Iraqi Census

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?

Geocurrentcast Episode #6- Iraq, January 2010 is proud to present the latest installation in our ongoing Geocurrentcast series of video geography lectures.

This lecture provides a thorough review of regional geopolitics in Iraq, the upcoming census, new developments in the US campaign, and a detailed history of Iraq through today. This is a must watch for anyone interested in the intricacies of the country’s delicate ethnic geography.

Click to watch or download Geocurrentcast Episode 6: Iraq in 2010.

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.