Across the Bay

Monday, May 10, 2004

Tribal Action

The Daily Star ran this story on the actions being taken by Shiite tribes in Iraq to solve the Sadr problem. Basically it seems that everyone's had it with the young punk, and they want this issue solved, one way or the other. Compare this story with this piece by David Ignatius, and this other report on SCIRI's move.

For some reason, Juan Cole still hasn't posted the story on the decision of the Shiite tribes. Instead, he's more busy trumpeting the supposed transcendant Shiite-Sunni national unity!

This is an important issue, as it shows that the US is dealing (even if a year late!) with all the local sources of authority. Tribes are perhaps the most important socio-political units in Iraq, and they need to be taken seriously, just as they are in Jordan for example. This also falls in the same category of taking the group identities seriously. These local identities and socio-political elements are not to be brushed aside or eliminated. These are more real and much older than any Arabism or supra-nationalism. Look at Lebanon for instance. For a place to start, check out this book:

Philip Khoury and Joseph Kostiner (eds.), Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East (Berkeley; Los Angeles; Oxford, 1990).

On ethnic groups and states in the ME, see:

Milton Essman and Itamar Rabinovich (eds.) Ethnicity, Pluralism, and the State in the Middle East (Ithaca; London, 1988).

On the other hand, our lovable dummy George Khodr viciously attacked tribalism/family politics in Lebanon in his weekly piece in An-Nahar this past Saturday. The hilarity of his position is best exemplified in two statements he made, each with its own problems. They reveal a lot about the inherent paradox among Arab writers today, namely their accusatory attitude towards the West as invariably Orientalist, but their unawareness that their own positions are soaked in 19th - early 20th c. European thought and terminology.

"The tribalists (lit. the 'familialists,' al-°ā'iliyyūn) believe it [group solidarity] (al-°asabiyya) to be a tie. Yes, it is a tie against others, so not only is it nothing, it is also harmful, and whatever is harmful should be eradicated so as to have in Christianity a Church, and in Islam an 'umma, according to the Quranic term, which is the congregation whom God has united, so that we may be in Lebanon one people that transcends tribes ... We have a long way ahead of us to become an 'umma for God ... Greater Lebanon of which we've dreamed will not become such unless we break away from tribes to become it."

Earlier in the piece, Khodr made up his history and his psycho-historical explanation of why the Lebanese are tribal:

"This [tribal solidarity] comes from our bedouin heritage (sic!!!) which we had and brought from the Arabian deserts (sic!!!) where we used to be before the nativity, and wherefrom we migrated to Horan (sic!!!) then to this coast, and when some of us moved up to the mountains, they did not move away psychologically from Bedouinism (sic!!!). They did not become urbanites (lit. ahlu Hadar) as Ibn Khaldoun said..."

So not only did Khodr make up his own fantastic history, and mirrored the Islamists' greatest theocratic fantasy, but showed unbelievable ignorance and romantic (mainly European) urban prejudice. For instance, equating tribalism with Bedouinism is notorious in romantic European writings. The condescending prejudice towards tribalism (obviously defined pejoratively) is not only traceable to Ibn Khaldoun but to (an urban) European reading thereof. But Khodr doesn't stop there, he redefines umma, ignoring its historical usage and the debates around Arab supremacy within Islam. But also, he presents a "from above" nationalist attitude that should self-evidently (in his mind) supercede the "lower" identities and socio-political loyalties. The hypocrisy of course is in his condemnation of tribal solidarity when it's set against an Other. Nevertheless, he doesn't have a problem displaying that exact same tribal mentality (which is inherent in Arab Nationalism, with the supremacy of the Arabs as a super-tribe, a rehashing of the Islamic Umma) vis à vis the Jews (cf. Tueini vis à vis the Jews, Turks, and Persians).

So all in all, it shows how useless Khodr and those who think like him really are. Tribes and group identities are real, they run deep, and they have to be taken seriously. We might see how seriously when and if they solve the Sadr problem.