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Tribalism & Us

By David Warren

Here is the paradox: that we cannot afford to abandon Iraq, for the very reason that things are so bad there. Were the Americans and allies to step out now, it would certainly become the staging area for both Shia and Sunni violence on a larger scale -- directed not only inward against each other, but outward across the Middle East, and given the huge Muslim diaspora now spread through Europe and North America, beyond.

Bear in mind, further, that Islamist terrorism against the West, feeds not only on Western weakness of will, but on this Muslim internecine strife. The most practical argument of the Islamists, to all their co-religionists, being: "We could unify ourselves if we all agreed to attack the West. We might even be able to destroy the West, because it has no idea how to defend itself."

It follows from this that a secret hope, not quite expressed in print (though sometimes expressed in the blogosphere), is vain. This is the hope that if Muslim fanatics are left to get on with killing each other, they will leave us alone. Like so many glib ideas, it sounds so plausible, but is the exact opposite of the truth.

To grasp this fully, a reader must enter a little into the thinking process of President Bush. (Alas.) He has not yet quite given up on his original insight: that democratization in the Middle East would put an end to Islamist, tribal, and Islamist/tribal violence.

It is true that democratization could, and maybe even will, perform this service eventually. It certainly worked that way, historically, within Western nation-states. The weakness, in this line of thinking, is to be found just over the margin. It is that democratization largely consists of putting an end to tribalism. It cannot solve anything of itself. Or rather, it is a bit like the sugar pills the medical researchers give out in double-blind tests. They may occasionally cure someone, but only of diseases that were psychosomatic.

At the moment, the zealots of Iraq are butchering each other chiefly over Ashura -- the great lunar-annual Shia bloodletting festival, commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed's last earthly descendant and his whole entourage by the army of Yazid bin Mu'awiya, at Karbala in what is now Iraq, in the year 680 of our era. It is the very event that marks the parting of Shia from Sunni Islam; the Shia retaining allegiance ultimately to Mohammed's own family, and thus awaiting their miraculous return. The Sunni accepting the de facto succession of worldly "imams" or teachers.

It is a little as if the Christians had divided into Protestant and Catholic only two generations after Christ, instead of 15 centuries later -- which is to say, the differences between Shia and Sunni are less eradicable than our own historical differences.

In the West, too, the schism became somewhat tribal, as little states converted or reverted en masse, each led by the example of its ruler. In the very nature of Islam, where tribal successions from ancient Arabia are acknowledged and indeed celebrated, the case is more complex. It would be oversimplifying to say that while Christianity expressly rejected the tribal principle, and enforced this by a celibate priesthood, Islam expressly embraced the principle and it is written into the Koran. But only if there are different ways of reading the Koran.

Just because one rejects tribalism, doesn't mean tribalism goes away. For whether or not it is written into any holy book, it is written into human nature. The West's own struggle against tribalism continues to the present day, and verily, we are currently losing it through the triumphant emergence of "multiculturalism" -- which is just tribalism, by another (postmodern) name.

Now, this is just where what I have to say gets very tough to digest, for any mind that has embraced "multiculturalism" as a motherhood issue. Democracy itself, with all the word implies of constitutional order and separations of powers, is an unambiguously Western invention. The Islamists are right when they identify it as such. It could itself appear only in a culture that had explicitly rejected tribalism, and such notions as "one man one vote", or "equal before the law", or even "separation of church and state", are themselves absolutely anti-tribal.

It follows that, in trying to impose democracy on the culture exhibited in Iraq, there is going to be at least a little more resistance than in imposing it on, say, post-war Japan, which had its own distinctive anti-tribal traditions. And where, especially after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, few still opposed democracy in principle.

In a world where there was not a huge Muslim diaspora spread through the West, and there were not what we call weapons of mass destruction, the fact of essentially tribal convulsions throughout the Muslim domains could have been ignored. I wish we could ignore it now. We can't.

otiosus@sympatico.ca

© Ottawa Citizen


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