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9 questions about the Israel-Palestine conflict you were too embarrassed to ask

Everyone has heard of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Everyone knows it’s bad, that it’s been going on for a long time, and that there is a lot of hatred on both sides.

But you may find yourself less clear on the hows and the whys of the conflict. Why, for example, did Israel begin invading the Palestinian territory of Gaza on Thursday, after 10 days of air strikes that killed at least 235 Palestinians, many of them civilians?

Why is the militant Palestinian group Hamas firing home-made rockets into civilian neighborhoods in Israel?

How did this latest round of violence start in the first place — and why do they hate one another at all?

What follows are the most basic answers to your most basic questions.

Giant, neon-lit disclaimer: these issues are complicated and contentious, and this is not an exhaustive or definitive account of Israel-Palestine’s history or the conflict today. But it’s a place to start. (Nothing complicated: Zionists occupied the land and chased out the inhabitants)

1) What are Israel and Palestine?

That sounds like a very basic question but, in a sense, it’s at the center of the conflict.

46188929_isr_w_bank_gaza_416mapIsrael is an officially Jewish country located in the Middle East. Palestine is a set of two physically separate, ethnically Arab and mostly Muslim territories alongside Israel: the West Bank, named for the western shore of the Jordan River, and Gaza.

Those territories are not independent (more on this later). All together, Israel and the Palestinian territories are about as populous as Illinois and about half its size.

Officially, there is no internationally recognized line between Israel and Palestine; the borders are considered to be disputed, and have been for decades.  (The UN demarcation lines of 1947 were drawn clearly)

So is the status of Palestine: some countries consider Palestine to be an independent state, while others (like the US) consider Palestine to be territories under Israeli occupation.

Both Israelis and Palestinians have claims to the land going back centuries, but the present-day states are relatively new.

2) Why are Israelis and Palestinians fighting?

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Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinian stone throwers at a checkpoint outside Jerusalem (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

This is not, despite what you may have heard, primarily about religion. On the surface at least, it’s very simple: the conflict is over who gets what land and how it is controlled. In execution, though, that gets into a lot of really thorny issues, like: Where are the borders? Can Palestinian refugees return to their former homes in present-day Israel? More on these later.

The decades-long process of resolving that conflict has created another, overlapping conflict: managing the very unpleasant Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, in which Israel has put the Palestinians under suffocating military occupation and Palestinian militant groups terrorize Israelis.

BOTH SIDES HAVE SQUANDERED PEACE AND PERPETUATED CONFLICT, BUT PALESTINIANS TODAY BEAR MOST OF THE SUFFERING” (Said who again?

Those two dimensions of the conflict are made even worse by the long, bitter, violent history between these two peoples. It’s not just that there is lots of resentment and distrust; Israelis and Palestinians have such widely divergent narratives of the last 70-plus years, of what has happened and why, that even reconciling their two realities is extremely difficult. All of this makes it easier for extremists, who oppose any compromise and want to destroy or subjugate the other site entirely, to control the conversation and derail the peace process.

The peace process, by the way, has been going on for decades, but it hasn’t looked at all hopeful since the breakthrough 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords produced a glimmer of hope that has since dissipated. The conflict has settled into a terrible cycle and peace looks less possible all the time.

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Something you often hear is that “both sides” are to blame for perpetuating the conflict, and there’s plenty of truth to that. There has always been and remains plenty of culpability to go around, plenty of individuals and groups on both sides that squandered peace and perpetuated conflict many times over. Still, perhaps the most essential truth of the Israel-Palestine conflict today is that the conflict predominantly matters for the human suffering it causes. And while Israelis certainly suffer deeply and in great numbers, the vast majority of the conflict’s toll is incurred by Palestinian civilians. Just above, as one metric of that, are the Israeli and Palestinian conflict-related deaths every month since late 2000.

3) How did this conflict start in the first place?

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(Left map: Passia; center and right maps: Philippe Rekacewicz / Le Monde Diplomatique)

The conflict has been going on since the early 1900s, when the mostly-Arab, mostly-Muslim region was part of the Ottoman Empire and, starting in 1917, a “mandate” run by the British Empire. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were moving into the area, as part of a movement called Zionism among mostly European Jews to escape persecution and establish their own state in their ancestral homeland. (Later, large numbers of Middle Eastern Jews also moved to Israel, either to escape anti-Semitic violence or because they were forcibly expelled.)

Communal violence between Jews and Arabs in British Palestine began spiraling out of control. In 1947, the United Nations approved a plan to divide British Palestine into two mostly independent countries, one for Jews called Israel and one for Arabs called Palestine. Jerusalem, holy city for Jews and Muslims, was to be a special international zone.

The plan was never implemented. Arab leaders in the region saw it as European colonial theft and, in 1948, invaded to keep Palestine unified. The Israeli forces won the 1948 war, but they pushed well beyond the UN-designated borders to claim land that was to have been part of Palestine, including the western half of Jerusalem. They also uprooted and expelled entire Palestinian communities, creating about 700,000 refugees, whose descendants now number 7 million and are still considered refugees.

The 1948 war ended with Israel roughly controlling the territory that you will see marked on today’s maps as “Israel”; everything except for the West Bank and Gaza, which is where most Palestinian fled to (many also ended up in refugee camps in neighboring countries) and are today considered the Palestinian territories. The borders between Israel and Palestine have been disputed and fought over ever since. So has the status of those Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

That’s the first major dimension of the conflict: reconciling the division that opened in 1948. The second began in 1967, when Israel put those two Palestinian territories under military occupation.

4) Why is Israel occupying the Palestinian territories?

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A Palestinian boy next to the Israeli wall around the town of Qalqilya (David Silverman/Getty Images)

This is a hugely important part of the conflict today, especially for Palestinians.

Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began in 1967. Up to that point, Gaza had been (more or less) controlled by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan. But in 1967 there was another war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, during which Israel occupied the two Palestinian territories. (Israel also took control of Syria’s Golan Heights, which it annexed in 1981, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which it returned to Egypt in 1982.)

Israeli forces have occupied and controlled the West Bank ever since. It withdrew its occupying troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but maintains a full blockade of the territory, which has turned Gaza into what human rights organizations sometimes call an “open-air prison” and has pushed the unemployment rate up to 40 percent.

Settlements_westbank-gaza_01_420297d041Israel says the occupation is necessary for security given its tiny size: to protect Israelis from Palestinian attacks and to provide a buffer from foreign invasions. But that does not explain the settlers.

Settlers are Israelis who move into the West Bank. They are widely considered to violate international law, which forbids an occupying force from moving its citizens into occupied territory. Many of the 500,000 settlers are just looking for cheap housing; most live within a few miles of the Israeli border, often in the around surrounding Jerusalem.

Others move deep into the West Bank to claim land for Jews, out of religious fervor and/or a desire to see more or all of the West Bank absorbed into Israel. While Israel officially forbids this and often evicts these settlers, many are still able to take root.

In the short term, settlers of all forms make life for Palestinians even more difficult, by forcing the Israeli government to guard them with walls or soldiers that further constrain Palestinians. In the long term, the settlers create what are sometimes called “facts on the ground”: Israeli communities that blur the borders and expand land that Israel could claim for itself in any eventual peace deal.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank is all-consuming for the Palestinians who live there, constrained by Israeli checkpoints and 20-foot walls, subject to an Israeli military justice system in which on average two children are arrested every day, stuck with an economy stifled by strict Israeli border control, and countless other indignities large and small.

5) Can we take a quick music break?

Music breaks like this are usually an opportunity to step back and appreciate the aspects of a people and culture beyond the conflict that has put them in the news. And it’s true that there is much more to Israelis and Palestinians than their conflict. But music has also been a really important medium by which Israelis and Palestinians deal with and think about the conflict. The degree to which the conflict has seeped into Israel-Palestinian music is a sign of how deeply and pervasively it effects Israelis and Palestinians.

Above, from the wealth of Palestinian hip-hop is the group DAM, whose name is both an acronym for Da Arabian MCs and the Arabic verb for “to last forever.” The group has been around since the late 1990s and are from the Israeli city of Lod, Israeli citizens who are part of the country’s Arab minority. The Arab Israeli experience, typically one of solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and a sense that Arab-Israelis are far from equal in the Jewish state, comes through in their music, which is highly political and deals with themes of disenfranchisement and dispossession in the great tradition of American hip-hop.

Christiane Amanpour interviewed DAM about their music last year. Above is their song “I Don’t Have Freedom,” full English lyrics of which are here, from their 2007 album Dedication. Sample line: “We’ve been like this more than 50 years / Living as prisoners behind the bars of paragraphs /Of agreements that change nothing.”

 

Now here is a sample of Israel’s wonderful jazz scene, one of the best in the world, from the bassist and band leader Avishai Cohen. Cohen is best known in the US for his celebrated 2006 instrumental album Continuo, but let’s instead listen to the song “El Hatzipor” from 2009’s Aurora.

The lyrics are from an 1892 poem of the same name, meaning “To the Bird,” by the Ukrainian Jewish poet Hayim Nahman Bialik. The poem (translated here) expresses the hopeful yearning among early European Zionists like Bialik to escape persecution in Europe and find salvation in the holy land; that it still resonates among Israelis over 100 years later is a reminder of both the tremendous hopes invested in the dream of a Jewish state, and perhaps the sense that this dream is still not secure.

6) Why is there fighting today between Israel and Gaza?

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A Palestinian man looks over the site of an Israeli air strike in Gaza (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

On the surface, this is just the latest round of fighting in 27 years of war between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that formed in 1987 seeks Israel’s destruction and is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization for its attacks targeting civilians — and which since 2006 has ruled Gaza. Israeli forces periodically attack Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza, typically with air strikes but in 2006 and 2009 with ground invasions.

ONLY HAMAS DELIBERATELY TARGETS CIVILIANS, BUT MOST ARE STILL PALESTINIANS KILLED BY ISRAELI STRIKES

The latest round of fighting was sparked when members of Hamas in the West Bank murdered three Israeli youths who were studying there on June 10. Though the Hamas members appear to have acted without approval from their leadership, which nonetheless praised the attack, Israel responded by arresting large numbers of Hamas personnel in the West Bank and with air strikes against the group in Gaza.

After some Israeli extremists murdered a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem and Israeli security forces cracked down on protests, compounding Palestinian outrage, Hamas and other Gaza groups launched dozens of rockets into Israel, which responded with many more air strikes. So far the fighting has killed one Israeli and 230 Palestinians; two UN agencies have separately estimated that 70-plus percent of the fatalities are civilians. On Thursday, July 17, Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza, which Israel says is to shut down tunnels that Hamas could use to cross into Israel.

That get backs to that essential truth about the conflict today: Palestinian civilians endure the brunt of it. While Israel targets militants and Hamas targets civilians, Israel’s disproportionate military strength and its willingness to target militants based in dense urban communities means that Palestinians civilians are far more likely to be killed than any other group.

But those are just the surface reasons; there’s a lot more going on here as well.

7) Why does this violence keep happening?

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Palestinian youth throw stones at an Israeli tank in 2003. (SAIF DAHLAH/AFP/Getty Images)

The simple version is that violence has become the status quo and that trying for peace is risky, so leaders on both ends seem to believe that managing the violence is preferable, while the Israeli and Palestinian publics show less and less interest in pressuring their leaders to take risks for peace.

Hamas’s commitment to terrorism and to Israel’s destruction lock Gazans into a conflict with Israel that can never be won and that produces little more than Palestinian civilian deaths. Israel’s blockade on Gaza, which strangles economic life there and punishes civilians, helps produce a climate that is hospitable to extremism, and allows Hamas to nurture a belief that even if Hamas may never win, at least refusing to put down their weapons is a form of liberation.

Many Palestinians in Gaza naturally compare Hamas to Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, who have emphasized peace and compromise and negotiations — only to have been rewarded with an Israeli military occupation that shows no sign of ending and ever-expanding settlements. This is not to endorse that logic, but it is not difficult to see why some Palestinians might conclude that violent “resistance” is preferable.

That sense of Palestinian hopelessness and distrust in Israel and the peace process has been a major contributor to violence in recent years. In the early 2000s, there was also a lot of fighting between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank. This was called the Second Intifada (uprising), and followed a less-violent Palestinian uprising against the occupation in the late 1980s.

In the Second Intifada, which was the culmination of Palestinian frustration with the failure of the 1990s peace process, Palestinian militants adopted suicide bombings of Israeli buses and other forms of terror. Israel responded with a severe military crack-down. The fighting killed approximately 3,200 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis.

