The Middle East’s New Nakba


(Photo: Government Press Office / Flickr)

After midnight on August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan became separate countries.

What should have been a joyous occasion — a celebration of independence from three centuries of British colonial rule — quickly turned into one of the greatest tragedies in modern history. By the end of 1948, after an exodus of Muslims from India and a comparable hemorrhaging of Hindus from Pakistan, between 1 and 2 million people were dead. Extremists in both nascent countries had set out to create ethnically pure spaces by ruthlessly eliminating those that didn’t “fit in.”

“Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped,” Nisid Hajari writes in his new book Midnight’s Furies. “Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse.”

The history of population transfers is not a pretty one.

During World War I, the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and an ensuing three-year conflict between Turkey and Greece, as many as 1.5 million Greeks living in Anatolia died in a horrific campaign of ethnic cleansing. The official population transfer of 1923, unlike what happened later during the partition of India, was an attempt to avert further horrors rather than cause new ones. As a result, Turkey expelled much of its Christian Greek population (1.5 million) and Greece kicked out its Muslim population (500,000). Though the scale of death during this exchange was lower than in India, the human suffering was still immense, and communities of ancient lineage disappeared overnight.

The South Asian and Balkan population exchanges were largely based on ethnicity and religion. But occasionally ideology has compelled people to flee in one direction even as other people are running in the other. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the victory of the Red forces in the subsequent civil war, the losing Whites left in droves from the Soviet Union, as more than a million people established large émigré communities throughout Europe. The revolution also attracted people who wanted to experience life in a communist state, though the inflow was much smaller in comparison.

Today, the Middle East is witnessing a large-scale population transfer, the third major one in the region over the last century. Religion and ethnicity play a significant role in the displacement. But ideology also has a hand in it. Whatever the precipitating factors, the upheaval is a costly one. People are dying, borders are being redrawn, and the dragon’s teeth of discord are being sown for generations to come.

Remapping the Middle East

During the modern era, the Middle East has experienced three distinct waves of remapping and population transfer.

The first came at the end of World War I with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the creation, from its corpse, of the modern state of Turkey and a jumble of colonial mandates. The second wave came with the withdrawal of the European powers in the 1930s and 1940s, which produced the modern versions of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. And in 1948, the creation of the state of Israel out of what had once been a British protectorate drew millions of Jews from around the world to the new country and at the same time dispossessed millions of Palestinians in the Nakba (the “catastrophe”).

Today, the entire region is experiencing a Nakba as the third major remapping of the Middle East in modern times gets underway.

The states that we have taken for granted for so long — Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia — are being transformed. The chain of events set into motion by the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq is inexorably reaching its logical conclusion — not the consolidation of democratic, secular states but the disintegration of multi-ethnic and multi-confessional entities. Nationalist forces have squared off against religious extremists over not only who controls the states of the region, but the very nature of the state institutions. Meanwhile, outside powers have poured arms and money into the region in quixotic attempts to influence the outcome.

Many people aren’t sticking around to see who will win. They’re voting with their feet.

Millions of refugees, mostly from Syria but also from Afghanistan and Iraq, are pouring into neighboring countries. The shortfall in funds available to manage this refugee flow — and the resulting lack of food and health care in the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon — has precipitated a follow-on wave of emigration, mostly to Europe. The states of those strife-torn countries have failed their denizens, so they’re seeking out places where the state provides at least partial shelter from everyday violence and uncertainty.

In an equally startling development, tens of thousands are going in the opposite direction.

The Islamic State has attracted nearly 30,000 people in the last two years. Given an inflow of 1,000 new recruits each month, the entity is able to maintain its fighting strength of 20,000-30,000 zealots, despite having absorbed 7,000 air strikes and suffering an estimated loss of 10,000 members (or perhaps because of these well-publicized martyrdoms).

Although the recruits all subscribe to the same version of Sunni Islam, their decision to flock to ISIS is more like the earlier, more ideologically motivated migration to the Soviet Union. After all, if they simply wanted a more fundamentalist version of Islam, they could have gone to Saudi Arabia. Rather, they’re drawn by the ISIS promise to fuse religion and state authority in a new caliphate. At the same time deeply conservative and thoroughly revolutionary, ISIS promises to change the world by plunging it back into a Dark Ages of beheadings and Twitter.

