ethnic diversity

The Simplistic World-View of Thomas L. Friedman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Election Controversies and Ethnic Complexities on the Not-So-Tiny Island of Bougainville

In June 2010, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) voted out three quarters of its parliamentary representatives along with its president. Whereas the outgoing leader was a former revolutionary committed to independence, the newly elected chief executive favors continuing ties with PNG. Most sources, however, do not see a loss of interest in sovereignty. The election focused on governmental competence, which the voters of Bougainville evidently found wanting in the former administration. Another divisive issue was the future of the shuttered Panguna mine. While most candidates supported reopening, they disagreed over who should carry it out. Some favored returning control to the former operator, a subsidiary of global mining giant Rio Tinto; others argued for turning to Chinese investors.

Security formed another electoral concern. Interethnic strife remains deadly, although the body count has diminished in recent years. Violence is concentrated in southern Bougainville where, according to The Economist (June 10, 2010, page 47), “some 14 armed militia groups still openly carry arms.” During the election campaign, the successful challenger accused the incumbent of condoning the warlords who hold sway over much of the south.

Ethnic tension in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville is linked to pronounced cultural fragmentation. Roughly two dozen languages in three families are spoken by the region’s 175,000 inhabitants. Two of these families, North Bougainville and South Bougainville, may be unique to the island. They were formerly classified within the Papuan family, but linguists no longer think that the “Papuan languages” constitute a genuine group, descended from a common ancestral tongue. Other forms of cultural distinctiveness further divide the peoples of Bougainville. According to the delightfully discursive Wikipedia article, among the northern peoples of Bougainville, “Cheerful friendliness is the prevalent norm. Austronesian Bougainvilleans and especially Bukas value outgoing openness, chattiness, a generally friendly mien.” South Bougainvilleans, in contrast, are said to “value privacy, discretion, quiet. Just listen to the silence of their markets and religious and political gatherings. When they are contemptuous of ‘redskins’ and ‘mastas’ (i.e. white people) it’s not that they are vulgar racists as to the colour of your skin. It’s that they find noisiness and intemperate speech shocking and impolite.”

On an unrelated issue, Bougainville also offers a lesson on human perceptions of spatial scale. The otherwise excellent article on the island’s problems in The Economist magazine begins as follows: “The tiny troubled island of Bougainville has a new president …” Tiny? Bougainville is the 79th largest of the world’s roughly 100,000 inhabited islands. It covers more territory than such substantial islands as Cyprus, Crete, or Corsica. Bougainville is almost as large as Hawaii, which is called “the big island” in reference to the fact that it is seven times the size of Oahu, the state of Hawaii’s demographic, economic, and political center. Yet even Oahu, which covers almost 600 square miles, is almost never described as “tiny,” a term best reserved for islands like Australia’s Norfolk (13.3 square miles).

My point is not so much to chide the normally astute Economist for an uncharacteristic slip as to illustrate a common problem in geographical perception. Unfamiliar places far from one’s homeland tend to diminish in apparent size, as illustrated by Saul Steinberg’s famous “view of the world” New Yorker cover. A tendency to mentally shrink exotic places seems to be a natural human disposition. We should be vigilant against it if we want to remain geographically accurate.

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