Monday, April 11, 2011

Stanley Kurtz on Middle East Tribes and their Clannishness

Stanley Kurtz is a brilliant expositor of just about everything that is wrong with the world, and in particular, with Barack Obama.
Philip Carl Salzman's new book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Humanity Books, 224 pages, $34.95) a major event: the most penetrating, reliable, systematic, and theoretically sophisticated effort yet made to understand the Islamist challenge the United States is facing in cultural terms. A professor of anthropology at Montreal's McGill University, Salzman specializes in the study of Middle Eastern nomads. He, too, is something of a last survivor of a once proud band. What Salzman has managed is to have preserved, nurtured, deepened, and applied to our current challenge a once-dominant anthropological perspective on tribal societies: the study of tribes organized into "segmentary lineages." It was one of the great achievements of modern anthropology. Yet, over the past 40 years, scholars have largely rejected and forgotten the study of segmentary lineage systems.

Why would a social science like anthropology largely neglect and even forget an entire branch of lineage system studies?
The anthropological understanding of tribal social structures--especially in Africa and the Middle East--has been shunned for 40 years as exaggerating the violence and "primitivism" of non-Western cultures, discouraging efforts at modernization and democratization, and covertly justifying Western intervention abroad. Decades of postmodern and postcolonial studies have conspired against the appearance of books like Salzman's. That an academic, "on the inside," could have worked in relative concealment long enough to produce this book is testament to the possibility of cultural survival. Indeed, fully appreciating what Salzman has to teach us will first require us to dust off our records of his all-but-forgotten language, and trace the trajectory of its destruction.

Kurtz translates Salzman's excavation into the depths of classical anthropological skullduggery to emerge with this description of Salzman's discoveries:
As with other fundamental sociological terms like "state" or "class," it is difficult to provide a precise meaning for the word "tribe." Whatever their similarities, there are important differences between relatively small hunter-gatherer Indian bands in the California hills like the Yahi and large Middle Eastern tribes professing a world religion and interacting in complex ways with nearby states.

In the Islamic Near East, however, the term "tribe" has a fairly specific meaning. Middle Eastern tribes think of themselves as giant lineages, traced through the male line, from some eponymous ancestor. Each giant lineage divides into tribal segments, which subdivide into clans, which in turn divide into sub-clans, and so on, down to families, in which cousins may be pitted against cousins or, ultimately, brother against brother. Traditionally existing outside the police powers of the state, Middle Eastern tribes keep order through a complex balance of power between these ever fusing and segmenting ancestral groups. The central institution of segmentary tribes is the feud. Security depends on the willingness of every adult male in a given tribal segment to take up arms in its defense. An attack on a lineage-mate must be avenged by the entire group. Likewise, any lineage member is liable to be attacked in revenge for an offense committed by one of his relatives. One result of this system of collective responsibility is that members of Middle Eastern kin groups have a strong interest in policing the behavior of their lineage-mates, since the actions of any one person directly affect the reputation and safety of the entire group.

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. The religion itself is an overlay in partial tension with, and deeply stamped by, the dynamics of tribal life. In other words--and this is Salzman's central argument--the template of tribal life, with its violent and shifting balance of power between fusing and fissioning lineage segments, is the dominant theme of cultural life in the Arab Middle East (and shapes even many non-Arab Muslim populations). At its cultural core, says Salzman, even where tribal structures are attenuated, Middle Eastern society is tribal society.

Does this sound anything like the old Hobbesian dictum that in primitive societies, life is "nasty, brutish and short?"
In reviving and updating classic anthropological studies of tribal kinship, Salzman is implicitly raising one of the great unresolved problems of political philosophy--one whose implications in today's environment are anything but theoretical. When anthropologists first decoded the system by which lawless and stateless tribes used balance-of-power politics to keep order, they quickly recognized that their discovery cast new light on Thomas Hobbes's "state of nature" theory.

However, Salzman is a two-handed anthropologist and on his other hand:
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.

