Monday, April 28, 2008

Culture and conflict in the Middle East

Many in our post-modern, "post-liberal" society, intimidated by the pseudointellectualism of the half-educated, stumble when they encounter the unfamiliar world of human societies very different from our own. It is here that the politically correct often find the most profitable point to ram home their confused but potent messages of cultural relativism and nihilism. The spread of higher education in the last 60 years hasn't helped: as an unexpected side effect, it's created an entire class of such people. They know less than they think, and what little they do is garbled and half-baked.

It's refreshing when an anthropologist, used to working in a specialized research in remote parts of the world, addresses the general educated reader with his decades of experience in studying pre-state and tribal societies and simultaneously illuminates an issue of pressing importance. Such are Philip Carl Salzman and his new book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East. Salzman has taught anthropology at McGill University in Montreal for many years and was a founder of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences. His main research has been the study of the tribal peoples of Iran and Pakistan, in the anthropological mode and thus mainly on the "structure" of their culture. (However, his book does have a fair amount of recent history and some memorable personalities as well.) Anyone familiar with so-called "primitive" peoples will recognize the general point: they're materially primitive and have no government or state; but at the same time, they have an elaborate culture of tribal custom and lore that takes an outsider many years to fully understand. That aspect of anthropology is anything but primitive.

Readers of this blog will recognize the general thrust of Salzman's argument about the nature of tribal society, especially its Middle Eastern version: the unique intertwining of Islam and tribalism, very different from the other great universalistic religions (Christianity, Buddhism, later Judaism) and even from most other, non-universalistic religions (Hinduism, earlier Judaism, classical Greco-Roman paganism); the pattern of conflict along the lines of "balanced opposition," familiar in somewhat different language as the "power challenging" of Pryce-Jones, in his classic, The Closed Circle.** In fact, the similarities to Pryce-Jones are striking, but Salzman's book is shorter, less dense, and focuses on just one large anthropological point. Like Pryce-Jones, Salzman has a precursor, the brilliant scholar and historian Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century North African author of a universal history with a famous, lengthy philosophical-anthropological preface, the Muqaddimah. Salzman makes liberal use of Ibn Khaldun's ideas about the cycle of Islamic history, the circling from tribal invasion and conquest of decadent, sedentary cities; to the tribal conquerors themselves becoming sedentary and decadent; to their being overthrown by another tribal invasion. The prototype was the original Islamic conquest itself, in the seventh century.

Tribal societies worldwide, Muslim or not, are based on "balanced opposition," with the power to use legitimate violence spread equally among all adult males, regulated only by charisma and luck. This system is incompatible with civilized life and the state, which monopolizes legitimate violence. It is perfectly adapted to nomadic life, but fails when transplanted to sedentary ways. "Balanced opposition" creates endless, unresolvable conflict by its very nature, because it contains no larger peacemaking power: no state, no social contract, no force of public opinion outside small tribal groups. It survives only because (and if) each segment of society is balanced in size against other segments. Oppressive and exploitative states emerge when one group acquires overwhelming power against other groups - then winner takes all. That is how most states emerged historically, in fact. They didn't come into existence to serve the public good. Anthropologists are typically sympathetic to non-state tribes if and when they are crushed by these classical tyrannies - it would be hard not to be. But don't romanticize: the freedom of tribal life is collective. It's not individual freedom, which is a late product of advanced civilization, with civil government and the rule of law.

It's not as if Middle Eastern peoples themselves are blind to the nature of this system. There is a famous Arabic saying: I against my brother, my brother and myself against my cousin, my cousin and I against the world. Islam might have overcome this problem to create a state or states founded on rule of law, but it failed to do that. Instead, the tribal way re-emerged, mixed with Islam (I and my cousin against the non-believer), within Islamic civilization itself. This system, incompatible with the traditional state, is obviously even more incompatible with the modern liberal-democratic state, with its essentials of rights, citizenship, and the public good. The tribal world has exact replacements for each of these, making it self-sufficient and self-contained. The autobiography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, reviewed here earlier this year, is one large demonstration of these truths by specific example.

