Friday, September 13, 2013

Borders and history

In another edition of how we got into this mess, Nick Danforth, a doctoral candidate in Turkish history at Georgetown writes for the Atlantic about Syria's borders. He begins by pointing out that it's easy to blame Syria's troubles for arbitrarily-drawn borders, then writes:

There's plenty to criticize about the legacy of colonialism, but dwelling on colonial borders only increases the risk that our future interventions in the region will further undermine its already fragile states.
The idea that better borders, drawn with careful attention to the region’s ethnic and religious diversity, would have spared the Middle East a century’s worth of violence is especially provocative at a moment when Western powers weigh the merits of intervention in the region. Unfortunately, this critique overstates how arbitrary today’s Middle East borders really are, overlooks how arbitrary every other border in the world is, implies that better borders were possible, and ignores the cynical imperial practices that actually did sow conflict in the region.
My emphasis there on every other border. It's a good essay and not a defense of colonialism or imperialism, but I especially like his discussions of borders.

He moves through borders around the world, including Europe, Africa, the Soviet Union, and more, then writes:
The fundamental problem was, and still is, that the world doesn’t have any authentic or natural borders, just waiting to be identified and transcribed onto a map. 
Borders are arbitrary.
Our collective fixation with the Middle East’s borders has, however, drawn attention away from the truly pernicious policy of divide-and-rule that the French and British used to sustain their power. In Syria, the French cultivated the previously disenfranchised Alawite minority as an ally against the Sunni majority. This involved recruiting and promoting Alawite soldiers in the territory’s colonial army, thereby fostering their sense of identity as Alawites and bringing them into conflict with local residents of other ethnicities. The French pursued the same policy with Maronite Christians in Lebanon, just as the Belgians did with Tutsis in Rwanda and the British did with Muslims in India, Turks in Cyprus and innumerable other groups elsewhere. 

The militarization of these ethnic and religious identities, rather than the failure of perfectly placed state borders to alleviate tension between them, explains much of violence in the Middle East today. Blaming imperialism is usually sound politics and good comedy. But in this case, focusing on bad borders risks taking perpetual identity-based violence as a given, resulting in policies that ultimately exacerbate the conflicts they aim to solve.
I am often interested in the way that commentators take ancient conflicts and impose history as a way of throwing up their hands - "They've been fighting for years! What can we do!" I think Danforth is implying something similar with his criticism of "taking perpetual identity-based violence as a given."