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Bani Adam: the 13th-century Persian poem

Bani Adam: the 13th-century Persian poem

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, SOAS, University of London comes up with ‘Bani Adam: the 13th-century Persian poem that shows why humanity needs a global response to coronavirus’ to tell us that this novel pandemic per this poem is not locally that much of a novelty, not different from its predecessors and it is all about human connectivity.


Bani Adam: the 13th-century Persian poem
A 19th drawing of the tomb of the Iranian poet Saadi in Shiraz. Pascal Coste via Wikimedia Commons.

Coronavirus is all about human connectivity. From a philosophical perspective, I’ve been thinking about how this virus is forcing us to confront our common fate, highlighting our connections in the process. The novel coronavirus defies geography and national borders. There is no escaping it – exactly because humanity is inevitably interdependent.

In a beautifully emotive poem called Bani Adam (human kind), drafted in the 13th century, the Persian-Muslim polymath Sa’adi used what can be employed as an analogy to our current challenge in order to visualise this common constitution of humanity. It reads:

Human beings are members of a whole,
in creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
the name of human you cannot retain.

These verses from Sa’adi’s Bani Adam decorate the walls of the United Nations building in New York and the poem was quoted by US president Barack Obama in his videotaped New Year (Nowrouz) message to Iran in March 2009 to open up a new chapter in Iranian relations with the US. More recently, the British band Coldplay used the poem as the title of a song in their album Everyday Life. It’s a poem that speaks to the inevitability of a common fate of humanity, that unites us into an intimately shared space.

A common fate

This effort of conjoining what has been artificially divided through nationalisms, religious doctrines and other forms of ideology, was equally central to a poem by the German genius Johann Wolfgang Goethe. He was very much influenced by Persian/Muslim philosophy and poetry, in particular by the 14th-century poet Hafez-e Shirazi.

In his magnificent work West-Eastern Divan, a very early manifesto against cultural essentialism – viewing one’s own culture in complete separation of others – Goethe wrote:

When people keep themselves apart in mutual disdain.
A truth is hidden from the heart.
Their goals are much the same.

As a communicable disease, the coronavirus compounds our inevitable common fate. Our existence cannot be safeguarded in isolation, we can only survive together: my fate is yours, ours is theirs. Social media, for instance, has adopted terms such as “viral” to describe particularly successful Tweets or Facebook posts, which demonstrate the dialogues between our bodies and minds that are ongoing at every second of the day on this global canvass. This interconnected reality of ours merges (rather than divides) categories such as “us” and “them”, “self” and “other” which are at the heart of problematic ideas about today’s eternal cultural wars.


Read more: Philosopher in Italian coronavirus lockdown on how to think positively about isolation


Our leaders continue to speak about the coronavirus in distinctly martial and psycho-nationalist terms. Even in a staunchly secular liberal-democracy such as France, president Emmanuel Macron described the crisis in war-like terms. US president Donald Trump used similar words when he likened himself to a “wartime president” in order to describe his fight against the virus.

And yet at the height of the pandemic, Trump’s administration pushed through more unilateral sanctions against Iran, which has been badly hit by coronavirus, and Venezuelan officials . At the time when countries such as China and Cuba are sending specialists to the epicentres of the crisis, Trump has punished the most vulnerable members of Iranian society for the sake of nationalistic power politics.

In search of a global response

In the meantime, many of us are concerned because we are finding out, tragedy by tragedy, that there is a lack of multilateral cooperation. Our elected leaders are incompetent or helpless and rampant capitalism has focused much of our resources on profit, rather than on institutions that serve the people.

The coronavirus transmuted into such an all-encompassing pandemic for two simple reasons. First, our common biology does not respect any of the mental and physical borders that were created to keep us apart. Second, coronavirus revealed how globalised our contemporary world is. Our lives are so closely interlinked and networked that this outbreak travelled all around the world within weeks.

The speed at which the virus spread demonstrates quite clearly the contracted space that we are all living in on Earth. Yet our politicians speak about national remedies and continue as if nothing has happened, as if we can insulate ourselves forever. It should be the World Health Organization and other UN bodies which take the lead to coordinate global policies for global problems.


Read more: Why defeating coronavirus in one country isn’t enough – there needs to be a coordinated global strategy


Yet, in clear contradiction to what is needed, politicians continue to speak of coronavirus in terms of mere national emergencies. This approach compartmentalises what is conjoined, and contributes to the current crisis which can only be faced properly with global coordination and within multilateral organisations. But the UN and its auxiliary network is despised by the new breed of hyper-nationalist leaders all around the world. It is these leaders who have stunted our ability to resolve borderless challenges such as this current pandemic.

There is a common fate inscribed in our lives which demands global answers to global challenges. “No man is an island,” wrote the poet John Donne in 1624. It’s time that we act upon the science, with the empathy of a poet, and institute a new form of internationalism that acknowledges and celebrates our common humanity.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies, SOAS, University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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Coronavirus brings a disinformation surge about Qatar

Coronavirus brings a disinformation surge about Qatar

An article on disinformation titled Coronavirus brings a disinformation surge about Qatar, originally published by Coda Story is republished here as an eye-opener on how the world pandemic is currently made, as it were, good use of in the MENA’s Gulf region.

  • Text by Burhan Wazir
  • Photo by bphoto/AFP via Getty Images
  •  

A weaponized hashtag and fake Twitter accounts seek to blame the small Gulf nation for the spread of COVID-19

The ongoing blockade of Qatar by its neighbors is being further intensified by a new round of disinformation blaming the Gulf country for the spread of COVID-19.

Last week, Noura Almoteari — a Saudi Arabia-based journalist — posted on Twitter, saying that Qatar has known about the existence of COVID-19 since 2015. Earlier this month, she accused Doha of paying billions to China “to grow the virus.” She also coined the Twitter hashtag “Qatar is corona,” which has now been used hundreds of times on the platform. Almoteari stated that the country was spreading the virus in order to damage both the UAE’s upcoming Expo 2020 and Saudi Arabia’s future plans to diversify into a post-oil economy.

In addition to this, Qatar has come under attack from Twitter bot accounts that blame the country for the coronavirus outbreak. In January and February, numerous fake Twitter profiles advanced the theory that Qatar was responsible for spreading the virus to Argentina. The accounts have since been suspended.

The land, sea and air blockade of Qatar began in June 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic links with the gas-rich country, after years of rancor over Doha’s foreign policy.

