The Illusion of Borderlines

Once peaceful neighbours, now fighting to gain a foothold over a piece of the pie. Why the creation of false borders created chaos.

In the 17th century, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in Europe, whereby nations recognised the creation of established borders. The intended nature of this agreement was so that nation-states would not continue to conquer other nation-states on the basis of acquiring more territory:  there would be peace. Fast-forward to post- WWI, these rules were applied to the rest of the world in regions such as Africa, the Middle East and more, despite the unmeasurable violence that had just occurred in Europe over borders and in the face of differing lands to that of the West. We have seen in many of these states how it has changed their lens regarding people of different groups in neighbouring states, whether this be through escalation of wars or sentiments of racism.

Chomsky and Barsamian (2017) perfectly summarises how the drawing of the global map impacted countries in his book “Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy (The American Empire Project)” in the passage below:

“In the Middle East, the state system was simply imposed by imperial power. The lines of the states have nothing to do with the people of the region. Take Iraq for example. The British established modern Iraq in their interests, not in the interests of Iraqis. So, they took the region around Mosul and added it to Iraq because Britain wanted to have oil and keep it from Turkey. They set up the principality of Kuwait to keep Iraq from having free access to the sea, so it could be better controlled…  the lines make no sense from the point of view of the people.

The Ottoman System, which had preceded this, was ugly and brutal, but at least it recognised local autonomy. So, during the Ottoman period, you could go from Cairo to Baghdad to Istanbul without crossing a border. It was porous, sort of like the European Union today. And that fits the nature of the region much more accurately… the Armenians could run the Armenian community, the Greeks could run the Greek community, and so on. They lived in a kind of harmony. That was broken up by the imposition of the state systems.

This is true all over the world. Take a look at Africa. Almost all of the conflicts there trace back to the establishment of borders by the imperial powers-England, France, Belgium, to a lesser extent Germany- which took no account of the nature of the populations, just drew the boundaries wherever they wanted them. Naturally, that leads to conflict. There is every reason to hope, I think, that those borders will fade away.”

(Chomsky and Barsamian, 2017, pp.72-73)

While I agree with Chomsky and Barsamian’s premise, I unfortunately don’t think the establishment of these borders will be changed, as I think the devastating impact of the colonial powers by carving up of the map is irreversible (especially due to conflicts occurring over such lines). This idea of a physical border has created a sentiment of difference, which is in turn enhanced by radical nationalists who perpetuate the notion that anyone who is of a different background in said state is guilty as charged. The map shouldn’t have been drawn at all, but in such case, it was drawn wrong anyway. There are parts of, say Türkiye, where within that region the community has always been Syrian and not Turkish. My great grandmother lived in a village which would now be considered as part of modern-day Iran but she was Iraqi. Hard borders created the idea of fixed identities: if you are not ethnically from there, speak the language or adhere to certain principles, you are viewed as anti-social or a problem by certain factions of society who lean towards the right-wing. This problem can be traced back to someone who didn’t understand the people it was dealing with and thus created a division.

Naturally as humans we will fight for what we believe is ours, whether this be a claim that we believe to be historically right (of lineage) or purely of legal concern (territory). While there has always been conflict, it seemed less inclined (not to say it ceased to exist) in many parts of the world because there was no clear notion of “us” against “them” over the centuries in regard to the term “country”.  What I mean by this is that because regions were run by cities or slightly larger entities, while there were still individual cultural identities that existed there, the larger areas in a region were viewed as similar and relatively harmonious due to shared experience, allowing cultures to be shared and so-called borders to be flexible. In other words, regions were more common than the modern term of a “nation-state” or country, due to the sharing of cultures between nationalities. In Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, it has been cited that there was a certain long-standing ethnic tension between Hutus and Tutsis, but this was a falsification of history as Bowen states: “Hutus and Tutsis had intermarried to such an extent that they were not easily distinguished physically” (1996, p.6). While I acknowledge the conflict in Rwanda was not between two nations or over territory, the point stands about the idea in the post-colonial era that there has been an attempt to disperse and eradicate the relationship between groups of people by creating ethnic lines within local boundaries, and in this case, by the Belgian colonisers. 

Again, look at the people of India and Pakistan – such communities often lived side by side for many years (before partition and British involvement) without any problems, sharing many cultural similarities. A common misconception that most people assume is that all Indians are Hindus and all Pakistanis are Muslims following the split of the countries. This couldn’t be further from the truth as India has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, with over 200 million people there following the faith. Thus, this idea of a Hindu vs. Muslim state defined by borders doesn’t really have much credence when it comes to this conflict. Simply put, identity has always been present in some form or another but it was less rigid and far more tolerant of cohabitation because there was a realisation that land didn’t intrinsically belong to one people , but all.

During recent elections in Turkey, Middle Eastern eye shared a video of a Turkish man speaking about his belief that Arabs, among other races, are inferior. This is one of several, videos that have surfaced over the past month that have been racially charged. It’s truly sad to see as it does not accurately represent the majority of the people. This is the result of borders as a physical boundary that reinforces the belief that we have such little in common, when this perspective quite literally ignores history as there has been so much that has been shared or passed down between Arabs and Turks, be it religion or food etc. The views depicted in these videos are extremely ironic because it is possible that many people who come from the Balkans, the Mediterranean, the Middle East or North Africa can often be conflated similarly in terms of appearance. Who is going to tell the ultra-right that some Turks in all probability may share ancestry with Syrians and vice versa (and some other Arab countries), sharing history and roots with the people that the ultra-radical conservatives say don’t belong in Turkey. Last summer I went to Turkey and not a single person there thought I wasn’t Turkish before I opened my mouth. So, if we look similar, does that make  Turkish people inferior because they may look like me, an Arab? No, neither of us are inferior, but I’m certain the ultra-right didn’t study genealogy properly.

