Southwest Asia and North Africa

Iraqi Assyrians and Other Christians in Syria

As Assyrian Christians have been forced out of their homes, they have had to seek sanctuary elsewhere. Many have migrated overseas, primarily to the United States, Germany, Australia, and Sweden, but visas are difficult to obtain, costs are formidable, and subsequent expulsions are not uncommon; even asylum-friendly Sweden has been vigorously deporting Assyrians after somehow determining that there is no longer any “inner armed conflict” in Iraq. For most displaced Assyrians, the only obtainable havens are local. Syria has played a particularly important role.

Of the roughly 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, up to 550,000 are estimated to be Assyrians by Iraqi Christian organizations; other groups put the number at around 350,000. The conditions faced by these displaced persons are debated. Evangelical organizations in the United States often voice concern; according to Christian Solidarity International, the very existence of Syria’s Christian community is now “under threat” as violence against its members “goes unpunished.” Assyrian organizations themselves tend to view the situation much more positively. In 2009, the Assyrian Universal Alliance 26th World Congress voted to commend the government of Syria, as well as those of Jordan and Lebanon, for their “treatment of Assyrian refugees of Iraq.”

Syria is generally portrayed in the American press as an authoritarian regime, harshly antagonistic to Israel, that sponsors Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite organization. Less commonly noted is the secular nature of its ruling Baath Party, founded on an Arab nationalism that cuts across religious lines. The founding figure of Baath ideology, Michel Aflaq, was a Syrian Christian. Syria may support Islamist militants as proxy forces in its struggle against Israel, but it does not tolerate them at home; when the Muslim Brotherhood initiated an uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, the Syrian military responded with a devastating assault that killed an estimated 17,000 to 40,000 people. The Syrian government has a strong incentive to oppose Islamism, as its upper echelons are dominated by Alawites, members of an extremely heterodox sect of Shiite Islam noted for their belief in the transmigration of souls, their Christian-influenced religious practices, and the fact that they have no problems with wine. Most Sunni Muslims do not view Alawites as members of the Islamic community, and extremists among them would target them for physical attack.

Iraqi Christians relocating in Syria join an Assyrian population, several hundred thousand strong, that was established by refugees fleeing massacres in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq in the early twentieth century. This previously established group of Assyrians is concentrated in the northeast; recent arrivals tend to live in low-income urban areas further to the west. All told, Christians account for about ten percent of Syria’s population. The largest denomination is the Orthodox Church of Antioch, which claims descent from the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. As can been seen on the section of Mehrdad Izady’s map posted above, Syria’s main Christian belt partially separates its Alawite-dominated coastal mountain strip from its Sunni Muslim heartland.

Christians in Syria may have broad religious liberties and safety from physical attack, but they hardly enjoy freedom of expression; Syria ranks 178th out of 196 countries in freedom of the press, comparable to Saudi Arabia and China. Syrian Christians, moreover, have agreed never to proselytize to Muslims, nor to accept Muslim converts. But despite such restrictions, their lot remains enviable in many ways. The government subsidizes churches and allows Christians to organize their own civil courts. On Easter, tens of thousands of Syrian Christians take to the streets of Damascus to publically demonstrate their faith. According to a recent GlobalPost story, many Syrian Muslims are keen to witness such celebrations:

On Thursday night, the courtyard of the Greek Catholic cathedral resembled a rock concert. At least 2,000 people gathered to watch a Passion play, in which Jesus’ crucifixion is re-enacted. Vendors sold cotton candy and popcorn outside the gates. Attendees included many Muslims, said Ghissa, the church’s choir director. “They’re curious to see how we celebrate,” he explained. “And why not? We all get along well in Syria.”

Curiosity may not be the only driving force behind such behavior. As the author of the GlobalPost story goes on the relate:

Inside a pub in the Christian Quarter recently, two friends, one Muslim and one Christian, joked about using each other’s faiths to double their number of holiday celebrations.

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Anna Eshoo and the Ignored Plight of the Assyrians

In looking over the sample ballot for the 2010 November election, my mind turned to the Assyrians as I came to the name of Anna Eshoo, their champion in the U.S. Congress. By “Assyrians” I mean not the ancient empire-builders, but rather the modern community, several million strong globally, that claims to be their descendents. The main Christian group of Iraq and neighboring countries, the Assyrians have suffered grievously of late. In 2005, Eshoo authored an amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act requesting that, “special attention should be paid to the welfare of Chaldo-Assyrians and other indigenous Christians in Iraq.” Of Assyrian (and Armenian) background herself, Eshoo is better known in Congress for advocating Silicon Valley interests, as befits the representative of California’s 14th district, home to such firms as Google, Hewlett Packard, and Facebook.

Eshoo has had scant company in upholding Assyrian rights. The community is almost unknown in the United States; out of a class of 181 Stanford University students polled this morning, no one could identify the group. The general plight of the Christian population of Iraq may be more widely recognized, but hardly any of my students were aware of the issue, one that is considered pressing by few pundits or politicians. Yet the magnitude of anti-Christian violence and ethnic cleansing in Iraq is considerable. Since 2003, more than forty-six Assyrian churches and monasteries have been bombed, several priests have been beheaded, and entire communities have been displaced. In January 2010 alone, 12,000 Christians in the northern city of Mosul were forced out of their homes. As reported recently in Deutsche Welle:

The Christian minority in Iraq has been reduced to a shadow of its former self …. Up to two-thirds of the pre-war community has been displaced or forced to flee the country… There’s a real possibility that 2,000 years of settlement by Christian communities in Iraq is in danger of near-total extinction.

