How the Dallas Cowboys and Greenbay Packers Explain the Middle East Peace Process

Cairo, Alexandria, Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, Mosul, Beirut. Among others, these are the major cities of the Middle East.

Before colonialism took root in this region, many citizens of a myriad of different ethnicities and confessions professed allegiance to the cities they lived in and the surrounding neighborhoods. Can we not wipe the map of today's Middle East clean, leaving only the cities as focal points for a new state system?

Would you not agree that Dallas Cowboy fans and "cheese-headed" Packers fans at times are more loyal to their cities than the state or country they live in? You wouldn't be wrong to ask: Why should it even matter? or, Are being a Packer fan and owing allegiance to the U.S. mutually exclusive options? That's because you have little reason to reject the pride that accompanies living as a citizen of the United States. But what does it mean to be Lebanese or Iraqi? For many inhabitants of these countries today, the answers to the questions I have just asked can be puzzling and ambiguous, if not downright inappropriate. 

Before World War I, it really meant little to be Iraqi or Lebanese in the sense that these national definitions were equated with territorial limits that were irrespective of the populations within them. Instead, most of the people that lived around major urban centers derived their pride and loyalty, to a significant degree, from the bazaars and main streets that ran through the major cities. Sunnis, Shi'a, Maronites, Arabs, Kurds, and company, were not constrained by arbitrary lines on a map or fictitious governments that were created by Great Britain and France. These newly formed governments wrangled together urban dwellers and hinterland nomads into defined but awkward units.

After World War II, colonialism retreated and the United Nations celebrated as new kingdoms and republics sprang up throughout the region. And since that time, tensions between confessions and sectarian struggles have continued unabated. It is no wonder why there is so much violence in the Middle East today. What would happen if one day fans of the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers were moved to Chicago and the citizens of all three of those cities were called upon to root for a newly created team? It would be pandemonium! None of these people would agree to the terms and violent infighting would surely ensue. The relationships between and among the different religious sects and confessions of the colonial Middle East were changed in the like manner. Although, in order not to compare religion and ethnicity with professional football teams, I have to say the tensions that arose between colonial subjects were a matter of life and death. The change was dramatic, the damage was irrevocable, and the long path leading to today's civil wars was laid with blind precision.

A city mayor or governor of the pre-colonial Middle East exercised remarkably different responsibilities as governing entities than state/nationwide legislators do today. The former entity was charged with preserving the peace and the facilitation of trade between merchants and consumers who often valued commerce over confessional loyalty. On the streets of Constantinople during the Byzantine Era, coinage was accepted as faithful currency, not religion. A Shi'a's hand did no evil to silver or gold such that a Sunni would refuse it as payment.

If we worry today about the best ways to strengthen fragile states in the Middle East, or prop up loyal dictators in that region, we do so only because we lack the mental capacity to remember a time when cities were the lowest common denominator of governing entities. To wit, Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth were only a few city-states amidst thousands throughout classical Greece. City-states were the loci around which a menagerie of different ethnicities gathered to trade goods and blend cultures. These city-states of old commanded unquestionable loyalty and the benefits that one would accrue from being an Athenian or Spartan was far more tangible than the treatment some Lebanese or Iraqi citizens are subject today. 

Can we not wipe the map of today's Middle East clean, leaving only the cities as focal points for building a new state-system? Can we not think of an institution of government that is representative, but founded upon a city's population? It would seem to me that a city is a more tangible entity to owe allegiance to than a country with more or less meaningless boundaries.

Cities command not only more loyalty than some of today's countries but, in some cases, also have more output. Take a look at this Wall Street Journal article by Conor Dougherty from July, 2012 and the accompanying chart. I'll delve into that insight more fully later, but does it not pique your interest to know that cities, and the commerce that is made possible through their networks, provide the most tangible benefit for citizens of different faiths? Those benefits are jobs, income, and the ability to feed your family. The classical Greek city-states of old crumbled under the weight of Alexander the Great's Macedon and then the Roman Republic. If we were to affect the change I speak of only to witness Middle Eastern city-states falling prey to the same conventional aggression typical of the ancient world then we face a set of problems that need to be discussed in some other forum.

It's not that the "state system" is broken. In fact, however imperfect the global state system is, it still is better than all alternatives. And keep in mind: "state" is just a word that can easily be extended by, and replaced with, "city-state." The lines were simply drawn in the wrong place because the colonial powers started in the wrong place. Great Britain and France just carved up areas that were more or less equal in size and wealth.