Southwest Asia and North Africa

The New York Times’ Impressive Collection of Iraq/Syria Maps

Mount Sinjar MapAs long-time readers of GeoCurrents may have noted, I have rather mixed feelings about the New York Times. I am often critical of Times articles and columnists, and I find the newspaper’s coverage of world events too spotty and incomplete to be satisfying. But I also start off every morning with the print edition, and I can’t imagine doing otherwise. Sometimes I find the Times truly impressive. A case in point is a current on-line series of maps, photographs, and satellite images called A Visual Guide to the Crisis in Iraq and Syria. I have reproduced a few of the images here — the rest are worth a look as well.

June Advance on Baghdad mapA few words are in order about why I chose these particular images, even though several of them are out of date. In regard to “A Closer Look at Mt. Sinjar,” the detail is simply astounding: one dot for every vehicle! The Time’s hybrid map-satellite-images, such as “Encroaching on Baghdad,” are innovative, informative, and visually arresting. A somewhat similar map, “U.S. Strikes Militants Near Erbil,” puts the issue in an intriguing spatial perspective. One also gets a good sense of the circular layout of Erbil, including the old walled-city, deemed here the “Historic citadel” but sometimes called Hawler Castle (see below)* Satellite photos on the New York Hawler_CastleTimes’ Iraq-Syria image collection, such as Strikes Near Kobani“Destruction in Kobani,” are also both informative and striking.

Strikes Near Erbil MapIn regard to Kobani itself, I find it interesting that a variant of the city’s Kurdish name has triumphed in the media. When it first came to global attention earlier this year—if my memory serves accurately—the Arabic name `Ayn al-`Arab (“Spring of the Arabs”) was more often used. Evidently, the tendency is to prefer Kurdish names for Kurdish places (The actual Romanized Kurdish spelling of the town, however, is Kobanê rather than Kobani.) But if this tendency were to be carried out to the end, we would have to quit writing about Erbil (or Irbil), the Iraqi Kurdish capital, and instead write of Hewlêr (or Hawler). Perhaps we should, although “Erbil” sounds more evocative to my ear.

Returning to the Times’ Iraq-Syria visual series, it is significant that a number of the maps found here were based on those of Mike Izady, perhaps the world’s most accomplished cultural cartographer. GeoCurrents has examined some of Izady’s maps before, but it is time to revisit them, as he keeps adding to his impressive collection. Posts later this well will examine his recent mapping in more detail.

*According to the Wikipedia, “It has been claimed that the site [the Citadel of Erbil] is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world.” Other towns, however, make the same claim, such as Jericho. As noted in the Wikipedia article entitled List of Cities by Time of Continuous Habitation, “The age claims listed are generally disputed and may indeed be obsolete. Differences in opinion can result from different definitions of “city” as well as “continuously inhabited” and historical evidence is often disputed.”





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The Fragility of the State Fragility Index

Fragile States Index 2010 MapI recently came across a “State Fragility Index Map” from 2010 that made me doubt the usefulness of the index. As a predictive measurement, its failures are obvious. Note that Syria was depicted at the time as a relatively stable state, while Libya was portrayed as quite secure. In the 2010 Index, Syria ranked 48th from the bottom (out of 177 countries), placing it in a much more stable position than Iran (32nd). Libya, on the other hand, was put in the 111th position from the bottom, indicating that it was less fragile than Malaysia (110th), Mexico (96th), India (79th), or China (62nd).

The Fragile States Index, which was until recently called the Failed States Index, is produced by the Fund for Peace and the periodical Foreign Policy. According to the Wikipedia, the indicators used in the index “are not designed to forecast when states may experience violence or collapse. Instead, they are meant to measure a state’s vulnerability to collapse or conflict.” But do they actually measure such vulnerability accurately? If they did, would not the 2010 index have indicated rather more vulnerability on the parts of Syria and Libya? According to the Fund for Peace, the index is supposed to “spur conversations, encourage debate, and most of all help guide strategies for sustainable security.” In that spirit, I would argue that makers of the index might want to rethink their methodology in order to more accurately gauge the fragility of states.

Fragile States Index 2014 MapMy most serious doubts about the index do not actually stem from its failure to note the fragility of Syria in 2010. I certainly did not suspect in 2010 that Syria would soon implode, nor did many others. (As Yogi Berra supposedly said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”) My problem is rather with the failure of the index to capture current conditions. The 2014 iteration places only five countries in the “very high alert category”: South Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic, DR Congo, and Sudan. Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in contrast, only rank in the less-fragile “high alert category,” alongside Pakistan, Haiti, and several other countries. But can one seriously argue that Sudan is currently more fragile, as a state, than Syria or Iraq? Libya is even more problematic, as it is currently categorized as more stable than any of these countries, ranked at virtually the same level as Iran and as less fragile than Uganda or Rwanda.

In actuality, Libya is not merely an extraordinarily fragile state, but rather it has virtually ceased to be a state at all in any real sense of the term. A recent Los Angeles Times article describes Libya as “teetering on the brink of disintegration,” and as “a security vacuum that was quickly filled by armed men belonging to a dizzying array of militant factions.” But that may be something of an understatement. As a Guardian story from September 9th explains:

A Greek car ferry has been hired as last-minute accommodation for Libya’s embattled parliament, which has fled the country’s civil war to the small eastern town of Tobruk. The 17,000-ton Elyros liner has been deployed, complete with its Greek crew, as a floating hotel for a legislature clinging to power in the Libyan city that is last stop before the Egyptian border. …

Islamists and their allies have captured the capital, Tripoli, and most of Benghazi, the country’s second city. Derna, the next town up the coast, has been declared an Islamic caliphate and the front line begins at Tobruk airport, where pickup trucks mounting anti-aircraft guns face out into the shimmering empty desert.

The small port is home to what remains of Libya’s sovereign power.

It is possible, of course, that Libya could remerge as a coherent state, whether under the power of its nominal, internationally recognized government or under that of one of its many militias. I very much doubt, however, that this will happen any time soon, and I would not count on it ever happening. Somalia, after all has been essentially a non-state for a quarter century, yet our basic political maps and other sources of official geographical information continue to regard it as at sovereign state in good standing in the “international community.” In reality, it is little more than a figment of the geopolitical imagination.

How does the Fragile State Index miss the fact that Libya is so fragile that it has essentially ceased to exist? It does so by relying on proxy measurements. In particular, it takes into account: demographic pressures; massive movements of refugees; legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance; chronic and sustained human flight; uneven economic development along group lines; sharp and/or severe economic decline; criminalization and/or delegitimization of the state: progressive deterioration of public services; widespread violation of human rights; security apparatus as “state within a state”; rise of factionalized elites; and intervention of other states or external factors. Such indicators, to the extent that they are accurate, tell us significant things about social, political, and economic conditions, but as a whole they evidently do not accurately reflect the fragility of the states that they purport to assess.

One problem with the index is the fact that it downplays the more subtle ideational aspects of state fragility and stability. Of signal importance here is the issue of legitimacy. Although “delegitimization of the state” is incorporated into the index, it is placed in the same category as “criminalization of the state,” which is a very distinct matter. Yet if most people (and especially, most elites) in a country deny the legitimacy of its government regardless of any “criminal” aspects, fragility is enhanced. If large numbers of them deny the very legitimacy of the country itself, fragility will necessarily be pronounced. Many experts argue that such a loss of support contributed powerfully to the downfall of the Soviet Union. By the same token, it is of crucial importance that large numbers of local people—ranging from Kurdish nationalists to Islamist supporters of a renewed caliphate—do not accept the legitimacy of the states of Iraq and Syria.

I like to use such composite indexes in my teaching, as they tend to generate interesting and provocative world maps. But whenever I examine any particular index in detail, it tends to fall apart. It is evidently not so easy to shoehorn the vast complexity of the world into neat statistical categories.

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ISIS Advances and the Kurds Retreat In Northern Syria

Kobane Military SituationThe struggle involving the Islamic State (alternatively, ISIS or ISIL) in northern and eastern Syria and northern Iraq is finally receiving abundant coverage in the global media. Today’s (Sept. 21) New York Times, for example, features several articles on the issue, focused mostly on the international complications generated by the conflict. Many publications in the U.S., however—including the Times—have either downplayed or ignored altogether the major offensive that the Islamic State is currently conducting against Kurdish forces in the Kobanê region of northern Syria. A major Kurdish enclave is currently gravely imperiled, threatening another human rights catastrophe. As reported today in Reuters:

“ISIL (Islamic State) are continuing to advance. Every place they pass through they kill, wound and kidnap people. Many people are missing and we believe they were kidnapped,” Welat Avar, a doctor, told Reuters by telephone from Kobani. “We now urgently need medicines and equipment for operations. We have many casualties … ISIL killed many people in the villages. They cut off the heads of two people, I saw it with my own eyes,” he said.

A Kurdish politician from Turkey who visited Kobani on Saturday gave a similar account of the Sunni militants’ tactics. “Rather than a war this is a genocide operation …”

Kobane Googler EarthAs a result of the ISIS advance and the corresponding atrocities committed, tens of thousands of Kurds are streaming into Turkey, which has recently opened a stretch of its border to Kurdish refugees. The situation on the Turkish side of the boundary, however, is evidently chaotic, resulting in clashes between the fleeing Kurds and Turkish police forces. Most Kurds do not trust Turkish authorities, who they believe are tolerating, if not actively collaborating with, the Islamic State. The recent release of Turkish hostages by the Islamic State feeds into such speculations. Some outside experts concur. As was recently reported in the Los Angeles Times:

“I think it’s self-evident that there was some sort of quid pro quo,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in New York, speaking of the release. “I think what’s likely is Turkey gave some sort of guarantee that its actions against ISIS would be limited in nature and it wouldn’t play a primary role in any military coalition.”

Syrian Political Situation MapThe threatened Kurdish enclave in question forms one of three sections of the de facto Kurdish autonomous region of northern and Eastern Syria, known internationally as Syrian Kurdistan, but referred to in Kurdish as Rojava (“West”), or more formally Rojavayê Kurdistanê. This divided region declared its autonomy in 2012, and since then has been under the control of the People’s Protection Units, commonly called the YPG (after the Kurdish term Yekîneyên Parastina Gel). Turkish authorities tend to be highly suspicious of the YPG, which they view as the military branch of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which in turn is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish organization based in southeastern Turkey that was until last year engaged in an armed struggle against the Turkish state. Although YPG units have proved themselves militarily capable, in the Kobanê area they have not been able to withstand the onslaught of the much more effectively armed ISIS fighters.

