Author name: Martin W. Lewis

Pashtun Shiites

Today’s New York Times includes three important articles pertaining to Sunni/Shiite tensions. Two of these are all-too-typical reports of terrorist attacks on Shia pilgrims by Sunni extremists, one in Karachi, Pakistan, the other in Iraq. The third article, on new leadership emerging among the Pakistani Taliban, is much less conventional (“With Taliban Leader Reported Dead, New Pakistani Figure Emerges”). According to the article, the local Taliban center has been relocated to Orakzai, one of the agencies of Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (which are not “federally administered,” if administered at all). The article mentions the fact that Orakzai has a Shiite minority, and that Taliban militants treat Shiites with particular brutality. What the article does not mention is the fact that in neighboring Kurram Valley Agency, Shiism is much more prevalent, being the dominant faith of the Turi tribe. Not surprisingly, the Turi have been struggling against the Taliban. As the Wikipedia reports, “On August 31, 2008 tribesmen mostly Turis dislodged Taliban from nearly 200 villages … [the] Taliban headquarters at Bagzai fell to the tribesmen killing as many as 95 militants.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurram_Valley#cite_note-6).

The Pashtun Shiites have received little notice in the global media, but they are an important element of a very complex war.

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Coke vs. Pepsi; Venezuela vs. Zulia

Although Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been able to secure relatively high levels of electoral support, his campaigns have faltered in the northwest. In the Andean highland zone, closely linked to neighboring Colombia, the states of Táchira and Mérida both voted “no” on Chavez’s constitutional referendum in 2009. Anti-Chavez sentiments also run strong in the northwestern lowland state of Zulia, which brackets Lake Maracaibo. The heart of Venezuela’s oil industry, Zulia has deep connections with the United States. But even beyond economics, the culture of the Maracaibo region is at odds with that of the rest of the country.

The differences between the Maracuchos—the people of the Maracaibo lowlands—and other Venezuelans are considerable. Maracaibo speech is distinctive in intonation and especially in its use of “vos” for “you.” The region’s folk music—La Gaita Zuliana—is unique, and its coconut-heavy cuisine is unlike that found elsewhere in the country. Behavior differs as well. As Edward Teveris reports, “A question in the survey my company conducted a few years back asked: “Te consideras un ‘parandero’?” (“Do you consider yourself a ‘showoff’?” Meaning: lots of gold watches, necklaces, and other high machista behaviors.) The ‘Maracuchos’ responded at an alarmingly higher rate than the rest of the country. When we showed that slide to our clients they laughed in agreement.”

The Maracuchos seem to have embraced an oppositional culture so pronounced that it is even reflected in consumer choices. Brands that do well in Caracas and elsewhere in the country often fail in Zulia. While most Venezuelan smokers like Belmont cigarettes, the Astor Azul brand is preferred in Maracaibo; while Polar beer is favored elsewhere, regional brews are more popular in Zulia. Perhaps most tellingly, other Venezuelans drink Coca-Cola, but Maracuchos drink Pepsi. (See “A Psychographic Profiling of Venezuelan Consumers and Society,” by Jacobo Riquelme and Edward Teveris).

The same oppositional sensibility is also encountered in politics. It is thus not surprising that in 2008 leaders in Zulia proposed launching a campaign for autonomy, modeling their proposal on efforts made in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz region. Nor is it surprising that such designs met concerted opposition from pro-Chavez forces. As one local representative responded, “we [pro-Chavez government] legislators categorically reject this separatist, secessionist proposal of the state because it goes against our values and the integral development of the country,” adding that “We, with the law, with the People in the street, and with the armed forces, will put up a fight”(from “Autonomy Proposed in State Legislature of Venezuelan Oil State Zulia,” by James Suggett, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3423).

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Circassia and the 2014 Winter Olympics

Yesterday’s post referred to the Ossetians as a people of “profound world-historical significance,” a phrase that fits their neighbors, the Circassians, even better. That members of the so-called White race are called “Caucasians” stems largely from the widespread nineteenth-century European notion that the Circassians, natives of the northwestern Caucasus, somehow represented the ideal human form. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Circassians were well known in Europe and the United States, celebrated for their bravery and especially their beauty. Mass-marketing advertisement campaigns hawked “Circassian lotion,” “Circassian Hair Dye,” and “Circassian soap”; P.T. Barnum even exhibited fake “Circassian beauties.” Yet in our time, this once-famous group has virtually vanished from view; when I recently asked a class of 160 Stanford undergraduates if anyone had heard of them, not a single hand was raised.

The Circassians’ world-historical significance derives not from their supposed physical attributes, but from the singular niche they occupied in the eastern Mediterranean from late medieval to early modern times. To put it starkly, Circassians served as elite slaves in the major Muslim states of the region. Although the notion of “elite slaves” may seem self-contradictory, unfree individuals could rise to very high positions. Muslim rulers had long staffed their armies in part with enslaved soldiers – Mamluks – and at several times and places such troops essentially took over the state. The Mamluk Burji dynasty that ruled Egypt from 1382 to 1517 was founded by, and composed largely of, Circassian soldiers of servile background. Circassian women who were exported into servitude could end up as concubines or even wives of Ottoman and Persian sultans. Such women could become powerful in their own right, especially if one of their sons rose to the top position.