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A 2002 Palestinian bus bombing that killed 18 in Jerusalem (Getty Images)

It’s not just Palestinians, though: many Israelis also increasingly distrust Palestinians and their leaders and see them as innately hostile to peace. In the parlance of Israel-Palestine, the expression for this attitude is, “We don’t have a partner for peace.” That feeling became especially deep after the Second Intifada; months of bus bombings and cafe bombings made many Israelis less supportive of peace efforts and more willing to accept or simply ignore the occupation’s effects on Palestinians.

This sense of apathy has been further enabled by Israel’s increasingly successful security programs, such as the Iron Dome system that shoots down Gazan rockets, which insulates many Israelis from the conflict and makes it easier to ignore. Public support for a peace deal that would grant Palestine independence, once high among Israelis, has dropped.

Meanwhile, a fringe movement of right-wing Israeli extremists has become increasingly violent, particularly in the West Bank where many live as settlers, further pulling Israeli politics away from peace and thus allowing the conflict to drift.

(The first Intifada (civil disobedience) was in 1935-38 where the British dispatched 100,000 troops to quell this mass intifada with torture techniques that Nazi Germany adopted integrally)

8) How is the conflict going to end?

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The Dome of the Rock (at left with gold dome) is one of the holiest sites in Islam and sits atop the ancient Temple Mount ruins, the Western Wall of which (at right) is the holiest site in Jerusalem. You can see how this would create logistical problems. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

There are three ways the conflict could end. Only one of them is both viable and peaceful — the two-state solution — but it is also extremely difficult, and the more time goes on the harder it gets.

One-state solution: The first is to erase the borders and put Israelis and Palestinians together into one equal, pluralistic state, called the “one-state solution.” Very few people think this could be viable for the simple reason of demographics; Arabs would very soon outnumber Jews. After generations of feeling disenfranchised and persecuted by Israel, the Arab majority would almost certainly vote to dismantle everything that makes Israel a Jewish state. Israelis, after everything they’ve done to finally achieve a Jewish state after thousands of years of their own persecution, would never surrender that state and willingly become a minority among a population they see as hostile.

Destruction of one side: The second way this could end is with one side outright vanquishing the other, in what would certainly be a catastrophic abuse of human rights. This is the option preferred by extremists such as Hamas and far-right Israeli settlers. In the Palestinian extremist version, Israel is abolished and replaced with a single Palestinian state; Jews become a minority, most likely replacing today’s conflict with an inverse conflict. In the Israeli extremist version, Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza entirely, either turning Palestinians into second-class citizens in the manner of apartheid South Africa or expelling them en masse.

Two-state solution: The third option is for both Israelis and Palestinians to have their own independent states; that’s called the “two-state solution” and it’s advocated by most everyone as the only option that would create long-term peace. But it requires working out lots of details so thorny and difficult that it’s not clear if it will, or can, happen. Eventually, the conflict will have dragged on for so long that this solution will become impossible.

9) Why is it so hard to make peace?

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Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin hold Nobel Peace Prizes won in 1994 for their 1993 Oslo Accords. A follow-on agreement in 1995 was the last major Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. (Photo by Yaakov Saar/GPO via Getty Images)

The one-state solution is hard because there is no viable, realistic version that both sides would accept. In theory, the two-state solution is great. But it poses some very difficult questions. Here are the four big ones and why they’re so tough to solve. To be clear, these aren’t abstract concepts but real, heavily debated issues that have sunk peace talks before:

JerusalemBoth sides claim Jerusalem as their capital; it’s also a center of Jewish and Muslim (and Christian) holy sites that are literally located physically on top of one another, in the antiquity-era walled Old City that is not at all well shaped to be divided into two countries. Making the division even tougher, Israeli communities have been building up more and more in and around the city.

West Bank bordersThere’s no clear agreement on where precisely to draw the borders, which roughly follow the armistice line of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, especially since hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers have built up suburban-style communities just on the Palestinian side of the line. This one is not actually impossible — Israel could give Palestine some land as part of “land swaps” in exchange for settler-occupied territory — but it’s still hard. The more time goes on, the more settlements expand, the harder it becomes to create a viable Palestinian state.

THE BIGGEST PROBLEM OF ALL MAY BE TIME: IT’S RUNNING OUT

RefugeesThis one is really hard. There are, officially, seven million Palestinian refugees, who are designated as such because their descendants fled or were expelled from what is today Israel; places like Ramla and Jaffa. Palestinians frequently ask for what they call the “right of return”: permission to return to their land and live with full rights. That sounds like a no-brainer, but Israel’s objection is that if they absorb seven million Palestinian returnees, then Jews will become a minority, which for the reasons explained above Israelis will never accept. There are ideas to work around the problem, like financial restitution, but no agreement on them.

Security: This is another big one. For Palestinians, security needs are simple: a sovereign Palestinian state. For Israelis, it’s a bit more complicated: Israelis fear that an independent Palestine could turn hostile and ally with other Middle East states to launch the sort of invasion Israel barely survived in 1973. Maybe more plausibly, Israelis worry that Hamas would take over an independent West Bank and use it to launch attacks on Israelis, as they’ve done with Gaza.

Any compromise would likely involve Palestinians giving up some sovereignty, for example promising permanent de-militarization or allowing an international peacekeeping force, and after years of feeling heavily abused by strong-handed Israeli forces, Palestinians are not eager about the idea of Israel having veto power over their sovereignty and security.

Those are all very difficult problems. But here’s the thing: time is running out. The more that the conflict drags on, the more difficult it will be to solve any of these issues, much less all of them. That will make it harder and harder for Israel to justify keeping Gaza under blockade and the West Bank under occupation; eventually it will have to unilaterally withdraw, which the current leadership opposes, or it will have to annex the territories and become either an apartheid-style state that denies full rights to those new Palestinian citizens or abandon its Jewish state.

Meanwhile, extremism and apathy and distrust are rising on both sides. The violence of the conflict is becoming status quo, a regularly recurring event that is replacing the peace process itself as the way by which the conflict advances. It is making things worse for Israelis and Palestinians alike all the time, and unless they can break from the hatred and violence long enough to make peace, that will continue.

 

40 maps that explain the Middle East

by Max Fisher on May 5, 2014

Maps can be a powerful tool for understanding the world, particularly the Middle East, a place in many ways shaped by changing political borders and demographics. Here are 40 maps crucial for understanding the Middle East — its history, its present, and some of the most important stories in the region today.


Middle East History

    1. The fertile crescent, the cradle of civilization

      The fertile crescent, the cradle of civilization

      If this area wasn’t the birthplace of human civilization, it was at least a birthplace of human civilization. Called “the fertile crescent” because of its lush soil, the “crescent” of land mostly includes modern-day Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Israel-Palestine. (Some definitions also include the Nile River valley in Egypt.)

      People started farming here in 9000 BC, and by around 2500 BC the Sumerians formed the first complex society that resembles what we’d now call a “country,” complete with written laws and a political system. Put differently, there are more years between Sumerians and ancient Romans than there are between ancient Romans and us.

    2. How ancient Phoenicians spread from Lebanon across the Mediterranean

      How ancient Phoenicians spread from Lebanon across the Mediterranean

      The Phoenicians, who lived in present-day Lebanon and coastal Syria, were pretty awesome. (The Levant)

      From about 1500 to 300 BC, they ran some of the Mediterranean’s first big trading networks, shown in red, and dominated the sea along with the Greeks, who are shown in brown. Some sailed as far as the British Isles, and many of them set up colonies in North Africa, Spain, Sicily, and Sardinia. This was one of the first of many close cultural links between the Middle East and North Africa – and why Libya’s capital, Tripoli, still bears the name of the ancient Phoenician colony that established it.

    3. How the Middle East gave Europe religion, three times

      How the Middle East gave Europe religion, three times

      The Middle East actually gave Europe religion four times, including Islam, but this map shows the first three. First was Judaism, which spread through natural immigration and when Romans forcibly dispersed the rebelling Israelites in the first and second century AD.

      In the first through third centuries A.D., a religion called Mithraism — sometimes called a “mystery religion” for its emphasis on secret rites and clandestine worship — spread from present-day Turkey or Armenia throughout the Roman Empire (at the time, most adherents believed it was from Persians in modern-day Iran, but this is probably wrong).

      Mithraism was completely replaced with Christianity, which became the Roman Empire’s official religion, after a few centuries. It’s easy to forget that, for centuries, Christianity was predominantly a religion of Middle Easterners, who in turn converted Europeans.

    4. When Mohammed’s Caliphate conquered the Middle East

      When Mohammed’s Caliphate conquered the Middle East

      In the early 7th century AD in present-day Saudi Arabia, the Prophet Mohammed founded Islam, which his followers considered a community as well as a religion. As they spread across the Arabian peninsula, they became an empire, which expanded just as the neighboring Persian and Byzantine Empires were ready to collapse. In an astonishingly short time — from Mohammed’s death in 632 to 652 AD — they managed to conquer the entire Middle East, North Africa, Persia, and parts of southern Europe.

      They spread Islam, the Arabic language, and the idea of a shared Middle Eastern identity — all of which still define the region today. It would be as if everyone in Europe still spoke Roman Latin and considered themselves ethnically Roman.

    5. A map of the world at the Caliphate’s height

      A map of the world at the Caliphate’s height

      This is a rough political map of the world in 750 AD, at the height of the Omayyad Caliphate (“caliph” means the ruler of the global Islamic community). This is to give you a sense of how vast and powerful the Muslim empire had become, barely one century after the founding of the religion that propelled its expansion. It was a center of wealth, arts, and learning at a time when only China was so rich and powerful. This was the height of Arab power.

    6. The six-century rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire

      The six-century rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire

      The Ottoman Empire is named for Osman, its first ruler, who in the early 1300s expanded it from a tiny part of northwest Turkey to a slightly less tiny part. It continued expanding for about 500 years — longer than the entire history of the Roman Empire — ruling over most of the Middle East, North Africa, and southeastern Europe for centuries.

      The empire, officially an Islamic state, spread the religion in southeast Europe but was generally tolerant of other religious groups. It was probably the last great non-European empire until it began declining in the mid-1800s, collapsed after World War I, and had its former territory in the Middle East divided up by Western Europe.

    7. What the Middle East looked like in 1914

      What the Middle East looked like in 1914

      This is a pivotal year, during the Middle East’s gradual transfer from 500 years of Ottoman rule to 50 to 100 years of European rule. Western Europe was getting richer and more powerful as it carved up Africa, including the Arab states of North Africa, into colonial possessions. Virtually the entire region was ruled outright by Europeans or Ottomans, save some parts of Iran and the Arabian peninsula divided into European “zones of influence.” When World War I ended a few years later, the rest of the defeated Ottoman Empire would be carved up among the Europeans. The lines between French, Italian, Spanish, and British rule are crucial for understanding the region today – not just because they ruled differently and imposed different policies, but because the boundaries between European empires later became the official borders of independence, whether they made sense or not.

    8. The Sykes-Picot treaty that carved up the Middle East

      The Sykes-Picot treaty that carved up the Middle East

      You hear a lot today about this treaty, in which the UK and French (and Russian) Empires secretly agreed to divide up the Ottoman Empire’s last MidEastern regions among themselves.

      Crucially, the borders between the French and British “zones” later became the borders between Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Because those later-independent states had largely arbitrary borders that forced disparate ethnic and religious groups together, and because those groups are still in terrible conflict with one another, Sykes-Picot is often cited as a cause of warfare and violence and extremism in the Middle East. But scholars are still debating this theory, which may be too simple to be true.

    9. An animated history of great empires in the Middle East

      An animated history of great empires in the Middle East

      You may have noticed a theme of the last eight maps: empires, mostly from outside the Middle East but sometimes of it, conquering the region in ways that dramatically changed it. This animation shows you every major empire in the Middle East over the last 5,000 years.

      To be clear, it is not exhaustive, and in case it wasn’t obvious, the expanding-circle animations do not actually reflect the speed or progression of imperial expansions. But it’s a nice primer.

    10. The complete history of Islamic states

      The complete history of Islamic states

      This time-lapse map by Michael Izady — a wonderful historian and cartographer at Columbia University, whose full collection can be found here — shows the political boundaries of the greater Middle East from 1450 through today. You’ll notice that, for much of the last 500 years, most or all of the region has been under some combination of Turkish, Persian, and European control. For so much of the Arab Middle East to be under self-rule is relatively new. Two big exceptions that you can see on this map are Morocco and Egypt, which have spent more of the last 500 years as self-ruling empires than other Arab states. That’s part of why these two countries have sometimes seen themselves as a degree apart from the rest of the Arab world.

    11. The 2011 Arab Spring

      The 2011 Arab Spring

      It is still amazing, looking back at early and mid-2011, how dramatically and quickly the Arab Spring uprisings challenged and in many cases toppled the brittle old dictatorships of the Middle East. What’s depressing is how little the movements have advanced beyond those first months. Syria’s civil war is still going. Egypt’s fling with democracy appeared to end with a military coup in mid-2013. Yemen is still mired in slow-boil violence and political instability. The war in Libya toppled Moammar Qaddafi, with US and European support, but left the country without basic security or a functioning government. Only Tunisia seems to have come out even tenuously in the direction of democracy.


