Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Middle Easts Tribal DNA-Part 2

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. While many diplomats and analysts view the Arab-Israeli dispute and conflicts between Muslim and non-Muslim communities through the prism of political grievance, the roots of such conflicts lie as much in culture and Arab tribalism. And now, Part 2 ...
Conquest of vast lands, large populations, and advanced civilizations is a bloody and brutal task. Most accounts of Islamic history glide over the conquests, as if they were friendly takeovers executed to everyone's satisfaction. Boston University anthropologist Charles Lindholm, for example, wrote, "The Muslim message of the equality of all believers struck a cord with the common people of the empires, who, theoretically at least, were liberated from their inferior status by the simple act of conversion. The rise of Islam was both an economic and social revolution, offering new wealth and freedom to the dominions it assimilated under the banner of a universal brotherhood guided by the message of the Prophet of Allah."[7] It may have been the best of all possible worlds, so long as one had not been one of the slain, enslaved, expropriated, suppressed, and degraded.

There are some accounts that address the Islamic conquests more frankly. Andrew Bostom, an associate professor of medicine at Brown University who edited a collection of primary source descriptions of jihad, provides lengthy quotes from major Islamic authorities, ancient and modern, verifying the obligation upon all Muslims to make holy war against infidels.[8]

The Arab and Islamic conquests were not unlike tribal raids against distant, unprotected peoples, but on a much larger scale. One of the main characteristics of the Arab empire was the enslavement of conquered peoples.[9] During conquest, men were commonly slaughtered while women and children were taken in slavery. Muslim invaders spared men who willingly converted but still enslaved their wives and children. In conquered regions, Muslim troops often took children from parents while along the periphery, it was normal to raid for slaves.

Bostom and other scholars provide historical accounts of such jihad.[10] One Greek Christian account describes the Arab invasion of Egypt as "merciless and brutal." Not only did the Muslim invaders slay the commander of the Byzantine troops and his companions, but they also put to the sword all who surrendered including old men, babes, or women.[11] Similar slaughters occurred across Palestine and Cyprus. Muslim troops were particularly brutal toward non-Muslim religious institutions. During the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, many Christian monks were put to death. One Muslim historian estimated that Arab armies destroyed 30,000 churches throughout Egypt, Syria, and other central lands.[12] An Armenian historian reported that, following a rebellion in 703, General Muhammad bin Marwan invaded the province, massacring and enslaving the populace. He wrote a letter to the nobility, giving guarantees of safety in return for surrender. They surrendered, at which point the Arab invaders shut them in churches and burned them alive.[13]

While writers today depict the Muslim civilization in medieval Spain as tolerant, a Grenadan Muslim general from the late thirteenth century wrote that "it is permissible to set fire to the lands of the enemy, his stores of grain, his beasts of burden, if it is not possible for the Muslims to take possession of them." He further advised razing cities and doing everything to ruin non-Muslims.[14] Muslim generals instituted similar practices in Afghanistan and India.

Tribesmen can treat non-members with disdain. Tribal identity coalesces in opposition to the "other." Common Muslim attitudes toward non-Muslims reflect the influence of these tribal values. The historical evidence for the degradation of Christian and Jewish dhimmi [subjugated religious minority] in Muslim lands is overwhelming, both in quantity and near unanimity in substance. Much is documented in Bat Ye'or's Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide.[15] In eleventh-century Al-Andalus, for example, Abu Ishaq, a well-known Arab poet and jurist of the day, expressed outrage at the presence of a Jewish minister in the court of the ruler of Granada. He argued that the Muslim leaders should "[p]ut [the Jews] back where they belong and reduce them to the lowest of the low … Do not consider it a breach of faith to kill them." Soon after his call, local residents slaughtered approximately 5,000 Grenadan Jews.[16] Such sentiments were not exceptions limited in time and scope. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat spoke in closely parallel terms to Abu Ishaq's when, on April 25, 1972, he declared, "[The Jews] shall return and be as the Qur'an said of them: ‘condemned to humiliation and misery.' … We shall send them back to their former status."[17]

Arab Muslims frequently subjugated their non-Muslim brethren across the width and breadth of the Muslim world. The Spaniard Badia y Leblich traveled in Morocco at the end of the nineteenth century as a Muslim named Ali Bey and reported the Jews there to be "in the most abject state of slavery."[18] William Shaler, the U.S. consul in Algiers from 1816 to 1828, described the Jews of Algiers to be "a most oppressed people," not even permitted to resist any violence from a Muslim and subject to conscription for hard labor without notice.[19] Contemporaneous chroniclers describe the Jews of Tunis and Benghazi similarly.[20]

Such treatment is rooted in the Muslim belief that Islam was God's word and God's way and any other religion or belief was false. Muslims believe Judaism and Christianity to be superseded by Islam. All non-Muslims were infidels who should be subject to Islam. Jews and Christians were to be allowed to live as inferiors and subordinates, dhimmis, but with obligatory, legally-mandated humiliation; other infidels, such as Hindus and pagans, could choose between conversion to Islam and death although, in practice, many Muslim conquerors preferred to derive economic benefit from their enslavement.