The Circassians’ downfall came at the hands of the Russians in the 1860s. The Russia Empire reached across the Caucasus to encompass Christian Georgia in the early 1800s, but – as the map above indicates – it failed to subdue Circassia. (Note that the map incorrectly places Chechnya and adjacent areas within Circassia.) Having fought the Circassians for roughly a century, Russia’s leaders decided to expel the population. Some 80 to 90 percent of the Circassians were forced out; most found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, but nearly half died in the process. Today the Circassian population in Russia has recovered to number some 900,000. In Turkey, roughly two to four million people are of Circassian descent, and the Circassian community in Jordan numbers about 150,000. It is doubtful, however, whether Circassian culture can survive outside of the Caucasian homeland.

Circassian activists are now pushing Russia and the global community to recognize the events of the 1860s as constituting genocide. They hope to use the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia – once a Circassian port – to bring their historical plight to global attention. As Sufian Zhemukhov reported in the Circassian World website in September, 2009, “Most Circassians see the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to plead their case, rather than as an offense to be resisted. Still, many Circassians have opposed the Winter Games on the grounds that they will take place on ‘ethnically-cleansed’ land. Some Circassian NGOs have branded the Olympics the “Games on Bones” and opposed construction work [that] could endanger important burial sites. In October 2007, … Circassian activists organized meetings in front of Russian consulates in New York and Istanbul to protest against holding the Winter Games in Sochi. Finally, the Circassian anti-Olympic movement began to seek official Russian recognition of the Circassian genocide and called on the IOC to move the Games.” (http://www.circassianworld.com/new/general/1382-circassian-dimension-2014sochi-szhemukh.html)

More immediately, Circassian activists want Russia to create a single internal republic for the four legally defined ethnic groups (the Adyghe, Cherkesm, Shapsugs, and Kabardin) that together constitute the Circassian people. That complicated issue, however, must be the subject of a later posting.

 

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Caucasus Emirate: A Self-Proclaimed Virtual State Entity

In the global hierarchy of polities, a “self-proclaimed virtual state entity” occupies a lowly position, being little more than a dream. But such dreams must be taken seriously if they are accompanied by violent actions intended to make them come true, as is the case in regard to the Caucasus Emirate. This Islamist “virtual state entity” claims (eventual) dominion over the northern Caucasus Mountains and adjacent lowlands. Currently part of the Russian Federation, the northern Caucasus is divided into handful of internal Russian republics, including Dagestan and Chechnya. Although violence in the region has diminished in recent years, it has hardly vanished. On February 3, 2010, for example, Russian security officials claimed that they killed a top Al Qaeda operative, Mokhmad Mohamad Shabban, in the mountains of Dagestan (see http://www.itar-tass.com/eng/level2.html?NewsID=14783934&PageNum=0).

Any efforts to create an actual Caucasus Emirate will be strenuously resisted by Russia. They also clash against the designs of another “self-proclaimed virtual state entity,” that of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. This Chechen republic was proclaimed in 1991 as Chechnya unsuccessfully tried to secede from Russia. In 2007, its “president” merged the “republic” into the much larger “Emirate,” thereby reducing its status to that of a mere (virtual) province. Many Chechen insurgent leaders rejected this move, preferring to fight for an independent, stand-alone Chechnya.

The so-called Caucasus Emirate aims to unite all of the Muslim areas of the northern Caucasus into a single state. Its proposed territory, however, includes a substantial non-Muslim area, the Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania. The Ossetians (or Alans) are mostly Christians, although a few are Muslims and many still practice quasi-pagan rituals. Tensions between Christian Ossetians and their Muslim neighbors can be severe. In 2004, for example, Chechen and Ingush insurgents took more than 1,000 people hostage in a school in the Ossetian town of Beslan, an event that resulted in some 385 deaths.

The Ossetians, a surviving remnant of the once-powerful Sarmatians, are a people of profound world-historical significance. It is believed by many scholars that most of the legends of King Arthur can be traced back to the Ossetians’ Nart Sagas — but that is a story for another post.

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Renewed Violence in the Niger Delta

Few of Africa’s many insurgent groups receive much notice in the global media. One way they can get attention is to attack the infrastructure of oil production. Thus the Movement for The Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) found itself in headlines on January 30, 2010, after breaking its truce with the Nigerian government and sabotaging an oil pipeline. A day later, crude oil jumped 1.3 percent (95 cents a barrel)—after having declined by 8.3 percent in January.

