More Great Maps from M. Izady at Gulf 2000

Middle East Cultural Historical Regions Map by M. Izady

Middle East Cultural Historical Regions Map by M. IzadyThe fantastic map trove at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, generated by cartographer M. Izady, continues to expand. Many detailed maps of language, religion, ethnicity, and cultural-historical regions in the greater Middle East are found on the site.

Today’s GeoNote highlights Izady’s map of “Primary Cultural and Historical Zones.” This map makes an invaluable companion for historical sources covering the region. Regional terms, such as Khurasan, Hadramout, and Hijaz are often encountered in such works, but until now it has been impossible to find a single map that indicates their positions.

A few oddities are apparent. Note that the map includes two “Iraqs,” one in modern Iraq and the other in Iran. Although seldom used now, such terminology was once widespread, and I was quite confused when I first read of a Persian “Iraq.” (The etymology of the word is still debated.)

My one complaint about the map is the use of several non-local terms, such as “Piedmont” for part of Kurdistan and “Caspia” for the eastern Caucasus. The term “piedmont” derives from the Italian for “mountain foot,” and is used for several regions of the world situated near the base of a prominent mountain range. It is used here as substitute for indigenous terms meaning the same thing.

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Egypt’s Electoral Geography Revealed

Egyptian Block Vote Map from Electoral Politics 2.0

Egyptian Block Vote Map from Electoral Politics 2.0By Western standards, Cairo is a socially conservative and religiously devout metropolis. By Egyptian standards, however, it is a rather liberal place. Such a position is evident in the electoral maps of Egypt’s 2011 legislative election, recently put on-line by the invaluable website, Electoral Geography 2.0: Mapped Politics. As the first map posted here shows, the secular, center-left party, Egyptian Block, received a higher percentage of the vote in greater Cairo than elsewhere in the country. Egyptian Block also did relatively well in Alexandria, which was once considered a cosmopolitan city, and in the Assiout Governorate in the central Nile Valley, noted for having one of the largest concentrations of Coptic Christians in the country.  According to the Wikipedia, Egyptian Block, which received less than nine percent of the vote nationwide, hopes to:

“[E]stablish Egypt as a modern civil state in which science plays an important role, and to create equality and social justice in the country. The objectives of the Bloc also include to make a decent life possible for the poorer population, including education, health care and proper housing. It advocates a pluralistic, multiparty democracy and rejects religious, racial, and sexual discrimination.”

 Al_Nour Vote Map in Egypt from Electoral PoliticsAs the second map shows, the ultra-conservative Salafist party, Al-Nour, received relatively few votes in Cairo.  This party did very well, however, in the western desert, in the agricultural Fayoum Depression, and in large parts of the Nile Delta.

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Religious Diversity in Northern California

Most detailed maps of religion in the United States depict the leading denomination of each country, as in the first map here. Here one can see a Baptist belt in the southeast, a Mormon region in the central part of the west, a Lutheran Zone in the center-north, and a vast area of Roman Catholicism spread over most of the rest of the country. California here appears solidly Catholic, with only its two most sparsely populated counties, Alpine and Sierra, having a different “leading church body.”

If Roman Catholics are removed from the picture and only Protestants are considered, a very different map emerges. Note that the Mormon region as well as the Catholic zone disappears from this map, as Mormons generally do not consider themselves to be Protestants. Although I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the map, the patterns that it shows are intriguing. Note that most of Southern California, along with most of the Southwest, joins the Southern Baptist region. Clear Methodist and United Church of Christ zones appear as well. But what is most striking is the area of pronounced county-level diversity, which stretches from Northern California through the Pacific Northwest, including Colorado as well. I find it striking that in this relatively secular area, the leading denomination of many counties is the Assemblies of God, a conservative Pentecostal sect noted for its practice of “speaking in tongues.” California’s Central Valley in particular shows a distinct concentration of Assemblies of God adherents.


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Mapping Mormonism (and Religious Adherence)

Slate Magazine Map of Mormons in the US, modified

Slate Magazine Map of Mormons in the US, modifiedSlate Magazine recently published an excellent interactive map of “Mormons in America,” which shows “where the country’s largest homegrown religion thrives—and where it doesn’t.” By moving one’s cursor over the map on the Slate site, one can see how many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints reside in almost every U.S. county. My one criticism of the map is that its highest category is only 13.8 percent. In most counties in Utah and southeastern Idaho, the percentage of Mormons is much higher. As a result, I have outlined all of the counties in which church membership exceeds 40 percent of the population. In most of these counties, the figure is significantly higher still.

In the “religious adherents” map posted here, the Mormon belt stands out for its high overall level of religiosity. This map is surprising to many, as it shows relatively low levels of religious adherence in parts of the southeast, the so-called Bible Belt. Religiosity is shown as particularly low in the coal-mining counties of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest parts of the country. The northwest, urban and rural counties alike, is also low in this regard. Northern and southern California are also differentiated. Note as well the high level of religious adherence in the Lutheran zone of the north-central region of the U.S.

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From Sarmatia to Alania to Ossetia: The Land of the Iron People

Map of the Sarmatian Tribes in Late Antiquity

Map of the Sarmatian Tribes in Late AntiquityThe Caucasus is often noted as a place of cultural refuge, its steep slopes and hidden valleys preserving traditions and languages that were swept away in the less rugged landscapes to the north and south. Such a depiction generally seems fitting for the Ossetians, the apparent descendents of a nomadic group called the Sarmatians that dominated the grasslands of western Eurasia from the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE.

The Sarmatians were probably not a single ethnic group, let alone a unified nation, but rather a collection of related tribes that spoke closely related Iranian languages and followed similar pastoral ways of life. Discussed at length by ancient Greek and Roman geographers, the Sarmatians were depicted as a proud and warlike people, noted by some for sending young women into battle. (Recent archeological investigations seem to bear this out, as many Sarmatian graves contain skeletons of women dressed for war.)

Long after they seemingly disappeared from history, the Sarmatians retained significance in the European imagination. In the seventeenth century, most members of the Polish nobility convinced themselves that they had descended not from the Slavic tribes that had given rise to their nation’s peasantry, but rather from the Sarmatians; as a result, they widely adopted modes of dress and manners that they associated with this ancient group. The resulting style, called “Sarmatism,” remained influential until the 1800s and has not completely disappeared. In its modern guise, however, the movement has been widened, with various central and eastern European nationalists claiming Sarmatian ancestry for their entire societies. Neo-Nazis also look back to the group; a “Sarmatians” image-search on the internet yields numerous links to the infamous Stormfront website.

Wikipedia map of the Alan Migrations The Sarmatian hold on their grassland home was apparently lost to others in the fourth century. It was around this time that certain Sarmatian groups became known to history as the Alans. From the west, the Germanic Ostrogoths moved into the steppes and took up a largely equestrian way of life, while the Huns invaded from the east, threatening Sarmatians and Ostrogoths alike. Pastoral polities of the time, however, were often quite fluid, allowing peoples of different language groups to join together, whether in semi-institutionalized confederacies or mere armed aggregations of coercion or convenience. A few Alan groups evidently joined the Huns, but most fled west into Europe to avoid domination. They moved not as a single people, however, but in numerous contingents, many of which attached themselves to the Germanic tribes that were also fleeing the Huns into the dying Western Roman Empire. Some Alans allied with the (Germanic) Burgundians to establish a strong presence in Gaul. Others moved into the Iberian Peninsula, ruling over a short-lived Alanic kingdom in the early 400s. Many more joined forces with the Vandals, accompanying them in their invasion of Roman North Africa in 429 CE.

