Why There is No Peace in the Middle
By Philip Carl Salzman
October 14, 2017
as an anthropologist in a herding camp of the Yarahmadzai tribe of nomadic
pastoralists in the deserts of Iranian Baluchistan clarified some of the
inhibitions to peace in the Middle East. What one sees is strong, kin-based,
group loyalty defense and solidarity, and the political opposition of lineages,
whether large or small.
This raised the question how unity and peace could arrive in a system based on
Peace is not possible in the Middle
East because values and goals other than peace are more important to Middle
Easterners. Most important to Middle Easterners are loyalty to kin, clan, and
cult, and the honour which is won by such loyalty. These are the cultural
imperatives, the primary values, held and celebrated. When conflict arises and
conflict-parties form based on loyal allegiance, the conflict is regarded as
appropriate and proper.
The results of absolute commitment
to kin and cult groups, and the structural opposition to all others, can be seen
throughout Middle Eastern history, including contemporary events, where conflict
has been rife. Turks, Arabs and Iranians have launched military campaigns to
suppress Kurds. Meanwhile, Christians, Yazidis, Baha'is and Jews, among others,
have been, and continue to be ethnically cleansed. Arabs and Persians, and
Sunnis and Shiites, each try to gain power over the other in a competition that
has been one of the main underlying factors of the Iraq-Iran war, the Saddam
Hussein regime, and the current catastrophe in Syria. Turks invaded Greek
Orthodox Cyprus in 1974 and have occupied it since. Multiple Muslim states have
invaded the minuscule Jewish state of Israel three times, and Palestinians daily
celebrate the murder of Jews.
commitment to kin and cult groups can be seen throughout Middle Eastern
Some Middle Easterners, and some in
the West, prefer to attribute the problems of the Middle East to outsiders, such
as Western imperialists, but it seems odd to suggest that the local inhabitants
have no agency and no responsibility for their activities in this disastrous
region, high not only in conflict and brutality, but low by all world standards
in human development.
If one looks to local conditions to
understand local conflicts, the first thing to understand is that Arab culture,
through the ages and at the present time, has been built on the foundation of
Bedouin tribal culture. Most of the population of northern Arabia at the time of
the emergence of Islam was Bedouin, and during the period of rapid expansion
following the adoption of Islam, the Arab Muslim army consisted of Bedouin
tribal units. The Bedouin, nomadic and pastoral for the most part, were formed
into tribes, which are regional defense and security groups.
Bedouin tribes were organized by
basing groups on descent through the male line. Close relatives in conflict
activated only small groups, while distant relatives in conflict activated large
groups. If, for example, members of cousin groups were in conflict, no one else
was involved. But if members of tribal sections were in conflict, all cousins
and larger groups in a tribal section would unite in opposition to the other
tribal section. So, what group a tribesmen thought himself a member of was
circumstantial, depending on who was involved in a conflict.
men in Abu Dhabi.
Relations between descent groups
were always oppositional in principle, with tribes as a whole seeing themselves
in opposition to other tribes. The main structural relation between groups at
the same genealogical and demographic level could be said to be balanced
opposition. The strongest political norm among tribesmen was loyalty to, and
active support of, one's kin group, small or large. One must always support
closer kin against more distant kin. Loyalty was rewarded with honour. Not
supporting your kin was dishonourable. The systemic result was often a
stand-off, the threat of full scale conflict with another group of the same size
and determination acting as deterrence against frivolous adventures. That there
were not more conflicts than the many making up tribal history, is due to that
There was no group and no loyalty
above the tribe or tribal confederation until the rise of Islam. With Islam, a
new, higher, more encompassing level of loyalty was defined. All people were
divided between Muslims and infidels, and the world was divided between the Dar
al-Islam, the land of believers and peace, and Dar
al-harb, the land of unbelievers and war. Following the tribal
ideology of loyalty, Muslims should unite against infidels, and would receive
not only honour, but heavenly rewards.
comes from winning. Losing is regarded as deeply humiliating.
Honour is gained in victory.
