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Will Geography Decide Our Destiny?

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/ Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Johannes Vermeer: The Art of Painting, circa 1666

When maps were introduced into Ottoman schools in the 1860s, conservative Muslims—people we would now call Salafists—were so outraged that they ripped them off classroom walls and threw them down the latrines. Though Muslim geographers such as Muhammad al-Idrisi (1099–1166) had produced serviceable maps, they were not widely available and for most of Ottoman history the spatial configuration of territory in two dimensions had been largely restricted to military specialists.

The images available to the sultan’s subjects and to others pondering his domains were for the most part verbal, with reference to imprecise formulas such as Memaliki Mahrusi Shahane—“divinely protected imperial possessions.” The imaginary—the different ways of conceiving the world—was human-centered rather than territorially based. Political power was not perceived as distributed spatially over a homogenous, two-dimensional field, but vertically through a hierarchy of human filters emanating from the sultan via his suzerains. As Albert Hourani pointed out in his History of the Arab Peoples, in the arid zones of North Africa and the Middle East where pastoralists ranged over frontierless deserts and steppes, power tended to radiate out of urban centers, weakening with distance.

For the most of the world, boundaries between states were not fixed until Europeans arranged treaties between themselves or with local rulers. From the late nineteenth century, however, the map was essential to this process. As Benedict Anderson noted in Imagined Communities, one of the map’s effects was to compel citizens to identify with a specific territorial entity. According to the historian Benjamin Fortna, the Ottoman rulers deliberately used schoolroom maps to promote loyalty to the state: “The map insists on the importance of the shape of the territory and this shape begins to assume tremendous political importance as emblematic for the territory in question.”1

Maps came to be used polemically to assert political sovereignty—or to deny political realities. Fortna notes that the “pink” of Ottoman sovereignty used in maps approved by the Ottoman ministry of education in 1906 showed Tunis—occupied by France since 1881—as still part of the Ottoman Empire while Bulgaria, independent from the 1870s, was still shown as an imperial province.

More recently, maps used throughout the Arab world routinely denied the existence of Israel, while Palestinian activists show the map of the whole of Palestine (to the exclusion of the Jewish state or “Zionist entity”) as their national logos. Yasser Arafat deliberately folded his headdress, or kaffiyeh, to resemble the whole of Palestine. In South Asia it would be hard to conceive of an Indian government ceding any part of the disputed territory of Kashmir (the only state with a Muslim majority) when every Indian schoolchild grows up with a diamond-shaped image of the country with its apex far in the Himalayan north. Maps have been agents of political homogenization, an essential part of what the anthropologist Ernest Gellner called the “universal conceptual currency” of the modern world.

The map, as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861–1947) explained in 1919, conveys “at one glance a whole series of generalizations,” some profoundly misleading. Intelligently read, as Robert Kaplan argues in his ambitious and challenging new book, The Revenge of Geography, maps can be “endlessly absorbing and fascinating.” Yet they also serve to “remind us of all the different environments of the earth that make men profoundly unequal and disunited in so many ways, leading to conflict….”

Kaplan’s book is in part an hommage to geographers such as Mackinder, a liberal imperialist MP, a founding director of the London School of Economics, and a now somewhat forgotten member of the progressive intellectual circle that included H.G. Wells and Beatrice and Sidney Webb; and to historians such as the medieval Arab writer Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) and his latter-day admirer Marshall Hodgson (1922–1968), author of the magisterial three-volume Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (published posthumously in 1974).

Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest form of human society was that of the hardy people of the steppes, deserts, and mountains, where authority was based on ties of kinship and group cohesion—what he called ‘asabiya, variously translated as clannism, solidarity, or “group feeling.” A ruler with ‘asabiya was well placed to found a dynasty, since people in cities tended to lack this quality. When dynastic rule was stable and prosperous, city life would flourish. But every dynasty bore in itself the seeds of decline, as rulers degenerated into tyrants or became corrupted by luxurious living; and so, eventually, power would pass to a new group of men from the margins (a process that appears to be happening in Syria today, with the horrifying destruction caused by modern weapons). Thus, for Ibn Khaldun, the Greeks and Persians had been replaced by the Arabs; and the Arabs, having founded an empire that stretched from Spain to the Indus valley, were in due course replaced by Berbers in the west and Turks in the east.

Ibn Khaldun’s analysis was based on his native North Africa, but has a much wider application in world history. Kaplan explains, for example, that over the course of millennia the Chinese state was menaced by horse-riding nomads from the north and northwest, from the “same steppe-land that threatened Russia from the opposite direction: so that the interplay between the indigenous Chinese and the Manchurians, Mongols, and Turkic peoples of the high desert has formed one of the central themes of Chinese history.” China’s settled population, concentrated in the “cradle area” around the Wei and lower Yellow rivers,

had to constantly strive to create a buffer against the nomadic peoples of the drier uplands bordering it on three sides, from Manchuria counterclockwise around to Tibet. This historical dilemma was structurally similar to that of the Russians, who also required buffers.