Wikipedia map of Kingdoms in Iberia, Early 400s  The various Alan groups that moved into the Roman world in the late 300s and early 400s did not maintain their language or identity for long. In most cases, they merged with the more tightly unified Germanic peoples and were eventually subsumed into the general populations of the areas in which they settled. They did leave marks, however, as suggested by numerous place names along the lines of “Alainville.” They also seem to have figured prominently in the development of the medieval ideals of chivalry.

If C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor are to be believed, the cultural legacy of the Alans in Europe was profound. In a fascinating and controversial book entitled From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (Arthurian Characters and Themes), Littleton and Malcor argue that most of the Arthurian corpus derives from the stories and myths of the Alans. Although criticized for downplaying the Celtic aspects of the legends, Littleton and Malcor present abundant evidence leading back to the Alans. Guinevere, they allow, was a Celtic figure, but Lancelot and many others seem to have a Sarmatian origin. As they show, the north Caucasus’s own epic writings, the Nart Sagas, bear a curious resemblance to the Arthurian stories, abounding in magical swords and supernatural chalices.

Map of Medieval AlaniaAlthough most of the Alans swept into Western Europe and North Africa in late antiquity, others evidently sought refuge in the deep valleys of the Greater Caucasus range, where they intermarried with the indigenous peoples of the region. In time their descendants were able to establish a state of their own. By the 700s, the Kingdom of Alania linked the central Caucasus Mountains with a broad swath of the steppe zone of the north. Alania was soon embroiled in a complex geopolitical contest for the larger region, involving the Arab Caliphate, the Byzantine Empire, and the Khazar Khanate (an empire based in the northern Caspian Sea region whose ruling elite adopted Judaism). Alliance with the Khazars evidently resulted in numerous conversions to Judaism among the Alans, but Christianity triumphed in the higher circles of Alania, based on strong connections with both the Greeks and the Georgians, although pre-Christian beliefs and practices did not vanish entirely. Medieval Alania was already well integrated into the diplomatic circles of the Orthodox Christian realm. Several Alan princesses married into royal houses in Russia, Georgia, and the Byzantine Empire.

German map of the Kingdoms of the Caucasus, Circa 1000 CEAlania was devastated by the Mongol invasions of the early 1200s and essentially destroyed by the incursions of Tamerlane in the late 1300s. As had happened in the fourth century, some Alans fled the invading armies; others sought refuge in the remote Caucasian valleys; still others became incorporated into the conquering society. Joining forces with the Mongols, more than a few ended up in China, where “30,000 Alans formed the royal guard (Asud) of the Yuan court in Dadu (Beijing).” Another sizable group received refuge in Hungary; their descendants, the Jassic people or Jász, are still viewed as a distinct ethnic group, numbering some 85,000.

The Alans who retreated into the Caucasus after the Mongol assaults were unable to reconstitute their kingdom. Instead they split into petty polities and came under the partial domination of their Kabardian neighbors. They eventually divided into two distinct ethnic groups, the Iron and the Digor, marked by differences in dialect and territory. Ossetian religion came to be marked by a strongly syncretic bent, with the names of Christian saints commonly identified with pre-Christian gods. After the Russian conquest in the late 1700s, Orthodox Christianity experienced a revival, especially among the Iron. Islam also spread into Ossetia, passing from the Kabardians to the Digor especially. Syncretic beliefs and practices, however, persist among both groups, alongside mainstream Islam and Christianity. Such syncretism has historically been common through much of the North Caucasus, although more orthodox forms of faith have been spreading rapidly over the past few decades.

In the late Soviet period, Ossetian intellectuals began to reclaim their Alanian heritage, and in 1994 North Ossetia was officially renamed “North Ossetia-Alania.” This move may have been meant to help fuse the Digor and Iron into a single nationality, as the two groups remain divided by dialect and to a certain extent by religion as well. Loyalty to the Iron people rather than to the Ossetians as a whole is evident in a disarming hip-hop video found here. Although labeled “Ossetian Rap” in the English-language YouTube service, its actual title, in Cyrillic script, is “Iron Rap” (ИРОН РЭП).


(Many thanks to David Erschler for his corrections to the original post.)

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Conflict in the Comoros

Map of the Comoros Including MayotteAlthough Mayotte is a troubled island, its difficulties are minor compared to those of the other islands in the Comoro Archipelago, which collectively form an independent state. By some accounts, the Comoros is the most coup-wracked country in the world, having suffered twenty military assaults on its government since independence in 1975. Its instability is almost matched by its poverty; as listed by the IMF, the Comoros ranks 166th out of 183 countries in per capita GDP (in PPP). Food insecurity is widespread, and according to a recent report, the Comoros has experienced an increase in hunger since 1990. Private enterprise is weak and discouraged; according the World Bank’s most recent “ease of doing business report,” the Comoros is one of a handful of countries that would tax a hypothetical small ceramics firm at a rate “exceeding 100% of its profit.” It is thus hardly surprising that many residents of this densely populated state have fled to French-controlled Mayotte in recent years.

As mentioned in the previous post, the Comorian island of Mayotte voted to remain under French sovereignty in a 1974 plebiscite. Supposedly, in the same election the residents of the other islands in the archipelago—Anjouan (Ndzuwani), Grande Comore (Ngazidja), and Mohéli (Mwali)—voted by more than 99.9 percent for independence. Many evidently came to regret that decision. In 1997, both Anjouan, and Mohéli first declared their independence and then sought the reinstitution of French rule. France declined the offer, and federal Comorian troops brought the recalcitrant islands back under central control. Resistance to centralization persisted, however, leading to mediation by the African Union. As a result, in 1999 each island was granted substantial autonomy, and the country itself was rechristened the Union of the Comoros.

Wikipedia Map of the Invasion of Anjouan in the ComorosDespite decentralization, inter-island tensions and general political instability persisted. Problems came to a head in 2007 and 2008 on the island of Anjouan. Anjouan’s president, Colonel Mohammad Bacar, refused to step down after federal authorities accused him of rigging the most recent election, which he had ostensible won with over ninety percent of the vote. The central government appealed to the African Union, which responded with a 2000-troop invasion force. Soldiers from Sudan, Tanzania, and Senegal—with logistical backing from France and Libya (!)—soon restored the island to federal authority. Bacar fled to French-controlled Mayotte, prompting a sizable anti-French demonstration in the capital city, Moroni. Eventually he found sanctuary in Benin.

Tension between the Comoros and France has not kept the island country from joining French-led international associations, such as the International Organization of the Francophonie and the Indian Ocean Commission. But then again, the Comoros has joined a wide array of international groups, including the Arab League. Membership in the Arab League is somewhat unusual, as the Comoros is not an Arabic-speaking country.* Evidently, its leaders are hoping to address that situation, at least as far as the government itself is concerned. On October 4, 2011, a press release from Kuwait noted that the “Foundation of Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain’s Prize for Poetic Creativity announced on Tuesday that Prime Minister of the Republic of Comoros issued a decree stipulating that all his ministers would be attending the Arab language courses held by the Foundation.”

The indigenous inhabitants of the various islands of the Comoro Archipelago are culturally similar. Uninhabited before the sixth century CE, the islands were settled, like Madagascar, by peoples from both Indonesia and East Africa. The Comoro islands, unlike Madagascar, were subsequently tightly entwined in East African and Arabian trade networks, eventually forming an insular extension of the Swahili Coast. Arab merchants settled, and the common version of Swahili gained a particularly heavy Arabic influence. The resulting Comorian (or Shikomor) language is the common tongue of the archipelago, although each island has its own local dialect.

