I and My Brother Against My Cousin
The Weekly Standard, April 14, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
Culture and Conflict in the Middle East
By Philip Carl Salzman
Humanity Books, 224 pages
Philip Carl Salzman's new book is the most penetrating, reliable,
systematic, and theoretically sophisticated effort yet made to understand the
Islamist challenge the United States is facing. A professor of anthropology at
Montreal's McGill University, Salzman specializes in the study of Middle Eastern
In the Islamic Near East, 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.
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. So members of Middle Eastern kin groups have
a strong interest in policing the behavior of their lineage-mates.
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. Salzman's central argument is that tribal life is the dominant theme of
cultural life in the Arab Middle East.
Salzman 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
to pick up and move.
American liberals and conservatives highlight sections of the tribal template.
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, we
create the impression of an infidel war against Muslims. Yet the doves omit the
rest. Failure to strike back creates an impression of weakness that invites
The most disturbing lesson 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. In the tribal template, low-level endemic
feuding in conditions of controlled anarchy is the norm. The conflict is seldom
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 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. Honor helps make
sense of the calculations underlying suicide bombing and again reveals the
tribal template hidden beneath an overtly religious surface.
To prefer tribal tradition over incorporation into a modern state is a conscious
choice. 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 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."
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
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. 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.
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 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.
Arabs 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. 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.
Since 9/11, we've understood Islam as the fundamental source of the cultural
challenge coming from the Middle East. Yet 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.
Tribal practices are less swathed in sacredness than explicitly Koranic symbols
and commandments. 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.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the
Ethics and Public Policy Center.
"Our Islamist enemy has proven himself implacable — unwilling to
relent in the face of either dovish or hawkish policies. That means we’re facing
years — maybe decades — of inconclusive, on/off (mostly on) hot war, unless and
until a nuclear terror strike, a major case of nuclear blackmail, or a nuclear
clash among Middle Eastern states ushers in a radical new phase."
AR Depressing but persuasive.