden and Gelb argued that ethnic animosity had had reached such a level that it had become difficult if not impossible for Iraq to function as a unitary state. Instead, they argued, a federal system should be contemplated, one that would accord a significant degree of autonomy to Iraq’s three main group, the Sunni Arabs, the Shia Arabs, and the Kurds. The model that they proposed was that of Bosnia & Herzegovina, a country whose highly decentralized, ethnically based system of government had brought effective peace to what had been a war-shattered region.

 

 

Fisher pours contempt on the idea of such a decentralized, federally constituted Iraq. He argues that it would “enshrine sectarianism,” Iraq’s actual font of discord, into law. As such, its regional governments would only “give … citizens full rights and security if those citizens have the correct sectarian identity.” The solution, as Fisher sees it, is simply to eliminate sectarian impulses:

The only real way to solve sectarianism is by solving sectarianism, to overcome it by getting people to abandon the idea that they exist in a zero-sum contest for security with other sectarian groups that can only be regarded as innately hostile. It means building a new social contract in which security and rights are guaranteed irrespective of ethnicity or religion, signing everyone on to that new contract, and then proving it can actually work.

Division of Iraq MapAlthough the idea of overcoming ethnic divisions is laudable, making it happen is another matter altogether. Here, Fisher has virtually nothing to say beyond blaming the United States for Iraq’s turmoil and asking a number of rhetorical questions that he admits have “no real answers.” As a result, Fisher’s proposals are almost laughable naive. In actuality, Iraq is at present effectively divided into three regions, with the officially recognized “national” government controlling the south, the largely autonomous Kurdish regional government the northeast, and ISIS the northwest. As can be seen from the paired maps posted here, the current fit between ethnic groups and political control is close indeed. The idea of the intrinsic nationhood of Iraq as a whole has lost most of the power that it once held, and will likely prove almost impossible to revive to any significant degree. And even in its heyday, Iraqi national solidarity remained precarious, as it was not easy to generate feelings of common identity around a country that had been largely created by Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell, two  British imperial agents widely despised in the region. The leaders of ISIS are well aware of this conundrum, and they benefit from it tremendously.

Fisher also errs in assuming that any regional governments in an ethnically divided of Iraq, be they fully independent or merely autonomous, would necessarily deny basic rights to members of minority faiths and linguistic groups. To see the falsity of this assertion, all one has to do is examine the actual situation in the territory under the authority of the Kurdish Regional Government. Although Iraqi Kurdistan faces a number of ethnic problems, it is still a refuge for minority groups that are deeply persecuted elsewhere in the region. In other parts of the world as well, many states founded on the national identity of a particular group afford a full array of rights and protections to their minority populations.

Josh Gelernter’s article, “Balochistan: Captive Nation,” takes the opposite perspective. It argues not merely for political autonomy for the Balochs of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but rather for their full independence. As he puts it:

Nonetheless, what’s right is right; the Balochs deserve self-determination. We should at least start by saying so. And at least one congressman has said so: In 2012, California Republican Dana Rohrabacher introduced a resolution calling for the House to recognize that “the people of Baluchistan [sic], currently divided between Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country” and that “they should be afforded the opportunity to choose their own status among the community of nations, living in peace and harmony, without external coercion.”

Elsewhere in the article, however, Gelernter indicates that his support for Baloch sovereignty is also based on U.S. strategic interests. As he puts it:

Like the Kurds, the Balochs are Muslims who, reportedly, have a strong pro-West and pro-democracy bent. According to the president of the Baloch Society of North America, the “Balochs are secular, pro-peace and democratic people. We believe that every nation, including the Jewish people, has the right to defend itself.”

Balochistan MapBut as Gelernter admits, open support for the independence of Balochistan would generate huge diplomatic headaches for the United States. Although he welcomes the prospect of “balkanizing Iran” in order to “distract Iran’s extra-territorial trouble-making,” he allows that “Pakistan is — at least nominally — our ally in the war on terror, and Balochistan accounts for more than 40 percent of Pakistan’s total territory.” Gelernter is also concerned about China’s possible response to such a U.S. foreign-policy initiative, especially in regard to the major port facilities that it has constructed in Gwadar. But his conclusion is nonetheless quite simple: “The United States should, as a rule, support the democratic aspirations of oppressed peoples.”

