Mideast Peace: Is Partition the Answer?

I recently posted something on my Facebook wall about hoping the new Washington administration succeeds in its effort to kick-start Mideast peace initiatives.

I don't know if I truly believe in any lasting regional peace -- but there's always hope.

John, a Facebook "friend," posted back:

There will never be peace as long as Arabs and Israelis live side by side and as long as you continue to think along Western diplomatic and democratic lines.  Split everyone up and build borders. That's what will do it.

I was put off. I messaged back: "Clearly, we sit on opposite sides of the political fence."

John begged to differ. His claim was that he wasn't more to the right than I was on the political spectrum, but that he believed common dialects are key to getting along. You speak Hebrew and I speak Arabic? The marriage will never last, in John's book, if we attempt to share common quarters.

This made no sense to me.  So I rang John up to chat about his theory. Dr. Myhill is a Haifa University linguist with a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. He has has written books on language, religion, and national identity and how they tie together.

We talked.  And here's what I understood:

John advocates solidifying pre-existing zoning -- taking indigenous populations and drawing borders along language lines in order for people to get along. Take Europe as an example: post-WWII, populations were more or less stabilized when cordoned along dialect and religious lines and things have gone pretty smoothly since. This doesn't account, however, for burgeoning Arab-world emigration to Europe in recent years.  That's on Myhill's theoretical "to do" list.

To me, this sounded forced ghetto-esque.

Not true, Myhill argues. Rather, dialect boundaries enclose naturally drawn lines of self-determination and religious freedom for all national groups. What's a national group? "It's about spoken language and ... religion. 'Arab' isn't a national group -- it's a super-conglomerate of many national groups."

So how does one go about borderizing the super-conglomerate?

By building a 12-14 state map in the territory currently called "the Arab world" -- including Israel -- that would cut the current number of existing states in half, posits Myhilll. Unrealistic?

History, Myhill says, has taught us that nothing else is going to work.

The problem is that in the Middle East, the borders were drawn by colonial powers and their local clients and almost all of them don't make any sense ethnically. There are all sorts of groups who don't have the right of self-determination -- the Maronites in Lebanon, the Alawites in Syria, the Dinka and Fur in Sudan, the Kurds in Iraq, the Shiites in Bahrain -- and they're using all sorts of tactics to try to get this right. In some cases two groups don't recognize the right to self-determination of each other; for example, the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq or the Jews and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine.

And getting the Arab states to agree to a divide?

No, no, no. In Myhill's book, this is flawed logic and exactly the reason for stalled Western attempts at forging stability in the Mideast. Arab states and Arab governments are silly, artificial creations, says Myhill. Forget them.

They're weak; they have no legitimacy with the people. Islamists understand this and that's why they're so effective; Westerners don't understand this and that's why they're so ineffective. You don't do it through the states; you do it through the people.

But just how do you "do it through the people" when the region is undemocratic and sliding toward Islamo-fascism?

Myhill suggests a state-by-state solution. Snag support among moderate Sunni leaders in Iraq, establish secret ties with the Alawite in Syria, prop up a separate rebel government in Sudan, and put together teams of Maronite-led supporters to partition Lebanon. Repeat the partition recipe in the remaining Arab states according to native dialect.

And Islamo-fascism, by the way, won't be stopped through democracy, he argues. Hitler and Mussolini were democratically elected. The solution? Again, one must build nation states with single nationalities along dialect lines.  Turkey for the Turks. Uzbekistan for the Uzbeks. Albania for the Albanians. Bangladesh for the Bengalis. Malaysia for the Malays. Islamo-fascism is kept under wraps in these states because religion is subordinated to the state.

"Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia have rejected the model of the nation state and it's exactly in these states that we see Islamo-fascism developing and either destabilizing the government or taking it over altogether," concludes Myhill.

To me, this appears to be an overly simplistic approach to the complex and growing problem of fundamentalism. But perhaps that's merely simplistic Western thinking.

If nothing else, re-working the Western approach to addressing Mideast matters is worth a nod. If there's something we all can agree on, it's that the approach we've taken so far is getting us nowhere.