The religious demography of the Comoros not entirely clear. Wikipedia and the CIA Factbook state that 98 percent of the islanders are Sunni Muslims, with the rest following Roman Catholicism.** Other sources cite a Shia presence, varying from slightly less than one percent to as much as five percent of the population. Freedom House, moreover, claims that “Tensions have sometimes arisen between Sunni and Shiite Muslims,” which would indicate a non-trivial Shia*** presence. Intriguingly, the former president of the Comoros (until May 2011), Ahmad Abdullah Sambi, was so fond of Iran that he was dubbed “The Ayatollah of Comoros.” Ostensibly a Sunni Muslim, Sambi was lauded in the Iranian media as a convert to Shia Islam and for proselytizing on its behalf (2008).  At the same time, the Comoros Sunni religious establishment angrily accused the entire government of “favouring the spread of Shiism.”

Regardless of Shia numbers, I have not found any evidence suggesting that religious practices differentiate one island in the Comoros from another. Linguistic differences are minor, and history is shared. Why then are relations among the islands so fraught? Global comparison suggests that insularity itself may play a role; the individual islands in small, politically bound archipelagos sometimes develop deep rivalries. A prime example would be the ABC islands of the former Dutch Antilles: Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. Their cultural differences may be minor, but their political relations have generally been tense.

* The other non-Arab members of the Arab League are Somalia and Djibouti.

** The Christian proselytizing Joshua Project pegs the Christian population of the Comoros at 0.01 percent. It also claims that among the Muslim community, “mosque attendance is very low. Mixed with their Islamic practices is a strong involvement in occultism and spirit possession.”

** Presumably most Shiites in the Comoros are Twelvers (Ithnā‘ashariyyah), followers of the largest branch of the faith, dominant in Iran and southern Iraq. Evidence gleaned from on-line matrimonial advertisements, however, suggests a Dawoodi Bohra (an offshoot of Ismaili Shiism) presence, linked to the Gujarati diaspora. The Bohras are noted for their high rates of educational and professional achievement, for women as well as men. I have not provided a link, however, as it seems rude to link to such personal sources of information.

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Arabs and Persians; Shiites and Sunnis: More Complicated Than You Might Think

Physical Map Showing Areas of Sunni Islam in IranUninformed voices in the United States commonly refer to Iran as an “Arab country”—a fundamental error committed even by outlets as respectable as Slate magazine. Few Americans grasp the lines of division between Arab and Persian (or Iranian) culture and society. Iranian-Americans emphasize the distinction; calling a person of Iranian heritage an Arab is likely to provoke a quick lecture on the subject. Websites with names as subtle as PersiansAreNotArabs.Com spread this message so insistently that it has become an object of humor within the community. Iranian-American comic Maz Jobrani’s “Persians vs. Arabs” video has reached 456,035 YouTube viewers. While Jobrani’s routine is gently satiric, the 1,407 comments that it has garnered range from harsh to vile, bandied back and forth between Arab and Persian partisans. Many focus on the name of the body of water that lies between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. As one obscenity-free but historically challenged comment frames the issue: “ARABS FINISHED THE persian EMPIRE IN LESS THEN 10 YEARS. AND SINCE THEN THEIR EMPIRE DOESNT EXIST ANYMORE. ARABS ARE STILL THERE AND THEY CONTROL AND USE THE GULF MORE. ARABIAN GULF FOREVER!!. “

As basic as it is, the distinction between Arabs and Iranians can be over-stated. As noted in a previous post, more than a million Iranians are Arabs. In both Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, moreover, so-called Persian Arabs—people of mixed background—maintain cultural traditions associated with both groups. Over long periods of time, hundreds of thousands of Persian Sunnis fled across the Gulf to avoid discrimination, a movement that was especially pronounced under the rule of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941-1979). In Bahrain, a few of these refugees and their descendants still “speak a dialect of Persian sometimes referred to as Khodmoni [or Khodmooni].” On the other side of the Gulf, some self-identified Iranian Arabs actually speak Farsi (or Persian) as their mother tongue, having lost the language of their ancestors. Most of the estimated 50,000 Arabs of Khorasan in northeastern Iran, for example, are Persian-speakers. Intriguingly, those Khorasani Arabs who maintain their original language speak an “extremely ancient Arabic dialect.”*

The common identification of Shia Islam with Iranians and Sunni Islam with Arabs likewise represents an oversimplification. Tens of millions of Arabs are Shiites, including the majority of Iraqis and Bahrainis. And while most Iranian Muslims are indeed Shiite, some ten percent follow Sunni Islam. Iranian Sunnis are mainly Baloch or Kurdish, but an unspecified number are Persian, concentrated in the southern province of Hormozgan and in the northeastern city of Mashhad. Like other Sunnis in Iran, they face discrimination. A year ago, Sunni Online, the “official website of the Sunni Community in Iran,” ran an article claiming that pressure and even violence against the community were increasing “day by day.” An intriguing recent discussion thread on the Sunni Forum website delivered a more mixed message. Here an Iranian commentator calling himself “Sunni Warrior” tells his fellow sectarians, “Sunnis have no problem [in Iran]. But if you are shia and then become sunni you will get hanged for turning kufir.” (Sunni Warrior also provides an insightful comment that hits a little too close to home: “And don’t trust those western maps, you know they divide us in sunni and shia areas! If a place has 52% sunni and 48% shia they make it a sunni area…”)

M. Izady's Map of Religion in Iran, Gulf 2000 ProjectLanguage Map of Persian/Arabic Gulf from MuturzikinAs mentioned in the previous GeoCurrents post, most Iranian Arabs are Shiites. Mike Izady’s remarkably detailed map of religion in Iran and vicinity, however, depicts the Arabic-speaking coastal strip of Bushehr Province as Sunni. Comprehensive linguistic maps indicate that this area’s inhabitants speak Gulf Arabic, rather than the Iraqi Arabic prevalent in Khuzestan province, which would help explain the religious differentiation of Iranian Arabs.

Astoundingly, Izady’s map of religion shows an area of “African Animism” in southeastern Iran. A community of African descent, the Ahl-i Hava, does indeed inhabit this area, which Iraj Bashiri linked in 1983 to the Portuguese importation of slaves from southeastern Africa in the 16th century. (Others have hypothesized different origins, including, bizarrely, descent from pre-Indo-European indigenes!) Bashiri portrays the faith of the Ahl-i Hava as a syncretic blend of Shia Islam and animism, the latter marked by the peculiar worship of winds blowing from particular directions. Until recently, another ethnic group practiced animism in the country as well: the Godars, “nomadic gypsies who migrated from India to Iran.” According to director Bahman Kiarostami’s 2004 film “Infidels” (Koffar), the Godars were forcibly converted to Shia Islam after the Islamic revolution of the 1970s; evidently they are still widely viewed as infidels by others.

*The phrase used in the German report on the subject is “außerordentlich altertümlichen arabischen Dialektes.” Khorasani Arabs may be few in number but they are of considerable historical importance, having been the main military force behind the replacement of the Umayyad Caliphate by the Abbasid Caliphate in 750 CE. Some scholars have argued that the subsequent Abbasid “Golden Age” was in large part the result of the fusing of Arab and Persian (as well as Greek) intellectual traditions. In later periods as well, many of the finest Persian scholars, including the astounding geographer and polymath al-Birunī (973-1048 CE), wrote mostly in Arabic rather than Persian.