Yet scholars have noted continuities between Hobbes's account and the conditions of life in segmentary tribes. Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902-73), the anthropologist who first described these societies, called them systems of "ordered anarchy," implying that, kin-based organization notwithstanding, life in segmentary systems necessitates endemic, often preemptive, low-level violence and neverending mutual distrust: what Hobbes might have recognized as the state of nature's "perpetual and restless desire of power after power."

And despite collective guilt and powerful group-based pressures for conformity, anthropologists commonly characterize segmentary tribal systems as intensely individualist, egalitarian, and democratic. This is arguably the central paradox of Middle Eastern social life. 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 tribal tradition of equal and open consultation is singled out by those who argue that democracy is far from alien to Middle Eastern culture.

Back in grad school at the University of Michigan, I considered changing my major to a new science in its early stages of in utero development called Political Anthropology. Evans-Pritchard and his study of the Nuer in South Sudan, the new nation just voted into existence months ago, was one of the pillars of the methodology which would support the superstructure of intellectual scaffolding needed to construct this new edifice of knowledge. I even have a book named Political Anthropology which I borrowed from a visiting U. of Chicago professor and promised unfaithfully to return. It appears that what "political anthropologists" nowadays avoid is precisely any methodology which might cast the lineage and tribal affiliations in such a bad light that colonialism or merely outside intervention in feuds might seem to be justified.
So which is it? Are Near Eastern tribes laboratories of individualism and democracy or generators of kin-based loyalties that render the Middle East refractory to modern, liberal governance? Does life in stateless communal tribes represent a radical alternative to anything Hobbes might have imagined possible? Or does the bold and martial egalitarian individualism of tribal life actually confirm Hobbes, thereby encouraging hope for gradual, liberal cultural change?

Cast in such unequivocal terms, Kurtz [or rather Salzman] is blunt and straightforward:
It is difficult to answer such questions when the mere mention of the word "tribe" is now all but banished from public discourse. Contemporary anthropologists, especially those influenced by "postcolonial theory," have in many respects repudiated the culture concept. For these anthropologists, the very notion of a distinctive culture is held to entail excessive generalization and to subtly imply that non-Westerners lack rationality. The rebellion began in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the newly independent states of Africa. The last thing modernizing intellectuals and politicians in these countries wanted was to have their societies thought of as essentially tribal or connected in some fundamental sense with the "aboriginal" or the "primitive." Although by the 1960s anthropologists had come to look upon the subtleties of tribal social structure as anything but simplistic primitivism, in the public mind the word "tribe" remained an insult. So to respect the perspective of exasperated Third World intellectuals, why not buck up regional pride by studying a sophisticated modern metropolis or a brilliant Muslim philosophical text instead? Why must anthropologists actually highlight those "primordial" loyalties most likely to undermine the modern state? (Anthropologists must highlight them precisely because they cut against modernization, Salzman would reply.)

But the situation became even more tangled when a professor of Victorian music and literature at the University of Columbia became a born-again Palestinian:
On top of all this, decades before 9/11, the rise of terrorism as a tactic in the Palestinian struggle against Israel suggested embarrassing continuities between the endemic violence of traditional tribal life and the present. Edward Said's 1978 Orientalism was the key work in the rise of postcolonial theory, and Said, a savvy Palestinian academic and advocate, was particularly keen to keep the focus on American and Israeli policies that he claimed explained terrorism, rather than on any causes internal to Palestinian society. By attacking efforts to link terrorist violence to Middle Eastern culture as bigoted "Orientalism," Said and his followers gave a hard edge to already widespread Third World complaints about Western scholarship. That move, coupled with the growing number of faculty members entering American universities from outside the West, put paid to all but a remnant of the anthropological study of Middle Eastern tribes. The triumph of Said's perspective meant that by the post-9/11 era, when we'd need it most, the systematic understanding of Muslim tribal violence was largely lost.