Syrian Kurdistan Aspirational MapKurdish partisans claim all of northern Syria for their autonomous region of Rojava, as is indicated in maps that they have produced. Over the past two years, however they have controlled only three widely separated areas. According to most ethnographic maps of the area, the Kurdish-speaking region of Syria covers less territory than the envisaged Kurdish autonomous area, but more territory than the three disjointed areas currently under Kurdish control. These three zones Syrian Kurdistan Maphave each been organized as “cantons” by the Syrian Kurdish authorities. Of these, Cizîrê Canton in the east is the most secure, as it borders the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq. Efrîn and Kobanê cantons, however, are relatively isolated, making them highly vulnerable. (Kobanê, it is important to note, is officially known in Syria under its Arabic name, Ayn al-Arab; both the Wikipedia and Google Earth use this term.)

Kurdish Language and Kurdish Control MapThe military forces of the Kurds in Syria have an interesting gender dynamic. Women warriors are well represented among the Kurdish Peshmerga of northern Iraq, but they are more common yet in the YPG. A recent BBC report claims that female fighters account for roughly a third of the organization, making it the most gender balanced combat force in recoded history. The BBC article goes on to claim that:

“Women are the bravest fighters,” says Diren, taking refuge from the scorching heat in the cool of an underground bunker. .. “We’re not scared of anything,” she says. “We’ll fight to the last. We’d rather blow ourselves up than be captured by IS.”

Like the followers of the Islamic State, most Kurds are Sunni Muslims. But that is where the similarities end. Diren says that, to the fanatics of IS, a female fighter is “haram”, anathema: a disturbing and scary sight.

Religious beliefs may play into fears generated by Kurdish female fighters among the ISIS militants, at least according to Ed Royce, chair of the US House International Relations Committee. As reported in The Telegraph:

“These Isil soldiers apparently believed that if they were killed in battle, they went to paradise as long as they were killed by a man,” he told The New York Post, citing reports of Kurdish female fighters laughing as they repelled attacks by the extremist group.

I find it intriguing and disturbing that the ISIS advance and the Kurdish retreat in northern Syria are receiving little attention from the U.S. media. I suspect that this lack of concern stems from the uncomfortable situation presented by the Kurdish militias in the region. The policy of the United States and its allies is based on the sacrosanct nature of official boundaries and geopolitical units in the region; Iraq and Syria must, according to this doctrine, be reconstituted as coherent nation-states. Kurdish aspirations, however, run counter to this idea. Whether the American policy in question is based on realistic assessments is another matter altogether. As I have argued elsewhere, the idea that these two countries can remerge as coherent, self-governing, non-autocratic states may be nothing more than a delusion. Will the Kurds be sacrificed to such a geopolitical fantasy? I hope not, but the events of this past week do not leave me feeling very optimistic.


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Future Islamic State Mapping and Computer-Game Cartography

Future Islamic State Map?As mentioned in the previous post, several maps purporting to show plans for an enlarged caliphate by the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL) have been circulating on the Internet. The oddest of such maps has ben posted here. As noted by Media Matters, this map “was reported on, a website run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, … [and] appears to have originated in part from a video game called Victoria 2.”

Victoria 2 MapIn actuality, the map undoubtedly originated from a Victoria 2 base-map, as it is structured around the same idiosyncratic regional divisions used in the game; this can be seem by examining an actual map connected with the game, posted here. Apparently, an amateur cartographer has simply taken a Victoria 2 map and blackened in all of the regions that he (or, unlikely, she) envisages as future portions of an enlarged Islamic State. In doing so, the mapmaker reveals his own ignorance of the geography of Islam, as a number of important Muslim areas are excluded from the realm (such as Xinjiang in northwestern China), while a number of non-Muslim (and never-Muslim) areas are included, such as Burma.

Little is anything can be inferred about the visions of ISIS and its supporters from this map. Alex Jones, after all, is “often described as America’s leading conspiracy theorist,” according to the Wikipedia, and thus there is no telling where the map actually originated. I find the map interesting, however, because it shows the significance of game-oriented fantasy geography for perception of the actual world.

In general, I strongly support geography- and history-based games, as they can be a fantastic way for students to learn the basic structures of the world. Pedagogical scolds often tells us that learning basic facts is intellectually stultifying, as it relies on “rote memorization,” but the process can just as easily be accomplished from playing games, as long as the games in question are adequately connected to the real world. From what I have seen of Victoria 2, the historical mapping used in the game is sophisticated and relatively accurate. But that still does make it a serviceable base-map for geopolitical aspirations or fantasies. In the end, it is best to reserve gaming maps for gaming purposes.


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The Islamic State’s Aspirational Map?

Future Islamic State MapThe geopolitical entity that calls itself the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has generated some interesting maps. Today’s post examines a map that ostensibly shows the area designated for conquest and rule by ISIS leaders. Widely disseminated across the Internet, it evidently originated on Twitter, but its creator remains unknown. Media Matters for America has advanced some skeptical claims about the map:

On June 3 [2014] ABC News published a map — also cited by — which was “purportedly published” by ISIS and “widely shared on Twitter.” According to ABC, the “terrifying” map was “published at the same time that ISIS announced the creation of a caliphate.” But ABC News didn’t actually trace the image to ISIS, and instead relied on a tweet of the image from American Third Position (A3P). …

As iO9 pointed out, “This is one of those ‘garbage in, garbage out’ stories, since ABC News’ source was Twitter.” The outlet cited to analysis from Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who explained, “It’s an old image put out by fans of the group … There is nothing official about it nor is there some alleged 5-year plan.”

Future Enlarged Islamic State MapRegardless of its ultimate provenance, two versions of this map have been widely put forward, which vary mainly in their treatment of South Asia. The territorial divisions and labeling system used in both versions are curious, indicating a poor understanding of historical geography. The following discussion focuses on the second map, which shows the Islamic State of the future as including India.

Extreme Islamists generally claim that any lands that were ever under Muslim rule must be redeemed to Islam. A good example of such a vision is evident in the map posted here that was produced by Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Lebanon-based organization “associated with the goal of all Muslim countries unifying as an Islamic state or caliphate ruled by Islamic law (sharia) and with a caliph head of state elected by Muslims.” It is no surprise, therefore, that the maps associated with ISIS depict Spain and Portugal as parts of the future Islamic State, as they were once under the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate, or Hizb ut-Tahir Caliphate Mapthat they include the Balkan Peninsula, which was long ruled by the Ottoman Empire. But in neither case does the ISIS map get the boundaries quite right, unlike the map made by Hizb ut-Tahrir. Far northern Spain, for example, was never conquered by Muslims, nor were modern Austria and Slovakia — both of which are nonetheless placed within the fantasized Islamic State. Yet at the same time, other parts of Europe that had once been under Muslim power, such as Sicily and southern Ukraine, are excluded from the realm. So too is the important Muslim zone of Tatarstan in Russia’s central Volga region.

Similar problems are encountered in the depictions of Africa and Asia. Vast areas of sub-Saharan Africa that have small Muslim populations at present and were never under Muslim rule are depicted as parts of the future Islamic State, yet the historically Muslim Swahili Coast of Tanzania is excluded, as are the Comoros (the Hizb ut-Tahrir map gets this wrong as well). In Asia, virtually all of India and Tibet are mapped within the Islamic realm, but Muslim Bangladesh is left out, as are Malaysia and Indonesia. A few scattered exclaves and enclaves, such as the small, unmarked area in eastern Kazakhstan, are less explicable still.

The labeling is also unusual. Some of the terms used are common, but the areas that they depict extend beyond the normal designations. The Maghreb, for example, is pushed down to the sea in West Africa, while the Hijaz swallows both Oman and the UAE. “Habasha,” which refers to Ethiopia and especially its core region that was once called Abyssinia, is also greatly expanded.* The sizable area designated as “Kordistan” is noteworthy, as it roughly covers the Kurdish-speaking area, making it the map’s only ethnically defined territory; such a cartographic depiction is usually limited to Kurdish nationalists — who are now at war with the Islamic State. Other labels on the map are seldom encountered, such as “Alkinana” for Egypt and environs. This term perhaps goes back to the initial Muslim conquest of Egypt in the seventh century.

Khorasan MapThe most striking feature of the map to my eyes is the vast expansion Khurasan, a term conventionally limited to eastern Iran and adjacent areas in Central Asia. This oddity perhaps stems from the Muslim prophesy about “black flags from Khorasan,” emblems referenced by the Islamic State’s own black banners. As explained in the website appropriately called Black Flags from Khorasan:

According to the prophecies of prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), a non-stop army will rise from the land of Khorasan holding Black Flags of Islam in the end times. This army will conquer several occupied lands of Muslims till it reaches to Jerusalem. Then it will pledge its allegiance to Imam al Mahdi (alyhe salam).

It must also be noted, however, that many Muslims doubt this story. As argued in Islam Today:

The hadîth about the army with black banners coming out of Khorasan has two chains of transmission, but both are weak and cannot be authenticated. If a Muslim believes in this hadîth, he believes in something false. Anyone who cares about his religion and belief should avoid heading towards falsehood.

All told, these maps of the future Islamic State are amateurish productions that should not be taken too seriously. They do indicate, however, some odd and intriguing ideas about historical, contemporary, and future geography.

* This feature of the map has generated an odd controversy in Ethiopia. One website in the country claims that this map “shocked the Oromo Community” by depicting “the dream of every amhara and tigre,” as the Amhara and Tigre ethnic groups formed the core of historical Abyssinia. But a substantial majority of the Amhara and Tigre are Christian, whereas almost half of the Oromo are Sunni Muslims.

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GeoCurrents Editorial: The Genocide of the Yezidis Begins, and the United States is Complicit

(Note: GeoCurrents is still technically on summer vacation, allowing me time to catch up with other obligations that I have neglected. My recent essays on eco-modernism, written for the Breakthrough Institute, can be found here and here. I am interrupting this GeoCurrents hiatus, however, to address a highly disturbing and significant development. This post also violates the GeoCurrents policy on political editorializing. In general, this website strives to be as politically neutral as possible, but exceptions are made. One reason for my reluctance to express opinion is the fact that many of my views are somewhat extreme, although they come from the unusual position of radical centrism, one based on an equal distaste for the right and the left.)

