Cultural Geography

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

The Precocious Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Tragic Love Story of Mem and Zin

In the massive scholarly literature on nationalism, a distinction is made between “modernist” and “primordialism” interpretations of the phenomenon. Scholars adhering to the former camp, who constitute the majority, generally argue that nationalism did not emerge until the late 18th century (with the French Revolution) or the early 19th century (with the rise of nationalistic romanticism). Some writers in the latter group, in contrast, argue that nationalistic sentiments can be dated as far back as ancient times, when they were supposedly found among such peoples as the Egyptians and the Israelites. (I have always found this debate somewhat sterile: some aspects of nationalism are indeed of long standing, but nationalism as a coherent discourse emerged more recently.) Almost all scholars agree that modern nationalism emerged in the West. Most trace its origin to Europe, although Benedict Anderson, arguably the most influential scholar on the topic, located its genesis primarily in Latin America. Despite the celebration that his work received, Anderson remained frustrated that other scholars tended to bypass his thesis on Latin America.

One particular form of nationalism, which we might call “state-seeking ethnonationalism,” is almost always traced to Central and Eastern Europe. In this formation, a stateless group of people with a common language and culture seeks to create its own country, either by uniting small states into a much larger ethnic union or by seceding from one or more multilingual empires to establish a new ethnonational state. In Europe, the Germans and Italians are commonly viewed as having pioneered this approach to nation-state formation. After Germany and Italy emerged as states circa 1870, and handful of ethnic groups located further to the east struggled for decades to create their own ethnonational countries. This process began to reach fruition after WW I, with the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires, and was finally completed (in Europe at least) after the Cold War, which saw the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.

The national history of the Kurdish people, however, tells a different story, as ethnonational consciousness in some form seems to date back at least to the late 17th century. The Kurds at the time were divided between the multicultural Ottoman and Persian empires. Both empires were decentralized by modern standards, and several hereditary Kurdish statelets (emirates, or principalities) enjoyed considerable autonomy, especially in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But despite such local self-rule, the Kurds lacked anything like a state of their own, and some Kurdish intellectuals chafed under their subordination to the imperial rule of other peoples. As a result, an inchoate form of state-seeking Kurdish ethno-nationalism does seem to be traceable to the early modern period.

The key figure in early Kurdish nationalism was Ehmedê Xanî‎ (or Ahmad Khani), a poet, Sufi mystic, and intellectual, who lived from 1650 to 1707. His tragic love story, Mem and Zin (Mem û Zîn) is often regarded as the key work of classical Kurdish literature, and has even been deemed a “consecrated Kurdish national epic.” Based on a true story from the fifteenth century, Mem and Zin centers on two ill-fated lovers from rival clans, and thus bears superficial resemblance to Romeo and Juliet. The inability of the two protagonists to unite in life is usually interpreted as an allegory of the inability of the Kurds to unite and thus gain freedom from their imperial overlords.  One verse from Mem and Zin has been singled out as the quintessential statement of thwarted Kurdish national longings: If we had unity among ourselves, if we all, together, obeyed one another, the Turks, the Arabs, and the Persians would one and all be in our servitude.”

In an insightful analysis of the poem, Michiel Leezenberg argues that its nationalistic aspects were not enshrined and the Kurdish political imagination until the late 19th century, thus giving it a somewhat modernist gloss. Previously, Mem and Zin had been valued mostly for its expression of mystical love. But regardless of how the poem was interpreted in early periods, it does seem clear that Xanî himself was a devoted (proto?) nationalist. Considering the current division of Kurdistan among Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, as well as the lack of unity among the Kurdish people, Xanî‎’s vision seems more relevant today than ever.

In 1992, Mem and Zin was made into a motion picture in Turkey, although it had to be filmed in Turkish because the Kurdish language was at the time illegal in the country’s public’s sphere. In 2002, it finally came to the screen in the Kurdish (Kurmanji) language, filmed as a miniseries by Kurdistan TV (based in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan). According to director Nasir Hassan, it was “the most substantial and the most sophisticated artistic work ever done in Kurdistan, … using a crew of more than 1000 people and 250 actors.”

Despite Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish nationalism, it allowed and indeed supported the restoration of the mausoleum of the two historical lovers. According to one source, a staggering 1 trillion Turkish lira (650 million US dollars) was devoted to this Mem and Zin project. As reported by a local mayor who helped guide the restoration, “By restoring a historical piece that has become a ruin, we hope to contribute to tourism and pass it on to the next generations.”

The hope that the restored mausoleum would attract international as well as domestic tourists has apparently not been in vain. In August 2022, a Turkish newspaper reported with some excitement that a Chinese couple had recently paid their respects. The Chinese man, a Muslim convert named Nurettin Dong, has pledged to bring the story of Mem and Zin to China. As he put it, “I translated 2,500 couplets to Chinese. I am excited this will lead to greater recognition of this work.”

The mausoleum of Mem and Zin is located near the Turkish city of Cizre, just north of the Syrian border and not far from that of Iraq. A one-time center of Kurdish culture, as the capital of the autonomous emirate of Bohtan (see the second map below), Cizre has seen its share of tragedy. As summarized by the Wikipedia article on the city:

Under Ottoman control, Cizre stagnated and was left as a small district centre dominated by ruins by the end of the 19th century. The city’s decline continued, exacerbated by the state-orchestrated destruction of its Christian population in the Armenian and Assyrian genocides in 1915, and exodus of its Jewish population to Israel in 1951. It began to recover in the second half of the 20th century through urban redevelopment, and its population saw a massive increase as a place of refuge from 1984 onwards as many fled the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. At the close of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, Cizre has emerged as a battleground between Kurdish militants and the Turkish state, which inflicted significant devastation on the city to retain control.

If Kurdish nationalism can be said to date back to the 17th century, the Kurdish nation itself –stateless though it still is – may have far deeper roots. We will look at this intriguing primordialist interpretation in the next GeoCurrents post

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Grim News from Kurdistan

Recent news from Kurdistan – often regarded as forming the world’s largest “nation without a state” – has been bleak. Protesting Iranian Kurds have been under attack from their own government, as have many other Iranians. Iran has also launched assaults on the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, which it accuses of harboring Iranian Kurdish insurgents in the rugged borderlands between the two countries. The Turkish government has been attacking its own Kurdish insurgents in the same mountains. These strikes are not precisely targeted and have killed a number of civilians. Turkey (Türkiye, officially) has also been launching attacks against Kurdish forces in the Kurdish-led autonomous region of Rojava in northeastern Syria, and has been indicating for some time that an outright invasion might be forthcoming.

The situation in Rojava is becoming precarious. Rojava, an autonomous region that is nominally part of Syria, is a unique experiment in political organization. It first emerged in 2012, just after the “Arab Spring” uprisings, and gained control over substantial territories a few years later as its militias drove out the forces of ISIS (ISIL/Daesh), with help from the U.S. military. Although largely Kurdish-led, Rojava is an explicitly multi-cultural and multi-linguistic polity, with Kurmanji Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac, Turkish, and Adyghe (or West Circassian) all serving in an official capacity in all or part of the region. Rojava is highly decentralized, divided into seven semi-autonomous regions, or cantons. Its governance is based of what might be called “bottom-up libertarian socialism.” As the Wikipedia article on the region notes in one breathless sentence:

The supporters of the region’s administration state that it is an officially secular polity with direct democratic ambitions based on an anarchist, feminist, and libertarian socialist ideology promoting decentralization, gender equity, equality, environmental sustainability, social ecology and pluralistic tolerance for religious cultural and political diversity, and that these values are mirrored in its constitution, society, and politics, stating it to be a model for a federalize Syria  as a whole, rather than outright independence.

