Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Middle Easts Tribal DNA-Part 3

Philip Carl Salzman
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2008

Conflicts within the Middle East cannot be separated from its peoples' culture. Seventh-century Arab tribal culture influenced Islam and its adherents' attitudes toward non-Muslims. Today, the embodiment of Arab culture and tribalism within Islam impacts everything from family relations, to governance, to conflict. And now, Part 3 ... Conflicts in material interest—such as over land and water—are important, but they are common whenever people live together. Seldom do they become intractable. Arab rulers' diversion of internal discontent outward toward Israel is also important. But it is the balanced opposition drawn from tribalism that impacts enmity more. The Arab saying, "Me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin; me, my brother, and my cousin against the world," holds true. Take for example the situation of Libya in the years prior to World War I: Prior to the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911, Arab Bedouin there fought Turkish overlords. But, rather than stay neutral or join the Italians, the Bedouin instead sided with their co-religionists against the Italians. For much the same reason, Arabs will unite in enmity to any non-Arab, let alone non-Muslim. In the conflict with Israel, the most basic Arab social principle is solidarity with the closer in opposition to the distant. "Right" and "wrong" are correlated with "my group" (always right) and "the other group" (always wrong). The underlying morality is that one must strive always to advantage one's own group and to disadvantage the other group.

For Arab Muslims confronting Jews, the opposition is between the dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, and the dar al-harb, the land of the infidels. The Muslim is obliged to advance God's true way, Islam, in the face of the ignominy of the Jew's false religion. Islamic doctrine holds that all non-Muslims, whether Christian or Jewish dhimmi or infidel pagans, must be subordinate to Muslims. Jews under Qur'anic doctrine are inferior by virtue of their false religion and must not be allowed to be equal to Muslims. For Muslim Arabs, the conceit of Jews establishing their own state, Israel, and on territory conquered by Muslims and, since Muhammad, under Muslim control is outrageous and intolerable. As Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University and an expert on Arab politics explains, "Underneath the modern cover there remained the older realities of sects, ethnicity, and the call of the clans."[23] There is no way, in this structure, to reach beyond the Arab versus Israeli and Muslim versus Jew opposition to establish a common interest, short of an unimagined attack on both Arabs and Israelis by some group more distant. In this oppositional framework, it is impossible to seek or see common interests or common possibilities. Israel will always be the distant "other" to be disadvantaged and, if possible, conquered.

A corollary principle, also with roots in Arab tribalism, is honor. Arab honor consists of the warrior's success in confrontations against outsiders. Only the victorious have honor. The more vanquished are the defeated, the greater is the victor's honor. As Ajami observes, in the Arab world, "triumph rarely comes with mercy or moderation."[24] Arabs are taught, and many have taken to heart, that honor is more important than wealth, fame, love, or even death. Imbued with such a sense, today's Arab finds himself in an untenable situation: Juxtaposing their recent history to the years of glory under Muhammad, Arabs can see only defeat visited upon defeat. First there was the breakdown of Arab solidarity and fighting among the Arabs themselves, then the Turkish Ottomans conquered the region. The decline and fall of the Ottomans led to conquest and occupation of almost all Arab lands by the Christians of Europe. Even their successful anti-colonial struggles turned into empty victories with Arab populations subject to power-hungry rulers, sadistic despots, or religious fanatics.

What honor can be found in defeat and oppression? And what self-respect can Arabs find without honor? In a world of defeat and failure, honor can be found only in resistance. Arab self-respect demands honor be vindicated through standing and fighting, no matter what the cost. In a 2006 interview, Pierre Heumann, a journalist with the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche, asked Al-Jazeera editor-in-chief Ahmed Sheikh whether enmity toward Israel is motivated by self-esteem. Sheikh explained, "Exactly. It's because we always lose to Israel. It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab."[25] Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi echoes a similar theme in his 1979 volume Wounded Thunder in which he laments the failure of the Arabs to defeat Israel. "How heavy is the shame," Hawi asks. "Do I bear it alone?"[26]

These four factors—the defense of honor, segmentary opposition, transference of discontent outward, and conflicting material interests—militate in favor of alienation between the Arabs and Israel and the tenacious rejectionism of the Arabs. The two cultural factors—honor and opposition—are influences deeply embedded in Arab character. What appears to be reasonable to Westerners will not appear reasonable to Arabs. Such is the power of culture.