The theological foundation of the Arab empire was the supremacy of Islam and the obligation of each Muslim to advance its domination.[21] The relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is thus defined by Islamic doctrine as one of superiority versus inferiority and of endless conflict until the successful conquest of the non-Muslims.

Islam also reflects tribal notions of honor with regard to women. Within the Arab tribal society in which Muhammad was born, women's reproductive capacity was necessary for lineage strength. The ability of the lineage to allocate women where needed most for strategic purposes, whether endogamously to contribute to the number of offspring or exogamously to establish or maintain an alliance, required obedience. The close attention of community members to the sexual behavior of women reflects not only a concern for fulfilling community norms but also a keen self-interest in rank competition and the way different groups may rise or fall.

But have Muslims carried down views expressed in the fourteenth century C.E. to the present day? Here anthropologists contribute to the discussion. E. E. Evans-Pritchard, later professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, had close contact with the Bedouin of Libya during World War II. In his studies of eastern Libya encapsulated in The Sanusi of Cyrenaica, he observed that the Bedouin saw it as their special religious responsibility to carry out holy war, jihad, leaving others to pray and study the Qur'an.[22] When the Italians invaded Libya early in the twentieth century, the Bedouin of Cyrenaica were unwilling to accept Italians as rulers under any terms, no matter how generous. Although the Bedouin were heavily outgunned, they chose to fight for decades until they were virtually exterminated.

From a political point of view, Islam raised tribal society to a higher, more inclusive level of integration. But it was not able to replace the central principle of tribal political organization. Framing Muslims in opposition to the infidel preserved the balanced opposition. As with tribal lineage, affiliation and loyalty became defined by opposition.

The basic tribal framework of "us versus them" remains in Islam. The conception "my group, right or wrong" does not exist because the question of right or wrong never comes up. Allegiance is to "my group," period, full stop, always defined against "the other." An overarching, universalistic, inclusive constitution is not possible. Islam is not a constant referent but rather, like every level of tribal political organization, is contingent. People act politically as Muslims only when in opposition to infidels. Among Muslims, people will mobilize on a sectarian basis, as Sunni versus Shi‘a. Among Sunni, people will mobilize as the Karim tribe versus the Mahmud tribe; within the Karim tribe, people will mobilize according to whom they find themselves in opposition to: tribal section versus tribal section; lineage versus lineage, and so on.

The structural fissiparousness of the tribal order makes societal cohesion difficult. Affiliation places people and groups in opposition to one another. There is no universal reference that can include all parties. Oppositionalism then becomes the cultural imperative. While the tribal system based on balanced opposition effectively supports decentralized nomads, it inhibits societal integration and precludes civil peace based on settlement of disputes through legal judgment at the local level.
Islam's Bloody Borders

What does this mean today? The tribal notion of balanced opposition has profound implications on modern conflict. The Arab-Israeli debate is polarized and almost every "fact" contested by the other side. Too often, though, Western academics, journalists, and policymakers focus on the debate without reference to how Arab culture shapes and impacts the conflict.

Any outside observer without any prior knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict would find the unrelenting rejection by Arabs of Israel to be confusing. It would be difficult to fathom why Arabs who currently struggle to get along with one another would not look with enthusiasm to neighbors who could and would assist them in bettering their circumstances. The Arab situation, compared to Israel's, is bleak. In all spheres of life except for religion, Arab society and culture has declined in importance and influence. In global competition with other societies and cultures, Arabs have for centuries been losers. Israel, on the other hand, is a parliamentary democracy with established civil liberties. It is perhaps the most multiracial and multicultural state in the world, gathering as it has Jews from all corners of the world. It has also accepted and, albeit imperfectly, incorporated a substantial population of Arab Bedouin and Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. Israeli science and technology makes major contributions to medicine and high technology. IBM and Intel each have three research and development centers in Israel while Microsoft and Cisco Systems have built their only non-U.S. facilities there. Motorola has its largest research and development site in Israel. Israelis are close cousins of the Arabs. Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages. And, even religiously, Jews are a fellow "people of the book."

Rather than accept any Israeli contribution—even Arab countries at peace with Israel refuse, for example, to accept disaster relief from the Jewish state—the Arab rejection of Israel is close to absolute. Four factors contribute to Arab rejectionism: (1) conflicting material interests, (2) use of Israel as an external enemy by Arab leaders to diffuse internal discontent, (3) Arab organizational principles based on opposition, and (4) the challenged honor of the Arabs. These last two factors are perhaps the most important. Not by coincidence, they derive from Arab tribal culture and are now incorporated as general principles in Arab cultures.

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