As news websites try to make sense of what some describe as the ‘Arab spring’, ever more inventive maps are appearing online. History Workshop Journal editor Felix Driver has been mapping the maps:
Having stumbled across an interactive map of “MidEast Unrest” on the Sky News website, I did a quick tour of some of the main English-language news pages and found a rash of similar maps and diagrams accompanying news stories from North Africa and the Middle East. Geography matters, you might think: sadly, you’d be mistaken.
The Sky News definition of ‘MidEast’ includes Morocco and the Sudan, but excludes Israel and Turkey. Other similar websites refer to ‘the Arab World’ or’ the ‘Middle East and North Africa’: the former often includes Iran, not of course an Arab country, and the latter usually excludes a large part of the non-Arabic Middle East as conventionally defined.
Sky’s enticing offer of an ‘interactive’ map turns out to be no more than a country-by-country tour of ‘key facts’, framed by two questions: ‘why is the population so angry?’ and ‘why is the country important?’. Answers to these questions in the case of Israel/Palestine are not available: these places on the map are not clickable. Opportunities for a deeper historical understanding of the current crisis are being missed. Geopolitics rules.
Many similar maps have appeared in recent weeks (see the websites listed below). The BBC News website maps the latest news alongside country statistics on poverty, corruption, literacy and demography, and an ‘unrest index’. The New York Times has created a teacher’s ‘primer on the Arab world’, under the title ‘Mapping discord’, starting with two questions: ‘Why is there much turmoil in the Arab world right now?’ and ‘What are the key issues facing the nations in that part of the globe?’ It gives suggestions for lesson plans in which students are given blank maps of the Middle East and North Africa and asked to fill them in: ‘When they are finished and answers are verified, the groups should find one interesting fact about each nation to add to their completed maps, perhaps starting with the C.I.A. World Factbook’. (Presumably, U.S. arms sales to the region would not qualify as facts that could be mapped). The distorted nature of these lessons is clear from their recommended structure and content. It is quite a short journey from this to the more plainly ideological intent of websites such as that of the Middle-East-information.org
Alongside this geopolitical pedagogy, it has been interesting to witness more reflective journalists trying to grasp the historical significance of current events across North Africa and the Middle East. Comparisons with the ‘contagion’ of European revolutions in 1989 or 1848 abound. The idea of 1989 as a model does not make much sense (given its relationship to the end of the Cold War), but it at least has the virtue – if we remember the highly uneven pattern of those events summed up as ‘1989’ – of drawing attention to the specificities of different places and political situations: Poland was not Rumania, and Hungary took a different path to the Ukraine. That simple lesson might be of use in interpreting the events of 2011 in “MidEast”, when the tendency is to reach for simplistic analogies to explain complex developments.
The idea of a comparison with 1848 is somewhat more interesting, especially from a political perspective: the parallels between autocratic regimes dominated by hereditary monarchies and between rhetorics of liberal nationalism are intriguing. However, in much of the media reporting the historical roots of contemporary events rarely receive serious attention: in particular, there is little serious engagement with the twentieth-century history of states such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya (for an exception listen to Stephen Sackur’s Radio4 programme on Egypt: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ytyfk).
The crude geopolitical framing which currently dominates media accounts of current events demands a better response from both historians and geographers: it would be interesting to hear of the use of other forms of mapping, and other styles of reporting, which offer a different perspective.
Some ‘interactive maps’ of the Middle East & North Africa in the media: