Thursday, May 24, 2012

Americans have short memories: the maps that reveal the world

Sean Ewart

There exists a revealing map of what we today know as the United States. The map details the same landmass whereupon the modern 50 states sit, but shows a remarkably different geopolitical reality: the territories of native tribes. We are all (mostly) aware that even as recently as 200 years ago most of the continent was in the possession of native tribes and chiefdoms. Rewind the tape a few hundred years and they ruled the entire “New World.” The easy to miss reality of politics, which this map helps drive home, is that a lifetime’s observation is hardly enough to come to grips with the entirety of any given situation. We need historical context. In order to digest, for instance, the modern interplay between tribal governments and state and federal governments, we need to look at the historical forces driving the current conflict. 

What the United States looked like before the European immigration.
Americans have short memories. The vast majority of people currently living in the Americas are descended from immigrants who arrived here less than 500 years ago. Our ancestors replaced most of the natives – and those who survived did so in small enough numbers as to provide little resistance to whatever desires our forefathers had. Whatever the consequences this fact of history has inflicted upon today’s inhabitants of the New World, it has also shaped our outlook on larger, global problems. We look at countries like Egypt and Libya as if they are historical monoliths that have always been and always will be – like New York or California. We imagine countries like Pakistan or Iraq are unified nation states the way the United States or Canada are. When we hear there is a troubled, semi-autonomous region in the mountains of Afghanistan, we think of the riotous Appalachian minor communities or small bans of polygamous Mormons living in the Utah desert. 

The ethnic layout of Afghanistan. Maps like these can be found for every country, state, and locality in the world.

However, the modern world is carved into geopolitical shapes that are, more often than not, nearly unrelated to the people groups within them. Italy may well be mostly composed of Italians (now), but Iraq, for instance, is not made up of Iraqis. There are Kurds in the north, Sunni Arabs in the center, and Shia Arabs in the south, with a mixture of tribal identities and smaller sects layered throughout all of whom value other identities before their Iraqi one. Only government officials and UN ambassadors from countries like Iraq really believe their state is anything more than an awkward union. In fact, the majority of the Middle East was composed of an entirely different set of national lines even as recently as 80 years ago. Moreover, what these lines mean differ from state to state. Some are dictatorial regimes held together by the forces of international convenience (think of Qaddafi's Libya). Others are dynastic kingdoms (like the Emirates) or religious precincts ruled by an elite few by the grace of temporal financial success and the whims of international relations (Iran). In other words, while the United States may well be a collection of many, distinct peoples, they identify as Americans first. Iraqi Kurds only identify as Iraqis as it suits their interests (in this case oil exploration and exportation). Iraqi Sunnis and Shias kill each other over events that took place in the 7th century CE. The first mistake Americans make when observing international politics is to assume the entire world has as short a memory as they – as if 1776 is about as far back as anyone can remember. 

The real Iraq. It should be noted that these identities don't end at the border.
Just looking at the ethnic and cultural history of the Middle East and North Africa is an enlightening experience. Imagine if the tribal map of the historical United States had been unceremoniously sliced up into the current 50 states and then, as if by divine providence, expected to coalesce into functioning nation states. In reality, that is exactly what happened in both the Middle East and Africa, in the early 20th century and the mid 19th century respectively. This isn't to say that indigenous empires never carved up people groups; the use of oppressive power has been a staple throughout all human civilizations. But the today's lines were in fact drawn by Americans and Europeans. We really did create the state of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, etc. We partitioned Palestine and Jordan. We supported, and continue to support, the dictatorial regimes that we believed to be more stable than, well, whatever the people wanted. In other words, we may well be a nation of immigrants with short memories, but we are dealing with a world full of original, or at least ancient, inhabitants with deep historical bonds to each other and their territories. When we play politics on the global level, we really need to do a better job of knowing who we are dealing with.

How the Middle East is actually cut up. Notice that modern geopolitical boundaries have very little to do with cultural or ethnic groups.
This isn't to say nations cannot be built. It's happened countless time throughout history. But as America is learning from the Iraqi experiment, national unity is not something that can be forged at gun point. Peace can be protected but not forced. Even the modern European Union is telling of the most fundamental law of human cohesion: cooperation is only obtainable when everyone has something to gain. These ethno-geographic maps show, explicitly, that humanity is composed of a multitude of differences that need to be, if not embraced, at least understood as we slowly integrate into a global civilization.

1 comment:

  1. I fully agree with your final two sentences. But feel its necessary to point out that the map that shows "how the Middle East is actually cut up" is not very least not for the purpose that I think you are referring to. A much better map can be found here:

    (and even this one has some problems)

    The map that you posted shows historic (medieval and ancient) regions of the Islamic world...the most obvious example being the label of the "Two Iraqs" (the "other Iraq" being Iraq e Ajam , an old Arabic term for Iran's central region). While some of the regions it shows still correspond to local cultural identities (such as Khorasan), others such as Khorezm and Soghd have disappeared completely. The map really has very little to do with existing cultural identities in the Middle East.