SinjarIt is increasingly clear that the situation faced by the Yezidis of the Sinjar region in northern Iraq can only be described as genocidal. Thousands have been slaughtered and tens of thousands are facing death from starvation and thirst, if not from the bullets of the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS, as it conventionally designated), as they hide in remote reaches of Sinjar Mountain. Christians and members of other religious minorities are also at a heightened risk of extermination in the expanding ISIS-controlled territory. Thus far, the government of the United States has conducted a few humanitarian air-drops for the Yezidis, although reports are now circulating that that has begun or is at least considering military strikes against ISIS, actions that the Pentagon currently denies. But more to the point, by having previously thwarted the ability of the Kurdish Peshmerga to defend its territory and fight the militants, the government of the United States bears some responsibility for these horrific developments. Such U.S. actions and inactions stem largely from its vain insistence on trying to revive the moribund Iraqi state, which in turn is rooted in the discredited ideal of intrinsic nation-state integrity.

Melek TausMost reports on the Yezidis mention the unusual nature of their religion, but often do so in a misleading manner. The Yezidi faith is typically described as a blend of beliefs and practices stemming from ancient Persian Zoroastrianism and other distant sources. Such an assessment may be reasonable, but one could just as easily depict Christianity as mere mélange of Jewish, Zoroastrian, and neo-Platonic ideas. In actuality, Yezidism is very much its own faith, although it does have close affinities with other belief systems, such as that of the Shabak people. The specific nature of the Yezidi religion, more importantly, makes its practitioners especially vulnerable to extremist interpretations of Islamic law. The Yezidis follow what is sometimes called a “cult of angels.” To them, God is a remote entity who has entrusted creation to seven spiritual being, the most important of whom is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. Melek Taus, however, is often identified with the fallen angel of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, Satan (or Shaytan), leading to pejorative descriptions of Yezidis as “devil worshipers.” In actuality, Yezidism has nothing to do with Satanism in any form; to followers of the faith, Melek Taus is a benevolent being who repented his refusal to submit to Adam and was hence restored to his rightful place. Yezidism is in actuality a profoundly non-dualistic and generally peaceful faith. Yezidis do not proselytize or accept converts, and they largely keep to themselves. One of the more intriguing aspects of the faith is its spiritual abhorrence of lettuce.

Yezidis mapI showcase the Yezidis when I lecture on religion in the Middle East for two reasons. First, the existence of this faith, like that of many others, demonstrates the historically deep level of religious diversity found in the area that is often called the Fertile Crescent and is sometimes deemed the Heterodox Zone. Second, it shows that the realm of Islam was in general historical terms more religiously tolerant than Christendom. I cannot imagine a group like the Yezidis having survived in late medieval or early modern Europe: crusaders and inquisitors, such as the grotesquely misnamed Pope Innocent III, would not have allowed it. But as the rampages of ISIS and related groups thoroughly demonstrate, the situation has changed drastically. Today, this same region is marked by the world’s most extreme level of religious intolerance and persecution.

ISIS MapSome reports claim that ISIS leaders have given the Yezidis the same three-fold ultimatum thrown at the Christians of Mosul: either immediate conversion to Islam, or acceptance of subordinate dhimmi status and payment of the jizya tax, or face death. The middle option, however, is hardly assured: hyper-fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law demand dhimmi status for the “peoples of the book” (Jews, Christians, and few others), but those regarded as full-fledged idolaters, much less “devil worshippers,” are not necessarily accorded the same “respect.” But even when it comes to Christians, ISIS demands for the acceptance of dhimmi status appear to be largely pro forma, as the goal is apparently the complete cleansing from their would-be state of everyone who is not a Sunni fundamentalist.

After suffering for years, the Yezidis are at long last getting some attention. But mainstream media outlets still tend to downplay their plight, devoting vastly more attention to other far more familiar and less newsworthy matters. Other deeply persecuted Iraqi religious minorities, such as the Mandaeans who have suffered at the hands of Shia militias, receive even less attention. The destruction of Assyrian and other Christian communities gets a little more press, but it too has failed to spark widespread public outrage.

I have some difficulty understanding why such horrors are so widely disregarded. Ignorance is surely at play, but so too is partisan politics. I suspect that in the United States, many Republicans prefer to look away because the situation reflects poorly on the Bush administration’s Iraq policies, just as many Democrats do the same because it reflects equally poorly on the Obama administration. Other observers wrongly and spinelessly conclude that genocide in this region is simply none of our business. In regard to the Assyrians, several pundits have argued that they are “too Christian” for the left to care about and “too foreign” to concern the right. When it comes to the Yezidis, several sources have stressed the “tiny” size of the group, as if scant numbers somehow make persecution less objectionable. Yet in actuality the Yezidis are a substantial group, with roughly the same number of adherents as the population of Boston, Massachusetts (some 600,000-700,000). Can one imagine the dismissal of Boston on the grounds that its population is “tiny,” not even amounting to a million souls?

Unfortunately, American actions have hindered the ability of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to protect the beleaguered minorities of northern Iraq, and the KRG is the only organization that can offer any effective protection. In the tussle between the impotent “national” Iraqi government and the Kurds, Washington has sided firmly with Baghdad, unwilling to do anything that could potentially undermine the fictional integrity of Iraq. The American government has even tried to prevent the Kurds from selling their oil on the open market, as this goes against the wishes of Nouri al-Maliki and company. Deeply strapped for money, the KRG has been unable to provision its troops defending such places as Sinjar, thus forcing it to pull back, placing hundreds of thousands of people at the risk of mass murder. The more recent rapprochement between the KRG and the Iraqi state is indeed a hopeful development, but for tens of thousands of Yezidis it is too late and too little.

In defending the territorial integrity of Iraq, the United States is trying to prop up a corpse, as the country so depicted on our maps no longer exists. As a nation, it never did. As is well known, Iraq was imposed by British colonial authorities, and the state that they created never enjoyed genuine emotional resonance with the majority of its inhabitants. Iraqi national identity has always been superficial at best, thus requiring brutal dictatorial force to ensure state coherence. When that force was removed with the ouster of Saddam Hussein and free elections were eventually held, the disintegration of the country accelerated. The notion that diplomacy, patient nation-building, another regime change, or any other imaginable political process could somehow heal the wounds and allow the reconstitution of Iraq as a functioning nation-state is little more than fantasy. Basing American policy on such wishful thinking indicates an appalling abnegation of both intellectual and moral responsibility.

American policy in Iraq does not merely threaten major populations with genocide, but also works directly against the national interest of the United States. It is no secret that the current leaders of the Baghdad government are more closely aligned with Iran than they are with the United States, or that most people of Iraq are deeply suspicious of—if not actively hostile toward—American power. But both the Kurdish Regional Government and the people of Iraqi Kurdistan remain relatively pro-American, despite the shabby treatment that they have received from Washington. It almost seems as if the U.S. administration has decided that this situation is intolerable and that a few acts of betrayal are necessary to prevent the solidification of a regime that is genuinely friendly toward the United States. It sometimes appears as if the U.S. foreign policy establishment is more comfortable with “frenemies,” such as those in power in Baghdad and Riyadh, than it is with actual friends. Meanwhile, ISIS steadily gains power, innocents are slaughtered wholesale, and the rest of the world sits by. (France, however, has called for an emergency U.N. meeting to address the crisis and has pledged aid for those fighting against ISIS.)

Such self-destructive behavior on the part of the U.S. government has all the indications of lunacy. But such madness is seldom recognized, as it is far too deeply entrenched to attract attention. The same policies, after all, have been followed by all recent Republican and Democratic administrations, just as they are relentlessly pursued by virtually every national government the world over. The world’s sovereign states form a club and hence act in a stereotypically clubbish manner. Carcass states such as Iraq and Somalia remain members in good standing despite their abject failure, while highly functional non-members, such as Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland, do not belong and are therefore shunned, treated as if they do not exist. In a brilliant book, Stanford political scientist Stephen Krasner refers to the resulting international system of mutually recognized sovereignty as “organized hypocrisy.” To the extent that it propels such events as the genocide of the Yezidis, it might be better described as organized psychosis.

The international diplomatic system shows symptoms of insanity because it is based on a figment of the imagination: the nation-state. A few sovereign countries do indeed approach the nation-state ideal, in which a self-conscious political community strongly identifies with a particular state across its entire territorial extent, but—as GeoCurrents has noted on numerous occasions—most fall far short of this model. Yet the fundamental premise of the international system is the permanent reality of this mere ideal across the world. To be sure, it is widely recognized that many countries have been artificially created and thus had no preexisting national integrity, but they are all supposed to have seamlessly “constructed” national solidarity through education, economic development, and political inclusion. In actuality, many never have, and quite a few never will.

The fallacy of the nation-state provides a powerful explanation for the debacle of the U.S.-led campaigns to reformulate and rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. It was widely assumed by many leading experts that Afghanistan and especially Iraq would present easy wars followed by undemanding and self-financing processes of democratic reconstruction. Both countries were assumed to be coherent nation-states that merely needed a change of regime and a little nation-building assistance to emerge as stable, self-determining U.S. allies. Although the initial battles were far less challenging than the anti-war movement had anticipated, the subsequent occupations proved vastly more difficult than what the neo-conservative war-supporters had imagined. Nation-building was doomed to fail in these cases because neither country has ever approached nation-state status.

The obsession with preserving the existing international order of ostensible nation-states derives from a concern for geopolitical stability. Abandoning the idea of the intrinsic unity of a country such as Iraq or Somalia by acknowledging instead the reality of Iraqi Kurdistan or Somaliland, such reasoning has it, would potentially destabilize the global world order. It would do so by encouraging other disgruntled ethnic, religious, or regional groups to seek their own independence, thus fostering secession, rebellion, and warfare. This argument, however, fails from the onset by assuming a degree of international stability that simply does not exist. In actuality, Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland are islands of relative order in seas of chaos. More fundamentally, the unwillingness to deal with such unrecognized states in deference to the established (dis)order invokes a “slippery slope” argument that can be used to justify any aspect of the status quo, regardless of how non-functional or maladaptive it has become. Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland deserve to be dealt with as actual states not merely because of their leaders’ desires, but rather because they have created relatively stable and reasonably representative governments with acceptable levels of human freedom out of the fractured territories of internationally recognized states that are in reality hyper-unstable and deeply repressive. As the same cannot be said for the vast majority of the world’s myriad separatist movements, no dangerous precedent would thereby be set.