This unparalleled political system is based on the ideas of Murray Bookchin, an American environmental writer and political theorist who died in 2006. Bookchin’s theories were adopted and reinterpreted in the early 2000s by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant organization of Kurds in Turkey, officially classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the United States.) During the Cold War, Öcalan and his followers adhered to Marxism-Leninism and sought to create an independent Kurdish state. After abandoning authoritarian leftism, Öcalan turned instead to the equally left-wing but decidedly libertarian vision of Bookchin, melding it with several reformulated traditional Kurdish socio-cultural practices. At the same time, the PKK abandoned its goal of outright independence, seeking instead mere Kurdish political autonomy. Many experts think that it has also rejected the tactics of terrorism, and hence no longer deserves the “terrorist” designation.

Whether Rojava’s idealistic system of governance can work in practice is an open question. I was certainly skeptical when I first learned of its existence. But the leaders of Rojava have been employing it for a decade, and evidently with some success. To be sure, they have been subjected to harsh criticism, with some writers claiming that they have authoritarian tendencies of their own and favor Kurds over members of other ethnic groups. The “Libertarian Communist” website goes so far as to condemn Rojava as a fraudulent revolutionary organization that has allied itself with the Syrian Assad regime, Russia, and the United States – viscously attacking it, in effect, for doing what has been necessary for its own survival. Overall, what I find remarkable is how little actual reporting has been done on this intriguing political experiment. Considering Rojava’s de facto alliance with the United States, the possibility of an ISIS resurgence in the region, and the existential threat to region’s autonomy posed by the Turkish military, one might expect Western journalists to be keenly interested in what is happening there. But this is not the case. The world at large seems oddly unconcerned about Rojava and its travails.

Rojava’s leaders are worried that their regional autonomy and security might be sacrificed by the United States in the interest of maintaining its own alliance with Turkey, a fellow NATO member. As they point out, Rojava already lost a large strip of land after the Trump Administration acquiesced to the Turkish military occupation of part of northeastern Syria in 2019. A weakened Rojava was also forced into a power-sharing arrangement with the official Syrian regime over most of its northern lands (see the map below). This could hardly have been an easy compromise: in earlier years, Syria’s Assad regime had denied citizenship to many if not most of the country’s Kurdish residents, based on its ideology of Arab nationalism and supremacy.

Although the United States has condemned recent Turkish incursions into Rojava, many residents of the region feel betrayed by the U.S. and the West more generally. As Nadine Maenza recently tweeted, “Turkey is targeting the very people that destroyed the ISIS caliphate, losing 11,000 lives so the United States did not have to put boots on the ground.” This sense of betrayal is a common motif in Kurdish historical thought – and for good reason. As early as 1919, U.S. diplomats offered some support for Kurdistan, including a proposal for an autonomous and eventually independent Kurdish state in what is now southeastern Turkey (see the map below), but they have never followed through. Since 1991, the Kurds of Iraq have generally upheld American political interests in the region, sacrificing many lives in the process. Although a few U.S. politicians, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer, have offered some support for Kurdish independence, the State Department remains deeply hostile to the idea, and the U.S. government more generally prioritizes its alliance with Turkey.

One of the biggest problems confronting Kurdish political aspirations has been their own lack of unity. Although the Kurds of northern Iraq have their own autonomous region that verges on independence, it remains geographically divided along the lines of political party, clan leadership, and dialect/language. In the mid 1990s, the Talabani-led, Sorani Kurdish-speaking Patriotic Union of Kurdistan fought a civil war against the Barzani-led, Kurmanji Kurdish-speaking Kurdish Democratic Party (see the maps below). Although this division was soon patched up, with U.S. help, the two sub-regions of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish polity often find themselves at loggerheads. In 2017, the Kurdish peshmerga military had to retreat from Kirkuk, a city commonly deemed the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” and allow the Baghdad government to regain control. This humiliating withdrawal reportedly occurred after the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan covertly pulled out from the operation, reportedly in connivance with Iran. In the process, the Iranian position in Iraq was strengthened, harming U.S. interests. As the Institute for the Study of War reported at the time,

The Iraqi Government and Iran likely signaled their intent to use military force to compel the Peshmerga withdrawals in those provinces, if necessary. The Kurdish retreat is a win for both the central Iraqi government and Iran, whose proxies have seized new key terrain and consolidated control over previously contested cities. Iran has downplayed the role of its proxies in order to legitimize them as instruments of the Iraqi state. Western media coverage and statements from US officials have assisted Iran with this deception by denying the role of Iran’s proxies in Kirkuk.

The deeper problems in Iraqi Kurdistan these days seem to stem more from political corruption and mismanagement than from internal conflict. A hard-hitting article from Kurdistan Source focuses on the recent surge of migrants out of Iraqi Kurdistan, blaming it largely on misgovernance. As the author writes

The new model [of governance] is premised on high taxation, aggressive privatisation, authoritarian governance, and eliminating nearly all social welfare. Since 2019, while household income and industrial output have stagnated, the government has increased taxes and service bills by 400% to over 1000%. This has led to nearly 70% of the region’s factories closing within just two years. While on paper, the new model is supposed to encourage private-sector driven growth, in reality, most entrepreneurs and private enterprises are driven out of business by the creation of hurdles. The majority of businesses I have talked to believe the government wants to drive them out of business to help certain companies monopolise each sector. These potential monopolies are often owned by members of the two ruling families* or people close to them.

The Kurdish tragedy will be explored in more detail in coming posts.


* Meaning the Barzani and Talabani clans.

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The Paradoxical Position of Bahia in the Brazilian National Imagination

Northeast Brazil has the highest percentage of people with African ancestry in the country. But due to the way that race is classified in Brazil (see the previous post), most of the region’s inhabitants are classified as Pardo, “brown,” or of mixed race. According to official statistics, the northeast’s Black population is relatively small and is significantly outnumbered by its white population (see the second map below). Of Brazil’s northeastern states, Bahia has the highest percentage of Blacks and the lowest percentage whites. Most enslaved Africans brought to Brazil arrived in Bahia, and as a result the state has long had a disproportionately African population. But even in Bahia, whites outnumber Blacks, at least according to official statistics. On the detailed map of racial distribution posted below, only one municipality in Bahia is depicted as having a Black plurality.

Bahia occupies a distinctive and in many ways paradoxical position in the Brazilian national consciousness. It has long been celebrated as Brazil’s site of origin, with its main city, Salvador, having served as the capital of colonial Brazil until 1763. Salvador is famed today for its colonial architecture and is an important tourist destination. But Bahia has also long been disparaged by Euro-Brazilians for its African cultural practices and its large Black population. On a map of Brazilian regional stereotypes (below), Bahia is marked as a land of “Black Witchcraft.” The Urban Dictionary defines the word “Baiano” first as “a person from the state of Bahia” and second as “a derogatory term for a poor, colored, or poorly educated Brazilian (used analogous to the English word n****r*).” According to my Brazilian friends, the second definition is most often used in São Paulo, where many poor Baianos work in construction and in other difficult and dirty jobs.