The Middle East today

    1. The dialects of Arabic today

      The dialects of Arabic today

      This map shows the vast extent of the Arabic-speaking world and the linguistic diversity within it. Both go back to the Caliphates of the sixth and seventh century, which spread Arabic from its birthplace on the Arabian Peninsula across Africa and the Middle East. Over the last 1,300 years the language’s many speakers have diverged into distinct, sometimes very different, dialects.

      Something to look at here: where the dialects do and do not line up with present-day political borders. In places where they don’t line up, you’re seeing national borders that are less likely to line up with actual communities, and in some cases more likely to create problems.

    2. The Sunni-Shia divide

      The Sunni-Shia divide

      The story of Islam’s division between Sunni and Shia started with the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632. There was a power struggle over who would succeed him in ruling the Islamic Caliphate, with most Muslims wanting to elect the next leader but some arguing that power should go by divine birthright to Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali. That pro-Ali faction was known as the “Partisans of Ali,” or “Shi’atu Ali” in Arabic, hence “Shia.” Ali’s eventual ascension to the throne sparked a civil war, which he and his partisans lost. The Shia held on to the idea that Ali was the rightful successor, and grew into an entirely separate branch of Islam. Today about 10 to 15 percent of Muslims worldwide are Shia — they are the majority group in Iran and Iraq only — while most Muslims are Sunni. “Sunni” roughly means “tradition.” Today, that religious division is again a political one as well: it’s a struggle for regional influence between Shia political powers, led by Iran, versus Sunni political powers, led by Saudi Arabia. This struggle looks an awful lot like a regional cold war, with proxy battles in Syria and elsewhere.

    3. The ethnic groups of the Middle East

      The ethnic groups of the Middle East

      The most important color on this map of Middle Eastern ethnic groups is yellow: Arabs, who are the majority group in almost every MidEast country, including the North African countries not shown here. The exceptions are mostly-Jewish Israel in pink, mostly-Turkish Turkey in green, mostly-Persian Iran in orange, and heavily diverse Afghanistan. (More on the rich diversity of Iran and Afghanistan below.) That splash of red in the middle is really important: ethnic Kurds, who have no country of their own but big communities in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. But the big lesson of this map is that there is a belt of remarkable ethnic diversity from Turkey to Afghanistan, but that much of the rest of the region is dominated by ethnic Arabs.

    4. Weighted Muslim populations around the world

      Weighted Muslim populations around the world

      This map makes a point about what the Middle East is not: it is not synonymous with the Islamic world. This weighted population map shows every country in the world by the size of its Muslim population. Countries with more Muslim citizens are larger; countries with fewer Muslim citizens are smaller. You’ll notice right away that the Middle East makes up just a fraction of the world’s total Muslim population. There are far more Muslims, in fact, in the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The biggest Muslim population by far is Indonesia’s, in southeast Asia. And there are millions in sub-Saharan Africa as well. The Islamic world may have begun in the Middle East, but it’s now much, much larger than that.


Israel-Palestine

    1. Israel’s 1947 founding and the 1948 Israeli-Arab War

      Israel's 1947 founding and the 1948 Israeli-Arab War

      Left map: Passia; center and right maps: Philippe Rekacewicz / Le Monde Diplomatique

      Israel’s 1947 founding and the 1948 Israeli-Arab War

      These three maps show how Israel went from not existing to, in 1947 and 1948, establishing its national borders. It’s hard to identify a single clearest start point to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but the map on the left might be it: these are the borders that the United Nations demarcated in 1947 for a Jewish state and an Arab state, in what had been British-controlled territory. The Palestinians fought the deal, and in 1948 the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria invaded. The middle map shows, in green, how far they pushed back the Jewish armies. The right-hand map shows how the war ended: with an Israeli counterattack that pushed into the orange territory, and with Israel claiming that as its new national borders. The green is what was left for Palestinians.

    2. The 1967 Israeli-Arab War that set today’s borders

      The 1967 Israeli-Arab War that set today's borders

      BBC

      The 1967 Israeli-Arab War that set today’s borders

      These three maps (click the expand icon to see the third) show how those 1948 borders became what they are today. The map on left shows the Palestinian territories of Gaza, which was under Egyptian control, and the West Bank, under Jordanian control. In 1967, Israel fought a war with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The war ended with Israel occupying both of the Palestinian territories, plus the Golan Heights in Syria and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula: that’s shown in the right map. Israel gave Sinai back as part of a 1979 peace deal, but it still occupies those other territories. Gaza is today under Israeli blockade, while the West Bank is increasingly filling with Israeli settlers. The third map shows how the West Bank has been divided into areas of full Palestinian control (green), joint Israeli-Palestinian control (light green), and full Israeli control (dark green).

    3. Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank

      Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank

      Since 1967, Israelis have been moving into settlements in the West Bank. Some go for religious reasons, some because they want to claim Palestinian land for Israel, and some just because they get cheap housing from subsidies. There about 500,000 settlers in 130 communities, which you can see in this map. The settlements make peace harder, which is sometimes the point: for Palestinians to have a state, the settlers will either to have to be removed en masse, or Palestinians would have to give up some of their land. The settlements also make life harder for Palestinians today, dividing communities and imposing onerous Israeli security. This is why the US and the rest of the world opposes Israeli settlements. But Israel is continuing to expand them anyway.

    4. Israeli and Hezbollah strikes in the 2006 Lebanon War

      Israeli and Hezbollah strikes in the 2006 Lebanon War

      BBC

      Israeli and Hezbollah strikes in the 2006 Lebanon War

      This map shows a moment in the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. It also shows the way that war between Israel and its enemies has changed: Israel now has the dominant military, but the fights are asymmetrical. Israel wasn’t fighting a state, but the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. It launched many air and artillery strikes in Lebanon (shown in blue) to weaken Hezbollah, destroying much of the country’s infrastructure in the process. Israel also blockaded Lebanese waters. Hezbollah fought a guerrilla campaign against the Israeli invasion force and launched many missiles into Israeli communities. The people most hurt were regular Lebanese and Israelis, hundreds of thousands of whom were displaced by the fighting.

    5. Which countries recognize Israel, Palestine, or both

      Which countries recognize Israel, Palestine, or both

      The Israel-Palestine conflict is a global issue, and as this map shows it’s got a global divide. Many countries, shown in green, still do not recognize Israel as a legitimate state. Those countries are typically Muslim-majority (that includes Malaysia and Indonesia, way over in southeast Asia). Meanwhile, the blue countries of the West (plus a few others) do not recognize Palestine as a country. They still have diplomatic relations with Palestine, but in their view it will not achieve the status of a country until the conflict is formally resolved. It is not a coincidence that there has historically been some conflict between the blue and green countries.


Syria

    1. Syria’s religious and ethnic diversity

      Syria’s religious and ethnic diversity

      Each color here shows a different religious group in the part of the eastern Mediterranean called the Levant. It should probably not be surprising that the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity is religiously diverse, but this map drives home just how diverse. Israel stands out for its Jewish majority, of course, but this is also a reminder of its Muslim and other minorities, as well as of the Christian communities in Israel and the West Bank. Lebanon is divided among large communities of Sunnis, Shias, Christians, and a faith known as Druze — they’re at peace now, but the country’s horrific civil war from 1975 to 1990 divided them. There may be a similar effect happening in Syria, which is majority Sunni Muslim but has large minorities of Christians, Druze, Shia, and a Shia sect known as Alawites whose members include Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and much of his government.

    2. Current areas of control in the Syrian Civil War

      Current areas of control in the Syrian Civil War

      This map shows the state of play in Syria’s civil war, which after three years of fighting has divided between government forces, the anti-government rebels who began as pro-democracy protestors, and the Islamist extremist fighters who have been moving in over the last two years. You may notice some overlap between this map and the previous: the areas under government control (in red) tend to overlap with where the minorities live. The minorities tend to be linked to the regime, whereas the rebels are mostly from the Sunni Muslim majority. But the anti-government Syrian rebels (in green) have been taking lots of territory. Syria’s ethnic Kurdish minority also has militias that have taken over territory where the Kurds live. Over the past year, though, there’s been a fourth rising faction: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (sometimes called ISIS, shown in blue), an extremist group based in Iraq that swears allegiance to al-Qaeda. They’re fighting both the rebels and the government. So it’s a three-way war now, as if it weren’t already intractable enough.

    3. Syria’s refugee crisis

      Syria’s refugee crisis

      Syria’s civil war hasn’t just been a national catastrophe for Syria, but for neighboring countries as well. The war has displaced millions of Syrians into the rest of the Middle East and into parts of Europe, where they live in vast refugee camps that are major drains on already-scarce national resources. This map shows the refugees; it does not show the additional 6.5 million Syrians displaced within Syria. Their impact is especially felt in Jordan and Lebanon, which already have large Palestinian refugee populations; as many as one in five people in those countries is a refugee. While the US and other countries have committed some aid for refugees, the United Nations says it’s not nearly enough to provide them with basic essentials.


Iran

    1. How Iran’s borders changed in the early 1900s

      How Iran’s borders changed in the early 1900s

      Iran is the only Middle Eastern country was never conquered by a European power, but it came pretty close in the 1900s. It lost a lot of territory to Russia (the red stripey part). After that, the Russian Empire and British Empire (the British Indian Raj was just next door) divided Iran’s north and south into “zones of influence.” They weren’t under direct control, but the Iranian government was bullied and its economy and resources exploited. This remains a point of major national resentment in Iran today.

    2. Iran’s religious and ethnic diversity

      Iran’s religious and ethnic diversity

      Iran is most associated with the Persians — the largest ethnic group and the progenitors of the ancient Persian empires — but it’s much more diverse than that. This map shows the larger minorities, which includes Arabs in the south, Kurds in the west, and Azeris in the north (Iran used to control all Azeri territory, but much of now belongs to the Azeri-majority country Azerbaijan). The Baloch, in the southeast, are also a large minority group in Pakistan. There is significant unrest and government oppression in the “Baluchistan” region of both countries.

    3. Iran’s nuclear sites and possible Israeli strike plans

      Iran's nuclear sites and possible Israeli strike plans

      BBC

      Iran’s nuclear sites and possible Israeli strike plans

      This is a glimpse at two of the big, overlapping geopolitical issues in which Iran is currently embroiled. The first is Iran’s nuclear program: the country’s leaders say the program is peaceful, but basically no one believes them, and the world is heavily sanctioning Iran’s economy to try to convince them to halt the nuclear development that sure looks like it’s heading for an illegal weapons program. You can see the nuclear development sites on here: some are deep underground, while others were kept secret for years. That gets to the other thing on this map, which was originally built to show how Israel could hypothetically launch strikes against Iran’s nuclear program. Israel-Iran tensions, which have edged near war in recent years, are one of the biggest and most potentially dangerous things happening right now in a part of the world that has plenty of danger already. Israel is worried that Iran could build nukes to use against it; Iran may be worried that it will forever be under threat of Israeli strike until it has a nuclear deterrent. That’s called a security dilemma and it can get bad.


Afghanistan

    1. How the colonial “Durand Line” set up Afghanistan’s conflict

      How the colonial “Durand Line” set up Afghanistan’s conflict

      So, first ignore everything on this map except for the light-orange overlay. That shows the area where an ethnic group called the Pashtun lives. Now pretend it’s the 1800s and you are a British colonial officer named Mortimer Durand, and it’s your job to negotiate the border between the British Indian Raj and the quasi-independent nation of Afghanistan.

      Do you draw the border right smack across the middle of the Pashtun areas, thus guaranteeing decades of conflict by forcing Pashtuns to be minorities in both states? If you answered “yes,” then you would have made a great British colonial officer, because that’s what happened. The “Durand Line,” marked in red, became most of the border between modern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many Pashtun now belong to or support a mostly-Pashtun extremist group called the Taliban, which wreaks havoc in both countries and has major operating bases (shown in dark orange) in the Pakistani side of the border. Thanks, Mortimer!

    2. The 1989 war that tore up Afghanistan

      The 1989 war that tore up Afghanistan

      In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to defend the pro-Moscow communist government from growing rebellions. The US (along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) funded and armed the rebels. The CIA deliberately chose to fund extremists, seeing them as better fighters.

      When the Soviets retreated in 1989, those rebel groups turned against one another, fighting a horrific civil war that you can see on this map: the red areas were, as of 1989, under government control. Every other color shows a rebel group’s area of control. Some of these rebels, like the Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin, are still fighting, though most of them were defeated when the Taliban rose up and conquered the country in the 1990s.

