There are many rhetorical problems with the discourse on current MENA demonstrations/ protests/ uprisings/ revolts/ rebellions/ revolutions. One is what to call them which in itself may reveal bias; another is to lump all countries together, or use one as a template for all others. Just as the ~20-25 MENA countries are distinct while sharing commonalities, the discontent of their populaces and how that is manifested and why is distinct.
Among the rhetorical devices that I have found disturbing is the use of the words "tribe", "tribal", "family, clan, and tribe", particularly by Western commentators. Many toss these words into a report or an "analysis" with an obviously superficial understanding of the situation, but to give their commentary an air of socio-anthropological depth. Others use them with a cautionary tone, a tacit warning that these are mysterious age old rivalries that are erupting in contemporary technological form.
While there may be validity to signaling the tribal impact in some of the conflicts, too often this is done without nuance, and in order to dismiss the conflict, the demands of the opponents to the regime, or to justify non-intervention in humanitarian crimes as concerning only the tribal factions, or "sectarian rivals" involved. Invariably there are underlying assumptions that tribes are always warring, always self-contained, and that tribal customs and social and political structures are uniformly undesirable.
Most egregious, in my mind, is that Western pundits buy into, or know that the use of the word "tribe" in Western culture is most often pejorative, invoking primitiveness, hostility, and internal repressiveness. On this account, tribes are backward and immutable--whether featured in cowboy films or Anthropology 101. Young, educated, technologically savvy, progressive city dwellers do not figure in this portrait.
The young PhD professor of engineering couldn't possibly also be a leading member of his ruling family's tribe. A friend is. In an instance of supreme irony, when we, friends and medical staff, were trying to reach him--because his wife, who was based in Canada, was in intensive care after losing their 32 week old fetus to eclampsia--instead of being in his university office in the national university in their country's capital city, he was off in the bush for an annual tribal ceremony.
I include the article below as being a particularly offensive instance of this use of the metaphor of "tribes" in commenting on current events in MENA countries. I find it offensive because Thomas Friedman has been interviewed and held in high regard on the topic of these events by Western journalists, and his articles cited. At the same time, he is widely ridiculed by Arab commentators. He is a good enough a journalist to sound credible to those with little or superficial knowledge. This article, like much of his commentary, is full of half truths, combined in a pseudo-logic to justify a position.
For the record, "my Libyans", who are educated, city dwellers, on scholarship abroad, are proud of their tribal origins, their city and regional identifications, and their national identity. When I commented, long before the current uprisings, on the distinct regions, historically, culturally, and geographically, that comprise Libya--Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica--they were quick to assert that the country now has a national identity that holds beyond these distinctions, tribal issues, or the Leader.
Thomas L. Friedman
(Photo: Josh Haner/The New York Times)
Tribes With Flags
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Published: March 22, 2011
David Kirkpatrick, the Cairo bureau chief for The Times, wrote an article from Libya on Monday that posed the key question, not only about Libya but about all the new revolutions brewing in the Arab world: “The question has hovered over the Libyan uprising from the moment the first tank commander defected to join his cousins protesting in the streets of Benghazi: Is the battle for Libya the clash of a brutal dictator against a democratic opposition, or is it fundamentally a tribal civil war?”
This is the question because there are two kinds of states in the Middle East: “real countries” with long histories in their territory and strong national identities (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran); and those that might be called “tribes with flags,” or more artificial states with boundaries drawn in sharp straight lines by pens of colonial powers that have trapped inside their borders myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together but have never fully melded into a unified family of citizens. They are Libya, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The tribes and sects that make up these more artificial states have long been held together by the iron fist of colonial powers, kings or military dictators. They have no real “citizens” in the modern sense. Democratic rotations in power are impossible because each tribe lives by the motto “rule or die” — either my tribe or sect is in power or we’re dead.
It is no accident that the Mideast democracy rebellions began in three of the real countries — Iran, Egypt and Tunisia — where the populations are modern, with big homogenous majorities that put nation before sect or tribe and have enough mutual trust to come together like a family: “everyone against dad.” But as these revolutions have spread to the more tribal/sectarian societies, it becomes difficult to discern where the quest for democracy stops and the desire that “my tribe take over from your tribe” begins.
In Bahrain, a Sunni minority, 30 percent of the population, rules over a Shiite majority. There are many Bahraini Sunnis and Shiites — so-called sushis, fused by inter-marriage — who carry modern political identities and would accept a true democracy. But there are many other Bahrainis who see life there as a zero-sum sectarian war, including hard-liners in the ruling al-Khalifa family, who have no intention of risking the future of Bahraini Sunnis under majority-Shiite rule. That is why the guns came out there very early. It was rule or die. Iraq teaches what it takes to democratize a big tribalized Arab country once the iron-fisted leader is removed (in that case by us). It takes billions of dollars, 150,000 U.S. soldiers to referee, myriad casualties, a civil war where both sides have to test each other’s power and then a wrenching process, which we midwifed, of Iraqi sects and tribes writing their own constitution defining how to live together without an iron fist.
Enabling Iraqis to write their own social contract is the most important thing America did. It was, in fact, the most important liberal experiment in modern Arab history because it showed that even tribes with flags can, possibly, transition through sectarianism into a modern democracy. But it is still just a hope. Iraqis still have not given us the definitive answer to their key question: Is Iraq the way Iraq is because Saddam was the way Saddam was or was Saddam the way Saddam was because Iraq is the way Iraq is: a tribalized society? All the other Arab states now hosting rebellions — Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya — are Iraq-like civil-wars-in-waiting. Some may get lucky and their army may play the role of the guiding hand to democracy, but don’t bet on it.
In other words, Libya is just the front-end of a series of moral and strategic dilemmas we are going to face as these Arab uprisings proceed through the tribes with flags. I want to cut President Obama some slack. This is complicated, and I respect the president’s desire to prevent a mass killing in Libya.
But we need to be more cautious. What made the Egyptian democracy movement so powerful was that they owned it. The Egyptian youth suffered hundreds of casualties in their fight for freedom. And we should be doubly cautious of intervening in places that could fall apart in our hands, à la Iraq, especially when we do not know, à la Libya, who the opposition groups really are — democracy movements led by tribes or tribes exploiting the language of democracy?
Finally, sadly, we can’t afford it. We have got to get to work on our own country. If the president is ready to take some big, hard, urgent, decisions, shouldn’t they be first about nation-building in America, not in Libya? Shouldn’t he first be forging a real energy policy that weakens all the Qaddafis and a budget policy that secures the American dream for another generation? Once those are in place, I will follow the president “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on March 23, 2011, on page A27 of the New York edition.
Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?
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