The Assyrians once received global attention. Their cause was fairly well known in the early 20th century, when an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 members of their community were slaughtered by Ottoman and Ottoman-allied forces during World War I, in a series of events known as the Sayfo, or Assyrian Genocide.* Renewed massacres of Assyrians in the early 1930s led Raphael Lemkin to begin thinking about the mass extermination of entire peoples; he later coined the term “genocide” to describe such processes. But over time the memory of the assaults receded from view, and the more extensive massacres of Armenians during the same period came to overshadow those of the Assyrians. But the repeated attacks devastated the community, as large numbers of people had to seek refuge in other lands. Deprived of their homeland, the Assyrians, unlike the Armenians, lost their place on the map. Even in their core territory, the so-called Assyrian Triangle in what is now northern Iraq, Christians were reduced to a clearly minority status. Before long they were largely forgotten by the outside world.

The Assyrians are a distinctive people not just in the religious sense. In their scattered communities in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, many if not most continue to speak Aramaic dialects – Aramaic having been a lingua franca of the ancient Near East, perhaps best known as the mother-tongue of Jesus. The modern Neo-Aramaic of the Assyrians has evolved far from the old language, but the relationship remains obvious. Both language and religion, however, divide as well as unite the indigenous Christians of the region. Neo-Aramaic itself is split into three dialects that some linguists classify as separate languages. Five separate Christian sects, moreover, are found within the larger community, two of which fall under the umbrella of Roman Catholicism (the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syriac Catholic Church), and three of which are independent (the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, and the Syriac Orthodox Church). Not all of these groups are always classified as Assyrian, hence the use of such terms as “Chaldo-Assyrian.” But under intense persecution, Christians in northern Iraq today tend to stress their commonalities, not their differences.

Considering the magnitude of the Assyrian crisis, its escape from general notice is remarkable. One reason is probably that of limited public attention. The media, it often seems, regard the three-fold division of Iraq among the Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Sunni Kurds as complex enough, as if extended discussion of smaller groups would generate information overload. A weariness of world horrors – “humanitarian disaster fatigue ” – might also play a role. Short-lived natural disasters, even if inconsequential, garner mass attention, but more slowly unfolding and more intractable human-caused calamities seem too depressing and lack dramatic appeal. As a result, horrific campaigns of ethnic cleansing, such as those faced by the Rohingyas, a Muslim people of western Burma, proceed with little outside notice (discussed in Geocurrents on January 2, 2010).

I suspect, however, that another dynamic applies in the case of the Assyrians, a group too large and historically significant to be so easily relegated into obscurity. It would also seem that the United States and its allies have a special responsibility both to acknowledge and to address the issue, as the current assaults on the Assyrians are an indirect result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But therein, I think, lies the rub. In the United States, conservatives may be reluctant to pay much attention to the issue because doing so highlights the unsuccessful nature of the Iraqi regime-change gambit, putting blame for a humanitarian disaster in part on their own shoulders. Liberals, I suspect, turn a blind eye to the Assyrian predicament because they do not want to draw additional attention to the actions of Muslim extremists, fearing that doing so would intensify an anti-Islamic backlash in the West, and thus enhance the power of the right-wing. Meanwhile, the carnage continues. On October 31, 2010, fifty-two people were killed after militants with suspected ties to Al Qaeda attacked a Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad.

Geocurrents will continue examining the Assyrian community and its plight through this week, with the next post focusing on the complex relations among the Assyrians, the Syrians, and the Kurds.

*Controversy persists as to whether the early 20th century attacks on the Assyrians constituted an episode of genocide; I follow the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), which in 2007 passed a resolution declaring that the term is indeed appropriate.

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The World’s Shortest Border

Fans of geo-trivia may be interested in locating the world’s shortest land border between sovereign states. A Fun Trivia posting on the subject – which begins by ruling out Monaco, Andorra, the Vatican, and Gibraltar – selects the two kilometers separating Botswana and Zambia. But if one counts exclaves, a much shorter border can be found: the 85-meter line separating Morocco from Spain’s outpost of Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera. “Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera” is a long name for a small place. This slender peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean was an island until 1934, when a massive storm deposited a sandy isthmus connecting it to the African mainland. Upon Morocco’s independence in 1956, that thin neck of sand became an international border.

Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera is one of three Spanish garrisoned rock fortresses lying just off the Moroccan coast, formally known as plazas de soberanía, or “places of sovereignty.” The three Islas Chafarinas cover 128 acres (52 hectares), the three islets of Peñón de Alhucemas total 11 acres (4.6 hectares), and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera covers all of 4.7 acres (1.9 hectares). Such garrisons once served an important function. Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, for example, was besieged by Morocco in 1680, 1701, 1755, 1781 and 1790. Today, troop strengths at these outposts range from a few dozen to 190.

The most recent military dispute between Spain and Morocco over Spain’s exclaves occurred in 2002. In that year, Moroccan forces occupied Isla Perejil, an unoccupied speck near Ceuta claimed by Spain. Spain’s vehement objection was supported by all members of the EU except France and Portugal; Algeria, which has a long-running dispute with Morocco over the Western Sahara, also offered support. Spain responded with a commando raid, which took the island with no resistance. Mediation by the United States led to a Spanish pullout and subsequent stalemate. Both countries currently claim and monitor the island, but it remains deserted.

The final Spanish land claim in the vicinity is Isla de Alborán, which lies fifty kilometers off the Moroccan coast. Unlike the other islands discussed in this post, Isla de Alborán is not formally claimed by Morocco, and is not officially a “place of sovereignty.” Instead, it is administered by the Spanish city of Almería, specifically – according to the Wikipedia – as part of its fish market district. It does contain a small naval garrison.

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Neutral Zones at the Boundaries Dividing Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco

The Wikipedia maps of Ceuta and Melilla show a double boundary separating Spanish from Moroccan territory, with a neutral zone in between. Such a depiction is unusual: borders between political entities are conventionally conceptualized as one-dimensional lines, with length but no breadth. One can, for example, easily imagine standing with one foot in Canada and one in the United States.