    3. How the Taliban overlaps with ethnicity

      How the Taliban overlaps with ethnicity

      This is to underscore the degree to which Afghanistan’s current war (the war that began when the US and allies invaded in 2001, not the 1979 to 1989 war against the Soviets or the civil wars from 1989 to 2001) is and is not about ethnicity.

      The Taliban does very broadly, but not exclusively, overlap with the Pashtuns in the south and east. That’s especially important since there are so many Pashtuns just across the border in Pakistan, where the Taliban have major bases of operation. But there are rebel groups besides the Taliban, not all of which are Pashtun. Generally, though, the north of the country is stabler and less violent than the south or east.

    4. The most important parts of the Afghan War, in one map

      The most important parts of the Afghan War, in one map

      The Afghanistan War is extremely complicated, but this map does a remarkable job of capturing the most important components:

      1) the Taliban areas, in orange overlay;

      2) the areas controlled by the US and allies, in depressingly tiny spots of green;

      3) the major Western military bases, marked with blue dots;

      4) the areas of opium production, which are a big source of Taliban funding, in brown circles, with larger circles meaning more opium;

      5) the supply lines through Pakistan, in red, which Pakistan has occasionally shut down and come under frequent Taliban attack;

      6) the supply line through Russia, which requires Russian approval. If this map does not depress you about the prospects of the Afghan War, not much will.


Saudi Arabia and Oil

    1. What Saudi Arabia and its neighbors looked like 100 years ago

      What Saudi Arabia and its neighbors looked like 100 years ago

      The Arabian peninsula has a very, very long history, and the Saudi family has controlled much of it since the 1700s. But to understand how the peninsula got to be what it is today, go back about a 100 years to 1905.

      The Saudis at that point controlled very little, having lost their territory in a series of wars. The peninsula was divided into lots of little kingdoms and emirates. The Ottoman Empire controlled most of them, with the British Empire controlling the southernmost third or so of the peninsula — that line across the middle shows how it was divided.

      After World War I collapsed the Ottoman Empire, the Saudis expanded to all of the purple area marked here, as the British had promised for helping to fight the Ottomans. (This deal is dramatized in the film Lawrence of Arabia). By the early 1920s, the British effectively controlled almost all of the peninsula, which was divided into many dependencies, protectorates, and mandates. But the Saudis persisted.

    2. Oil and Gas in the Middle East

      Oil and Gas in the Middle East

      The Middle East produces about a third of the world’s oil and a tenth of its natural gas. (It has a third of all natural gas reserves, but they’re tougher to transport.) Much of that is exported. That makes the entire world economy pretty reliant on the continued flow of that gas and oil, which just happens to go through a region that has seen an awful lot of conflict in the last few decades.

      This map shows where the reserves are and how they’re transported overland; much of it also goes by sea through the Persian Gulf, a body of water that is also home to some of the largest reserves in the region and the world. The energy resources are heavily clustered in three neighboring countries that have historically hated one another: Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

      The tension between those three is something that the United States, as a huge energy importer, has been deeply interested in for years: it sided against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, against Iraq when it invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, again against Iraq with the 2003 invasion, and now is supporting Saudi Arabia in its rapidly worsening proxy war against Iran.

    3. Oil, trade, and militarism in the Strait of Hormuz

      Oil, trade, and militarism in the Strait of Hormuz

      The global economy depends on this narrow waterway between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. Ever since President Jimmy Carter issued the 1980 “Carter Doctrine,” which declared that the US would use military force to defend its access to Persian Gulf oil, the little Strait of Hormuz at the Gulf’s exit has been some of the most heavily militarized water on earth.

      The US installed a large naval force, first to protect oil exports from the brutal Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, then to protect them from Saddam Hussein in the 1990s Gulf Wars, and now to protect them again from Iran, which has gestured toward shutting down oil should war break out against Israel or the US. As long as the world runs on fossil fuels and there is tension in the Middle East, there will be military forces in the Strait of Hormuz.

    4. Why Egypt’s Suez Canal is so important for the world economy

      Why Egypt’s Suez Canal is so important for the world economy

      The Suez Canal changed everything. When Egypt opened it in 1868, after ten years of work, the 100-mile, man-made waterway brought Europe and Asia dramatically and permanently closer.

      The canal’s significance to the global order was so immediately obvious that, shortly after the British conquered Egypt in the 1880s, the major world powers signed a treaty, which is still in force, declaring that the canal would forever be open to trade and warships of every nation, no matter what. Today, about eight percent of all global trade and three percent of global energy supply goes through the canal.


Iraq and Libya

    1. The ethnic cleansing of Baghdad during the Iraq War

      The ethnic cleansing of Baghdad during the Iraq War

      BBC

      The ethnic cleansing of Baghdad during the Iraq War

      There are few grimmer symbols for the devastation of the Iraq War than what it did to Baghdad’s once-diverse neighborhoods. The map on the left shows the city’s religious make-up in 2005. Mixed neighborhoods, then the norm, are in yellow.

      The map on right shows what it looked like by 2007, after two awful years of Sunni-Shia killing: bombings (shown with red dots), death squads, and militias. Coerced evictions and thousands of deaths effectively cleansed neighborhoods, to be mostly Shia (blue) or mostly Sunni (red). Since late 2012, the sectarian civil war has ramped back up, in Baghdad and nationwide.

    2. Where the Kurds are and what Kurdistan might look like

      Where the Kurds are and what Kurdistan might look like

      The ethnic group known as Kurds, who have long lived as a disadvantaged minority in several Middle Eastern countries, have been fighting for a nation of their own for a long time. This map shows where they live in green overlay, and the national borders that they have proposed on three separate occasions, all of them failed.

      The Kurds have fought many armed rebellions, including ongoing campaigns in Syria and Turkey, and suffered many abuses, from attempted genocides to official bans on their language and culture. Their one major victory in the last century has been in Iraq: as a result of the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurds have autonomous self-rule in Iraq’s north.

    3. A hypothetical re-drawing of Syria and Iraq

      A hypothetical re-drawing of Syria and Iraq

      This is an old idea that gets new attention every few years, when violence between Sunnis and Shias reignites: should the arbitrary borders imposed by European powers be replaced with new borders along the region’s ever-fractious religious divide?

      The idea is unworkable in reality and would probably just create new problems. But, in a sense, this is already what the region looks like. The Iraqi government controls the country’s Shia-majority east, but Sunni Islamist extremists have seized much of western Iraq and eastern Syria.

      The Shia-dominated Syrian government, meanwhile, mostly only controls the country’s Shia- and Christian-heavy west. The Kurds, meanwhile, are legally autonomous in Iraq and functionally so in Syria. This map, then, is not so much just idle speculation anymore; it’s something that Iraqis and Syrians are creating themselves.

    4. How Libya’s 2011 War changed Africa

      How Libya’s 2011 War changed Africa

      Noble as the cause was, the destruction of Moammar Qaddafi’s dictatorship by a spontaneous uprising and a Western intervention has just wreaked havoc in Africa’s northern half. This map attempts to show all that came after Qaddafi’s fall; that it is so overwhelmingly complex is precisely the point.

      The place to center your gaze is the patterned orange overlay across Libya, Algeria, Mali, and Niger: this shows where the Tuaregs, a semi-nomadic ethnic minority group, lives. Qaddafi used Libya’s oil wealth to train, arm, and fund large numbers of Tuaregs to fight the armed uprising in 2011. When he fell, the Tuaregs took the guns back out with them to Algeria and Mali, where they took control of territory.

      In Mali, they led a full-fledged rebellion that, for a time, seized the country’s northern half. Al-Qaeda moved into the vacuum they left, conquering entire towns in Mali and seizing fossil fuel facilities in Algeria. Criminal enterprises have flourished in this semi-arid belt of land known as the Sahel. So have vast migration routes, of Africans looking to find work and a better life in Europe.

      At the same time, armed conflict is getting worse in Nigeria and Sudan, both major oil producers. Qaddafi’s fall was far from the sole cause of all of this, but it brought just the right combination of disorder, guns, and militias to make everything a lot worse.


Points of Light

  1. Mapped by Internet connections (top) and by tweets (bottom)

    Mapped by Internet connections (top) and by tweets (bottom)

    Top map: Gregor Aisch; bottom map: Eric Fischer

    Mapped by Internet connections (top) and by tweets (bottom)

    These maps are two ways of looking at a similar thing: the digitalization of the Middle East. The map on top is actually a population map: the dots represent clusters of people, but the dots are colored to show how many IP addresses there are, which basically means how many internet connections.

    The blue areas have lots of people but few connections: these are the poorer areas, such as Yemen, Pakistan, and Syria. White and red show where there are lots of connections: rich countries like Israel and the United Arab Emirates, but also parts of Egypt and Iran and Turkey, the populations of which are increasingly wired, to tremendous political consequence.

    The map on the bottom shows tweets: lots of dots mean lots of tweets from that area. They’re colored by language. Notice where these two maps are different: Iran has lots of internet connections but almost no tweets; like Facebook, Twitter has been banned since the 2009 anti-government protests. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, lights right up: its modestly sized population is remarkably wired.

    The significance of that became clear, for example, with the 2012 and 2013 social media-led campaigns by Saudi women to drive en masse, in protest of the country’s ban on female drivers. The consequences of internet access and lack of access will surely continue to be important, and perhaps hard to predict, for the region.

  2. The Middle East at night from space

    The Middle East at night from space

    I’m concluding with this map to look at the region without political borders, without demographic demarcations of religion or ethnicity, without markers of conflict or oil. Looking at the region at night, from space, lets those distinctions fall away, to see it purely by its geography and illuminated by the people who call it home.

    The lights trace the rivers that have been so important to the Middle East’s history, and the world’s: the Nile in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates that run through Iraq and Syria, the Indus in Pakistan.

    They also show the large, and in many cases growing, communities along the shores of the Persian Gulf, the eastern Mediterranean, and the southern end of the Caspian. It’s a beautiful view of a really beautiful part of the world.

 

Obama’s cringe-worthy line claiming Middle East conflicts “date back millennia”

The highest political leader in the world decided to talk as a history emeritus buff on Islam history instead of admitting that the US was the main culprit for this current wave of Islamic extremism in the last 3 decades.

Even Saudi Arabia, the most obscurantist of monarchies, admitted during the latest Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo that before Iran became an Islamist regime in 1979, the were no Sunni-Shia conflict in any Islamic State.

Sure, Saudi monarchy is lying through its teeth since it knows that the Shah of Iran was a greater threat at the time on the Arabic Peninsula.

In that Cold War period, nobody allied to the US would dare get out of line: Either you are in or out and borders were supposed to be respected and wars totally controlled.

If President Obama had any hopes of running for a third term, then he lost the international relations scholar vote on Tuesday night.

In the course of his State of the Union address, he repeated one of the biggest canards about how the Middle East works. Here’s the line that launched a thousand “actually”s:

As someone who begins every day with an intelligence briefing, I know this is a dangerous time. But that’s not because of diminished American strength or some looming superpower.

In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states. The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.

As I pointed out on Twitter, before realizing that every PhD in my feed had beat me to it, the idea that Middle East conflicts “date back millennia” is straight-up factually wrong.

The Middle East’s conflicts almost all date to within the past century, and many have their roots within Obama’s own lifetime.

For example, most scholars date the start of today’s Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict not to the seventh century but rather to various events from 1979 onward.

Islamist extremism is mostly a modern revisionist phenomenon that is a reaction to specific modern-day events such as the Arab-Israeli conflicts and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And so on.

But Obama’s line was worse than incorrect.

It risked perpetuating the widespread “ancient hatreds” myth that feeds two dangerous and mistaken beliefs about the Middle East:

1) that these people just hate each other because that’s how they are “over there,” and

2) that the problems run so deep that they can’t be solved and we shouldn’t bother trying.

It’s reductive and cynical because it paints a picture of the Middle East as perpetually at war because people there are just different.

Those are the kinds of ideas that lead people to fear Syrian refugees, to embrace bigotry against Muslim Americans, and to call, as Ted Cruz did, for “carpet bombing” vast civilian areas as the only solution to Mideast conflicts.

In other words, it’s exactly the kind of thinking that Obama spent so much of his speech trying to counteract.

It was a very bad and regrettable line.

That said, I suspect it’s not just a coincidence that it seemed to contradict the entire rest of Obama’s speech. I’ve had many conversations with senior White House officials about the Middle East and heard them repeatedly and voluntarily rebut the “ancient hatreds” canard, making clear they see these conflicts as modern developments rooted in specific and modern day forces, not as “dating back millennia.”

I don’t know enough about the speechwriting process to explain how this line slipped through, given that it does not, based on my understanding, seem to reflect the White House’s or the president’s understanding of the Middle East. But it’s too bad that it did.