The current refugee crisis is the most visible sign of this Middle East remapping. But it’s not the only one.

Enclaves Besieged

Both the United States and Russia are committed to bolstering unitary states in the Middle East. They just happen to support different ones.

Russia has long backed the government of Bashar al-Assad. It’s recently attempted to portray the Syrian regime as the best chance for defeating ISIS. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent advanced jet fighters and a contingent of soldiers to battle a force that’s already declared its own satellite state on Russian soil in the northern Caucasus. This week, Russia conducted its first aerial attack on ISIS in Syria.

President Obama, at the UN summit this week on countering ISIS, has pushed for a “hearts-and-minds” strategy to counter violent extremism at the source. But the United States is also bombing ISIS, supporting opposition fighters like the Kurds, and trying to train “moderate” fighters to insert into the conflict (a dismal failure to date). The likely outcome of this strategy will be an accelerated fragmentation of Syria. The Kurds, Druze, Sunnis, and Alawites are spinning apart in the country’s centrifuge of violence, and the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition to oust Assad and defeat ISIS will drive the wedges even further between these communities.

Meanwhile next door, evidence of the failure of this strategy is on display in Iraq. Years of war have not produced peace or eliminated extremism. The Obama administration has tried to keep Iraq together through an ill-advised patchwork of alliances that have only compromised the country’s immune system, giving rise to the potentially terminal illness of ISIS. And Washington continues to look the other way in Iraq as Shi’ite militias engage in their own form of ethnic cleansing, using ISIS as an excuse to go after any and all Sunnis in the country.

Syria and Iraq are not the only countries drifting toward a terrifying homogeneity. The Christian population of the region has declined to a mere 4 percent — from 1.5 million in Iraq to 500,000 today, from a strong majority in Lebanon to a mere 34 percent. Sectarian violence has also threatened Coptic Christians in Egypt and Libya. If ISIS takes root in these countries, countless other minorities would be at risk as well.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has a significant minority population of Shi’ites, somewhere between 10 and 15 percent, who have faced persistent discrimination. The most recent case involves Ali al-Nimr, whom the Saudi authorities arrested four years ago when he was 16 for his participation in protests against anti-Shia discrimination. The Saudi government plans to behead him and then crucify the body as a warning to others. Who needs enemies with friends like these?

And then there’s Israel, which has done as much as possible to isolate Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and treat its Arab population as second-class citizens. The situation inside Israel has become so toxic that even Sayed Kashua — the most successful Palestinian writer in Israel — moved his family to Champaign, Illinois. A two-state solution that finally accords Palestinians their own functioning state is to be welcomed — but it’s also a sad recognition of the inability of Israelis and Arabs to live in a multiethnic society together.

Finally, with the fall of Kunduz to the Taliban this week, Afghanistan too is on the verge of following Iraq and Syria into a nation-state death spiral. A city of 300,000 people, Kunduz is the first urban area that the Taliban have seized since their defeat in 2001. If the Taliban retake power, expect the country to surpass Syria and once again become the world’s leading exporter of people, with minority populations suffering disproportionately.

A New Compact

Russia has already assembled a coalition with Iran, Iraq, and Syria to share intelligence for the purposes of battling ISIS. If the United States and Russia were to put aside their differences to pursue a political solution to the problems facing Syria in particular, it would go a long way toward achieving the consensus necessary to address what ails the Middle East. But it’s not enough.

The problem of the Middle East is not something that outsiders can fix. The essential problem involves the nature of the state.

The various state models on offer in the region are just not working. Authoritarian Arab nationalism, represented by Assad in Syria and al-Sisi in Egypt, is a human rights nightmare. The theocratic alternatives on display in Saudi Arabia and Iran are equally unpalatable, though at least some democratic procedures are in place in the latter. The sultanates of the Gulf States depend on cheap foreign labor and a caste system to keep the ruling families in place.

Israel, too, has created an apartheid system to keep itself afloat in a largely hostile environment. Lebanon’s confessional system has been paralyzed for years. Iraq was supposed to be the model that all post-9/11 countries in the region should follow, but it’s barely a state at all given the autonomy of the Kurds, the secession of ISIS, and the murderousness of the Shi’ite militias.