Such a conception of political boundaries is a relatively recent development. In much of the world, borders between states were traditionally treated as transitional zones rather than as stark lines of demarcation. Even in the twentieth century, stalled border negotiations occasionally resulted in the formal delineation of interstitial areas between sovereign states. The world’s last such “neutral zone,” a parallelogram of desert sandwiched between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, was not erased from the world map until 1991. The two countries had agreed to split the region ten years earlier, but as they never informed the United Nations of their accord, the zone retained its international standing. A decade earlier, another neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had been divided and annexed by the two countries.

Even where they are conceptualized as a razor-thin line, moreover, many boundaries are still constructed in depth, especially those separating hostile countries. The prime example is the four-kilometer-wide “demilitarized zone” dividing North Korea from South Korea – perhaps the world’s most heavily militarized area. The strips of land around Melilla and Ceuta once had military functions too, but today they serve mostly to deter illegal immigration.

As recently as the 1990s, Melilla and Morocco were separated by little more than rolls of barbed wire along an undeveloped ribbon of land. Residents of Morocco and neighboring countries learned that crossing this lightly defended frontier was an easy way to gain entry into the EU. In 1999, with European resistance to immigration mounting, the boundary was strengthened with additional fencing.

The new barrier did not prove adequate to the job. Desperate migrants from sub-Saharan Africa increasingly tried to storm the fence in human waves. Attempts peaked on September 27, 2005, when, as reported by the Associated Press, “some 1,000 men tried to clamber over the fences in twin assaults on Melilla’s crescent-shaped perimeter. About 300 made it in.” (In the previous two weeks, crowds had rushed the frontier five times; some 700 had succeeded in climbing over.) Two days later, a similar action occurred at Ceuta’s border. Spanish troops fired on the would-be immigrants with rubber bullets; Moroccan forces evidently used live ammunition. As many as eighteen people were killed, and more than fifty were injured.

Spain responded to these incursions by again reinforcing the border. As a recent article in The Guardian reported:

The city [of Melilla] erected an intimidating new barrier – two parallel 4m wire fences, topped with razor wire and with a tarmac strip running between patrolled by the Spanish Guardia Civil, all of it monitored by 106 video cameras, infrared surveillance, a microphone cable and helicopters. In Melilla, a man who had worked on the fence told me he would arrive at work in the morning to find his ladder covered in blood, where migrants had tried to use it to climb into the city and had become victims of the razor wire.”

Spanish forces subsequently cleared out camps of sub-Saharan migrants that had been established in the buffer zone between the outer security fence and the town. Both Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières accused Spain of dumping more than 500 of these prospective migrants into an uninhabited portion of the Sahara.

Separation barriers designed primarily to prevent illegal immigration are becoming an increasingly common feature of the world’s borderlands. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, migration-deterring barricades exist now or are being built between Botswana and Zimbabwe, Brunei and Malaysia, China and North Korea, Egypt and Gaza, India and Bangladesh, South Africa and Mozambique, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, United Arab Emirates and Oman, the United States and Mexico, and Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

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Geopolitical and Religious Conflict in the Spanish Exclave of Melilla

As mentioned in Monday’s post, tensions came to a boil this summer between Spain and Morocco over Spain’s possessions on the North African coast, Ceuta and Melilla. The squabble began in July 2010, when Spanish forces allegedly beat five Moroccan men in Melilla for carrying a Moroccan flag. The government of Morocco subsequently encouraged or at least allowed its citizens to stage two massive border protests, which blocked the delivery of fresh produce into the exclaves. The blockade, in turn, incited political sparring in Spain, as the center-right opposition party accused the government of “failing to defend adequately the Spanish presence in North Africa,” while the government in turn denounced the “disloyal” maneuvering of the opposition, which included an unannounced visit to Melilla by former prime minister José María Aznar.

By August 23, the crisis had apparently abated. Spain claimed a “diplomatic victory” in its negotiations with Morocco after the two countries agreed to “strengthen their security and police cooperation to handle issues ranging from immigration to drug trafficking.…” But whatever agreements were made between Morocco and Spain, it is unlikely they will permanently settle the conflict. Morocco’s demand for the two communities still stands.

It is unclear what prompted Morocco to proceed with the blockade in July; no public statements have been made. But speculations on both the origin of the struggle and its diplomatic consequences are rife. A recent Time Magazine article suggests that the Moroccan government views Spain as severely weakened by its economic crisis, and hence vulnerable to intimidation. Spain stakes a great deal on its role as mediator between Europe and North Africa—a position threatened by any struggle with Morocco. According to another recent article, “Morocco wants to ensure continued Spanish support for its efforts to hold onto the disputed Western Sahara; Morocco’s government has internal problems and raised this fuss as a diversionary tactic; or maybe it wants more European aid money and is badgering Spain as a way to get it.”

What is clear is that relations between the people of Melilla and their Moroccan neighbors are both intimate and troubled. An estimated 30,000 Moroccan citizens cross the border everyday. Many come to sell their labor, as Melilla is vastly more prosperous than Morocco. Others come to shop and smuggle, returning to Morocco with “everything from booze to toilet paper.” Such day-trippers are apparently much abused by Melillans, a people anxious about illegal immigration and concerned about the security of their vulnerable community.