The many ways refugees are created

There have always been refugees: people who are forced from their home countries by conflict or repression or something else, and who must find new homes and new lives abroad.

But there is something different about what’s happening now.

(Barbed wire fences stretching for hundreds of miles are delimiting the borders of the EU Schengen Area for free mobility. Hungary has been encouraged to take the bad rap so that the rest of Europe could apply its selection process on the influx of refugees. No rif raf admitted.  Educated and professionals are preferred to the large families with no potentials.)

The world is experiencing a crisis more severe than anything it has seen in decades — and we are just beginning to wake up to what that means.

All the multiple countries destabilized simultaneously in North Africa, Middle East, Africa and Myanmar… are demonstrating at a vast scale what tampering in underdeveloped countries by the multinationals and Superpowers can have as dire consequences in the short and longer terms.

Those governments who decided to destabilize countries will have to face, this time around, the magnitude of their mischiefs and disrespect for the autonomy of people to adjust to their own pace and customs.

and on September 9, 2015,

Make no mistake: The current refugee crisis is global.

The coverage has focused heavily on the refugees arriving in Europe, and especially on Syrian refugees. But in fact refugees are fleeing countries from Honduras, Nigeria, Myanmar, Pakistan, Afghanistan and they are arriving in wealthy countries including the US and Australia, as well as adjacent poorer ones like Turkey and Lebanon.

It is a worldwide problem — one whose scale and severity is unmatched since World War II.

What follows is a straightforward explanation of the very basics of the refugee crisis: the key facts you need to know to understand what’s happening, how the crisis became so severe, and what can be done to fix it.

1) What is the refugee crisis?

 <img alt=” ” src=”https://cdn3.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/jDvpXAwGVg59_d-KWsD5WjNQF9s=/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/3963664/03_ComparisonLatestYears(29JUNE2015).png”> UNHCR

(UNHCR)

At its most basic level, the refugee crisis is driven by a single fact: There are 19 million people in the world who are currently refugees — a disastrously high number — and they all need to find somewhere they can live in safety. (Not counting the internally displaced people in their own homeland)

But when we talk about the global refugee crisis, we’re not just talking about numbers. We’re really talking about the ways in which nations fail refugees.

That happens at 4 distinct stages — all of them terrible in their own way.

All refugees go through at least one of those terrible steps, but the most vulnerable people, if they do ever manage to reach safety at all, are likely to go through all four.

The first step of the refugee crisis is the persecution that forces refugees to flee their homes in the first place. Some are fleeing war, some political persecution, and some other kinds of violence, but all refugees, by definition, experience this.

Today Syria’s civil war is especially dire. But it’s not the only cause of the global refugee crisis, which is being driven by a host of national crises taking place around the globe, many of which are totally unconnected to one another.

There are wars in Somalia and Afghanistan and Libya, lower-level violence in Central America and Nigeria and Pakistan, persecution in Eritrea and Myanmar and Bangladesh, and so on.

The second step is what happens to those refugees once they are forced out of their homes: Often, though not always, they end up in camps.

Life in the camps is often difficult, cramped, and unsafe, with few prospects for work or education. This is a crisis for the refugees as well for as the countries that house them; for instance, host countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are struggling to manage their camps for refugees and to absorb the thousands or even millions of people who live in them.

These camps are a global failure: The UN is far short of the $8.4 billion it says it needs to provide bare minimum services just for Syrian refugees.

(The US has promised Israel $20 billion additional financial aid to compensate for its nuclear deal with Iran. Why this lavishness for barely 8 million Israeli who have a high standard of living when $8 billion can provide a decent human dignity to over 20 million refugees?)

And they are also national failures: They keep refugees from integrating into the local communities and creating stable, productive new lives there. At their worst, camps can keep families stuck in limbo for generations.

(Think of those Palestinians who have been living in camps since 1949 when Israel forced them out of their lands)

The third step is what happens when refugee families, perhaps after seeing that the camps offer them little hope or protection, seek out safety from persecution further afield, often in developed countries, particularly in Europe.

(David Cameron and the French Holland are visiting Lebanon to bribe and coerce the government to settle the 2 million Syrian refugees, in addition to the 500,000 Palestinians for a total population of 4 million Lebanese)

The journey is often horrifyingly dangerous: Many families drown crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats, for example, which is why a Syrian toddler’s body washed up on a Turkish beach last week.

The families understand the risk, and may pay thousands of dollars per person for the trip, but often feel it is their only option. The trip is so perilous in part because Western governments, wanting to discourage all forms of uncontrolled migration, have let it be that way as a matter of deliberate policy.

The fourth step is the one that many Western countries are experiencing now: what happens when large numbers of refugees show up. Often, they face systems that are badly broken — the squalid overcrowded camps in Greece, for example — or that are overtly hostile to refugees in an effort to keep them out.

This is changing a little bit, but most European countries are still trying to keep refugees out and refusing to accept even a remotely sufficient number of them for resettlement, which means the families who make it to Europe end up in camps, sleeping in train stations, or living in fear of deportation.

This last step of the crisis is about much more than just funding: It’s forcing some really sensitive political issues to the surface in Europe, over migration and identity and the future of the European Union. Until Europeans can figure out those issues, hundreds of thousands of refugees will continue to suffer.

2) Why are there so many refugees right now?

bashar assad Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images <img alt=”bashar assad Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images” src=”https://cdn2.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/TMa4T-ie2OOcvAfOLfhgDLiue2w=/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/assets/4887642/98963545.jpg”>

There’s no single reason, because a number of the crises driving people from their homes are not connected. There’s no apparent direct link, for example, between the war in Afghanistan and the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, or between violence in Nigeria and violence in Honduras and El Salvador.

But there is one thing that jump-started the crisis, and that has helped to make it so especially bad: the Arab Spring.

(What the Arab Spring revolts have to do in Honduras and El Salvador?)

It began in 2011 as a series of peaceful, pro-democracy movements across the Middle East, but it led to terrible wars in Libya and Syria. Those wars are now helping to fuel the refugee crisis.

It’s not hard to understand why Syrians are fleeing. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has targeted civilians ruthlessly, including with chemical weapons and barrel bombs; ISIS has subjected Syrians to murder, torture, crucifixion, sexual slavery, and other appalling atrocities; and other groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra have tortured and killed civilians as well.

The civil war has killed a shocking 250,000 people, displaced half of the population, and caused one in five Syrians (4 million people) to flee the country.

Libya’s role in the refugee crisis is different: The war there is terrible, but it has not displaced nearly as many people. What it has done, however, is open up a long-closed route from Africa to Europe.

(Gadhafi was doing a fine job limiting access to this closest of routes to Europe)

For years, the EU kept refugees out of sight and out of mind by paying Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s government to intercept and turn back migrants that were heading for Europe.

Gadhafi was something like Europe’s bouncer, helping to bar refugees and other migrants from across Africa. His methods were terrible: Libya imprisoned migrants in camps where rape and torture were widespread. But Europe was happy to have someone else worrying about the problem.

When Libya’s uprising and Western airstrikes ousted Gadhafi in 2011, Libya collapsed into chaos. The route through Libya — and, from there, across the Mediterranean — suddenly opened, though it remained dangerous. As a result, the number of people making the perilous journey to Europe climbed considerably.

There is another reason that this crisis is so severe: Politics within Europe are unusually hostile to refugees and migrants at the moment.

That isn’t causing the numbers of refugees to actually increase, of course, but it’s part of why the refugees are in crisis, stuck in camps or dying in the Mediterranean rather than resettling safely in Europe.

There are a few reasons anti-refugee and anti-migrant politics are rising in Europe (more on this below), but it’s making it harder for Europe to deal with the crisis, and many refugee families are suffering as a result.

3) Why is there a war in Syria, and why is it so terrible?

yarmouk refugee camp syria <img alt=”yarmouk refugee camp syria” src=”https://cdn0.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/KlybRRR7u4Jngy2mT4n3hNdbYKk=/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/4040360/GettyImages-475280031.0.jpg”>

The Yarmouk refugee camp for Palestinians, in Damascus, in 2014. (United Nation Relief and Works Agency/Getty Images)

Here, from Zack Beauchamp, is the briefest, simplest way we can describe this complex, horrific war:

Syria is a relatively new country: Its borders were constructed by European powers in the 1920s, mashing together several ethnic and religious groups.

Since early 1970, a family from one of those smaller groups — the Assads, who are Shia Alawites — has ruled the country in a brutal dictatorship. Bashar al-Assad has been in power since 2000.

This regime appeared stable, but when Arab Spring protests began in 2011, it turned out not to be. (It still was. And is resisting the onslaught of foreign interventions)

Syrians were clearly sick of the country’s corruption, brutality, and inequity. Protests began that spring. Though the protests weren’t about sectarian issues, many of the protesters were from the country’s largest demographic group, the long-disadvantaged Sunni Arabs. (Not correct. The Moslem Brotherhood members were excluded. And for good reasons as the world has witnessed their mischiefs in Egypt and the Al Qaeda Nousra Front)

On March 18, Syrian regime forces opened fire on peaceful protestors in the southern city of Deraa, killing three. Protests grew, as did the increasingly violent crackdowns. Assad’s troops shot demonstrators en masse, abducted and tortured activists, and even murdered children.

Perhaps inevitably, Syrians took up arms to defend themselves. Defectors from Assad’s regime joined them. By early 2012, the protests had become a civil war. Government forces indiscriminately bombed and shelled civilian populations; Assad aimed to crush the rebels and their supporters by brute force.

Assad deliberately targeted Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, civilian and rebel alike. His goal was to polarize the conflict on religious lines, to turn what began as a broad-based uprising against a dictator into a sectarian war, with religious minorities on his side. He knew this would attract extremists to the rebel side, which would make the world afraid of seeing Assad lose. (Mostly regurgitated stories. These kinds of Machiavelli tactics are extracted from the colonial strategy to control the occupied countries)

It worked. By 2013, hard-line Sunni Islamists had become some of the most effective anti-Assad fighters, backed by Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran’s Shia government backed Assad with cash, weapons, and soldiers. The conflict became, in part, a Middle East sectarian proxy war of Shia versus Sunni.

Meanwhile, a Sunni extremist group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had been mostly defeated in 2007, was rebuilding itself (because the US ignored its existence in order to achieve the destabilizing process). It grew strong fighting against Assad in Syria, and later swept northern Iraq under the new name ISIS.

By 2014, Syria was divided between government, rebel, ISIS, and Kurdish forces. (The Kurds, an ethnic minority, have long sought independence.) It is divided in a terrible stalemate, as this animated map of the conflict’s front lines since March 2014 shows:

Civilians always suffer most in war, but Syria’s have suffered especially. Assad targets them ruthlessly, including with barrel bombs and chemical weapons. ISIS and other groups, when they take over towns, put them under brutal and violent rule. Fighting has flattened entire neighborhoods and towns.

Most of Syria’s 4 million refugees have ended up in overcrowded and underfunded camps in neighboring countries. But with little hope of returning home, many are seeking new lives in Europe, though the journey is expensive, uncertain, and often fatal. That they would risk so much speaks to the horrors they’re fleeing, and to their hopes, however faint, of finding a future for their children.

4) Why is the journey so dangerous?

There are two culprits:

the exploitative criminal networks that move the refugees for high fees but offer them little safety, and the Western governments that have tolerated these dangers, at times as part of a deliberate effort to discourage refugees from attempting the journey.

Last fall, for instance, the UK cut funding for the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operations that saved an estimated 150,000 people in one year, saying the rescues encouraged more people to make the crossing.

The Italian government ended the operation in November. Since then, it has been replaced by the EU’s far more limited Frontex program, which only patrols within 30 miles of the border and does not have a search-and-rescue mission.

The result, predictably, has been deadly: An estimated 2,500 people have already died so far this summer.

This is not an accident. It is the result of European policy meant to keep out refugees. But, again, this isn’t just a European phenomenon — the pattern looks pretty similar in other rich countries, as well.

Australia, for example, has gone to great lengths to prevent so-called “boat people” from reaching its shores, including imprisoning them in abusive detention centers on remote Pacific islands, and shipping them off to Cambodia.

In North America, the US has stepped up enforcement efforts after last year’s child migrant crisis, including sending aid to Central American countries in exchange for efforts to keep children from making the journey to the United States.

As with Europe and other countries, the whole idea is to keep refugees from showing up in the first place — even though these efforts never solve, and often don’t even address, the underlying crises that cause the refugees to flee in the first place.

5) Why are Western countries making it so difficult for refugees to come?

David Cameron <img alt=”David Cameron” src=”https://cdn3.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/lCtDKpY8EorZzMDA2kY50HjM31E=/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/3680916/182640069.0.jpg”>

UK Prime Minister David Cameron. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Some of this is about issues that are particular to the US and to Europe and Australia, but there is also a generalized anti-immigration sentiment playing out across the developed countries where refugees are arriving.