But the position of Bahia in Brazil’s national imagination is more complicated still. The state is also celebrated for many of its cultural practices that have spread to the rest of the country, centered on music, dance, religion, and cuisine. Such Afro-Brazilian cultural features as samba, candomblé, and capoeira are associated with Bahia but are now often viewed as essential aspects of Brazil itself. On the map of Brazilian regional stereotypes, Bahia is also noted as the land of samba. Many writers have remarked on Bahia’s paradoxical position. According to Anadelia Romo, Bahia is “alternately romanticized and denigrated, it has served both as a cradle of Brazilian national identity and as an embarrassing symbol of Brazilian backwardness.” Similarly, Livio Sansone writes:

[T]his is just part of the paradox: the counterpole of [Bahia’s] political weakness is the prestige and vivacity of Afro-Bahian culture. This is a culture that at times enjoys plenty of official recognition – mostly as regard to the religious dimension (the Afro-Catholic candomblé religious system) cuisine, and music – but which has a major role in the public image of Brazil and Brazilianess at home and abroad…”

Such contrasting images of Bahia have evidently obscured several important characteristics of the state. Annadelia Romo further argues that Bahia has often been misleadingly depicted as a “living museum.” As she writes, “to see Bahia as inherently, essentially rooted in Africa ignores a creative and important process of cultural grafting that has been at work over the course of the 20th century. To see Bahia as a cultural preserve is to see it as static whereas Bahian culture has been anything but.” Scott Ickes focuses instead on the socio-economic aspects the Bahian paradox. As he argues, “Newfound acceptance of these [Bahian Afro-Brazilian] customs was a democratic move forward, but it also perpetuated the political and economic marginalization of the black majority.”

The common stereotypes of Bahia, both positive and negative, pertain most closely to the state’s more densely populated eastern coastal region. Bahia’s deep interior is distinctive in many ways. Far western Bahia, for example, is part of the Brazilian boom zone of highly mechanized agriculture. The city of Barreiras, at the heart of this farming frontier, is rarely discussed either in or outside of Brazil. But as the Wikipedia article on the municipality notes:

In recent years [Barreiras] has experienced an economic boom and is one of the fastest-growing cities in the state of Bahia if not in Brazil. … From the decade of the 1970s to the present, the municipality has gone from 20,864 inhabitants to 120,000 and undergone important transformations. It has received public and private investments that have modified the social and economic profile. After 1990, the intense agricultural activity has caused changes in practically all the economic and social sectors. … Irrigation, the level terrain, and the dry climate with well-defined dry and rainy seasons have made Barreiras a leader in agriculture. … Going along with the development of agriculture, traditional cattle raising gave way in the 1990s to the use of high technology …

Needless to say, this depiction has little connection with the ways in which Bahia is commonly imagined in Brazil. But Bahia is a huge state, significantly larger than California. And as is the case in Bahia, most parts of California also fail to match the stereotypical vision of the state.

*Astoundingly, this slur word is spelled out in the Urban Dictionary.

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Amazonian Deforestation, Support for Bolsonaro, and the Roraima Mystery

In the 2022 Brazilian presidential election, the Amazonian region was strikingly divided, as is clearly visible on the Globo map posted below. (I have added an oval and two terms on the map to mark Roraima and the Amazonian region.) Most municipalities (similar to U.S. counties) here strongly supported one candidate or the other. Bolsonaro’s zone of support lies to the south of the Amazon River, but has a distinct northern outlier in the state of Roraima. In contrast, in the large state of Amazonas in the northwest, Lula da Silva received more than 60 percent of the vote in almost every municipality. The main exception was the capital city of Manaus (population 2.2 million), where Bolsonaro took 61 percent of the vote.

The electoral divide in the Amazonian region is easily explained by economic and demographic factors. As noted in a recent Mongabay headline, “Bolsonaro loses election but finds big support in Amazon Arc of Deforestation.” The Amazonian areas won by Bolsonaro have seen extensive forest clearance and now have economies based on agriculture, grazing, and artisanal (and often illegal) mining. As people stream into these areas from other parts of Brazil, pressure for further deforestation grows. As Bolsonaro, unlike Lula, is a champion of forest clearance and mining, his high level of support in these areas is not surprising. As noted by Mongabay writer André Schröder:

Experts don’t see the result as surprising since a large part of the population in this part of the territory doesn’t consider deforestation to be illegal. “Land invaders, loggers, ranchers and gold miners want a full license to occupy the Amazon territory. And Bolsonaro is not against that,” Beto Veríssimo, researcher and co-founder of the Brazilian conservation nonprofit Imazon, told Mongabay by phone. Voters from those municipalities benefit from politicians who promise not to fight illegal activities, according to Veríssimo.



The partially deforested, Bolsonaro-voting zone of the southern Amazon is also characterized by high rates of violent crime, as can be seen on the homicide map posted below. Force is often used here to seize land and settle disputes. In such an environment, many voters support Bolsonaro’s policies that allowed widespread gun ownership. In Brazil as a whole, however, roughly two-thirds of the people oppose these measures.

In the Amazonian heartland state of Amazonas, in contrast, relatively little deforestation has occurred. Here most rural people derive their livelihoods primarily from the natural environment and small-scale horticulture. Such areas strongly supported Lula, who significantly reduced the pace of deforestation when he was president in the early 2000s. As noted in a Guardian article, Amazonian municipalities with large number of indigenous people also voted heavily for Lula, as would be expected.

The Brazilian state that gave the highest percentage of its votes to Bolsonaro (76 percent) is Roraima, located in the northern Amazonian region on the border with Venezuela and Guyana. The natural vegetation of Roraima is a mixture of savannah and rainforest, both of which have seen extensive agricultural conversion. Illegal mining is also widespread – and environmentally destructive. Roraima, the least populated Brazilian state, has seen explosive growth in recent decades, its population rising from 79,000 in 1980 to 631,000 in 2020. As can be seen on the paired maps below, only one municipality in Roraima supported Lula in 2022; not coincidentally, it has an overwhelmingly indigenous population. But the state’s other northern municipalities also have indigenous majorities or pluralities, yet they voted for Bolsonaro.



The electoral victory of Bolsonaro in the indigenous-majority municipalities of northern Roraima is not easily explained. An interesting graphic in The Guardian notes this oddity (posted above) but offers no explanation. A recent Al Jazeera article reports, unsurprisingly, that indigenous leaders in the state see Bolsonaro as a threat and have strongly supported Lula. The article also claims that the indigenous residents of Roraima have not received any benefits from the mining boom. As the author, writing before the election, notes:

If re-elected with enough support in Congress, Bolsonaro could try to push through his long-planned bill to allow mining and other industrial activities on Indigenous lands. As is the case with many Indigenous territories, official requests from companies to mine in Raposa Serra do Sol, including proposals for both gold and diamond mines, have increased since Bolsonaro took office, according to data compiled by the monitoring group Amazonia Minada and seen by Al Jazeera.

“If Bolsonaro is re-elected, we will see a continuation of anti-Indigenous policies,” Antenor Vaz, a former coordinator with Brazil’s Indigenous agency Funai who now works as an independent consultant, told Al Jazeera. “Raposa Serra do Sol would face even more pressure from illegal gold miners, as well as large landowners from outside the reserve.”

 We thus encounter a mystery: why did most voters in heavily indigenous northern Roraima opt for Bolsonaro? Several possibilities come to mind. In Lula’s stronghold of northeastern Brazil, the 2022 election was marked by voter intimidation and suppression. Even the Federal Highway Police, allied with Bolsonaro, tried to delay or prevent people from reaching the polls. Could similar tactics explain the anomalous voting patterns of northern Roraima? I have seen no evidence of this, but my research has been limited. It is also possible that many indigenous people simply did not participate in the election, although Brazil does have compulsory voting.