Tensions in Melilla cannot be reduced to a simple struggle between the Spanish inhabitants of the enclave and their North African neighbors. Some thirty to forty-five percent of the city’s 73,000 residents are Muslims of Moroccan origin, mostly of Berber rather than Arabic stock. According to the Wikipedia, Melilla remains deeply divided: “The culture in this little city is thus virtually divided into two halves, one being European and the other Amazigh [i.e., Berber].” Other sources depict greater communal cohesion. According to one recent article, “the vast majority [of Melilla’s Muslims] say they have no interest in joining their poor neighbor. ‘We feel Spanish and we are Spanish,’ said merchant Yusef Kaddur, as he stood under a date palm tree outside the main mosque in Melilla’s bustling Muslim quarter.” The fact that Berbers have little power in Morocco, even though they constitute almost half of the country’s population, no doubt contributes to the lack of pro-Moroccan sentiments among Melilla’s Muslim inhabitants.

Melilla’s Jewish population has a storied history, but is now diminishing rapidly. As Spain’s former prohibition against Jews was not enforced in its North African exclaves, Jewish settlement was continuous. In the mid twentieth century, twenty percent of Melilla’s inhabitants were Jewish; today that figure has been reduced to around five percent due to emigration. According to a 2002 article in Religioscope, Ceuta and Melilla were formerly considered “paragons of interfaith harmony,” but that is no longer the case. Many Muslim youths, the author argues, have been radicalized in recent years, and have thus turned against their Jewish neighbors: “eggs, rocks and bottles have been thrown at Ceuta’s Sephardic synagogue while Jews were at prayer, Palestinian flags and graffiti glorifying Osama bin Laden have been painted on synagogues and churches, and graves in Melilla’s Jewish cemetery have been desecrated.”

Melilla is obviously a troubled and insecure place. Its most serious clashes in recent years, however, have focused not on sovereignty disputes or religious rivalry but on immigration, the subject of tomorrow’s post.

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Why Iran’s Azeris Are Iranian

The weakness of Azeri nationalism in Iran (discussed last week) seems surprising at first glance. Iranian Azeris form a large, distinctive, and relatively cohesive ethnic group that has been deprived of basic educational rights in its own language. Similar situations in neighboring countries have resulted in serious unrest if not prolonged insurgency – think of the Kurds of Turkey. One might assume that the unpopularity of Iran’s restrictive clerical regime and the fact that independent Azerbaijan offers the attractions of a relatively open and globally engaged society would incline the Iranian Azeris toward separatism. Yet with a few exceptions, the southern Azeris show few signs of seeking autonomy, much less independence or union with Azerbaijan.

Historical factors figure prominently in explaining this seeming paradox. Persian- and Turkic-speaking peoples have been intertwined throughout Iran and Western Central Asia for centuries; historian Robert Canfield thus delineates a large cultural-historical region that he calls “Turko-Persia.” The region’s socio-political foundations long rested on a combination of Turkic military might and political power and Persian economic and intellectual ascendency. The ruling dynasties of Persia (what is now Iran) from the end of the Mongol period through the first quarter of the twentieth century were of Turkic origin, and relied heavily on the military power of Turkish tribal groups scattered widely across the country.

Persia’s last major Turkic dynasty, the Qajars, held power, albeit in a decentralized manner, from 1794 to 1925. Originally of Turkmen stock, the Qajar rulers spoke a language similar to Azeri in their homes, while employing Persian for court proceedings and administration. In the early 1800s, the Qajars lost their northwestern territories in the Caucasus – modern Azerbaijan – to the expanding Russian empire. Continuing threats and interference by both Russia and Britain would compromise the sovereignty of the country until the mid twentieth century. Such foreign pressures, if anything, enhanced the linkage between the Persian and Turkic peoples of Iran.

Ethnic relations were transformed under the Pahlavi dynasty, which came to power in 1925. To modernize Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi sought to construct a nation-state based on Persian culture and language. This required a campaign of Persianization, and corresponding de-Turkification, in much of the country. Restrictions were placed on publication in Azeri and other Turkic languages, place names were changed, and pressure was even put on parents to give their children Persian-sounding names.

The Persio-centric policies of the two Pahlavi shahs antagonized Iran’s ethnic minorities, including not just Turkic-speakers but millions of Arabs, Kurds, and others. They also failed to resonate deeply with many Persians, who formed a bare majority of the country’s population. Under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s head of state from 1941 to 1979, Iranian nationalism was officially based not merely on contemporary Persian culture but on 2,500 years of imperial history. By glorifying his country’s pre-Islamic past, the Shah deeply antagonized Iran’s religious leadership, contributing to the collapse of his regime in 1979.

The new Islamic Republic of Iran fixed its national foundations firmly on the religious ties of Shiite Islam. Although Persian remained the favored language, especially in education, many of the restrictive linguistic policies of the previous government were dropped. As Shiites, the Azeris could easily share in the country’s reformulated scheme of national identity. (The same cannot be said for Iran’s Sunni groups, most notably the Baluch and the Kurds.)

Developments in northern Azerbaijan, under Russian and then Soviet control from the early 1800s to 1991, also militated against the formation of a pan-Azeri national consciousness. Russian imperial rule was harsh, and did not encourage the emergence of Azeri political identity. Under Soviet rule, such identity was nurtured insofar as it remained subsumed within communist ideology. Soviet agents promoted communist ideas in Iran as well. In the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, the Iranian Communist Party gained strength in the north, and especially in the Azeri-speaking northwest. But the Soviets overplayed their hand. After having occupied much of northern Iran during World War II, the Soviet Union set up a quasi-independent communist state in Iranian Azerbaijan in 1945, appealing to Azeri ethnic identity. Most Iranian Azeris, however, rejected the Marxist ideology of the “Azerbaijan People’s Government,” which collapsed in 1946. As much as they may have distrusted the Pahlavi dynasty, most southern Azeris preferred it to the Soviet Union.