Europe, like a lot of places, has pretty robust anti-immigration politics. The British tabloid press, for example, has for years scaremongered about the supposed threats from refugees and migrants. Such politics, in Europe or elsewhere, often get described as being about pure racism or xenophobia, but in fact they’re about something a little different: a fear, rarely articulated, of changing demographics and civic identity.

Taking in large numbers of refugees requires accepting that those refugees might bring changes to your nation’s identity or culture. And while that change is often economically and culturally enriching, it can still feel scary. It requires people to modify, ever so slightly, their vision of what their town and neighborhood look like.

That change can be hard to accept. You can see this play out in Europe, for example, in the regular political backlashes against new mosques being constructed. Those backlashes are partly about Islamophobia, but they are also an expression of people’s fear and insecurity about “losing” what made their community feel familiar.

And anti-immigration sentiment tends to rise when people feel economically insecure, as many do in Western countries now. This insecurity can bring a sense of zero-sum competition, even though in fact migration is typically economically beneficial. There is thus enormous political demand within Western countries for keeping out migrants and refugees.

6) Why is Europe so unwelcoming to the refugees?

 <img alt=” ” src=”https://cdn2.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/oq06PLMMTKaEt6DdbM-JwbbN8QQ=/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/4032802/Nationalities%20arriving%20by%20sea%20in%20Europe.png”> UNHCR

(UNHCR)

Refugees are showing up just as the European Union is in the middle of a pretty fraught debate over migration, which is part of the EU’s growing political tension over the feasibility of the Union itself.

In the 1990s, the EU introduced something called that Schengen Area that allows near-unlimited migration between EU countries. It’s worked well, but not everyone is comfortable with the influx, and the backlash has contributed to right-wing, anti-EU parties in Europe.

This gets expressed as generalized hostility against migrants. If you’re a politician in, say, France, then you can’t call for kicking out the Poles — that would violate EU rules — but you can call for keeping out Nigerian refugees.

European countries are also taking advantage of EU rules to keep refugees out. In theory, the EU’s open internal borders mean that it ought to handle refugees collectively.

But in practice, most EU member states don’t want to take their fair share, and EU rules mean they don’t technically have to. Part of how this happens is a European Union rule called the Dublin Regulation, which requires refugees to stay in the first European country they arrive in until their asylum claims are processed. This rule has allowed Europe to push most of the burden onto Greece and Italy, which are overwhelmed with thousands of refugees.

At the same time, countries such as Hungary and Austria are tightening their borders with other European countries to keep refugees from crossing their territory, even en route to other countries like Germany. In Hungary’s case, this is apparently intended to discourage refugees from entering the EU at all — Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban is openly hostile to refugees, who he believes are a threat to Europe’s “Christian character.” While Germany has dramatically relaxed its asylum rules, which is a very important step for dealing with the crisis and helping refugees, the rest of Europe has not really followed, and is tightening restrictions rather than loosening them.

Until the EU can take on the refugee crisis collectively, as it’s supposed to, the problem will remain unsolved. But the EU may be incapable of coming together on this until it is able to deal with its underlying issues over the Union and whether individual states are really willing to give up a little bit of their separateness to function better together.

7) Why isn’t America taking more Syrian refugees?

Gokhan Sahin/Getty <img alt=”Gokhan Sahin/Getty” src=”https://cdn3.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/ubrwZqvo3agvjyJqqJO9v7RTLx4=/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/4043732/GettyImages-457494188.0.jpg”>

A Syrian refugee family in a camp in Turkey. (Gokhan Sahin/Getty)

The US is usually pretty good about resettling refugees — it resettles about 70,000 a year — but has so far badly lagged in resettling Syrians.

Since 2011, the UN refugee agency has referred 17,000 Syrians to the US for resettlement, but the US has only resettled about 9 percent of those.

The US process for applying for resettlement can take up to 24 months for Syrians, due in part to extensive background checks and enormous paperwork requirements. The US can get away with imposing a long, painstaking bureaucratic process because it is voluntarily resettling Syrian refugees who are an ocean away.

By contrast, countries that are confronting large groups of refugees who arrive in their territory and request asylum, as Europe is now, do not have that luxury. They cannot legally deport refugees with valid asylum claims, and so in most cases they have to let them stay until their cases have been decided.

But America’s bureaucratic resettlement process, like its low acceptance rate for Syrian refugees, comes down in many ways to a fear of terrorism.

“The Obama administration has provided virtually no assurances that the admission of Syrian refugees will not pose a national security threat to the United States,” Rep. Michael McCaul, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, told the New Republic.

“If anything, in speaking with leaders in executive branch departments and agencies, I have grown more concerned that we do not have the ability to confidently vet the Syrian refugee population for potential threat actors.”

The joke is that the US won’t give your family asylum if you once sold falafel to a jihadist, but the darkly humorous punch line is that it’s not really a joke at all: The tolerance for “affiliation” with extremists is basically zero, even though it’s just about impossible to survive in Syria today without interacting with extremists in some way.

McCaul and some other Republicans have warned that ISIS could exploit any Syrian refugee resettlement program to use as a “a federally funded jihadi pipeline.”

The Obama administration knows this isn’t true — these are families stuck in camps we’re talking about — but it is unwilling to overcome the political opposition.

And as with the White House’s failure to close Guantanamo, a big factor here is probably a fear of being blamed for a terrorist attack if one were to eventually occur.

If the US were to admit, say, 65,000 Syrian refugees, as some humanitarian organizations have called for it to do, and just one of them were to be involved in some sort of attack, then it seems likely the Obama administration would face a severe political backlash.

So while many Americans today say they want the US to resettle Syrian refugees, they have also sent a very clear message that they fear terrorism above almost all else.

US leaders have good reason to believe that if even one resettled Syrian committed extremism-tinged violence, they would pay a heavy political cost. The Obama administration appears, at the moment, more concerned with protecting itself against this perceived political risk that with saving the lives of thousands of Syrian families.

(Those committing terrorist activities are Not Syrians: They are from Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tunisians, Libyans, a few Lebanese)

8) What’s the difference between refugees and migrants?

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty <img alt=”MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty” src=”https://cdn3.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/iB7ff_PPJ3A4dhUwCJb8LA5Ni_k=/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/4043760/GettyImages-459300390.0.jpg”>

People hoping to travel to Europe are rescued by the Libyan coast guard after their boat begins to sink. (MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty)

Not everyone who is crossing the Mediterranean or otherwise showing up at a European or American border is a refugee; many are migrants coming for other reasons. That gets to the distinction between refugees and migrants.

Refugees are people who have been forced out of their home country against their will.

The word “migrant” can mean someone who moves to a foreign country voluntarily, or it can be used as a broader umbrella term that includes refugees as well as voluntary migrants. For example, a Syrian man fleeing war is a refugee, whereas a Cameroonian man seeking economic opportunity is a migrant.

Whether someone is considered a refugee or a migrant effects what sorts of legal rights they have:

Refugees can apply for asylum and are protected by international and domestic law, for example, while economic migrants cannot.

There is no such thing as an “illegal asylum-seeker” — refugees can seek asylum in another country without obtaining a visa or resettlement authorization first.

Economic migrants, by contrast, are usually required to have a visa or other form of work authorization in order to immigrate legally.

There is also a meaningful symbolic distinction between the words, one that often becomes political.

Calling a group of people “refugees” can be a way of describing them as legitimately deserving of shelter and care, whereas calling them “migrants” can be a way of accusing them of arriving for economic reasons, and perhaps even lying about their asylum claims.

This is why anti-immigration politicians will sometimes insist that a group of refugees are actually migrants who have come to exploit Western entitlement programs. And it is why, in this article and many others on Vox, you will see us use the word refugee rather than migrant when we are referring to people fleeing persecution.

But this distinction, for all its legal salience, is actually quite blurry — and it can also imply, wrongly, that non-refugee migrants should be rejected, that only refugees deserve their rights. Jørgen Carling, a scholar at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, put this well:

The ‘two kinds of people’ argument is further undermined by the drawn-out trajectories of many current migrants. A Nigerian arriving in Italy might have left Nigeria for reasons other than a fear of persecution, but ended up fleeing extreme danger in Libya.

Conversely, a Syrian might have crossed into Jordan and found safety from the war, but been prompted by the bleak prospects of indeterminate camp life to make the onward journey to Europe. Regardless of the legal status that each one obtains in Europe, they are both migrants who have made difficult decisions, who deserve our compassion, and whose rights need to be ensured.

Drew Hinshaw, a West Africa–based reporter for the Wall Street Journal, elaborated on Twitter. “In many places I cover, asymmetrical war makes it hard to tell where war/poverty end/begin,” he wrote, citing as an example parts of Nigeria where low-level violence and bleak economic opportunities, combined, lead families to decide to try for a better life in Europe.

In such cases, of which there are a great many, the distinction between migrants and refugees — and the implied value of judgment of who does and does not “deserve” to seek a better life abroad — falls apart.

9) I want to help. What can I do?

Spencer Platt/Getty <img alt=”Spencer Platt/Getty” src=”https://cdn3.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/kHFLnZvcqrM8kYbA84SBAtkGKj0=/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/4043810/GettyImages-187754396.0.jpg”>

A Syrian refugee girl in Lebanon. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

There are a number of ways refugees are suffering, and thus a number of ways to help alleviate those specific traumas and injustices.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, is a few billion dollars short on funding just to administer aid to the millions of displaced Syrians. There are a number of excellent charities operating in conflict zones such as Syria and Afghanistan, as well as good governance organizations working to improve political conditions in countries where persecution and corruption contribute to refugee outflows.

There are also charities that help care for resettled refugees, or that provide them with legal council to seek asylum once they arrive in Europe or the US or elsewhere. These are all worthwhile causes that can help translate your time and money into ameliorating refugees’ plight.

Ultimately, though, checkbook humanitarianism is not going to solve things. This crisis is about 19 million people who have been forced from their countries and need a new country to call home. Solving it will require resettling them, which will require the countries that can afford to absorb them to overcome their own political anxieties about large-scale immigration.

For those of us who live in those countries, that means accepting that our communities will look and feel different from how they have in the past. It requires adjusting, at least slightly, our vision of what our communities look like, and widening the definition of our culture to accommodate new arrivals, even if their customs and values might seem alien to us. That’s not something that has ever come easily to people, but it is the only real solution there is.

Hey Vox: Can you Explain this Map?

Vox was co-founded by Melissa Bell and Ezra Klein, late of the Washington Post, and former Slate blogger Matt Yglesias (fun picture here! scroll down), the three of whom lured a posse of young-ish writers to join the staff, including, from the PostMax Fisher, who compiled the “40 Maps.”

Andrew Bossone shared this link

Another deconstruction of a bad @voxdotcom explainer map.

This one on Arabic dialects, by @meriponline

Vox is perhaps the most prominent of the new sites devoted to “explainer…
Chris Toensing published this May 24, 2014

In early May ,the website Vox made a small splash on the Internet with “40 Maps That Explain the Middle East.”

Vox is perhaps the most prominent of the new sites devoted to “explainer journalism,” a genre of primers that combine key data with brief analysis, often in attention-grabbing, multi-media formats.

The motivation for starting Vox, according to Klein, was to ameliorate the “anxiety” that he imagines readers must feel when approaching major news stories for the first time.

“There’s a problem in journalism,” he says in a YouTube promo. “We call certain topics that we cover the vegetables, or the spinach, as if they’re gross, and people should be reading them, but they’re not going to want to.”

“Explainer journalism” has drawn some fire for condescending to its audience, assuming as it does that readers don’t read regular coverage, at least not carefully enough to comprehend the story.

As James Hamblin puts it at The Awl, “An explainer is an article that breaks down an important topic into just the things you care about and need to know. It’s unlike all other kinds of articles in that way.”

Other critics complain that the genre is rather insulting to journalists as well, implying that old-school reporters are too lazy, jaded or unskilled to convey what readers need to situate daily news in proper context.

Says Democracy’s Nathan Pippenger: “This issue is even more sensitive when it comes to foreign affairs, since many old-fashioned print journalists (like Daniel Pearl and Anthony Shadid) have died in war zones in order to bring what Klein calls ‘vegetable’ stories to American readers.”

These objections notwithstanding, some might think that Vox is doing a service, explaining the background to current events in easily digested bite-size form. (MERIP might not exist, after all, if the corporate media was not often derelict in its duties.)

Alas, early offerings with regard to the Middle East suggest otherwise.

Yousef Munayyer, for instance, has thoroughly debunked a set of maps that purport to explain the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

The adjacent map depicting the geographic distribution of Arabic dialects is equally misleading to the point of misinformation.

This map, which seems to have been compiled (or perhaps just lifted) from Wikipedia, is downright inaccurate in several places.

