Geopolitical categorization: not as easy as (carving up a) pie

January 8, 2007 at 1:58 am (Afghanistan, Arabs, History, Iran, Iraq, Middle East, South Asia, The Rest)

This may seem like a somewhat random post, but I’d like to point out an interesting aspect of political geography: the difficulty of grouping states together.

Consider, for example, Iran. Iran is often grouped into the “Middle East” (also known as the “Near East) but it differs markedly from other Middle Eastern states: it is Shiite rather than Sunni (Syria has a Shiite government with a Sunni population while Bahrain has a Sunni government with a majority Shiite population; Iraq has a significant Shiite demographic: but none of these is like Iran, where both the government and population are Shiite); it is ethnically Persian rather than Arab (and, consequently does not share the dominant language of the Middle East, Arabic); it has an elected theocratic government rather than the monarchies and dictatorships of most of the Middle East. Even historically Iran differs significantly in that most of the Middle East was part of the Sunni caliphate’ particularly the Ottoman Empire, while Iran had been under its own local regimes.

But where else, then, could Iran be grouped into? Iran is certainly not Central Asian or South Asian (despite the Persians’ influence on the latter). And Iran shares closer relations to and with Middle Eastern states than Central Asian or South Asian states. As such, the common inclusion of Iran in the “Middle East” makes sense.

And what of Turkey? Like most Middle Eastern states, it is Sunni. Unlike most Middle Eastern states, it has a popularly elected governmen and has little, if any, connection with Arabic culture and civilization. Yet, like Iran, it has shared close relations with other states of the Middle East: indeed, for centuries it ruled the Middle Eastern states (except for Iran, but it battled with Iran, figuratively and literally, for dominance and influence over the area). Can Turks and Arabs (or, for that matter, Persians and Arabs) be lumped together?

One example that amuses me is Egypt (and can include or be used for any of the Arab states of Northern Africa, beginning with Egypt and stretching to Morocco on the Atlantic Ocean): are Egyptians Arabs, Middle Easterners, or Africans? And as Egypt has been considered to be in Africa for centuries now, can Egyptians, as Africans, claim benefits or special arrangements for Africans or people of African origin?

And what about Mediterranean states? Should they not also be considered to be a group unto itself? Does not a state’s location on the Great Sea play an important part in its character, politics, culture, and tendencies?

And how about Afghanistan? Is it Middle Eastern, South Asian, or Central Asian? Or this a case, as some say is with Turkey, that parts belong to different areas (the Pashtun areas being South Asian; the Tajik and Uzbek areas being Central Asian; the more Persian or Dari areas being Middle Eastern)?

It is not easy to group states together into useful categories or geopolitical regions, yet doing so makes considering the world and its manifold issues easier. And, indeed, in some cases such categorization even makes sense as far as issues go. But there has yet to be a comprehensive system developed: all systems in use are debated and problematic to some degree.

As such, while we ought to consider a state’s location, we should not put all of our understanding of a state’s problems or issues solely in the context of geopolitical location. In some ways, each state is an entity unto itself or may involve issues, characteristics, or aspects common or dissimilar to the states around it.


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