The blockading quartet issued a list of demands, which seemed designed to turn Qatar into a client state. The orders included that Doha cut all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements, and that it shutterits media operations, including the broadcaster Al Jazeera. 

In the years since the blockade was launched, Qatar has faced repeated accusations from Saudi Arabia and the UAE of supporting terrorism. Armies of Twitter accounts and carefully orchestrated disinformation campaigns have become a prominent and ongoing feature of this diplomatic quarrel.

“The coronavirus campaign against Qatar began online as early as January, long before the current corona outbreak,” said Marc Owen Jones, assistant professor of Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, in a phone interview with Coda Story. 

“There were definitely some early disinformation campaigns on Twitter, which were basically saying that Qatar was responsible for the coronavirus, and that it had played a role in spreading it. People are trying to preempt the crisis and exploit it politically.” Subscribe to Coda’s Coronavirus Crisis newsletter

The disinformation campaign has also targeted Qatar’s labor camps — institutions common in Gulf nations, which house thousands of low-paid migrant workers. One Saudi newspaper has published a number of stories about the outbreak of COVID-19 affecting “hundreds” of people in the industrial areas outside Doha, where many of Qatar’s 1.9 million migrant workers live.

Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health says the total number of reported coronavirus cases in the country currently stands at 481. 

“I would say this is a continuation of the verbal barrage of misinformation and disinformation that is part of the Qatar blockade,” said Dr Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow with the Middle East & North Africa Programme at Chatham House in London. “In this current iteration, it accuses the Qataris of spreading the virus. This will continue for quite a degree of time, and these sorts of campaigns are a reflection of how deep seated the tensions are.”

Vakil said the disinformation about Qatar echoed how other countries are trying to internationalize the cause of COVID-19. In recent days, China has sought to blame the U.S.; earlier this month, Bahrain accused Iran of “biological aggression” by covering up the spread of the coronavirus.

“While it is interesting these bots are blaming Qataris, I think it is part of a nationalist impulse that is not just unique to the Gulf in using an external crisis to whip up support,” Vakil added.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, author of “Qatar and the Gulf Crisis,” believes that the outpouring of digital disinformation about Qatar on Twitter must at least have the tacit approval of authorities in countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where social media is closely monitored. 

“The fact that such comments have been made by high-profile individuals in Saudi Arabia and the UAE without facing any official censure suggests that their messaging carries the implicit approval of authorities, who are in other circumstances extremely quick to police and respond harshly to commentaries that they do not agree with,” he said.

Burhan Wazir is the Managing Editor of Coda Story’s Authoritarian Tech and Disinformation channels. He’s an award-winning journalist and editor, based in London, who previously worked at The Observer, The Times and Al Jazeera. He lived in the Middle East from 2008-2016.

Get in touch via burhan@codastory.com

Why do Arabs dream of leaving their homelands?

Why do Arabs dream of leaving their homelands?

A popular question these days more than ever before would be “Why do Arabs dream of leaving their homelands?“. The answer could be something to do with their environment, climate and internet networking.


High unemployment rates, oppressive regimes and a desire for better education are some of the reasons cited by Arabs who express a desire to leave their countries.

The Arab world has seen a lot of its youth move in search of better opportunities for employment, freedom of expression, in addition to escaping from social and cultural norms they find oppressive.

According to an August 2019 poll by the Arab Barometer company, titled “Youth in the Middle East and North Africa,” the daily living situation in the region is far from ideal.

Noting that youth between the ages of 15 to 29 comprise about 30 percent of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, the Arab Barometer finds a significant number of them dissatisfied with their economic prospects.

They are also not happy with the education system. Moreover, “less than half say the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed”. Then there’s the high unemployment rates and widespread corruption.

This is why, Arab Barometer suggests, youth in the MENA region are more likely to consider emigrating from their country than older residents. The preferred destinations are varied, including Europe, North America, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Another survey by Arab Barometer, titled “Migration in the Middle East and North Africa,” published in June 2019, notes that across the region, “roughly one-in-three citizens are considering emigrating from their homeland.”

The surveys were conducted with more than 27,000 respondents in the MENA region between September 2018 and May 2019 in face-to-face interviews.

According to the Arab Barometer’s findings, there had been a decrease in people considering emigrating from 2006 to 2016. Yet since 2016, the trend is no longer in decline but has shown an increase “across the region as a whole.”

The Arab Barometer finds that citizens are “more likely to want to leave” if they are young, well educated and male. The survey has found more than half of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 in five of the 11 countries surveyed want to leave.

While older potential migrants are more likely to cite economic factors as the primary decision, the survey suggests, younger ones “are more likely to name corruption, for example.”

As for the desired destination countries, they vary according to the homeland of potential migrants. Among those living in the Maghreb countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, Europe is the favoured destination. 

Whereas migrants from Egypt, Yemen and Sudan point towards Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The survey has also found that those from Jordan or Lebanon prefer North America, notably the US or Canada.

The survey also notes that while most would only depart if they had the proper paperwork, young males with lower levels of education who may not see a positive future in their homeland have said they would be willing to migrate illegally, “including roughly four-in-ten in six of the 11 countries surveyed.”

In a blog post for Unesco’s Youth Employment in the Mediterranean (YEM) published in January 2020, Sabrina Ferraz Guarino observes that “Migration is a coping mechanism based on the assumption that moving to another country is the best and most efficient investment for their own and one’s family future” and that improving people’s lives in their home countries will likely result in less desire to migrate.

Guarino says the unemployment rates in the Mediterranean region affect youth the most: “Unemployed youth are the highest in Palestine (45%), Libya (42%), Jordan (36.6%) and Tunisia (34.8%), while Morocco (21.9%) and Lebanon (17.6%) fare relatively better.”

She adds: “Viewing this together with the share of the youth that is not in education, employment or training (NEET), reveals how the challenges of youth employment remain self-compounding. The youth NEET rates tally around 14% in Lebanon and 21% for Algeria, but progressively increase across Tunisia (25%), Jordan (28%), Morocco (28%), and Palestine (33%).”

In its MENA report published in October 2019, the World Bank says growth rates across the region are rising but are still below “what is needed to create more jobs for the region’s fast-growing working-age population.” 

The World Bank recommends reforms “to demonopolise domestic markets and open up regional trade to create more export-led growth.” Source: TRT World

Related:

Reactions to the Coronavirus Outbreak in the Middle East

Reactions to the Coronavirus Outbreak in the Middle East

What Have the Reactions to the Coronavirus Outbreak in the Middle East Shown? Wondered Michael Young citing four members of the middle Eastern elites on yet another challenge that the region is confronting.