It does seem that this apparent mystery deserves investigation by someone who knows more about Brazil, and Roraima, than I do.

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Pentecostalism, Fermented Milk, and Coffee in Ethiopia’s Sidama Region

Several recent posts have mentioned the recent growth of Pentecostal Christianity in Ethiopia, noting that a significant portion of the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, now follow the faith. Pentecostalism originated in Los Angeles, California in the early twentieth century and is now growing explosively in many parts of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Most Ethiopian Pentecostals are members of smaller ethnolinguistic groups that are concentrated in the southern highlands. One of these is the Sidama, Ethiopia’s fifth largest group, numbering some four to five million. After a long period of lobbying and protests, the Sidama were finally granted their own semi-autonomous region in 2019. According to Ethiopia’s 1994 national census, 67 percent of the Sidama then followed Protestant Christianity, with the rest being divided among followers of traditional beliefs (15 percent), Islam (7.7 percent), Catholicism (4.6 percent), and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity (2.3 percent). The 2007 census, however, found that 84.4 percent of the people in the Sidama region were Protestants. The MapPorn map posted below indicates that over much of the Sidama Region the figure is over 90 percent.

Christianization of the Sidama people was a complicated process involving several missionary groups. It seems that the region’s different Protestant denominations have recently converged on the highly emotional (or spiritual) mode of worship associated with Pentecostalism. According to the Christian proselytizing organization called the Joshua Project:

The Sidama were evangelized in the early-mid 1900s by Kambata* Christians and later, by Norwegian and Danish Lutheran and SIM missionaries. The first Kambata missionaries were martyred by the Sidama, but the Kambata persevered and finally, a small group of Sidama Christians resulted. Now, Sidama is largely Christian including a number of Orthodox. Nearly a tenth are Muslim, non-Christian cults, and traditional religionists. The main churches, in order of size are: Mekane Yesus (Scandinavian Lutheran roots), Kale Hiwot (SIM, Baptist roots), Orthodox, Hiwot Birhan (Swedish/Finnish Pentacostal roots), Mulu Wengel (Full Gospel roots), and Catholic. Over the past 10-15 years, most Protestant churches have adopted a charismatic/pentecostal, style of worship. Youth choirs are influential in the church and keyboards are the choice of musical instruments of church worship.

The Sidama people are significant in other respects. Their land is one of the mostly densely populated parts of Ethiopia, yet they have not suffered much from famine or severe malnutrition, owing largely to their stable crop, enset (see the previous post on this crop). Fermented cow’s milk is another important part of the Sidama diet. Although fermented dairy products are often associated with Central Asia, they are also widespread in Africa, particularly Ethiopia. As one article on the subject notes, “In Ethiopia, a large proportion of milk is consumed in the fermented form through the application of traditional fermentation methods. The main fermented milk products include ergo (sour milk), ititu (milk curd), ayib (cottage cheese), neter kibe (spiced butter), kibe (traditional butter), aguat (whey) and arerra (sour defatted milk).” As most Ethiopians, like most Mongols. are lactose intolerant, fermentation is needed to make milk digestible.

The Sidama region is also noted for its fine arabica coffee, the main local cash crop. Coffee is Ethiopia’s most important export by a wide margin, and the Sidama Region produces over 40 percent of the marketed national crop. When global coffee prices drop, hardship comes to the Sidema people.

It is possible that the Sidama people were associated with the domestication of the coffee plant. The first commercial coffee plantations were probably located in Yemen, but the southern highlands of Ethiopia has the best claim to being the site of origination. One prominent but evidently apocryphal legend links coffee consumption to a ninth-century Ethiopian goatherd who noticed how frisky his animals became after eating the plant’s berries. Other stories connect coffee to the Oromo people. An Atlantic article on coffee domestication cites “a tradition of an Ethiopian tribe, the Galla, who regularly consume ‘energy balls’ made by blending animal fat and macerated coffee cherries” (“Galla” is an Amharic term for the Oromo, but is now avoided for its pejorative connotations). A Wikipedia article on the history of coffee claims that “according to one legend, ancestors of today’s Oromo people in the region of Jimma in Ethiopia were the first to recognize the energizing effect of the coffee plant.”

The main problem with these latter two accounts is the fact that the Oromo did not enter the Ethiopian highlands until the early modern period, whereas coffee was probably consumed and cultivated much earlier. The Sidama themselves had to flee from their original homeland, located further to the east, to avoid being assimilated by the Oromo in the sixteenth century (many of them probably were). Further to the west, the Jimma area, noted by Wikipedia as a possible locus of coffee domestication, was the site of the Kaffa Kingdom of the Kaffa people. This kingdom was partially overrun by the Oromo in the eighteenth century and then finally conquered by the Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Empire in the late nineteenth century. The Kaffa people, who now number a little less than a million, are also heavily dependent on coffee cultivation, and also suffer when global prices drop.

*The Kambata are another ethnic group of the Ethiopia’s southern highlands.

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Religion, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia and Eritrea

Some journalists and scholars have tried to link conflicts in Ethiopia and Eritrea to religious divides that are either insignificant or nonexistent. The most egregious example was that of Samuel Huntington in this famous (infamous?) book, The Clash of Civilizations (1996). Huntington portrayed the war that was then being waged between Ethiopia and Eritrea as a religious/civilizational conflict, one pitting Christian Ethiopia against Muslim Eritrea. Maps based on Huntington’s work thus depict Eritrea as a Muslim country (see the figure below). Most actual assessments, however, find that Eritrea is roughly half Muslim and half Christians, although some sources claim that the country is roughly two-thirds Christian, with almost 58 percent of its people adhering to the Oriental Orthodox Tewahedo Church. But nothing is clear about Eritrean demography; figures for the country’s total population range from 3.6 to 6.7 million.


The current Tigray War in northern Ethiopia is based largely on ethnic politics but has little to do with religion. The Tigrayans are overwhelmingly Ethiopian Orthodox, but the Amhara, often regarded as their main opponents, mostly follow the same religion. To be sure, a sizable Muslim Amhara minority does exist, but this religious division does not play a role in the current conflict. Ethiopia’s Amharic-speaking Muslim population is concentrated in the South Wollo Zone, where almost three quarters of the population follows Islam. This Muslim Amhara area is easily seen on a fantastic map of religion in Ethiopia made by an anonymous cartographer and posted on the MapPorn section of Reddit. In the figure posted below, I have lightly edited this map to highlight the Tigray and Amhara regions.

The Oromo, forming Ethiopia’s largest ethnolinguistic group, have played a major role in the country’s recent political dramas. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is Oromo, but the militant Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) has sided with the Tigrayan rebels against the government. Abiy seeks pan-Ethiopian civic nationalism, whereas the OLF champions Oromo self-determination and contains ethno-nationalist elements that would prefer independence. Despite such political divides, Oromo ethnic identity remains strong. Yet the Oromo are deeply split by faith. In the Oromo Region (Oromia), which is roughly 88 Oromo-speaking, 48 percent of the population follows Islam, 30 percent Ethiopian Orthodoxy, and 18 Protestant Christianity, mostly Pentecostalism (Abiy Ahmed is a devout Pentecostal). As the MapPorn religion map shows, different parts of Oromia have distinct religious complexions, with some zones heavily Muslim, others heavily Orthodox, others heavily Pentecostal, and others mixed. In the far south of the region, however, most people evidently follow Waaqeffanna, the indigenous Oromo faith. It is not coincidental that this area is commonly regarded as the original homeland of the Oromo people. As the Oromo moved north into the Ethiopian highland in the early modern period, they assimilated local populations into their ethnolinguistic group, but were themselves often religiously assimilated into the Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox communities of the people that they were assimilating. (Pentecostalism came later.)