Yet in actuality, just such a dangerous precedent has indeed been set by the same international community in regard to South Sudan. South Sudan was allowed to emerge as a recognized sovereign state not because its leaders had built effective institutions and demonstrated a sustained capacity for self-rule, but rather because they had waged a interminable war of independence against the Khartoum government that finally exhausted the patience of many world leaders. At the time, I fully supported the independence of South Sudan, owing largely to the atrocities that had been committed against its people by the government of Sudan. But the hideous civil war that has subsequently undermined “the world’s youngest country” calls into question the wisdom of this maneuver. Successfully fighting against a common enemy by no means ensures the ability to construct a viable state once that war dies down.

Significantly, Iraqi Kurdistan could have gone the way of South Sudan. Tensions between its Kurmanji- and Sorani-speaking areas (by linguistic criteria, Kurdish is a not a language but a group of languages) have been pronounced, contributing to a brief armed struggle between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party in the 1990s. But although friction remains, the Kurdish people have been able to surmount their problems and construct an effective state. Yet now the United States insists that they scale back their ambitions and instead accept subordination within the decaying geobody of Iraq. No amount of successful nation- and state-building will ever do, they are effectively told by the U.S. government, and as such they will never be granted a state of their own on such a basis. If, on the other hand, they were to reject such efforts and instead focus their attention on actively making war against the Baghdad regime, then perhaps they may follow South Sudan and eventually be awarded their own recognized state. I do not see how such a policy can be regarded as anything but delusional.

The Clinton Administration was widely accused of complicity in genocide for its lack of action as the Tutsis of Rwanda were massacred in the 1990s. Preventing this instance of genocide, however, would have been very difficult. Preventing the slaughter of the Yezidis, however, would have been very easy, as all that would have been necessary was the provisioning of a little military assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga, a force that, quite unlike Iraq’s “national” army, is willing and eager to defend the people of the region. The Obama administration’s refusal to do so in obeisance to the illusion of Iraqi national unity is a disgrace, indicating both moral cowardice and abject unwillingness to see the world as it actually is. What really leads me to despair, however, are my doubts that any other American administration would have acted any differently, as the paralyzing delusion of the nation-state is too deeply embedded to be dislodged by mere reality, no matter how blood-drenched that reality turns out to be.


GeoCurrents Editorial: The Genocide of the Yezidis Begins, and the United States is Complicit Read More »

How Big Is the Saudi Economy? Does the World Bank Know?

World Bank GDP Per Capita MapCountry-level economic data are essential yet often highly uncertain. In April 2014, for example, the official size of Nigeria’s economy increased 89 percent overnight due to a “rebasing” of economic calculations. According to the International Business Times, “Most countries go through this [rebasing] process every five years or so, but Nigeria hasn’t done it since 1990, years before developments like a boom in telecoms and the Nollywood film industry.”

Delayed rebasing, however, is by no means the only reason why official economic data can be misleading, especially for relatively poor countries with ineffective information gathering capabilities or high levels of corruption. For this reason, I always caution my students to regard such measurements as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with some skepticism. But I also tell them to pay close attention to such figures nevertheless, as in most cases they are the best economic representations that we have. For the same reason, I try to keep rough track of the global distribution of per capita GDP. Doing so, however, can be a challenge, as the numbers often differ from source to source and they can jump erratically from year to year.

per capita GDP by Country IMF CIAConsider Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, with its extraordinary fossil-fuel deposits, ranks as a rich country in all measurement schemes. But its economy does not extend very far beyond the oil sector, and as a result it is not generally counted as one of the richest countries in the world on the basis of the most common measurement: per capita GDP as assessed though Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). In their most recent tabulations, for example, both the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. CIA peg Saudi per capita GDP at around $31,000. Although this is a high figure in global comparative terms, it still lags well behind that of the United States, which comes in at around $53,000.

per capita GDP by Country World BankThe World Bank, however, places Saudi Arabia in the rarified league of countries with per capita GDP (PPP) figures in excess of $50,000. It would seem that the World Bank’s aberrant estimation of the Saudi economy is of relatively recent derivation. The Bank (2012) now estimates the total size of the Saudi economy at $1,462 billion, yet as recently as 2010 GDP by Country World Bank2010—if the data table posted to the left is accurate—it had assessed it instead at a mere $593 billion. As of 2013, both the IMF and the CIA provide figures that Total GDP by Country World Bankare closer to the World Bank’s earlier estimation than to its current figure ($937 billion US and $928 billion respectively). The World Bank’s own on-line data tables, snippets of which are posted here, do not indicate any major shifts in the Saudi economy since 2009.

Saudi Economy World BankDue to time limitation, I have not been able to investigate in any detail the World Bank’s unusual and seemingly discrepant estimation of the size of the Saudi economy. Quick internet searches do not indicate any recalibrations or data anomalies. In conclusion, I can only reiterative my warning: it is prudent to regard all country-level economic data with a healthy dose of skepticism.


How Big Is the Saudi Economy? Does the World Bank Know? Read More »

Robin Wright’s Audacious Remapping of the Middle East

Robin Wright's Remapped Middle EastI was taken aback this past Sunday (September 29) by Robin Wright’s colorful map of a politically re-divided Middle East in the New York Times, which illustrated her article “Imagining a Remapped Middle East.” The map, entitled “How 5 Could Become 14,” shows a hypothetical future division of Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia into 14 potential new countries along with two additional city-states. I was immediately reminded of Ralph Peters’ troublesome remapping of the same region. As explained in a previous GeoCurrents post, Peters’ intriguing mental exercise in redrawing national boundaries was widely misinterpreted across the Muslim world as indicating a nefarious plot to enhance US power. As a result, the region’s pronounced anti-Americanism was further inflamed.

Ralph Peters' Remapped Middle EastWright’s article, however, shows that her purpose is different from that of Peters. Whereas Peters sought to depict a more rationally constituted political map, Wright rather speculates about a map that might be developing on its own, regardless of her personal preferences, much less her country’s geo-strategic designs. In this regard, the map has much to recommend it. Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq could well be in the process of disintegration, splitting into de facto states or state-like entities that might bear some resemblance to the territories depicted by Wright’s map. The likelihood of Iraq and Syria regaining stability as effective states within their internationally recognized boundaries seems remote, given the viciousness of the conflicts currently being waged. As things already stand, the non-country of Iraqi Kurdistan is almost as much of a state as Iraq itself, and arguable more of a nation. Whether Libya and Yemen can politically reintegrate is also an open matter. Mapping how the Middle East appears today, rather than how the international political community thinks it should be configured, is thus an essential task. Thinking about where such processes might lead is equally important. Wright’s thoughts on the subject are generally insightful, and her map has many pertinent and intriguing features. I commend the New York Times for publishing such a provocative piece.

French Mandate of Syria MapBut that said, I do have a few quibbles, and a couple of serious misgivings, about the manner in which Wright has remapped the region. To take the minor points first, the Jabal al-Druze could not form a realistic city-state simply because it is too large and too rural (under the French mandate of Syria in the 1920s, the semi-autonomous Druze state was roughly the same size as both Lebanon and the semi-autonomous Alawite state). A second minor issue concerns Wright’s division of Yemen into two rather than three states; the Houthi rebellion among the Zaidi (sometimes mistakenly called “Fiver” Shiites) rebels of northwestern Yemen has as much pertinence as the rebellion that that would revive “South Yemen” in the southern and eastern parts of the country. A final quibble concerns Wright’s “Alawitestan,” which would actually be a minority Alawite state, barring the massive ethnic cleansing of Sunnis and Christians.

Saudi Arabia Remapped by Robin WrightMy serious misgivings concern Wright’s  treatment of Saudi Arabia. She realizes that she goes out on a limb here, noting that “The most fantastical ideas involve the Balkanization of Saudi Arabia…” Unlike the other countries that she remaps, Saudi Arabia is a relatively stable state, with no serious challenges to its territorial integrity. Imagining the division of this country thus does not involve speculating about the possible end-points of processes already in motion, as is the case in the other countries considered. It is not at all clear, moreover, why Wright has divided Saudi Arabia as she has, as her article is largely silent here. Presumably, her division is based on the idea that the non-Wahhabi peripheries of the country could detach themselves from the Wahhabi core, potentially resulting in the emergence of the new states of North Arabia, Eastern Arabia, South Arabia, and Western Arabia.

As a purely mental exercise, there is nothing wrong with imagining the possible division of a relatively stable country such as Saudi Arabia, even if it will—as Wright herself admits—“infuriate Arabs who suspect foreign plots to divide and weaken them…” Saudi Arabia’s stability, moreover, might not be a solid as it appears. The entire country, after all, is something of an anachronism; as the personal domain and namesake of the Al Saud family, its essence is premodern. The lack of a regular system of succession in an absolute monarchy based on the 15,000-strong House of Saud further clouds the country’s future. (Similar problems exist in neighboring Oman, as explored in a previous GeoCurrents post.) Saudi Arabia’s religions minorities, moreover, are sternly repressed and deeply restive in several peripheral areas. The fact that Saudi Arabia’s main Shiite zone along the Gulf is also the site of its main oilfields is an added complication, one that provokes Saudi fear about Iranian power and political-religious design.

The possible future division of Saudi Arabia is thus conceivable if unlikely, but it is a much further stretch to imagine that it would split into the units that Wright has mapped. Detaching the core region of the country, homeland of both the Saud family and the Wahhabi religion establishment, from the peripheries does make a certain amount of sense, but one must wonder whether such a maneuver is based more on rational analysis or wishful thinking. Considering the harsh nature of Wahhabi beliefs and practices, coupled with the fact that Saudi state struggles to spread those beliefs and practices across the Muslim world, it is understandable that an American scholar such as Wright would want to see the territorial reach of the Wahhabi establishment cut down to size. (Note that her map results in a landlocked “Wahhabistan,” unlike that of Peters, which at least gives her hypothetical rump “Saudi Homelands” access to the sea.) But shorn of its oil revenues as well as those stemming from the Hajj, it is highly questionable whether this region could maintain a stable state. Local resources and enterprises would not be nearly large enough to support central Arabia’s current population.