Turkey once offered great hope as a compromise between the religiously observant (the Justice and Development Party), the secular nationalists (Kemalists), and the minorities (particularly the Kurds). But that model has broken down because of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire for power.

Outsiders can’t impose a state system, as the colonial powers attempted to do after World War I or the Bush administration tried in Iraq after 2003. But they can help reduce the amount of violence in order to create space within which the critical discussions over what kind of state is appropriate can take place.

President Obama spoke once again at the UN about the importance of political solutions. Fine: Let’s stop focusing on the one (Assad) and refocus on the many (the refugees). Sit down with Russia, Iran, the EU, and others to work out a political solution in Syria that can stop the ongoing population transfer and avert an even greater tragedy.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • stan van houcke

    Mr. Feffer states ‘Both the United States and Russia are committed to bolstering unitary states in the Middle East.’ The question is: which United States? The one of the CIA? Or the one of the Pentagon. Or the one of the state department? The one of the military-industrial complex? Or the one of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned for in 1961. Perhaps mr. Feffer can be more explicit. The Canadian former diplomat Peter Dale Scott wrote: ‘Above all it is increasingly evident to a global minority that American hypermilitarism, in the name of security, is becoming – much like British hypermilitarism in the nineteenth century — a threat to everyone’s security, including America’s, by inducing and increasingly seeking wider and wider wars.’

    • John Feffer

      Thanks for the comment and question. Officially, the Obama administration is committed to a unitary Iraq, and that includes Vice President Biden, who had pushed for decentralization along with Leslie Gelb some years back. But there have been more and more voices inside the administration, including Ashton Carter at the Pentagon, that are talking about partition. This is one of those issues that divides the military-industrial-congressional complex, largely because of the utter failure of Iraq policy to date. Of course, as you suggest, the proponents of the different positions here in Washington are more concerned with advancing U.S. interests — defeating the Islamic State, strengthening the Kurdish regional state, maintaining access to oil — than with improving the lives of all Iraqis. They just haven’t figured out whether partition or continued commitment to al-Abadi is the better strategy.

  • alan

    Mr. Feffer points out, “…a sad recognition of the inability of Israelis and Arabs to live in a multiethnic society together”. I live in the Galilee (in the north of Israel) where there is about a 50-50 split of the population between Arabs and Jews. While there are still some tensions between the two groups, in general they are living side by side in quite a successful “multiethnic society”. This situation is not a result of a beneficial central government, but rather as an unintended consequence of the Arabs not fleeing after 1948 and the natural play of the demographics involved.
    We see Arabs in every sphere of life: doctors (including heads of medical departments), lawyers, mechanics and owners of garages, nurses, accountants, bus drivers and owners of bus companies, building contractors and construction workers, store owners in Jewish towns, multi-ethnic political parties (last election, in the city of Karmiel) etc. etc.
    And, even, friendship and relationships.

    A lot more can be done, but there are quite a few citizen groups volunteering to improve the existing situation.

    Whatever is happening in the Occupied Territories, reality in the Galilee is different.

    Mr. Feffer, you should do some research on the Galilee.

    • John Feffer

      Thank you for the useful comment. Yes, Israelis and Palestinians do live side by side in parts of Israel. There are Arab parties in the Knesset. But virtually no one is pushing for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I would love to see the Galilee model become more widespread. And I applaud the citizen groups that are working toward that end. But the national conversation in Israel, particularly under the current government, tends toward the opposite direction.

      • stuartgoldbarg

        No one wants a one state solution. Even a two state solution is untenable, as West Bankers and Gazans are very different peoples with very different ways of looking at the world, not having lived together under the same government or shared experiences since the days of the Mamlukes. When Sharon left Gaza to its own devices, Gazans promptly murdered the PLA officials simultaneously in anearly morning massacre. However, a 3 state solution may work.

