Salzman on Tribal Islam: Insights of an Anthropologist

Phillip Salzman has written an important new anthropological study of tribalism — and the honor-shame culture that lies at its heart — with important implications for understanding Islam today. Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has an excellent review that draws out these implications.

I and My Brother Against My Cousin
Is Islam the best way to understand the war on terror? Tribalism may offer a clearer view of our enemies’ motivations.
by Stanley Kurtz
04/14/2008, Volume 013, Issue 29

Culture and Conflict in the Middle East
By Philip Carl Salzman
Humanity Books
224 pages, $34.95

On the morning of August 29, 1911, a half-starved Indian stumbled down from a remote canyon near California’s Mount Lassen and surrendered at the corral of a nearby slaughterhouse. Reluctant, in accordance with tribal custom, to divulge his personal name, he called himself simply “Ishi,” or “Man.” It took an anthropologist working with phonetically transcribed records of historic Indian languages to establish communication and identify Ishi as the last-known member of the Yahi tribe.

The Yahi were fierce predatory raiders–as were hill tribesmen the world over with their remote sanctuaries and a lack of property to defend. Lowland Indians feared them, and the Yahi offered the stiffest resistance to the flood of settlers who entered California during the 1850s Gold Rush. In the end all but a few dozen of the several hundred Yahi were killed, and the survivors vanished into the remotest parts of their mountain territory, living a life of concealment, at bare subsistence level, for 40 years. The renowned anthropologist Alfred Kroeber dubbed this refugee group “the smallest free nation in the world.” Ethnologists of the day considered the Yahi way of life during the four-decade concealment “the most totally aboriginal and primitive of any on the continent.”

I thought of Ishi while reading Philip Carl Salzman’s new book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Humanity Books, 224 pages, $34.95). It is 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.

Nearly a century after Ishi’s surrender, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.)

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.

I am rereading Said’s book with my seminar right now, and this time I have the overwhelming sense that Said’s effort is essentially an effort by someone profoundly shamed by the dysfunctions of his society — he claims to have originally thought of this project while visiting Beirut during the horrendous civil war that killed tens of thousands of civilians — to say to outsiders: “Don’t look! And if you do, don’t you dare say anything negative or I’ll call you a racist.” (For those interested, I have an essay on Said and honor-shame culture.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

Yet just three days before, the Dadolzai, one of the lineages supporting the Kamil Hanzai, had been ready to do battle with the Kamil Hanzai over the apparent theft of some palm trunks. It was a classic case of fissioning lineages uniting in the face of a threat from more distantly related tribal clans. Since the original male ancestors of the Dadolzai and the Kamil Hanzai had been brothers, the principle of “I and my brother against my cousin” held.

Salzman’s detailed account of “segmentary feuding” offers a microview of some of the same processes we see writ large in the war on terror. Let’s take a closer look at the alleged theft of those palm trunks. Mahmud Karim, of the Dadolzai lineage, was enraged to learn that a member of a “brother” lineage, the Kamil Hanzai, had carried off the palm trunks he’d prepared to roof his temporary mud-brick dwelling during the seasonal date harvest. Karim quickly mobilized a war party from among his Dadolzai lineage mates (including a few allies from closely related lineages) to retrieve the trunks–by fighting the Kamil Hanzai, if necessary.

But why hadn’t Karim first simply walked over to the Kamil Hanzai and tried to clear the matter up? Indeed, it was later discovered that the palm trunks had been taken by mistake. Why risk a battle without first making a reasonable effort to talk the problem out? That sort of question is liable to be posed by someone living where a state monopolizes the legitimate use of force, and police and courts can therefore be relied upon to keep the peace. In a nonstate setting, where anarchy is kept under control only by the threat or use of force, it often makes sense to send a war party first and ask questions later.

A lone emissary from the Dadolzai making an inquiry or offering to negotiate a settlement would have conveyed an impression of weakness. Only by making publicly known their capacity to swiftly unify and fight to preserve their interests would the Dadolzai prevent future abuse in the lawless desert environment, whatever the intentions of the Kamil Hanzai had been in this particular case. The Dadolzai meant to fight only if blocked from retrieving the palm trunks, yet it was crucial that they be seen as willing to do battle. Had the Kamil Hanzai in fact seized the palm trunks with hostile intent, a lone Dadolzai emissary would have been in serious danger. Only after retrieving the palm trunks unopposed did the Dadolzai send an emissary–not a Dadolzai, but a member of a neutral lineage who would not be at personal risk–to inquire after the Kamil Hanzai’s intent. And only then was it discovered that the apparent theft of the palm trunks had been an innocent mistake.

