Stanley Kurtz at the Weekly Standard has a summary of Philip Salzman's study of tribalism in the Middle East. After decades of neglect occasioned by Edward Said's assertions that everything dysfunctional about the Arab world was rooted in the West, anthropologists are interested in tribal mechanics again.
Salzman argues that a knowledge of tribal society is at least as important in understanding the conflicts of the modern world as a study of Islam. In fact, Islam itself can be seen as a code within which the dynamics of tribal society can be acted out.
The United States finds itself locked in a struggle with fierce jihadi warriors shaped by the pervasively tribal culture of the Islamic Near East. Whether hidden in the mountain sanctuaries of Waziristan or in the fastness of the Iraqi desert, the heart of the jihadi rebellion is tribal. The classic tribal themes of honor and solidarity inspire and draw recruits to the cause--from among lowland peasants and educated urbanites as well. Yet tribalism has been vastly overshadowed by Islam in our attempts to understand the jihadist challenge.
Kurtz understands that the tribal structure, far from being a form of social organization doomed to extinction, provides a flexibility that in many respects exceeds that of the traditional nation-state. He writes, "Muslim tribal society is both fundamentally collectivist and profoundly individualist. In the absence of state power and formal political hierarchies, no man of the tribe can, by right, command another. All males are equal, free to dispose of their persons and property and to speak in councils that determine the fate of the group." This makes it perfect for distributed warfare and institutionalized treachery, characteristics which are not aberrations but actual features of tribal society. In Salzman's view, a complete understanding of the jihad requires not only a reading of Islamic texts but a knowledge of tribal culture. Islam and tribalism are inextricably intertwined, two sides of the same cultural cloth.
The central institution of segmentary tribes is the feud. ... Universal male militarization, surprise attacks on apparent innocents based on a principle of collective guilt, and the careful group monitoring and control of personal behavior are just a few implications of a system that accounts for many aspects of Middle Eastern society without requiring any explanatory recourse to Islam.
One of the questions that Kurtz's article never explictly addresses is whether tribalism has not in fact been given a new lease on life by the forces of globalization and the Internet. The implicit assumption in many studies of the jihad is that societies which are "failed states" must evolve into functional states similar to those found in the West. That in other words, the direction of progress is away from the chaotic tribal millieu toward the orderly nation state. But what if the trend was in the reverse? And there is reason to believe that it might be. Philip Bobbit argued in the Shield of Achilles that the nation state was evolving into a "market state"; and the trend towards the establishment of online "tribes" (sometimes in the guise of social networking communities) suggests that one's neighbors no longer live next door. Even in countries that traditionally emphasized the Melting Pot, like the United States, the process of "coming together" has subtly been redefined in terms of drifting apart. When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton talk about uniting the nation, they really mean they must divide it first -- the unstated preliminary for admission into the Big Tent is a prior alienation -- into blacks, whites, latinos, women, gays, lesbians and transgendered. No one enters America simply as an American.
Thus segmented subgrouping has advantages; and Kurtz clearly understands that Middle Eastern tribalism provides a form security and freedom within the context of shifting tribal alliances. Tribalism provides a kind of refuge in chaos.
From one perspective, Middle Eastern tribal structures completely contradict Hobbes's notion of what life in stateless societies must be like. Far from being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," life outside the state turns out to be collective, cohesive, and safe enough to generate a stable and successful world-conquering civilization. Man as such is not, therefore, inherently individualistic, as Hobbes, the founder of modern liberalism, presumed. ...
Does life in stateless communal tribes represent a radical alternative to anything Hobbes might have imagined possible?
It would be ironic if, in the course of fighting the jihad the world reorganized itself along tribal lines instead of national ones. In a tribal world the peaceniks of Berkeley could no longer claim the protection of their armed neighbors despite their American nationality and left instead to the depradations of the jihad just as unfortunates in former times were left outside the protective circle of the tribal campfire with its swords and guns.
Or maybe the world will remain just sane enough to resist the temptation of tribalism and rediscover its Western roots, in which politics is founded, not upon the kinship group, Collective or political party, but on the individual: the lonely, fluttering heart yearning for the light and truth that speaks to each as his only child.
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