Souha S. Kanj | Professor of medicine, head of the Division of Infectious Diseases, chair of the Infection Control and Prevention Program at the American University of Beirut Medical Center

The events related to the coronavirus outbreak are evolving quickly around the world. The situation in the Middle East is probably more complex than elsewhere. The countries of the region are a mix of rich and poor states, with variable GDPs and health infrastructures, and are frequently characterized by political instability and tension. War and violent conflicts have weakened health infrastructure in many countries. The influx of migrants through borders has contributed to healthcare related challenges. The region also has geopolitical and economic ties to both China and Iran, which recently appeared as the epicenters for the COVID-19 outbreak in the region.

There is a striking variation in the number of reported cases by country in the Middle East. Underreporting is thought to be prevalent, whether due to an unwillingness, and sometimes a lack of preparedness, to perform accurate testing. Syria, for example, has not reported any cases, despite its close ties to Iran. Its fragile health system is likely incapable of detecting and responding to the epidemic. The same applies to Yemen.

Some countries in the Middle East have raised the alert level during the past week by imposing school closures and other measures of social distancing. The Saudi authorities have cancelled the Umrah pilgrimage and access to Mecca to nonresidents until further notice. Some Gulf countries are requiring visa applicants to produce a negative test for COVID-19. Other countries are still reporting few cases. In Iran, the response was slow, suggesting an unwillingness to report cases before the country’s elections. Mortality among infected patients in Iran seems to be among the highest after China.

There is little to suggest that Middle Eastern countries have joined efforts to address this global viral threat. The Arab League has remained silent. No meetings have been announced to discuss the evolving situation. Arab countries in the Middle East have so far missed an opportunity to overcome political divisions and closely collaborate to contain the spread of the virus in the region. It might not be too late to engage in coordination, especially from the wealthier states, to provide technical, material, and financial assistance to their neighbors.

Amir A. Afkhami | Associate professor of psychiatry, global health, and history at George Washington University, author of A Modern Contagion: Imperialism and Public Health in Iran’s Age of Cholera.

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Nothing illustrates this more than the series of baffling policy decisions by Iran’s leadership that have resulted in the largest outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the region. Despite advances in the biomedical sciences and infectious disease control in the past century, the Iranian government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been hobbled by ideological, religious, and economic concerns.

Other countries in the Middle East have followed suit, often prioritizing their non-medical domestic and foreign policy interests in establishing travel bans, quarantines, and other forms of public health precautions. These religious, political, and economic determinants of infectious diseases hark back to the pre-World War I period in the region. Devotional visits to shrine cities and burials at holy sites played an important role in the dissemination of pandemic outbreaks in the Iranian and Ottoman Empires throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Similarly, political, economic, and religious interests often took precedence over public welfare in the way quarantines, travel bans, and disinfection policies were established within the empires and on their frontiers. This shows us that historic social and political forces continue to shape the impact of contagions on the peoples of the Middle East.

Basem al-Shabb | Former Lebanese parliamentarian, American Board in general and cardiothoracic surgery

The response to the COVID-19 epidemic in the Middle East has followed the usual script in the region for dealing with calamity. Whereas human suffering invites cooperation in other places, in the Middle East it seams to accentuate cultural and sectarian tensions. As reports of cases were trickling out of Iran, the authorities engaged in denial. Only recently did the Syrian Health Ministry confidently state that there were no known cases in Syria. In Lebanon, flights from Iran, the epicenter of the epidemic, continued unabated and screening at the airport was instituted rather late in the game. Throughout the region, there is an undercurrent of sectarianism. While Iran wrestles with a massive epidemic, Egypt has reported only a few cases and, interestingly, Turkey has reported none. There is hardly any cooperation or exchange of information on COVID-19 among the countries of the Levant.

The epidemic has also touched on religious sensitivities, with some churches in Lebanon insisting on pursuing communion using a single utensil. There is no doubt the coronavirus has brought out the usual regional reactions of denial, delayed responses, myth-mongering, sectarianism, as well as conspiracy theories.

Bader al-Saif | Nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where his research focuses on the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula

The coronavirus outbreak is a potent reminder that the Middle East is no different than the rest of the world. The outbreak has reinforced preexisting tendencies in the region, where it is no secret that systems are largely broken. It has further exposed governmental weakness, evidenced in ambiguous, inconsistent policies. Crisis management and transparency are largely lacking, and so is the faith of citizens in governments’ ability to protect them. Political considerations have triumphed over necessary health directives in various states, putting citizens at further risk, whether by allowing the continuation of flights from high risk areas, such as Iranians traveling to Lebanon, or deferring necessary testing, as in Egyptians traveling to Kuwait. There are notable exceptions, such as Saudi Arabia, where the state has managed the outbreak of the coronavirus and peoples’ reactions to it.

Responses have ranged from denial to fear. Some assume the virus is a conspiracy theory, while others are misinformed about its nature. The virus has also justified racist slurs. With most of the Middle East contracting the virus via Iran, the anti-Iran camp has condemned Iran’s irresponsibility and poor services (ignoring the impact of U.S. sanctions), with some even suggesting that the virus is a Shi‘a phenomenon aimed at infecting the Sunni-majority Middle East.

There has been a third, more measured response among less ideological people. These include business owners, who are concerned about the economic impact of the outbreak; expatriates barred from returning to their homes due to travel bans; families who do not want their children’s education affected by prolonged breaks; and sensible policymakers who have sought to jointly coordinate responses. The outbreak has reminded Middle Easterners of their shortcomings. They patiently are awaiting a breakthrough that would end the coronavirus outbreak, so they can redirect their efforts to addressing other problems long plaguing the region.

Syrian refugee crisis jeopardises the future of millions

Syrian refugee crisis jeopardises the future of millions

Or how The fragmented politics of the Syrian refugee crisis jeopardises the future of millions by Juline Beaujouan, University of Edinburgh and Amjed Rasheed, Durham University.


The Syrian province of Idlib, the remaining holdout of rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, has experienced fierce fighting in recent months as the Syrian army, supported by Russia, has pushed to reclaim the territory.

Meanwhile, the expansionist impulses of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in north-west Syria brought Turkey into direct confrontation with Assad’s forces in Idlib and exacerbated tensions with Russia. A ceasefire was agreed in early March, but tensions in the region remain high.