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Oil and Arabic-Speakers in Iran’s Troubled Southwest

Map of Iran's Major Oil Fields and Its Arabic-speaking populationIf Saudi Arabia faces a restive Shia minority in its main oil-producing area (see GeoCurrents Oct. 14, 2011), Iran has a similar challenge. Its foremost oil-producing zone—the southwestern province of Khuzestan (Ahwaz in Arabic)—is the heart of Iran’s dissatisfied Arabic-speaking minority. Fear of unrest in Khuzestan looms large in Iranian security deliberations. Not only does the region suffer pervasive ethnic tension, but its physical geography makes it vulnerable to invasion. As the maps indicate, most of Khuzestan lies in the flat plains of the greater Tigris-Euphrates Valley, cut off from the Iranian heartland by the rugged Zagros Mountains.

The vulnerability of Khuzestan, along with its ample oil and disgruntled populace, enticed Saddam Hussein to invade the region in 1980, initiating the bloody Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Hussein proclaimed himself the liberator of the Iranian Arabs, hoping they would rally to his cause. The invasion backfired. Not only did Khuzestan’s Persian population remain loyal to Iran, but so did most of its Arabs. As Shiites, most of Iran’s Arabic-speakers saw little to be gained from Saddam Hussein’s anti-Shia regime. The resulting war devastated the province, where many of its most ferocious battles were fought. As summarized by Wikipedia, “many of [Khuzestan’s] famous nakhlestans (palm groves) were annihilated, cities were destroyed, historical sites were demolished, and nearly half the province went under the boots of Saddam’s invading army. This created a mass exodus into other provinces …”

Iran Physical Geography and Khuzestan MapAlthough Khuzestan’s Arabs remained loyal to Iran in the 1980s, evidence indicates that few are currently pleased with Iranian rule. Major demonstrations and rioting broke out in 2005; all were firmly suppressed. Iranian Arabs complain of discrimination and lack of linguistic and cultural rights. The community is relatively poor overall, despite inhabiting the most economically productive part of the country. Drug addiction is widespread and Khuzestan is reputed to be one of the main gateways for the importation of heroin and other narcotics into Iran. A recent report claims the city of Ahwaz, the capital of Khuzestan, is the most polluted urban area in the world. Iran has responded by investing in the province, inaugurating “a number of giant petrochemical projects in Khuzestan” in early 2011. Official Iranian news outlets, however, continue to caution the country about the potential dangers of Arab separatism. On October 7, 2011, PressTV warned its viewers that “The Khalgh-e Arab group, who want Khuzestan province separated from Iran, [get their] doctrine from Iraq’s Baath Party. These groups have blown up several public places in Iran’s southern region, killing scores of people.”

Arab-Iranian activists, for their part, deny that Khalq-e Arab even exists, claiming that the Iranian state uses the phantom organization as an excuse to crush dissent. According to the Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network, the Iranian government has been busy “concocting conspiracy theories” linking unrest in the region with US and British effort to destabilize the country. The same source further claims that Iranian news agencies have also been pushing the line that “militant Wahhabi (Sunni fundamentalist) groups were being supported by Gulf states to foment separatist sentiment in the oil-rich region that forms the Ahwazi Arab homeland.” The Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network itself maintains that the oppositional movement of Iranian Arabs is peaceful and above-board:

  Ethnic Ahwazi Arabs are demanding collective rights, including the redistribution of oil revenues, an end to forced displacement, equal labour  rights, environmental protection and cultural freedom. The Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network supports non-violent direct action as well as the use of   international lobbying and awareness-raising to assert the collective rights of  this persecuted ethnic group.

            Other Arab-Iranian websites strike a less accommodating tone. The National Liberation Movement of Ahwaz, for example, supports the full independence of the province, and seems to advocate revolutionary practices. It is difficult for someone who does not read Arabic, however, to determine the group’s actual agenda, as the prose on its English-language website is delightfully mangled:

  However, in the name of Islam apparently, Islamic republic and its interior,  truthfully, and the way in practice on the ground will translate legacy Persian Khosrawi authoritarian racially hateful everything is not set in all walks of  life, starting of human rights through the rights of peoples bonded who under  the yoke occupation and colonialism Persian racial and ending the  destruction of those nationalities oppressed in the case of claiming their  legitimacy and the historical.

            Incorrect Map of Sunni/Shia Distribution in the Middle EastNot surprisingly, even the most basic demographic information on the Iranian Arabs is disputed. The Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network claims that around four million Arabs live in Khuzestan alone, whereas the Wikipedia pegs Iran’s entire Arabic-speaking population at something between 778,000 and 2,336,000. By most accounts, Khuzestan’s rural population is mostly Arab, whereas the urban population is mixed, with Persians predominating.  The religious disposition of the Ahwazi community is also unclear. Most sources claim that “most” Iranian Arabs are Shiites, which certainly makes sense. Some unspecified proportion of the community, however, follows Sunni Islam, which would greatly intensify its hostility toward the Iranian state. Surprisingly, the most widespread map of Islam on the internet portrays Khuzestan as mostly Sunni, which is almost certainly incorrect.

The situation in Khuzestan also figures in discussions of US–Iranian relations, especially in regard to the impending withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. A recent article in the left-leaning New American Media website, for example, speculates that Iran might be tempted to move military forces into southern Iraq to safeguard its own oil reserves; in the face of any such advance, the author continues, “Washington would have little alternative to an invasion of Khuzestan, ostensibly aimed at halting Iranian incursions…” This scenario seems highly unlikely, but the potential for serious, near-term conflict in the province does seem real.

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Saudi-Iranian Tensions and Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia

Map of Shia Islam and Oil in Saudi ArabiaAfter the United States accused Iran of hatching an elaborate and ill-conceived plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, a number of commentators expressed incredulity, some wondering why the Saudi diplomat would be so targeted. The most common response to such questioning was to outline the history of Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry and to stress the mutual antipathy between the Shia (Shiite) Islam dominant in Iran and the harsh Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. Deeper analyses delve into Saudi Arabia’s recent support for the brutal crackdown on Shia protestors in nearby Bahrain, a small Shia-majority country ruled by a Saudi-aligned Sunni establishment. More comprehensive inquiry also highlights the unofficial Saudi response to Iran’s nuclear program, as revealed in diplomatic cables posted by WikiLeaks: “cut off the head of the snake!” King Abdullah repeatedly urged the United States, hoping for US military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Less often mentioned is the Saudi fear of Shia insurrection in its own territory, which the Riyadh government links to potential Iranian subversion. Although Saudi Arabia officially estimates its Shiite population at around five percent, informed sources peg it closer to twelve percent. Most Saudi Arabian Shiites, moreover, live in the eastern region of the country near the Gulf—a relatively poor part of the country that contains the major share of its oil resources. Inexplicably, unrest in this area tends to be overlooked by the US media. Rioting in the town of Awwamiya in early October, 2011, for example, was almost entirely ignored—as was the Saudi government’s reprisal. The fact that the Shia-inspired Houthi rebellion of northern Yemen, reportedly aided by Iran, also sets its sights on Shia communities across the border in southwestern Saudi Arabia is also routinely disregarded by the media. It is thus hardly surprising that the depth of Saudi-Iranian animosity continues to surprise many American observers.

The early October disturbances in Awwamiya arose after Saudi authorities arrested two elderly men in a bid to find and detain their sons, who were both wanted for organizing demonstrations in solidarity with the recent Shia protests in Bahrain. (More than twenty Saudi Shiite protestors had already been arrested, including two bloggers.) According to the Saudi news agency, the subsequent incident involved “assailants, some on motorcycles, us[ing] machine guns and Molotov cocktails” to attack authority figures. Fourteen persons were injured in the resulting melee, including eleven policemen. Saudi official immediately blamed the disturbance on “a foreign country.” An amusing understatement in one news report tells us that, “Stratfor, a private intelligence company in Texas, suggested the statement regarding foreign interference could be a reference to Iran.” Not surprisingly, the Saudi Arabian government vowed to suppress any further unrest in the region with “an iron first.”