Arab tribesmen are preoccupied with maintaining deterrence and prepared to use force preemptively, if necessary–rather like über neocons. The ironic but very real parallel is a function of the de facto stateless anarchy in which Arab Bedouin live–and the de facto global anarchy that hawkish conservatives rightly believe to be the underlying reality of the international system. Saddam Hussein’s interest in being taken to possess WMDs, whether or not he actually had them, makes sense in light of the link between deterrence and reputation. The emboldening effects of America’s pre-9/11 retreats in Somalia, Lebanon, and elsewhere show the reverse of the medal. Although this is a familiar litany, I’d argue that the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the rage against the Muhammad cartoons, the killing of Theo van Gogh, and a host of related acts of intimidation ought to be placed under the heading of pro-active deterrence as well.

And the Western response as an invitation to further aggression. What’s interesting is how the demopathic spokesmen for this side scream hysterically at “unprovoked” or “excessive” response by the Israelis or the Americans, and how well that plays before a Western audience driven by both PCP and resentment of those in the West who do fight back.

The swift and seemingly disproportionate resort to retaliatory force against apparently trivial offenses is an effective technique for suppressing future challenges. Most of the feuds Salzman describes, however weighty and enduring, break out over seemingly petty and inconsequential matters, like the mistaken appropriation of some palm trunks. Rifle shots, intentionally off the mark, are used to intimidate, as are calculated threats of murder. The careful use of targeted force and credible threats against Western critics of Islamism shows genuine mastery of the technique of deterrent intimidation. Here as elsewhere, an overtly religious action is actually shaped by a hidden tribal template.

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 settlement, 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.

And it has. The culture war in the West, fed by conspiracy-thinking, represents a terrible danger.

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.

In the tribal template, however, low-level endemic feuding in conditions of controlled anarchy is the norm. Mediation by a neutral party can sometimes create a temporary respite if violence spins out of control. Yet the underlying conflict, especially if it is between distantly related or entirely unrelated groups, is seldom finally settled. It is instead prosecuted aggressively in strict accordance with cold-blooded balance-of-power calculations. From Karim’s palm trunks to the war on terror, the liberal “come let us reason together” model has little currency in Arab tribal culture.

That’s a good insight into why the Western notion that “the Arabs/Palestinians have given up their desire to destroy Israel” so profoundly wrong headed… wishful thinking of terrible consequences. The desire for revenge for the humiliation of the Naqba lives on.

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.

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.

This is why, in tribal warrior cultures, stealing is preferable to producing (e.g., Plains Indians considered it manly to steal horses, effeminate to breed them). “Take, not make.”

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.

I was in Israel when this happened. She had become very successful, and had built a community center in her Druze village. She had just been interviewed on TV, and apparently, her skirt was too short. Her mother praised her son the following day and refused to mourn her daughter.

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.

To prefer tribal tradition over incorporation into a modern state is a conscious choice. To make sense of it, we need to begin to think differently about states themselves. Looking at a political map of the Middle East, we tend to assume government control of the territories lying within all those neatly drawn borders. It is a serious mistake. As Salzman puts it, traditional Middle Eastern states are more like magnets, exerting force on territory near the center, while losing power with distance. The Ottoman Empire (and the British) ruled the tribes loosely, demanding an annual tribute but generally leaving them to govern themselves. To a remarkable extent, this holds true today. While the precise degree of centralized power ebbs and flows, tribes living in what are often quite large territories on national peripheries exist largely free of state power.

Far from viewing this as a disability, Middle Eastern tribesmen consider life beyond the state as the surest way to avoid dishonorable submission. Statelessness is an essential condition of dignity, equality, and freedom. The traditional relation of the state to the peasant, notes Salzman, “is that of the shepherd to his flock: the state fleeces the peasants, making a living off of them, and protects them from other predators, so that they may be fleeced again.” Salzman asks us to think of traditional states as “cliques determined to impose their power for the pleasure of dominance and the profit of extortion.”