Even before the military escalation in Idlib, the Turkish attack on Kurds in north-eastern Syria in October 2019 had added a layer of complexity to the conflict. Now the recent assaults on Syrians in Idlib have led to the exodus of an estimated 1 million civilians. UN officials said it was “the fastest growing displacement” they had ever seen in Syria.

Many people fled to Turkey, already home to around 3.5 million Syrian refugees. On February 29, Turkey opened its border with Greece, apparently to put pressure on Europe to support its operations in Idlib.

Sadly, this wave of migration is only the latest flashpoint in the worst humanitarian crisis since the horrors of the second world war. But even this crisis, with thousands now stuck in no-man’s land on the Greek-Turkish border, hasn’t triggered a way through the regional and domestic blockages that have prevented an end to the bloodshed in Syria. This is something we’ve written about in a new book on the Syrian refugee crisis.


Read more: Tensions mount at Greek border with Turkey amid contested history of migration in the Aegean


Regional inertia

Since 2011, the humanitarian consequences of the Syrian crisis have spilled over several Middle Eastern countries. But there has been no collective, regional response – largely because of political fragmentation and competition for power.

One striking illustration of these dynamics is the inertia of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The two organisations have repeatedly failed to provide effective responses to regional issues such as the turmoil in Yemen and Libya or the rise of extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. The Syrian refugee crisis, and more recently the situation in north-west Syria, are no exceptions.

The Arab League has limited its intervention to support for efforts by the international community to mitigate the impact of the refugee crisis. As for the GCC, its actions were overshadowed by an internal rift and the involvement of Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the Syrian chaos. This means that the humanitarian burden has continued to be borne by countries that host Syrian refugees.

Some may have expected Arab solidarity in the face of a crisis that emerged in the context of wider Arab uprisings. Yet even in the Arab countries that have hosted the bulk of refugees from Syria, such as Jordan and Lebanon, the government and people distanced themselves from their Arab brothers as the crisis became protracted.

The national borders in the Middle East that were drawn up after the first world war still remain contested by pan-Arab, pan-Islamic and pan-Kurdish movements. Nevertheless, the Syrian refugee crisis showed how these borders and national identities are powerful drivers of everyday politics.

A crisis politicised

The stance of the governments in Jordan and Lebanon towards the Syrian conflict shaped the countries’ refugee policy. What started as a policy of open doors evolved from 2014 when restrictions were imposed on Syrians entering and staying in both countries. Jordan and Lebanon then began to cooperate with the international community to mitigate the refugee crisis in early 2016, and eventually began to actively encourage the return of refugees to Syria in 2018.

Syrian refugee crisis jeopardises the future of millions

Lebanon’s ruling elites capitalised on the humanitarian crisis by portraying the Syrian refugees as a security threat. Pro-Assad political parties Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement used this narrative to undermine anti-Assad political forces in Lebanon, namely a party called the Future Movement. This, in turn, created a sense of urgency which encouraged the flow of foreign aid into the country in an attempt to bring stability. But this foreign aid fed corruption.


Read more: Syrian refugees remain trapped and marginalised by Lebanon’s power-sharing politics


The media has also played an important role in shaping the perception of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon by circulating a twofold government-sponsored narrative about the crisis. On one hand, this narrative tried to reassure Lebanese people of a sense of normalcy and fostered patience and societal strength. On the other, the government framed the refugee crisis as an emergency to convince international donors to channel humanitarian aid to the country. But as we found in our research, it was the second narrative that dominated, causing confusion among Lebanese and Jordanians who have started to ask for their share of the foreign aid.

Stuck in the middle

Amid this fragmented regional landscape and the politicisation of the crisis at the regional and national levels, the fate of Syrian refugees remains unclear. Russia has offered to facilitate dialogue between host countries – mainly Lebanon – and the Assad regime regarding the return of Syrian populations. But the ongoing process of their return to their home country might now be hampered by diplomatic tensions between Syria and its neighbours, especially Lebanon and Turkey.

The safe return of Syrian refugees will also be restricted by the demographic changes initiated by the Turkish government in efforts to eliminate the Kurdish presence along its border. The fate of returnees is also jeopardised by the Assad regime’s policies against those who took part in the uprising, those who didn’t answer the conscription call during the war or those who own properties in former rebel-held areas.

The Syrian refugee crisis will remain a major card both in the hands of the countries involved militarily in the conflict, and those hosting refugees. As for the Syrian refugees themselves, their lives, rights and future are precarious. They remain the primary victims of the regional competition for power.

Juline Beaujouan, Research Associate, Political Settlements Research Programme, University of Edinburgh and Amjed Rasheed, Research Fellow, School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Charts that Bust some Myths about Migration

Charts that Bust some Myths about Migration

The World Economic Forum in 5 Charts that Bust some Myths about Migration gives a clear idea as to how the current population flows are shaping, thus directly affecting all countries. Will this phenomenon be felt differently in the MENA region? For starters, a good number of this region’s populations are within the highest contributors to the in or outflows of migrants. In any case, reading the WEF article before any discussion is seriously recommended.


  • There is widespread misinformation about international migrants and migration, especially in Europe and North America.
  • The United States, Germany and Saudi Arabia are the top destinations for international migrants.
  • Most international migrants in Asia and Africa move within the region in which they were born.
  • Cross-border displacement is pronounced and complex in Africa.

5 charts that bust some myths about migration

Boys play near the house of Fakher Hmidi, a young man who still unaccounted for after last week's capsizing off the Italian island of Lampedusa, in Thina district of Sfax, Tunisia October 15, 2019. Picture taken October 15, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi - RC1F5E3D2A50
There’s a lot of misinformation about international migration. The World Migration Report gives a clearer picture.

Few issues have been as dominant and enduring in political and public discourse as migration. Around the world, but especially in Europe and North America, international migration has come into sharp focus in recent years, becoming one of the most prominent political wedge issues.

Media reports on migration are often unduly negative, and key issues in migration have too often been hijacked by those who peddle misinformation and disinformation on migrants and migration.

At a time when “fake news” is increasing and more countries are adopting nationalist frameworks, the data and information in the recently released World Migration Report 2020 provides a more accurate picture of international migration and displacement.

Here are five charts dispelling migration misinformation.

1. Where do international migrants come from and where do they live?

Historically, the United States has been the major destination country for international migrants. This trend continued in 2019, with an estimated 51 million international migrants living in the country, the largest population of them in the world. Despite the highly politicized negative rhetoric on migrants, the US has been the most significant destination country for decades, with many migrants positively and disproportionately contributing to aspects of American life.

