Saturday, September 16, 2006

Reinventing the Middle East ... and more

Hmmm... Ralph Peters has an interesting concept of what a future Middle East could look like. Among other things, he proposes new nations like an Arab Shia state, "Free Baluchistan," and "Greater Kurdistan," and the "Islamic Sacred State;" significantly enlarged Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and Yemen; and significantly shrunken Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Some of those things make sense, some don't.

Truthfully, I've thought along those lines, too. Being a map buff, I've played with maps of the tribes and languages in that area to craft an alternate Middle East, and it shares a few points with Peters. For example, I also came up with Kurdistan and Baluchistan, but his vision of a mega-Afghanistan makes no sense culturally. That nation even as it is today is a mess of peoples that don't function as a nation. It's Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Kyrgyz & other groups often don't share linguistic or cultural heritage. Some of them have significant numbers of their tribe in neighboring nations (namely, Pashtuns, who are also numerous in Pakistan, and Tajiks & Kyrgyz, who have their own countries), while others are seriously discriminated against (namely, the Hazara).

He leaves a rump Pakistan that has little cultural history at all -- the only reason Pakistan exists today is that it defined itself by its Muslim majority in the 1940s, after British India threw off London's yoke and Gandhi got assassinated. A real split based on cultural lines would eliminate Pakistan entirely, giving some (mostly the western regions) to other countries (above) and unifying the bulk of its people into what was, before and somewhat during British rule, a resurrected state of Punjab, which would include part of NW India.

Speaking of India, I think it's interesting that Peters only targets MUSLIM nations for dismemberment. Hindu India is the world's biggest polyglot nation, with literally hundreds of linguistic minorities and a history of being divided into many co-existing (and sometimes warring) nation-states. The nation's disunity stretches back millennia, to the days the first Indo-European tribes migrated from the north and settled in the Ganges valley, but left a large Dravidian population in the south.

To be sure, India has been unified numerous times in its history, but that unity was often a surface unity only, with urban areas (especially the Ganges Valley) accepting whatever the current imperial dynasty was but tribal areas (especially in the south) rejecting him. A great example is Ashoka's Empire, possibly the greatest Indian emperor. The top map is how his realm is typically depicted in historical atlases, but the bottom shows how puzzle-like it really was.

The fact that India is today a functioning democracy is largely despite those centrifugal pressures, but we still see them emerge at times. Today's most notable example is the Tamil Tiger revolt in Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese Buddhist majority is trying to prevent the Tamil Hindu minority from slicing off the nation's NE third. Those Tamils have a significant presence on the Indian mainland, being a large majority in the state that bears their name, Tamil Nadu.

In some respects, I think Peters' proposal is merely a reflection of the current trend away from big nation-states and towards more ethnically-homogenous entities. Although he's unfortunately correct when he says that 5,000 years of experience shows that ethnic cleaning works, as we've seen in the Balkans and Iraq, I don't think a resurrection of tribalism or regionalism HAS to involve mass murder, as the mostly peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia and the USSR proved.

In some cases, such breakups would probably be beneficial in the long run. Take Turkey: Why does Ankara WANT to keep the fractious Kurds in the country? Why not let them form their own nation and wash Turkish hands of the problems caused by the feuds with PKK & similar groups? The primary reason is probably a vestige of Turkish memory of imperial glory, since the Kurds are the last remnant of the dozens of nationalities the Ottoman Empire ruled for centuries. But the more practical reason I can think of is water -- the Kurdish population resides in the highlands that spawn the Tigris & Euphrates rivers, while most of Turkey itself is semi-desert. An independent Kurdistan would be a major regional player for that reason (not to mention oil wells near Kirkuk & Mosul).

At times, I think this concept should be extended to the US, too. As time goes by, it seems like the liberal, cosmopolitan Northeast and Pacific coasts seem to be sliding away from the conservative, more segregated South and central states in attitude, education, religiosity, dialect, and various other factors. Are we seeing the development of new cultures? Probably; every major state in history (except maybe China) has given birth to new societies rooted in the old one. Many of those spin-offs happened violently, either by invasion or revolution, but we can't afford that today.

Instead, maybe it's time for the people of various states and regions to consider whether their interests are truly best served by being part of a federal America, or whether democracy is best served by having several countries and maintaining friendly contact via modern communications technology and family ties, but not political ones. There's no reason the US couldn't be similar to Europe, with several independent nations linked together by economy, geography, shared interests, and more-or-less open borders to travel and commerce. I think smaller states enable people to watch over and participate in government more easily and are therefore able to be more genuinely small-d democratic. Since this is likely to happen in time anyway, we might as well manage it consciously so as to ensure as much as possible that the outcome is peaceful and orderly. Otherwise, history shows it's very likely to be bloody and chaotic.

Thanks to Kelly at Singularity for the tip.

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Blogger kelley b. said...

You're very welcome!

3/31/2007 10:05 PM  

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