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Today's wars are less about ideas than extreme tribalism

The West must oppose the reduction of Islam to raw tribalist tenets.

By David Ronfeldt / March 27, 2006



WASHINGTON

Western strategists and policymakers should stop talking about a clash of civilizations and focus on the real problem: extreme tribalism. Recent events - riots in many nations protesting cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, Sunni-Shiite warring in Iraq, the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan - confirm that the West is not in a clash with Islam. Instead, Islam, which is a civilizing force, has fallen under the sway of Islamists who are a tribalizing force.

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Unfortunately, the tribalism theme has difficulty gaining traction. After the end of the cold war, many American strategists preferred the optimistic "end of history" idea that democracy would triumph around the world, advanced by Francis Fukuyama in 1989. A contrary notion - reversion to tribalism - made better sense to other strategists, such as France's Jacques Attali in 1992. Indeed, the emergence of ethnic warring in the Balkans and elsewhere confirmed that when societies crumble, people revert to tribal and clan behaviors that repudiate liberal ideals.

Perhaps partly because the idea of "tribalism" sounds too anthropological for modern strategists, it has not taken hold. American thinking has shifted to revolve around a more high-minded but less accurate concept: "the clash of civilizations" articulated by Samuel Huntington in 1993.

But what troubles the world is far more a travail of tribalisms than a clash of civilizations. The major clashes are not between civilizations per se, but between antagonistic segments that are fighting across fringe border zones (like Christian Serbs vs. Muslim Kosovars), or feuding within the same civilization, such as Sunnis vs. Shiites in Iraq.

Most antagonists, no matter how high-mindedly they proclaim their ideals, are operating in terribly tribal and clannish ways. Some, such as Al Qaeda terrorists, are extreme tribalists who dream of making the West start over at a razed, tribal level.

This travail is sure to persist, fueling terrorism, ethnonationalism, religious strife, sectarian feuds, and clannish gang violence and crime. Thus, the cartoon protest riots pose an effort to mobilize an Islamic global tribe, not a civilization. Al Qaeda and its affiliates comprise an information age network, but they, too, operate like a global tribe: decentralized, segmental, lacking in central hierarchy, egalitarian toward kith and kin, ruthless toward others.

What are tribes like? The tribe was the first major form of social organization. The hierarchy, market, and network forms developed ages later. Classic tribes are ruled by kinship principles about blood and brotherhood that fix one's sense of identity and belonging. Tribes are also egalitarian and segmental. Everyone is deemed equal and must share. Each part, such as a clan, is structured similarly, aiming for self-sufficiency. And there is no formal chief, though a "big man" may arise. Democracy may appear in tribal councils, but it is not liberal, since it does not tolerate minority rights and dissident views once a consensus emerges.

What maintains order in a tribe is not hierarchy and law - it is too early a form for that - but kinship principles stressing mutual respect, dignity, pride, and honor. Reciprocal gift giving is essential. Humiliating insults upset peace more than anything else, for an insult to one is seen as an insult to everyone of that lineage. And there are only two ways to restore honor: compensation or revenge. Finally, a tribe may view itself as a realm of virtue, but see outsiders as a different realm that may be treated differently, even brutally, especially if they are "different."

Much of the world is still like this. Of particular concern to strategists, a dense arc of tribal and clan systems runs across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, up into the "stans" of Central Asia. Even modern societies still have tribal cores and impulses. That shows in their cultures, nationalisms, identity politics, kindred glues like sports clubs and social fads, and in cronyism, nepotism, and gang life. Tribalism, for good and ill, is alive everywhere, all the time. We just don't think about it much, and use other terms.

So let's shift away from the civilization paradigm. The tribalism paradigm is better for illuminating the crucial problem: the tribalization of religion. The more that extremists create divisions between "us" and "them," vainly claim sacredness solely for their own ends, demonize others, revel in codes of revenge, crave territorial and spiritual conquests, and suppress moderates who disagree - all the while claiming to act on behalf of a deity - the more their religious orientation becomes utterly tribal and prone to wreaking violence of the darkest kind. They can only pretend to represent a civilization.

The "war of ideas" should be rethought. Western leaders keep pressing Muslim leaders everywhere to denounce terrorism as uncivilized. But this approach, plus counterpressures from sectarian Islamists, has put moderate Muslims on the defensive, stymieing them from speaking out. An approach that focuses on questioning extreme tribalism may be more effective at freeing up dialogue and inviting a search for common, ecumenical ground.

Shifting to a travail-of-tribalisms perspective would have to be carefully thought out. The point is not to condemn all tribal ways. Many people around the world appreciate (indeed, prefer) this communal way of life and will defend it from insult. It is not always uncivilized to be tribal. The point is to strike at the awful effects that extreme tribalization can have - to oppose not a terrorist's or insurgent's religion, but the reduction of that religion to raw tribalist tenets.

David Ronfeldt is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, and the author of "Al Qaeda and Its Affiliates: A Global Tribe Waging Segmental Warfare?"

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