Radicalized anthropologists not only stopped trying to make systematic sense of tribal social life, but many even worked to debunk segmentary lineage theory. The first and greatest critic was Emrys Peters (1916-87). Having done field research with one of the Bedouin tribes where segmentary lineage theory was first applied, Peters argued that feuding actually had little to do with who was descended from whom. According to the famous Arab saying, it was: "I against my brother; I and my brother against my cousin; I and my brother and my cousin against the world." Yet Peters claimed that the elegant tribal system of "balanced opposition" between small families nested in clans, nested in larger clans, and so on, was simply a bogus native "ideology," mistakenly taken for reality by credulous anthropologists. In truth, said Peters, other than a kaleidoscopic blur of secondary considerations, material interest was the only factor explaining tribal social structure.

The debunking of lineage, kinship, clannish and tribal affiliations had a convenient alternative to replace the mere recording of facts on the ground such as Evans-Pritchard and other painstaking anthropologists who actually lived among the tribal societies they then wrote about. Let's just see if all this fits into a paradigm which would avoid field trips and long sojourns in hot dusty hellholes by imposing a convenient template top-down onto the messy facts-on-the-ground:
With many anthropologists already drawn to Marxism in the 1970s, Peters's theory found a receptive audience. And when Marxism declined and postmodern anthropology took its place, it was actually Peters's notion of a kaleidoscopic blur that caught on. His careful fieldwork had indeed uncovered important exceptions to what the classic lineage model would have predicted. For example, he discovered that, when it comes to feuding over precious resources like water and pasturage, where you live often trumps whom you're related to. So having given up Marxist explanations, and drawn to Edward Said's radicalism, postmodern anthropologists seized upon Peters's exceptional cases as an excuse for further debunking the systematic study of tribal social structure. Exceptions were now considered the rule, and generalization became postmodern anthropology's bogeyman.

Yes, one size fits all and if the size is wrong, stop even thinking about tribes or any "primitive" groups at all---it's all about real estate, location, location, location, rather than age-old customs which in a transhumance society of nomadic goat and camel herders trumped where a given tribe might make its main spot of territory.
Salzman takes an opposite approach. In a 1978 article, "Does Complementary Opposition Exist?," in American Anthropologist, he defended and refined segmentary theory. If Peters found important exceptions to the classic pattern of alliance and feud along lines of male descent, Salzman showed there was a systematic explanation. He found that when erstwhile nomadic tribes settle down, a given clan's location and its immediate neighbors begin to trump the call of traditional kinship loyalties. Yet even settled tribes preserve the classic kin-based ideology of feuding and alliance, precisely because they might someday be forced by economic necessity--or by war with the state--to pick up and move. The further nomads are from the settled life of a state, the more they rely on kin-based, segmentary, balance-of-power principles to keep order. So even after settlement, Bedouin preserve classic segmentary kinship ideology as a kind of "social structure in reserve" for times of movement, crisis, and conflict.

It really all goes back to Ibn Khaldun, whose Muqaddimah is sitting on my shelf as I write this:
In the early 1980s, the brilliant social theorist Ernest Gellner resurrected the cyclical theory of tribe-state relations first suggested by the 14th-century Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun. In Khaldun's theory, outlying tribes tied together by traditional kinship solidarities conquer, settle, and rule a state. In time kinship loyalties loosen, the rulers urbanize and grow effete, their state loses control over distant tribes, and the cycle begins again. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan present variations on this theme, and it's clear now that in 1978 Salzman was one of the first to recognize an important piece of the cyclical puzzle. So it turns out that tribes aren't so simple after all. Nor is understanding them incompatible with a study of brilliant Muslim philosophical texts.

In Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, Salzman draws on his fieldwork with nomads of Iranian Baluchistan to show how the classic tribal ideology of patrilineal descent and revenge actually works on the ground. It makes for riveting reading. Walk with Salzman as he accompanies a war party of 100 fighters armed with clubs, axes, sickles, and brass knuckles to prosecute an escalating feud. The aggrieved lineage in this party, the Kamil Hanzai (who'd seen their women and older men dishonorably roughed up in an earlier clash), were accompanied by men of six closely related lineages, who'd united to fight a comparable kin-based coalition backing the offending lineage.

