Cultural Geography

How cultural differences, ranging from language and religion to sports and music, influence geographical patterns

Tribal War and Natural Gas in Papua New Guinea

With roughly a thousand languages divided into a surprising number of linguistic families, New Guinea is noted for its extraordinary cultural diversity (see map above). The central highlands of New Guinea also form a diversity center of a different sort: that of warfare. Tribal combat remains ubiquitous, especially in the troubled Southern Highland province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Most conflicts here are localized, short, and fought with traditional weapons, but the cumulative casualty rates can be substantial.

Few tribal wars from New Guinea reach the global media. Access is difficult when not impossible, and the stakes are regarded as low by the rest of the world. When conflicts are reported it is generally due to unusual circumstances. In February 2010, for example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recounted a battle between two clans in the southern highlands that was provoked by a young man sending a pornographic text message to a young woman in a different village. Her male relatives were offended enough to attack the sender’s kin with bows and arrows, knives, and homemade guns. In the ensuing fight, two people were killed, several were injured, and a number of houses were burned.

The armed struggles of New Guinea can provoke serious gender disputes. Women often complain that pervasive warfare makes it difficult for them to feed their children. According to a November 2008 report in the Daily Mail, the women of two villages in the eastern highlands decided to end the local cycle of violence in a drastic manner: over a ten-year period, they killed all male babies. “It’s because of the terrible fights that have brought death and destruction to our villages for the past 20 years that all the womenfolk have agreed to have all new-born male babies killed,” reported one local women. Women were able do so – if the reports are true – because they lead relatively sex-segregated lives; men control men’s houses, while women control their own. According to the Daily Mail article, promising efforts were being made by a local pastor of the Salvation Army to mediate between the warriors and the mothers of their children.

A few tribal wars in New Guinea have global repercussions, prompting occasional reports in the global media. The southern highlands have vast natural gas deposits – according to some reports, the largest underdeveloped fields outside of Qatar. Plans to exploit the gas have been in place for some time, but tribal violence has delayed implementation. In 2006, the PNG government declared a state of emergency in the Southern Highlands, imposing a curfew and sending in soldiers, so that development plans could proceed.

In December 2009, ExxonMobil and several partners determined that conditions were stable enough to proceed with a $15 billion liquefied natural gas project. This would be the largest foreign investment in Papua New Guinea’s history, potentially tripling its exports. On February 11, 2010, however,Radio New Zealand Internationalreported that the project was inciting tribal warfare, even among groups that had previously had peaceful relations. As a result, Exxon had to suspend operations in several areas. As Dame Carol Kidu, Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Community Development stated, “suddenly with this LNG project and all of the tensions and jealousies over the land ownership and all these things, it blew up into a tribal war, a village war; inter-village war.”

Papua New Guinea has had its share of trouble since independence in 1975. Its most serious insurgency had been on the mineral-rich island of Bougainville, physically located in the Solomon Island chain. The Bougainville rebellion was largely defused with an autonomy agreement in 1997. Meanwhile, security deteriorated in the highlands. In December 2004, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued that Papua New Guinea was heading downhill and even risked becoming a failed state. In 2009, widespread anti-Chinese rioting and looting further damaged the country’s economy.

Will the development of its natural gas fields give Papua New Guinea the money that it needs to genuinely develop? Or will it form a “resource curse” that will enrich a few, further impoverish others, and provoke more tribal warfare? Either scenario is possible.

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Southern Thailand: A Kratom-Fueled Insurgency?


“Four Killed in Insurgency-Plagued Thai South,” reads an all-too-typical Reuters headline from February 15, 2010. The war in southern Thailand’s Pattani region is little noted in the U.S. media, but it continues to generate significant casualties – totaling almost 4,000 deaths over the last six years – as well as major human rights abuses. The Malay-speaking, Muslim, and relatively poor inhabitants of Thailand’s southernmost provinces feel marginalized and often oppressed, giving rise to an insurrection that targets not just the Thai state but also Thai-speaking Buddhist civilians. Hundreds of teachers and low-level civil servants have been attacked, many beheaded. Critics claim that the government has responded with almost equal brutality, fanning the flames of the insurrection.

Thailand’s Muslim, Malay-speaking holdings resulted from Siamese imperial expansion aimed at controlling the Strait of Malacca in the 1700s (see 1855 map above). In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Britain stripped Thailand of most of its Malay lands, but not Pattani. Pattani’s residents never fully accepted Thai power. The current rebellion, which began in 2004, remains shadowy. No specific group, let alone leader, has taken responsibility for the acts of violence, and no concrete demands have been made.