The Wikipedia article on Oromia claims that three percent of its people follow Waaqeffanna, the indigenous religion. Standard sources hold that only around a half a percent of Ethiopia’s total population adheres to “traditional” faiths of all varieties. I suspect that the actual figure is much higher. As the MapPorn map indicates, many of the peoples in the southern part of the highly diverse SNNPR Region (Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples) follow traditional religions. Pentecostalism Christianity, however, has been spreading rapidly here in recent years. Indigenous faiths might disappear, but revivals are always possible.

Religion, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia and Eritrea Read More »

Famine in Ethiopia and the Enset Solution in the Southern Highlands

Ethiopia is a notoriously drought and famine plagued country. Although the western highlands receive abundant precipitation, the densely populated eastern highlands are much drier. Almost all the precipitation that this area receives falls in a brief window during the summer. When summer rains are inadequate, as they frequently are, famine typically results. Ethiopia’s most densely populated areas are in the southern highlands, an ethnolinguistically diverse area that has long been both politically and economically marginalized. Despite its rapid economic growth since 2003, Ethiopia is still a very poor country, and the southern highlands is one of its poorer areas. One would therefore expect it to be particularly vulnerable to famine.

Yet despite all of these disadvantages, the southern highlands are much less prone to famine than Ethiopia’s core zone in the northern and central highlands. The answer to the seeming paradox is simple, found in the area’s staple crop. The people of the northern and central highlands subsist largely on grain, which is highly vulnerable to dry weather during the growing season. Those of the southern highlands, in contrast, subsist largely on enset, which is far more resilient. This crop, unique to Ethiopia, is a close relative of bananas and plantains. It is not cultivated for its fruit, however, but rather for its carbohydrate-rich leaf sheaths and corms.

            The advantages of enste are nicely explained in a recent article entitled “Enset in Ethiopia: A Poorly Characterized But Resilient Starch Staple.” As the authors write:

Enset has historically been ascribed as a ‘tree against hunger’ (Brandt et al., 1997), due to the domesticated plant having important attributes that support the food security of communities that cultivate it. These attributes were evident during the devastating famines of the 1980s, where enset-growing communities reported little-to-no food insecurity (Dessalegn, 1995). Most significant is the apparent ability of enset to withstand environmental stress, including periods of drought (Quinlan et al., 2015). Enset can also be harvested at any time of the year and at any stage over several years (including when it is immature), and enset-derived starch can also be stored for long periods (Birmeta, 2004). Enset also provides fibres, medicines, animal fodder and packaging material (Brandt et al., 1997). It stabilizes soils and microclimates (Abate et al., 1996) and is culturally significant (Kanshie, 2002Negash and Niehof, 2004Tewodros and Tesfaye, 2014). Enset has a complex management system supported by extensive ethnobotanical knowledge (Borrell et al., unpubl. res.). In a comparison of starch crops, enset has been reported to produce the highest yield per hectare in Ethiopia (Tsegaye and Struik, 2001Kanshie, 2002) with relatively low inputs and management requirements. Enset therefore has the ability to support a larger population per unit area than regions relying on growing cereals (Yirgu, 2016). As a result of these qualities, enset farming provides a long-term, sustainable food supply capable of buffering not only seasonal and periodic food deficits, with minimum off-farm input, but also demonstrates potential that exceeds its current utilization in South-West Ethiopia.

Enset could be cultivated in many tropical areas. If it were to spread, food security could be significantly enhanced in some very poor and marginalized areas. Unfortunately, most international agricultural research has focused on a handful of crops, particularly wheat, rice, and corn (maize). If more attention could be given to highly productive minor crops such as enset, major benefits could probably be gained.

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Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is NOT Eastern Orthodox, But It Did Influence Protestantism

Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian county, with around two-thirds of its people belonging to a Christian church. Roughly 44 percent follow Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity (the Tewahedo Church), and little over 20 percent belong to a Pentecostal denomination.

Many sources erroneously depict the Tewahedo Church as part of the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, putting it in the same category as Greek Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, Serbian Orthodoxy, and so on. Even highly reputable publications such as the Pew Research Center make this error (see the figures posted below). In actuality, Eastern Orthodoxy is much more similar to, and historically intertwined with, Roman Catholicism than it is with Ethiopian Christianity. Eastern Orthodoxy did not split from Roman Catholicism until 1054 CE, and even then the divorce was more a political than a religious matter. (The main theological disagreement stemmed from a single Latin term, filioque.*) The Ethiopian Church spilt from the main Christian stem much earlier, in 451 CE. It did so as a result of theological decisions reached at the Council of Chalcedon. At issue was the relationship between the human and divine natures of Jesus. The council decreed that Jesus is one person in two natures, whereas the Ethiopian church insisted that Jesus is fully divine and fully human in one nature. Although this distinction now strikes most Christians and non-Christians alike as insignificant if not beside the point, such Christological controversies mattered a great deal in late antiquity.

The Ethiopians were not the only Christians to reject the decisions made at Chalcedon. The Armenian Apostolic Church and the Coptic Church of Egypt also maintained that Jesus has a single nature, as did several other eastern sects. Today these churches are grouped together under the category of “Oriental Orthodoxy” – not to be confused with Eastern Orthodoxy. More properly, they are described as constituting Miaphysite Christianity, a term that capture the crucial “one nature” aspect of their theology. The Ethiopian Tewahedo Church is most closely connected to the Coptic Church of Egypt, as both follow the Alexandrian Liturgical Rites (so too does the Eritrean Tewahedo Church, which split from that of Ethiopia in 1991 on geopolitical grounds.)

Arguably, the Tewahedo Church has closer ties with Protestant Christianity, especially Lutheranism, than it does with Eastern Orthodoxy. As the figure posted below shows, Martin Luther was influenced by Ethiopian Christianity, arguing that it adhered more closely to the original teachings than did Roman Catholicism. Luther evidently had close contacts with an Ethiopian cleric named Michael the Deacon, and they discovered that they agreed about many issues of religious belief and practice, if not on the nature of the Trinity.


Ethiopia has an unusual cultural/religious link to England, Catalonia, and the Republic of Georgia, as each polity has the same patron saint: George. Saint George is famed for killing a dragon in all four lands, but, unsurprisingly, he is given a very different physical appearance in Ethiopian religious art than in that of Western Europe.

*As is explained in the Wikipedia article on the term, “In the late 6th century, some Latin Churches  added the words “and from the Son” (Filioque) to the description of the procession of the Holy Spirit, in what many Eastern Orthodox Christians have at a later stage argued is a violation of Canon VII.”