Germany and Saudi Arabia, both with around 13 million international migrants in 2019, were the second- and third-largest destinations for international migrants, with displacement from Syria driving much of the recent increase in Germany’s international migrant population.

India, Mexico and China topped the list of countries with the largest number of migrants living abroad in 2019. More than 40% of international migrants worldwide were born in Asia, with India alone the origin of 17.5 million.

Top 20 destinations (left) and origins (right) of international migrants in 2019 (millions)
The top destinations and origins of international migrants in 2019, in millions Image: World Migration Report 2020

2. Migration patterns are not uniform and vary across regions.

As migration has gained prominence in recent years, it has become increasingly clear there is either a lack of understanding or, at times, deliberate misrepresentation of some migration trends. A common assumption, for example, is that most African international migrants leave the continent. The data shows otherwise. Most international migrants in regions such as Africa and Asia are not headed to Europe or Northern America, but move within the region in which they were born.

Migrants to, within and from Africa, 1990-2019 Image: World Migration Report 2020

3. What do the main migration corridors show?

The largest migration corridor in the world (Mexico to the United States) did not emerge recently. Contrary to popular media and political representations, Mexican emigration to the United States has occurred over many decades.

But the second-largest corridor in the world, Syria to Turkey, has developed only recently. The conflict in Syria has resulted in mass displacement, forcing millions of Syrians to leave their country. An estimated 3.7 million Syrians were residing in Turkey in 2019.

Meanwhile, other large corridors, such as the one between India and Pakistan, are partly due to historical events such as the mass displacement during the 1947 partition.

Top 20 migration corridors from Asian countries, 2019 Image: World Migration Report 2020

4. Which countries host the largest number of refugees?

Developing countries continue to host the majority of refugees globally. Of an estimated 25.9 million refugees globally in 2018, developing regions hosted the vast number (84%). Turkey and Germany were the only two countries out of the top five refugee hosts that were not developing countries, with the former hosting the largest number of refugees in the world (3.7 million), many of whom are Syrians. Turkey was followed by Pakistan, which was home to around 1.4 million refugees (mostly Afghans), while Uganda hosted the third-largest number (1.1 million).

Number of refugees by top 5 host countries as of 2018 (millions)
Number of refugees by top five origin countries, 2018 (millions) Image: World Migration Report 2020

Syria is by far the largest origin country of refugees in the world (6.7 million). But in 2010, Syria was the third-largest host country of refugees in the world, hosting more than 1 million refugees, mainly from Iraq.

5. Cross-border displacement is complex in regions such as Africa.

While cross-border displacement remains significant in many parts of the world, it is especially pronounced in Africa. The intractable conflict in South Sudan, which has dragged on for years, produced the largest number of refugees on the continent in 2018, with most hosted in neighboring Uganda.

What is especially striking, however, is that several countries producing large numbers of refugees, such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, also hosted significant refugee populations. This underscores the complexity of displacement in regions such as Africa. To a lesser extent, these dynamics can also be seen in Asia, particularly in Iraq.

Top 10 African countries by total refugees and asylum seekers, 2018 Image: World Migration Report 2020

What is clear from these five charts is that international migration is not only complex and influenced by both historical and contemporary factors, but that migration patterns are also different across regions and countries. Understanding these dynamics is important for anyone interested in getting a clearer and less myopic picture of international migration. Importantly, a broader and more complete understanding is key to dispelling migration myths, especially in our current age when airwaves are saturated with untruths masqueraded as facts.

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Researching the trends and challenges facing think tanks

Researching the trends and challenges facing think tanks

The University of Pennsylvania’s 2019 Global Go To Think Tank Index (GGTTI) launched in 2006, marks its fourteenth year of continued efforts by reviewing all world countries’ in its Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP). Doing so was through focusing on “Researching the trends and challenges facing think tanks, policymakers, and policy-oriented civil society groups” per one of the leaders of the study.

This study showed that within the MENA region, the top three places in this year’s rankings were in this order, the Israeli think-tank: Institute for National Security (INSS), followed by the Lebanese Think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Center. Third place in this ranking in the MENA region went to the Egyptian think-tank Al Ahram Center for Political Strategic Studies (ACPSS). 

Researching the trends and challenges facing think tanks

Here are some excerpts.

Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa continue to see an expansion in the number and type of think tanks established

  • Asia has experienced a dramatic growth in think tanks since the mid-2000’s
  • Many think tanks in these regions continue to be dependent on government funding along with gifts, grants, and contracts from international public and private donors
  • University, government affiliated, or funded think tanks remain the dominant model for think tanks in these regions
  • There is increasing diversity among think tanks in these regions with independent, political party affiliated, and corporate/business sector think tanks that are being created with greater frequency
  • In an effort to diversify their funding base, think tanks have targeted businesses and wealthy individuals to support their core operations and programs.

Reasons for the Growth of Think Tanks in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

  • Information and technological revolution
  • End of national governments’ monopoly on information
  • Increasing complexity and technical nature of policy problems
  • Increasing size of government
  • Crisis of confidence in governments and elected officials
  • Globalization and the growth of state and non-state actors
  • Need for timely and concise information and analysis that is “in the right form, in the right hands, at the right time”

2019 Top Think Tanks in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Table 13

  1. Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) (Israel)
  2. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Center (Lebanon)
  3. Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) (Egypt)
  4. Al Jazeera Centre for Studies (AJCS) (Qatar)
  5. Brookings Institution (Qatar)
  6. Emirates Policy Center (United Arab Emirates)
  7. Policy Center for the New South-FNA OCP Policy Center (Morocco)
  8. International Institute for Iranian Studies, Rasanah
  9. Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) (Israel)
  10. Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) (Turkey)
  11. Egyptian Center for Economic Studies (ECES) (Egypt)
  12. Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches en Sciences Sociales (CERSS) (Morocco)
  13. Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (Israel)
  14. Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR)
  15. King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre (Saudi Arabia
  16. Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) (Turkey)
  17. Association for Liberal Thinking (ALT) (Turkey)
  18. Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace (Israel)
  19. Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) (Egypt)
  20. Dubai Public Policy Research Center (United Arab Emirates)
  21. European Stability Initiative (ESI) (Turkey)
  22. Royal Institute for Strategic Studies (IRES) (Morocco)
  23. Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (Israel)
  24. Libyan Organization of Policies and Strategies (Loops) (Libya)
  25. Economic Research Forum (ERF) (Egypt)
  26. Reut Institute (Israel)
  27. Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA) (Egypt)
  28. Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR) (Egypt)
  29. Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies (ITES) (Tunisia)
  30. Emirates Diplomatic Academy (United Arab Emirates)
  31. Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies (Bahrain)
  32. Cercle d’Action et de Réflexion Autour de l’Entreprise (CARE) (Algeria)
  33. Moroccan Institute for International Relations (Morocco)
  34. Middle East Research Institute (Iraq)
  35. Center for Arab Unity Studies (CAUS) (Lebanon)
Eight years after Egypt’s uprising, a craftsman stitches history

Eight years after Egypt’s uprising, a craftsman stitches history

An artisan practising the ancient Egyptian technique of khayamiya safeguards his memories of the 2011 uprising into quilts. This article of Asia Times tracks Eight years after Egypt’s uprising, a craftsman stitches history as told by Jenny Gustafsson, in CAIRO.