An excellent assessment of the Shia situation in eastern Saudi Arabia, circa 2005, is found in the International Crisis Group’s Middle East Report N°45, “The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia.” The report emphasizes the efforts of King Abdullah to reduce the disabilities long imposed on the Shia minority. It also details the deep discrimination that the community has faced, while showing that its situation could have been much worse: after the Saudi state conquered the eastern region in 1913, “The ikhwan [religiously impassioned tribal warriors] exerted considerable pressure on the future King, Abd al-Aziz, either to forcibly convert or kill [the Shiites]. His refusal led in part to the ikhwan‘s 1926 uprising, which the al-Saud ultimately crushed.”

Saudi Shiites began to agitate for greater rights in the wake of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, but their aspirations were crushed. Shia leaders subsequently urged their followers to work patiently with the country’s authorities to improve their situation. Many Sunni leaders, however, remain skeptical of such an accommodating stance. According to the report’s authors, “The belief remains strong among Sunnis that Shiites are merely biding their time, banking on external support — U.S. or other — to establish their own independent state. Such views regularly find their way to internet sites and chat rooms; some clerics have explicitly warned of a Shiite-U.S. connection.”

After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saudi Shia leaders again pressed the government to relax religious restrictions and to establish a constitutional monarchy. The Saudi government responded by arresting the activists. When Abdullah gained the throne in 2005, however, some constraints on the Shia community were eliminated. Such cautious movements toward religious pluralism have not pleased all members of the country’s religious establishment. As recently as 1991, the report specifies, “a member of the Higher Council of Ulama, issued a fatwa designating Shiites as apostates and condoning their killing.” The Crisis Group’s document also notes that many Saudi radicals who fought in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein did so precisely in order “to kill Shiites.”

Ralph Peters Blood Borders  MapThe Crisis Group’s report concludes by noting that “sectarian relations in Saudi Arabia are far from the boiling point, and the risk of imminent violent confrontation is low,” adding the opinion that “King Abdullah’s accession offers cautious reason for hope.” Such assessments now seem a bit premature. The widespread Saudi theory that the United States is abetting Shia unrest, however, seems unreasonable if not paranoid, considering the American fear of spreading Iranian influence in the region. The publication of Ralph Peters’ “Blood Borders” map of 2006, however, did seemingly lend credence to such conspiratorial thinking.

Saudi-Iranian Tensions and Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia Read More »

Electoral Politics and Religious Strife in Nigeria

Map of Nigeria's 2011 Presidential Election

Map of Nigeria's 2011 Presidential ElectionFor the past week, GeoCurrents has demonstrated that the conflict in Ivory Coast cannot be reduced to a simple north/south, Muslim/Christian split. This kind of broad cleavage is more apparent in Nigeria, as shown by its recent election. But even in Nigeria, the contrast between a Muslim north and a Christian south is not as simple as it may appear. As in Ivory Coast, religious adherence in Nigeria is an uncertain matter. Most sources claim that the country has slightly more Muslims than Christians. Wikipedia puts the breakdown at 50.4 percent Muslim, 48.2 percent Christian, and 1.4 percent “other”; the CIA World Factbook states that 50 percent of Nigerians are Muslim, 40 percent Christian, and ten percent “indigenous.”

Map of Ethnic Groups in NigeriaAs these numbers suggest, Nigeria’s religiously indigenous population is proportionally smaller than that of Ivory Coast, although both sources quoted above probably understate it. Indigenous religion is especially prominent among the Yoruba of the southwest, one of the country’s main ethnic groups. Yoruba Religion may actually be expanding in Nigeria; its South American off-shoot, Candomblé, is certainly thriving in Brazil. Nonetheless, Islam is deeply entrenched in the north, and Christianity is dominant in the southeast. Southwestern Nigeria is mixed, with substantial Christian, Muslim, and Yoruba Religion communities, as is much of the central zone. Religious strife has long been most intense in the middle area and in the northern cities, where substantial Christian minorities reside. Despite the religious heterogeneity of Yorubaland, the region has seen relatively little conflict, in part because it is relatively homogeneous in terms of language and ethnicity.

Map of Sharia in NigeriaThe northern focus of Islam in Nigeria is clearly visible on the map of Sharia in the country. Since 1999, Nigeria’s constituent states have been permitted to institute Islamic Law as the basis of local civil and criminal court procedures. All twelve northern states have done so—nine over their entire expanse, and three over large areas with Muslim majorities. Today, the geography of Sharia cleanly cleaves Nigeria’s north from its south.

So too does the electoral map. On April 16, 2011, Nigeria’s incumbent president—Christian southerner Goodluck Jonathan—trounced his main Muslim opponent, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, by fifty-nine to thirty-two percent. Every state in the Sharia belt gave a majority of its votes to Buhari; almost every other state massively rejected him. In partially Islamic southwestern Osun, the majority of votes went to another Muslim candidate, the anti-corruption stalwart Nuhu Ribadu. Ribadu polled well across Yorubaland and in parts of the country’s midsection, but he received only 5.4 percent of the votes nationally, and did even worse in the solidly Muslim north. (For returns by state, see Electoral Politics 2.0.)

Goodluck Jonathan crushed all other candidates across the southeast, receiving more than ninety-five percent of the vote in nine states, and more than ninety-eight percent in six. Jonathan also did surprising well over much the north, winning not just Christian votes. In the solidly Muslim state of Jigawa, he was favored by 36.7 percent of the voters.

But if many Muslim northerners were willing to vote for the Christian candidate, others were not willing to accept his victory. By all reports, the Nigerian election was relatively clean and calm, but the aftermath across much of the north was stormy. Post-election violence, directed mainly against Christians, may have taken 500 lives. In the north-central state of Kaduna, one estimate claims that 14,000 Christian fled their homes; in Katsina state, Buhari’s homeland, sixty-five churches have been burned or otherwise damaged, according to Christian sources.

The post-election carnage in northern Nigeria has been ascribed to several factors. Some sources emphasize high youth unemployment and the economic marginalization of the north. Christian sources point to radical Muslim leaders, arguing that the spasm of violence was not a case of “spontaneous combustion” but part of a planned campaign. Some Muslim activists stress anger over possible electoral fraud, dumbfounded that a supposedly Muslim-majority country would cast fifty-nine percent of its votes for a Christian candidate. Another source of anger was the supposed violation of the unwritten rules of Nigerian politics, which hold that Christians and Muslims must alternate in the presidency. This policy had been upended when the previous incumbent, Muslim leader Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, died in office before serving his full term. Yar’Adua was succeeded by vice-president Goodluck Jonathan, whose subsequent incumbency, some say, gave him an unfair advantage in the 2011 election.

Assuming that the election results were accurate, several issues call for further investigation. Why did Jonathan poll as well as he did in the north, winning a substantial minority of Muslim votes? Why did southern Muslims decisively reject the main Muslim candidate, Buhari, and why did northern Muslims equally rebuff the Muslim reformer, Ribadu? Tempting as it may be to delve into these issues, our next post will return to Ivory Coast before GeoCurrents moves on to another part of the world.

Electoral Politics and Religious Strife in Nigeria Read More »

The New York Times Misleading Map of Religion in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New York Times Misleading Map of Religion in Syria Read More »

Religious Complexity in Ivory Coast

Map of Islam in Ivory Coast

Map of Islam in Ivory CoastAs we saw in the previous post, great uncertainty surrounds the demography of religion in Ivory Coast. Even basic figures on religious adherence are subject to heated debate.