Chris Stone is associate professor of Arabic at Hunter College. Before he began his doctoral work, he lived in Yemen for three years, teaching English in the Peace Corps.

It would be bad enough, Stone says, “if the map claimed just one dialect for Yemen, but to claim that all of Yemen and coastal Somalia speak the same dialect is patently absurd.”

Yemeni dialects differ in pronunciation, cadence, vocabulary, idiom and syntax — not to the point of being mutually unintelligible but certainly to the point of requiring occasional translation.

The dialects spoken in northern Egypt and the areas marked olive green for Levantine countries (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) likewise vary considerably, sometimes from valley to valley and village to village.

In Sudan and South Sudan, respectively, the map identifies Nubi Arabic in orange and Juba Arabic in deep beige. The first reference is a flat-out mistake: Some of the Nilotic peoples in the north of Sudan identify as Nubians, and they may speak the distinct language called Nubian as well as an Arabic similar to that spoken in Khartoum.

Nubi is an Arabic-based creole spoken in a few East African port towns. Meanwhile, according to MER editor Khalid Medani, who is from Sudan, there’s a missing dialect — Nuba Arabic, “a creole spoken in the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan. It is a mix of Arabic and Nuba not Nubian. Folks often get those two confused.”

Juba Arabic is also a creole, Medani continues, “spoken by the Nilotic Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk, especially in Juba where it is the second vernacular.” The Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk are not Arabs, by the way — more on that in a minute.

Surely the oddest error of fact appears in mustard yellow for Judeo-Arabic, which the map locates (solely) in central Israel. Indeed, linguists do speak of such a thing as spoken Judeo-Arabic, in which Arab Jews sprinkle ancient Hebrew and Aramaic terms.

Judeo-Arabic, however, normally refers to a written language, namely, classical Arabic written in Hebrew script. More to the point, while there were small communities of Arabic-speaking Jews in Palestine before the creation of the state of Israel, the large majority of Israeli Jews of Arab origin hail from other Arab countries and, if they still speak Arabic, they speak the dialect of those countries.

“Jews from Morocco, Iraq and Yemen speak the same Arabic dialect?” Stone queries. “I smell ideology.” (Incompetence seems just as likely, since all of the information in this paragraph is in the Wikipedia entry for “Judeo-Arabic languages.”

Maybe that entry needs an “explainer.” Or maybe the title does, since the plural is right there in the third word.)

We could list some more inaccuracies.

A bigger problem with the map is that the uninitiated Vox reader might think that Arabic is the only or most important language spoken across these swathes of bright color.

Berbers in blue North Africa would beg to differ, as would Kurds in the greenish-yellow lands of North Mesopotamian Arabic, Armenians in Lebanon and several other religio-ethnic communities, among them Hebrew-speaking Israeli Jews. And the Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk speak their own languages as the first vernacular, thank you very much.

The map’s cardinal sin, however, appears in the explanatory sidebar:

“Something to look at here: where the dialects do and do not line up with present-day political borders. In places where they don’t line up, you’re seeing national borders that are less likely to line up with actual communities, and in some cases more likely to create problems.”

In other words, Arabs are fighting other Arabs because of differences in dialect.

Sorry, Vox, this notion is cataclysmically wrong.

Leave aside the map’s implication that the conflict in Israel-Palestine is about the fact that Palestinian Arabs in the Galilee speak a different variety of their native tongue than the Judeo-Arabic speakers to their south.

Forget the idea that the Syrian civil war might be a clash of North Mesopotamian, Iraqi and Levantine dialects.

And don’t ask why civil strife continues to afflict central Iraq despite its uniform dark green dialectical hue.

Again, we’ll be charitable: Smart and patient Vox readers can refer to other maps in Fisher’s series and figure this stuff out for themselves.

But there are some other places where dialects do not line up with borders on the map and there is sometimes violent conflict.

One is the boundary between Morocco and Western Sahara. Nowhere in the “40 Maps” is there any clue as to the roots of this conflict in Spanish colonialism, the expansiveness of Moroccan territorial claims, the 1975 Green March, Sahrawi nationalism, the Moroccan Arab-Berber settlement of Western Sahara in violation of UN resolutions, the UN’s failure to enforce those resolutions, and French and US coddling of their client state in Rabat. Iron-deficient Vox readers are left to surmise that the conflict is about types of Arabic.

As for the two Sudans, indeed, the border between the state controlled by Khartoum and South Sudan, which became independent in 2011, roughly corresponds to the boundary line indicating where different sorts of Arabic are spoken.

But to suggest that the long civil war between north and south, or the decision of South Sudanese to secede, has to do with dialectical distinctions is to enter the realm of the ridiculous.

South Sudanese developed their Juba Arabic creole to cope with their northern rulers and do business with the northern merchants who set up shop in southern cities. Differences in dialect were a byproduct of conquest and conflict — not the cause thereof.

Again, we could go on. But why?

The kicker, as Stone says, is the map’s assumption of an “inverse relationship between linguistic unity and ‘problems.

Have the authors of the map not heard of India, where we are not only talking about a vast number of dialects, but actually different languages? What about Switzerland?”

In the end, this map reinforces the old Orientalist saws that Middle East conflict is understandable chiefly in terms of ethnic identity and that primordial ties are uniquely constitutive of politics (and certainly not the other way around).

If we can muster the energy, we may scrutinize a few more of the “40 Maps,” cursory inspection of which reveals more amazing feats of interpretive malpractice. Probably not, though — we should stay focused on our own efforts to go behind the headlines.

We do, however, have a question for Vox:

What good is “explainer journalism” if one fortieth of one piece requires 1,068 words of third-party explanation to correct just a few of its errors, without yet rendering it legible? (We’re not counting the words spent explaining explainers, or our editorializing here, just the “spinach” about the map itself.)

Please explain.

Note: Why Vox do not hire learned local people to do the investigations in the countries they want to explain?

Where are the Missing Maps? Mr. Max Fisher?

May 6, 2014

Explaining Max Fisher’s Missing Maps

Over at Vox, blogger Max Fisher has a post entitled “40 Maps That Explain the Middle East.
If such a title makes you cringe, you are not alone. Often these types of posts, which attempt to provide context, do more to obscure reality and explain the creator’s biases more than anything else.
I am not going to dwell on each map. I won’t claim to know enough about the nuanced political and historical geography in every one of these maps to offer a detailed critique here. However, one thing I do know very well is the nuanced political and historical geography of Palestine and particularly the events around the Nakba in 1948.
These events are supposedly represented by map number 16 on Max’s “explanatory” list entitled “Israel’s 1947 founding and the 1948 Israeli-Arab War.”
(First, Palestine was partitioned by the UN in 1947 and the minority Jews were given 57% of the land. Israel was recognized as a State by the UN with a single and simple majority vote in 1948.
Second, the British mandated power was to vacate Palestine 6 months after the UN partition, and the Zionist prepared for war and imported all kinds of weapons and fighter planes)
Here is the narrative and graphic Fisher provides:

The first thing worth pointing out, and it may not be clear at the initial glance, is that the three panel image is not an original image from a singular source. Rather it is a combination of two sources.

The map on the left is from PASSIA and it is a fairly standard representation of the 1947 partition plan. The two panels to the right come from Le Monde Diplomatique by Philippe Rekacewicz.

These are the original maps which Fisher seems to have borrowed from. How he uses them and what he changes are enlightening. The original maps have a legend in French which Fisher omits and replaces with a heading he created.

The first of the two Le Monde maps have the caption “Territory still held by the Israelis after the Arab attack in June 1948.” Fisher changes this to simply “June 1948: Arab armies invade.”

There is so much wrong here in Fisher’s presentation that it is hard to know where to start. Let’s try chronologically.

First, we are presented with three maps, one from November 1947 and then we jump to June 1948. What happened in the months in between?

What were the positions of the sides during that time and why is Fisher not explaining that?

Second, in his attempt to simplify (or obfuscate depending on how much credit you want to give him) by jettisoning the French legend and providing his own heading, Fisher gets a very basic historical fact wrong. Arab army movement into Palestine did not happen in June of 1948, it happened in May.

You may be wondering why the French legend refers to “territory still held” by the Israelis. That is because Israeli conquest operations to extend their positions and grab as much land as possible began well before the Arab armies invaded. But it seems Max doesn’t want you to know that or failed remarkably to explain it.

The narrative the Max adds to the spliced map is also misleading and reveals his biases. He writes:

…these are the borders that the United Nations demarcated in 1947 for a Jewish state and an Arab state, in what had been British-controlled territory. The Palestinians fought the deal, and in 1948 the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria invaded. The middle map shows, in green, how far they pushed back the Jewish armies. The right-hand map shows how the war ended: with an Israeli counterattack that pushed into the orange territory, and with Israel claiming that as its new national borders. The green is what was left for Palestinians.

We’ve shown before how this common Nakba narrative simply doesn’t jive with history. The same thing is going on here.

Max has boiled down the events of this period to a few sentences and key facts he thinks the reader really needs to know. He tells you the Palestinians “fought” the partition plan but doesn’t tell you why.

Apparently, all you need to know about this is that the Palestinians are rejectionists. Then he tells you the Arab states invaded (which happened in May 1948 though he gets it wrong and says June) but doesn’t tell you anything about what happened between the partition plan and the Arab armies entering Palestine.

Apparently, all you need to know about this is that the “Arabs” (a term that Zionists want to use instead of Palestinians) are a war-like people. He tells you the Arabs “pushed back” the Jewish armies, after which Israel launched a “counterattack.”

Apparently, all you need to know about this is that the Zionists were on the defensive here. To “push back” the Jewish armies, as Max claims, would require the Arab regular forces to actually take back from the Jewish armies land that they had come to hold.

But what Max doesn’t tell you is that in the vast majority of the land, the Arab armies entered parts of Palestine that had yet to be conquered by the Zionist forces. They overwhelmingly filled vacuums. Most interaction was at the margins.

The notion that they “pushed back” the Jewish armies just isn’t true. In fact, in many areas, the Zionist forces continued conquest operations into areas the Arab armies had filled. The overall trajectory of this war from the beginning, was a largely uninterrupted Zionist pushing of Arabs out of Palestine, not the other way around.

Perhaps the most important point here is what happened between the partition plan and the Arab invasion. This is what Fisher doesn’t tell the reader at all.

What happened during this period is the creation of a massive number of Palestinian refugees. All the major cities of Palestine including Yaffa and Haifa were depopulated of their Palestinian Arab inhabitants PRIOR to May 15th, 1948. By excluding this information, misrepresenting other information, and just getting basic facts wrong Fisher provides more propaganda than actual context.

The best maps that I have come across of these events are presented below (click to enlarge and zoom in, there is lots of detail).

This 8-panel map set by Salman Abu Sitta details the stage-by-stage progression of Israeli military operations from November 1947 through April 1949. It also helpfully lists the total number of refugees created, the number of depopulated villages and the number of dunams occupied at each stage of the war.

Needless to say, it shows us something Fisher either can’t or doesn’t want to. Perhaps many of the other maps in his list are accurate and helpful but if he approached those representations with the same sloppiness or outright bias involved with map number 16, then they are probably equally worthless.

Seriously Max, you’ve got some explaining to do. Actually, never mind, you’ve explained enough.

Note: The UN partition plan gave the Palestinians the cities of Haifa and Acre and the northern region of galilee.

The offensive of Israel was to deny the Palestinians any access to the sea in order not to receive any supplies and reinforcement and savagely killed and dispersed the Palestinians from the seashore regions immediately after the British vacated their troops by sea.

Names Americans mispronounce: Guide to foreign countries

The U.S. Congress is debating new economic sanctions on Iran this week.

Should you switch over to C-SPAN, you would hear members of the world’s most powerful legislative body offering perhaps a half-dozen different pronunciations of the name of the country they argue cannot be trusted.

It can be jarring to hear legislators arguing fervently that only they understand the true threat posed by Iran even as they mangle its name.

Still, many Americans can probably sympathize.

It’s not just members of Congress, after all, facing down foreign names they may be unsure how to pronounce. Thanksgiving is coming up, meaning heated and perhaps beer-fueled debates about the state of the world.

Whether you’re wading into those arguments or merely listening as Uncle Frank goes on another tirade for or against NSA leaker Edward Snowden, you’ll probably notice that there’s a subset of important foreign names and places that are often referenced in contemporary American debate but that, somehow, we as a nation have yet to figure out how to pronounce.

Max Fisher published this November 22, 2013

A guide to 26 foreign countries and names that Americans mispronounce

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If you're not sure how to say his name, or the name of his country, read on. (AFP/Getty)

This is Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If you’re not sure how to say his name, or the name of his country, read on. (AFP/Getty)

Here then, as a service to congressional and Thanksgiving arguments alike, is a list of 26 foreign names that Americans most frequently mispronounce, as well as guides for how to say them correctly and warnings against common mispronunciations.