  • Andrea Ostrov Letania

    All these WWII-Holocaust references about why Europe must take in refugees(or refuse) are nuts.
    WWII really happened largely because of massive migrations that had taken place in earlier centuries. Germans had migrated into other areas and gained elite and even demographic power in non-German lands. When Poland had been divided between Germans and Russians in the 18th and 19th century, lots of non-Poles migrated into those lands, and Poles had migrated into non-Pole lands(which is why a good number of Soviet commies were Poles or Latvians). And there had been lots of migration among groups all over Austro-Hungarian Empire.
    And even when the Polish Empire existed, Poles migrated into Ukraine and gained lots of economic and political power, often at the expense of Ukrainian Cossack population that came to seethe with resentment.
    This was a time when borders were fluid and even Swedes invaded Poland from the north(subject of THE DELUGE by Sienkiewicz) and Turks from the South(subject of PAN MICHAEL aka FIRE IN THE STEPPES). All these mutual migration hither and thither led to lots of headache and heartache and lots of bloodshed.

    Progs would have us believe that Europe has been these tidy homogeneous political units with solid borders and that was the reason why Europe blew up in WWI and WWII, but that is a totally bogus reading of history.
    Notice WWI didn’t happen between UK and France cuz UK was ‘over here’ and France was ‘over there’. And there was no war between Spain and Italy cuz Spain was ‘over here’ and Italy was ‘over there’. Wars happened due to migrations that had taken place in earlier centuries and confused borders & identities. Irish fought the British cuz of British migration to Ireland. Germans and French fought over Alsace-Lorraine cuz the demographics were mixed. Some places would be mostly German but ruled by French or vice versa.

    The Balkans and Poland was the hotbed of problems cuz migrations over centuries had led to crazy-quilt politician situations. And during the Ottoman Empire, many Greeks and Armenians had migrated to Turkey, and many Turks had migrated to what is now Greece. All these would later blow up into ethnic tensions as Greeks and Armenians sought independence from Ottoman domination(the then EU or Soviet Union of the Near East). Migrations were the seeds of later conflicts.

    WWI didn’t happen between nations with solid borders. It was triggered from a place of unsure borders that had been ethnically and politically destabilized by centuries of migration of all sorts of groups. So, Serbs had squabble with Austrians and with other Slavic groups.
    And Hitler’s aggression started with the fact that Germans were angry with the treatment of German minorities in non-German lands. Germans had a right to be angry cuz of the mistreatment. But non-Germans had a right to be angry with German settlers cuz they’d arrived as migrant-invaders long ago(and often dominated the economy). But again, this problem resulted from ‘too many Germans’ having migrated and settled in non-German lands, often at the expense of the locals.

    When WWII finally came to a close, there was a massive migration crisis BUT the solution to that crisis was to make sure that everyone migrated to his own country. Push Poles outside Poland into Poland, push Germans outside Germany into Germany, push Austrians outside Austria into Austria, and etc. And it did wonders for peace. The post-WWII migration policy was not to push peoples into OTHER nations. It was to push people into their own nations. That way, each nation would be homogeneous, peaceful, and at ease. Homogeneity was the solution to the age-old problems that had plagued Europe. Homogeneity wasn’t the reason for WWI and WWII but the solution to the tensions that led to those conflicts.

    And nations in Europe that had erected solid borders and increased homogeneity were not only more stable but were more likely to have peaceful relations with other nations with similar attributes. There had once been a time when France and Britain fought cuz French had an eye on a piece of Britain and Britain had an eye on a piece of France. But when Britain and France mutually agreed that ‘this is Britain’ and ‘that is France’, they got along despite their rivalries.

    And Norwegians and Swedes got along better when Swedes let Norwegians have their own nation. And Russia and Finland got along when Finland established its own borders.
    And look at Asia. It was because of massive Japanese migration into Manchuria that tensions rose between Japan and China. And Chinese migration into Tibet hasn’t made Tibetans very happy, to say the least. (But Tibet seems to be less of an issue in the West cuz diversity-mongering in Tibet seems to be in tune with the Western PC project.) And why is there tensions in Ukraine? Cuz of migrations of Russians into Ukraine long ago — though one could argue Ukies are really just renegade Russians. (For some reason, EU doesn’t seem bothered by Ukraine nationalism against Russians and even Ukie violence against Russian minorities.)

    Now, what was the creation of Israel all about? It too followed the post-WWII formula. If Jews needed to migrate, the idea was they should migrate to their own nation. So, many European Jews migrated to Palestine/Israel. And Israel urged Jews all across the Middle East to migrate to Israel. Homeward Migration than Outbound Migration.