The independence of Azerbaijan in 1991 again changed the dynamics of Azeri identity, opening the doors for the first time to the emergence pan-Azeri nationalism. The effects of long-term historical development, however, are not so quickly erased. In terms of political identity, Iranian Azerbaijan remains far more Iranian than Azerbaijani.

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Azerbaijan: Warming to Iran, Cooling to the U.S.

Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan are rapidly warming. In early May 2010, the two countries signed a security memorandum, promising to cooperate on issues ranging from drug smuggling to human trafficking to terrorism. Iran’s foreign minister framed the bilateral relationship as one between “friendly, fraternal and neighboring countries.” On May 5, Azerbaijan’s defense minister pledged that “No threat will be made against Iran from Azerbaijan’s territory and we will not help the enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran under any circumstances.”

Until recently, the relationship had been frosty. Iran has long railed against Azerbaijan’s ties with the United States and Israel, while Azerbaijan has denounced Iran’s friendship with Armenia. Iran took umbrage at a 2006 World Congress of Azerbaijanis in Baku, where participants mooted the idea of a “united Azerbaijan” and charged the Iranian government with human rights abuses against Azeris in northwestern Iran. Iran’s clerical establishment still fumes at the burgeoning tourist trade. The Atlantic recently showcased Astara, Azerbaijan as the “Tijuana of the Caspian” where “everything’s for sale,” ranging from sex, to liquor, to body piercings, to astrological forecasts – even during Ramadan. “It’s common knowledge,” reported an Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, “that the Iranians want the border shut down.” Yet in early May 2010, Baku and Tehran agreed to build a $220 million trans-border bridge in Astara to encourage the transit of goods and people.

The turnabout in Iranian-Azerbaijani relations stems in part from the increasing stress between Washington and Baku. Over the past year, the United States has pushed hard for rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, with a small measure of success. By seeming to favor Armenia, the U.S. has irked Azerbaijan; as long as Armenia and its client quasi-state of Nagorno-Karabakh occupy a large swath of Azerbaijan’s official territory, Azerbaijan will remain Armenia’s foe. According to Alexander Jackson, Azerbaijan’s government also feels slighted by the United States. Washington has reportedly failed for eight months to send an ambassador to Baku. More egregiously, Azerbaijan was not invited to the Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010. Armenia and Turkey were; their leaders came, and they spoke with President Obama about the region and its problems. In late April, Azerbaijan cancelled a joint military training exercise with the U.S.

The Caucasus is probably the second most ethno-linguistically diverse place in the world (after New Guinea), and it surely forms one of the most complex geopolitical chessboards. Any move to improve relations with one nation appears to result in worsened relations with another. The United States may well want better ties with Armenia, but they will come at the expense of those with Azerbaijan.

In terms of immediate geopolitical calculation, the U.S. would lose raw advantage if it were to shift favor from Azerbaijan to Armenia. Oil-rich Azerbaijan is a much wealthier country. Its total GDP is estimated at $86 billion, its annual exports at $13 billion, and its 2009 economic growth rate at 9.3 percent; Armenia’s total GDP is estimated at $16 billion, its exports at $715 million, and its 2009 growth rate at negative 15 percent. All the same, tilting toward Armenia could help satisfy other current U.S. objectives, notably reducing the tension between Washington and Moscow. Armenia and Russia are tightly allied. The Russian 102nd Military Base is located in Gyumri, Armenia, a few miles from the Turkish border, and according to the provisions of a 1997 treaty of friendship, Armenia must allow Russia to patrol its frontiers with Turkey and Iran.

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Ralph Peters: Thinking the Unthinkable?

Ralph Peters’s “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look” is more than a troubling and provocative work. The article and the controversies surrounding it illustrate the central paradox of contemporary geopolitical discourse: as malformed as existing borders may be, mere talk about changing them can be harmful. Peters prods us to “think the unthinkable,” but to write the unthinkable is to provoke fast fury abroad.

For all of Peters’s miscues, many of his core ideas are sound. His initial assertion – that misplaced boundaries often generate injustice and strife – is spot on. And he is right to point out that the foreign policy establishment refuses to acknowledge the violence engendered by geopolitical misalignment for fear of opening a Pandora’s Box of separatist demands. Because of that fear, any suggestions for alternative arrangements tend to be dismissed out of hand. Such a stance, Peters argues, is intellectually dishonest. New countries sometimes do appear on the map without ruffling the international order. Think of Montenegro, 2006. Such neophyte states must, however, come into being through the channels of global diplomacy if they want international recognition. Should they emerge on their own, their existence will be denied by the powers that be. In this way the system of international diplomacy that Peters mocks can indeed become a masquerade. Grant diplomatic recognition to Somaliland, the only effectively administered territory in the bedlam called Somalia? Impossibly destabilizing: surely anarchy would be loosed across the Horn of Africa!

The existing geopolitical framework—the division of the world into recognized sovereign countries—is indeed, in many areas, an unwholesome mess. Misplaced boundaries, stateless nations, and nationless states spawn perennial violence or repression. Iraq does not mend, regardless of the lives lost and the monies squandered. But if Iraq is, as Peters argues, “a Frankenstein’s monster of a state sewn together from ill-fitting parts,” does his conclusion necessarily follow: that Iraq should therefore be divided in three? That is a different question altogether. But even if the answer is a firm “no,” surely one would allow that the case for partition can at least be made. Should we not question poorly functioning structures, asking how they might be improved? Might curiosity not lead us to entertain alternative schemes of geo-division? Aren’t scholars, if not diplomats, almost duty-bound to “think the unthinkable” when confronting a quandary like Iraq?