A long description of the internecine strife of some Baluchi groups is followed by Kurtz's summary of Salzman's own field work conclusions:
Knowingly or unknowingly, American liberals and conservatives highlight sections of the tribal template, though for their own preferred uses. The implicit dovish take on tribalism notes that our own use of force actually serves to unite the foe. By hitting back at terrorist-harboring states, doves remind us, we create the impression of an infidel war against Muslims, thus figuratively recruiting every Muslim lineage into bin Laden's civilizational war party. This danger is real, yet the doves omit the rest. Failure to strike back creates an impression of weakness that invites further attacks.

The effective use of force deters in other ways, too. As Salzman accompanied the 100-man war party, he noticed that allied lineage members, while perfectly willing to fight in solidarity with their aggrieved lineage brothers, lacked the passion of the Kamil Hanzai. These calmer, more distant allies--as well as lineage members related to opposing groups through ties of marriage--act as checks on hotheaded adventurism. So the successful use of force can split the opposing coalition and create pressure for settle-ment, even on disadvantageous terms. The West's doves see themselves acting as checks on our own hotheaded adventurism, but Islamists, with considerable justice, view the cooing of the doves as a sign that their feud against the West has successfully weakened and split our own coalition.

The most disturbing lesson of all is that, in the absence of fundamental cultural change, the feud between the Muslim world and the West is unlikely ever to end. Tribal feuds simmer on and off for generations, with negotiated settlements effecting only temporary respites. Among the tribes of Waziristan, the saying goes: "I took my revenge early. I waited only 100 years." The Western liberal template takes an experience of peace under the lawful authority of a state as the normal human condition. In this view, when peaceful equilibrium is disturbed, reasonable men reason together to restore normalcy.

I have my copy of Olaf Caroe's book The Pathans 550BC-AD1957 which the interested reader can find online on Googlebooks if he so wishes to delve into a deep study of Waziri tribes and customs by the last Political Agent the British had in the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Caroe was revered by the Paki ruling establishment as knowledgeable in tribal affairs in a much more detailed way than their own citified and educated governing elite in Peshawar. Honor is paramount in Pathan society, which is closely analogous to Arab norms in their shared nomadic tribal traditions.
Yet by themselves, harsh calculations of deterrence are insufficient to account for the dynamics of tribal violence. The pervasive quest for honor adds a critical aggressive charge to the politics of tribal life. How was Karim able to mobilize a war party so quickly in the wake of the theft of his palm trunks? Alone, he had no ability to compel support, nor did a state with the power to require military service stand behind him. Yet Karim had risked his own life on behalf of his lineage mates in the past, and he would be needed again in the future. In a stateless environment, with kin-based alliance the only defense, each individual has a strong sense of his dependence on relatives for safety in case of attack. Individuals are also intensely aware that their personal destinies depend upon the deterrent reputation of the group. At one level, then, a man's willingness to risk his life in battle on behalf of his lineage-mates is a form of self-interest--an entirely rational calculation in an environment of stateless semi-anarchy. Yet when it comes to risking your life in battle, a gap between the individual's short-term interest and the long-term interests of the group remains. How can it be self-interest to die for a relative's deed? Honor bridges that gap. A man's personal honor is a matter of the highest pragmatic import. A given individual may be free to refuse to help his lineage mates, but in that case not only will his group lose standing, but his personal reputation will suffer and others will refuse to aid him in the future.

