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Home » Cultural Geography, Europe, Featured, Geography in the Media, Geopolitics, Myth of the Nation-State, Southwest Asia and North Africa

The Simplistic World-View of Thomas L. Friedman

Submitted by on April 14, 2011 – 7:35 pm 13 Comments |  
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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  • All North African states are pre-colonial in their formation – their border changes only affect the Sahara (notably in the Algerian case), not the core agricultural parts. But Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt existed before colonial meddling.

    That is also the case, as you say well of Oman, but of Yemen as well (belonged to the Ottoman Empire but had a long sovereign history before). It is different only in the Fertile Crescent and the rest of Arabia, where the conflict between the ententé and the Ottoman Empire shaped the modern unstable and highly artificial borders (note: Saudi Arabia existed before WWI but only in a much smaller area and as Ottoman vassal).

    In Europe also you forget all the open ethnic wounds of Western Europe. The appearance of stability (not really so stable anyhow) is just a mirage: there are major ongoing ethnic conflicts in North Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Basque Country, Catalonia and Corsica. And less well defined ones in (at least) Sardinia, Galicia, Wales, Alsace, Friesland and the never ending Flemish-Waloon Belgian enemity.

    So not all European states are like Germany (relatively homogeneous), specially not in West Europe, which has remained stuck in archaic states born in the late middle ages, encompassing often too many nations (some of which were absorbed but others which were not and are not likely to be).

  • Marc

    Well it is Freedman isn’t it? More than a few of his colleagues have told me of his concern for veracity.

  • Thanks again to Maju for adding important additional information. I focused on eastern and central Europe only because that was the area emphasized by Friedman. In regard to Yemen, it is true that a Yemeni state has a long history, but that state did not include the eastern parts of the modern country, most notably the Hadramaut; in Yemen today the division between the Zaidi Shia and Sunni parts of the country is a major source of tension, as is tribalism. Maju’s point about Saudi Arabia is very important, as the Saudi state that existed before the 1920s included only the central area of the country (Nedj), not the Shia areas in the east (where most of the oil is located) or Hejaz in the west, where the holy cities of Islam are situated.

    Marc’s comment is also on target; Friedman’s reputation among scholars is not very high.

  • Marcus

    I’m a bit confused here. Maju says there are “major ongoing ethnic conflicts” in Scotland and in Wales. Er, since when?
    The closest you’re going to get to “ethnic conflict” in those countries is abuse of the English at football and rugby matches and a little bit of sectarian scuffling between Catholics and Protestants in a small section of Glasgow.

  • Marcus makes a good point — I wonder if Maju would care to respond. I agree with Marcus that there are no “major ethnic conflicts” here, but I would also note that the Scottish National Party, which seeks the full independence of Scotland, has 47 out of 129 seats in the Scottish parliament and is by some measures the largest political party in Scotland today.

  • Jim Wilson

    The countries of East Central Europe do have significant minorities, but nothing like they had after the First World War. The horrors of the Second World War and its aftermath did create much more ethnically homogeneous states than had ever existed in the region before.

  • Very good point by Jim Wilson. It is also notable that in southeastern Europe the process of “ethnic cleansing” began earlier. Ethnic maps of the area that is now northern Greece made in the late 1800s show extreme ethnic diversity.

  • Jim Wilson

    Certainly, as the Ottomans withdrew southward, I imagine the various populations associated with the Ottoman state must have fled with them. It being the grand age of romantic nationalism, those who stayed, like the Bulgarian Pomaks and Bosnian Muslims, must not have had an easy time. It makes me worry about the Alawites, Tuareg, and other minorities in the Middle East.

    Oh, and just Jim is fine.

  • Marc

    If I can just respond to a comment on Yemen, while it is true that Hadramis, Mahris and to some degree Socotris identify themselves as distinct from Yemenis, it’s not generally the source of present tensions.

    In the country’s north, the republican victors of the 1960’s civil war (who went on to form the central government) marginalised for decades the defeated royalist supporters of the Zaydi imam. With Saudi encouragement over this time, fundamentalist Sunni elements have been expanding in the region, proselytising and creating tensions that eventually reignited conflict. At it’s core, however, the Houthi rebellion is more a continuation of that old political conflict than the religious war it is being painted as (and indeed some are trying to turn it into). In fact there are more Zaydis in the military fighting the Houthis than there are Zaydis in the rebellion itself.

    In the south, Aden, Lahej and Abyan (parts of the former South Yemen) etc. are as much a part of the push to secede as Hadramaut, in spite of their part in ancient Yemen. Again, not a religious issue but anger and frustration at the central government’s failure to meet basic needs fuelled by the handing of spoils of the 1994 civil war to the northern tribal victors.

    Finally, while tribesmen always offer their allegiance to the clan/tribe first, almost all that I know would call themselves Yemeni.

    The present conflicts are over for political and economic independence, often drawn along old battle lines. Religion, nationhood and tribalism are neither the main causes nor what’s at stake.

    Funnily enough, I was there during Friedman’s visit last year and read his discussions with colourful locals that I know for a fact he never had.

  • Many thanks to Marc for the detailed and informative comments. One issue that could use further elaboration is the statement that, “Finally, while tribesmen always offer their allegiance to the clan/tribe first, almost all that I know would call themselves Yemeni.” I find that this is a common pattern over much of the world. People are taught that they belong to a certain national community, and hence they tend to identify with it at some level. But the more important matter is where their primary allegiance is located. If the clan, tribe, or ethnic group comes first, then the country in question must be regarded as having insecure if not inadequate national bonds.

    Marc’s final statement is also very important, and telling.

  • Anonymous

    … and Germany was not homogeneous at all: it’s a federation of states whose diversity one ignores at one’s peril.

  • Gabriel Barreto

    France, for example, has 4 strong-cultured (far from frenk culture and language) minorites (German, Breton, Basque, Catalan, eventhough it doesnt threats national unity)) and disputed occitan, burgundian, normandian, alsatian and italian cultural/ethnic minorities

  • Gabriel Barreto

    Spain, that is in threat of balkanization by Asturi-leonese, Aragonese, Catalanish, Andalusian, Portugalizan and Cantabrian nationalist movements, UK by Welsh/Cornwalish, Scottish, Irelandish and the 3 islands independence movements, Nordic nations by Sami autonomist movements, that Ukraine is deeply divided, How Bavaria is wanting to separate, the way Belgium is almost on civil war, Silesian independence movement (deemed to failure as silesia was resettled with eastern polish people)

    The only thing susteining Europe from a idiot and absolutely giant crisis is the E.U.