The tribal culture of Iraq

politics and culture — By on October 24, 2006 at 12:55 pm

There are many people who would have us believe that the challenges of Iraq are all about politics and terrorism.  And, of course, those obstacles are very real and are difficult enough to overcome.  But the hurdles involved in putting that country back together actually go much deeper, since a solution to the Iraqi quagmire isn’t really possible without taking into account the culture of that region of the world.

If you want some insight into the culture of Iraq and the challenges of building a functioning democracy there, John Tierney has written an enlightening column in today’s NY Times.

“Part of our problem is that we want this more than they do,” General Thurman told The Times’ Michael Gordon, alluding to American efforts to unify Iraqis. “We need to get people to stop worrying about self and start worrying about Iraq.” …

But what’s stopping them is not selfishness. When General Thurman talked about the conflict between serving oneself and serving one’s country, he was applying an American template to a different culture. Rampant individualism is not the problem in Iraq.

The problem is that they have so many social obligations more important to them than national unity. Iraqis bravely went to the polls and waved their purple fingers, but they voted along sectarian lines. Appeals to their religion trumped appeals to the national interest. And as the beleaguered police in Amara saw last week, religion gets trumped by the most important obligation of all: the clan.

The deadly battle in Amara wasn’t between Sunnis and Shiites, but between two Shiite clans that have feuded for generations. After one clan’s militia destroyed police stations and took over half the city, the Iraqi Army did not ride to the rescue. Authorities regained control only after the clan leaders negotiated a truce. …

Unlike General Thurman and other Westerners, members of these tightly knit Iraqi clans don’t look on society as a collection of individuals working for the common good of the nation.

“In a modern state a citizen’s allegiance is to the state, but theirs is to their clan and their tribe,” Ihsan M. al-Hassan, a sociologist at the University of Baghdad, warned three years ago.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that Iraqis live in a tribal culture that doesn’t mesh easily with the ideals of the more individualized culture of the West.  For a description of tribalism and its manifestation in the modern Middle East, you can also check out this short essay written for ABC News last month by historian Steven Pressfield.

What history seems to be telling us is that the quality that most defines our Eastern adversaries … is neither religion nor extremism nor “Islamo-fascism,” but something much older and more fundamental.

Extremist Islam is merely an overlay (and a recent one at that) atop the primal, unchanging mind-set of the East, which is tribalism.

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