 

I find it astounding that the National Review, the leading voice of intellectual conservatism in the United States, would publish an article that calls for such a wholesale reorientation of U.S. foreign policy, openly challenging the entire post-WWII global geopolitical order. The consequences of U.S. support for the partition of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan would be nothing less than earthshaking. Although I admire Gelernter’s audacity and willingness to think independently, this particular proposal seems to be a non-starter.

Not surprisingly, most of the few comments that Gelernter’s article received are highly skeptical. The most informed remarks, those of “AxelHeyst,” are scathingly critical. As this anonymous commentator writes:

Writing as someone who knows a lot more about this issue than the author, I can attest that this piece is utter nonsense.

The Baloch have never once in their history been a united nation. They are a rag-bag of tribes, none of which feels any loyalty to the others. Their chieftains lead lives of extraordinary privilege and are heavily implicated in the opium trade from Afghanistan, through Iran and into Turkey and Europe. Those chiefs have no desire whatsoever to see economic development, because it would threaten their feudal rights and drug trade.

Pakistan does NOT treat Balochistan like a colonial possession. Just ask the Canadian and Chilean companies who tried to mine there…a provincial court tore up their concession. Pakistan’s supreme court said it couldn’t intervene.

Various foreign intelligence agencies have tried to stir up the Baloch against Iran and Pakistan, notably Israel’s Mossad and India’s R&AW. The CIA were particularly critical of Mossad’s effort, given that the CIA got the blame for the decapitation of a number of Iranian border guards who were actually murdered by a Mossad-backed group. (See the article ‘False Flag’ in Foreign Policy magazine, 2012).

I don’t know what the hell Rohrabacher’s doing with this issue, or whether he fancies himself a new Charlie Wilson, but persuading people to start killing each other for some trumped-up national identity is about as irresponsible as it gets. Vote him out.

My own position is roughly halfway between those of Gelernter and “AxelHeyst.” The Baloch have often been very poorly treated in both Iran and Pakistan, and many of their grievances are quite real. Equally important, denying their political aspirations merely because “never once in their history [have they] been a united nation” is simply nonsensical. By the same reasoning, one would have been forced to reject the Declaration of Independence of the United States in 1776. The majority of the word’s sovereign states, moreover, fall into the same category, never having been “united nations” before they gained sovereignty. But such arguments do not mean that advocating independence is the best way of addressing the plight of the Baloch. If a major foreign power such as the United States were to seriously push for the full sovereignty of Balochistan, gargantuan problems would almost certainly arise.

The issues addressed in this post are extraordinarily complex. As such, they defy simply political classification. Whether or not one supports a particular bid for national self-determination, moreover, often comes down to political expedience rather than principle. Writers on the left are more inclined to champion national liberation struggles that are based on leftist principles and that seek independence from non-leftist states than they are to favor similar struggles with different political coloration. By the same token, conservatives in the United States generally look more favorably on peoples seeking independence from anti-American governments than on those hoping to partition U.S. allies.

Can one take a principled or at least consistent stand on such matters? That will be the topic of the next GeoCurrents post.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Troubled Socotra – the “World’s Most Alien Place” – Seeks Autonomy

Socotra mapYemen’s Socotra Archipelago, dominated by the main island of the same name, is best known for its unique flora, with almost 700 species found nowhere else. Some of its plants have gained fame for their unusual forms, such as the dragon blood tree and the cucumber tree. Socotra’s millions of years of isolation, its complex geology, and its harsh climate have contributed to the evolution of its vegetational oddities. Owing to such plant life, the Dragon Blood Treeisland is often described as the “most alien place on Earth” (see also here). It has also been famed since antiquity as a place of magic. Marco Polo supposedly claimed that, “The people of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world.”

