But I wouldn’t buy stock in world map publishing just yet. For while many trees have been felled to decry in print the continuing injustice of the colonial split up of ethnic groups, on the ground, in borderlands throughout the developing world, the inheritors of today’s borders have adapted quite nicely to the opportunities afforded by border economies. More importantly, so have their rulers, who have vested interests in preserving the legitimacy and sovereignty of their post-colonial borders and domains. For all the Islamic State’s declarations of a new caliphate, even Islamist radical groups generally eschew colonial boundary nullification.
Take the case of Boko Haram, the murderous terrorist group operating in the predominantly northern region of Nigeria. Not even Boko Haram, for all its bombings, murders, and schoolgirl kidnappings, aims to fuse Anglophone Nigeria with its Francophone neighbor Niger (which has an even higher percentage of Muslims). Al-Shabab (of formerly British Somaliland) leaves Djibouti (formerly French Somaliland) alone. A century since the original ethnic sin of British-French empire carving, the vast majority of post-colonies have perpetuated in some form the institutions, languages, and even mentalities of their erstwhile colonizers. Neither elites nor borderlanders pine to return to the early 19th century map. Even in the name of ethnic or religious irredentism, as a rule border dissolution is inherently disruptive.
Even one of the most failed states on earth – the so-called “Democratic” Republic of the Congo, or DRC – has survived despite itself. Many Africa-watchers attribute the continuity of this gargantuan hodge-podge of a post-colonial state to the strong-armed tactics (greased by state-sanctioned kleptocracy) of Mobutu Sese Seko, when the country was known as Zaire. But even after Mobutu’s forced abdication and the assassination of his successor Laurent Kabila – and despite continuing bloody reverberations from the 1994 genocide in nearby Rwanda – the DRC manages to hang together. With or without strongman Bashar al-Assad, Syria, too (like the former Belgian Congo, with or without a Mobutu), will emerge sovereign from its current crisis, the Islamic State notwithstanding. When it comes to territorial sovereignty and national identity, radical, extremist Islamism is no match for the legacies of colonialism.
So how to interpret the purported re-caliphization of Iraq and Syria? The Sykes-Picot agreement stipulated the respective spheres of interest that Britain and France would exercise in this portion of the colonial world. But unlike in Sub-Saharan Africa, Indochina (Burma-Laos) and their respective islands in the West Indies and South Pacific, the French and British did not set out to remake the Arab societies of the Middle East in their own images – certainly not to the same extent. Temporary or long lasting, the recent disintegration of the Sykes-Picot line (which has been debated previously on the Monkey Cage by Ariel Ahram and Gregory Gause) that initially differentiated Iraq from Syria is an aberration. Indeed, the Islamic State’s “competitors” in the jihadist and Salafist leagues generally exploit existing state boundaries rather than subvert them. Such was the case with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which started out (as the Armed Islamic Group) in the early 1990s strictly in opposition to the regime in Algiers, until the Algerian military pushed it out of its sovereign territory into the Sahara of neighboring Mali. Additionally, the Muslim Brotherhood, despite similarly named organizations in various countries, has really confined its activities and objectives to Egypt. Even the terminological equivalent to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan – strives to achieve tactical gains and political leverage in each of those countries, rather than actually trying to merge them into one. Even in the world of Islamist extremism, in terms of boundary nullification the Islamic State is an outlier.
There are multiple mechanisms holding inherited colonial borders in place. For one, politicians, both national and local, have a vested interest in maintaining the territorial status quo. Attributions of office, and their related resource-extracting powers, which adhere to century-old spatial and administrative delimitations, are predictable and lucrative. Second, the inhabitants of the borderland themselves, even if of the same ethnicity and split into separate national states, have contrived cross-border trade activities that exploit the boundaries more than the boundaries disturb them. Call it informal economy or smuggling, borderlanders know how to subvert borders.
But the most powerful mechanism for boundary continuity is the post-Enlightenment (including post-colonial), universal appeal of national identity. As collectivities and as individuals, we all yearn to be secure within the boundaries that define our sense of nationhood. Shake up those demarcators of identity and you disturb the sense of who we are, where we belong. It is precisely those people who are deprived of a nation-state who have a legitimate stake in the redrawing of state boundaries; in the case of Iraq and Syria, it is the Kurds – not the Islamic State militants – who have the strongest claim to undo colonial-imposed borders. And the Kurds certainly don’t wish to merge (formerly-British) Iraq and (formerly-French) Syria through a disintegration of their respective frontiers. If borders are to be tinkered with, the Kurds will demand more borders to define a new Kurdistan, not fewer ones to combine Iraq and Syria, as per the Islamic State.
While some jihadists and diehard anti-colonialists would (albeit for different reasons) celebrate the Islamic State’s purported liquidation of this particular Anglo-French demarcation, partitioned borderlanders elsewhere will neither jubilate nor emulate. For all of the injustice it represents, the world map drawn by the colonial superpowers of yesteryear is basically still the one we inhabit today. Even as we are bound to understand why it looks the strange way it does, we’ve still got to make the best of it.
William F.S. Miles is a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of “Scars of Partition: Postcolonial Legacies in French and British Borderlands” (University of Nebraska Press, 2014).
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