The truce between MEND and the Nigerian government, dating only to October 2009, never seemed particularly secure. MEND leaders demanded quick action to address the needs of the poor but oil-rich Niger Delta. Rapid response, however, is not a hallmark of the Nigerian government—especially now, as president Umaru Yar’Adua is ill and missing from action. Before breaking the truce, a MEND leader expressed his frustration in clear terms: “General Abbe, the current defence minister and his cohorts, rather than encourage the government of Nigeria to address the core issues as demanded by true agitators for justice in the Niger Delta, are still inaugurating one dubious committee after another in a bid to continue stealing funds supposedly allocated for the development of the Niger Delta” (see “Niger Delta’s Endless Planning,” by Ifeatu Agbu. http://allafrica.com/stories/201001270657.html)

MEND is an amorphous umbrella organization for a number of insurgent groups operating in the Niger Delta. Nimble and decentralized, MEND has adopted “open-source” tactics relying on ad hoc recruitment from criminal gangs and local cults to conduct hit-and-run raids. MEND actions are brutal but its grievances are real. The Niger Delta, the main source of Nigeria’s wealth, is characterized by extreme poverty, political marginalization, and environmental despoliation. Earlier non-violent resistance movements were not successful. In 1995, the then-dictatorial Nigerian government hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa, a nationally noted author and television personality, after he organized a peaceful protest through the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. A peaceful resistance movement would have a better chance against today’s basically democratic government.

Nigerian culture and politics are sometimes portrayed too crudely as bifurcated between the Christian south and the Muslim north. To be sure, religious tensions are a major issue in much of the country, particularly in the central Jos region. But the situation in the Niger Delta is different. The Ijaw, who form the bulk of MEND’s support, are a primarily Christian group some 15 million strong, yet one of their heroes is the imprisoned and devoutly Muslim militant, Alhaji Mujahid Asari-Dokubo. Raised a Christian, Asari-Dokubo converted before founding another local insurgent group, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force.

In the delta, more important than religious conflict is the region’s intricate ethnic geography. The standard ethno-linguistic map of Nigeria, a portion of which is reproduced above, is highly simplified, concealing staggering ethno-linguistic diversity. According to Ethnologue, some 47 distinct language groups are found in the central delta area. Nigeria’s southeastern corner is more diverse still. (See http://www.ethnologue.com/show_map.asp?name=NG&seq=110). Rivalries here sometimes become violent. In the late 1990s, for example, the Ijaw and the Itsekiri fought a minor war, the “Warri Crisis.” Whether inter-ethnic violence will be reignited in the current crisis remains to be seen.

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The Geography of the Chilean Election

As last Friday’s post noted, recent elections in Chile and Bolivia produced markedly different results. In Bolivia, socialist president Evo Morales was reelected in a landslide, whereas in Chile the center-left coalition that had run the country for more than two decades lost power to the center-right. Although Chile’s out-going president Michelle Bachelet remained extremely popular, her coalition’s candidate, Eduardo Frei, was widely viewed as uninspiring. The center-right’s candidate, Sebastián Piñera, gained votes by promising to return to the rapid economic growth rates that had characterized Chile in the 1980s and 1990s while retaining the social measures put in place by his immediate predecessors.

As the electoral map shows, Frei did well in the major mining regions of the north (Antofagasta and Atacama) and in the agricultural heartland to the south of Santiago (O’Higgins and Maule). Frei also did well in some urban areas, including Concepcion, Valdivia, and parts of Santiago (although not in Valparaiso). Piñera, however, won the metropolitan areas overall, as well as the entire south. He did particularly well in the extreme north, in the Mapuche Indian heartland of Araucanía, and in Aisén, where governmental hydroelectric plans are unpopular. The center-right’s victory in Araucanía is noteworthy, as conservative political parties rarely do well in heavily indigenous areas. The Mapuche, however, have been struggling with non-Mapuche residents of their region over forestry and land-rights issues, leading to high levels of political polarization.

What is most striking about the recent Chilean election is not which candidate won in which region, but rather the fact that the vote was so evenly balanced. In the map on the left, I designated darker shades to indicate regions in which one of the candidates received more than 55 and more than 60 percent of the vote. Just three regions fell into the former category, and only one in the latter. In most of Chile, the margin of victory was relatively slight.

Democratic countries in which national unity is challenged by regional or ethnic identity typically show geographically distinctive voting patterns. Bolivia with its southwest-east divide is one such country: Ukraine, divided east to west, is another. We have also seen how the Hungarian-populated districts in Romania overwhelmingly vote for Hungarian political parties. In more firmly united countries, regional voting differences are much less pronounced. By this criterion, Chile shows high levels of national coherence. Such cohesion was also demonstrated in 2006, when Bachelet bested Piñera in every region except Araucanía, but exceeded 6o percent only in Atacama and Antofogasta.

The United States has exhibited larger geographical voting variation than has Chile in recent elections. In 2008, one candidate or the other received more than 60 percent of the vote in fifteen states. In 2004, George Bush received more than 60 percent of the vote in ten states, and more than 70 percent in one (Utah).

The Geography of the Chilean Election Read More »

The Geography of the Bolivian Election

Latin American electoral politics have been trending to the left in recent years. Although Chile just confounded that tendency by voting in a center-right president, Bolivia overwhelmingly reelected its socialist president, Evo Morales, in December 2009. Morales, the champion of Bolivia’s indigenous majority, received 64 percent of the national vote, while his main challenger, Manfred Reyes Villa, received only 36 percent.

