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Home » Cartography, Cultural Geography, Geography in the Media, Religion, Southwest Asia and North Africa

The New York Times Misleading Map of Religion in Syria

Submitted by on May 1, 2011 – 4:45 pm 7 Comments |  
New York Times Map of Religious Diversity in Syria I was delighted to find in the New York Times this morning a large, colored map of cultural diversity in Syria and neighboring areas, focusing on religion but including some linguistic information as well. It was immediately apparent that the map was based on M. Izady’s work at the Gulf 2000 project, the best available source for maps of this kind. Close inspection, however, revealed that the Times cartographer either did not understand Izady’s original, or was simply not able to replicate it accurately. The map published this morning contains several glaring errors, as well as a number of misleading depictions. I have highlighted some of these problems with red labels on the reproduction of the map posted here.

The biggest problem with the map is the fact that it exaggerates the range of both Shi’ism and its Alawite offshoot. Note that virtually the entire Mediterranean coast north of Israel is depicted as Shi’ite (whether mainstream or Alawite), whereas in actuality, northern Lebanon and several other parts of the country are solidly Sunni. (In the Times map, the only part of Lebanon depicted as Sunni is the extreme south, an area that is actually Shi’ite!) Syria’s core area in and around Damascus is also shown as Shi’ite, whereas it is largely Sunni. The inset map of the distribution of Shi’ites throughout the Middle East is also highly exaggerated, showing many areas with at best Shi’ite minorities (upper Egypt, far western Turkey, much of Pakistani Baluchistan, etc.) as if they had Shi’ite majorities. The Alawite zone is also unduly inflated. It erroneously includes an area of Alevi Islam (a different Shi’ite “off-shoot”) in central Turkey, and the large Alawite blob depicted in central Iraq is purely imaginary.

The grey areas on the map, labeled “other religion,” are also curious. As this category includes Yezidi areas in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, Jewish areas in Israel, and a largely Christian zone in southern Cyprus, it should at least be labeled “other religions.” And as Christian areas elsewhere on the map are depicted as such, it seems odd that southern Cyrus would be thrown into the “other” category.

Finally, the Kurdish-speaking area, depicted with diagonal lines, is misconstrued. Kurdish is spoken over a somewhat larger area of Syrian than is indicated; more important, the Kurdish area extends over Syria’s borders across northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. As the religious communities depicted on the map are not shown as terminating at the boundaries of Syria, it seems odd that the Kurdish area is.

For GeoCurrents maps of Syrian religious and ethnic diversity, see this post.Wikipedia Map of Arab Israelis

M. Izady's map of religion in northern Israel and environs

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  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Great posting and very timely!

  • And a mostly Sunni area in Northern Israel is also described as “other”. Most of Galilee is still Palestinian by population and therefore, mostly Sunni.

    Even if Palestinians are today only c. 20% of the population of official Israel, Jews are concentrated in urban areas along the coast and then also Jerusalem and some other focuses colonization. Much of rural “Israel”, both in the North (Galilee) and the South (Negev), is Palestinian by population. Palestinians are c. 90% Sunni and c. 10% Christian (there used to be another 10% of Jews but these have been absorbed into the Israeli Jewish population nowadays).

    Demographically “Israel” (understood as Jewish majority zones) is mostly a coastal strip around Tel Aviv.

  • Maju makes an important point, although I think that he he exaggerates by stating, “Demographically “Israel” (understood as Jewish majority zones) is mostly a coastal strip around Tel Aviv.” I have therefore inserted a two new maps in the original post. One is a detail from M. Izady’s original of religious groups in the Middle East. As one can see, Izady shows a Druze area (blue) and a Christian area (pink) in northern Israel. Much of the rest of the region he maps with alternating lines of orange (Jewish), light green (Sunni Muslim), and pink (Christian). The other is a “full wiki” ( map entitled “Map of Arab population, 2000,” which includes the Golan Heights (in diagonal lines), as well as East Jerusalem. As one can see, extreme northeastern Israel, the area just north of the West Bank, and (to a lesser extent) extreme northwestern Israel have Jewish majorities. But the central northern area does have an Arab/Palestinian majority.

