Robin Wright carves up the Middle East

This graphic ran in the New York Times a couple days ago with “analysis by Robin Wright” and purports to show how five countries in the Middle East could become fourteen.  Leaving aside that there is no real possibility of this happening, what to make of it?  The first thing I thought of when I saw that its prospective future countries had ridiculous names like Wahhabistan and Alewitestan was that this was an unimaginative riff on the famous Maira Kalman “New Yorkistan” cover for the New Yorker from December 2001.

But Robin Wright’s analysis, if it’s to be taken seriously, misses one of the salient facts about the region during the last fifty years: nation-states came late to the Middle East but they have taken hold with remarkable tenacity.  So Robin Wright simplistically carves up the Middle East along sectarian lines but the actual, lived experience of the Middle East is that external borders have survived quite a lot of pressure already.  Look at Lebanon: it fought a vicious civil war from 1975 to 1990 that, like Syria’s today, was about many things but ended up breaking down along sectarian lines – yet the country held together.  Fifteen years later, when mass demonstrations took place after Rafik Hariri was killed in 2005, there were by a great margin more Lebanese national flags flown than those of any sectarian group.  Iraq has been fighting a civil war for nearly a decade now, one that has gone on long after the US presence that unleashed it: still, the country holds.  With the exception, perhaps, of Libya, the Arab Spring revolutions were everywhere framed as a national rather than regional cause.  Indeed, the only ‘post carve-up’ border that has had any modern existence at all is the one between North and South Yemen: they united in 1990 but the South tried to secede in 1994; a civil war followed, the South lost, and there has been an uneasy unity ever since.

In a way, you can sense that Robin Wright knows this.  She carves up the region but does almost entirely within existing national borders.  So she has the Kurds and the Shia straddling Iraq and Syria; otherwise, no ethnic division spills over into a neighboring country.  If ethnic or sectarian identity is really so defining, this tidy division is implausible.

Ah well, it’s just a thought exercise.  No harm done, right?  Perhaps.  But for all the durability of national borders in the Middle East there is, almost everywhere, tremendous insecurity about them and, in particular, a fear — born of the colonial experience, no doubt, though sometimes fantastical now — that foreigners are perpetually scheming to carve up the region.  In this context, many will take Robin Wright’s analysis as prescriptive rather than descriptive, a revelation of high-level plans underway and not, as it is, a gimmick by an author to get herself into the Times.  Many, many years after Samuel Huntington published “The Clash of Civilizations?” in 1992-93, people in the Middle East would reference it, as European anti-Semites might “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” as if it were a strategy playbook describing what black hands were up to. There was a question mark, often missed, in Huntington’s title.  It was a guess, and not his best.  Wright’s guess is not her best either and its publication does us no favors.


Leave a Reply