As the map shows, Morales trounced Reyes Villa in the southwestern highlands, Bolivia’s traditional center of population and political power, and the main seat of its indigenous population. An Aymara Indian, Morales won more than 90 percent of the vote in most of the Aymara speaking region (marked with a yellow “A” on the map), and did almost as well in the Quechua-speaking zone (marked with a green “Q”). The only highland province to vote for Reyes Villa was Oropeza, home to the country’s constitutional capital of Sucre, a largely Spanish-speaking city. Reyes Villa did reasonable well in Tomás Frías province, where the city of Potosí is located, and in his hometown of Cochabama (marked with a white triangle), although he lost in both places (for the voting base maps, see http://www.electoralgeography.com/new/en/; linguistic divisions based on the Ethnologue map of Bolivia).

As expected, Reyes Villa won a much higher percentage of the vote in the lowlands of eastern Bolivia, where most people are of mestizo rather than indigenous background, and where agriculture is oriented toward commerce more than subsistence. Yet as the map shows, here too many provinces went for Morales, if narrowly. Reyes Villa did win a convincing victory in the city of Santa Cruz (outlined in black on the map), the lowland’s commercial center and major metropolis. He did even better along the eastern border, where economic interests look more to Brazil than to the rest on Bolivia. The city of Tarija in the south, center of Bolivia’s recently nationalized natural gas industry, also gave Reyes Villa the majority of its votes.

Bolivia has undergone a major political transformation in recent decades as democracy has become more fully entrenched and as power has shifted from the traditional elite to the indigenous majority. Such a transformation has generated substantial geographical divisions in Bolivian politics. Several years ago, as Morales rose to power, a major movement for autonomy gained strength in the eastern lowlands. But as the 2005 election map shows, the regional division in voting behavior was far more pronounced then than it was four years later in 2009. Calls for eastern separation are less pronounced now, as Morales’s popularity has grown in the east. In the urban highlands outside the Aymara zone, meanwhile, Morales has lost some of his support. As the regional political divide has lessened, the urban-rural divide seems to have grown.

The Geography of the Bolivian Election Read More »

ACFTA, or Is It CAFTA?

January 1, 2010, saw the emergence of the world’s largest free trade area in terms of population, linking China with the ten countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Disagreements remain as to what to call the new organization. In the English-language press, the favored term is ACFTA, the ASEAN–China Free Trade Area; Chinese newspapers more often call it CAFTA, the China–ASEAN Free Trade Area. “CAFTA” is a potentially misleading term, as the same acronym was used for the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Officially, however, that CAFTA became CAFTA-DR in 2004, when the Dominican Republic joined the club.

Controversies that go deeper than nomenclature riddle the new free trade pact. On January 7, thousands of workers took to the streets of the Indonesian city of Bandung to demand a delay in implementation of the agreement. The protestors, the JakartaPost reported, “expressed fears that once the FTA came into effect it would trigger mass layoffs, as well as Indonesian products’ inability to compete on international markets.” Similar concerns have been expressed in Thailand and in other Southeast Asian countries concerned about competing with the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut. In the Philippines, highland vegetable farmers are worried about cheap Chinese carrots and cabbages. In response to such concerns, China announced on January 22 that it was willing to work with ASEAN countries to make adjustments to the agreement.

Enthusiasm for ACFTA, on the other hand, runs high in the relatively poor regions along the border between southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. The governments of Laos and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China have been holding high-level talks to figure out how to take advantage of the free trade area. On January 7, direct flights began between Laos and Guangxi’s capital, Nanning. Officials in China’s Yunnan province are equally excited about the new economic possibilities. As the website GoKunming reports, the region will soon see “a vast network of highways and rail which will provide cities in Yunnan with cheap overland access to markets in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.” The article goes on to exclaim that, “difficult as it may be to imagine, Yunnan’s days as an economic and political backwater are officially over.”

(http://gokunming.com/en/blog/item/1309/launch_of_asean_china_fta_to_propel_yunnans_rise)

Economic ties between southern China and the rugged lands of northern Southeast Asia have already been surging in recent years. Such developments have both positive and negative consequences, as was briefly explored in an earlier post on Burma’s United Wa State. Environmentally, the biggest issue is the massive dam-building projects undertaken on the Mekong, Salween, and other rivers that flow across the international boundary. But that is a subject for a later post.

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Sakha: World Capital of Cold

The attention of the global media usually remains focused on a limited portion of the earth’s surface. Wealthy countries and regions are covered in depth, as are places considered threatening to the developed world, but most parts of the earth are more often ignored.

Consider, for example, Sakha (Yakutia), a vast internal Russian republic spanning three time zones that is roughly the size of India. Sakha has the interesting distinction of being the world’s largest “statoid” (statoids being the highest-order territorial subdivisions of sovereign states [see http://www.statoids.com/]). Sakha is rather lightly populated, but it has more inhabitants than 42 internationally recognized countries. Considering as well its sizable mineral deposits, Sakha is a significant place.

