Middle East Dysfunction

[Sent March 23, 2015]

Hello and happy Monday!


Recently, I’ve heard a lot of people blaming the nightmare factory that is today’s Middle East on arbitrary European border-drawing (and, weirdly, “Sykes-Picot” has become a jihadist rallying cry). While European colonialism is guilty of many sins, I really don’t think this is one of them. After World War I, France and Britain took the corpse of the Ottoman Empire and divided it up. The theory goes that they drew a series of arbitrary borders that ignited ethnic tensions, and that they should have created more homogeneous states. Well, here’s an ethnic map of what they were dealing with. Faced with this almost inconceivable heterogeneity, Britain and France mostly just used the old Ottoman province borders. The only actually artificial state they created, Jordan, turned out to be the most stable Arab polity of the 20th century. So I don’t buy that argument. It seems to me that the principal cause of Mid-East dysfunction is the fact that the peoples of the region have never had a chance to grow: to divide themselves, fight wars, and form real, battle-tested states and borders.

1918 saw the end of World War I, in which the Ottoman Empire happened to choose the losing side. Its Caliph-Sultans had controlled the Middle East for hundreds of years (map). This means that from roughly the fifteenth up to the twentieth century, while the peoples of Europe were fighting war after war (often against the Ottomans), consolidating state power, assimilating or purging religious and ethnic minorities, and rising above tribal bonds to form strong, modern governments, the peoples of the Middle East were not. This incredibly religiously and ethnically diverse region didn’t get a chance to participate in the Great Sorting that created the modern nation-state: they were too busy being crushed under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire. Much has been made in recent scholarship of the Empire’s ‘toleration’ of ethnic and religious minorities, but in terms of basic facts this was an absolute monarchy that pounded everyone who wasn’t a Turkish Sunni into submission, occasionally taking a dip in the genocide pool when the Armenians or Greeks or Kurds got too inconvenient. The region was never allowed to develop politically or socially, and without the centuries of warfare it takes to establish nationalities and borders, loyalties remained with tribe, religion, and clan.

The Europeans just picked up where the Sultans left off. After World War I, Britain and France divided up the Ottoman Empire, grabbed the parts they wanted, and installed puppet regimes (map). The Ottomans, being Sunnis, had given preferential treatment to their Sunni subjects. The other groups, naturally, hated the local Sunnis who did the Sultan’s bidding, and when the Europeans took power they chose to favor these formerly marginalized minorities. ‘Divide and rule’ maintained control: by empowering one tribe, the Ottomans and then the Europeans focused a country’s resentment against itself instead of against the colonizers, hardening ethnic divisions and preventing the population from uniting. This would have terrible effects after independence.

In what is now Syria, for example, the French pushed aside the majority Sunni ruling class and decided to support the Alawites. This small tribe which had been violently repressed for centuries suddenly found that they could join the army, rise through the ranks, and wield real power over their Sunni former masters. In the storm of factional conflict following the departure of the French in 1946 the heavily-Alawite army was able to seize power, and from 1970 right up to Bashar Al-Assad the Alawites have ruled over the Sunni majority with an iron fist. The current civil war is what happened when the Sunnis decided to try and retake the country.

After World War II the Europeans left too, and all of a sudden the Middle East was independent. During the Cold War the region, with such fragile institutions and such deep sectarian divides (exacerbated by a series of colonial rulers), was dominated by dictators or monarchies propped up, of course, by either the U.S. or the Soviets. And, since the states of the Middle East have gained independence there have been warsSo many wars. But I think that’s normal. These countries have been independent for less than a hundred years; it took Europe centuries of vicious internecine conflict to create the nation-states that exist today. The history of France, for example, is a story of gradually increasing state centralization pushed by endless warfare, ethnic cleansing and assimilation, and the extermination of religious minorities. Why is the Middle East so screwed up? My answer is because they haven’t gotten the chance to fight themselves out of it.

In other news, Joe Biden incites a race war, the nation prepares itself for President Ted Cruz, California had a good run at least, Bibi Netanyahu endorses apartheid, and this one might be a little on the nose, guys.

Interesting Stuff

1. Clancy Martin, “We Buy Broken Gold” in Lapham’s Quarterly.

Lovely personal reflection on the gold-scamming industry from the ’70s up to today.

2. Yuval Noah Harari, “The Theatre of Terror” in the Guardian.

Terrorism and security as stage productions. Especially good for the last bit about the implications of WMD terrorism.

3. Scott Carrier, “The FInal Rhapsody of Charles Bowden” in Mother Jones.

Intense, unsettling portrait of a guy who spoke truth to power.

4. Mark Lilla, “Slouching Towards Mecca” in The New York Review of Books.

Courtesy of Mr. Lionel Barrow. I know we did Lilla on France last week but this is just a great book review. France, Muslims, the future.

5. Tom McKay, “Princeton Concludes What Kind of Government America Really Has, and It’s Not a Democracy” on Mic.com.

Courtesy of Mr. Chung Peng. Pretty self-explanatory. A couple holy-shit moments in here, but at least now we have hard numbers to back up what we already knew.


1. Hurray For The Riff Raff, “Look Out Mama” for Waverly Sessions.

2. J. Roddy Walston with Shovels and Rope, “Boys Can Never Tell” in the backyard.

3. Avett Brothers, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” at Virginia Tech.


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