To follow on from this, I recently watched “Rise of Empires: Ottomans” and the actor who plays Vlad Dracula (Daniel Nuta) is Romanian and yet could easily pass off as more Middle Eastern looking than me. Yet, one wouldn’t necessarily see the visible link between me, who has Iraqi heritage and him, a Romanian national a.  In this way, I am learning new things all the time, in particular about how my background crosses over with other cultures. For example, I found out that Kibbeh,  a dish from the Middle East, is also a famous dish in the south of Italy in Palermo (with maybe some differences but practically the same) called Arancini. Thus, there is much more that binds people as a collective. Having appreciation for others is important despite what populists would have you believe. The shared links that we have quite literally transcend borders and the so-called imagined community that Benedict Anderson (1983) came up with.

 One of my best friends is Iranian and over the years Iraq and Iran have had conflicts as recent as 1980-1988 and political issues at times. The Persian empire even occupied Babylon if we dig deeper. The easy misconception to make would be that we don’t like each other because of these conflicts, but this is not us. There is so much we have in common over shared experiences. One of the most significant ones has to be us going to a restaurant called the “Persian Palace” back home which serves the best kebab (we are both massive food lovers). For sure, the Iranians have some of the most special dishes ranging from Joojeh to Ghormeh Sabzi. Another of my closest friends is Kurdish Iraqi, and again political tension exist between these national groups, but tensions do not exist between me and my friend. There is so much I admire about Kurdish history and one of my favourite leaders (if not my favourite) in history without a doubt is Salahuddin who most people assume was an Arab, but he was in fact Kurdish. There is also a wonderful saying in Kurdish proverbs that states “no friends but the mountains”. This can only generate a greater respect for this community and understanding of what they long for as a people.

To move away from this discussion of borders for one second, I have noticed in the meantime that there has been a shift in attitude between younger and older generations. Most people have realised that if a country has affected an individual in any way, it is not the citizens themselves who are perpetrators, but rather those in power. I have many positive stories from my time visiting the three Mediterranean countries of Turkey, Cyprus and Greece last year. The way in which the Cypriots embraced me as one of their own was endearing, a restaurant owners’ honesty refusing to sell me food that wasn’t fresh in Turkey made me see the value of principles and the Greeks showed me how to have a good time and oh boy do they know how to party. In essence, we are not our governments, and in my opinion, there is no reason why these groups shouldn’t get along apart from the political tensions, as they all share the gift of being hospitable and living the wonderful Mediterranean lifestyle.  

I think it is important to note in this reflection that I am not promoting one overarching power having control of a region in the place of borders. While it may have been better in the past to avoid frequent conflict, the Ottoman empire as an example did enable mass genocides and it is true that the Armenians, Greeks, Arabs, and other ethnicities wanted to break away from their rule for good reason. On top of this, what used to be known as the Yugoslavia (of which the dominant ruler, Serbia, committed mass genocides) and the Eritreans from Ethiopia who wanted to break away from repressive rule due to unjust treatment are further examples as to why returning to past governing systems would neither be fair nor just.

Predominantly though, the purpose of this argument is to draw on the fact that prior to the post-colonial powers and their own definition of borders to carve up which land benefitted them, there was respect for how the land was governed. This is mainly in reference to African nations, South Asia and those under Ottoman rule who were invested in enhancing the people’s welfare and cultural heritage even if they were from different groups. We should consider this in comparison with Britain and the other former imperial powers whose only vested interest was to extract what they could from the lands they colonised. As an example, one of my friends, Ethan (who has also written for Bath Time by the way!), maintains that despite the tensions between Turkey and Greece, at least the Ottomans allowed the Greeks to preserve their Elgin marbles, whereas as soon as the British became involved in the region, they fabricated the truth. They claimed that Turkey threatened to destroy the marbles, so it was their responsibility to take this artifact in order to protect it. To paraphrase an argument in Machiavelli’s “The Prince”: “just because you have replaced a previous rulership in the hope of a better life, it does not mean the new rulers will be better and are often worse” (2009, p.6). The Ottomans may have been harsh on its subjects, but what we can say with certainty is that it was better than the sphere of influence that followed from western colonial intervention.

To summarise, while there are some deep-rooted scars in relation to the old rule of Ottomans for certain groups of people, the acknowledgment of a connection between the cultures we have is far more vital to take into the present day. This culture may not be identical in all aspects but there is so much we can bond over and share. Equally, in other places in the world such as in Africa and South Asia in which communities have suffered the same fate (under the imperial powers, their goods were extracted, and the borders were created to serve the colonists and not the needs of the local peoples. While borders are most likely here to stay, it does not mean we must be condemned to believe in the fatal consequence that the separation between nations makes us naturally inclined to be opposed to each other. If someone is of a nationality that history implies as your opposition, I advise that we be curious, and question this thought process. Investigation may find you have more in common with radical nationalists than you might believe. After all, this is supposed to be the age of globalisation, where you can belong anywhere and not necessarily be confined to identifying as one nationality but indeed, you can be linked to many.

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