While most sources estimate the country’s Muslim population at thirty-five to forty percent, others put it at more than sixty percent, arguing that Muslims in the south conceal their faith for fear of discrimination, and that the large and mostly Muslim immigrant population is systematically undercounted. Christian sources give much lower numbers, while stressing the Islamic community’s rapid growth. The two camps tend to concur, however, in discounting Ivory Coast’s sizable animist (or religiously “indigenous”) population. The CIA World Factbook pegs the animist population at only twelve percent, claiming that seventeen percent of Ivorians are without religion—an unbelievably high figure for an African country, and one that no doubt understates traditional beliefs and practices.* The Wikipedia puts the animist population at 25-40 percent; others claim that it constitutes the country’s majority. One Ivorian website gives the following break-down: “12% Christian, 25% Muslim, and
63% Traditional Beliefs”— numbers seconded by a Christian missionary organization. Missionaries on the ground also report relatively low figures of Christian adherence among Ivory Coast’s largest ethnic group, the Baoulé, who are often described as Christian. According to the detailed Joshua Project, only 34 percent of the Baoulé follow Christianity, with a solid majority retaining indigenous beliefs. Yet if Wikipedia is to be believed, the main urban settlement of the Baoulé has a Muslim majority.

As intrinsic problem with all such estimates is the prevalence of syncretism, or religious mixing. Many Ivorians are nominally Muslim or Christian yet remain profoundly animist in outlook and practices. It is relatively easy to convert to a universalistic religion such as Islam; following its precepts with fidelity is something else again. A knowledgeable acquaintance once described neighboring Guinea as “ninety percent Muslim and ninety percent animist,” a joke that nonetheless conveys a grain of truth.

Map of Dyula trade networkAcross West Africa, mapping religion is extraordinarily difficult. Not only is basic demographic data spotty, but communities of faith are often spatially interspersed. Ivory Coast in particular has experienced massive migration in recent decades, enhancing local diversity. In several parts of the country, migrants have streamed primarily into towns, heightening the differences between urban places and the countryside. Yet large-scale movements of people resulting in religious and ethnic dispersion is nothing new. Islam spread into much of Ivory Coast through the trading diaspora of the Dyula (Jula), a Mandé-speaking group (historically linked to the great medieval Empire of Mali) who established a network of mercantile centers through much of West Africa. Some of their trading hubs evolved into the core areas of Dyula states that ruled diverse populations. The prime example of such a Dyula state was the Kong Empire (1710-1895) of northeastern Ivory Coast, founded by Seku Wattara (Ouattara) and led by the Ouattara clan, forebears of current Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara. Other Dyula settlements, such as Bondoukou in eastern Ivory Coast, developed into centers of Islamic scholarship. Bondoukou today is a highly mixed city, noted for its “one thousand” mosques. As described by Wikipedia:

The walled old city (Medina) includes ethnic neighbourhoods from far flung groups who originally came to the area as part of long distance trade networks. These include the Donzoso of the Donzo-Ouattara Dyula (related to the warrior Ouattara clans of the Kong Empire), the Jiminiso/Limamso of the Timité Dyula (which is home to the most prominent Muslim schools), the Hausa merchant town quarter of Malagaso, as well as the mostly Christian Bambaraso quarter.

Bondoukou has been relatively peaceful in recent years, but its surrounding countryside has seen bitter ethnic conflicts between the indigenous Kulango farmers and immigrant Lobi, semi-pastoralists from the north. Both of these groups (spelled “Loba” and “Koulango” on the Wikipedia map posted above) are primarily animist.

Wikipedia map of ethnic groups in Ivory CoastAs a result of such complexities, few cartographers have tried to depict the geography of religion in Ivory Coast. The most commonly employed map is a 1987 effort that shows the extent of Islam throughout Africa, mapping both “predominantly Muslim” areas and areas with “significant Muslim minorities.” Despite its ubiquity on the internet, the map is flawed. It portrays several religiously plural areas as if they had clear Muslim majorities (such as southeastern Nigeria), while ignoring areas with significant Muslim minorities (such as the Cape region of South Africa). But as it is the only widely available map on the topic, it is worthwhile to examine how it represents Islam in Ivory Coast.

As one can see in the detail posted here, only a swath of northwestern Ivory Coast is depicted as primarily Muslim, while a slightly smaller area to the northeast is shown as having a significant Muslim minority. Comparisons with other maps suggest that both areas were likely delimited on the basis of ethnicity. The “predominantly Muslim” area corresponds closely to the territory of the Malinke (Mandinka) people, which is indeed appropriate (although the 1973 Area Handbook for Ivory Coast refers to the Malinke as “semi-Moslem” [p. 73]). Missing from the category, however, is the land of the closely related and strongly Muslim Dyula further to the east (“Diolua” on the map), located in the core of the old Kong Empire. The portrayal of the zone with a significant Muslim minority is also misleading. Here the cartographer apparently traced the outlines of the Senufo (Senoufo) people. Yet the Wikipedia describes the Senufo as “very animistic,” and a number of websites focused on traditional arts similarly depict them as devoted to their old religion. Christian missionary sites generally claim that a quarter of the Senufo have embraced Islam, and that the number is rapidly increasing. Wealthier Senufo, it is sometimes claimed, gravitate to the social norms of the Malinke, and thus convert. All told, mapping “Senufo-land” in Ivory Coast as having a significant Muslim minority is probably fitting. But the many other parts of Ivory Coast with important Muslim minorities have so far escaped cartographic depiction.

As mentioned in the previous post, the mainstream press often sidesteps Ivory Coast’s religious divisions, presumably for fear of reducing a complex problem to a simplistic “clash of faiths” model. An April 14th, 2011 New York Times profile of Alassane Ouattara does not even mention his Muslim faith, although it does allow that “Mr. Ouattara is from the largely Muslim north — which has been a de facto separate country from the Christian south since the 2002 civil war.” As we have seen, only parts of northern Ivory Coast are “largely Muslim.” Nor can one accurately depict the south as “Christian,” as it contains sizable populations of both animists and Muslims. The Le Monde article on African reactions to events in Ivory Coast referenced in the previous post is also misleading on this score. Here the author claims that Ghanaian opposition to French involvement in Ivory Coast “no doubt” stems from Ghana’s own experience with “peaceful, democratically sound elections.” Opposition to Western interference in African affairs, however, runs rather deeper than that. It is also noteworthy that Ghana has a solid Christian majority, and that the people of southeastern Ivory Coast, ethnic kin of the dominant Akan population across the border in Ghana, voted heavily in 2010 for the recently deposed former president, Laurent Gbagbo, as we shall see in tomorrow’s post.

*The CIA’s numbers, moreover, are absurdly precise: Muslim 38.6%, Christian 32.8%, indigenous 11.9%, none 16.7% [2008 est.].

Religious Complexity in Ivory Coast Read More »

Syria’s Ethno-Religious Complexity – and Potential Turmoil

Map of Languages in Syria

Map of Languages in SyriaMost Americans would be surprised to learn of the ethnic and religious diversity that exists in present-day Syria. Standard references sources give an impression of clear domination by Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims. The CIA World Factbook summarizes Syria’s cultural make-up as follows:

“Ethnic Groups: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 9.7%. Religions: Sunni Muslim 74%, other Muslim (includes Alawite, Druze) 16%, Christian (various denominations) 10%, Jewish (tiny communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo).”