Self-sacrifice in the attempt is lauded, but honour comes from winning. Having
lost and being a victim is not an esteemed position in Arab society. Having lost
in a political struggle results in loss of honour. This is felt deeply as a loss
that should be corrected. Losing is regarded as deeply humiliating. Only the
prospects of a future victory and the regaining of honour drives people forward.
An example is the Arab-Israel conflict, in the course of which the despised Jews
repeatedly defeated the armies of Arab states. This was not so much a material
disaster for the Arabs, as it was a cultural one in which honour was lost. The
only way to regain honour is to defeat and destroy Israel, the explicit goal of
the Palestinians: "from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean]
sea." This why no agreement over land or boundaries will bring peace: peace
does not restore honour.
None of this is unknown to Arab
commentators, who repeatedly refer to the tribal nature of their culture and
society. Of course, today, few Middle Easterners live in tents and raise camels,
but villagers and urbanites share the same tribal assumptions and values.
According to the Tunisian intellectual Al-Afif al-Akhdar, the Arabs cherish
their "deep-culture of tribal vengefulness" and consequent
"fixated, brooding, vengeful mentality."
Former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki has
said that "We need an ideological revolution; our tribal
mentality has destroyed our society."
Dr. Salman Masalha, an Israeli Druze
literary intellectual, argues:
The tribal nature of Arab societies is deeply embedded in the
past, and its roots date back through Arab history to the pre-Islamic era. ...
Since Arab societies are tribal in nature, the various forms of monarchies and
emirates are the natural continuation of this ingrained social structure in
which tribal loyalty comes before all else.
Mamoun Fandy, an Egyptian-born
American scholar, wrote
in the Saudi newspaper Asharq
The Arabs, even after the arrival of Islam, were never
"ideological" people who sought to develop an intellectual vision of
ourselves and the outside world. Instead, we are the people of blood relations
and family ties, or "Shalal" as we call it in Egypt. ... Despite the
fact that Islam was the greatest intellectual revolution in our history, we, as
Arabs, have succeeded in adapting Islam to serve the tribe, the family, and the
clan. Islamic history began as an intellectual revolution, and as a history of
ideas and countries; however, after the beginning of the Orthodox Caliphate, it
was transformed into a somewhat tribal state. The State of Islam became the
Umayyad State, and after that the Abbasid, the Fatimid, and so on and so forth.
This means that we now have a history of tribes instead of a history of ideas.
... Has this tribal history, alongside tribal and family loyalties and the
priority of blood relations over intellectual relations gone forever after the
"Arab spring?" Of course not; what has happened is that the families
and tribes have dressed themselves up in the cloak of revolutions in Yemen and
in Libya, and in Egypt the opposition consists of tribes rather than concepts.
The history of the Middle East, the
centuries of tribal wars, and the ongoing fissures in Arab society all testify
to the Arab tribal culture and structural opposition. There may have been good
reasons to stick with tribal culture and organization in pre-modern times:
states and empires were despotic, exploitative, and heavily dependent on
slave-labor, and tribal organization gave some people a chance to remain
independent. In recent times, with the modern state model, governments in the
Middle East have tried to establish states, but these have foundered on tribal
loyalties and oppositions, which do not fit with constitutional states. Rulers
in the region have all turned to coercion to maintain their positions, making
all Muslim states in the region despotic.
Easterners are victims of the limitations and shortcomings of their own
Many Middle Easterners see the
disasters around them, and blame outsiders: "It is the fault of the
Jews"; "The British did this to us"; "The Americans are to
Many Western academics and commentators say the same, dignifying this
counter-historic theory with the label "postcolonialism."
But given that tribal dynamics were dominant in the region for a
thousand years since the foundation of Islam, and thousands of years before
that, blaming outsiders for regional dynamics is hardly credible. Nonetheless,
"postcolonialists" will claim that pointing to regional culture as the
foundation of regional dynamics is "blaming the victim." We in the
West, unlike Middle Easterners, love "victims." But what if Middle
Easterners are victims of the limitations and shortcomings of their own culture?