Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Thoughts from Pakistan on an American redrawing of the Middle East

While I was traveling through Pakistan this time last year, I made the acquaintance of Fazi Zaka, a journalist and Rhodes Scholar from Pakistan. He recently sent me an article he wrote about a map you may have read about in the Armed Forces magazine about a hypothetical redrawing of the borders of the Middle East.

My time in Pakistan, the friends I made and the articles I've read show how diverse and different the country is which can not be painted in broad strokes as American politicians and press would like to. Just as a foreigner would be wrong to think they understand everything about Massachusetts politics by studying what Ted Kennedy writes, the truth is usually much more complicated and subtle understandings can make a large difference.

Here is Fazi's article:

Fasi Zaka

From my experience, there are two major sources of interest in cartography in Pakistan. The first is the Tolkien books the youth devour in their spare time, the second is the legendary smoking gun about a map made by the United States to eventually redraw the borders of Pakistan.

This US map has been talked about endlessly in the Senate in Pakistan, the media and personal conversations. It is the evidence of the sinister plan for the dismemberment of our country, and often the basis of the argument to end our cooperation with the US. There may be many valid arguments about ending our cooperation with the US based on moral grounds, but this map certainly isn’t one of them.

I first learned of the exact origin of this map from Babar Sattar’s article “Rethinking Conspiracies” which explained that it came from an article in the Armed Forces Journal. I believe some more space needs to be allocated to this particular issue.

The article in the Armed Forces Journal is by Ralph Peters, titled “Blood Borders” (How a better Middle East would look). I am not a security expert, and my first reaction was that the Armed Forces Journal was of dubious quality, but through checking references and the publisher profile I realized this was not true.

So this “devil map” actually came from a reputed source, though it must be clarified not from the US government itself. The map on its look looks sinister, it seems like a vision of an imperialist that takes territory away from Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Yemen amongst others.

But one of the beauties of literacy is that reading helps give context. I imagine the map has been distributed widely without the accompanying article that explains this exercise in revised borders.

Ralph Peter’s article is about preventing bloodshed and creating peace. His explanation for this is that if this region’s map was redrawn into ethnic lines then more viable states would result that are not drawn into ethnic bloodshed.

Peter’s questions the love for the borders of certain countries, especially given the context that it was the Europeans who drew these nation states somewhat arbitrarily in an exercise of imperial power. Think of the lasting problems of Kashmir, of the Kurds amongst, and now the Sunni’s of Iraq. The only way their sentiment for self determination has been kept in check has been through brute force.

Interestingly, and this is not something that is highlighted, is that this map also has Israel losing territory and shows it back into its pre-1967 borders. Also it contains a suggestion for Mecca and Medina to be controlled by all the Islamic countries in the world as part of a consortium of rulers for pluralism.

The emphasis of the article is also quite strong on the possibility of realigning the Muslim world based on the basis of Islamic sects, that is avoiding the schisms one found in Iraq before and still finds in Syria and Turkey where rulers control with an iron fist because they subscribe to a different version of the Islamic faith, and the rigid control is to avoid the break out of violence in countries with simmering tensions, like Yugoslavia after Tito and Iraq after Saddam.

The map is essentially an intellectual exercise, one the author also hints at being impractical. Of course such a realignment of borders is wholly impractical, and also denies Muslims the possibility that they are able to overcome their differences and embrace pluralism.

Other than maybe the Kurds and some pockets of Shia-Sunni differences, the proposed map also overlooks the fact that several generations have been born within these borders drawn by arrogant imperial powers. If most of the people where changes have been proposed by Peter’s article are surveyed today, I am sure that most, with the probable exception of the Kurds, will not wish for any change in the territories that define their states.

But these criticisms aside of an article that is an exercise in an intellectual hypothesis, nowhere in it does one find the gist that it is an insidious attempt of western neo-imperialist sanction in creating a world in their image. This map is impractical, but it is not an imperialist one, in fact it seeks to reverse the injustices to some parts of the Middle East that were committed almost a century ago. However, the part where Pakistan ends up losing territory so the Pakhtuns can be part of Afghanistan (a movement no one backs today) and where Baluchies can have their own state with parts of Iran incorporated show an utter lack of understanding about the ends of the people resisting state machinery in Pakistan. It’s about underdevelopment, NOT about ethnic separation.

The map of Ralph Peters is now subject to greater scrutiny than was once intended, and incorrect inferences have been made. It is right to suspect the myopic aims of the West, especially after the Bush administration, but this map is not part of them.

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