Map of Religion in Syria

In fact, Sunni Arabs are not as demographically dominant as they might seem. To begin with, the basic numbers are disputed; Alawites, as discussed in a previous post, may constitute as much as twenty percent of Syria’s population. The Sunni population also includes many non-Arabic speakers, including most Kurds–and the Kurdish population may form fifteen or even twenty percent of the total, according to Kurdish websites. Christian numbers are also likely under-reported, as they seldom include the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees living in the country. The Arab Sunni population itself, moreover, is internally divided. Arab Syrians speak widely divergent dialects that most linguists regard as separate languages. As the language map shows, the Arabic dialects of eastern Syria are related not to those of western Syria but rather to those of Iraq.

Map of Arabic Dialects in Syria

Grouping the heterodox Alawites and Druze as “other Muslim” also understates Syria’s diversity. As recounted in the previous Geocurrents post, many Muslims – perhaps most – do not reckon Alawites as members of the community of the faithful. The Islamic standing of the Druze religion is still more questionable, as the Druze generally regard Jethro (father-in-law of Moses) rather than Mohammed as their main prophet. But the Druze conceal their beliefs so extensively—even from the bulk of their own population—that it is difficult to say what they actually believe. Syria’s half-million strong Druze community may constitute only two and a half percent of the country’s population, but the Druze have long formed a politically capable and militarily potent congregation. As the Wikipedia puts it, “The Druze always played a far more important role in Syrian politics than its comparatively small population would suggest.”

The ethno-religious complexity of Syria has long challenged the country’s government. Under the rule of military strongman Adib Shishakli in the early 1950s, “Syrianization” campaigns sought to aggressively meld the population into a single ethnicity/nationality, provoking clashes between the national army and Druze militias. Partly as a result, non-Sunni Arabic speakers gravitated to the Baath Party, whose brand of Arab Nationalism encompassed most minority groups – with the notable exception of the non-Arab Kurds* (see the earlier Geocurrents post). Under the current Baathist regime, the Sunni majority has generally co-existed peacefully with Christians, Druze, and Alawites. According to the government, such concord demands the harsh repression of an autocratic government. In a March 30, 2011 speech, President Bashir al-Assad blamed outside agitators, particularly Israelis, for the current unrest, insinuating that the fall of his government would unleash a sectarian bloodbath. Considering events in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, such forebodings are being taken seriously in the White House. David Lesch argues that “the Obama administration wants [Assad] to stay in power even as it admonishes him to choose the path of reform.” (Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, on the other hand, is urging much stronger punitive action against the Assad regime.)

It is difficult to find information on the position of Syria’s minorities in the current struggle. According to one recent report, “The Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook group, a key player in organizing the protests, appealed to the Druze of Syria to join the protests against the Syrian Regime.” Another source notes that the controversial Lebanese Druze politician Wiam Wahhab “implored his Syrian co-religionists to remain loyal to Bashar al Assad ….

‘[T]he Syrian regime must not be tampered with since in the event of Assad’s downfall the whole region might drift into utter destruction for the next 100 years,’ he said.” Wahab’s efforts might indicate that support for Assad is teetering among the Druze population.

* Syria’s Kurdish-speaking Yezidis have been especially victimized.

Syria’s Ethno-Religious Complexity – and Potential Turmoil Read More »

Confusion About Syria’s Alawites

Alawite region of Syria

Alawite MapNews stories about the recent demonstrations and reprisals in Syria routinely mention that the country’s government is dominated by members of the Alawite sect, but rarely describe Alawite beliefs and practices. Many mention only that the Alawites form a minority in primarily Sunni Syria, sometimes noting that the Alawite faith stems from Shi’ite Islam. A March 25, 2011 Guardian lesson on the “20 Things You Need to Know about Syria” adds that the Alawites are “a secretive religious sect usually regarded as an offshoot of Shia Islam.” In fact, all accounts agree that the Alawite sect grew out of Shi’ite Islam. What is highly controversial is whether Alawites today are Shi’ite Muslims, or indeed, any kind of Muslims at all. Hard-line Sunni fundamentalists often insist that Alawites are not just unbelievers, but are guilty of the unforgivable sin of shirk (polytheism or idolatry).

The controversies surrounding the Alawites focus on their theology. One school of Islamic thought holds that the faith is an unusual variant of Shiite Islam, yet still falls within the bounds of respectability. Those who emphasize the Muslim nature of the Alawites maintain that their aberrant practices have been exaggerated, and, more importantly, that they have been moving in the direction of orthodoxy over the past several decades. Others, however, stress the sect’s historically divergent beliefs and cast doubt on the recent transformation, regarding it largely as an example of taqiyya, or the practice of concealing one’s true faith to avoid persecution.

The Wikipedia article on the Alawite sect lays out the basic arguments about its status in Islam. Those who stress its heterodox nature emphasize the Alawite tenet that the “esoteric, allegorical” meanings of the Qur’an override its literal readings.  They likewise point out that Alawites “celebrate certain Christian festivals ‘in their own way,’ including Christmas, Easter, and Palm Sunday, and their religious ceremonies make use of bread and wine.” The article avoids mention, however, of the more irregular aspects often purported to Alawite belief, which are recounted in a number of websites devoted to orthodox Islam. As TurnToIslam frames it:

“Alawi doctrine is a mixture of Islamic, Gnostic and Christian beliefs. Some Alawi doctrines appear to derive from Phoenician paganism, Mazdakism and Manicheanism. But by far the greatest affinity is with Christianity. Alawi religious ceremonies involve bread and wine; indeed, wine drinking has a sacred role in Alawism, for it represents God. The religion holds Ali, the fourth caliph, to be the (Jesus-like) incarnation of divinity. The Alawis possess a range of distinctive doctrines which have led them to be treated as heretics and non-Muslims.”

The article goes on to enumerate these supposedly “distinctive doctrines,” including “rejection of the Qur’an,” “rejection of the five pillars of Islam,” “belief in incarnation,” “disbelief in resurrection,” and faith in astrology. It further maintains:

“The Alawis believe that all persons were stars in the world of light but fell from here due to disobedience. They believe they must be reincarnated seven times before they once again return to the stars where Ali is prince. A good Alawi will assume a better form after his death than a bad Alawi. The Alawis claim that the Milky Way is in fact the deified souls of the true believers. The less pious souls require more transformations. If an Alawi is sinful, he will be reborn as a Chrsitian [sic] until his atonement is complete. A bad Alawi will definitely assume a better form than a non-Alawi. Infidels will be reborn as animals.”

A number of English-language Islamic discussion boards have tackled the topic of Alawite standing within the faith (for instance, see the 2006 debate on ShiaChat). Appraisals are sometimes harsh. A denunciation of the Syrian-born critic of Islam Wafa Sultan in IslamicAwakening, for example, notes that her Alawite background “should explain everything – she was a Kafir from the beginning, never a Muslim.”

Whether or not most Alawites currently hold such decidedly non-Islamic tenets as reincarnation and “star-birth,” the crucial point here is that if significant numbers of Sunni fundamentalists believe this to be the case, the community could find itself in danger were the current Alawite-dominated government to fall. Extremists have targeted highly heterodox sects of Islam in many other parts of the world, and there is no reason to imagine they would not do so in Syria if opportunities arose. The repressive nature of the current Alawite-dominated regime, along with the periodic massacres** that it has perpetrated, would add fuel to the fire.