M. Izady's Arabian Religion MapA deeper problem stems from the fact that much of Wright’s Wahhabistan is not actually majority Wahhabi, as can be seen in a comparison of her map with that of M. Izady (who idiosyncratically excludes Wahhabism from Sunni Islam). The key area here is Ha’il province, a historically non-Wahhabi area nonetheless ceded by Wright to Wahhabistan. Not only do most of the people of Ha’il practice a more mainstream version of Sunni Islam than those of Riyadh and Al-Qassim, but their province was the historical center of resistance in central Arabia against both the House of Saud and the Wahhabi clerics. Ha’il was the seat of the Rashidis, historical enemies of the Saudis, who were noted for their friendly tolerance of Shiites, a branch of Islam despised by the Wahhabis. Ha’il would thus fit much better with Wright’s “North Arabia” than with her “Wahhabistan.” Nor is it clear why Wright divides her North Arabia from her Western Arabia, as both regions are mostly mainstream Sunni in orientation.

Greater Yemen MapWright’s “South Arabia,” composed of four Saudi provinces and small section of a fifth, is also problematic. This region is indeed distinctive from the rest of Saudi Arabia, and is thus occasionally claimed as part of a would-be “Greater Yemen.” Yet little exists that would potentially hold this region together and provide glue for a new national identity. Most of this region is majority Sunni, but important Zaidi Shia communities are found near the border with Yemen (although Izady’s map might exaggerate their extent). Of all the sects of Shiite Islam, Zaidiyya is closest in form and content to Sunni Islam, but it also has a heritage of political autonomy that has nurtured the protracted rebellion across the border in northern Yemen. In Najran Province in the eastern portion of Wright’s South Arabia, however, a different religious community is demographically dominant: Ismaili Islam. This sect is invisible on Izady’s map, as it also falls into the general category of Shiism. But the Ismaili sect is quite distinctive from other varieties of Shiism, noted globally for its cosmopolitanism, devotion to secular education, and relative liberalism and gender egalitarianism. Not surprisingly, Ismailis in Najran have been deeply persecuted by the Saudi establishment. As noted by Human Rights Watch:

The Ismailis, a religious and ethnic minority with historic roots in Najran province of southwestern Saudi Arabia, face increasing threats to their identity as a result of official discrimination.  With the arrival of Prince Mish’al bin Sa’ud as the governor of Najran in 1996, tension between local authorities and the Ismaili population increased, culminating in a confrontation between armed Ismaili demonstrators and police and army units outside the Holiday Inn hotel in Najran city in April 2000. The ensuing crackdown continues to reverberate throughout the region to this day.

Official discrimination in Saudi Arabia against Ismailis encompasses government employment, religious practices, and the justice system. Government officials exclude Ismailis from decision making, and publicly disparage their faith. Following the clashes in April 2000, Saudi authorities imprisoned, tortured, and summarily sentenced hundreds of Ismailis, and transferred hundreds of Ismaili government employees outside the region. Underlying discriminatory practices have continued unabated.

Robin Wright’s Audacious Remapping of the Middle East Read More »

Simple Map Overlays of Iran Using Presentation Software

Yesterday’s geo-quiz was answered correctly by several readers very quickly: the cities indicated are indeed found in Iran. The point of this exercise, however, was not so much to test knowledge but rather to introduce a simple manner of making and using map overlays, appropriate for elementary and secondary schools across the world. Sophisticated and georectified GIS (Geographical Information Systems) overlays are far superior, but GIS is too demanding for basic use. But one can easily manipulate maps and create overlays with user-friendly presentation software. Over the past several years, I have been making such maps with Apple’s Keynote program. Although Keynote files are easily exported to the more commonly used Powerpoint, something is lost in the process. Today’s post shows what Keynote overlays can accomplish when it comes to the mapping of Iran. Later this week, these Keynote and Powerpoint files will be made available for free downloading.

Let us begin with yesterday’s image of the main cities of Iran, mapped according to population size (all figures are placed below the text). From my Keynote slides, I can simply copy this image and then drop it in an outline map of Iran (Figure 2), generating the third figure found here. I can then place the contents of a spatially adjusted city-name image (Figure 4) on the same map, giving us the more complete presentation of Figure 5. Another Keynote slide contains the shapes of all of Iran’s provinces, with Lake Urmia shown in light blue. Here Iran’s internal provincial boundaries are darker than the country’s external boundaries because they have been manually traced, resulting in the superimposition of the borders of neighboring provinces. Boundary thickness and stroke forms are easily changed (the map here uses the thinnest available setting, .25 px). Again, the information from any or all of the previous maps can easily be copied on to this image, yielding Figure 7.  Another map (Figure 8) contains provincial names, the addition of which yields Figure 9. (Note: I have no good reason for spelling the city “Isfahan” and the province “Esfahan,” as either can be used for either.)

With a few easy clicks and keystrokes, the information on these maps can be deleted, transformed, or moved. To illustrate such possibilities, I have done a few a simple manipulation to the map containing the provincial shapes, assigning each province its own particular color (Figure 10). I can then drag and move the shapes, turning the map into a jigsaw puzzle, as can be seen in Figure 11. Reassembling such a map can be a diverting and informative exercise. (My children tell me that the shapes need to audibly “click” into their correct places when moved, but I am not convinced that such a feature is necessary.) It would make an interesting contest to see who could reassemble such a map most quickly. (The resulting puzzle is more easily solved when the country outline [Figure 2] is added.)

The information on all maps was placed by tracing from other maps found in the public domain, using the tools from the “shapes menu” on Keynote. If one were to use a physical/political map as a base-map, one would thus be able to add a rich topography and elevation layer. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a suitable physical map that includes Iran’s provincial boundaries. I have, however, tried to retroactively fit all of the information that I have traced out on an old physical map of Iran and environs (note the existence of the former neutral zone to the west of Kuwait). The fit is far from perfect, as can been seen by comparing the shape of Lake Urmia on the map with that of my overlay in Figure 12 (as a result, I had to adjust provincial boundaries to match the borders of Iran on the physical map). Despite its poor accuracy, the resulting depiction is still useful for general purposes. To show its capabilities, I have increased the width of the provincial boundaries from .25 px to 1.0 px, highlighted Fars and Razavi Khorasan provinces by coloring them purple and red respectively and setting the opacity at 40 percent, and then added red dots for Shiraz and Mashhad and as well as the labels for both the cities and provinces. The results are far from perfect, but are still useful.

Other approximate overlays can be added using information found on other maps. The remaining maps show the rough transference of some of the patterns found on a precipitation map to the previously discussed maps. The key here is Keynote’s opacity/transparency feature, which allows one to see through any given shape; here the shapes that show the more humid regions of Iran are set at 40% and 50% opacity. The final map shows the relationship of Iran’s major cities to both topography and precipitation.

I think that educational game makers could do many interesting exercises with this kind of map overlay system.

Iran Cities MapIran Outline MapIran Cities Outline MapIran City Names MapIran Cities Names Outline MapIran Provinces map Iran Cities Provinces MapIran Province Names MapIran Cities Provinces Names MapIran Provinces Colors MapIran Provinces Jigsaw MapIran Physical Map OverlayIran Precipitation MapIran Surplus Precipitation  MapIran Physical Surplus Precipitation Map

Simple Map Overlays of Iran Using Presentation Software Read More »

A Conservative Core and a Reformist Periphery in Iran’s 21st Century Elections?

Khatami Ahmadinejad Vote MapAn earlier GeoCurrents post on the 2013 Iranian presidential election highlighted a slight tendency for conservative candidates, such as Saeed Jalili, to do better in the core, Farsi-speaking regions of the country, and for reformers to gather more votes in peripheral areas, especially in the Azeri-speaking northwest and the Balochi-speaking southeast. Intriguingly, earlier elections in this century show the same pattern but with greater intensity. A French map pairing the 2001 first-round election showing for Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, with the 2005 first-round vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative, illustrates this tendency clearly. But a number of exceptions are also apparent on the map. On the provincial level, largely Farsi-speaking Fars exhibited relatively little support for Ahmadinejad in 2005, and gave a relatively large percentage of its votes to Khatami in 2001. A number of more pronounced exceptions are found at the district level.

Iran 2005 Election Reformists MapThe Wikipedia has posted several interesting maps of the first round of the 2005 election. One map divides Iran into two regions, one that gave most of its votes to reformist candidates (in green), and the other that supported instead conservative candidates (in red). Here the strength of reformist sentiments in the northwest and in southeast is clearly evident. It is not clear, however, how the creator of the map classified all the candidates in this election. The accompanying article places Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who took a plurality of votes in three provinces, in neither the reformist nor the conservative camp, regarding him instead as a “trans-party” candidate. It would require tedious calculations to determine how Rafsanjani’s votes were tabulated for the map.

Iran 2005 Election First Round MapAnother Wikipedia map of the first round of the 2005 election shows which candidate took first place in each Iranian province. As can be seen by comparing the two, the reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi won a number of provinces that nonetheless gave a majority of their votes to conservative candidates in this seven-man race, including Fars, Bushehr, and Khuzestan. The most striking pattern on this map, however, is the strength of regionalist and ethnic voting proclivities. As can be seen on the GeoCurrents map, the reformist Karroubi did best in his native Lorestan Province. Another reformist  Mohsen Mehralizadeh, an ethnic Azeri, took only 4.4 percent of the national vote, but he triumphed handily in East Azerbaijan and took a plurality of votes in West Azerbaijan and Ardabil. Ali Ardashir Larijani, a conservative candidate, came in first in only one province, Mazandaran; it is probably not a coincidence that his family is based in that province. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, another conservative, did much better in his native Khorasan than elsewhere in the country.

Iran 2005 Karroubi MapLess easily explained was the extremely strong showing of the reformist candidate Mostafa Moeen in Sistan and Baluchestan in the southeast.  Moen, a prominent physician, was born in Esfahan (Isfahan) Province in central Iran and established his medical career in Shiraz University in Fars Province. He seems to have triumphed in the restive southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan by promising to address ethnic and religious complaints. As the Middle East Research and Information Project explains:

 In the presidential election of 2005, the reformist candidate, Mostafa Moin [Moeen], promised to redress ethnic grievances and appoint Sunni cabinet members. His largest percentage of the vote came in Sistan and Baluchestan. Of the 874,353 votes cast in the province, 479,125 went to Moin. President Ahmadinejad got 47,070.