The few news reports from Sakha that reach the global media usually focus on diamond mining. On January 7, 2010, however, the BBC devoted much of a story to simply recounting living conditions in the republic (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8445831.stm). This unusual article was prompted by bitterly cold conditions in Europe, leading reporters to ask what life is like in truly cold places. In Sakha’s capital of Yakutsk, a city of 210,000 people, the average January high temperature is -36 degrees Celsius (-33 F): farther north, much colder conditions are encountered. Compared to Sakha, central Alaska has a balmy winter climate.

Sakha’s population of almost one million is roughly split between Russians and the indigenous Sakha (or Yakut) nationality, although other indigenous ethnic groups are also present. The Sakha are a Turkic people who were largely converted from their original shamanism to Russian Orthodoxy in the 1800s. Their traditional way of life was based was based mostly on raising cattle and horses-–quite a challenge, considering the climate of their homeland. Unlike most of the indigenous peoples of Siberia, the Sakha have relatively high rates of education and have adapted reasonably well to the challenges of modern life. Some authors have suggested that they benefited from an influx of intellectuals when previous Russian regimes exiled political dissidents to their villages. From the dissidents’ point of view, being sentenced to Yakutia was considered especially onerous, due to both the climate and the local dietary staple: “milk tar,” a frozen mash of fish, berries, bones, and the inner bark of pine trees conveniently dissolved in sour milk.

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The Heterodox Zone

Yesterday’s post included a map of religious communities in northern Iraq, based on a larger map by Mehrdad Izady, generated as part of Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 project (http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/). As Izady’s maps show, northern Iraq is part of a larger region of striking religious diversity, highlighted on the map above. This area has no established name, and appears (to my knowledge) on no other maps, yet its delineation is essential for making sense of Middle Eastern politics, cultural dynamics, and history. In an attempt to bring this area to broader attention, I dub it “the Heterodox Zone,” a term that I picked up years ago in a casual conversation with the Turkish scholar Hakan Altinay.

The most distinctive faiths of the Heterodox Zone are three, grouped together by Mehrdad Izady under the rubric of Yazdanism or “the cults of angels.” These include the Yazidi religion, the faith of the Shabaks (who number some 60,000 in northern Iraq), and the religion of Yarsan (or Ahl-e Haqq), which counts up to one million adherents in Iranian Kurdistan. Izady considers all three to be survivals of the pre-Islamic Kurdish religion.

Less distinctive but far more prevalent is Alevism, a faith concentrated in eastern Turkey. Adherents of Alevism may number as many as 20 million. Although their religion is conventionally considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam, Alevis do not worship in mosques. They interpret the Quran on a strictly allegorical basis, and have no problem with alcohol. Alevism is also associated with the Kurds, but it is followed more extensively by the almost invisible Zaza people (speakers of the Zazaki language), who live to the north of the Kurdish language zone in eastern Turkey.

Distinctive religious communities extend through the highlands of the eastern Mediterranean. As many as three million people are ‘Alawis (or Alawites), a minority group that has the distinction of essentially running Syria. Another Shiite offshoot, the Alawite faith traditionally includes such non-Muslims beliefs as the transmigration of souls. (Some reports, however, claim that Alawite ideas and practices are gradually approaching those of orthodox Islam.) In the Druze religion, which has somewhere between 750,000 and two million followers, ideas and practices have diverged so far from the Islamic faith that the Druze are almost never considered Muslims. What exactly those beliefs are is difficult say, however, as the Druze keep their core beliefs secret not only from outsiders, but even from their own rank-and-file; only a select group is allowed access to the faith’s esoteric teachings.

Such groups by no means account for all of the religious diversity of the Heterodox Zone. Christianity is present as well, represented by many distinctive sects. Lebanon alone counts 10 politically recognized Christian groups. (Lebanese politics are organized on a confessional basis around the following religious communities: Sunni Muslim, Twelver Shiite Muslim, Isma’ili Shiite Muslim, Alawite, Druze, Maronite [Catholic], Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic, Coptic Christian, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant Christian, and Jewish). The Heterodox zone also extends into northern Israel, where one finds not only Druze and Christian communities, but also the ancient Jewish offshoot sect of the Samaritans (who today number only 712).

The Heterodox Zone is associated with mountains and rugged terrain. That is to be expected; rough topography has often provided niches for minor languages as well as religions – social phenomena whose survival historically required a degree of shelter from the authority of states and their dominant societies. In the modern world, such zones of refuge are coming under pressure from larger and more intrusive politico-cultural formations. That is certainly true of the Heterodox Zone. In Iraq, Sunni extremists are now targeting the minority faiths, attacking their followers and forcing them to flee. Will autonomous Kurdistan offer adequate refuge? That remains to be seen.

