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States are very different. Statehood is a purely political designation. A viable state possesses defined geographic boundaries and a government capable of imposing order within those borders. States exist because other states recognise them. A state’s existence is independent of the feelings or identities of the people living within its borders.

Because a nation state embodies both concepts, a new nation state may be born in one of two ways: either a pre-existing nation may gain control over territory in which to build a state; or the leadership of a recognised state may forge the people living within its borders into a nation. The former path thus begins with national self-determination and requires the hard work of state-building. The latter begins with statehood and requires the far harder work of nation-building.

This distinction inevitably pits the interests of insiders against those of outsiders. From the perspective of outside powers, the latter route is much easier. Outsiders can draw lines on a map to serve their own interests without worrying about the people on the ground. Outsiders can find local allies capable of forwarding some plausible claim to leadership, and help them impose order within state lines. Outsiders can recognise their favoured locals as a legitimate government, and hand them the challenge of convincing the new state’s residents that they constitute a well-defined nation. Even better for outsiders, lines drawn to create allegedly multi-ethnic states avoid the messy problem of “population exchanges” inherent in ethnonational states, such as those that sorted Turkish Muslims from Greek Christians, or Pakistani Muslims from Indian Hindus. That avoidance keeps the outside powers’ hands clean.

From the perspective of insiders — even those selected for leadership and handed the reigns of power — that avoidance is a disaster. It complicates, and often renders impossible, the challenge of nation building. An outsider’s declaration that one of the local self-identified nations is now first among equals tends to shatter whatever modus vivendi the locals had worked out among themselves. The new government inherits the unenviable task of building a nation comprised of people whose histories cast them as distinct (often warring) ethnicities, amidst a disruptive realignment almost designed to inflame resentment and encourage discrimination.

The British and French took precisely that easy approach in the Levant. In Iraq, the British combined large Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, and Kurdish communities, along with smaller numbers of Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, and others. They chose a Sunni Arab ally — from the royal Hashemite family of Mecca — to set upon the Iraqi throne in 1921.

Sunni dominance of Iraq lasted until American forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Almost immediately, the country fragmented into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish zones. Iraq’s citizens demonstrably identified with their ethnic kin — pre-existing national identities forged over centuries — rather than as Iraqis. Fifteen years later, it is evident that no one ever built an Iraqi nation. The Iraqi state can exist only as long as outside powers and local strongmen hold it together by force. Few  today can doubt that left to their own devices, Iraq’s citizens would divide the territory into three ethnonational states born fighting border wars.
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Lawrence James
September 5th, 2018
9:09 AM
The baleful history of the Balkan states after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and the greater Serbia created in 1918-1919 suggest the history of the nation states in the Middle East will be unhappy. Whatever their faults, the British and French administrations in the Levant, Palestine and Egypt kept their inhabitants from each other's throats and dampened down religious antipathies.

Mitch S.
April 5th, 2018
11:04 PM
Excellent article pointing out the folly of the Western "statist" approach to the Middle East. But before looking to nationalism as a road to cease fires and peace, it's important to consider the influence of religion in the area. Yes Muslims are divided into Sunni, Shia etc, but they are still united in the belief in Islam's need to dominate especially in the greater Middle East (the "Ummah"). So secularists such as Nasser and Sadaam Hussein along with religious hardliners such as the Iranian Ayatollahs, saw ending the Jewish state as a vital act that would bring them power and prestige in the Mid-East and throughout the Muslim world. Even looking at the "nation-state" of Israel, the influence of religion must be kept in mind. The Jewish nation settled in Israel because of the religion's 2000 plus year dream of "the promised land". Secular imperial ambitions don't have that staying power. The Jews aren't imperialists because the religion is focused on the land of Israel with no aspiration for greater conquest. Still, religion has had an affect on the secular state's policy. Religious Jews don't look toward taking over Jordan or Egypt but there are religious Jewish groups who see it as forbidden to give up parts of the "Holy land" once Jews are in control. So taking Jews from parts of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and putting them in non-Jewish hands is something they strongly oppose, making such a deal more politically difficult (though I believe those groups don't have the power to stop such a deal on their own). Indeed the death of Yitschok Rabin can be seen as a result of religious passion rather than a purely political act. So what could possibly create conditions for some kind of peace? I agree the nation state is a good route but the religious imperative will have to be held in check. One possibility is accepting a view that world domination is the ultimate goal - but not for the current life. It is only something to be achieved after divine intervention. Just as Jews believe in the coming of the Messiah and Christians in the return of Jesus. In fact there is a small minority of Jews that believe the return to the Holy Land is only for messianic times and they oppose the current Jewish state. This would be the best possible way and while I hardly have the knowledge of Islam to speak with any authority, I have heard this is an approach some Muslims accept. The other, and perhaps prerequisite step would be to remove the religious obligation to drive the Jews out of Israel (or subjugate them) by making it seem impossible. I don't know how much is Arab practicality or Islamic doctrine but when Israel is seen as an undefeatable the door opens for negotiation. When Israel is put under pressure and appears vulnerable negotiations end. This is another thing Western states continually misunderstand. Israel's ties to the West, especially the United States are seen as a vital part of it's defensive power by the Arab world. When Western leaders try to create an atmosphere for peace by holding back support of Israel and reaching out to hardline regimes such as Iran it raises the possibility that Israel may not be invulnerable and there may be a religious obligation to pursue it's destruction

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