Tribalism: The Basis for Middle Eastern Politics

I long ago came to the belief that American and European diplomats, think tank denizens, NGO activists, and sundry mediators and political activists are clueless about the Middle East and what makes people tick here. That belief has only been strengthened since the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring”—and the insistence by almost every American commentator and pundit I have heard that the major marker that everyone should keep in mind as the events progress is whether these events are bringing democracy closer to those who live in those countries riven by the violence.


Nothing could be more stupid than that assertion. The chances of democracy, as we understand the term, taking hold in this region range from wishful thinking to absolute nil. Tribalism has always determined the nature of governance here—and none of the conditions that could foster the development of democracy in the Arab states currently exist.


Anyone who tries to mediate their way through any of the multitude of disputes that afflict this region without taking tribal culture into consideration is doomed to failure.


John Kerry, are you listening?


Farming, pastoral living and urbanization all began in the Middle East. But before that, we were all hunter-gatherers. In those days, families needed assured manpower and a way of organizing themselves so that they could take on large projects such as killing and skinning an elephant. In order to stabilize their lives and their relationships with those who lived nearby, our forefathers began to organize themselves in a format that we, today, call “tribalism. Whether applied in the mountains of New Guinea or in an exclusive golf club in Georgia, even today, tribalism remains the most prevalent way by which people run their affairs. And that’s because it works…and works well.


In fact it works so well that it survived the social revolutions that led to pastoralization, farming, and even urbanization.


The example of Hassidic courts should demonstrate vividly for Jews just how powerful the pull of tribalism is. After the Assyrians captured the Kingdom of Israel, they sent 10 Hebrew tribes into exile and left the Hebrews with only two tribes—Benjamin and Judah. Since Benjamin was tiny, henceforth, all the Hebrews ended up being called Judeans…or Jews. The Jews were then able to survive for 2000 years without tribalism. But for the last 400 years, tribalism has once again become entrenched as the social structure for at least one part of the Jewish people. Another Jewish group, the settlers on the West Bank has now also begun adopting many of the traits of tribalists.


Tribalism is based on the premise that survival requires cooperation. The easiest way to foster that cooperation is by mobilizing, and then organizing individuals within a family…and if the project is big enough, bringing in more distant blood relatives or like minds too.


The basic rule is that, in return for assuring that support, individuals must subjugate their own interests to the needs of the group.


To reinforce those ties, the group, over time, usually assigns leadership to a specific blood line, which then is responsible for monitoring and interpreting the customs and practices that all the tribe’s members are expected to adopt and abide by.


This then divides the world into the “usses” and the “thems.”


Discipline is imposed not merely by the threat of punishment, such as shunning, meted out by the group. More importantly, the tribal members each agree, voluntarily, to abide by the tribe’s code of behaviour.


Inevitably, in such a closed environment, group members come to believe that their social code is inherently vastly superior to the code of any other tribe (even when the actual differences between the two codes are trivial).


Those differences, small as they may be, though, enable the group to provide individuals within the group with positive reinforcement for remaining loyal. This is because defending the tribe and the code it has adopted brings the individual what the tribes call “honour,” or social stature. Gaining honour, often through the use of some form of violence, or mock warfare, then grants those individuals within the group the kind of prestige that they can use to raise their social status. Enhanced social status can then lead to all sorts of special perks, from marriages to increases in personal wealth.


In many ways, well-run tribal governments are not all that different from constitutional monarchies. At its best, tribal rule can be representative and consultative—precisely what we expect of democracy. Tribes may have a single leader, but he may also be expected to consult with clan leaders and tribal elders (the equivalent of a parliament) before taking a decision. Tribal elders may also hold regular audiences, during which ordinary tribal members can raise issues and seek redress.


For all its strengths and advantages, however, there are also a great number of drawbacks to tribalism, and that is why it has now been abandoned in most Western countries.


The most notable of these is that tribalism is the enemy of modernity and technological progress. Tribalism’s raison d’être is to provide individuals and groups with comforting social stability. Therefore any new ideas or attempts at leveraging risk to gain new advantages are generally shunned.