The Heterodox Zone Read More »

Ethnic Issues in Iraq’s New Census

The government of Iraq recently announced that it is preparing to conduct its first census since 1987. Merely holding a census is controversial, especially in the ethnically mixed areas of northern Iraq. The main issue concerns the eventual size — and share of governmental revenues — of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. The Kurds lay claim to the city of Kirkuk, deemed their “Jerusalem,” which lies outside their autonomous region. If the census shows that they form the local majority, Kirkuk could more easily become part of autonomous Kurdistan. Not coincidentally, the contested zone sits over some of Iraq’s largest oil deposits. Local Sunni Arabs and Turkmens contest Kurdish claims, resisting anything that might be used to expand the autonomous region.

The most deadly and destabilizing division in Iraq is that between Sunni and Shiite Arabs, but their relative numbers will not be addressed in the census; sectarian divisions within Islam are too sensitive. Religious identity at a higher level, however, will be assessed, with the census attempting to determine how many Muslims, Christians, Mandaeans (Sabians), and Yazidis live in Iraq. It would be difficult to argue that these religious distinctions are somehow “less sensitive” than those found within Islam. So many Christians and Mandaeans have been driven out of Iraq, or simply killed, that some authorities regard the situation as almost genocidal. (It is estimated that only some 7,000 Mandaeans, who revere John the Baptist as their main prophet, currently live in Iraq; as recently as 2003, they numbered 70,000).

The relatively secure Kurdish Autonomous Region of northern Iraq is often regarded as a refuge for Iraq’s persecuted minority faiths and ethnic groups. According to a fact sheet posted on the important website Kurdistan: The Other Iraq, “The current [Autonomous Region’s] government consists of several political parties. The coalition reflects the diversity of the Region’s people, who are Chaldeans, Assyrians, Turkmen, Yazidis and Kurds living together in harmony and tolerance” (http://www.theotheriraq.com/).

The relationship between the Kurdish Autonomous government and minority religious groups is actually more complicated. In November 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing the Kurdistan Regional Government of “imposing Kurdish identity” on Shabaks, Yazidis and other non-Muslim groups. Kurdish official denied the allegations (see the January 10, 2010 UPI article “KRG Defends Position on Minorities”), pointing out that most minority groups have consistently supported the “Kurdistan lists.” But minority activists often claim that they are tolerated in Kurdistan to the extant that they ethnically classify themselves as Kurds. By linguistic criteria the Yazidis certainly are, but many in the community feel that their religion differentiates them. Kurdish officials disagree, in part because the larger the number of Kurds counted in the next census, the more money will flow from the central government to the autonomous regional government.

Regardless of the current contretemps, the religious minorities of Iraq are plenty interesting in their own right. Consider the Yazidis, who may number as many as 500,000. Yazidism is an old and profoundly non-dualistic religion that regards God as a remote figure. Yazidis focus on Melek Tawus (the “Peacock Angel”), viewed as chief among the seven holy beings who have dominion over the earth. As Melek Tawus is identified with the fallen angel Shaitan (Satan), Yezidis have often been labeled “devil worshippers.” Yazidis, not surprisingly, deny the charge. According to their beliefs, Melek Tawus is a benign angel who “fell” but later repented and was forgiven by God.

Historically, the Yazidis have suffered occasional persecution, and today their situation is dire. But imagine what their plight would have been had they lived in Europe in the late medieval or early modern periods? Could they have possibly survived? Today, Europe enjoys vastly higher levels of religious freedom than do most parts of the Middle East, but it is important to remember that 500 years ago the situation was reversed.

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Maps and Stats, Good and Bad

World thematic maps that treat each country as a holistic entity can be highly misleading. Consider, for example, the ubiquitous economic development map based on per capita gross domestic product. Here we see such countries as Brazil, India, and China uniformly colored, as if the goods and services they produced were evenly distributed over their vast expanses. In actuality, per capita GDP varies by roughly an order of magnitude from the wealthier to the poorer regions of each of these countries. More finely subdivided maps are much more revealing, but they can also be hard to find. In the case of the European Union, fortunately, a treasure trove of regionally specific maps is available from the European Commission Eurostat website: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Category:RegionsEuropean.

On the Eurostat map reproduced above, a number of significant spatial patterns jump to the eye. Notice how Prague stands out from the rest of the Czech Republic, and how Athens is differentiated from the rest of Greece. The north-division in Italy is clearly apparent, as is the gap between the prosperous south of Germany and its poorer northeastern counterpart. This is just one of many detailed maps available at the Eurostat site, which delves into social as well as economic issues. The map of internet usage is especially noteworthy, revealing as it does a substantial cultural divide between what we might call the networked north and the sociable south.