Some observers think that Syria’s government is incapable of riding out the current unrest. The New York Times reported on March 28, 2011 that a Western diplomat in Damascus, “speaking on the condition of anonymity in accordance with diplomatic protocol,” had flatly pronounced “it’s over; it’s just a question of time.” But considering the broader context outlined above, such a judgment may be premature. Not just the al-Assad clan but the entire Alawite Syrian political establishment has every incentive do everything possible to retain power. A relatively gentle Egyptian- or Tunisian-style political transformation, in other words, seems highly unlikely.

In this context, the demographic strength of the Alawites merits attention. The Guardian claims that the Alawis form a “tiny minority” of Syria’s population, yet the community numbers well over one million, or more than five percent of the country’s total population. Some sources posit much larger figures; the Wikipedia claims that “they were never estimated to be less than 20% of the Syrian population (which would be about 4 million people if true today).”* As many as 150,000 Alawites live in Lebanon, while Turkey may be home to 400,000 more. The sect might thus be regarded as small, but it is hardly “tiny.”

Syria’s Alawite community is concentrated in the geographically distinctive western coastal region, with a secondary concentration in Damascus. The Alawite region, unsurprisingly, has been a bulwark of the Assad regime. Yet recent anti-government protests in the coastal metropolis of Latakia—a mixed Sunni, Christian, and Alawite city—have been intense, and have been accompanied by bloodshed. A March 29 report from The Australian claimed that the city took on the appearance of a “ghost-town” after “unknown people in cars and on rooftops began shooting randomly at people…” According to the official Syrian news agency, most of the 200-odd people wounded in the attacks were government security personnel. Syrian officials blamed followers of the Qatar-based, media-savvy cleric, Youssef al-Qaradawi, as well as Palestinians from a nearby refugee camp. But many observers are skeptical. As The Australian reported:

“There is talk of possible attempts to divide residents who are members of the President’s minority Muslim Alawite sect—an offshoot of Shia Islam—and majority Sunni Muslims. One witness said groups of people had driven around Alawite-dominated villages on the city’s outskirts, spreading rumours that the Sunnis were about to attack them. ‘Then they drove to Sunni areas and told them the opposite.’”

*The same Wikipedia article also gives a figure of 1.35 million.

** In 1982, Syria’s former dictator, Hafez al-Assad – father of its current strongman – slaughtered some 10,000 people in the city of Hama in order to suppress an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood.

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Egypt’s Religious Diversity and Its Forgotten Shi’ites

Issues of religion have figured prominently in news reports and commentaries on the recent political upheaval in Egypt. A number of rightwing pundits have warned that the uprising could allow the Muslim Brotherhood to seize power and establish an Islamic state. They have also highlighted recent attacks on Egyptian Christians by Muslim extremists, arguing that the Christian position will probably further deteriorate under a new regime. Most observers, however, have stressed the secular nature of the Egyptian revolution, casting doubt on any devolution into a hard-line Islamist government. A number of reporters have stressed cooperation between Muslim and Coptic Christian protestors; a photograph posted on The Daily Dish, for example, showed Christians linking hands to form a protective cordon around praying Muslim demonstrators in Tahrir Square.

Despite the political divergence of recent commentary, most reports divide Egypt cleanly into two communities of faith: the majority Sunni Muslims and the minority Coptic Christians. Standard reference sources claim that roughly ninety percent of Egyptians follow Sunni Islam, with virtually all of the rest adhering to Coptic Christianity. In actuality, the situation is more complicated.

Religious statistics in Egypt are crude approximations at best. The country does not ask about faith in its infrequent censuses, and the subject has not been addressed through public polling. As a result, reasonable estimates of Egypt’s Christian population vary from over twenty to as low as seven percent. The Wikipedia pegs the Christian proportion at “10-20 percent.” The same article puts the number of Coptic Christians at thirteen to seventeen million; yet if Christians possibly account for only ten percent of the Egyptian population, their numbers could not exceed eight million. And not all Egyptian Christians are Copts; the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities each number roughly a quarter million, and other sects count thousands of adherents.

The geography of these communities is an intricate one. As can be seen in M. Izady’s map of religion posted above, Egyptian Christian congregations are interspersed with Muslim communities over much of the country. A hundred years ago, roughly eighty percent of Egyptian Christians lived south of Cairo in Upper Egypt. But with the vast expansion of Cairo and other cities in the north, the distribution pattern changed. Today some sixty percent of Egyptian Christians live in Lower Egypt.

Estimates of Egypt’s Shi’ite population are more variable yet. The Wikipedia article “Religion in Egypt” tells us that “there is a minority of Shi’a numbering a few thousands,” while the article on “Islam in Egypt” does not find the Shi’ite community worth mentioning. Many sources, however, estimate Egypt’s Shi’ite population at 700,000: less than one percent of the total population, yet a very substantial number. A few experts think that this community is significantly larger.

Whatever their numbers, Shi’ites were persecuted under the Mubarak regime. According to Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), “Shi’ites are treated with suspicion like all other religious groups in the country as a threat that must be contained.” But there are some indications that they have been singled out for special persecution. A 2004 news report claimed that three Shi’ite dissidents were held by security forces for eight months and were only released after they promised to convert to Sunni Islam. Five years later, a number of Shia leaders were arrested and charged with “forming a group trying to spread Shiite ideology that harms the Islamic religion.” According to one dissident, “There have been smear campaigns about us in the state press and in mosques, and our loyalty has been questioned.” Shiites, he claims, have often been regarded as agents of Iranian subversion by the Egyptian security forces.

The notion that Shi’ism in Egypt is a vehicle of Iranian subversion is shared by some outside of Egypt as well. In 2008, the Saudi-owned international newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat claimed that the very existence of Shi’ism in Egypt stems from the recent activities of the Iranian government:

Statistics in Egypt a few years ago show that the Egyptian Muslims were 100 per cent Sunnis. Shiite ideology could not penetrate Egypt even under the Shiite Fatimid rule. Recently, the intensive Shiite preaching efforts, sponsored by Iran and its religious leaders, have borne fruit and Egyptians amounting to thousands and perhaps dozens of thousands have converted into Shiites. The new converts are disguised in more than 76 Sufi groups.

These claims are not credible. Shi’ism has perhaps gained converts in Egypt in recent years, but the faith has been present much longer than that. To be sure, the Shi’ite Fatimid Caliphate, which ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171 CE, did not impose its version of Islam on the country; the Fatimids were noted for their tolerance, allowing Sunni Muslims, as well as Christians and Jews, not just to practice their faiths unmolested, but also to reach high levels in governmental service. Yet Shi’ism – in the Ismaili version of the faith practiced by the Fatimid rulers – certainly did “penetrate” Egypt during this period. In the standard narrative, Ismaili Shi’ism gradually declined after the Fatimids lost power, and eventually all but vanished. According to the official U.S. “country study” of Egypt, “there were virtually no Ismailis in Egypt.” It is doubtful, however, that the author of the “country report” had accurate religious statistics for all parts of the country, and it is often the case that that sizable but proportionally small minorities in densely populated areas are unduly dismissed. A “mere” one percent of Egypt’s population might be considered inconsequential, but at 800,000 it is equivalent to the population of San Francisco.

Some scholars put Egypt’s current Ismaili population well above one percent. M. Izady pegs Egypt’s total Shia population at 2.2 million, finds it to be concentrated in seldom-studied southern Upper Egypt, and judges the community to be mostly Ismaili. If Izady is correct, the story of Shi’ism in Egypt needs to be substantially revised. The presence of a large Ismaili community would suggest that connections with Iran may be much weaker than is commonly imagined. Both the theological and the sociological gaps between the Twelver Shi’ism dominant in Iran and Ismaili Shi’ism – known for being global, cosmopolitan, and relatively liberal – are substantial.

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