The conflict between Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, is not the only major conflict between Muslims and others. On the contrary, military contests along the borders of lands dominated by Muslims are pervasive. Samuel Huntington, a Harvard political scientist, observed, "The overwhelming majority of fault line conflicts … have taken place along the boundary looping across Eurasia and Africa that separates Muslims from non-Muslims. While at the macro or global level of world politics, the primary clash of civilizations is between the West and the rest, at the micro or local level it is between Islam and the others."[27] Among the conflicts enumerated by Huntington are the Bosnians versus the Serbs, the Turks versus the Greeks, Turks versus Armenians, Azerbaijanis versus Armenians, Tatars versus Russians, Afghans and Tajiks versus Russians, Uighurs versus Han Chinese, Pakistanis versus Indians, Sudanese Arabs versus southern Sudanese Christians and animists, and northern Muslim Nigerians versus southern Christian Nigerians.

Indeed, everywhere along the perimeter of the Muslim-ruled bloc, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbors. Muslims may only comprise one-fifth of the world's population, but in this decade and the last, they have been far more involved in inter-group violence than the people of any other civilization.

Muslim Middle Eastern countries, from Morocco to Iran, are dictatorships. None are ranked free, and some, such as Egypt, Iran, Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, are ranked not free, the lowest category.[28] The propensity of Arab states and Iran to dictatorship also has roots in tribal culture. There is an inherent conflict between peasants and nomads. Peasants are sedentary, tied to their land, water, and crops while tribesmen are nomadic, moving around remote regions. Peasants tend to be densely concentrated in water-rich areas around rivers or irrigation systems while pastoral tribesmen, in contrast, are spread thinly across plains, deserts, and mountains.

To state leaders, cultivators are vulnerable and rewarding targets who cannot escape without sacrificing their means of making a living. In comparison to peasant cultivators, pastoral nomads are much less vulnerable than cultivators to state importunity. Both their main capital resource, livestock, and their household shelter are mobile. While farming follows a rigid schedule of planting and exploitation, nomadism requires constant decisions and initiative, which instill willfulness and independence. Mobility and guerilla prowess make tribesmen less vulnerable than peasants to state control.

States struggle to impose effective control over the nomads. State authorities do not, however, always take a modest, compromising attitude in dealing with tribes. The Ottomans tended to be a bit more stringent in their own heartland. If tribes in Anatolia were deemed to be too independent, the government responded rigorously. Ottoman authorities forcibly settled unruly tribes and, in the 1920s and 1930s, Reza Shah subjected and forcibly settled in villages Iran's nomadic tribes—the Qashqai and Basseri of the southwest, the Lurs of the west, the Kurds of the northwest, the Turkmen of the northeast, and the Baluch of the southeast.[29] When occupying British officials deposed Reza Shah in 1941, many of the tribesmen reverted to nomadism.

In order for states to retain control over and exploit the production of their subjects, they must transform tribesmen into peasants. Governments cannot extract taxes and recruit soldiers from tribesmen, but they can do so from sedentary populations. Peasants are socially fragmented because the state has monopolized responsibility for collective action. Fast forward to the modern day. This tribal dynamic leads to dictatorship. Dictatorship occurs in one of two ways: In some societies, political leaders must use repression to stymie the centrifugal force inherent in tribalism. In countries, though, such as Libya or some Persian Gulf emirates, tribes are encapsulated in the national government. Tribal leadership morphs into the governing structure. Tribal notables become regional if not national elites. Either way, a rigid governing structure takes root.

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