In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is fighting virulent tribalism as much as Islamic fundamentalism. Salafi and Wahhabi teachings calling for jihad against infidels, fatwas from clerics justifying the murder of noncombatants and ultimatums from Sunni insurgents who behead captives all are expressions of extreme tribalism more than Islam.
Professor Lawrence Keeley at Oxford University has shown that classic tribal warfare mostly amounts to raids and skirmishes but can evolve into total warfare in which entire peoples are massacred without mercy. According to journalist/novelist Amin Maalouf, this happens “because the 'tribal' concept of identity still prevalent” in the world facilitates the escalation.
Many religions, from ancient totemism onward, have their deepest roots in tribal societies. The major monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — arose during tense tribal times in the Middle East. Each religion's oldest texts contain passages that, true to traditional tribal ethics, advocate reciprocal altruism toward fellow kin — and allow for terrible retribution against tribes deemed guilty of insult or injury.
The ways religion gets layered onto tribalism, and vice versa, deeply condition a people's thinking and behavior. A tribe may regard a deity as the ultimate ancestor of its identity. Its religion also may instruct tribal members how to uphold their society and treat one another. It does not determine how they may behave toward outsiders, but religion often supplies the justification.
Tribal life can foster a vibrant sense of social solidarity. It fills a people with pride and self-respect. It motivates families to protect, welcome and care for each other and to abide by strict rituals that affirm their connections as tribal members and to their ancestors, land and deity. This kinship creates trust and loyalty in which one knows (and must uphold) one's rights, duties and obligations.
Many people around the world prefer the tribal way of life, most notably in the Middle East and South Asia. Even modern societies that lack well-defined tribes and clans still have tribe-like sensibilities at their core that are variously expressed in nationalism, cultural festivities, civic interest groups, sports and fan clubs.
But tribalism can make for a mean-spirited partiality. Tribes and clans are terribly sensitive to boundaries and barriers, about who is a tribal member and who isn't. As such, a tribe can be a realm of virtue in which reciprocal altruism rules kin relations. But this virtuous behavior, in tribal logic, does not have to extend to outsiders — they can be treated differently, especially if they are “different.”
In general, the more a religion calls for kinship among all peoples, the more it may lead to ecumenical caring (as Islam often does). Further, tribes open to more than one faith may be less susceptible to sectarian appeals. For example, Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's tribe contains both Sunnis and Shiites.
But the more a religion's adherents demonize others, revel in codes of revenge for alleged wrongs and crave territorial and spiritual conquests, all the while claiming to act on behalf of their deity, the more their religious orientation is utterly tribal and prone to rationalizing violence of the darkest kind.
All religious hatred — whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu or other — speaks the language of tribe and clan. And in true tribal fashion, that language is loaded with sensitivities about respect, honor and dignity. An insult or injury to any of these is sensed by all tribal members, and the only honorable recourse is full compensation or total revenge. This is an essential ethic of tribes and clans, no matter their religion.
These behaviors may worsen when tribal or clan elements are led by a sectarian chieftain who sees himself as a ruthless warlord or revolutionary. Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar of the Taliban, Muqtada Sadr, Abu Musab Zarqawi or Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev are examples of such leaders. If the people they target react in tribal ways — extreme nationalism is an example — fights over whose religion should win become inseparable from whose tribe should win.
Americans comfort themselves with the thought that no other nation will be able to match our power for decades. But from ancient times to the present, globally expanding great powers often encounter tribes or clans that fiercely resist them, sometimes with dire consequences, as happened to the Roman Empire. The more tribal or clannish the society, the more resistant it will be to change. Reform then has to come from the outside or from above, as in Meiji Japan.
The United States is not at war with Islam. Its struggle is largely with insurgents who behave in the manner of tribes and clans. Some are members of true tribes; others are patched together by radical clerics or jihadist recruiters operating among alienated migrants. U.S. forces are learning this the hard way — on the ground.
Policymakers and strategists in Washington, meanwhile, lag in catching on. The new Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication recognizes that “the United States is engaged in a generational and global struggle about ideas, not a war between the West and Islam.” But it barely mentions the role of tribalism in that struggle.
David Ronfeldt is a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization, and coauthor of “Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy.”
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on December 12, 2004.