Another notable drawback is that tribalism wastes precious human and material resources. If tribes are successful and continue to grow in size, they inevitably end up competing with their neighbours for resources—whether it be pasture land or influence with municipal officials. That competition, if carried on too long or too intensively, is inherently wasteful. Competition of this sort can also, and usually does have the effect of diverting attention away from the need to confront and find solutions to other, often intransigent problems.


One of the greatest problems that democracies have in accommodating tribalism is that tribes demand to right to protect their members by using violence if necessary, while democracies usually demand the government be invested with a monopoly on the use of violence.


An important fault is that if tribal governance is used as the basis for large social units such as a nation-state, that state ends up lacking many of the components necessary for long-term domestic social stability. For example, tribes do not usually have a written constitution laying out an individual’s rights and responsibilities. Interpretation and enforcement of tribal law, therefore, then becomes a matter for negotiation. When that happens, domestic corruption and unfairness can become endemic. Saudi Arabia is a good example of this syndrome.


In some cases tasks end up being done ad hoc or haphazardly. For example, if the police force is weak, arrests are often made by self-appointed vigilante committees—which may be undisciplined and therefore lead to unfair search and seizure.


On an international level, this belief that anything and everything is negotiable can lead to delays in dealing with real issues…and distrust and interminable disputes…as one government tries to gain advantage over another without using force. That, for example, is the technique that Iran has used in dealing with its far stronger adversaries.


In general, tribal governance requires the establishment of a two-headed government—one responsible for taking care of peoples’ material lives, and another that is charged with dealing with the spiritual needs of the population. To work properly, one head must reinforce the other.


That is the reason why, in many areas of the world, the need to respond both to peoples’ spiritual and their material requirements has led to the establishment a condominium relationship between the armed aristocracy and what we have come to call the clergy.


Since time immemorial, this system’s great advantage has been that it enabled the strongest clan or tribe to incorporate many tribes under one political leadership using a common religion or set of spiritual beliefs as their social glue. In return, the religious practitioners are able to use the lay leaders and their armed employees to enforce the norms they wished to impose.


Before I go on to deal with how tribal governance has affected people in the Arab world, I have to explain, at least in brief, why it eventually broke down in Europe and never took hold in America.


After the collapse of the Roman Empire, responsibility for governance was transferred to the invading tribes, the other tribes that were the invaders’ competitors, and the Catholic Church which made up the other half of the condominium government. It was at this time that the names of tribes such as the Goths, the Visigoths, the Huns and the Celts entered the historical record.


Beginning in the 11th century, though, the merchants of southern Europe, and especially Italy were becoming wealthier than the aristocracy because of trade. They were selling some specialized manufactured goods such as swords, but especially Slavic slaves to the newly wealthy Moslems on the other coast of the Mediterranean in return for silks and spices. That trade and exposure to other cultures, made these merchants more receptive to new ideas. Within 150 years, this openness led them to seek out ideas from the past, especially Greek culture, that had been lost…and to accept and even embrace new explorations in artistic expression such as Giotto’s revolutionary painting style. By establishing an alternate body of leaders, the ground was laid for undermining the power of the aristocracy—and eventually the Church.


The tool used by the condominium’s enemies was the adoption by artists, some intellectuals, and even some clergymen of skepticism as a way of approaching situations and existing beliefs.


A weakened aristocracy, however, would not have been enough to set in motion a revolution powerful enough to undermine something as potent and dominant as tribalism. It was only with the arrival of and public acceptance of the ideas of Martin Luther, and later, John Calvin that the real revolution to bring down the tribal condominium could begin in earnest. However, it nonetheless took the widespread adoption by intellectuals of the scientific method as the primary format for discussing and judging the truth of theories and claims, together with almost 400 years of some of the bloodiest warfare that the world had seen up to that time, before the condominium was undone.


Amazingly, further south, in the Moslem lands, the very opposite scenario was taking place.


Mohammed had created Islam in the 7th century in an attempt to unite otherwise constantly warring tribes under a single spiritual and legal umbrella. However, he apparently felt the need to adopt many of the features of tribalism as integral elements of his new religion. For example, he divided the world into the dar al-Islam, his religious equivalent of the tribal usses and the dar al-harb…the infidel “thems.” As part of that supposed world order, jihad, or war against infidels, became not only acceptable, but a duty and a potential source of honour.


