A cross-border comparison of political institutions and communal conflict

Two articles I have read in the last day made me think of a comparative study I wish I could do, or sponsor some students to do. And I wonder if there is anything at all like this in the literature. (It’s far from my own specialty, so I really would not know.)

Apparently, the ethnic and religious mix in the Turkish province of Hatay is very similar to that of Syria, just over the border. The recent flood of refugees fleeing the Bashar al-Assad regime’s repression is, according to a fascinating account in The Independent, stoking some tensions among the Sunni, Alevi (similar to Syria’s Alawite), and Christian communities.

The 1.5 million population of Hatay province is divided almost equally between Sunnis and Alevis with a Christian minority. St Peter’s Church at Antakiya, one of the oldest in the world, is next to an ancient Sunni mosque. Down the road is a place of worship, a cemevleri, for the Alevis.

The Syrian refugees are not being allowed to mix into the general community in Hatay province by the Turkish authorities. Even the many that have cross-border family links are being stopped from staying with their relations. They are, instead, being corralled into one of the growing number of holding centres – two more camps are being built to add to the three which have been put up in just over 10 days.

The article refers to several anecdotes regarding tensions between communities on the Turkish side.

The other article, from The Globe and Mail, is on the delicate ethnic mix inside Syria, and how the regime has held it together, at least till now. Christians, Druze and Kurds, in addition to Alawites, have tended to support the regime because of a common fear of an emboldened Sunni majority. The regime’s recent economic reforms have made an urban middle class, regardless of sect, relatively comfortable. This is given as a reason for the relative quiet in the main cities of Damascus and Aleppo (although, as noted, we can’t know how much of the quiet is simple pervasiveness of security forces). The article quotes Mordechai Kedar, a professor at Bar Ilan University, using a Yugoslav analogy and contemplating a break-up of Syria into six separate states that would be relatively homogenous compared to Syria as a whole, where 25% belong to one of the many minority groups.

This got me thinking of what an interesting research project someone could have here, caveats about the impossibility of research in Syria right now aside. The two countries, or at least specific regions of them, have similar ethnic and religious divisions. One country is an increasingly majoritarian democracy (whatever its limitations). The other is a minority-ruled police state based on a delicate balance of sectarian groups. How do the political institutions contribute to differences in the resolution (or not) of these tensions?

It is not a project I could ever carry out. But it would be great if someone could!

2 thoughts on “A cross-border comparison of political institutions and communal conflict

  1. Posner, Daniel N. 2004. “The political salience of cultural difference: Why Chewas and Tumbukas are allies in Zambia and adversaries in Malawi.” American Political Science Review.

    Posner’s argument is more about group sizes and coalition potential than about political institutions per se, but otherwise, a good place to start…

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