Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Trouble with Referring to Tribes in the Rhetoric of Current "MENA Protests"

From Al Jazeera English's Spotlight on a "Region in Turmoil".
The world’s attention has been focused on a handful of countries - Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya - since the first popular protests broke out in Tunisia in December. But nearly a dozen countries in the region have seen political unrest, and the protest movement shows no signs of stopping. Below is a summary of the demonstrations so far, and links to our coverage. You can also click a country on the map above for more information.

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
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?

Banners from Al Jazeera English In Depth coverage country by country


Qusay said...

Thomas Friedman is full of it! yet his BS somehow sounds credible as u said.

Show me one country in the world that has " fully melded into a unified family of citizens" I guess he forgets the native american reservations in his own country.

Majed said...

I Think Thomas Friedman is naive, and that he thinks world started just 200 years ago,exactly when america started,he should read more about this region and other places too,it is not just tribes with flags how childish, my youngest child knows the regions history better that him.

Tribe is nothing but an extendd family,who cares for its members,you can not expect from those who don`t know their direct uncles,to know what tribe means.

I dont know why they expect all countries should model their systems after the american or European templates,people should be let alone to adopt what suits them,there are differet terranes in some one can hardly walk, other you can ride, some you can even drive your Ferrari.

I think Qaddafi deserves what is happenning to him,what has he been doing with oil money all these years,he didnt even bother to send one scud missile to paris or Rome or sink the Charl Degol to tell them they should mind their own business.

oby said...

hmmm....very interesting comment by Friedman. Actually, a very good friend of mine, a staunchly proud Saudi, would agree in part with Friedman's assessment. Or at least in how it would apply to Saudi. They do feel that if civil unrest came to Saudi it would result in the different tribes fighting between themselves rather than unifying for the saudi cause. But they feel it is more than that. They also feel that the tribes are loyal to the different tribes themselves rather than the country of Saudi and in the case of an uprising each would try to fight for their idea of what they want and this could cause civil war. Other factors play into it such as divisions between sects and who they are loyal to and the heavy hand of the clergy there.

I wouldn't quickly dismiss my friend's opinion out of hand as they have (so far) been very correct at how they see this whole uprising in the MENA playing out.

Majed said...

One have to know the structure and mechanism of tribes to judge, every tribe contain many clans and every clan conains many moieties and they in turn contain families in some sort of electroal system they choose what we call, in some places Mugaddam in others Sheikh for(chief)and he is chosen based mainly on his wisdom, and believe me they are really wise men.

And tribes tend to form alliances to ballance powers in order to avoid conflicts (and they mostly try to solve conflicts through mediation and reconciliation not just by imposing sanctionns and no-fly zones and air raids) and sometimes this alliance becomes in itself a tribe and all tribes under its umbrella are called after that alliance name rather than their true tribal names, there are some tibal alliances that join tribes living in ksa,syria,jordan,Iraq,Egypt,kuwait,Qatar,Bahrain in this sense endless conflicts between tribes is a misconception.

By the way clergy rule was never the norm in arab and muslim political systems, it only has bases for it in shiite schools of thought, even among shiites there is no clear lines as they necessitate the ruler should be Descendant of the prophet not necessarily a clergy but usually taken for one.

This my view of things as i saw them , and i am not saying it as authority on them,and if it sounded that way at times i beg you all to find me excuses.

Susanne said...

Interesting post because I was thinking of tribes earlier today! My Syrian friend has described the people in Daraa as "tribal" as compared to those like him in Damascus. I started reading a book on Islam today and the author Akbar Ahmed mentioned tribes embracing Islam. Guess that's why it's on my mind. I have mixed feelings about them. I like the sense of belonging and community, but then I think it can be taken too far. I suppose I like my individualistic ways too much. And I'm an introvert so I don't like people always in my business. :) Thanks for sharing this!

Chiara said...

Qusay--thanks for your comment! It is tempting to do a line by line discourse analysis debunking Friedman's rhetoric, facts, and logic. "BS" is more succinct. :D

In the US Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans have not fully melded into the melting pot--and have not been allowed to.

In recent elections the topic of Spanish as an official language of the US comes up in debates. The discussion is hilarious from a Canadian perspective, but sad in its fear of the other, and setting apart certain citizens.

Thanks again for your comment!

Chiara said...

Majed--thanks for your comments! I agree that Friedman has a limited and short view of history. Just the idea of including Morocco as having real borders and homogeneity is laughable. Morocco is currently at war for control of the Western Sahara. Its ruling family is from a specific tribe and Hassan II carefully intermarried and took concubines from other tribes to consolidate his power. Mohamed VI is half Arab and half Berber. Berbers or Tamazigh in Morocco have been repressed and are reclaiming their cultural and linguistic rights. They are comprised of 3 main tribes/linguistic groups in 3 main areas of the country.
I agree that tribes need not be viewed so ominously, and that there are positive aspects to tribal structures that are ignored.
It is hard to find much defensible in Gaddafi's rule of Libya.
Hopefully the current suffering of the people will end with positive change.
Your second comment is very helpful in describing the structure and function of tribes.
Thanks again for your comments!

Chiara said...

Oby-thanks for your comment, and for sharing the views of your Saudi friend.
I generally think that if there were more even balances of power, and sharing national wealth that there would be less tendency for dissent in certain countries to break in part on tribal and sectarian lines. The issue of which tribes and sects are sitting on what national resources (oil in this instance) is an issue for some ruling families who fear the loss of revenue should those whose land it is traditionally take full power over it.
While I wouldn't dismiss historical disagreements or economic ones, tribes don't necessarily feud, and they have always through history and across cultures formed broader alliances and regional networks in their mutual interests.
I also think that those in power, or those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo have a greater reason to cast problems as tribal and sectarian when they are more about economics, even class structure, and power.
Thanks again for your thought provoking comment!

Chiara said...

Susanne-thanks for your comment, and for sharing your Syrian friend's impressions.
I do think that there are urban/rural splits cast as modern/tribal which have some validity for those who have maintained a residence and identity only in one place. This is accentuated by differences in education and economic levels which are often marked, and certainly more marked than urban/rural splits in North America.
I am always impressed that people who have been raised in small towns, and those in collectivist societies are so much better at protecting their privacy while being a part of the community, than those who rely on the anonymity of the city, and the personal distance of more individual societies.
A friend born and raised in a small town rural more northern setting described the assumption that everyone is watching and knowing or wanting to know and the strategies to avoid revealing all to all and sundry which come natural to him. And that his city-slicker wife even after decades in their small community is still not so good at it.
Now that they are in the city, she avoids her ethnic community by staying in a distant neighbourhood from where they are primarily located--which is different than maintaining privacy while living in their midst.
Thanks again for sharing your own impressions of tribal and your comment!


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