Borderline views: The myth of the nation state in the Middle East

Prior to the invasion of Iraq almost 20 years ago, the Middle East was perceived by an ignorant world as a homogeneous Arab region.

Map of Middle East (photo credit: Courtesy)
Map of Middle East
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The media is full of obituaries for the nation state in the Middle East. One hundred years after the outbreak of World War I and the Sykes Picot Agreement which determined the framework for the re-division of the Middle East into states in place of the dismantled Ottoman Empire, these states appears to finally be falling apart. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Iraq and Syria, as Islamic State (IS) controls large swaths of land as well as towns straddling the boundaries between the two countries, with Lebanon and Jordan under immediate threat.
But there never were any real nation states in this region, if what we mean by a nation state is a state populated almost entirely by a single national group. For almost 100 years, the worlds’ ignorance of the ethnic realities of the Middle East, accompanied by maps and atlases which depict the states of the region separated from each other by borders, created an image of a European- style state system, about which we are about to become nostalgic even though it never existed in reality.
Prior to the invasion of Iraq almost 20 years ago, the Middle East was perceived by an ignorant world as a homogeneous Arab region. There was no knowledge of, or even in interest in (with the exception of a few knowledgeable reporters and ivory tower scholars) the complex internal differences within and between the states of the region.
Who was really aware that Syria was controlled by a small Alawite minority, consisting of no more than 10 percent of the country’s population? Or that the “state” of Lebanon was an artificial territorial construct created by the French mandate, based on the outcome of a bogus census, which ensured that this newly created state would be controlled by Maronite Christians, in a country where large Sunni, Shi’ite and Druse populations also desired power.
Or that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a really a country of three distinct ethnic regions, where the Shi’ites and the Kurds were forced to be part of a political system which was based on the oppressive rule of the Sunni minority? The one ethnic national group which occupied a clearly defined territory and around which it would have been quite logical to draw a boundary, the Kurds, never achieved national statehood, as their region was carved up between Iran, Iraq and Turkey as a result of the realpolitik considerations of the superpowers of the time. They have struggled for independence ever since and it is somewhat ironic that in the wake of the political changes and internal instability in Iraq in the post-Saddam Hussein era, just when the Kurds began to take control of their own destiny for the first time in almost a century, along has come IS and wrested major parts of their territory, including valuable oil-producing regions, away from them.
The concept of the nation state was a European idea, reaching its peak in the immediate aftermath of World War I, as the great European empires of the 18th and 19th centuries were finally disassembled. The same geopolitical principles which were applied to the re-territorialization of post-World War I Europe were applied to, and superimposed on, those parts of the Middle East which had been part of the Ottoman Empire.
It was a political and territorial system which bore little relation to the realities of the ethnic distributions of the population. Nor did it take into consideration the ways in which political power had been practiced among the regions’ populations until then – a distinctly non-European mode of political behavior. As time passed, and given the hegemony of the Western world within the international system, these states became accepted as part of the global system of power.
Those groups or tribes which had been fortunate enough to receive the reins of control from the European superpowers of the time, more often than not because of their assistance in wresting power away from the Ottoman Empire, ensured that they would retain that power for as long as possible. The result was a system of “nation” states and monarchies which bore no resemblance to the system which had been in operation for many centuries prior to that period.
Over time, the control of these states changed, through military coups rather than through the ballot box, but as long as they maintained a relatively stable relationship with the Western world, there was little external intervention or deeper understanding of the internal dynamics of the region.
The borders separating Iraq from Syria from Lebanon from Jordan are all artificial constructs from this period but have become ingrained quickly within our short historical memories. The borders have never really represented nations as such and, as contemporary events clearly demonstrate, are as fickle as are the dynamics of social and political ferment and change. The so called Arab Spring which, for most, has turned into a bitter and dark Arab Winter for most of the region’s population, has brought with it a political dynamic, forecast by none, which threatens the territorial foundations of the region that have been in place for the past hundred or so years.
Even in Europe, the concept of the nation state has been given greater credit than it deserves. There are few real nation states in the world given the fact that there are few states which do not have some significant minorities. Even here in Israel, the state may be defined in national terms as the Jewish state, but given the fact that no more than 70% to 80% percent of the population are Jewish (depending on how you define who is a Jew and assuming you do not include the occupied territories in the demographic numbers) it is not a nation state.
Nor are many of the Western European democracies as nationally “pure” as they like to make out. Major players, such as Spain or the UK, have large nationally diverse regions such as Catalonia, Basques, Scotland and Wales, which in a Europe of regions are increasingly demanding greater autonomy and even secession. Most European counties have witnessed a substantial change in the ethnic composition of their populations as they have opened up to migration from non-European countries. For as long as these countries succeed in maintaining a system of democracy within which multiculturalism and diversity were perceived as positive attributes, this did not endanger the basic political structure or stability of these states. But this is being questioned, as many of the new immigrant groups bring with them alternative political understandings of what a state is and how it should be controlled.
In the Middle East, where the state structure was no more than a recent imposition and where ethnic minorities (defined in demographic terms) ended up controlling the state through systems of oppression and force, it had to break down sooner or later. What is surprising is that it did not happen sooner. It has not yet been wholly dismantled, and the Western powers have decided, somewhat belatedly, to intervene and make one last attempt at propping up the “accepted” state structure against the new ethnic and religious insurgency. But it is far from clear that they will succeed this time round, and it would take a brave diplomat or academic to predict what a map of the region will look like just one year from now.
The author holds the chair of geopolitics and is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed in this article are his alone.