The Middle East's New Map

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The most appropriate image of the present-day Middle East is the medieval map, which, in the words of the late historian Albert Hourani, depicts an age when "frontiers were not clearly and precisely delimited" and the influence of a regime was not uniform "within a fixed and generally recognized area," but, rather, grew weaker with distance as it radiated outward from an urban core. Legal borders, where the power of one state suddenly ended and that of another suddenly began, were rare. And thus, Hourani was not the only scholar to point this out.

We are back to a world of vague and overlapping shadows of influence. Shia and Sunnis in northern Lebanon cross the border into Syria and kill each other, then retreat back into Lebanon. Indeed, the military situations in Lebanon and Syria are quickly fusing. The al Assad regime in Damascus projects power not unto the legal borders of Syria but mainly along parts of the Sunni-dominated Homs-Hama corridor and also on the Mediterranean coast between Latakia and Tartus, where the regime's Alawite compatriots are concentrated. Beyond that there are literally hundreds of small rebel groupings and half-dozen major ones, divided by their own philosophical and Islamist orientations and those of their foreign patrons. Then there are the half-dozen or so Kurdish factions controlling parts of northern and northeastern Syria. As for the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, there are two main Kurdish groups that are basically sovereign in different sectors. Significant Sunni areas of Iraq, particularly in sprawling Anbar between the Euphrates River and the Syrian border, are in varying degrees independently governed or not governed at all. Even Shiite central and southern Iraq is not completely controlled by the Shia-dominated Baghdad regime, owing to a half-dozen parties that in some cases exercise a degree of sovereignty.

Rather than a temporary situation, this is one that can last for many years. For example, Bashar al Assad's regime need not necessarily crumble immediately but may survive indefinitely as a frail statelet, supported as it is by Russian arms arriving via the Mediterranean and from Iran across the weakly governed Iraqi desert.

Gone is the world of the Ottoman Empire, in which there were relatively few battles for territory among the various tribes and ethnic and sectarian groups, because the Sultan in Istanbul exercised overarching (albeit variable) sovereignty between the mountains of Lebanon and the plateau of Iran. Gone is the colonial era when the British and French exercised sovereignty from the capital cities unto the fixed legal borders of newly constituted mandated states and territories. Gone is the post-colonial era when tyrants like Hafez al Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq ran police states within the same fixed borders erected by the British and French. Further down the road, the only states left that wield real sovereignty between the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and Iranian plateau could be Israel and Iran.

In a cartographic sense then, we are back to medievalism, but without the storied cultural and intellectual benefits that the Middle Ages conferred upon the Arab world. A thousand years ago, what is now known as Iraq was for significant periods under the sway of Iran; but more to the point, Baghdad and Damascus constituted different dynastic poles of pulsating influence that did not always configure with specific frontiers and were contested by Abbasids, Seljuks, Safavids and Ottomans. Of course, the heartlands of Syria and Iraq did, in fact, constitute different agricultural and henceforth different political regions, even as the line between them could be extremely fluid -- as were the distinctions between Turkey and Iran. Places in what is today northern Iraq were linked by caravan routes to Syria, even as places in northern Syria were linked by caravan routes to Iraq. As it concerns the map, subtlety ruled in a positive sense, as it does in a negative sense today.

The key to the maintenance of political stability for much of the Middle East's history was the concept (associated with Ibn Khaldun) of the asabiyah, or solidarity group, often though not exclusively based on blood relations such as clans and tribes. The stability of regimes, whether relatively enlightened ones like in the golden age of Abbasid Baghdad under Harun al-Rashid or suffocating and tyrannical ones like Saddam's in the same city 1,200 years later, was based on an asabiyah -- local emirs and Persians in the former case and Sunni tribes in the north-central town of Tikrit in the latter. The asabiyah had its interests tied up with the ruler and therefore was willing to defend such rule against all comers. It was not strictly democratic, but it did often signify broad-based support, and even when it did not it nevertheless offered the benefit of stability. And one of the ways it did that was to limit the number of people in the state or empire concerned with politics: Outside of the asabiyah, people often lowered their heads and did not question the regime.

Khaldun, the 14th century Tunisian philosopher and historian, wrote about how one asabiyah was periodically replaced by another, leading to a new regime or dynasty. His point was that dynasties were founded by desert nomads who established settlements, which, as these settlements became secure, led to luxurious living, in turn leading to challenges from new groups of outsiders who would eventually topple the elite and establish a new dynasty. Thus, did Middle Eastern history progress.

Throughout the post-colonial age, periodic coups in Syria and Iraq signaled the replacement of one asabiyah with another, even if Khaldun's formulation of the infusion of nomads no longer applied. What kept regime's like Hafez al Assad's and Saddam Hussein's in power for so long was, in part, security technology -- methods of torture and electronic surveillance -- brought by the East Germans during the Cold War. Nowadays, a new evolution of technology -- the Internet, cellphones and social media -- has complicated the very concept of the asabiyah by creating mass public opinion. The asabiyah suggests exclusivity: a group more important than others, or more important than the society at large. But the mass society enabled and empowered by technology supersedes this.

Or does it? Democracy requires, after a fashion, its own asabiyahs or interest groups, which form the building blocks of political parties that, in turn, govern. But in an empowered mass society, with millions of sovereign voices, this requires a new and more sophisticated category of organization which traditional cultures have been largely unfamiliar with. Remember, it took Europeans hundreds of years to evolve the social, economic and cultural underpinnings necessary for stable democracy. To an extent, the Arab world, by doing away with asabiyahs that operated best inside the context of authoritarian societies, is starting history all over again.

Democracy only in a narrow sense means toppling dictators and holding elections. What it really means is a level of development that allows for asabiyahs to compete on the basis of non-lethal categories: this economic tendency versus that one, rather than this ethnic or sectarian group -- or this clan or tribe -- versus that one. For the moment, it is the latter, more lethal categories that determine politics across much of the Levant: so that the combination of blood, belief and technology have given us a neo-medieval map that, rather than one of flourishing civilizations, is -- in the cases of Syria and Iraq -- one of clans, gangs and chaos.

Freedom in the modern age, without "social knowledge and discipline," is a "dance of death," according to University of Toronto historian Modris Eksteins. The result tempts anarchy. As the 11th-12th century Muslim jurist and theologian Al-Ghazali said, "the tyranny of a sultan for a hundred years causes less damage than one year's tyranny exercised by the subjects against one another."

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