What About the Druze?
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Senator Biden, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, recently suggested a plan for fixing Iraq by breaking it apart. He says he wants to give the various ethnic and religious components of Iraq “some breathing space.” But what about everyone else in the Middle East who is gasping for air? Fragmenting a country as focal as Iraq sets an intriguing precedent for the entire region: it is an admission that the post-World War I security arrangement arrived at by former colonial bureaucrats while dismembering the Ottoman Empire has failed, and that a radical reappraisal in the direction of matching borders to strongly held identities should be made.
Mr. Biden is running for president, and there’s an element of political showmanship in his plan. However, it is a fresh look at a seemingly intractable problem. I like this approach, and have been considering it myself for a while, but what applies to Iraq has to apply to the Middle East, for Iraq today is the incubator of general fixes for the wider region. Superficially, the plan works great, but only to a certain point – for I am always stumped by the question, “What about the Druze?”
A thousand years ago, a Fatimid caliph by the name of Al-Hakim went crazy in Cairo, and as a result, we have between 400,000 to 800,000 people calling themselves Muwahhidoon in the Middle East today. They are better known as the Druze. Al-Hakim decided that he was more supreme in divinity than Allah. Apart from the renovated grand mosque bearing Al-Hakim’s name in Cairo, very little of his legacy remains in our day, except that, somewhere near Aleppo and the hills west of Mount Hermon, some people took his proselytizers at their word, and converted.
Today, they are divided over four countries – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel – where they should constitute no more than numerical blips in the crowded field of idiosyncratic local identities. But no one can mention Lebanese politics without taking note of one their top chieftains, Walid Jumblatt. The first prime minister of an independent Jordan was a Druze, and the Druze had the gall to attempt to seize power through a military coup in the turbulent 1960s roiling Syria. Several of their equal modern-day numbers in the Israeli army have reached the rank of general.
During the Lebanese civil war, Jumblatt tried some ethnic cleansing of his own in the hope of breaking off with a chunk of territory and calling it a principality. But his problem was that the Druze lived in two separate lobes on Lebanese territory, and that uniting these areas would entail far more bloodshed that he could set in motion. And that did not solve the issue of hooking up with the much larger Druze population center of the Horan highlands, where the French, in a Biden-like strategy, had tried to establish an independent state for the Druze in the early mandate years.
The survival of the Druze, and their political importance, are just one of a multitude of things about the Middle East that don’t fit into a rational framework. Politicians such as Mr. Biden can leisurely contemplate drawing neat lines on the map, just like the colonial bureaucrats did, but will it translate into security?
Iraq can be broken up in three stand-alone states. Syria into four. Iran looks less menacing as five separate entities, with a few city-states, such as Isfahan, going their own way. Saudi Arabia makes much more sense in five parts, with the Wahhabis isolated in the energy-poor desolation of Nejd, where they began 80 years ago. Kurdish guerillas have fought Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian troops for decades in pursuit of the dream of independence, and under the Biden Plan, they would finally get their Kurdistan. Egypt is a little trickier because of communal overlap, so maybe the best solution is to carve out a national home for the Copts, somewhere in the fertile Delta, and ideally on the Suez Canal. Maybe something similar can be done for the Alevis of Turkey. Is cutting and pasting the Middle East so bad of a prospect?
But how would a Druze state manage itself and what would it live on? A Palestinian state is supposed to emerge from similarly disjointed fragments of land. With new technologies, the fact that Druze are dispersed here and there should not be such a challenge. Can a sovereign government function through teleconferencing?
It is not only a logistical challenge, for just as the fact that the Druze survived and prospered over a millennium does not add up, there are other factors to worry about. What about the fact that Arab Shias from Najaf hate other Shias from Karbala? What about the fact the Sunni Tikritis loathe those Sunni Samara’is to their immediate south? And why is it that a Kurdish Sunni gentleman from the Mizuri tribe, and who follows the Naqshbandi Sufi rite and speaks in the Bahdinani dialect, would be reluctant to give his daughter’s hand to a Sunni Kurdish Jaff tribesman who belongs to the Qadiri Sufi order and speaks in the Sorani dialect?
Once people who don’t like each for what they believe in or where they come from decide that they can no longer live together, and need space apart, then the Middle East will be in greater trouble that it currently is in. By that measure, traveling the six hour journey from Baghdad to Basra would require applying for six different visas and crossing six different borders. Even crossing from one neighborhood into another would involve international law. It’s reminiscent of the time when an English lady, Gertrude Bell, set out in the beginning of the 19th century to explore the Middle East and had to seek the benevolence of every tribal sheikh into whose territory she wandered.
She was responsible for creating Iraq in its present form. She must have realized that in carving up the former domains of the Ottoman Empire, there would be a limit to atomization, and that at one point, groups of people, whether they be tribes, neighborhoods, towns, sects or religions, needed to get along and find a common unifying identity. She did not live to see what local spin-offs on Fascism, and the Cold War, as well as the curse of oil wealth, did to her creation. She certainly did not foresee that present day jihadists would set out to forcefully reunify all the former lands that constituted the Ottoman Empire and some other realms under a caliphate.
Either the nation states created by the likes of Bell are made to function properly, or it is time to carve-up and create new smaller states. Mr. Biden’s proposal in Iraq was probably not thought out in terms of how it could fix the larger Middle East, but Iraq is the model for all the others. What fails – or works – will be the rest of the region’s future. Any grand restructuring has to be careful that the finished project does not end up like a do-it-yourself project with extra nails, screws, and parts that were part of the original design but were somehow left over after completion. The Druze, as well as other historic, cultural and political anomalies, are too relevant to be dismissed.
Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at email@example.com