Thursday, December 20, 2007

The true enemy: human tribalism

The clash of civilizations we're living through is widely seen as a battle
between Islam and Christendom. I'm convinced it's more basic than that. The
reason Iraq and Afghanistan remain unsettled battlefields isn't that our two
civilizations can't agree on the nature of God. It's because we can't agree
on the nature of man.

In the West, we take it for granted that human beings are autonomous
individuals. We decide for ourselves how we dress, where we work, whom we
marry. Our political system is an atomized democracy, in which everyone is
expected to vote according to their own idiosyncratic values and interests.
Our pop music and movies are about misunderstood loners. The ethos of
individual empowerment fuels daytime talk shows.

Individualism has become so fundamental to the Western world view that most
of us cannot imagine any other way of conceiving human existence. But in
fact, there are billions of people on Earth -- including most of the world's
Muslims -- that view our obsession with individualism as positively bizarre.

In most of South Asia and the Middle East, humans are viewed not primarily
as individuals, but as agents of a family, tribe, clan or sect. As Rutgers
scholar Robin Fox wrote in a brilliant essay -- excerpted in last month's
issue of Harper's magazine -- this explains why so many Arabs marry their
cousins. In tribal societies, your blood relations are the only people you
can trust.

This fundamental difference in outlook explains much of what we find
barbaric about traditional Muslim cultural practices. Honour killings -- to
take a newsworthy example -- strike Westerners as a particularly horrific
species of murder. But that's because we think of people as individuals. If
you instead see a woman primarily as a low-status breeding agent of her
patriarch's clan, everything changes. By taking up with an unapproved male,
she is nullifying whatever value she once had as a human. In fact, her life
has negative value in the sense that her shameful lifestyle is an ongoing
humiliation to the men expected to enforce discipline within the clan's

An intractably tribal outlook also makes Western-style democracy impossible
-- which explains why nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq has become
such a thankless slog.

The reason many of us post-9/11 hawks had such high hopes for these
campaigns is that we shared George W. Bush's sunny claim that "Freedom is
universal. Freedom is etched in everybody's soul." It turns out that's not
true. As Fox notes, freedom and individualism are relatively recent
development in human history. Tribalism, on the other hand, is a deeply
rooted instinct that has been "etched" on our evolutionary psychology since
simian days. Even in Western societies, you can still see it rise to the
surface when tensions flare (a point Paul Haggis made with exquisite
artistry in his Oscar-award winning film Crash).

Democracy requires consensus-building and shared values. But in tribal
societies, politics is viewed as a battle of all-against
-all, in which the
strongest tribe openly appropriates the state apparatus to enrich itself at
everyone else's expense.

In this regard, Saddam Hussein was the ultimate tribal leader. Not only did
he restrict his inner circle to Sunnis, but they were Sunnis from his own
narrow Tikriti sub-clan. The idea of creating a "representative" government
that includes Kurds and Shiites with their own independent power bases would
have struck him as completely insane. So would the idea of handing over
power to another tribe merely because its leaders chalked up more votes in
an election. During most of human history, letting another tribe lord over
yours meant yielding the power to pillage your granaries and rape your
women. (In parts of Africa, it still does.)

This explains why the United States and NATO have gotten nowhere with grand
national political projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are both
intensely tribal societies. Instead, progress has come at the micro level --
with military commanders sitting down with individual tribal patriarchs and,
essentially, bribing them with guns and money. In the West, we call that
corruption. In tribal societies, it's politics.

Is there something about Islam that serves to lock in mankind's inherently
tribal instincts? Perhaps. The word Islam translates to "submission
." And
empirically speaking, there seems to be something within the faith that
discourages individualism and the democratic freedoms associated with it.

On the other hand, the non-Muslim nations of sub-Saharan Africa are every
bit as tribalized as the Muslim nations of North Africa and Asia. And for
all the media focus on Aqsa Parvez, several of Canada's first honour murders
actually were performed by Sikhs. In any case, the successful integration of
hundreds of thousands of Muslims into Canadian society shows that, after a
generation or two, at least, the faith hardly prevents immigrants from
coming around to our democratic, individualistic ways.

As for foreign entanglements, it's worth noting Fox's warning that our own
Western march to individualism took centuries -- a grinding process in which
we moved "from tribalism, through empire, feudalism, mercantile capitalism
and the industrial revolution shrugging off communism and fascism along the

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we are essentially asking the locals to cram all of
this into a few years. We shouldn't be surprised if it takes a little

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