  • ben

    Regarding Israel, the interesting fact is also that since 2000, the Arab fertility rate strongly decreased (from 4.5 to 3.4 in 2009) while the Jewish one increased from 2.5 to 2.9. In Northern Israel, the Arab fertility rate is even closer to 3.
    By religion, in 2009 we have 3.7 for muslims, 2.6 for druzes, 2.2 for christians – when muslims include the bedouins in the south whose fertility is still around 5-6 (10 in 2000).
    If these trends continue (and they should), Jewish fertility would overcome the Arab one before 2020. That’s a small revolution.
    Regarding the West Bank – the official number is around 4 but there is a controversy about the truth of the official data from the PA. Some researchers evaluate it at 3.1.
    In Gaza, the fertility rate is still very high (4-5).

  • Many thanks to Ben for providing the detailed demographic information. I would add that the main reason for the increase in the Jewish fertility rate in Israel is the growth in the ultra-orthodox community. As reported in an April 18, 2011 World Tribune article (

    “Israel is bracing for the prospect that Orthodox Jews will become the majority in what has long been a fiercely secular state. A report asserted that Orthodox Jews would become the majority of Israel by 2030, with the so-called Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, reaching one million people. The report by the University of Haifa cited a galloping birth rate by religious Jews, which exceeded both that of their secular counterparts and many Arabs, Middle East Newsline reported.”

    The Haredim are no means the only group to fit this pattern. In the United States, the Old Order Amish have one of the world’s highest fertility rates. As FuturePundit noted in 2010,”The number of Amish in North America has doubled since 1991 and their distinctive communities can now be found in Canada as well as 28 U.S. states, including unlikely ones like Texas and Maine. That was a 19 year doubling. But their growth rate has increased and the next doubling will only take 14 years. If they keep that up they’ll hit 1 million in 2038 and 2 million in 2052. By 2064 they could hit 4 million.”

  • ben

    There is no official Israeli data about fertility of the Jewish population according to the level of religiosity, mostly because it is very difficult to define.

    By the way, “orthodox” is a very Jewish American concept, not an Israeli one. They are just called “religious”, and among them the ultra-orthodox are called “haredim” as you noted. A recent article in Haaretz explained how difficult it was to even know how much of these “haredim” lived because there is no objective definition of what a haredi is.

    At the fringe of the religious you have the “traditionalists” who are in fact maybe the biggest group in Israel and are some king of “semi-religious” people, some almost fully religious, some almost totally secular. Are these people “orthodox” ? According to US standards, many are because they go to “orthodox” synagogues and would never be caught alive in a Reform synagogue (if they even know that they exist, it’s a tiny fringe movement in Israel almost entirely made of US immigrants). So it is very difficult to apply these definitions.

    Anyhow, there are some estimates about the haredi population being 12-16% of the Jewish one and the overall religious population around 25-35%. The haredi fertility rate seems to have decreased in the 2000s from 7 to 6 while the non-haredi fertility increased from 2.2 to 2.5.
    So the growth in ultra-orthodox population is not the only reason in the rise of the Jewish fertility (note also that all the children of the ultra-orthodox don’t stay ultra-orthodox, but there are no figures about this phenomena).

  • Thanks again to Ben for the insightful information. It is very important to note the different meanings of key terms in different countries and contexts. As he notes, the term “orthodox” is especially problematic. When using the term in discussions of Christianity, one always has to specify whether it is capitalized or not, as an “Orthodox Christian” (one who is a member of one of the so-called Eastern Orthodox sects) is not necessarily the same as an “orthodox Christian” (one who strongly follows traditional church teachings). Also to note is the fact that the Copts of Egypt are not Orthodox, although most of them do seem to be orthodox.