Hany Abdel Kader has worked stitching khayamiya since his childhood. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer for Asia Times

There is a soft smile on Hany Abdel Kader’s face as he takes out the carefully folded cotton piece, kept at the back of his small shop.

As he unfolds the fabric, a decorated front appears, with carefully stitched appliqué in bright colors – typical of Cairo’s long-established khayamiya (needlework) tradition. But this piece is unlike any other in the neighborhood’s workshops, where the art has been practiced for centuries. It has none of khayamiya’s customary patterns, based on geometry or Arabic calligraphy, but army tanks and masses of people – scenes from the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

‘That’s when I did my first piece, when we were all unsure about what would happen in the future,’ Abdel Kader, 44, told Asia Times.

He points to images stitched along the borders of the quilt, each depicting a different scene during the revolution. One shows a figure trying to climb the enormous government building, the Mogammaa; another, the infamous camels brought in to fight protesters in the street. Most of the scenes are set in Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicenter of the revolution.

Details from the quilt show state violence and wounded protesters being carried away. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer ‘I felt the need to describe what I saw. And I had the fabric at home, so I just laid out a big piece on the floor and started creating the design,’ said Abdel Kader.

As the days passed he added elements to the outer border, based on what he saw himself, heard from friends, or watched on TV. He embroidered words like ‘Peacefully’ and ‘Step down’.

He also stitched the slogan heard across the Arab world in 2011: ‘The people want the fall of the regime’.He added protesters getting hurt by bullets – and others coming to their rescue.

Appliqué showing scenes from Tahrir Square: tanks and protesters praying in the street, plus the demand ‘step down’. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer for Asia Times

Eight years ago, on 25 January 2011, Egypt witnessed the start of mass protests. They came on the heels of similar demonstrations in Tunisia, which set the Arab Spring in motion. After 18 days of protests in Cairo, which spread to cities across Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak – in power since 1981 – was forced to resign.Protests continued throughout 2011 demanding the armed forces that took power after Mubarak’s resignation hand over the reigns of power to civilian rule. Elections in 2012 brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, but the elected President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a military coup led by current ruler Abdel Fatah El Sisi, who has since been accused of rights abuses and criticized for giving the military unchecked power.

Abdel Kader recalls the period of the revolution eight years ago as a step into the unknown.

‘It was a very strange and unknown time for us. Suddenly, there were tanks underneath our windows. We had never seen that before,’ he said.An ancient craft Khayamiya, which takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘tent’, historically involved the production of tents and panels to be used in a range of settings, from political gatherings to funerals to celebrations. Its usage dates back at least one thousand years in Egypt.

The Cairo district of Darb al-Ahmar. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer for Asia Times

The view over Cairo’s ancient Al-Darb Al-Ahmar quarter, where many of the city’s craftspeople are located. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer Throughout the centuries, the craft has evolved. Ottoman rulers, kings Fuad and Farouk, presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat would all receive guests in rooms decorated with khayamiya.The opening (and, almost one century later, nationalization) of the Suez Canal had tents to host guests and officials.

Traditional celebratory tents are seen at a festival in the Egyptian city of Ismailia, on the west bank of the Suez Canal, for the occasion of the canal’s grand opening in 1869. Photo: Collection of Roger-Viollet Egyptian musicians, when traveling, would often bring stitched panels to put up as backdrops at their performances.The popularity of khayamiya remains until present – only now, fabrics are mostly printed by machine.

Photo: Claudia Willmitzer for Asia Times

‘You find them all over Egypt, they are so common that people rarely think about them,’ said art historian Seif El Rashidi, who recently co-authored a book on the topic.The most revered work done by Cairo’s khayamiya guild was doubtless on the kiswa, the elaborate cover for the holy Kaaba, the black cube in Mecca, which was historically produced each year in Cairo’s alleys and ceremoniously brought all the way to the holiest city in Islam. Abdel Kader comes from a family of such prominent crafters: his grandfather Mahmoud earned the name Al-Mekkawi, ‘of Mecca’, from being one of the leading kiswa artisans.

Amm Hassan, the colleague of Abdel Kader, works on a piece of khayamiya. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer Seated in the inner corner of his shop, with his long-time colleague Amm (uncle) Hassan working on a cushion next to the entrance, Abdel Kader takes out images of his first two revolution pieces.Both are in museum collections now, at Durham University and Victoria and Albert Museum in London – destinations he never imagined when drawing that first design during the revolution.

It is not entirely uncommon that political art develops this way, historian Rashidi tells Asia Times: ‘It might be spontaneous at first. An artist starts working on something, and only later on it takes on a specific meaning.

Transforming folk art

Many of the most powerful artworks from 2011 were street art, such as Ammar Abo Bakr’s portraits of martyred protesters with angel-like wings, or Bahia Shehab’s stencilled blue bra for the protester who was dragged in the streets by members of the military until her clothes ripped – creations symbolizing the ongoing regime brutality. Or the dozens of artists who came daily to the sidewalks around Tahrir, to draw what was happening. Abdel Kader’s work is different, belonging as it does to the much less utilized craft tradition.

‘Sketches for new pieces and photographs of Abdel Kader’s trips to exhibit his work abroad. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer for Asia Times

Usually, Abdel Kader’s work is not a commentary on society. Like all of Cairo’s khayamiya artists, he spends his days cutting, folding and stitching colorful pieces of cloth onto canvas to create vivid and detailed tapestries.

“Khayamiya is usually not a form of art that lends itself to this kind of work. That’s what makes Hany’s pieces so interesting,” said historian El Rashidi.

Eight years after the onset of the revolution, under another strong and repressive state apparatus, looking back at what happened is for many Egyptians associated with gloom, even a sense of despair.

