Who’s Your Daddy? Tribalism revisited.

This blog isn’t only about life and society, but also about conflict.

Let’s revisit Umm Wasfi, whom I introduced last post.  What I didn’t tell you, is that in her house there is a small, black-and-white picture of a young man. I have never seen him before.  He was Umm Wasfi’s younger brother, and he was killed as a young soldier in the the 1967 war between Israel and the Arabs.  Why did he have to die? Why did those young men who were killed on the Israeli side have to die? And why are American soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan now?

When considering conflict in the Middle East, and more specifically the Arab world, one must always keep in mind the balance of loyalties in Arab society. The Western-style nation state has failed spectacularly in that part of the world, and with good reason.  I wouldn’t blame the British, despite that they didn’t even pretend to create democratic systems but simply played kingmaker.  Nor would I blame the many invasions and interventions and so-called “meddling” from America and the West.  No, the problems plaguing the nation-state lie with the Arabs themselves.

It’s the very Western-ness of the nation-state as a political system that has thus far doomed it to fail.  The Arabs are a relational people.  Loyalty lies first with those closest to you, beginning with your immediate family, and then extends to your more distant relatives and your friends, your clan, and finally, with the tribe.  Arabs in the past have rarely had close inter-tribal relationships, since different tribes live in different areas.  And so down, almost at the very bottom of the list, is the Arab’s loyalty to his country, and to the Arabs as a people.

That’s not to say that the nation state cannot succeed in the Arab world.  And in some places, the idea of the nation, once an artificial creation of Britain or some other country, has begun to take hold.  In Oman, for instance, there is considerable national pride.  The Sultan is a sharp man, and has taken great pains to cultivate it.  Holidays such as “National Day,” celebrated in November, feature genuine expressions of Omani nationalism.  But it is difficult to erase centuries upon centuries of tribalism, and in times of crisis, tribalism can often resurface. When push comes to shove, an Arab can be expected to line up behind his fellow tribesmen.

Almost everywhere in the Middle East, the nation-state still enjoys very little real legitimacy beyond a superficial level.  A long-lived, successful nation-state with a stable government, spanning several generations, might have a chance at relaxing tribal bonds.  But as of yet, no such country exists.

What does all this mean for conflicts, past, current and future?

It means two things: that when conflict does happen, it happens along tribal boundaries (usually exacerbated by sectarian differences).  And that it usually happens for a reason: when the balance of power between the tribes shifts, and a new status quo has to be established.

There is, however, another factor in addition to tribalism that has played a pivotal role in nearly all Middle Eastern conflicts in the last century.  Contact with the West, first through direct and indirect imperialism and then through the West’s voracious appetite for oil, has caused the two worlds to collide.  Their relationship has been overwhelmingly characterized by a Western presence in the Arab world, rather than Arabs in the West.  I’m talking about the advent of Western imperialism and interventionism.

In fact – the arrival of Western countries as major players in Arab politics has been one of the major, direct causes of conflict.  Rather than treading lightly so as not to upset the status quo, countries such as Britain, France and America knowingly or unknowingly tipped the balances in favor of a particular tribal, sectarian or ethnic group, setting the powder keg of Middle Eastern politics alight.

In future posts, I will try to communicate how these disasters are occurring today, even as I write – from Lebanon to Iraq to Afghanistan to Israel.

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