That format worked. Because Persia and Byzantium has exhausted themselves from their incessant warfare, Islam spread quickly and widely. Those conquests brought the desert warriors into contact with the outside world for the first time.


Much has been made of the brilliant exploration of ideas that took place in the countries conquered by those warriors in the early years after the birth of Islam. However, many people fail to recognize that the conquering tribalists rarely participated in that effort. In fact, with the exception of a few caliphs in Baghdad, most of Islam’s leaders were either uninterested in or openly opposed the growing influence of the scientists and thinkers.


However, the new rulers did need people to run their newly-conquered areas. And the only trained civil servants available were the Persians and Byzantines whose worldview, even after they had converted to Islam, continued to be fashioned by their previous exposure to and their attachment to the Greek intellectual tradition.


As a result, for almost 300 years, the ultimate fate of Islam hung in the balance. The Moslems could easily have made the same shift to skepticism that the Christians to the north had begun. However, in keeping with their tribal outlook, the Moslems continued to view themselves as superior to any other group, past or present. Therefore, they were convinced that they had nothing to learn from the non-Moslem world.


The age of Moslem intellectual dynamism was finally killed off in the 11th century when the attacks on philosophers by a Persian mystic, al Ghazali, were accepted as binding by almost all Moslems.


One reason why the Moslem rulers chose not to engage in intellectual exploration was that they still controlled the trade routes to Asia. They therefore had access to and could afford to purchase those intellectually-based items that they could not construct themselves.


This belief, that there is a fixed amount of technical knowledge in the world, that it is distributed at random among the nations, and that it can be purchased, remains a powerful, determining belief among many if not most Arab Moslems today.


I can recall my own shock when I first interviewed Kadri Toukan, the principal of the Nablus High school, and widely believed to be the leading Moslem intellectual on the West Bank. It was 1969, two years after the end of the 6 Day War.


I suggested to him that it might be wise if Israeli and Palestinian scientists worked together to develop new agricultural crops. Toukan, a fierce nationalist, was only concerned that the Israelis lift their occupation immediately. When I noted that because Israeli agriculture was so much more advanced than farming on the West Bank, it might be worthwhile to develop long-term relations for the sake of Palestinian farmers, he responded. “Then let the Israelis teach us what they know and get out.”


The consequences of that kind of thinking became apparent after the Portuguese and then the Spaniards developed a small ship, called the Caravel, that could nonetheless survive sailing in deep seas. The Caravel would soon take Columbus to the New World, and a similar ship would enable Vasco Da Gama to round the horn of Africa. The Age of Naval Exploration had begun and the monopoly on trade with the Far East that the Arabs had had, ended.


That change in the world balance of power came to a head during the battle of Lepanto in 1571, when a Christian navy destroyed an Ottoman navy in the last great battle of oared galleys in history. One of the main reasons for that victory was that the Christians had by now acquired Far Asian commodities such as Chinese gun power and had begun to craft brand new weapons such as brass cannons and personal firearms. The Turks had relied on their trusty bows and arrows.


The final attempt by Moslem Turks to initiate a war, whose purpose was to gain land and wealth through plunder, took place in Vienna in 1648. The Turks lost again.


They were traumatized. But instead of looking for ways to foster original Moslem military scientific research, they made the great error of simply trying to buy both the weaponry and the battlefield ideas that had given the Christians their victory. No major attempt was made to alter Moslem society from within.


By contrast, in Europe, the revolution directed at building a new society based on new scientific, economic, social and political principles, was continuing apace. There were any number of reversals, but the end product was the creation of a viable, new model for effective self-governance—the nation state as a replacement for the aristocratic-clerical condominium.


One of the first ways that that viability was proven was the success Europeans had in capturing and subsequently colonizing of much of the Arab heartland in the 19th century.


Among the prominent features of this new political model was popular democratic rule through the use of bi-cameral legislatures, where one house would be based on the principle of one man one vote, and the other on representation for a country’s geographical regions. Regional representation was, in many ways, also a proxy for giving minorities rights as well, since minorities tended to live together in one geographical area.


Another major advantage of the new system was that it reduced many of the obstacles to trade that had existed when each duchy or principality—the European equivalent of tribal landholdings—could set up customs posts. This increased industrial productivity enormously, which, in turn fostered new technological breakthroughs.