“China’s sense of itself,” Kaplan argues, citing Harvard historian John King Fairbank,

is based on the cultural difference…between this surrounding belt of desert and the sown of China proper, that is, between the pastoral and the arable. China’s ethnic geography reflects this “core-periphery structure,” with the core being the arable “central plain” (zhongyuan) or “inner China” (neidi), and the periphery being the pastoral “frontiers” (bianjiang) or “outer China” (waidi).

Ibn Khaldun would have had no difficulty in grasping the dynamics of this interplay between settled agriculturalists and nomadic predators in an empire located six thousand miles to the east of his native Tunis. Unlike peasant cultivators, a portion of whose product may be extracted by priests in offerings or by rulers in taxes, the nomadic pastoralists who herded animals on the Central Asian steppelands and other sparsely populated regions of low rainfall avoided the confines of state power. Pastoralists tend to be organized into tribes or patrilineal kinship groups who see themselves as descended from a common male ancestor. Military prowess is encouraged because, where food resources are scarce, tribal or “segmentary” groups may have to compete with one another, or raid the agriculturalists in order to survive. (This time-honored pattern has been manifested in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where under pressure of drought and desertification, the Arabic-speaking pastoralists who make up the Janjaweed militias have preyed on more settled African villagers.)

The differences in lifestyle are perpetuated culturally and may lead to differences in financial and economic management. In pastoral societies property tends to be held communally, classically in the form of herds (which increase naturally through reproduction, as capital growth), rather than crop-yielding land where territory itself is the equity for which harvests produce the income. In pastoral societies property and territory are not the same (as happens in temperate zones or regions of high cultivation) because the land might be occupied by different groups of herders at different seasons.

In premodern Islamic history, before the European interventions, rulers came to protect themselves against the cycle of dynastic decline by recruiting or press-ganging tribes from the peripheral regions: as Gellner put it, “the wolves became sheep-dogs.” The Mamluks who held power in Egypt from the thirteenth century to the eighteenth century were outsiders from Central Asia—technically slaves—before they became the actual rulers. A comparable pattern occurred in China where the Jin, Liao, and Yuan dynasties—all products of the northern grasslands—held power from 1115 to 1368, while the indigenous Song (960–1279) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties failed to control the steppe-lands, despite their innovative military technology.

China’s last imperial dynasty, the Manchus, who ruled from 1644 to 1912, also began as outsiders in the uplands of Manchuria. Kaplan suggests that the problem facing the present Chinese leadership of containing the periphery—an ancient geopolitical challenge that was shelved, but never solved, by the construction of the Great Wall—remains vital to China’s future:

Indeed, the question now becomes whether the dominant Hans, who comprise more than 90 percent of China’s population and live mainly in the arable cradle of China, are able to permanently keep the Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians who live on the periphery under control, with the minimum degree of unrest. The ultimate fate of the Chinese state will hinge on this fact, especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.

Marshall Hodgson, despite his death in 1968 at the age of forty-six, must rank as America’s most impressive historian of Islamic peoples and cultures, and it is to Kaplan’s credit that he gives Hodgson the prominence he deserves. A student of both Ibn Khaldun and John Woolman, the eighteenth-century Pennsylvania Quaker, as well as of the sociologist Max Weber, Hodgson was primarily concerned with the interaction of environmental forces on individual moral sensibilities: the subtitle of his magnum opus, Conscience and History in a World Civilization, indicates his approach. One of his primary concerns, as a world historian as well as a historian of Islam, was to rid the study of world history of its Eurocentric bias, a perspective he shared with his University of Chicago colleague W.H. McNeill, author of the immensely successful Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, who Kaplan also draws on widely in this study.

Hodgson, however, went even further than McNeill in trying to shake off the European bias he saw distorting the study of the history of the world. Sadly, he never lived to sketch out more than a few notes for a world history he was planning.

There is no indication that Hodgson was familiar with Mackinder’s geography, nor does it appear that Mackinder was familiar with Hodgson’s medieval mentor, Ibn Khaldun. But as Kaplan ably demonstrates, Mackinder’s vision of physical geography as the overarching influence on history meshes neatly with the Arab savant’s ideas as well as with those of his latter-day American admirer. The wider setting that Hodgson sometimes found missing in McNeill—one that embraces the two contrasting historical trajectories of the Islamic world and China—is nothing less than the geophysical configuration of our planet with its vast continental landmass situated mainly in the Northern Hemisphere.

  1. 1

    Benjamin Fortna, Imperial Classroom: Islam, the State, and Education in the Late Ottoman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 187. 

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