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The Ethnic Roots of the War in Ethiopia and the Paradox of Tigrayan Ethnic Identity

The horrific and under-reported Tigray War in Ethiopia hinges largely on tensions between ethnolinguistic identity and national solidarity. Under both the Ethiopian monarchy during the Haile Selassie era (1930-1974) and the communist Derg regime (1974-1991), the government foregrounded the minority (30%) Amhara ethnic group and its Amharic language, pushing a harsh “Amharaization” program in many areas. Partly as a result, ethnic militias proliferated and eventually prevailed, toppling the brutal Derg government in 1991. Leading the fight was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which represented the minority Tigrayan people, constituting only around six percent of Ethiopia’s population. The TPLF had allied with other insurgent groups in an umbrella group called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF). After coming to power in 1991, this formerly Marxist-Leninist organization revised its political stance, dropping communism in favor of center-left ethnic federalism. Ethiopia’s old provinces were soon wiped off the map as the country was re-divided into semi-autonomous regions defined primarily on ethnolinguistic grounds.

Ethiopia’s new government performed well. By the early 2000s the country was booming, posting the world’s third highest gains in per capita GDP between 2000 and 2018. But ethnic problems continued to plague Ethiopia. Smaller ethnolinguistic groups, concentrated in the southwest, were unsettled by being amalgamated with other groups in composite regions. This was a particular problem in the linguistically fractured region called Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples. Owing to such ethnic pressure, the Ethiopian government eventually created several new autonomous regions. Elsewhere, ethnic groups clashed over regional boundaries, and anger was provoked when the government tried to shift internal borders. Critics argued that Ethiopia was undermining itself by insistently politicizing ethnicity.

After coming to power 2018, prime minister Abiy Ahmed sought to reorient Ethiopia away from ethnic federalism and toward civic nationalism. In 2019 he disbanded the ruling multi-ethnic coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF), replacing it with the non-ethnic Prosperity Party, which currently holds 454 out of 547 parliamentary seats. The Tigrayans were not pleased by this maneuver. They were already angered by their loss of prominent positions within the government and they now feared that they would eventually lose their regional political autonomy. As a result, they rebelled against the government in 2020, precipitating the current war.

The Tigrayan rebellion thus shows the continuing power of ethnic identity in multiethnic Ethiopia, as well as the relatively weakness of national bonds in many parts of the country. But the current conflict also ironically shows the limits of ethnolinguistic identity and the potential power of national bonding to unravel ethnic ties. The Tigrinya linguistic community that has historically underpinned Tigrayan ethnicity has long been spilt on geopolitical grounds, divided between Ethiopia and Eritrea ever since Italy successfully colonized the latter region in the late 1800s. Although Tigrinya speakers form a relatively small portion of Ethiopia’s population, they constitute roughly half of that of Eritrea, arguably forming the country’s dominant ethnic group. Most Tigrinya speakers in both countries also follow the same “Oriental” Orthodox Christian religion, although it was split into Ethiopian and Eritrean branches in 1991. Despite such cross-border ethnic ties, in the current conflict Eritrea is closely allied with the Ethiopian government against Ethiopia’s Tigrinya-speaking population. Eritrea has militarily occupied a small slice of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region and has reportedly attacked local people with brutality. No evidence of any pan-Tigrinya-speaking ethnic solidarity is readily available. In this case, it would seem that national identity has easily trumped language-based ethnic identity.

It is perilous to make such a claim, however, precisely because little information is available. Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive and militarily dominated countries, sometimes put in the same category as North Korea. Its government has worked hard to generate a solid sense of Eritrean national identity and has perhaps succeeded. Its quest to do so was facilitated by its long war of independence against Ethiopia (1961-1991), followed by periodic border conflicts with the same country. But it must also be noted that many Eritreans chafe under their brutal government, prompting vast numbers to flee. As of 2016, an estimated 321,000 Eritrean refugees were living in Europe, with another half million in Ethiopia and Sudan, out of a total national population of roughly six million. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to come to any solid conclusions about ethnic and national identity in Eritrea.

The Ethnic Roots of the War in Ethiopia and the Paradox of Tigrayan Ethnic Identity Read More »

The Growing Commonwealth of Nations

Unlike the Commonwealth Realms, the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth) is expanding, now counting 56 members. Almost all are former British colonies, and most former British colonies belong to the organization. If, as is expected, most Caribbean Commonwealth Realms drop the monarchy and become republics, they will almost certainly remain part of this international organization, mow headed by King Charles III.

The Commonwealth of Nations is not a particularly strong or effective organization, but it does play an important role in cultural, scientific, and intellectual exchange. Member states evidently value their membership. The only countries that have withdrawn are Ireland and Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe submitted an application to rejoin in 2018. Originally, only countries that had been directly under British authority, or were constitutionally linked to a country that had been, were eligible to join. In 1995, however, the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique was admitted. A more controversial admission was Rwanda, a former German-then-Belgian colony, which gained membership in 2009. In 2022, two additional former French colonies in Africa, Togo and Gabon, joined the organization.

The admission of Rwanda in 2009 was highly controversial, but not because the country lacked a historical connection with the British Empire. The issue here was Rwanda’s human-rights record. As was noted at the time in the “Report and Recommendations of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative”:

Among the key Harare Principles [of the Commonwealth] are commitments to the protection of human rights and to democracy. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) believes that overwhelming evidence, conveniently ignored by leading Commonwealth states, demonstrates that the government of Rwanda is not sufficiently committed to these values.

But it must also be recognized that most African members in the Commonwealth do not have well-consolidated democracies and often fail to protect human rights. Also significant is the fact that Rwanda has made significant strides in both human and economic development. The CHRI acknowledged this fact (“Rwanda has what appears to be a well-deserved reputation for governmental efficiency and for being less corrupt than a number of other countries”), but proceeded to dismiss it as largely disingenuous (“The Rwandan government has excellent public relations machinery. Its leaders are astute, and effectively play upon the conscience of the world…”) But whatever one makes of this controversy, Rwanda’s position in the Commonwealth is now secure. The Commonwealth Chair-In-Office, one of the organization’s key positions, is currently Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda since 2000.

The movement of French-speaking African countries into this English-using organization is based on several factors. One is a desire to forge closer connections with their Anglophone neighbors. Another is a wish for their people to gain more facility in the English language. Rwanda pioneered this path, switching most of its schools from instruction in French to instruction in English in 2007. English is widely seen as bringing more international advantages than French, both across the world and in Africa. Finally, many countries in western and central Africa are keen to move out of the French geopolitical orbit. The CFA Franc, a currency* backed by France and used by most former French colonies in Africa, is widely seen as benefitting the metropolitan core at the expense of local economies, which are not able to adjust the valuation of their currencies to match economic conditions. French military action in the Sahel, the zone just south of the Sahara, is also unpopular. It will be interesting to see if other Francophone African countries join the Commonwealth and move in an Anglophone direction.

* Actually it is two closely linked currencies, the West African CFA Franc and the Central African CFA Franc

The Growing Commonwealth of Nations Read More »

Iran’s Kurdish Population: Anti-Regime in the Northwest; Pro-Regime in the Northeast

Many maps of the current Iran protest movement have been published and posted, showing both cumulative and daily events. Although such maps are highly useful, the patterns that they indicate are not easily discerned. Protests have been happening in so many places that a map of their occurrences approximates a population density map of the country (see the excellent population density map by Michael Izady posted below). Close analysis, however, shows a distinct concentration of protests in the historically Kurdish region in northwestern Iran (see especially first map posted below). This is no surprise. Mahsa Amini was herself Kurdish, and Iran’s Kurdish population has long been noted for its relatively liberal and anti-regime sentiments.