Saddam Hussein comes to mind. Not only was his regime exploitative, it was built around a tribal coalition, at the center of which was Saddam’s Tikriti clan. In the traditional system, says Salzman, states were bereft of any wider sense of civic responsibility or benevolence. Secure in distant mountains or deserts, traditional Middle Eastern tribes (like the Yahi in the hills of California) engaged in predatory raiding against settled peasants. Once a particularly powerful tribe or tribal coalition actually captured a state, they simply routinized their predation under official guise. (Saddam and his Sunni tribal allies fit the bill.) From that perspective, avoiding a life of peasant humiliation and exploitation through membership in an independent tribe begins to look good–endemic violence notwithstanding.

What I call a “prime divider society.”

With their technologically advanced armies, modern Middle Eastern states may look like they’ve put an end to the independence of tribes. Yet with tribal rebellions centered in Iraq’s Anbar province and Pakistan’s Waziristan region, one way to think of the war on terror is as an unexpected recrudescence of classic tribe/state antagonism. As Salzman notes, the scrupulously respected borders of modern states actually offer tribes a way to counter the reach of modern armies. Those Bedouin smugglers in Syria are able to slip across the border to Jordan when pressure from the government mounts. And of course, Pathans fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan take refuge from NATO over a Pakistani border we dare not cross.

In Salzman’s retelling of tribal feuds, the role of the state is ambiguous. Working through selected elders, state authorities do sometimes pressure tribes to keep the peace. More often, the state is virtually recruited into the system of feuds. After one tribal elder’s mediation was rejected, he threatened to authorize the assassination of the parties who’d rebuffed him, then use his influence with the state to exempt the culprits from murder charges.

Disproportionately powerful though they may be, outlying tribal populations are small in comparison with peasants or city dwellers in the modern states of the Middle East. Even conceding the renewed significance of militant but marginal tribes, can we really follow Salzman in treating the tribal template as the dominant pattern of Arab culture itself? Salzman confronts this challenge persuasively and, if anything, actually understates his case.

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.

Thus, the hollow ring of those self-confident assurances from people who think they know that because Sunni and Shiite hate each other, or secular Saddam and religious al-Qaeda are opposed in principle, they could never cooperate against the USA.

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.

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.

This brings us back to the question of democratization and the Middle East and to the most politically significant paradox posed by Salzman’s tribal interpretation of Arab culture. On the one hand, he argues that the pervasive tribal principle of balanced opposition “precludes democracy” in the Middle East. Salzman neither opposes democratization nor thinks it impossible to achieve. To get there, however, Salzman believes that the particularist loyalties at the core of balanced opposition–kin, tribe, sect–would have to be replaced by greater “individualization.” Only then could an authentic liberal democracy based on constitutionalism and the rule of law take root in the Arab world.

And, of course, that means a shift away from the honor-shame axis, with its community concerns: honor and shame are in the eyes of the collective.

On the other hand, Salzman’s account of tribal culture consistently emphasizes its egalitarian, individualist, and democratic character. Balanced opposition is democratic, says Salzman, because “decision making is collective and everyone has a say.” The very absence of government authority, combined with a system based on shifting coalitions of willing individuals, means that freedom, equality, and personal responsibility–along with bellicosity and courage–are fundamental tribal values. Salzman recognizes that while collective tribal decisions bring moral pressure to bear, it is ultimately up to the individual.

Salzman is right to contrast the relative freedom, equality, and open consultation of tribal culture with hierarchical systems of authority such as, say, caste in India. Yet there’s something fundamentally misleading about applying the words “equality,” “freedom,” and “democracy” to the tribal context. What do freedom, equality, and democracy actually amount to in tribal society? Up until the expansion of state power in the 1930s, many Arab Bedouin engaged in predatory raiding against caravans and distant peasant villages. Captives taken in these raids were enslaved (not exactly egalitarian individualism).

Turkmen raiders used to intimidate villagers with the following threat: “I do not have a mill with willow trees. I have a horse and a whip. I will kill you and go.” Salzman uses this threat to illustrate the Turkmen’s strong association of tribal nomadism with “freedom.” Yet the freedom in question seems different than what we mean by freedom in a liberal state. Our freedom is rights-based and universal. The freedom Salzman is talking about is the freedom of a freestanding warrior and his tribe to dominate and deprive others of their liberty. And what about tribal equality? Salzman explains that tribesmen would rather meet government soldiers in “equal combat” than submit themselves to the state.