To be sure, maps based on country-level data can also be valuable, especially for those parts of the world divided into relatively small countries. Such maps cease to be useful, however, when dubious data is employed – as happens all too often. The worst single example that I have come across is a NationMaster map of per capita crime rates, reproduced above. A glance at the key reveals that this map identifies Finland and New Zealand as crime-ridden, while Colombia, Yemen, and Papua New Guinea are portrayed as practically crime free. The accompanying table gives Yemen an absurdly low (and surreally precise) rate of 1.16109 crimes per 1,000 people. Finland, we told on the same page, suffers a crime rate roughly two orders of magnitude greater, at 101.526 per 1,000 people

(http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_tot_cri_percap-crime-total-crimes-per-capita). Similar problems are encountered elsewhere on NationMaster, a site that compiles a huge array of official statistics. The figures for rape rates, for instance, listed on the home page as one of the site’s “top stats,” ranks Saudi Arabia as the safest country for women while marking Australia as the third-worst with Canada close behind.

Could anyone serious believe that a woman is 250 times more likely to be raped in Australia than in Saudi Arabia? — or that Finland’s overall crime rate is 100 times that of Yemen? Finland is famous for its relatively crime-free environment; Yemen is a land of anarchic clan-based violence and rampant kidnapping. In Finland, however, most infractions are reported and recorded, whereas in Yemen few crimes reach official attention. If NationMaster labeled its map and chart “rate of reported and recorded crimes,” it would be an accurate and useful index of police efficiency, if not of criminal activity. But it does not. Does anyone at NationMaster scrutinize the data that is displayed on its site? Does anyone care?

Underlying the promulgation of such misleading maps is our tendency to take the sovereign state for granted: to treat all recognized countries as if they were equivalent entities with comparable governmental capacities, including the gathering and compiling of accurate statistics. This is not the case. And as far as statistics themselves are concerned, we should recall Mark Twain’s warning: many stats are lies, some damned, other worse.

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Declining Violence In Northeastern India

On January 19, 2010, a grenade attack near the Manipur Police Chief’s residence in northeastern India critically injured three people. No one has yet claimed responsibility, and it would be risky to venture a guess, since for sheer diversity of insurgent groups it is hard to beat northeastern India. This remote and little-known area is divided into seven states. According to the website South Asian Terrorism Portal, the state of Manipur has 15 active or proscribed “terrorist/insurgent groups” (as well as 25 inactive organizations), while nearby Assam has 11, Meghalaya four, Nagaland and Tripura three each, and Mizoram two. No such groups are listed for Arunachal Pradesh, but it too has seen insurgent violence in recent years – and it is claimed in its entirety by China, greatly complicating Indo-Chinese relations. Insurgent groups in northeastern India have a strong tendency to divide and proliferate. The Kuki people of Manipur, for example, are “represented” by the Kuki Liberation Army, the Kuki National Army, the Kuki Liberation Front, and the United Kuki Liberation Front – with another nine Kuki insurgent groups currently listed as inactive.

Historically speaking, the uplands of northeastern India have closer cultural affiliations with Southeast Asia than with South Asia. They belong to India only because British imperial agents were determined to secure the vulnerable borderlands of their Indian empire. Local peoples tend to resent Indian authority, as well as the authority of the larger local ethnic groups that dominate the region’s seven states.

In most parts of the region violence has receded in recent years. Whereas Nagaland saw 154 insurgency-related deaths in 2007, the 2009 total was only 17; in Meghalaya, the death count dropped from 79 in 2003 to just 4 in 2009. Only in Manipur and Assam have body counts remained high (369 and 371, respectively, last year). Due to the lessened violence, India has recently opened parts of the northeast to tourism. For those interested in visiting the area, Northeast India Diary (http://www.northeastindiadiary.com/meghalaya-travel/wildlife-in-meghalaya.html) provides information on local attractions. On a trip to Meghalaya’s Balpakram National Park, it claims, one might see “elephants, wild buffaloes, gaur (Indian bison), sambar, barking deer, wild boar, slow loris, capped langur as well as predators such as tigers, leopards, clouded leopards and the rare golden cat.”

In Nagaland and Mizoram, some observers attribute the recent decline in fighting to peacemaking efforts by local church organizations. Owing to successful missionary activities during the colonial period, both states are now strongly Christian: more than 75 percent of the population of Nagaland is Baptist, whereas Mizoram is more than 90 percent Christian (mostly Presbyterian). Missionary schooling has led to high levels of education. Mizoram boasts India’s second highest literacy rate (91%), trailing only Kerala. Education, however, has not led to economic prosperity. Lack of infrastructure and insecurity are the major problems, but so too are the famines that occur every few decades after the synchronous flowering and then death of the state’s massive bamboo groves. When the bamboo flowers and seeds, rodent and insect populations explode; when the plants subsequently perish, rats and bugs invade fields and granaries. The most recent such famines occurred in 2006-2007.

The decline in violence in northeastern India is quite in contrast to the situation in east-central India, where a Maoist insurgency is gaining in strength. But that is a topic for a later post.