But for Abdel Kader, the events that took place in Tahrir Square still form a source of inspiration.

In his home on the top floor of an apartment building in Muqattam, a dusty hill on the outskirts of Cairo, he has several sketches for new pieces.They portray the same crowds, the same skyline of Cairo and the same commemorative date, January 25th.

‘If I think about my craft there is something else that I would like to do,’ he said. That is to work on a big, traditional tent. But, he says, with the advent of machine printing, no asks for them these days. ♦

UN official blames politicians for Lebanon “chaos”

UN official blames politicians for Lebanon “chaos”

The economy, corruption and unemployment are by far the top concerns amongst citizens across 18 Arab countries. ZAWYA’s ECONOMY of January 15, 2020, reported that a UN official blames politicians for Lebanon “chaos”, protesters target banks as per Tom Perry, Reuters News:

Banks targeted in night of violent protests

UN official blames politicians for Lebanon "chaos"
A man stands near a broken facade of a bank in Beirut, Lebanon, January 15, 2020.Reuters/Aziz Taher

BEIRUT- Lebanese politicians are watching on as the economy collapses and protests turn angry, a senior U.N. official said on Wednesday, rebuking a ruling elite that has failed to agree a government or rescue plan for a country in deep crisis.

With banks tightly limiting access to cash, lenders were targeted in a night of violent protests in Beirut’s Hamra district. Bank facades and ATMs were smashed and dozens of people wounded in confrontations with police.

Heavily indebted Lebanon has been in trouble since the government was toppled by the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in October as a result of protests against corruption and bad governance that are root causes of the economic woes.

Political rivalries have obstructed a deal on a new cabinet even as the crisis hits ordinary people: the Lebanese pound has lost around a half of its value while anger at banking controls have led to rows and violence in branches.

“Another day of confusion around the formation of a government, amidst the increasingly angry protests and free-falling economy,” Jan Kubis, U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, wrote on Twitter. “Politicians, don’t blame the people, blame yourselves for this dangerous chaos.”

Kubis appeared to credit central bank governor Riad Salameh, saying he had sought “extraordinary powers to at least somehow manage the economy while those responsible watch it collapsing”.

“Incredible,” he wrote.

Salameh asked for extra powers last week, saying he wanted to standardize the banking controls. 

“BEGGING” IN THE BANK

The long-brewing economic crisis snowballed last year as hard currency inflows slowed down, leading to a shortage of dollars needed to finance the state’s deficit and import needs.

The violence in Beirut’s Hamra area was some of the worst since anti-government protests began in October. Security forces fired tear gas outside the central bank to disperse protesters who pelted them with stones and fireworks. 

One man hurled a car battery at the glass facade of a bank as another hit it with a metal pole, Reuters TV footage showed. On Wednesday morning, glass was being swept up at one vandalised bank as workers tried to fix a broken ATM at another.

A woman on Hamra street who gave her name as Hind said she supported protests against banks. “I have been coming here for the last three days and only could take $300 … we are begging, working 55 years to come and beg at the end,” she told Reuters.

“I was expecting what happened yesterday. Unfortunately the chaos is because of the politicians,” said Hamra shopkeeper Mohammad al-Rayyes.

The banking association condemned the attacks as the work of a “mercenary mob” and not the “real revolutionaries of Lebanon” seeking reform. It condemned the “severe and irresponsible tardiness in forming a new government”, saying this made it look like banks were responsible for deteriorating conditions.

The powerful Iranian-backed group Hezbollah and its political allies last month nominated Hassan Diab, a little-known former minister, to form a new government after the failure of efforts to forge a deal with Hariri, a traditional ally of the West and Gulf Arab states.

(Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah and Ellen Francis; Writing by Tom Perry Editing by Giles Elgood and Mike Collett-White) ((thomas.perry@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: thomas.perry.reuters.com@reuters.net))

A Century Ago, the Modern Middle East Was Born

A Century Ago, the Modern Middle East Was Born

The New York Times Ted Widmer’s Opinion is that A Century Ago, the Modern Middle East Was Born. Lots could object to that statement but reading his Christmas Day article republished here with our thanks, could be as enlightening as perhaps the Messiah’s birth anniversary.


At the end of 1919, Woodrow Wilson still wanted the region to decide its future. Britain and France had other ideas.

A Century Ago, the Modern Middle East Was Born
A caricature of Woodrow Wilson in Punch magazine, May 1919.Credit…Getty Images

As 1919 came to a close, people around the world were celebrating the holidays, grateful for the return of peace on earth after the convulsions of the Great War. “Peace on earth” was a relative concept; there was still fighting in Russia. But for the most part, the soldiers were home, and their families were looking forward to a new decade, free of conflict.

In Paris, there were long lines outside of restaurants, as the French celebrated the holiday with gastronomic exuberance. In BerlinVienna and Budapest there was less Christmas cheer, thanks to food shortages and inflation, but the people flocked to cafes and did their best to revive the old holiday traditions. In Washington, there was no snow, but Woodrow Wilson issued a flurry of proclamations, including one on Christmas Eve that relinquished federal control of the railroads, a wartime measure that was no longer necessary.

But for all the Christmas cheer, there was a general restlessness as the long year 1919 drew to a close, without the clarity that so many hoped would follow the war’s end. An elaborate treaty was signed at Versailles on June 28, ending hostilities between the principal powers, but creating a host of new problems. Germans were furious when they realized the scale of the reparations imposed on them. New and dangerous political actors were quick to seize upon the public’s hunger to find scapegoats as the political mood turned dark.

Wilson’s thoughts must have been conflicted this Christmas season. As the son of a Southern Presbyterian minister, he had many reasons to rejoice at the arrival of Christmas, including the fact that he was sometimes compared to Jesus, with his “sermonettes” about the new era that was approaching. As a young man, he had written an essay on “Christ’s Army,” and it must have felt at times that he was in charge of this organization, with all of his schemes for human betterment. But as the year progressed, the comparisons to Jesus began to turn sardonic, as Wilson’s perfectionism grated on his allies.



A year earlier, Wilson strode the world like a colossus. On Christmas Eve 1918, he was in Paris, enjoying the last night of his first visit to France, where he received a tumultuous welcome as the embodiment of the people’s hopes. A year later, he was significantly diminished, by the flawed treaty, by the Senate’s refusal to approve the League of Nations, and by the stroke that had crippled him in October, as he brought his case to the American people.