Yet almost any suggestion for changing a particular geopolitical structure will generate troubles of its own. However problematic they may be for the larger society around them, all existing state boundaries serve one or more interest groups, which are bound to fight change. Moreover, modifying geopolitical structures to resolve one ethno-national dispute often spawns another. Hitherto stateless nations gaining sovereignty frequently find their own minority groups pining for independence or union with another state, as happened with the Serbs in Kosovo. There are good reasons, in other words, for deeming certain ideas unthinkable.

Going beyond merely imagining geopolitical restructuring to actually advocating it raises the stakes, especially when such recommendations come from a former U.S. military intelligence officer. For Ralph Peters to remap the polities of the Middle East was a perilous undertaking. The publication of “Blood Borders” intensified anti-American sentiments across the greater Middle East, especially in Turkey. Telling the Turks that justice demands ceding a quarter of their country to Kurdistan was bound to rouse fury. According to one poll, Turkey—a NATO ally traditionally known for its Western orientation—is now one of the most anti-American countries in the world. Only 12 percent of Turks reportedly maintain favorable views of the United States—a figure below even than that of Pakistan, another ostensible U.S. ally that Peters would seek to dismember.

Yet as Ralph Peters reminds us, borders do change and new countries do appear, regardless of what diplomats want and are willing to acknowledge. The world political map seemed stable enough in 1990, but how many new countries have emerged since then? The number is 26, higher than most people realize. In addition to the fifteen republics that gained independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union, seven new countries appeared in the space of the former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia gave rise to two, Eritrea split from Ethiopia, and East Timor hived off from Indonesia. Countries also disappear occasionally; South Yemen, for instance, was annexed by Yemen in 1990 (although many South Yemenis seek its rebirth). In all probability, the official map will continue to change; next year may see the birth of Southern Sudan. But any changes that will occur will likely be piecemeal and gradual, worked out not by audacious scholars ready to redraw the map at one stroke but by cautious government officials, persistent separatist leaders, and wary international diplomats, negotiating on a case-by-case basis. Wholesale restructuring of the kind envisaged by Peters is a pipedream. As the response to his thought-experiment has shown, imagining alternative geographies may be a useful exercise, but trumpeting any single alternative as a blueprint for change is something else altogether.

Next week we will examine Somaliland, the real but unmapped country that exists within the unreal but mapped country of Somalia. But first we must take one more look at the Iranian-Azeri issue that initiated this discussion of Ralph Peters. Why do Iranian Azeris identify so much more closely with Persians than with their fellow Azeris of Azerbaijan?

Ralph Peters: Thinking the Unthinkable? Read More »

Blood Borders and Their Discontents

In 2006, Armed Forces Journal published a short, map-illustrated article by retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, novelist, and pundit Ralph Peters. In “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look,” Peters argued that “unjust borders” drawn by “self-interested Europeans” were generating many of the Middle East’s problems. Changing state boundaries to reflect the “organic frontiers” of religion and ethnicity, he suggested, would reduce tensions and enhance justice. Peters insinuated that only radical remapping would allow the United States to withdraw its military: “If the borders of the greater Middle East cannot be amended to reflect the natural ties of blood and faith, we may take it as an article of faith that a portion of the bloodshed in the region will continue to be our own.”

“Blood Borders” did not make a major impression in the United States; few Americans have even heard of it. The same cannot be said for the greater Middle East. In the countries that Peters would pare down, his article generated widespread – and on-going – outrage. Iranian nationalists point to “Blood Borders” when arguing that the United States seeks to dismember their country. Sentiments are if anything stronger in Pakistan. A professionally produced Pakistani map entitled “Operation Enduring Turmoil” (see above) portrays a slightly modified Peters scheme as part of a conspiracy to thwart China and diminish Pakistan, allegedly masterminded by the Project for a New American Century (a defunct neoconservative think-tank). The general tenor of Pakistani public opinion is reflected in the first two sentences of a March 24, 2010 article in The Dawn: “Ralph Peters of ‘creating-the-map-of-independent-Balochistan’ and then getting it published in a Defense journal, continues to write. It seems like Mr. Peters is still living in the 80s, and can [only] see Iran and Afghanistan through the eyes of an old decrepit Cold War protagonist.”

It is worth examining the logic behind this infamous map more closely. One might imagine the “blood” in “Blood Borders” to connote genetic ties, but Peters’s groupings are founded on commonalities of language and religion, not those of genes. In his schema, four new countries would emerge: two—Kurdistan and Baluchistan—based on language, and two others—an Arab Shia State and an Islamic Sacred State—on largely religious grounds. The latter two do not have strong national roots. Very few Gulf Shiites have ever sought to build a single nation-state around their faith. Peters’s Islamic Sacred State, moreover, deviates completely from his cultural-nationalist foundation. The criterion for independence here is apparently instrumental: to remove Mecca and Medina from the Saudi state and the Wahabbi religious establishment.

Kurdistan is surely Peters’s most favored nation. The lack of a Kurdish state, he argues, is the “most glaring injustice in the notoriously unjust lands between the Balkan Mountains and the Himalayas.” Yet his own Kurdistan would do injustice to the Iranian Azeris, who would have to give the Kurds their core territory in and around the city of Tabriz. The logic behind such a maneuver is blatantly one of geopolitical advantage for the United States: “A Free Kurdistan, stretching from Diyarbakir through Tabriz, would be the most pro-Western state between Bulgaria and Japan.” Peters does not indicate what would happen to the Azeri-speaking inhabitants of the area, but he does offer a hint: “Oh, and one other dirty little secret from 5,000 years of history: Ethnic cleansing works.”

The rest of Iranian Azeri territory would go to Azerbaijan, roughly doubling its population. This “Greater Azerbaijan,” however, also has a weak national foundation. Although the northern Azeri and the southern Azeri speak the same language, they do not tend to see themselves as forming a single political community. The people of Iranian Azerbaijan, by and large, consider themselves to be Iranian, despite their irritation with Persian education. Peters’s expanded Azerbaijan would also apparently include a sizable non-Azeri region, Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh is officially part of Azerbaijan, but is currently under the control of a break-away “republic” closely linked with Armenia. Peters’s map implies that Azerbaijan should reclaim this area.