In Iran’s 2009 election, the incumbent candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad beat three challengers in the first round, taking 62 percent of the vote and thus avoiding a second-round election. This election, however, was viewed by many experts as fraudulent, rendering maps of the results suspect. The official map, posted here, shows challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, an ethnic Azeri, winning only a few districts, located mostly in reformist strongholds in the far northwest and southeast. As the GeoCurrents map shows, Mousavi also did relatively well (in the official vote) in greater Tehran.

Iran 2008 Mousavi Vote MapIntriguingly, Mousavi also officially won several districts in Yazd Province in the center of the country, including Yazd City, population 423,000. Unlike most parts of central Iran, Yazd has leaned strongly in a reformist direction in recent elections. It is noted as the main center of Zoroastrianism in Iran, but its Zoroastrian population is still minor; according to the 2012 census, Iran as a whole contains only 25,271 adherents of this ancient faith. Perhaps more significant is the fact that Yazd is a significant industrial center. Resource competition may also be a factor. Yazd is the driest city in Iran, receiving on average only 1.9 inches (48 mm) of precipitation annually. Yazd contends with neighboring Esfahan (Isfahan) Province for water, which may have generated discontent with the Iranian government. Such water controversies intensified earlier this year. The focus of the current controversy, however, is Esfahan, though Yazd features prominently. As France 24 reported:

Outraged that precious water from their local river is being diverted, last week a group of farmers in Isfahan, Iran destroyed a pump channelling water to the city of Yazd. They’ve been guarding the pump day and night ever since, refusing to let the authorities fix it. Meanwhile, residents of Yazd are suffering from a severe water shortage, leading to fears of unrest there.

All week, the farmers guarding the pump, which is located just outside Isfahan, have been clashing with police. According to opposition news sites, Wednesday and Thursday’s night’s clashes have been the worst yet, with police opening fire on protesters with rubber and lead bullets, wounding many. Despite this, the demonstrators – whom our Observer in Isfahan says number in the several thousand – have stayed put.

The local branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard blames “rebels” for fostering violence, and says the clashes have resulted in injuries and arrests, without specifying any numbers. It also accuses them of attacking a local base belonging to Basij paramilitary volunteers.


A Conservative Core and a Reformist Periphery in Iran’s 21st Century Elections? Read More »

Discrepancies in Mapping Persian/Farsi in Iran

GeoCurrents is deeply concerned with language mapping, as we find maps of language distribution to be highly useful and, if done properly, aesthetically appealing. But we also tend to be critical of linguistic cartography, as the spatial patterning of language is often too complex to be easily captured in maps. Dialect continua, zones of pervasive bilingualism, overlapping lingua francas, areas of linguistic interspersion, urban/rural language discrepancies, and mobile language communities all present major challenges for the mapmaker. Differences in population density is another tricky issue. Should one map a virtually unpopulated area in the same manner that one depicts a densely populated zone? And if one decides to leave uninhabited (or mostly uninhabited) areas unmarked, how large and how unpopulated do they have to be before they appear on the map?

As a result of these and other issues, linguistic maps, whether of a particular place, an individual language, or a language family, often vary greatly from one cartographer to another. Such differences were recently brought home as I examined various language maps of Iran, many of which are readily available on the internet. In particular, the area covered Farsi/Persian, the national language, differs significantly. I therefore decided to overlay these different depictions of Persian/Farsi on a uniform base-map of Iranian provinces so that they can be easily compared. Eleven such maps are posted here, both in their original form and with the Persian/Farsi zone extracted and placed on the common base map. The overlays are not particularly precise, owing largely to differences in map projection; a large amount of tedious handwork was necessary to make them accord as closely as they do with the originals. It is also important to note that the original maps themselves vary in regard to the area depicted. Some show merely Iran, but others include neighboring countries as well. The overlay maps, however, show only Iran.

The maps are arranged in rough descending order, with the first map showing the largest expanse of Persian/Farsi, and the last map showing the smallest one.

Farsi Language Map1

Depiction 1.  The first map is by far the simplest, as it shows Iran as uniformly Persian-speaking. Such a depiction is accurate in one sense, as Persian/Farsi is the national language, and hence is used for official purposes throughout Iran. It also serves as the lingua franca of those parts of the country in which it is not the dominant mother tongue. The source map for Depiction 1, however, is problematic, as it purports to show the overall distribution of Persian, yet it does so entirely on the basis of national boundaries. Depicting Afghanistan and especially Uzbekistan as uniformly PMap of Persian Speakersersian-speaking is far from accurate.










Depiction 2. The source map for DeFarsi Language Map 2piction 2, found in the Wikipedia Commons, is oddly titled “iranethnics,” implying that it is concerned with ethnic identity rather than language per se. All of the categories mapped, however, are rooted in language, although the term “Fars” (the name of a province and, more generally, a region) is used rather than “Farsi.” In purely linguistic terms, “Fars” refers to a series of Persian dialects that are quite distinctive from standard Farsi. As one Wikipedia article puts it: “Northwestern Fars is one of the Central Iranian varieties of Iran. Its name is purely geographical: It is not particularly close to Farsi (Persian), but rather to Sivandi.” The Wikipedia’s family IranEthnics Maptree of Iranian languages treats Fars a distinct minor language, with some 100,000 speakers. On the source map for Depiction 2, however, all languages in the Iranian family are subsumed under the “Fars” category except Kurdish and Baluchi. Linguistically, this maneuver makes little sense, as the Iranian languages or northern Iran, such as Gilaki and Talysh, are more closely related to Kurdish than they are to Persian/Farsi. But it is also true that that Gilaki- and Talysh-speakers tend to be much less ethnically distinct from Persians than the Kurds. Finally, this map restricts the extent of several minority languages, particularly Arabic, more than many other language maps of Iran.


Farsi Language Map 3Depiction 3. The base map used for Depiction 3, also found in the Wikipedia, depicts the various languages of the Iranian family, both in Iran and neighboring countries. As non-Iranian languages such as Arabic and Azeri are not depicted, areas in which they are spoken are generally mapped as Persian speaking (“Persan,” on the French map) or at least as partly Persian speaking* (as in the case of the Azeri-speaking area). The Caspian languages (Gilaki, Mazandarani, etc.) are depicted, but only in the Alborz (Elburz) Iranian Tongues MapMountains; the Caspian coast is instead shown as Persian speaking, a somewhat unusual depiction. The base map is also distinctive in elevating the Mukri dialect to the status of a separate language (even the Ethnologue, which tends to split languages, treats it as a mere dialect), and in depicting a sizable “Sangesar” area in the mountains of northern Iran. Yet according to the Wikipedia, the Sangsari language has only 36,000 speakers and is largely limited to the town of Sang-e Sar** (Mehdishahr), located south of the Alborz Mountains in Semnan Province. Related tongues in the Semnani branch of Iranian languages have similarly restricted distributions.

Farsi Language Map 4 Depiction 4. The base map used for Depiction 4, found on the website of a Farsi translation service, is crude and politically compromised, as it incorrectly depicts the distribution of several languages as coincident with provincial boundaries. It incorrectly labels Azeri as “Turkish” and Balochi as “Pashto.” (In contrast to Turkish and Azeri, which are closely related, Balochi and Pashto are only distantly related, as they are members of distinct branches within the Iranian family.)  It also unconventionally classifies the dialects of Farsi spoken in Khorasan as Dari, a term genIranLanguage:Ethnic Maperally limited to Persian as found in neighboring Afghanistan. But the boundary between Farsi proper and Dari—both forms of Persian—is difficult to draw. As the Wikipedia explains:

 The dialects of Dari spoken in Northern, Central and Eastern Afghanistan, for example in Kabul, Mazar, and Badakhshan, have distinct features compared to Iranian Persian. However, the dialect of Dari spoken in Western Afghanistan stands in between the Afghan and Iranian Persian. For instance, the Herati dialect shares vocabulary and phonology with both Dari and Iranian Persian. Likewise, the dialect of Persian in Eastern Iran, for instance in Mashhad, is quite similar to the Herati dialect of Afghanistan.

Farsi Language Map 5Depiction 5. The base map used for Depiction 5, found on a website devoted to Iranian languages, is similar to that of Depiction 3, although it shows a more limited distribution of Persian.

Iranian Languages Map2







Farsi Language Map6






Depiction 6. The base map used for Depiction 6, found in the Wikipedia, is labeled “Languages of Iran.” This map shows a relatively limited distribution of Persian, barely depicting it as reaching the sea. It also shows much larger than usual Arabic- and “Lorish”-speaking areas. It subsumes Mazanderani and the Semnani languages into the “Tabari” category, although according to most analyses Mazanderani is closer to Gilaki (mapped here as a separate language) than it is to the Semnani tongues. (Significantly, the people Iran Main Languages Mapof Mazandaran call their own tongue “Gileki.”) Oddly, the Qashqai Turkic area in Fars Province is missing.







Farsi Language Map 7


Depiction 7. The base map used for Depiction 7 is found on the “Maps of Net” website and is based on Ethnologue cartography. This map also restricts the distribution of Farsi; again it barely reaches the sea, but it does so in a different place than that indicated on Depiction 6. This map shows much larger than usual areas covered by Azeri (“Azerbaijani” Main Ethnic Languages in Iran Maphere), Arabic, and “Balouchi.” It also incorrectly portrays the northeastern Kurdish area as Turkic, labeling it “Khorasani Turks” and coloring it as if it were “Azerbaijani.” The extent of the Qashqai Turkic area in Fars province seems surprisingly large. Perhaps the oddest feature of this map is its exaggeration of the area covered by the southernmost Luri dialect, a very minor tongue by most accounts, and its elevation of this dialect to the status of a separate language (designated here as “Lari” to distinguish it from the “Lori” language of the north). This map also shows one uninhabited area, the Dasht-e Kavir (salt desert), in north-central Iran.

Farsi Language Map 8Depiction 8. The base map used for Depiction 8 is found in a Wikipedia article on Iranian languages. It shows large areas in central Iran as non-Persian speaking; presumably most of these areas are excluded by virtue of being largely uninhabited rather than by speaking a different language, but the mapping conventions make it impossible to be Iranian Language Map 3certain. This map also shows a much larger than usual distribution of the Balochi language, in several discontinuous patches, in northeastern Iran. As in Depiction 3, the Caspian lowland is depicted as Persian speaking.