Cucumber TreeA relatively arid land, most of the island receives only about 250 millimeters (10 inches) of rain annually, fairly evenly distributed across the year. The Haghier Mountains in the center-northeast, which reach 1,500 meters (almost 5,000 feet), are considerably wetter and cooler than the rest of the island. Catching both the southwest and northeast monsoon winds, Socotra Satellite Imagethese highlands experience frequent seasonal fog. As a recent meteorological study concluded, “Preliminary measurements suggest that at higher altitudes, fog-derived moisture may constitute up to two-thirds of total moisture, amounting up to 800 mm.” Fog drip is vital for dragon blood tree, which in turn provides shade necessary for the survival of many other species. The tree itself is widely regarded as something of a wonder, as its red resin provides a wide array of products. According to the Wikipedia, it is used as a stimulant, abortifacient, astringent, toothpaste, breath freshener, lipstick, wound dressing, coagulant, varnish (especially for violins), and treatment for rheumatism, diarrhea, dysentery, fever, and ulcers.

Unfortunately, Socotra is currently a troubled place, and even its iconic dragon blood tree is in some danger. Socotra’s problems are mostly not of its own doing, but rather stem from the fact that it is part of Yemen. As Al Jazeera recently reported:

The current power vacuum in Yemen has left Socotra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in a precarious situation. Concerned about the rise in food, fuel and gas prices, islanders have scrambled to purchase goods in the island’s capital, Hadibo. Budgets for infrastructure and recreation have also dropped amid the turmoil, island residents say – and because all flights to Socotra require a stopover on the mainland, tourism has also taken a hit.

According to the BBC, tourist arrivals dropped from around 4,000 in 2010 to some 1,400 in 2013, delivering a devastating blow to the nascent business. But tourism on Socotra seems to be adapting, and direct flights from Dubai now available weekly for $650. The drop in fuel subsidies, however, continues to generate discomfort. According to a recent article in Yemen Times, “the island’s pristine nature and rare plant life has come under threat from a domestic fuel crisis that has left locals without gas or electricity, forcing many to begin cutting down the rare trees to collect firewood”

Socotra has faced other perils in recent years. In 2011, reports claimed that Somali pirates were using the archipelago as a refueling hub. More recently, rumors have been circulating that the United States and Yemen are planning “to build a military prison — a ‘new Guantánamo’ — on the remote island of Socotra.” A less likely threat comes from the government of Somalia, which has “claimed that the islands of Yemeni Socotra Archipelago are part of it, requesting the United Nations to determine the status of the archipelago…” Considering Somalia’s inability to control its own territory, such claims hardly seem realistic. They would also be vehemently rejected by the majority of Socotra’s inhabitants, whose cultural and historical affinities are with the Al Mahrah region of eastern Yemen, not Somalia. (The marginalized

Greater Somalia MapSocotran minority of African descent, however, might feel otherwise.) Still, in newspaper discussion forums, some commentators claim that Socotra is rightfully part of Somalia. Here I find the comments of one Hassan Adam to be particularly pertinent: “In the good old days of greater Somalia we were taught in the school that Socotra is part of Somalia — but no more.  I guess Somaliland or Djibouti could claim better. Today its part and parcel of Yemen and the people are more Yeminate in their Arabic than Somali. Let us conserve for all.”

Although, as Hassan Adam notes, Arabic is widely spoken on Socotra, it is not the first language of the island’s indigenous inhabitants. The people of Socotra, some 50,000 strong, speak Soqotri, a South Arabian Languages Mapmodern South Arabian language most closely related to Mehri of Yemen’s Al Mahrah Governorate. Soqotri, however, is quite distinctive. As noted in the Wikipedia, “the isolation of the island of Socotra has led to the Soqotri language independently developing certain phonetic characteristics absent in even the closely related languages of the mainland.” As Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle noted in a 2003 study, Soqotri is characterized by a high level of dialectal diversity. She expressed concern, however, that many of its dialects are disappearing. She also claimed that the language itself is under some threat from the spread of Arabic:

The influence of Arabic is noticeable in the numeration system: seven years ago, Soqotri people, from the inland or remote places, used the Soqotri system of numeration from one to ten in commercial transactions with other Soqotri speakers in ˆadibo. But, in 2001 in ˆadibo, even old people used Arabic system, and it was very difficult to obtain the first ten numbers in Soqotri from young people. When they remember Soqotri, the syntax was often incorrect, and copied from Arabic.