Protests have been relatively sparse, however, in North Khorasan province in northeastern Iran, which is almost half Kurdish. North Khorasan is not part of historical Kurdistan; Kurds were deported from their homeland to this region in the early modern period by Safavid shahs who wanted their help in protecting their empire against Turkmen and Uzbek pastoral peoples from Central Asia. Evidently, pro-Kurdish and anti-regime sentiments are much less pronounced here than they are in the solidly Kurdish regions of the northwest. Population distribution probably plays a role. Although many of the Kurds in North Khorasan live in Kurdish villages, the province’s cities are ethnically mixed, counting many Farsi-speakers and Turkmens. This mixing has perhaps diminished ethnic identity among the region’s urban Kurds.

Electoral returns, however, indicate that deeper factors are at play. North Khorasan, like most of the rest of northeastern Iran, is a conservative area that gives most of its votes to hardline, pro-regime candidates. Reformist candidates would not do so poorly in this province if they received widespread support from the local Kurdish population. Posted below are three Wikipedia maps of relative fair Iranian presidential elections, all of which show moderate/reformist candidates winning in the historically Kurdish northwest yet doing poorly in heavily Kurdish North Khorasan. The 2001 map, which shows vote percentages at the district level, best illustrates this pattern. As can be seen, the most heavily Kurdish areas of the northwest gave more than 84 percent of their votes to Mohammad Khatami, the incumbent champion of relatively free expression, civil society, and a “dialogue among civilizations.” North Khorasan, however, gave Khatami fewer than 39 percent of its votes. Intriguingly, nearby areas to the south and east, with much smaller Kurdish populations, gave Khatami a significantly larger share of their votes.

The relative conservatism of Iran’s northeastern Kurds is an interesting phenomenon that has received little attention in the English-language literature. I can only wonder whether Iranian scholars, pundits, and political activists have examined it.

Iran’s Kurdish Population: Anti-Regime in the Northwest; Pro-Regime in the Northeast Read More »

Iran’s Striking Decline in Religiosity

The GAMMAN survey on religious beliefs in Iran, discussed in yesterday’s post, has some interesting and unexpected results. According to conventional sources, over 90 percent of Iran’s people follow Shia Islam; according to GAMAAN, only around a third of the Iran people actually believe Shia doctrine. Most of the rest are supposedly either non-religious or religiously heterodox in one way or another. If these results are accurate, Iran is much more similar to Europe in terms of religiosity than it is to most other Middle Eastern countries. Although the GAAMAN results may be exaggerated, it is clear that many Iranians have turned away from religion. They have done in part because of the brutality and incompetence of their country’s theocratic government. Tensions with the Arabic-speaking world also seem to play a role. Many Iranians stereotype Arabs as prone to religious extremism, and some blame them for politicizing Islam and thus contributing to the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution. This attitude puts pressure on Iran’s own Arab minority, and in turn pushes them to respond. As reported in the Wikipedia article on Iran’s 2016 pro-monarchical Cyrus the Great protests:

Despite the anti-Arab slogans chanted by some, a perception by many Iranians that Arab cultural dominance has entered Iran through the government’s political Islam, Iranian, Arabs, traveling from as far west as Khuzestan, gathered in support of the protest, chanting slogans in Arabic in support of indigenous minorities and the use of their native languages, which has often been repressed by the Iranian government in favor of Persia.

The GAMAAN survey puts Iran’s Sunni Muslim minority at five percent of the total population, which is similar to the conventional figure. If these figures are correct, Sunni religious beliefs in Iran have not appreciably declined, unlike those of the Shia community. As can be seen on Michael Izady’s map of religion in Iran, Sunni Islam is followed mostly by members of ethnic minorities: Baluchs in the southeast, Turkmens in the northeast, and Kurds in the northwest. Note also that Izady pegs Iran’s Sunni population at 11 percent. Other sources suggest that it could be as high as 25 percent, a figure that, if true, is concealed by the Shia establishment. If these higher numbers are accurate and if the GAMAAN figures are also correct, then Sunni Islam has also experienced a pronounced erosion of belief in Iran. If this is indeed the case, I suspect that the drop in Sunni religiosity is most pronounced in the Kurdish northwest. The Kurds in general are a relatively secular people who are also inclined to religious heterodoxy.

The most surprising aspect of the GAMAAN survey is the prominent position of Zoroastrianism. It found that almost eight percent of Iran’s people claim to follow this faith, which had been the predominant religion of Iran before the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. According to official statistics, Iran’s Zoroastrian community is tiny: roughly 25,000 people out of a national population of almost 87 million. It is inconceivable that millions of Iranians have converted to this venerable but dwindling faith, commonly regarded as in some danger of extinction. But increasing numbers of Iranians do express solidarity with, and interest in, Zoroastrianism. They do so both to distance themselves from the Shia clerical regime and to show their loyalty to a deeply rooted version of Iranian nationalism. Zoroastrianism has also seen something of a revival among the Kurds of Iraq, and perhaps in Central Asia as well.

The Iranian government is not happy about the revival of interest in Zoroastrianism. According to a recent article in Swarajya magazine, it is “the religion that the Iranian mullahs fear the most.” Iran’s theocratic regime is also worried about Yarsan, a mystical faith with some connection to Zoroastrianism that is followed by up to one million Iranian Kurds. As IranWire recently noted, “Official report calls Yarsan religious minority a ‘security threat.’”

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Could Iran’s Government Fall?

In lecturing last night in my Stanford University Continuing Studies (adult education) class on the current protest movement in Iran, I asked one big question and provided three different possible answers. The question was: “Could massive, determined and prolonged protests bring down the Iranian Government?”

The first answer was “extremely unlikely.” Massive protests have been occurring almost continually in Iran since the so-called Green Movement of 2009, but none has shown any sign of appreciably weakening the Iranian government. In comparative terms as well, protest movements rarely result in such a major change. Repression generally works well in quelling dissent, and the Iranian government is more than willing to use harshly repressive measures. It also has a huge internal security apparatus ready to carry out its directives.

My second answer was, “certainly possible.” Massive protest movements have in the past brought down governments, the most compelling example being the “Islamic Revolution” of 1979 in Iran itself, which took down the repressive regime of the Shah. After a little more than a year of huge protests, strikes, and civil disobedience, the government was no longer able to function. It therefore essentially disbanded itself without facing an actual armed rebellion or possible foreign intervention. Even if hundreds of protests are brutally repressed and therefore seem insignificant, one successful movement can topple a regime and thus change the course of history. In retrospect, such an event can seem inevitable.

My third answer was “likely, sometime within the next twenty years.” My reasoning here is based on both the determination of the Iranian protesters and the high level of support that they seem to be getting from the population at large. The government’s increasing repression and elimination of the country’s veneer of democracy in favor of complete theocracy is also pushing Iran to the tipping point. Before 2021, moderate and even relatively liberal candidates often won Iranian presidential elections, giving the people some hope for reform from within. In 2021, however, the major reformist figures were barred from competing. As a result, relatively few Iranians bothered to vote. Yet it still seems that extensive manipulation of the vote was necessary to ensure a solid victory for the regime’s favored candidate, Ebrahim Raisi. An extreme hard-liner, Raisi openly brags about his key role in the execution of between 2,800 and 30,000 political prisoners in 1988.

