Monday, April 07, 2008

Islam or Tribalism?

Stanley Kurtz reviews a new book on tribalism in the Middle East and suspects we in the West are confusing a religion and a culture.

Since 9/11, we've understood Islam as the fundamental source of the cultural challenge coming from the Middle East. That has given rise to a strategy of direct assault--an almost Voltairean attempt to deflate religious pretensions in hopes of forcing a change. Islam itself may be a complex extension of tribal culture, yet technically, Islam is defined as something different from, and sometimes antagonistic to, pure tribalism. When Muslim immigrants in Europe debate amongst themselves female seclusion, cousin marriage, and honor killings, reformers argue that these are "cultural" rather than strictly "Islamic" practices. There is truth here and also an opening.

While tribalism is in one sense culturally pervasive in the Middle East, tribal practices are less swathed in sacredness than explicitly Koranic symbols and commandments--and are therefore more susceptible to criticism and debate. Even jihad and suicide bombing can be interpreted through a tribal lens. We've taught ourselves a good deal about Islam over the past seven years. Yet tribalism is at least half the cultural battle in the Middle East, and the West knows little about it. Learning how to understand and critique the Islamic Near East through a tribal lens will open up a new and smarter strategy for change. The way to begin is by picking up Salzman's Culture and Conflict in the Middle East.

Which I think is essentially correct in its vision of the relationship between Islam and many traditional Arab and Middle Eastern cultures. When I read the Quran -- as a non-religious person who regards it as a human-authored text of a particular time and place -- I see a reformer writing in God's name to humanize and soften the harsh society of his world.

But, as will often be the case, what is a liberal and humane correction to 7th century desert tribes can look hair-raisingly reactionary and cruel to 21st century educated Westerners. Hell, we have shades of a similar problem with our Founding Fathers.

Still, what you're left with is an academic observation that I'm not sure gets you anywhere on the ground, unless and until most Muslims also take an academic view of their faith. It's sort of like saying you can give good advice to the love-lorn because you're an anatomy professor. Go ahead an interpret that approaching suicide bomber through any lens you like. Ultimately you're going to have to interpret him through the lens of a rifle sight, or he's going to interpret you to little shreds of meat.

The conclusion, with its surface promise of a nonviolent way out of the class of civilizations, ultimately falls back when it acknowledges even the experts can't really disentangle what is Islam and what is tribalism: "Islam itself may be a complex extension of tribal culture ...."

The particulars of this problem are Islam's (and ours, as its antagonists), but the general ones are true of most revealed religions. People bring their tribalism and self-interest into it -- even when the religion was not specifically revealed to them or their culture. Few if any of the cruel and shameful collective behaviors in American history haven't managed to find shelter, at one time or another, under the leaves of a Bible.