    After WWII, most Germans who’d settled in non-German lands in the earlier centuries were made to migrate to Germany. And Poles in non-Polish lands were made to migrate back to Poland. To be sure, as a sizable chunk of Germany was given to Poland, Germans there had to be moved westward, and Poles in the territories that had been occupied by Soviets were pushed into newly constituted Poland.

    At any rate, the real cause of WWI and WWII was the centuries-old migrations among various nationalities that had made for murky borders in the eastern parts of Europe.
    WWI didn’t happen because European nations had been too homogeneous. If so, Sweden would have been the main aggressor and instigator cuz it was more homogeneous than most nations at the time.
    Homogeneous nations were a problem ONLY WHEN they encouraged their people to migrate to other nations, like when Japan encouraged millions to emigrate to Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria(and then into China proper). In other words, when they created diverse situations outside their homeland.

    Homeward migration makes for greater stability and peace. Outbound migration sows the seeds for future conflict as it destabilizes social and political order. The native people are bound to feel threatened, and the newcomer-settlers are bound to feel alienated and ‘marginalized’.

    Also, migrants can be used as excuse by nations for aggression. When Brits settled in China, any violence done to the Brits by angry Chinese patriots was used as justification by Brits to take a bigger chunk of China, and that made the Chinese even angrier. When American migrants settled parts of Mexico at the stupid invitation of the Mexican government and when those gringo migrants got into a tussle with Mexican authorities, US government used it a pretext for US imperial motions against Mexico. US even lied about Spanish mistreatment of Americans to trigger Spanish-American War that wrested Cuba and Philippines away from Spain. Migration into other lands sows seeds of future discord.

    In our globalized world, it’s a good thing that people can work in other nations and travel around the world. But it should all be done with legal paperwork bound to sound laws. As for citizenship, it should be determined by blood-and-soil as all other considerations are too wobbly and weak.
    All nations should opt for the Israeli-ethno-option or ethnoption.
    Some nations can be multi-ethnic in its identity. Given the particular history of Australia, Aborigines and Anglos should both be considered the ethnic core of Australia. As for others, they should just be treated as workers and tourists unless they marry into the Australian folk and their children become Australian by blood. Otherwise, work, travel, and then go home.

    One could argue that the new EU is okay with migration, at least among various Europeans, and it’s true enough that many Europeans have moved back and forth into each other nations without much trouble in the past 15 yrs. There are lots of Poles in France and UK, and other Eastern Europeans have also migrated to Germany. One might say people are more tolerant today cuz of easing of ethnic identity and nationalism.
    But then, what is the new so-called magic glue that allows such kind of cohesion? It is consumerism, pop culture, celebrity culture, Euro-vision trashiness, homomania(with the ‘gay rainbow’ becoming the new flag and symbol of Western identity), and etc. Are such tripe a sound long-term basis for the future of a people and culture? Can nations thrive in the long run without ethnic sense of heritage and with only one’s mania for pop fashions and mind-numbing PC tripe?
    Does demo-crassy have a future? I would say No.
    The rise of narcissism, consumerism, materialism, and hedonism as the New European Culture has made Europeans shallow and trashy, idiots who look to Kim Kardashian and Kanye West as model of humanity.
    Also, PC and Holocaust-worship have bled Europeans dry of their pride and will to survive. The failure of the New European Identity and Values can be seen in the utter helplessness of Europe when faced with the terror of Arab migration and the ghastly horror of the African invasion. Europeans don’t know what to do. They don’t know what is and isn’t European. They are too hooked on popium of pop culture or too brainwashed by PC to assert that Europeanness has a racial and historical basis. Instead, they are under the globalist spell(esp favored by Jews) that Europeanness is merely an idea and that ANYONE can come to partake of it. Theoretically, if all whites were to vanish and if Europe were taken over by blacks and Arabs, it would still be ‘European’ as long as…. homomania and feminism were practiced by blacks and Arabs.
    Europe is an ideological fixation than a racial/cultural foundation. It’d be like a Jew saying Jewishness is about voting Democratic than being Jewish by lineage. In that case, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans must be Jewish.

    A people bound by shallow pop culture(especially one emanating from America) and demoralized by PC(that says Europeans can only claim moral pride by committing racial, national, and cultural suicide) won’t be a people of a meaningful racial and cultural community for long.

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