It shouldn't need to be said, but I'll say it anyway: modern anthropology is not about social Darwinism or feeling superior to "savages." It's about the power of culture, because humans are cultural animals. They certainly do not function by instinct. Most humans through most of history (including the ancestors of everyone reading this blog) lived in something like this system. The same raw material of human nature is at work among civilized peoples as among as "primitive" peoples, but the collective shape of culture is different. Primitive peoples have many of the same values we do: individualism (at least among adult males), self-interest, notions of fairness and justice. But, in contrast to modern civilizations, nomadic peoples are dominated by group loyalty, with honor and shame typically the overriding motives. It's all there for a reason, because amongst us, we have a substitute that functions in their place: the rule of law, constitutionalism, and an openness to crossing group boundaries. It's just what makes peaceful cooperation and progress possible. At once a source of durability and backwardness, their lack is what makes progress in tribal society impossible.

Most of Salzman's message would have been unexceptional up until about 25 years ago. Since then, liberal academic and intellectual culture has been been subject to the obfuscatory fog of "post-colonialism" (Said). Many in the Arab-Islamic world itself are aware of these conflicting values and critical of the tribal system. The imposition of tribal ways on the Near East's civilized peoples by the Arab-Islamic conquest was the seed of their later decline and these societies' present difficulties in coping with the modern world.* But Said-ian doctrines are so many clubs with which to beat these critics. It's one of the most noxious contributions of the post-modern and post-liberal West to the rest of world and has crippled political debate and clear thinking in Western societies themselves.

POSTSCRIPT: Jared Diamond discusses conflict and revenge in tribal New Guinea here.

As he says, people living in state societies (societies with civil government) and, even more so, living as citizens in modern liberal democracies, have a hard time coping with the conflict between organized killing implicit in war, "civilized" warfare between armies or not, and peacetime life. In tribal societies, the conflict is not felt: there is no sharp boundary between peace and war, or between impersonal justice and simple vengeance. Men aren't ashamed of their killings, but boast of them. It's not exactly the way Hobbes conceived it - tribal life is far from solitary - but he came pretty close to depicting the "state of nature." What's particularly astonishing is that in many tribal societies, most adult males are involved in some way in the killing of other adult males. The obvious advantages of having governments were not strong enough, until recent human history, to overcome the ingrained taste of tribal peoples for their traditional collective freedom.

An interesting corollary of Diamond's analysis is that it explains why so many such tribal societies accepted colonial rule by outsiders so quickly: it reduced or eliminated internal conflict.

Diamond concludes with a relative's harrowing story of the Holocaust and the dilemma those of us who refrain from executing justice on our own face when the state doesn't keep up its end of the bargain.
* Ironically, the Arab group that Israel has the fewest conflicts with is the Beduin of the Negev and Sinai deserts. Being nomadic, with no economic need for land to grow food or political claims to sovereignty, they view modern states and borders as little more than nuisances and just slide past them.

** Judaism is a bit of an odd duck here, no doubt because its origins lie in the late Bronze Age (second millennium BCE), before the rise of universalist religious and philosophical thinking in the first millennium. This epoch, the so-called Axial Age, saw the pre-exilic and post-exilic Hebrew prophets, Zoroaster, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), Confucius, Lao Tzu, and the philosophical movement among the Greeks. Developments in later antiquity, such as Hellenistic science and philosophy (Stoics, Epicureans, Aristotelians, Platonists), Christianity, rabbinic Judaism, Islam, and Confucianism were secondary outgrowths of the Axial Age. Judaism straddles the earlier tribal/national and later universalist/philosophical eras, with its universal truths implicit and esoteric in biblical times, and open and explicit in later eras. No other religion has seen so much creativity generated by such a tension between the particular and universal.

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