Farsi Language Map 9Depiction 9. The base map used for Depiction 9 is found on yet another Wikipedia page. It leaves large “sparsely populated” areas in eastern and central Iran blank, thus restricting the distribution of Farsi/Persian. It depicts Lur as a separate language, but divides it into two separate areas, mapping the central Luri zone as Persian speaking. It Iran Ethnoreligious Mapdepicts a sizable area along the Afghan border as “other,” which would presumably refer to Pashto.







Farsi Language Map 10



Depiction 10. The base map used for Depiction 10 comes from a Wikipedia map of ethnicity in Iran, although its categories are again are based on largely linguistic criteria. This map shows sizable uninhabited areas in east-central Iran, a not uncommon maneuver, but also does the same in southeastern Iran, an uncommon move (also found in the base map for Depiction 9). Again like Depiction 9, this map portrays the central Luri areas, but not the northern and southern ones, as Persian-speaking. It depicts a highly restricted Iran Ethnicity MapArabic zone in both Khuzestan Province and farther south along the coast.







Farsi Language Map 11


Depiction 11. The base map used for Depiction 11 comes from an older version of the language map of Iran posted on the Gulf 2000 site, which features the extraordinarily detailed cartography of Mike Izady. This map leaves large areas of sparse population unmarked, and hence restricts the distribution of Persian more than the other maps considered here. It makes several other unusual maneuvers. Luri is mapped as a dialect of Persian, yet the Raji dialect of central Iran is elevated to the status of a separate language. The Minabi dialect of the southeast, described by the Wikipedia as “a dialect which is something between Bandari and Balochi and Persian,” is also mapped as a separate language, and a small Cushitic-speaking zone (labeled “Somali, etc.”) is depicted in the same general area. The extent of Tati, closely related to Talysh, is much greater than in any other language map of Iran that I have investigated.

Iran Languages Izady Map









I am not qualified to assess which of these maps is the most accurate, and I hesitate to say whether such an assessment can even be made. I welcome feedback from readers on these and other issues pertaining to these maps.

*Note: for all depictions, areas shown as mixed between Farsi/Persian and some other language are left unmarked.


**This small city has an interesting recent history. According to the Wikipedia, “The primary religious belief in the area now is Shi‘ite Islam, but before the Islamic Revolution, there were many Bahá’ís in Sangsar, who had to migrate from the city after the revolution, due to a wide range of persecutions. As for other towns of Iran, the name has thus been changed by the Islamic authorities into Mahdishahr as if to signal its imposed pure Muslim identity. Mahdi is the Shia Muslim hidden Imam and Shahr means town in Persian, so Mahdishahr literally means town of Mahdi.”



Discrepancies in Mapping Persian/Farsi in Iran Read More »

Regional and Ethnic Patterns in the 2013 Iranian Presidential Election

Iran 2013 Election MapThe recent Iranian presidential election revealed some interesting geographical patterns. The election itself seems to have been reasonably free, although it was undermined by the previous disqualification of reformist candidates. Hassan Rouhani, widely viewed as the most moderate and pragmatic of the six candidates, won election handily. As can be seen in the Wikipedia map posted here, Rouhani took a majority or plurality of votes in all but three provinces, all located in the southwest. Elsewhere in the country, he triumphed in all but a handful of districts; the few that he lost are clustered in the northeast and southeast. Rouhani did particularly well in the northern and northwestern peripheries, winning substantial majorities in Kurdish-, Azeri-, and other non-Farsi-speaking parts of these regions. He also triumphed handily in the Baluchi-speaking far southeast.

Iran 2013 Election Rouhani Map(One central Iranian province, Markazi, presents an enigma in regard to these results. The Wikipedia map shows Rouhani as having won the province by a relatively narrow margin, yet the provincial data in the same article show a much wider spread. The same situation obtains in the Electoral Politics 2.0 website; here the map gives Rouhani a fairly narrow win in Markazi, but the accompanying table indicates that he took more than 70 percent of the province’s vote. The GeoCurrents maps posted here are based on the data table found in Electoral Politics 2.0, and therefore show a commanding Rouhani win in Markazi—but with a question mark.)

Iran 2013 Election Rezaee MapThe only candidate besides Rouhani to win any provinces was Mohsen Rezaee, who won a plurality of votes in Khuzestan, Chaharmahal & Bakhtiar, and Kohgiluyeh & Boyer-Ahmad provinces, all located in the southwest. Rezaee also did relatively well in the Azeri-speaking northwest, but elsewhere his votes were few, and as a result he finished in fourth place. A former chief commander of the Revolutionary Guards from Khuzestan Province in the southwest, Rezaee stressed ethnic inclusion, decentralization, and privatization. This message evidently sold better in his native region than in other parts of the country.

The ethnic pattern shown by the Rezaee vote is more complicated than it might seem at first glance. Khuzestan is an oil-rich but restive province whose densely settled rural southwest is dominated by Arabic-speakers. Rezaee, however, did not do particularly well in the Arab core, as can be seen on the detailed Wikipedia map. His base of support was rather in the Luri-speaking uplands of eastern Khuzestan, Chaharmahal & Bakhtiar, and Kohgiluyeh & Boyer-Ahmad. But Rezaee did not do equally well in all Luri-speaking areas; in Lorestan Province itself, he received only 28 percent of the vote against Rouhani’s 48 percent. Such a discrepancy, however, is not particularly surprising, as Luri speakers do not form a tightly integrated ethnic group. The Luri language forms a continuum, closely related to Persian, and one of its dialects, Bakhtiari, is often regarded as separate language.

The Bakhtiari people form the core group of Rezaee supporters. (Although I have not found specific information on Rezaee’s ethnic affiliation, IranTracker notes that he was born in a “Bakhtiari tribal area.”) A traditionally nomadic tribal confederation now some three to five million strong, the Bakhtiari once played a major role in Iranian politics. The Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1907 that led to the downfall of the Qajar Dynasty gained its strength from Bakhtiari tribal levies. Later Iranian leaders feared Bakhtiari power and tried to curtail it.  As the Wikipedia explains:

Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925-1941) would be amongst the first modern Shahs who made destruction of the Bakhtiari influence, his mission. The existence of oil on Bakhtiari territory further motivated the Pahlavi monarch to undermine the autonomy of the tribe and force its population to adhere to the commands of the central government. Reza Shah Pahlavi would eventually execute few noteworthy tribal leaders as to crush Bakhtiari autonomy and maintain control over the tribe.

Despite such efforts at crushing, the Rezaee vote would indicate that the Bakhtiari people maintain a strong sense of political cohesion.

Iran 2013 Election Jalili MapThe geographical patterns evident in the vote for the third-place candidate, Saeed Jalili, are not nearly so pronounced. Jalili, Secretary of the National Security Council, was widely regarded as the most conservative candidate, reputed to have been favored by the Supreme Leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei. As such, his 11.3 percent take was no doubt a disappointment to the regime. Jalili gained his largest percentage of the vote in his native Khorasan region (although he did better in South Khorasan than in his own homeland of Razavi Khorasan) and in Qom, Iran’s religious center. He did particularly poorly in non-Farsi-speaking areas of western and northern Iran.

Iran 2013 Election Ghalibaf MapThe second-place candidate, with 16.6 percent of the vote, was Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran. Also from Razavi Khorasan, Ghalibaf has a Ph.D in political geography and was the former chief of Iranian police. He has a reputation for “getting things done.” Ghalibaf ran well in Tehran and neighboring provinces, and did especially well in his native Khorasan. Although not apparent on the province-level map, Ghalibafran also gained large numbers of votes in certain parts of the southeast (although not in Sistan & Baluchestan), coming in first place in several districts in eastern Hormozgan and southern Kerman. As can be seen on the Wikipedia map, Jalili did very well in this same general area. I have not been able to find anything that would indicate why this area would have such aberrant voting patterns, and I would welcome any information or speculation from readers.

Iran Wikipedia Language MapA forthcoming post will examine Iranian voting patterns in previous elections. Another post will take on Iran’s linguistic geography, as different maps show very different patterns. I suspect that many maps, and especially the Wikipedia map posted here, unreasonably reduce the area of Persian/Farsi speech.

Regional and Ethnic Patterns in the 2013 Iranian Presidential Election Read More »

Egyptian Protests, Ethiopian Dams, and the Hydropolitics of the Nile Basin

Nile Hydropolitics MapWater struggles in the Nile Basin have recently intensified as Egyptian nationalists denounce Ethiopia’s building of the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, the river’s largest tributary. Ethiopia is now diverting the river in preparation for construction, angering many Egyptians, whose country is heavily dependent on the Nile flow. Protestors gathered in front of the Ethiopian embassy in Cairo last week as the Egyptian opposition lambasted the Morsi administration for allowing the project to proceed. The reaction from the Egyptian government, however, was muted. The country’s irrigation and water resources minister ruled out any “military solution” to the controversy—an option advanced by figures in previous Egyptian administrations. Meanwhile, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil met with his Ethiopian counterpart in Tokyo to smooth over the budding crisis. The two negotiators agreed that “the dam would not affect Egypt’s share of Nile water.” They also optimistically predicted that “the next period would see increased levels of coordination between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia to find a consensus surrounding Nile water issues.”

As the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is designed primarily for hydroelectric power rather than irrigation, its effect on the flow of the Blue Nile will be minor. Some water will be lost from evaporation, which is intense in this hot, low-elevation region of Ethiopia, as well as seepage. Yet Egypt and especially Sudan will also benefit slightly from the dam, as it will trap sediments that would otherwise flow downstream, thus prolonging the lives of their major reservoirs. Ethiopia may also sell surplus electricity from the facility to Egypt. As the Grand Renaissance will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric facility, and as Ethiopia is currently building other major dams, it may have power to spare in the coming years.