Many young men of Pattani have gravitated to an oppositional subculture marked by heavy drug use, and hard-core Islamists reportedly recruit drug-addled youths as terrorists. Although hardly noted for their Muslim piety, these young men usually avoid alcohol in favor of substances that are not explicitly banned by the Quran. Recent reports from southern Thailand highlight an unusual element in the struggle: 4 X 100, a psychoactive cocktail consisting of cough syrup, tranquilizers, carbonated soft drinks, and a tea made from the leaves of the kratom plant (Mitragyna speciosa). As Asia Times recently reported, “one captured low-level insurgent interviewed by a Thai TV reporter said that almost every youth attached to the movement … regularly used 4 X 100.”

Thai authorities think that the indigenous Southeast Asian drug kratom contributes to the problem. Kratom is illegal in Thailand, and raids are regularly carried out. It is far from clear, however, whether kratom itself is particularly dangerous, as 4 X 100 contains other ingredients as well. As one young man from Southern Thailand reported, “I’ve heard of people adding mosquito repellant or a substance from a neon light bulb…” (Media Awareness Project: Kratom Juice Cocktail the Rage with Young Muslims).

Kratom is legal in the United States – an internet search yields many sales offers – although the DEA classifies it as a “drug of concern.” The Wikipedia describes it as a “medicinal leaf” that may help in the treatment of opiate addiction. It further states that kratom is mildly addictive itself, and that it is “paradoxically a stimulant and a depressant, used to aid work and also able to contribute to sleep and rest.” One can only conclude that more research is needed. Meanwhile, kratom merchants are not only developing high-potency cultivars, but are juggling the percentages of the various mind-altering alkaloids. As the PureLand Ethnobotanicals sales catalogue notes, “Genetic differences between varieties, or strains of kratom, give rise to the formation of indole alkaloids (like mitragynine) and oxindole alkaloids in varying proportions, thus making kratom an interesting research study.”

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The Communitarian Nation of Moskitia?


On February 17, 2010, Nicaragua’s La Prensa reported that a local council of elders had asked the people of Nicaragua’s coastal region not to participate in upcoming regional elections. The elders, representing the Miskito Indians, urged noncompliance for a simple reason: they no longer recognize the authority of the government of Nicaragua. In August 2009, community leaders announced the independence of the “Communitarian Nation of Moskitia,” declaring that henceforth they themselves formed “el único Gobierno que debe ser reconocido” (“the only government that should be recognized”). Loose plans for secession had been in place since 2001, when 280 indigenous communities pledged solidarity in seeking peaceful separation from Nicaragua. In 2008 and 2009, disputes with the government, especially over the spiny lobster fishery, intensified, leading to the declaration of independence. Nicaragua has not formally responded – nor has any other country, to my knowledge. The actual “independence” of the region remains largely imaginary.

The word “Miskito” has nothing to do with biting flies, but that hasn’t stopped eastern Nicaragua from being called the Mosquito Coast. The Miskitos, some 150,000 to 200,000 strong, share the region with several other indigenous groups, as well as English-speaking Afro-Nicaraguans and some Spanish-speaking mestizos. In general, the east is culturally opposed to the rest of the country: Creole English and indigenous languages are more widely spoken than Spanish, and Protestantism (with strong indigenous and African elements) is more widespread than Catholicism. Moskitia’s would-be leaders claim that their new country will be ethnically inclusive, but its political structures are to be based on Misktito traditions. Hector Williams, head of the movement, goes by the indigenous title of Wihta Tara, or Great Judge.

The Miskitos formed a kind of state as far back as the 1700s, reportedly ruled by a king in consultation with governors, commanding a well-organized military force. Allied with the British in the Caribbean, they fought the Spanish colonial realm, retaining the autonomy of their homeland. After the independence of the Spanish colonies in the early 1800s, Britain maintained a loose and unofficial protectorate over the region. As shown in the above 1842 map (published by Chapman and Hall, from the David Rumsey collection), the area was often mapped as an independent Indian realm, an unusual cartographic category at that time. The British withdrew in the late 1800s, and in 1894 the so-called Mosquito Coast was annexed by Nicaragua. A remote region, it remained largely left to itself until the late mid-1900s.

The position of Nicaragua’s Atlantic coastal region changed dramatically in 1979, when the country’s new Marxist Sandinista government sought to tap its resources and integrate it with the rest of the country. Sandinista leaders also objected to the use of English along the Mosquito Coast, which they viewed as a legacy of British imperialism. Miskito leaders refused to comply with their demands. They quickly formed militias, which joined forces with the so-called contras (“counter-revolutionaries) struggling against the government.