Contrary to Iranian and Pakistani claims, Peters’s geopolitical strategy is not that of the United States. U.S. foreign policy here, as elsewhere, rests on the assumption that boundaries between countries should stay as they are. Peters detests this idea: “the greatest taboo in striving to understand the region’s comprehensive failure … [is] the awful-but-sacrosanct international boundaries worshipped by our own diplomats.” In rearranging the geopolitical framework, Peters would reward several US allies, but he would punish others. Pro-U.S. Jordan would gain a substantial slice of northwestern Saudi Arabia, but Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia would suffer. Turkey would lose its east to Kurdistan – even its far northeast, which is not Kurdish speaking. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia would not so much lose territory as be dismembered. Peters views the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as false friends scheming against U.S. interests while cooperating on the surface. The dissection of Saudi Arabia in particular is depicted as necessary for future regional peace and stability: “The rise of the Saudis to wealth and, consequently, influence has been the worst thing to happen to the Muslim world as a whole since the time of the Prophet, and the worst thing to happen to Arabs since the Ottoman (if not the Mongol) conquest.”

Peters’s assertion that an independent Kurdistan would be pro-US may be plausible. I am not so sure, however, that an independent Baluchistan would ally with the United States, except perhaps out of necessity. The same can be said for a potential Arab Shia State, in which anti-American sentiments would run strong. Such a country would be both wealthy and powerful, encompassing most of the oilfields of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and southern Iraq, while virtually encapsulating oil-rich Kuwait. The creation of such an oil giant would likely terrify and infuriate Sunni Muslims, as well as Persian and Turkic Shiites, across the region.

Note that Peters’s Arab Shia State also deviates from his ostensible ethno-religious basis of division. Arabic-speaking, Shia-majority Bahrain, for example, would be excluded, while substantial Persian-speaking areas would be included (in the map above, such areas are mapped as “Bandari,” speaking the coastal or port-city form of Persian).

“Blood Borders” is obviously a problematic and provocative article, as we shall see in greater detail in tomorrow’s post.

Blood Borders and Their Discontents Read More »

Iranian Azerbaijan and the Cartoon Cockroach Controversy

Iran is to Azerbaijan as Thailand is to Laos: just as Thailand has far more Lao-speakers than Laos, Iran has far more Azeri-speakers than Azerbaijan. Some 18 million Azeris live in Iran (where they comprise 20 to 25 percent of a large populace); that is more than double the number in Azerbaijan (whose 8 million Azeris account for 90 percent of a much smaller population). Although the discrepancy is not as large as that between Laos and Thailand in regard to the Lao, the Azeri case is in some respects more pronounced. In contrast to the concentration of Lao speakers in just one country outside Laos, for instance, large Azeri populations extend into several neighboring countries, with an estimated 800,000 in Turkey, 600,000 in Russia, and 280,000 in Georgia. And whereas Lao and Thai are closely related languages, Azeri—a Turkic language—is unrelated to Persian, an Indo-European tongue. Azerbaijan is clearly an “underfit” country, with the majority of the ethnic group upon which its national foundations are based residing outside its boundaries.

But beyond simple ethnic proportions, the Lao/Azeri analogy does not go very far. Isan is the poorest part of Thailand, and its Lao-speaking inhabitants tend to be politically and economically marginalized and culturally disparaged. Northwestern Iran, on the other hand, is one of the wealthiest and most industrialized parts of the country, and its Azeri-speaking inhabitants are well integrated within the Iranian nation. The Azeri community in Tehran is also substantial and relatively prosperous. Iranian opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi is Azeri; so—according to some—is Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of the country. (Khamenei’s father was Azeri, but not his mother; he evidently speaks Azeri less fluently than Persian [Farsi] and Arabic.)

Despite the prominence of Azeris in Iranian national life, ethnic tensions are not absent. State language policy dictates that official documents, governmental correspondence, and textbooks must be written in Persian. In early 2010, Azeri activists in Iran called for demonstrations against the suppression of Azeri-language schools, hoping to use the U.N.’s International Mother Language Day (February 21) to publicize their cause. The planned protests failed to materialize. According to the South Azerbaijan website, “Repression and fear seem to be the main factors in preventing this year’s International Mother Language Day demonstration.”

In 2006, neither fear nor repression prevented massive ethnic protests from engulfing the Azeri region of Iran. Unrest was sparked by the printing of a comic sketch in a national magazine that was deemed insulting to the Azeri people and their language: in the cartoon, aimed at children, a boy says several words meaning “cockroach” in Persian, and the cockroach sitting across the table responds by asking “what?” in Azeri (with all words spelled in Roman letters).

In the resulting Iran newspaper cockroach cartoon controversy, demonstrations turned to riots and Iranian security came down hard. According to official sources, 330 protestors were arrested and four were killed.

Despite the uproar, the cartoon itself did not appear to be designed to insult the Azeri people. The cartoonist, an Azeri himself, was apparently poking fun cleverly at the “dialogue between civilizations” campaign of the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. The fact that a seemingly innocuous cartoon generated such fast fury led Iranian nationalists to deduce foreign incitement. Some suspected the involvement of “Pan-Turkists,” adherents of a mostly defunct movement seeking to politically unite all Turkic speaking people. Naturally, suspicion also fell on the United States, which is habitually seen as scheming to destabilize Iran, in part by maintaining intelligence connections with Iranian Azeri separatist intellectuals. Concerns over U.S. intentions were to mount with the subsequent publication of Ralph Peters’ map of a reimagined Middle East (see next Monday’s post).