Even if you know to say ee-RON rather than EYE-ran, there are others you might be unknowingly misstating — such as Pyongyang or Bashar al-Assad. You can hear many of them spoken out loud at Voice of America’s pronunciation site.

THE MIDDLE EAST

Iran: ee-RON How it’s NOT pronounced: EYE-ran

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei: ah-lee hah-men-ey-ee How it’s NOT pronounced: allie komonny

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: hah-sahn ROH-hah-nee How it’s NOT pronounced: hassun roo-honey

Iraq: ee-ROCK How it’s NOT pronounced: EYE-rack (ee-Rak. ee-Rock is a Persian pronunciation)

Qatar: KUH-tur (almost exactly “cutter” but more emphasis on the first syllable) How it’s NOT pronounced: kah-TAR

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: buh-shar al AH-sud* How it’s NOT pronounced: basher al uh-sahd * This is the Arabic pronunciation (hear it here), for when you really want to show off. Most Westerners simply say buh-shar al ah-SAHD. (Bashaar al Assad)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: reh-jehp tie-yep urr-doh-wan How it’s NOT pronounced: ressip tie-yep urr-dug-an

Egyptian coup leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi: ahb-dell fah-tah al-SEE-see How it’s NOT pronounced: ab-dell fah-tah al-sissy

AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN

Pakistan: pah-kee-stahn* How it’s NOT pronounced: pakky stan * Both of the a’s should be pronounced as in paw, not as in pat. This is true of most a’s in this section.

Taliban: tah-lee-BAHN How it’s NOT pronounced: tally-ban

Hamid Karzai: hah-MID car-z’EYE How it’s NOT pronounced: hah-meed CAR-z’eye

ASIA

Beijing: bay-jing How it’s NOT pronounced: bay-zhing

Shenzhen: shen-jen How it’s NOT pronounced: shen-zen

Bo Xilai: bow shee-lie How it’s NOT pronounced: bow zhee-lee

Guangzhou: gwang-joe How it’s NOT pronounced: goo-ang-zhoo

Pyongyang: pee-yuhng-YAHNG How it’s NOT pronounced: p’YONG-yang

Juche: JEW-chay How it’s NOT pronounced: joosh-ay

Aung San Suu Kyi: oun saan soo chee* How it’s NOT pronounced: ung san soo k’yee * The first syllable is like “sound” without the s or the d. More here.

Phnom Penh: naam pen How it’s NOT pronounced: fuh-nom pen

ALL THINGS EDWARD SNOWDEN

Sheremetyevo Airport: sheh-reh-MYEH-tyeh-vah How it’s NOT pronounced: share-met-yeh-vyo

Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev: m’yehd-V’YEHD-yehf How it’s NOT pronounced: med-veh-dehv

Angela Merkel: ahn-GAY-luh M’AIR-kuhl How it’s NOT pronounced: ann-juh-luh murr-kuhl

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa: rahf-eye-EHL koh-RAY-ah How it’s NOT pronounced: raffy-ell core-ay-uh

Bolivian President Evo Morales: aiy-voh moh-RAH-lehs How it’s NOT pronounced: ee-voh mo-rall-ess

OTHERS

Kyrgyzstan: keer-guh-stan How it’s NOT pronounced: If you’re not sure, you’re probably wrong.

Niger: nee-ZH’AIR (rhymes with “Pierre”) How it’s NOT pronounced: NYE-jur

Max Fisher
Max Fisher is the Post’s foreign affairs blogger. He has a master’s degree in security studies from Johns Hopkins University. Sign up for his daily newsletter here. Also, follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

What are your questions about Egypt? No need to feel embarrassed to ask…

Today’s violence in Egypt is claiming hundreds of lives, worsening the country’s already dire political crisis and putting the United States in a quandary.

It’s also another chapter in a years-long story that can be difficult to follow even for those of us glued to it. You might have found yourself wondering what Egypt’s crisis is all about, why there’s a crisis at all, or even where Egypt is located on the map.

Admit it, and fire up your questions: not everyone has the time or energy to keep up with big, complicated foreign stories.

This story is important and critical.  Here are samples of the most basic answers to your most basic questions.

First, a disclaimer: Egypt and its history are really complicated; this is not an exhaustive account of that entire story, just some background, written so that anyone can understand it.

Max Fisher published this August 14, 2013 in The Washington Post World Views (with slight editing):

9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask

(Laris Karklis/Washington Post)

(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

1. What is Egypt?

Egypt is a country in the northeastern corner of Africa, but it’s considered part of the Middle East. It’s about the size of Texas and New Mexico combined and has a population of 85 million. Egyptians are mostly Arab and mostly Muslim, although about 10% are Christian Copts. Egyptians are very proud of their history and culture; they are among the world’s first great civilizations.

You might have heard of Egypt from its ancient pyramids and Sphinx, but Egyptians are still changing the world today. In the 20th century, they were in the forefront of the founding of two ideological movements that reshaped – are still reshaping, at this moment – the entire Middle East: Arab nationalism and Islamism.

2. Why are people in Egypt killing each other?

There’s been a lot of political instability since early 2011, when you probably saw the footage of a million-plus protesters gathered in Cairo Tahrir Square (Liberation) to demand that the president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, step down.

Mubarak did and that opened up a big power struggle that hasn’t been anywhere near resolved. It’s not just people at the top of the government fighting among one another, it’s lots of regular people who have very different visions for where they want their country to go.

Today is the latest round in a two-and-a-half-year fight over what kind of country Egypt will be. Regular people tend to express their political will by protesting (keep in mind that democracy is really new and untested in Egypt), and because Egyptian security forces have a long track record of violence against civilians, the “fight for Egypt’s future” isn’t just a metaphor. Often, it’s an actual physical confrontation that happens on the street.

3. Why are they fighting today specifically?

Egyptian security forces assaulted two sprawling sit-in camps (of the ousted Moslem Brotherhood from reigning) in downtown Cairo this morning and tried to disperse the protesters. The protesters fought back.

So far, the casualties are rising every day.  The assault “to clear” the squares left over 560 killed (officially) and 4,000 injured. A lot of them apparently civilians shot by live ammunition rounds used by security forces.

The protesters were there in support of former president Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed in a military coup in early July (the military is still in charge). Morsi hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group to which a number of the protesters in today’s clashes belong. He was also the country’s first democratically elected leader.

4. If the military staged a coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, then all those Egyptians who protested in 2011 for democracy must be furious, right?

Actually, no. A whole lot of Egyptians, especially the liberal groups that led the 2011 revolution, were happy about the coup. A number of them were even calling on the military-led government to break up the largely peaceful pro-Morsi protest camp, even though there were children present and no one thought it would disperse without bloodshed.

There are two things to understand here.

First is that Morsi did not do a good job as president. He had a difficult task, sure, but he really bungled the economy, which was already in free fall.

(Morsi didn’t receive any financial aid from either the rich Arab States or the IMF or the US and European countries. After the military coup, the new government received $12 bn within a week from the rich monarchic Arab States)

Morsi did precious little to include non-Islamists, and took some very serious steps away from democracy, including arresting journalists and pushing through an alarming constitutional change that granted him sweeping powers. (No political parties accepted to join the Morsi government)

The second thing to understand is that Egypt is starkly divided, and has been for decades, between those two very different ideologies I mentioned. Many Egyptians don’t just dislike Morsi’s abuses of power, they dislike the entire Islamist movement he represents.

What you’re seeing today is a particularly bloody manifestation of that divide, which goes far deeper than liberals distrusting Morsi because he was a bad president. (The army is a class by itself and enjoys vast privileges, facilities and independent enterprises…)

5. This stuff about ideologies sounds complicated. Can you just tell me why Egypt is such a mess right now?

The thing about today’s crisis is that it has to do with basic stuff like the breakdown of public order and some really ham-fisted governance by the military. But it also has to do with a 60-year-old ideological conflict that’s never really been resolved.

ack in the years just after World War II, Egypt was ruled by a king who was widely seen as a British pawn. Egyptians didn’t like that. They also didn’t like losing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and they wanted a way out of their long period of national humiliation.

A lot of them were turning to a movement called the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in the 20’s), which argued, and still argues, that Islamic devotion and unity are the ultimate answer. Their ideas, and their campaign for an Islamic government, are called Islamism.

A group of Egyptian military officers had a different idea. In 1952, they led a coup against the king. A charismatic lieutenant colonel named Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power and promoted, as his answer to Egypt’s problems, an ideology called Arab nationalism. It calls for secularism, progress, Arab unity and resistance against Western imperialism.

Both of those movements swept through the Middle East, transforming it.

Arab Nationalists took power in several countries; the Syrian regime today is one of them, and so was the regime headed by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

Islamism also expanded in many countries, and sprouted some violent offshoots. But the two movements prescribe very different paths to the Middle East’s salvation, see themselves as mutually exclusive and have competed, at times violently, ever since. That is particularly true of Egypt, and has been since Nasser took power in 1952.

And that’s why you’re seeing many Egyptian liberals so happy about a military coup that displaced the democracy they fought to establish: Those liberals are closely linked to secular Arab nationalism, which means that they both revere the military and hate the Muslim Brotherhood, maybe even more than they crave democracy. Old habits die hard.

6. Getting really complicated? Do you need to take a music break?

Egyptian pop culture dominates the Arab world, in part because Egypt is so populous and in part because it’s really good. Their most celebrated singer is Omm Kalthoum (known as Planet of the Orient), whom Egyptians revere in the way that Italian-Americans do Frank Sinatra. Her recordings can sound a bit dated. Here is a cover by the contemporary singer Amal Maher:

7. Lots of people are upset with the U.S. for not doing more to support democracy in Egypt. What’s the deal?

The United States is a close political and military ally of Egypt and has been since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter engineered an historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (Sadat and Begin) that involved, among other things, enormous U.S. payouts to both countries as long as they promised not to fight any more wars. That also required the U.S. to look the other way on Egypt’s military authoritarianism and its bad human rights record. It was the Cold War, and supporting friendly dictatorships was in style. And we’ve basically been stuck there ever since.

The Obama administration most recently drew withering criticism for refusing to call the military’s July 3 ouster of the president a “coup.” Doing so would likely require the U.S. to cut its billion-plus dollars in annual military aid to Egypt. That is also why you’re seeing the White House appearing very hesitant about responding to today’s violence with actual consequences.

Sure, the U.S. wants democracy in Egypt? And it wants leverage with the Egyptian government even more? That has been true of every administration since Carter.

It was not actually until the Obama administration that the U.S. came to accept the idea that Islamists, who have been a big political force in Egypt for almost a century now, should play a role in governing. But they’re sticking with the status quo; no one wants to be the administration that “lost” Egypt.

8. Are you getting depressed. Surely someone wants Egypt to be a peaceful and inclusive democracy?

Not really. Most Egyptians are way too preoccupied with their ideological divide to imagine a government that might bridge it. Self-described liberals seem to prefer a secular nationalist government, even if it’s the military regime in power today, as long as it keeps Islamists out.

The Islamists, for their part, were more than happy to push out anyone who disagreed with them once they took power in 2012 through a democratic process that their leader appeared very willing to corrupt.

Both movements are so big and popular that neither one of them can rule without at least attempting to include the other. But neither appears willing to do that.

When I asked Steven Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, what he made of the liberals’ embrace of the military coup and why he had started referring to them as “alleged liberal groups,” he wrote as part of his response, “I think Amr Hamzawy and Hossam Bahgat are the only true liberals in Egypt.”

9. And What happens next?

No one has any idea, but it looks bad. There are 3 things that most analysts seem to agree on. Any or all of these could prove wrong, but they’re the most common, short-term predictions:

1• The military-led government will keep cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood and stirring up preexisting public animosity toward the group, both of which they’ve been doing since the 1950s.

2• The U.S. will call for a peaceful and inclusive democratic transition, as Secretary of State John Kerry did this afternoon, but will refrain from punishing the Egyptian military for fear of losing leverage.

3• The real, underlying problems — ideological division and a free-falling economy — are only going to get worse.

In the aggregate, these point to more violence and more instability but probably not a significant escalation of either. Medium-term, with some U.S. pressure, there will probably be a military-dominated political process that might stagger in the direction of a troubled democracy. Longer-term, who knows?

As the highly respected Egypt expert and Century Foundation scholar Michael Hanna told me recently, “Egypt might just be ungovernable.”

Note: Before the latest bloody crackdown, a feasible alternative would have been to bring back Morsi for another year, after a parliamentary election. Unless a drastic deal is reached with the Moslem Brotherhood movement, Egypt might be sinking into a civil war within a very populous State.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

September 2020
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