Stability returned to the Caribbean coast in 1990 when Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was democratically replaced by his former ally, Violeta Chamorra. In 2007, a reformed Daniel Ortega returned to power through the ballot box. Ortega may now be a culturally conservative Catholic, but economically and geopolitically he remains a leftist, and he has joined Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas.” Ortega’s return to power was one of the main reasons Miskito elders declared independence.

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National Parks of DR Congo: Hippos, Rhinos, Gorillas, and Guerillas


Despite its poverty, lack of infrastructure, and interminable wars, the Democratic Republic of Congo has admirably tried to salvage its national park system and preserve its wildlife. It has not been easy. Since 1994, an estimated 120 rangers have died trying to protect Virunga National Park alone. The existence of large wild areas in eastern DR Congo, moreover, generates its own problems. Guerilla leaders now use the parks as refuges for their own fighters, putting wildlife at increased risk and undermining the security of the region.

Virunga National Park in eastern DR Congo, established in 1925, was Africa’s first national park. Slightly smaller than Yellowstone, it is – or was – noted for its forest elephants, okapis, hippos, and especially its gorillas. The seemingly endless war has taken its toll: 95 percent of Virunga’s hippos have supposedly been slaughtered since 2006. Dauntless efforts by rangers kept the park’s gorillas relatively secure until the Hutu militia, called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), began hiding in the park. In 2007, forces of the Tutsi-oriented, anti-FDLR militia led by Laurent Nkunda invaded the park, seized its headquarters, and expelled its rangers. In 2008, however, Nkunda allowed the rangers to return, and even began talking about protecting Virunga and developing a tourist destination. Rwanda’s arrest of Nkunda in early 2009, part of a complex deal between Rwanda and DR Congo aimed at uprooting the FDLR, put Virunga’s wildlife in renewed jeopardy.

The situation in Garamba National Park in northeastern DR Congo is more dire still. Garamba, established in 1938, was best known as the last remaining holdout of the northern white rhino. In January 2009, the park headquarters were attacked by the brutal Ugandan rebel force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA bizarrely combines Acholi nationalism (focused on an ethnic group in northern Uganda) with a religious hybrid of indigenous beliefs and Christianity. The LRA, as infamous for its use of child soldiers as for having displaced some 1.6 million persons, uses the park as a sanctuary, from which it terrorizes a broad swath of land extending across several countries. Uganda, Sudan, and DR Congo tried to dislodge the LRA from the park later in 2009. The resulting “Operation Lightning Thunder” was not successful; rebel reader Joseph Kony eluded capture, and the LRA retaliated by mutilating and killing over a thousand local civilians.

Optimistic reports have recently been coming out of eastern DRC, claiming that mediation is working and violence is on the wane. “Normalcy Returns to Eastern DR Congo: Mediators,” reads a January 25, 2010 headline in China’s People’s Daily Online. One week later, the UN News Centre reported that the LRA had just slaughtered 100 civilians in the Congolese village of Magamba. Optimism may be comforting, but in the DR Congo it is generally misplaced.

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The Republic of Hau Pakumoto?


The globe-spanning European empires of the 1800s were essentially dismantled in the decades following World War II, with one important exception. In the maritime realm, empire lingers in the form of continuing colonial control over small oceanic islands, some inhabited, others not. If one includes the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zones that sovereign states control around their island holdings, such oceanic “empires” cover a substantial portion of the earth’s surface. As the map reproduced above shows, France’s maritime sphere is vast and far-flung, giving France a truly global reach.

France governs its various insular and oceanic territories in different ways. Some of its islands (Reunion, Guadeloupe, and Martinique) are integral units of the country, as much parts of France as Hawaii is part of the United States. Most others are organized as “overseas collectivities,” ruled in a more colonial manner. The sizable and resource-rich island of New Caledonia, however, is classified as a “sui generis collectivity”; its ties to France are structured in a unique and particularly complex manner.

While France undoubtedly exploited its colonial domains, today its vestiges of empire are more consistently subsidized. Such revenue flows, however, do not prevent chafing against the existing regime. Independence movements and other organized forms of resistance are found in most of the inhabited islands ruled by France, even Corsica. In February 2009, protests in Guadeloupe and Martinique turned deadly, forcing Paris to send in police reinforcements. Focused mostly at the high cost of living, the protests also targeted the domination of local economies by metropolitan elements.