The Iranian government shut down the magazine in which the cartoon was published, and arrested the artist, Mana Neyestani. He was subsequently charged with “publishing provocative materials and fomenting discord.

Iranian Azerbaijan and the Cartoon Cockroach Controversy Read More »

Western Sahara, The United States Senate, and McDonald’s

On March 16, 2010, fifty-four U.S. senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Clinton urging the Obama administration to seek a resolution to the conflict in Western Sahara. They argued that the United States should accept Morocco’s annexation of the territory, provided that Morocco allows Western Sahara the autonomy that it promised in 2007. The letter, signed by 24 Republicans and 30 Democrats, represents one of the Senate’s few truly bipartisan maneuvers of recent years. In regard to regionally and ethnically based rebellions, both parties have generally favored negotiated autonomy and remained wary of independence. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Ussery lauds the letter as “an extraordinary event involving an important national security concern,” arguing that the senators hope to “resolve the conflict through the United Nations, bringing together the parties to achieve a compromise political settlement.” Not all experts agree on such a course. Stephen Zunes, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, describes the letter as “another assault on fundamental principles of international law.” If the United Nations agrees to the plan, he warns, it would set a dangerous precedent, endorsing for the first time “the expansion of a country’s territory by military force.”

The Western Sahara, a sizable but sparsely populated desert territory, was a Spanish colony until 1975. When Spain withdrew from its colonial holdings after the death of Francisco Franco, Morocco and Mauritania invaded the phosphate-rich region. Mauritania subsequently withdrew, but Morocco stayed, formally annexing the area. The indigenous inhabitants, the Sahrawi, resisted Moroccan rule, and soon formed an insurgent force called the Polisario Front that proclaimed its own state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Algeria has long allowed the Polisario Front to operate out of the Tindouf refugee camp in its western desert, near the Western Saharan border. Morocco battled the Polisario Front for years, eventually building a line of heavy fortifications along a sand berm to keep insurgents out of the core parts of the territory (see map). In 1991 the two parties signed a ceasefire, and the conflict has essentially been frozen ever since. The result on the ground is yet another case of divided sovereignty: Morocco controls the bulk of the Western Sahara, while the rebels have the virtually unpopulated eastern strip, as well as power over the Tindouf refugee camp in Algeria.

The international political community has in general regarded the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara as illegal. Currently, 81 countries recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as the legitimate government of the Western Sahara. As a result, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic occupies a seat in the African Union, while Morocco has been denied membership – the only African country that does not belong to the continental club. The United States has long taken an intermediate position, neither fully accepting Morocco’s annexation nor recognizing the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as the legitimate government. Fifty-four US senators now want to end this ambivalence.

While the U.S. government has remained neutral on the Western Sahara issue, the same cannot be said for the American cartographic community. World political maps produced in the United States almost always portray the Western Sahara as if it were an independent country rather than an occupied territory — much less as merely the southern part of Morocco. Such maps portray political geography not as it actually is, but as it would be if global legal norms were strictly followed. The standard political map of the world, in other words, is a normative document masquerading as a descriptive one.

Mapping Western Sahara as if it were an independent country can cause problems, including embarrassment and even lost profits. In 2008, McDonald’s included standard world maps in some of its happy meals distributed in Morocco. After the Moroccan government protested, McDonald’s Moroccan branch quickly recalled its meal packages, and issued the following statement: “The toys included a small map on which the borders were incorrectly drawn. We profoundly regret making this mistake and we apologize to our loyal customers and our fellow citizens.”

Western Sahara, The United States Senate, and McDonald’s Read More »

The Heterodox Zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heterodox Zone Read More »

Ethnic Issues in Iraq’s New Census

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnic Issues in Iraq’s New Census Read More »

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yemen: A Failing State?

Concerns that Yemen could become a failed state have recently mounted. The country has a weak central government, faces separate rebellions in the north and south, and contains a considerable al Qaeda contingent. The northern rebellion attracts most international attention, as it has spilled across the border into Saudi Arabia, provoking harsh Saudi reprisals. On December 25, 2009, Yemeni lawmaker Yahya al-Houthi claimed that Saudi Arabian warplanes were employing internationally banned weapons in attacks on villages in northern Yemen, resulting in massive civilian casualties.

This conflict, usually called the Houthi rebellion or the Sa’ada Emergency, is related to the distinctive form of Shia (or Shi’ite) Islam, Zaidi (or Zaidiyya), practiced in the region. Zaidis (sometimes called Fiver Shia Muslims) constitute over 40 percent of the population of Yemen, and until 1962 the Zaidi Imams actually held political power in northern Yemen. Sunni Islam, however, now holds political sway in the country at large – to the extent that Yemen functions as a unified state.

Zaidi Islam, general area outlined in blue

Saudi hostility stems in part from the fact that the border separating it from Yemen does not correspond with cultural divisions. Up to one million Zaidis reside in the mountainous reaches of the ‘Asir province of southwestern Saudi Arabia, where they face discrimination from the resolutely Sunni government. In ‘Asir, Yemeni Arabic dialects are widely spoken, and farming and other day-to-day practices are much more similar to those found in northern Yemen than to those elsewhere in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government only fully gained control of ‘Asir from the Zaidi Imam in 1934, and some evidence suggests that separatist sentiments remain entrenched.

Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels, which may be true, even though the Zaidi version of Shia Islam is markedly different from the Twelver sect of Shia Islam found in Iran. More problematic for Saudi Arabia in the long run is the fact that most of its people living in its Gulf coastal area – the site of its major oil reserves – are Twelver Shias. But that is a topic for another post.

Yemen: A Failing State? Read More »