Is the search for and maintenance of "honor" the glue which cements tribal coherence? Is the protection of the family's womenfolk's honor more important than an individual woman's life? Are "honor-killings" the most brutal oxymoron that can be employed to support the infrastructure of a brutal, nasty contrivance which assures self-defense at some higher level?
With so many strictly rational reasons to maintain it, the quest for honor takes on a life of its own. In a society without ascribed hierarchies, honor marks some as superior to others. Honor is easily challenged and easily lost. It is also increased by displays of aggressive courage and dominance. So over and above even the necessities of preemptive deterrence amidst "ordered anarchy," the neverending quest for honor encourages violent action. Salzman gives the example of a tribe that took up smuggling as a form of economic warfare against the Syrian state that had stamped out their ability to make war. This had material benefits, of course, but the danger involved was actually a positive inducement as well since it permitted tribesmen to display martial virtues essential in a competitive system of honor. Honor as an end in itself helps make sense of the not-so-pragmatic calculations underlying suicide bombing and again reveals the tribal template hidden beneath an overtly religious surface.

Although Salzman doesn't say it, I'd add that the dynamics of honor and collective responsibility help explain the particular resistance of Middle Eastern culture to change. Even when an individual is inclined toward modern attitudes, the need to protect the honor of the group draws him back to tradition. Salzman tells the story of a Druze serving in the Israeli army who shot and killed his sister to preserve family honor.

The young woman had lived in America for several years and returned to visit her family wearing Western garb. Her brother was inclined to ignore this, until his uncle's loud complaints about their endangered family honor were heard by the neighbors. Salzman's point here is that honor depends less on the action itself (e.g., wearing earrings) than on public knowledge and response. What's notable, however, is that the key characters in this honor killing are a relatively modernized young man and his sister. Experience in the Israeli army and time in America had worked a change on both. Yet the responsibility of each individual for the honor--and therefore the safety and prosperity--of the group as a whole makes it difficult to break away from tradition.

And Salzman generalizes by going from one instance and geographic location to another across the Arab world:
Salzman says that it is not the details of tribal kinship structure that pervade Arab culture but the underlying principles of "balanced opposition," in which collective responsibility, honor, and feuding shape every action and thought, often calling for quick shifts in loyalty. Unite with your erstwhile enemy in opposition to a more distant foe; treat all members of an enemy group as potential targets; demand honorable behavior from members of your own group; and maintain your own and your group's honor by a clear willingness to sacrifice for the collective good. Warring Sunni and Shiite sects from Beirut to Baghdad follow principles of balanced opposition. They may be at each other's throats, yet they'll unite in opposition to an outside threat, as when Shiite Iran harbors members of Sunni al Qaeda on the run from America. In a sense, Islam's founding triumph was to raise the stakes of balanced opposition by uniting all the Arab tribes in an ultimate feud against infidel outsiders.

Since Muslims treat the tribal era of Muhammad and his early successors as the golden age of Islam, the cultural influence of the tribal template remains pervasive. To prove it, Salzman takes us on a country by country tour of Middle Eastern tribalism, from Jordan, where Bedouin form the backbone of the army, to Iraq, where even towns are heavily tribal, to Kuwait, where the strongest parliamentary opposition to women's rights emerges from tribal MPs.

Writing in 2006, Salzman cites a news report of clashes between Hamas and a powerful clan in Gaza to show tribal themes enduring in towns and cities. By early 2007, when Salzman's book was in press, the Palestinian unity government had fallen apart and Gaza was in quasi-anarchy, with Fatah and Hamas too busy fighting each other to govern. Such order as existed was enforced by brutal, battling clans.

This is no isolated occurrence. We ought to understand the emergence of Gaza's feuding clans as the revelation of a bedrock of Middle Eastern social organization ever-present and ever-influential, beneath superficial layers of Islam and state. Salzman noted the phenomenon in Gaza well before it became obvious. And long before he could have known of the tribal-based Anbar Awakening of 2007, Salzman identified it in nucleus thanks to some throwaway news reports in 2005.