French Polynesia, a vast oceanic expanse containing some 264,000 inhabitants, has also given France major headaches in recent years. Since 2004, this “overseas collectivity” has experienced nine changes in government, prompting Nicholas Sarkozy to describe the situation as “comical.” Pro-independence and pro-France local politicians struggle against each other, but then often join forces to direct subsidies to their own islands. Denunciations of Chinese merchants, followed by denunciations of such denunciations, are another stable feature of French Polynesian politics. As instability has increased, Paris has looked for possible reforms. In January 2010, Sarkozy proposed revamping the colony’s electoral system, but received little local support.

As is true in the French Caribbean, much of the popular discontent in French Polynesia stems from the high cost of living. Such tensions reached a climax on January 19, 2010, when opposition leaders on the island of Moorea – a favored tourist destination – publically seceded from France and French Polynesia, declaring that henceforth Moorea should be regarded as the independent republic of Hau Pakumoto. Although the announcement appears to have been largely a publicity stunt, French officials took it seriously, seizing funds and illegally issued identity cards. According to the Vancouver Sun, the minister of international affairs of the new “republic” claimed that more then 50,000 people support independence, a suspiciously high number considering the fact that Moorea’s population is only about 16,000.

 

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Peace Between Sudan and Chad?

On February 9, 2010, the leaders of Sudan and Chad agreed to quit supporting rebel movements in the other’s territory, thus promising to end one of Africa’s proxy wars. They also pledged to discuss mutual development projects along the war-ravaged border. Such initiatives could diminish tensions in western Sudan (Darfur) and adjacent areas in eastern Chad. Caution is warranted, however; earlier thaws have not lasted. Chad broke diplomatic relations with Sudan in 2006, then restored ties with fanfare later that year. But in 2007, after defeating a raid by Sudan-based rebels, Chad reportedly sent eight tanks and 100 other military vehicles into Sudanese territory. In 2008, Chadian president Idriss Déby again lashed out against “mercenaries directed by Sudan” who had advanced across the country to the capital city of N’Djamena before being routed. Skeptical observers suspect that the new agreement is based more on the two governments’ desire to firm up local support before scheduled elections than on any deep-seated desire for peaceful relations.

The tensions between Chad and Sudan are linked to their ethnic geographies. Of critical importance are the Zaghawa, an historically powerful linguistic group whose territory spans the border. In Sudan, the Zaghawa — like other non-Arabic-speaking peoples of Darfur — have been victimized by the Sudanese government and its allied Arab militias, the infamous Janjaweed. The Sudanese Zaghawa generally support the insurgent Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a moderately Islamist organization, supplying most of its leadership. In Chad, the Zaghawa politically dominate the entire country, even though they are a relatively small minority living far from the core area of the south- and center-west. Chadian President Déby and most of the country’s other top officials are Zaghawa. It is thus not surprising that they would support Zaghawa rebels on the other side of the border.

Overall, Sudan and Chad are structured along similar ethno-geographical lines. Both have Muslim majorities living in the arid northern and the semi-arid central regions, and substantial Christian and animist minorities inhabiting the humid southern areas. Likewise, their Muslim populations are divided between Arabic speakers and peoples speaking a variety of African languages, mostly in the Nilo-Saharan family. As is apparent in the map above, local Arabs are often classified as “White,” in contrast to the “Black Africans” who speak indigenous languages. In actuality, a long history of intermarriage has reduced color differences, especially among the Shuwa (or Baggara) cattle-herding Arabs, often to the vanishing point.

While the overall ethnic structures of Chad and Sudan are similar, the demographic specifics are markedly different. In Sudan, Arabs constitute a plurality of some 40 percent; living in the core regions of the country, they have long dominated its political and economic structures. The Arabs of Chad, by contrast, form only about 15 percent of the population, and live mostly as migratory pastoralists with little power. They have suffered some persecution in recent years, largely because local villagers and troops often unfairly associate them with the brutal Janjaweed militias of Sudan (see “Arabs Face Discrimination in Chad,” Stephanie Hancock).

Chad has been so rent by ethnic divisions, poverty, and inadequate infrastructure that its government has barely managed to survive. Déby maintains power in the face of numerous insurgencies in good part by relying on the force of the 1,000 or so French troops currently stationed in the country. But oil revenues have been pouring into Chad since 2003, giving the government increasing scope for action. Most of the funds from the oil industry were supposed to be set aside for educational and other human development projects, but in 2006 Chad’s government backed out of the U.N.-brokered agreement. In 2009, Transparency International rated Chad as the word’s sixth most corrupt country. Sudan was ranked even lower, just three slots above last-place Somalia. Under such conditions, a durable peace seems unlikely.

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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.

Renewed Violence in the Niger Delta 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 »

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.

Sakha: World Capital of Cold Read More »

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.

Ethnic Issues in Iraq’s New Census Read More »