But the successes that have been wracked up by modern nation states were no less due to the extraordinary leaps made in developing a new intellectual approach to governance and law-making. Today we consider many of those concepts to be the norm when, in fact, freedom of speech, judicial independence, universal values, civil rights and the construction of a civil society were not even on the mental radar screens of many European politicians as late as  150 years ago.


During the colonial era some Arab Christian intellectuals, especially members of the Western-based sects tried to import some of these ideas, but to no avail. The consequences of that failure are all too visible today.


Once the colonialists left, the Arabs had a real chance to introduce democracy, but they failed to do so because they were not prepared to do so either intellectually or socially. Most of the colonial overlords, especially the British and the French did try to leave a democratic-looking political format before they gave up their rule. But those formats, whether it was the parliament in Syria or the constitutional monarchy in Egypt, broke down almost immediately.


The primary reason, in my opinion, was that the tribal ethos has penetrated the Moslem Arab psyche so completely that even so-called secular Arab nationalist parties win office, they then govern using tribal principles. This has had enormous implications for regional diplomacy and the peace process. But it is too often ignored.


For example, Libya is, arguably, the most tribally-riven Arab country. Nonetheless, when the Western nations came to decide whether to bomb Libya in order to get rid of Muamar Ghadaffi, they failed to take into consideration what would happen next—especially, how Libya would be governed…and by whom. As it turned out, Libya, despite it vast oil wealth, is now a political basket case.


It’s not that the Western nations didn’t have sufficient forewarning. The Iraqi war, and the subsequent Sunni-Shia tribal battles for power should have provided a sufficient cautionary lesson.


As Egypt has shown so vividly, you don’t need to have tribes in order for political parties to act in a tribal manner. All you need is a tribal mindset.


What do I mean by that?


As I noted earlier, Mohammed embedded much of that tribal mindset in his new religion. Islam, as a religion, is held to have surpassed Judaism and Christianity in legitimacy and is held to be superior to any other religion. That is not unlike the tribal belief that it is superior to any other, and it therefore has a greater legitimacy to rule. In Islam, defending or propagating the religion is a track to gaining that most coveted of tribal awards—honour. As in the use of inter- tribal warfare, violence against outsiders—in this case anyone who can be labelled an “infidel”—is an acceptable and accepted way of gaining honour.  Most of all, only success in an endeavour can bring honour.


On the other hand, failure brings dishonour. People who present themselves as victims are despised. Only authority and “strong leadership” are respected.


The most obvious example of this attitude and approach to politics has been the treatment meted out to the Palestinians by the other Arab states. Israelis have always questioned why it is that the other Arab states never took in the Palestinian refugees and rehabilitated them. The reasons are actually quite simple. The Palestinians were viewed as an “other,”—a different tribe, one not deserving of any special boons. Moreover, according to tribal culture, they were a tribe of losers, who had dishonoured themselves even more by subsequently presenting themselves to the rest of the world as “victims” in order to gain alms though UNRWA.


Yassir Arafat almost succeeded in overcoming that perception in the 1970s when he managed to persuade the Saudi leadership that he would be able to undermine their rule by organizing and radicalizing the poor tribes in the Saudi peninsula. For several years he was then able to extract huge sums from the oil sheikhs. But once Arafat’s threats were found to be empty, he came to be even more despised than ever by all the oil sheikhs.


The new Moslem Brotherhood government in Egypt is providing us now with almost a perfect model of what happens when a political group with a tribal mindset takes power in a nation-state…and why tribalism and democracy are incompatible.


Because of the “winner-loser” mentality, even though the Moslem Brotherhood won only 47 percent of the seats in parliament, it immediately set about ensuring that this election would be treated on the basis of “one man, one vote, once.” Moreover, it chose to ignore the problems and prejudices minorities, such as the Copts, were now facing.


And instead of dealing with the crushing economic problems the country faces, the Brotherhood spent most of its time introducing Islamic legislation and trying to take control of the instruments of state—especially the secret services and the interior ministry. In effect, it was announcing that it was adhering to one of the principle tenets of tribal rule: only winners have rights.


As a result, it had difficulty in governing on even the most primitive of levels. In particular, it could not guarantee that it could continue feeding the Egyptian people, or that it could control the Sinai, or that it could find sources of national income, or that it could even decide what to do now that Ethiopia has begun to dam the headwaters of the Nile. All told, it made it appear that it was more concerned with the Brotherhood’s survival than with Egypt’s survival.


