Notes on the lack of ethnic nation states in MidEast

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Today I wrote a column looking at the history of ethnic nation states in the Middle East.  My column began by looking at a recent map suggesting a new Turkmen state could emerge. “The ‘Turkmen state’ is a fantasy that will never come about. It is like other fantasies for pure ethnic-religious states in the region.” The map was on Facebook but also here:

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This map is as interesting as other fantasies about re-arranging the state system in the region, here is another I found here :

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To explore my argument I reference John Bolton’s argument for a new Sunni state (as if there are not enough already). I went back to Sykes-Picot of 1916

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And compared it with the map T.E. Lawrence drew in 1918.

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There is a recurring myth that Sykes-Picot is the root of the problems in the Middle East.  ISIS, despite ample evidence of its true nature of mass murder and genocide, was just “rebelling” against the bad colonial map, so some claim. Others have argued differently. Al-Jazeera had presented ISIS “Sunni guerillas” this way in a program last year. Others said the same.

Ignoring the case of the Berbers of North Africa, I looked at the French in Syria and the creation of Lebanon, the Hatay province and the fear Alawites expressed in 1930s over Sunni Muslim domination. There is a very interesting article on this.  But despite the talk of how “prescient” Suleyman Assad was, the fact is his son pursued the direct opposite policy, namely embracing pan-Arabism and becoming the main “anti-imperial resistance” against “Zionism”.  Talk of the new “ethnic” problems in the borderlands of Syria is interesting, but it will have no lasting impact in the emergence of a new state system. When the Turks annexed Hatay province its minorities were expelled, because Turkey, unlike the Arab League states, is actually an ethnocracy.  The mosaic of these provinces, like that of the Golan once when Circassians and Druze and others were pluralities in places, has never resulted in an ethnic mini-state.

This is partly because of demographic overlap, but often because despite various rebellions they have not created such states.  There was fear Lebanon would become a “western” colonial outpost and side with Israel, but it made sure in the 1940s to make the opposite choice.  It accepted the Arab Sunni orbit, as Assad in Syria did.

The article also notes the role Western elites played in favoring Sunni hegemony, an issue being challenged now by Iran’s new Shia hegemony in the region.  Except for Kurdistan, a new ethnic national polity will not emerge.

Although it is true that the British, and particularly Lawrence, favored the whole region being under the rule of one Arab family from Mecca (they didn’t even bother to imagine the Shia or Arab intellectual classes would object), some toyed with the concept of little ethnic cantons.  This was classic British policy.  On the one hand assigning random “royals” to run far away states (how did Yugoslavia get a “royal” family), and on the other crafting little cantons, such as they did with the partition of Bengal (and later India and Palestine).  When they were in charge in Palestine, their foremost security expert Charles Tegart once suggested jokingly carving up the country into dozens of little cantons, including a part for Assyrians and an area for Copts.  He understood the true nature of ethnic-state fantasies in the Middle East, perhaps his map is the closest they ever came to emerging.

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One response to “Notes on the lack of ethnic nation states in MidEast

  1. I’m not sure if I understand your definition of a ‘state’ or ‘ethnic state’.
    My inclination is to rebel at the idea of an ‘ethnic state’ or even more so a ‘religious state’. But the notion of a state perhaps identified initially by the dominant ethic group but not RULED by the group, makes sense, BUT ONLY within existing states/countries. It would be much like the province of Quebec (distinct language and culture) in Canada or California (distinct culture) in the USA. Iraq and Syria seems to be moving in that direction, whether they like it or not.

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