Understanding Middle East Terror: Islam or Tribalism?

[Weekly Standard] Stanley Kurtz - McGill anthropology professor Philip Carl Salzman's new book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, is the most penetrating, reliable, systematic, and theoretically sophisticated effort yet made to understand the Islamist challenge the U.S. is facing in cultural terms. The U.S. finds itself locked in a struggle with fierce jihadi warriors shaped by the pervasively tribal culture of the Islamic Near East. Whether hidden in the mountain sanctuaries of Waziristan or in the fastness of the Iraqi desert, the heart of the jihadi rebellion is tribal. Yet tribalism has been vastly overshadowed by Islam in our attempts to understand the jihadist challenge. Traditionally existing outside the police powers of the state, Middle Eastern tribes keep order through a complex balance of power between ever fusing and segmenting ancestral groups. Universal male militarization, surprise attacks on apparent innocents based on a principle of collective guilt, and the careful group monitoring and control of personal behavior are just a few implications of a system that accounts for many aspects of Middle Eastern society without requiring any explanatory recourse to Islam. Decades before 9/11, the rise of terrorism as a tactic in the Palestinian struggle against Israel suggested continuities between the endemic violence of traditional tribal life and the present. The most disturbing lesson of all is that, in the absence of fundamental cultural change, the feud between the Muslim world and the West is unlikely ever to end.

2008-04-10 01:00:00

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