But the ancient Arab balance and opposition between the Haadar and the Bedu, The Settled and the Nomads, persists today and is a good example of the dynamics still at work in the Arab moieties whatever we want to call them---tribes, clans, Sufi sects, or simply nationalities.
I think we can also extend Salzman's case for the pervasiveness of balanced opposition even further. In treating towns and cities, Salzman focuses on settled populations of Bedouin who retain many features of tribal social life. Yet the massive slums of cities like Istanbul and Cairo clearly display many of the marks of balanced opposition. Salwa Ismail's 2006 book Political Life in Cairo's New Quarters describes life in Cairo's shantytowns. With their homes illegally built, largely off the government grid, and seldom reached by police, the residents of these quarters keep order through a combination of traditional kinship ties and local loyalties (much as do the partly-settled/partly-nomadic tribes studied by anthropologists).

When a quarrel breaks out in a Cairo shantytown, men line up according to alleyway prepared to fight. Neutral parties are then sent out to explore intention and arrange a settlement, just as in Mahmud Karim's quarrel over those desert palm trunks. In effect, then, the vast, unpoliced "new quarters" of Cairo are the modern equivalent of extra-state territories ruled on tribal principles. And in some of these new urban tribal lands, as in faraway Waziristan, Islamism has taken root.

But the underlying paternalistic tribalism lurks beneath every exterior manifestation of life in the Islamic world, including even forms of the religion itself:
The state, such as it is in the Middle East, offers but a thin alternative to "the war of all against all." Too weak to provide public utilities, policing, or impartial justice, most Middle Eastern states are just reincarnations of the predatory, winner-take-all tribal coalitions of old. Why exchange the protection of your family, tribe, or sect for submission to a weak or predatory state? Tribal society contains just enough order to make a bit of violent anarchy bearable, and just enough grasping anarchy to make a liberal social contract unreliable.

Some political scientists decry cultural explanations for failure of democracy in the Arab world. They argue that Arab dictators deliberately cultivate "primordial" tribal loyalties, so as to block the formation of the genuinely liberal political parties, labor unions, and voluntary associations that might bring an end to their unjust rule. Yet this begs the question of why family, tribe, and sect were available and powerful enough to be "exploited" by authoritarian leaders. We're looking at a vicious circle, in which primordial loyalties undermine the modern state, which in turn is forced to rely upon and reinforce primordial loyalties. This causal circle is an only slightly updated version of Ibn Khaldun's cyclical theory.

It won't be easy to weaken the circle of particularism--the self-reinforcing loyalties of extended family, tribe, and sect that dominate Arab countries at both the state and local levels. The British did something comparable in traditional India by creating a counter-system of liberal education and advancement through merit, rather than kin ties. But that took time, military control, and a favorable political environment. The road to genuine cultural change is long, and there are no easy shortcuts. On the other hand, the tribal template offers a ray of hope.

Since 9/11, we've understood Islam as the fundamental source of the cultural challenge coming from the Middle East. That has given rise to a strategy of direct assault--an almost Voltairean attempt to deflate religious pretensions in hopes of forcing a change. Islam itself may be a complex extension of tribal culture, yet technically, Islam is defined as something different from, and sometimes antagonistic to, pure tribalism. When Muslim immigrants in Europe debate amongst themselves female seclusion, cousin marriage, and honor killings, reformers argue that these are "cultural" rather than strictly "Islamic" practices. There is truth here and also an opening.

While tribalism is in one sense culturally pervasive in the Middle East, tribal practices are less swathed in sacredness than explicitly Koranic symbols and commandments--and are therefore more susceptible to criticism and debate. Even jihad and suicide bombing can be interpreted through a tribal lens. We've taught ourselves a good deal about Islam over the past seven years. Yet tribalism is at least half the cultural battle in the Middle East, and the West knows little about it. Learning how to understand and critique the Islamic Near East through a tribal lens will open up a new and smarter strategy for change. The way to begin is by picking up Salzman's Culture and Conflict in the Middle East.

I am going to order the Salzman book to see what I missed when I answered the State Department's call to join the Foreign Service and cut short my graduate studies in the end of the sixties. Political anthropology seemed a promising new perspective on societies in various stages of development, as even our western societies still seem to be in.

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