As a result of such developments, support for the current Iranian regime seems to be evaporating. The main demands of the protestors have thus changed from redress of grievances to wholesale political transformation. More important in the long run, evidence also indicates that the Iranian people are not just abandoning faith in their government, but also faith in the religious beliefs that underlay the Islamic Republic. Although conventional assessments hold Iran to be an overwhelmingly Shia Muslim country, a recent survey indicates that this is no longer the case.  Instead, the country has shifted in decidedly secular direction. A 2020 article in The Conversation, based on research conducted by The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN (GAMAAN) contends that only a around a third of Iranian citizens now follow Shia Islam. The rather astounding results of this research project can be seen in the two figures posted below. (Some of the oddities found in the pie chart, such as the high figure for Zoroastrianism, will be discussed in tomorrow’s post.)

If these findings are accurate, it becomes questionable whether Iran’s nakedly theocratic regime can persist for long. In such circumstances, heightened repression could easily result in increased opposition. Eventually, the dam will break. Such a momentous event will probably not happen in a few months, but within a few years or at least a few decades, Iran will probably undergo another protest-led revolution, this one of a secular and democratic nature.

Could Iran’s Government Fall? Read More »

Cross-Class Connectedness in the Pacific Northwest and the Proposed State of Jefferson

On the map of “Economic Connectedness of Low-Socioeconomic-Status Individuals by County” (see the post of August 11), the Pacific Northwest appears as a highly variegated zone. Counties in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California range from the highest to the lowest category, with few obvious spatial patterns.




But as is true in the northern Rockies and northern Great Plains, ethnic differences underlay many of these county-level disparities. Counties with large numbers of relatively poor Hispanic farmworkers generally rank low, indicating a lack of connections across ethnic and economic lines. In agricultural southeastern Washington, counties dominated by highly mechanized dryland grain farming, such as Whitman, rank high, whereas as those dominated by more labor-intensive irrigated crops, such as neighboring Adams, rank low. Whitman’s elevated standing also reflects the presence of Washington State University. Across the country, counties with major universities tend to have relatively large numbers of cross-class friendships.

Across a sizable area of southwestern Oregon and far northern California, however, both ethnic/racial diversity and the level of economic connectedness is low. On both scores, this region looks more like southern and central Appalachia than other parts of the Pacific Northwest. As the first set of triplicate maps shows, this region has a moderate level of economic differentiation (GINI Coefficient), a relatively low level of per capita GDP, and a relatively low level of income in its top economic tier. Here as well, county-rankings in southwestern Oregon and far northern California are not dissimilar to those of central Appalachia. As the next map series shows, the region is heavily Republican-voting – although it is not as Trump-inclined as West Virginia. It also has a large percentage of people over age 65. It deviates most sharply from central Appalachia in its relatively high percentage of people with high-school diplomas.




Although Oregon is conventionally divided east-by-west, in the western part of the state the north/south divide is equally important. Although the fertile Willamette Valley in the northwest was settled heavily by New Englanders, most of the rest of western Oregon was substantially settled by people from the upper south. Many rural areas still have an Appalachian feel.

Not coincidentally, the low-connectedness region of southwestern Oregon and far northern California forms the core of the controversial proposed state of Jefferson, which has received local support for decades. Proponents argue that their largely rural and relatively remote region has been ignored – and bullied – by the state governments of Oregon and California. Intriguingly, Wikipedia’s article on the State of Jefferson pushes its would-be borders farther to the south than has been the norm, including even Mendocino County. Although Mendocino may have a local Jefferson movement, it receives little support. As the precinct-level electoral map of the county shows, Mendocino is distinctly blue (Democratic Party voting). As a result, most of its residents want nothing to do with the populist right-wing Jefferson movement.

Cross-Class Connectedness in the Pacific Northwest and the Proposed State of Jefferson Read More »

Mapping Cross-Class Social Connectedness

A new map by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his associates has been getting a lot of attention. The map, based on a massive array of data, shows the share of friends among people below median in socioeconomic status who are above median in socioeconomic status. (See this short article for a more complete explanation; also here and here.) The conclusion of the study is simple: “Children who grow up in communities with more cross-class interaction are much more likely to rise out of poverty.” The counties in blue on the map thus have more favorable conditions for the upward mobility of the poor; those in red, more unfavorable.

Some of the spatial patterns seen on the map are stark. The socioeconomic connectedness of lower-level individuals is low across most of the southern third of the country, with the exception of much of central Texas and Oklahoma. Anomalously high-connectedness counties within this low-connectedness zone are generally suburban to some extent (for example, Williamson County in Tennessee, just south of Nashville’s Davidson county). But even many affluent suburban counties in this “greater south” post below average levels, including Ventura and Santa Barbara in southern California.

A corridor of high socio-economic connectedness extends from central Virginia to southern Maine (excluding the Delmarva Peninsula and southernmost New Jersey). This region is highly urbanized, with many major cities. Anomalously low-connectedness counties within this high-connectedness zone generally contain cities with relatively poor urban cores, such as Springfield, Massachusetts in Hampden County. The several counties of New York City all rank relatively low; only Richmond County (Staten Island) appears in a shade of blue. Intriguingly, the suburban counties around Washington DC and Philadelphia rank higher than those near New York.

A much larger although less populous area of high socio-economic connectedness is found the north-center-west portion of the country, centered on the western Great Lakes, northern Great Plains, and northern Rockies regions. This is, contrastingly, a largely rural and mostly agricultural area, although it does contain a few major cities, including Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Anomalously low-connectedness countries within this high-connectedness macro-region generally contain large Native American or Hispanic populations.

To a certain extent, the patterns found on this map replicate those found on a map of per capita income. The main reason is simple: poorer people living in rich countries meet relatively high socioeconomic status people far more often than do poor people living in poor countries. But there are many exceptions to this crude generalization. Several wealthy counties in southern Florida and southern California, for example, have low rates of cross-class connectivity. In contrast, much of Kentucky and southern Indiana have higher rates of connectivity than might be expected based on their socioeconomic characteristics.

In many parts of the county, the closest connection with class connectivity seems to be educational levels. This point is illustrated by blocking off roughly the same “north-center-west” macro-region on Chetty’s map and on a map of the percentage of people with high school diplomas. But again, the correlation does not hold everywhere. The paired Kentucky maps, for example, do show a general correlation between education and connectivity, but several counties, such as Grayson, have low numbers of high-school-educated residents but healthy levels of cross-class friendship.













In the United States as a whole, the map of cross-class friendships correlates poorly with race. The “whitest” American countries have some of the highest and some of the lowest levels of connectivity. Overall, however, Black, Hispanic, and Native American areas rank low on Chetty’s map. And in “north-center-west” zone of high connectivity, race/ethnicity seems to be the crucial variable. As the four juxtaposed maps showing the region where Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska converge illustrate, counties with large Hispanic and Native American populations have much lower rates of cross-class friendship than those dominated by Euro-Americans. Many of the counties in this part of the country that have large Hispanic populations are the sites of major meat-packing facilities. Workers in these plants tend to be socially isolated from the surrounding community. In early 2020, COVID-19 outbreaks were often particularly severe in these areas. As the Minnesota Department of Health noted:

In April 2020, early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, a COVID-19 outbreak temporarily shut down the JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota [in Nobles County]. Employees at this pork plant identify as Hispanic or Latinx, African, or Asian immigrants, communities that have been hardest hit by COVID-19 due to many systemic barriers and challenges. Over 600 employees tested positive, leaving the small community in Nobles County with a ripple effect that was incalculable at the time.

   In tomorrow’s post, we will look at socioeconomic connectivity in the Pacific Northwest.

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