Many young people in the town borrow from Arabic, and code-switch with Arabic; they do not remember any piece of literature…

One problem faced by Soqotri is its historical lack of a written form that could be used to preserve the island’s rich poetic traditions. That stumbling block, however, has recently been eliminated, as a Russian team of linguists led by Vitaly Naumkin has devised a writing system for the language. As was recently reported in Al Jazeera:

[Naumkin’s] team also invited Socotri-speaking “informants” to Moscow – where they spent months retelling their mother island’s oral poetry and folk tales, or conjugating verbs for the Socotri grammar tables.

There, in 2010, one of the informants named ‘Isa Gum’an used the Arabic script to write down a story he’d heard from a friend. “It was our major surprise … when one November evening in 2010, ‘Isa Gum’an somewhat timidly revealed to us that, in order to better preserve an interesting story he had heard from a friend a few days earlier, he had decided to put it in writing using Arabic script,” Naumkin wrote in the preface to the 2014 book of Socotran folklore.

The eureka moment prompted the invention of an easily accessible Socotri alphabet based on the Arabic script. To reflect the phonetics of Socotri, Russian linguists decided to add four letters to the Arabic alphabet – using symbols that denote non-Arabic phonemes in the languages of the Indian subcontinent.

But it was not the use of the Arabic script and additional symbols that make the new alphabet matter – it is the comprehensive scientific effort that followed it.

Such Russian interest in Socotra might seem surprising, but Socotra was formerly part of South Yemen, which was a close Soviet ally in the 1970s and ‘80s. For a time, the island even hosted a Soviet military base.

Today, political discontent in Socotra understandably runs high. Dissatisfaction with Yemeni rule, however, may be leading to a revival of the Soqotri language. A 2012 article by Nathalie Peutz provides essential context. As she reports:

For if revolution has reached Socotra, as many young enthusiasts in Hadiboh would claim, it is manifest not merely in the biweekly gatherings of male protesters marching through the dusty market to the familiar slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime.” It is evident also in the way that Socotrans have begun to speak openly and forcefully about their preferences for Socotra’s political future. And it was measurable in the islands’ largest cultural event, a five-day festival during which nine Socotran wordsmiths vied for the title of “poet of the year.” Now in its fourth year, the festival, which began on the eve of 2012, featured poem after poem, in the islanders’ native Suqutri tongue, reflecting on the Arab revolts, the turmoil on the mainland and the fate of the archipelago. Where political discontent long found expression in ruminations on a pastoral past, today it is articulated in contending verses on the prospects for Socotran sovereignty.

Mahra Sultanate MapPeutz also reports that although many Socotrans look back at the period when the island was part of the Mahra Sultanate of central-southern Arabia as a “time of autonomous, sovereign statehood,” they still tend to view the sultanate itself as a foreign, mainland imposition. As a result, many want full autonomy or even independence. Yemen did make Socotra a separate governorate in 2013, but that was not enough to satisfy local aspirations. But as Peutz’s reporting makes clear, Socotran’s are far from united in their vision of the island’s political future:

Many poets wrestled over the future of Socotra, with some calling for “return” to south Yemen (through secession with the former South) and others calling for total independence (or even restoration of the sultanate). Several presented the practical problems of secession; others argued for or against the former Socialist regime and Yemen’s 1990 unification. … Many poets decried the factionalism brewing in Socotra. One warned evocatively that, in such a climate, not even the swollen riverbeds yield pasture, though the streets were not yet stained with the “colors” (blood) of Tunisia or Libya. Another argued against the proposed Socotra Authority. Even the few verses about the sultanate were juxtaposed to the “fires” or “dark rain clouds” of the present.

 

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