Ethiopian Grand Renaissance DamMuch of the antipathy to the project in Egypt stems from the country’s political opposition, particular its liberal and Coptic Christian elements. The noted Coptic writer Sameh Fawzy, who stresses Muslim-Christian commonalities, has called for the project to be rejected outright, while Mohamed Hanafy, parliament member from the relatively liberal Al-Wafd Party, argues that Ethiopian hydrological engineering presents a national crisis, adding that  “Israel, Qatar, and China are behind the construction of the dam.” (Although China is financing the turbines and associated electrical facilities, most of the rest of the funding is apparently coming from Ethiopia’s own government.) The leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi has gone so far as to argue that Egypt should consider preventing the dam’s foreign supporters from using the Suez Canal. It would appear that non-Islamist elements are trying to use the issue both to oppose the Morsi administration and to spark pan-Egyptian solidarity in hopes of reducing the country’s religious division. Egypt’s Christian establishment has also found an important diplomatic role to play, owing to the fact that the Coptic Church is in communion with Ethiopia’s majority faith, the Orthodox Tewahedo Church. As noted in a recent Al-Monitor article:

Ramses El-Najjar, a lawyer for the Coptic Church, revealed that the presidency delegated Coptic Patriarch Pope Tawadros II to mediate in the crisis with Ethiopia. He explained that the pope received calls from the presidency urging the Egyptian church to intervene with the Ethiopian church — which was historically affiliated with the former — in order to reach a consensual solution to the crisis.

Egyptian nationalists are concerned about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam not merely because of the threats posed by the project itself, but also because it is connected with a larger hydro-political realignment that could prove much more menacing. Since 1999, the countries of the Nile drainage system— Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—have worked together through the Nile Basin Initiative to “develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security.” This World-Bank-funded program has generally upheld a 1929 colonial treaty that requires up-stream countries to obtain permission from Egypt and Sudan before engaging in any major water-development projects. In 2010, however, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi signed a new treaty designed to allow up-stream countries more hydrological leeway and autonomy. Egypt and Sudan were infuriated and refused to agree to the new agreement. DR Congo, however, is expected to sign, as is South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011.

The new agreement signed by the up-stream countries emphasizes the equitable sharing of water among all countries of the basin:

Nile Basin States shall in their respective territories utilize the water resources of the Nile River system and the Nile River Basin in an equitable and reasonable manner. In particular, those water resources shall be used and developed by Nile Basin States with a view to attaining optimal and sustainable utilization thereof and benefits therefrom, taking into account the interests of the Basin States concerned, consistent with adequate protection of those water resources. Each Basin State is entitled to an equitable and reasonable share in the beneficial uses of the water resources of the Nile River system and the Nile River Basin.

285428591_3857ca93dcAlthough Egypt and Sudan have recently found common ground in opposing the revised pact, the two countries have often been in contention over the Nile. As the 1929 treaty gave Egypt priority for the entire flow of the river, when Sudan gained independence in 1956 it demanded revision. A new agreement reached in 1959 allotted 55.5 billion cubic meters of water annually to Egypt and 18.5 billion cubic meters to Sudan. In the future, however, Sudan may want more water than that; unlike the upstream countries, it has vast tracks of flat, fertile, semi-arid land that could profit greatly from expanded irrigation. In the late 20th century, Sudan had planned to increase it water supplies by draining the Sudd wetlands of the far south, where evaporation losses are huge. Owing to the southern rebellion, the massive Jonglei Canal project was abruptly halted in 1984, its gargantuan machinery left to rust away. The entire project has now been made moot by the independence of South Sudan.

Egyptian Protests, Ethiopian Dams, and the Hydropolitics of the Nile Basin Read More »

Dan Brown, Overpopulation, and the Plunging Fertility Rates of Turkey and Iran

Global overpopulation has recently returned to the public spotlight with the publication of Inferno, the latest offering from novelist Dan Brown, author of the 2003 blockbuster The Da Vinci Code. A mystery thriller on the surface, Inferno is ultimately a piece of demographic fiction. As one reviewer notes, “The specter of a catastrophically overpopulated Earth, its desperate people grasping and clawing for diminishing resources, looms large over the novel. It’s a scene that evokes all the pain and suffering of Dante Alighieri’s vision of hell in “The Divine Comedy.” Brown himself stresses his Malthusian vision, noting in an interview that “Futurists don’t consider overpopulation one of the issues of the future. They consider it the issue of the future.” As is true of The Da Vinci Code, Inferno is striking hostile to the Roman Catholic Church, attacking it for its opposition to contraception and family planning. Taking on the Catholic Church has evidently not hurt sales; to the contrary, some reviewers almost seem to regard it as a marketing ploy. According to the Daily Mail, “The Da Vinci Code offended the Vatican, and was denounced by the Pope. What better publicity could an author hope for?”

Brown’s extraordinary popularity—with books sales of more than 200 million—seems to attract excessive criticism. According to the Belfast Times, his treatment at the hands of critics has been nothing less than “hellish.” Melbourne’s Herald Sun, for example, tells us that “Dan Brown Is Back, As Bad as Ever.” Many of the harsh reviews of Inferno focus on factual errors, some of which are rather petty. The Daily Beast, for example,  “fact-checks” the book and finds 10 significant “Mistakes, False Statements, and Oversimplifications.” A typical example runs as follows:

After hyping up the brains of heroine Dr. Sienna Brooks, with her enormous IQ of 208 (Stephen Hawking only scored 200) and her various degrees, Brown then presents her as unfamiliar with Venetian Carnival plague-doctor masks. Anyone who has been to Venice, or even watched a Travel Channel documentary about Venice, will know of them.

InfernoBut despite the unforgiving nature of the criticism, Brown’s central concern—that of human overpopulation threatening to overwhelm the planet—has gone almost unnoted. Evidently, this scenario seems reasonable to most reviewers. It is not. Fertility rates are declining if not plummeting almost everywhere, and have already gone below the replacement rate across much of the so-called Third World. After a few billion more people are added, a plateau will be reached and then a gradual fall will likely commence.

Brown’s more specific charges against the Roman Catholic Church are also problematic. Certainly one can object to the Church’s stance on contraception and family planning, but the fact remains that a minority of Catholics actually follow such teachings. Most primarily Catholic countries have birthrates close to or below the replacement level. Exceptions certainly exist, such as East Timor, the Philippines, and Guatemala. Many Catholic areas in Africa, moreover, have very high fertility levels. In Europe, however, the traditionally Catholic countries, except France and Ireland, have substantially lower birthrates than the historically Lutheran Nordic countries. Several Latin American countries of Catholic heritage have lower birthrates than the heavily Protestant areas of the United States.

Turkey Iran TFR GraphFertility QuizAs the reactions to Inferno make clear, an impending population catastrophe remains ingrained in the public imagination. As noted in the previous post on this issue, my own students substantially overestimated fertility rates across India. They also seem to find the idea of a global population explosion difficult to shake. After quizzing them on India’s birthrate a few weeks ago, I showed them fertility-rate maps of both South Asia and the world at large. Last Friday, I quizzed them again, this time on the demographic situations of Iran and Turkey. The image posted here shows my question, the response from the class, and the correct answer. As can be seen, most students expected  higher birthrates in these countries than they actually have.

As it turns out, Iran has experienced one of the world’s most precipitous birthrate declines, its total fertility rate falling from 6.52 in 1982 to 1.67 in 2010. This drop has led the Iranian government to another u-turn in family planning; the pro-natalist policy initiated after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was replaced by a family-planning agenda in 1989, but now large families are again encouraged. According to a recent article in the International Business Times:

Teheran officials, who have spearheaded a door-to-door campaign to spread a health education propaganda drive, want to spark a baby boom that would double the Iranian population to about 150 million. The Daily Telegraph reported that no less than 150,000 health workers have mobilized for the ambitious project, literally knocking on the doors of homes to encourage single-child families to have more offspring.

The fertility decline in Turkey has not been as steep as that of Iran, but it has been steady, the total fertility rate falling from 4.57 in 1979 to 2.06 in 2011. As in Iran, the country’s government is not pleased. As recently reported in Al-Monitor:

Himself a father of four, [Turkish Prime Minister Recep] Erdogan has urged married couples to have at least three children, pushing his message bluntly on every platform — from casual chats and wedding ceremonies to party meetings and diplomatic occasions. Arguing that a larger, youthful population will help propel Turkey into the world’s top 10 economies, he has vilified past policies of “family planning” and made bizarre warnings of plots “to wipe the Turkish nation off the global stage.” Recently, he has upped the bar even higher, calling for four or five children.

Turkey TFR MapOne of the reasons why Erdogan is so concerned about the Turkish fertility decline is its geographical imbalance. In the more prosperous western regions of the country, the fertility rate is now roughly 1.5 and falling, whereas in the Kurdish-speaking southeast it is roughly 3.5 and perhaps rising. As recently reported in International Business Times:

Thus, Turkey is facing a demographic time bomb — Kurds, who tend to be concentrated in the country’s impoverished southeast and are generally poorer and less educated — could conceivably outnumber Turks within about 30 years should present patterns persist.

Despite the dreams and plans of the Turkish and Iranian government, it seems highly unlikely that pro-natalist policies will result in a return to the high birth-rates of the past.

Dan Brown, Overpopulation, and the Plunging Fertility Rates of Turkey and Iran Read More »

Egypt and the World Diesel Price Map

World Diesel Price MapThe price of fuel in Egypt, and especially that of diesel, has been featured in many recent news stories, owing to the perilous state of the Egyptian economy. As an April 1 article in Financial Times notes:

Egypt imports up to 70 per cent of its diesel, which it uses to fuel cars, farm equipment and power plants. In addition, it subsidises diesel to the tune of at least $1.5bn a month, draining the country’s already perilously low hard currency reserves. A spate of shortages in recent weeks has raised questions about Egypt’s ability to keep the lights on, feed its people and prop up its moribund economy in the coming months.

But Egypt is not the only country that subsidizes diesel. In fact, at US$ 0.32 per liter, diesel is expensive in Egypt compared to what it costs in some other countries. In Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the corresponding figures are $0.013, $0.016 and $0.067 respectively. Those three countries, or course, are major oil exporters, unlike Egypt. Egypt is now a net importer of oil, although it does have abundant natural gas deposits. In no other net oil importer is the price of diesel even close to that found in Egypt. Although Sri Lanka appears on the map in the same color as Egypt, its diesel price is as at 0.66 US$ per liter.

As can be seen on the map, based on data from the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, diesel is generally expensive in the major industrialized countries and inexpensive in the major oil exporters. Oil-exporting Norway, however, has the world’s second highest price level, exceeded only by that of Turkey. Canada and especially the United States stand out for their relatively low prices. Prices vary greatly in Latin America and especially sub-Saharan Africa, which reflect governmental subsidies more than anything else.

I would like to post a world map of natural-gas prices, but I have not yet been able to find one, or the data necessary to construct my own.


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