As for democracy, Salzman tells of an elder who tried to settle a feud by inviting warring clans to a diwan (tribunal of justice) for deliberation. The meeting quickly devolved into charges, counter-charges, then slaps and a full-fledged battle, with the presiding elder jumping in and flailing away at the victorious faction as it delivered a thorough drubbing to its foes. This certainly does illustrate the weakness of political authority in a tribal context. So-called democratic consultation in this context is closer to a conclave of family heads in The Godfather–never far from potential violence–than to debate in a modern representative assembly. This is not equality before the law but equality outside of law. Democracy requires something more fundamental than open consultation between descriptively free and equal parties.

Hobbes was the first great thinker to ground the rule of law and the authority of the state in the consent of free and equal human beings. Given the nature of human passions–our fear of violent death and our desire for eminence–society in the absence of law-giving authority would be a war of all against all. The way out, Hobbes argued, was to collectively delegate some portion of our rights to a central government that would demand our obedience to its laws, while also respecting the most fundamental rights to life and liberty that continue to inhere in every individual human being.

From 17th-century defenders of patriarchal authority through modern anthropologists, Hobbes’s state of nature theory has brought forth numerous critics. To them the existence of paternal rule within early human families, like the organization of entire societies around the obligations of kinship, shows that authority and collective solidarity are fundamental to human social life. History, the critics say, shows that authority and solidarity predate individualism, which may be a strictly modern phenomenon.

Hobbes’s defenders reply that a thoroughly individualist war of all against all isn’t meant to be a literal history but instead a theoretical construct designed to shed light on real events. Nations may be vast collectivities, yet within the international system, they behave like individuals–defending, preempting, and seeking glory in a perpetual war of all against all.

Hobbes understood that historically the fundamental political units were families and tribes, which behaved toward one another like individuals in a war of all against all. He conceived of early commonwealths as agglomerations of families created through conquest–not a bad approximation of a tribe or of the cyclical capture of traditional Middle Eastern states by tribal coalitions. Hobbes even noted the power of tribal codes of honor.

He did more than simply conceptualize warring “pre-liberal” families, tribes, and nations as larger-than-life “individuals” in a war of all against all. He also reconceptualized the internal structure of families themselves as little commonwealths grounded in individual consent. For Hobbes, children obeyed their parents in a rational exchange of compliance for protection, a kind of social contract writ small. Hobbes isn’t entirely convincing on this score, yet he captures an important truth. Even seemingly selfless family generosity involves at least an element of rational self-interest.

What then are we to make of the man who sacrifices himself in battle for his lineage, or dies for jihad with a bomb around his waist? Is this self-interest or self-nullification — a sacrifice for the honor of the group, or the ultimate competitive affirmation of individual superiority? It is all of this and more. Refusal to fight means loss of honor and possible abandonment by the group–a very practical penalty.

Life without honor is not worth living; living death.

Yet functioning families–including those mega-families we call “tribes”–seem able to call upon a sense of honor that is something greater than mere calculated obedience in exchange for personal protection. This complex duality of defiant individualism and self-sacrificing group loyalty haunts Middle Eastern life. Salzman’s resolution of the paradox is to say that, on the one hand, Arabs pursue the virtues of equality and autonomy “to a fault,” while on the other hand, Arabs are too deeply enmeshed in their particularist loyalties to accept liberal democracy.

I would put it differently. Arab tribal warriors aren’t “too egalitarian.” Advocates of race and gender preferences are too egalitarian. Arab tribal warriors aren’t “too individualist.” Strict libertarians are too individualist. The equality and autonomy of Arab tribal warriors are closer to what we find in Hobbes’s state of nature — the sort of individualism that precedes the social contract, not the individualism that follows it. This, then, is the fundamental barrier to democracy in the Arab world. Arabs know all about freely expressing their opinions in open council, yet nonetheless have fundamental reservations about entering into the sort of social contract required to create a modern liberal state. What’s more, these reservations are largely justified.

Indeed, there’s an unspoken consensus about what are the “honorable” alternatives that makes any opinion expressed before the open council extremely limited in its range of possibilities. One cannot, for example, argue for peace with the Zionists (i.e., recognizing non-Dhimmi Jews) without losing face.

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.

Weak and predatory. John Hall has some interesting remarks on the fundamental weakness of the pre-modern state, which only has power where it is present. This is the core of prime-divider societies. It also makes the reports from Gallup on how 90% of Muslims want democracy highly suspect.