He never lost his religiosity, and for that reason, the arrival of another Christmas may have felt reassuring. But the year had taken a severe toll. He said, “If I were not a Christian I think I should go mad, but my faith in God holds me to the belief that he is in some way working out his own plans through human perversities and mistakes.”

Mistakes were plentiful as the world’s leaders contemplated missed opportunities in the great reshuffling of 1919. Three enormous empires — the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian — had folded within the last two years, sweeping away centuries of dynastic privilege, but leaving a gaping void.

Then there was the Ottoman Empire, reeling from a series of catastrophes, but not quite defunct. From their palaces in Constantinople, sultans had once exercised sway over huge stretches of the lands stretching in all directions from Asia Minor. Even further afield, they commanded the loyalties of hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world as the caliphs of Islam.

But in recent years, sultans were struggling to maintain control of their own administrators. The Ottomans had backed the losing side in the war, then horrified the world with a genocidal campaign against the Armenian people. They were also losing credibility in other ways. In the years before the war, European powers had gobbled up nearly half a million square miles of former Ottoman territory. Then, during the war, an Arab revolt stoked by the British had removed large portions of what we would now call the Middle East.



With Christmas approaching, the English and French were negotiating over the fate of what remained. Earlier in the year, they had dutifully nodded as Wilson articulated his idea of a new diplomacy that would show respect to small countries, and affirm the rights of all peoples to something called “self-determination.” There would be fewer colonies, although some “mandates” would be allowed to exist, in which Western powers would act as benevolent caretakers for peoples who were “not yet ready” for self-determination. So idealistic did the word sound that Wilson even contemplated an American mandate over Armenia, the Dardanelles and the Bosporus.

But there had been a number of shocks to his idealistic vision. One came on March 20, 1919, when Wilson learned that his French and English allies had secretly agreed to carve up the Ottoman Empire as soon as the war ended, and were continuing to scheme both with and against each other. That seemed very much like the old diplomacy. A 1916 understanding, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, promised to give each side what it wanted in the region, with little regard for anyone’s right to self-determination.

For the British, that meant Palestine and a region that they were calling “Mesopotamia,” including the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. For the French, it was a generous slice of the eastern Mediterranean, around the city of Beirut, and an internal corridor stretching to Damascus, Aleppo and beyond.

Neither of these zones were natural countries. The Ottomans had considered Mosul a different region from Baghdad, but the British coveted the oil that was beginning to spurt out of the earth. Eventually, this awkward assemblage of provinces would receive a new name, Iraq, when the British succeeded in placing an Arab ally on its throne. In Arabic, the word means “deeply rooted,” but the new country was anything but that. The French went along, in return for some of the oil, and an agreement from the British to let them pursue their own intrigues in Lebanon and Syria.

Wilson responded by piously expressing his belief in “the consent of the governed,” and his hope that the wishes of local peoples would be taken into consideration as the European powers prepared to carve up the Middle East. He also proposed that a commission be created for that purpose, to earnestly inquire what form of government the locals wanted.

The French and British immediately shelved his quaint idea, but Wilson stuck with it, and appointed two commissioners, Henry Churchill King, the former president of Oberlin College, and Charles R. Crane, the scion of a family that had made a fortune from plumbing parts. They worked quickly and made a tour of the region, spending 42 days in what would later be Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Syria. On Aug. 28, they submitted a report that confirmed Wilson’s sense that no one in the region wanted European powers to come in and colonize them. It may have been the first time anyone asked local Arabs what they wanted.

But events were happening quickly on the ground, and the old diplomacy refused to give up the ghost. Throughout the spring and summer, the French and British continued to divide up the Middle East as if they were shopping at a spice bazaar.

In his Fourteen Points, Wilson had tried to assure the peoples of the region that they would be free to pursue “autonomous development.” But that was a confusing concept as the victors made overlapping promises to Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Lebanese Christians, Arabs, Kurds and an increasingly vocal group of Zionists, mostly from Eastern Europe. As they clamored for their pieces of the Ottoman Empire, these disparate populations remembered a great deal of history. The Crusades, Constantine and the Roman Empire, the Greek wars against Persia, the Babylonian Captivity — all of it could be summoned in an instant to justify a historic claim to an attractive parcel of land. That didn’t sound like new diplomacy at all.



Wilson might have done more to push back against the land grab, but he was having problems of his own. After he returned to the United States, he received a hard lesson in self-determination when the Senate killed his vision in November. In a sense, his defeat was shared by the peoples of the Middle East, still looking for a champion.

But in the Ottoman lands, a curious version of self-determination was beginning to take place, without permission from Wilson, the allied leaders, or even the Ottomans. As the sultan, Mehmed VI, conceded point after point to the Allies, an angry Turkish soldier began to take matters into his own hands. Mustafa Kemal Pasha had already shown a great military aptitude during the war, particularly during the Turkish victory at Gallipoli. Throughout 1919, Kemal (later to be known as Ataturk) traveled across Anatolia, organizing Turkish resistance to the dismemberment of his country. Increasingly, it became clear that he was creating a new country — Turkey — that would no longer be headed by the sultans.

In other ways, as well, the victors discovered that the lines on the map were not as easy to redraw as they had first thought. In some places, like Palestine and Israel, a state of near-constant violence has persisted among peoples who wish to exercise self-determination at the same time, in the same place. In other places, too, we see how much we still live with the decisions made at the negotiating table in 1919. Russia continues to seethe against its limits and its neighbors, and is pressing up close against the old Ottoman borderlands. Certain boundaries in the Middle East appear to be in flux again — most recently, the southern border of Turkey. Self-appointed “Caliphs” continue to appear and disappear, suggesting that a void remains unfilled since the last sultan occupied that role. In retrospect, the new maps of 1919 were something of a palimpsest.

But at least it was quiet in one place as night descended on Christmas Eve a century ago. Bethlehem was a small town in what had been the Ottoman province of Palestine, but its future was uncertain as the armies of different powers ranged closer, and the cartographers kept redrawing the maps in Paris. Still, it had endured a very long time by showing the right level of respect to the old diplomacy, even as the new diplomacy was coming in. Chapter Two of the Book of Luke records that Jesus was born there because of a census, ordered by the Roman Empire, requiring heads of families to return to their native villages. Diligent administrators, the Romans believed that “all the world should be registered.” As Woodrow Wilson learned, that was harder than it looked.

Sources: Ray Stannard Baker, “Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement”; Harry N. Howard, “Turkey, the Straits and U.S. Policy”; Margaret Macmillan, “Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World.”

Ted Widmer is a distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York and a fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

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