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What’s In A (Place) Name? The Gulf Controversy

In mid-January 2010, the Islamic Solidarity Games—scheduled to take place in Tehran in April—were cancelled over a toponymic dispute. The Iranian organizers of the athletic competition insisted on labeling the body of water located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula the “Persian Gulf” in their promotional materials. The event’s organizing committee, based in Saudi Arabia, refused to tolerate such effrontery, and called off the competition. Officials in Saudi Arabia, like those in many other Arabic-speaking countries, regard the term “Persian Gulf” as a form of Iranian cartographic imperialism. They prefer Arabian Gulf, and if that name cannot be used, they insist on a neutral term such as The “Arabo-Persian Gulf” or simply “The Gulf.”

This controversy reveals the deep cultural cleavage between Iran and the Arabic speaking realm. Most other bodies of water named for particular places do not inspire much animosity. The United States lodges no protests over the Gulf of Mexico; India does not object to the Arabian Sea; Malaysia has no problem with the South China Sea; Taiwan and Japan do not worry about the Philippine Sea; Madagascar and Australia are fine with the Indian Ocean. The only other water body to generate a similar quarrel is the one marked on our maps as the Sea of Japan, which the Koreans insist on labeling the East Sea. Like the Arabs and the Persians, Japanese and Koreans have a long history of conflict, which lends vehemence to seemingly arcane debates over geographical nomenclature.

The term Persian Gulf has been widely used by European geographers since the time of the ancient Greeks. Substituting the term “Arabian Gulf” would generate its own problems, not least by infuriating the Iranian people. It could also lead to confusion with the adjacent body of water known as the Arabian Sea, or even with the nearby Red Sea (which Europeans sometimes historically called the Arabian Gulf). Partly for these reasons, the International Hydrographic Organizations maintains that the Persian Gulf is the Gulf’s only proper name. The United States government, however, is no longer sure. Although the State Department’s Board of Geographical Names settled on Persian Gulf in 1917, the U.S. military now asks its personnel to avoid the term, preferring either “The Arabian Gulf” or simply “The Gulf.” U.S.-based universities operating branch campuses on the Arabic-speaking side of the gulf do likewise. In the United Arab Emirates, the term Persian Gulf is simply banned.

What’s in a name? In a politically charged context, evidently quite a lot.

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The Mendocino Marijuana Economy

As mentioned recently in this blog, organized criminal activity supposedly accounts for seven percent of the total value of goods and services produced annually in Italy. But that figure is nothing compared to the illicit economy of Afghanistan, where a 2007 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report argued claimed that opium accounted for 53 percent of the country’s GDP. Could any place on Earth have a proportionally larger illegal economy? Perhaps. According to an often cited January 22, 2009 MSNBC report, the marijuana crop accounts for two-thirds of the economic activity in Mendocino County, California. There are good reasons to doubt this figure, originally generated by a county-commissioned study: it is impossible to precisely enumerate illegal transactions, local law enforcement agents often exaggerate the value of black market seizures, and the media tend to favor sensational numbers. But whatever the actual figure is, cannabis cultivation is clearly the economic mainstay of Mendocino County, as well as of Humboldt Country to its north.

Much official policy-making rests on the assumption that we know the size of the economy. So what does it mean when vast swaths of economic activity escape governmental oversight, and everyone knows it? Perhaps state power is not as overwhelming as many of us think, or fear, that it is, whether one is in southern Italy, Afghanistan, or northwestern California. Governmental writ in the latter case is also limited by the conflicting legal environment found at different levels of official authority. Even under the Obama administration, the U.S. government so heavily restricts marijuana cultivation that medical researchers can scarcely obtain it, as discussed in today’s New York Times. Yet according to California, cultivation of up to six plants is legal for approved medical purposes, and according to Mendocino County between 2000 and 2008, one could “legally” grow up to 25 plants. (In 2008, Mendocino voters narrowly approved a ballot measure reducing the upper limit to the state norm of six plants.)

The scope of the untaxed marijuana market in the economically besieged state of California has generated calls for legalization, which may be put before the state’s voters next fall. As a result, arguments pro and con are proliferating. One of the more intriguing lines of reasoning in favor of legalization puts the trade in international context: the more cannabis is cultivated locally, the less will be imported from the hyper-violent Mexican drug cartels. According to an October 7, 2009 CBC News report, “Stiff competition from thousands of mom-and-pop marijuana farmers in the United States threatens the bottom line for powerful Mexican drug organizations in a way that decades of arrests and seizures have not, according to law enforcement officials and pot growers in the United States and Mexico” (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/10/07/politics/washingtonpost/main5368594.shtml).

Yet as the CBS story goes on show, the distinction between domestic and foreign cannabis is not necessarily clear-cut. Mexican drug gangs grow large amounts of marijuana in California, generally in remote public lands. In Mendocino County as elsewhere, such activity is widely condemned and increasingly targeted by law enforcement agencies. According to the January 13, 2010 issue of the Ukiah Daily, the County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team had a record-breaking year in 2009, seizing 541,250 plants weighing 205,044 pounds. The campaign is popular among Mendocino voters – even those who make their livings as small-scale marijuana cultivators. According to country Sheriff Tom Allman, the team’s mandate was to “focus on large commercial marijuana operations and focus on people who are greedy” (http://www.ukiahdailyjournal.com/ci_14178382).

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