One very important feature of the Brotherhood’s rule was been the way that it negotiated, or ignored negotiating, or put on a show of negotiating with “others.” As I mentioned earlier, tribalists believe that everything should be negotiable. However, they conduct negotiations in ways that are very different from those conducted by Westerners. There are times, though when they refuse to negotiate, lest the very act of taking part in a negotiation is perceived to be a grant of honour.


For example, the Moslem Brotherhood government refused to negotiate with Israel. One immediate consequence was the loss of over 4 billion dollars a year in income when the gas pipelines bringing Egyptian gas to Israel were blown up and the gas supply contract cancelled. Another no less important consequence was that responsibility for Israeli-Egyptian relations has been transferred to the Egyptian military, which does conduct regular talks with Israeli officers. This transfer of power to the military then undermined the government’s attempts to take control over all the instruments of state. As well, no only were direct, bilateral Israeli-Egyptian relations have been affected, but so too were relations with the US military.


Maybe the most important feature of Arab tribal negotiating is one that the Brotherhood highlighted but that has been ignored by almost everyone. It is that deals can be struck after bargaining. But under no circumstances can those agreements appear to have been arrived at as a result of a compromise. It is noteworthy that the word “compromise” does not even exist in Arabic. There are terms such as “mid-way,” but they are terms that position the agreement. They are not active terms such as the word “compromise.”


As the stalemated American congress has shown so dramatically, democracy cannot exist or function properly without compromises.


The problem is that compromise usually implies that you gave up something that really mattered to you in return for a deal. In other words, in the Arab tribal mindset—which is not all that dissimilar from that of the American Tea Party—you “lost” something important. Under tribal negotiating rules, that is a dishonourable act. So, in order to preserve one’s honour, one then has to find a way of presenting the deal as an unalloyed “success.” Sometimes this requires extraordinary mental gymnastics.


If you think back to the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, you will understand what I mean. As the Yom Kippur War drew to a close, the Egyptian Third army, which had crossed the Suez Canal, was surrounded by Israeli troops and was in danger of being wiped out.


In an act of extraordinary wisdom that has been lacking in American would-be mediators since that time, Henry Kissinger demanded that Israel agree to a cease-fire before the third army was defeated.  Anwar Sadat could then proceed with the disengagement agreements and the final peace agreement because he could claim that he was bargaining from a position of strength that had come from the Egyptian army’s “success” in crossing the canal.


Later, when Sadat began his peace initiative, he made only one declaration: “This land is ours.” In other words, success and national honor would be dependent on Egypt getting back all of the Sinai. As long as he achieved that, he could also agree to limitations on the Egyptian army’s presence in the Sinai because he could argue that the deal did not involve a “loss.” Rather, the deal was merely an “incomplete success” that could be dealt with and added to later. Or put in another way, Sadat didn’t have to admit that he had given up anything. He simply presented the pact as a deal, like any other struck in the Suk, where he didn’t get all he wanted—but he didn’t lose anything.


If we now apply all this to the Israeli-Palestinian bailiwick, we can see why the Fatah/Hamas talks keep breaking down, why Salaam Fayyad had to be fired, why there have been no new elections in Gaza or the West Bank and why American diplomats, journalists, academics and NGO’s pleas to the Israelis and the Palestinians “Can’t you just compromise,” invariably falls on dead ears.


Certainly Barack Obama’s approach to Middle East peacemaking, when viewed from a tribalistic perspective, has been nothing less than disastrous. By demanding that Israel halt all settlement construction and that it agree to use the 1967 boundaries as the basis for negotiations on borders, Obama effectively set an impossibly high bar for Abu Mazzen. From that point on, Abu Mazzen could not accept anything less than the American president had demanded lest he be accused of being a dishonourable loser by his own people and Hamas.


John Kerry is now trying to restart the peace talks, but it is unlikely that he will be able to get anywhere unless he can find a formula that will enable Mahmoud Abbas to drop his current demands without losing honour. And so, as you can see, a thoughtless move by the White house three years ago, one that failed to take into account a Middle Eastern mentality, has now created a stalemate that Kerry may not be able to break.


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