    The largest survey to date of Muslims worldwide suggests the vast majority want Western democracy and freedoms, but do not want them to be imposed. The poll by Gallup of more than 50,000 Muslims in 35 nations found most wanted the West to instead focus on changing its negative view of Muslims and Islam.

We want democracy, but we a) don’t want you to impose it; and b) most of all, we want you to change your opinion of us Muslims. If one runs this through a Salzmanesque “honor-shame” filter, what we get is: “We don’t want to make the sacrifices necessary for democracy (e.g., giving up honor-killings, or accepting a free press that could say humiliating things without our ability to retaliate, or seem to be subservient to the West by having them remove a dictator and “give” us democracy, as in Iraq)… but we will say we want democracy because it will give you a good impression of us (and people in democracies have more wealth, so it’s probably a good thing). But what we want most is to have honor; and for that we want you to think positively of us. So the real issue for us is not our working on democracy, but you working on changing your negative view of us.

Now — surprise! suprise! — there are no lack of academic dupes eager to present all this a good news, and urge us to change our opinion of 1.3 billion Muslims for the better… at no cost to them.

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.

Indeed, in my reading, all demotic monotheism is against honor-shame, including demotic Islam. Monotheism in the grip of honor-shame, as much of political Islam, is imperialist. But Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has a profound core of respect for the individual soul and the willing acceptance of the yoke of heaven (i.e., ethical restraints), rather than the denominational imposition of their interpretation of that yoke — that coincides spectacularly with the fundamental democratic notion that the social contract will only work, and democratic elections will only succeed as a means to choose leaders, if the polity has a critical mass of honest, self-regulating, morally autonomous adults. Then you have the key ingredients in civil society — voluntarism, commitment to respect for the “other,” ability to restrain one’s own desires.

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.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

© Copyright 2008, News Corporation, Weekly Standard, All Rights Reserved.

11 Responses to Salzman on Tribal Islam: Insights of an Anthropologist

  1. Disparate Thoughts on Tribes, Food, and Oil

    When Paul Krugman reinforces Maxed Out Mama’s worries, we are facing a serious problem. First, M_O_M with some comments on the current escalating crisis in the price of grain, all in the guise of good intentions:The Impact Of Food Prices

  2. [...] tagged horrendousOwn a WordPress blog? Make monetization easier with the WP Affiliate Pro plugin. Salzman on Tribal Islam: Insights of an Anthropolo… saved by 5 others     wwetom bookmarked on 04/07/08 | [...]

  3. Diane says:


    Nice to have you back and blogging it up! It’s a treat to read you, as usual.

    One question, if you can comment openly on it without doing yourself political harm: how are you getting along at BU these days?

    You mention reading/teaching Orientalism in your seminar (with a critical eye). Do you get a lot of blow-back for this counter-revolutionary activity? Do your faculty colleagues shun you? Do student-activists disrupt your lectures?

    I hope the answers are no, but my acquaintance with the academic world makes me suspect otherwise.

    As problematic as tenure seems in these MESA-dominated times, the practice is worth keeping, I think, when it protects scholars like you and Salzman, who would otherwise be swept away on a tide of politically correct layoffs.

  4. [...] of the regular commenters at my site asks the following: One question, if you can comment openly on it without doing yourself political harm: how are you [...]

  5. oao says:

    if this does not clarify that the west and israel are doomed to lose to the arabs, i don’t know what will.


  6. [...] Study … on Tribal Islam: Insights of an Anthropologist Phillip Salzman has written an important new anthropological study of tribalism ?? and the [...]

  7. [...] implications for understanding Islam today. Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has Puppet ministry to perform Saturday evening at civic center The Lexington DispatchIn an effort [...]

  8. [...] implications for understanding Islam today. Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has prices rise to new heights Tuesday, surging to almost US114 a barrel MSN Money CanadaNEW YORK – [...]

  9. [...] Tribalism may offer a clearer view of our enemies?? motivations. by Stanley Kurtz 04/14/2008, Volum recall valor, peril of first day San Diego Union-TribuneThe Witch Creek fire had barely begun [...]

  10. John says:

    A piece of corroborating evidence is the statement from the Hezbollah leader in Lebanon that if he knew Israel’s response would be so disproportional, he would not have provoked Israel to invade. Proportionality and restraint maintain the feuding tribal system. It seems the only alternative is to initially force submission to an independent legal system.

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