Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Across the sea,
Corpses in the water;
Across the mountain,
Corpses heaped on the field;
I shall die only for the Emperor,
I shall never look back.

Japanese Popular Song: Umi Yukaba

The war against Islamofascism is not the first time we in America have faced enemies who loved death more than life. Honor more than victory. We have faced such enemies every time we have faced one of the oldest human cultures on earth. Tribalism.

What we call western civilization is really a series of attempts to get past tribalism and move towards universalism. The Jews with their universal laws (good for Jews and gentiles - the Jews of course were chosen to be burdened with more laws than the gentiles). The laws are (taken from this Wiki):

The seven laws (commonly rendered as Sheva Mitzvot Shel Bnei Noach) are:

1. Avodah zarah - Do not worship false gods.

The universe is a unity. Since it is a unity there can be only one Maker. Tribal gods are null and void. Unity for a nation then becomes possible. Egypt solved the unity problem by incorporating local gods into their religion. They would find in their pantheon a god or goddess that was similar and graft the tribal god to it. The Romans pretty much took the Greek gods wholesale. Eventually Christianity spread the Jewish idea of the unity of the universe and the pagan gods and goddesses were junked. Still the Catholic Church will, if the demand is great enough, incorporate tribal gods disguised as saints.

2. Shefichat damim - Do not murder.

What is special about this law is that it was applied not just within the tribe, but universally.

3. Gezel - Do not steal (or kidnap).

Again what is special about this law is that it was applied not just within the tribe, but universally. There is no such thing as fair game for theft, kidnap, and plunder.

4. Gilui arayot - Do not be sexually immoral (forbidden sexual acts are traditionally interpreted to include incest, bestiality, male homosexual sex acts, i.e. sodomy, and adultery.)

The acts are still forbidden, but the prosecutorial zeal is not what it once was. Except for incest and adult-child sexual relations. That Jesus guy may have had something to do with this. Plus the fact that the status of women has risen from that of property (goats as one of my commenters likes) to people.

5. Birkat Hashem - Do not "bless God" euphemistically referring to blasphemy.

Again the act is still forbidden, but the prosecutorial zeal is not what it once was. Even among the devout, at least in the current western practice.

6. Ever min ha-chai - Do not eat any flesh that was torn from the body of a living animal (given to Noah and traditionally interpreted as a prohibition of cruelty towards animals)

This gives the idea that unnecessary cruelty is not a positive virtue. You can still eat your meat, but the kill must be with as little suffering as possible.

7. Dinim - Set up a system of honest, effective courts, police and laws.

Here is a truly novel idea. Your brother in law or cousin doesn't get special treatment. Every one is equal under the law.

The Talmud also states: "Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come" (Sanhedrin 105a). Any non-Jew who lives according to these laws is regarded as one of "the righteous among the gentiles". Maimonides states that this refers to those who have acquired knowledge of God and act in accordance with the Noahide laws.

In the west even the most devout secularist adheres to these laws as currently practiced. Exceping for some on the left who wish to devolve back to a state of tribalism in the name of multi-culturalism where certain tribes are to be given special favor. Everyone is not equal under the law. Of course this destroys the unity of a nation and would reduce the nation state to groups of warring factions when the big advantage of the nation is that it eliminates open warfare within a nation thus making the nation more economically advantaged and stronger morally and militarily. United we stand... and all that.

Which is a long lead up to this very interesting look at tribalism in the Middle East.
To understand the nature of the enemy in the Middle East and to evaluate the prospects for democracy and peace, we need to extend our gaze not five years into the past, but five hundred and even five thousand.

I've spent the last four years writing two books about Alexander the Great's campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, 331-327 B.C. What has struck me in the research is the dead-ringer parallels between that ancient East-West clash and the modern ones the U.S. is fighting today — despite the fact that Alexander was pre-Christian and his enemies were pre-Islamic.

What history seems to be telling us is that the quality that most defines our Eastern adversaries, then and now, 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, and its constituent individual, the tribesman.

Tribalism and the tribal mind-set are what the West is up against in Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, the Iraqi insurgency, the Sunni and Shiite militias, and the Taliban.
It looks like what we are confronting is a very old form of human organization. The problem with this type of organization is that the justice it provides is not universal. The in tribe gets a measure of justice. The out tribes get the leavings.
What exactly is the tribal mind-set? It derives from that most ancient of social organizations, whose virtues are obedience, fidelity, warrior pride, respect for ancestors, hostility to outsiders and willingness to lay down one's life for the cause/faith/group. The tribe's ideal leader is closer to Tony Soprano than to FDR and its social mores are more like those of Geronimo's Apaches than the city council of Scarsdale or Shepherd's Bush.

Can the tribal mind embrace democracy? Consider the contrast between the tribesman and the citizen:

A citizen is an autonomous individual. A citizen is free. A citizen possesses the capacity to evaluate the facts and prospects of his world and to make decisions guided by his own conscience, uncoerced by authority. A congress of citizens acting in free elections determines the political course of a democratic community.
The citizen is an altogether different animal from the member of a tribe. He lives by a diffeent set of rules. A set of rules the tribalist considers unmanly and without honor. The civilized man rates peace and prosperity higher than honor. Which is not the same as being without honor. A mistake tribalists have been making about the democratically civilized for a very long time. Because the civilized man will allow himself to be dishonored for the sake of peace the tribal man assumes that the civilized man is weak. In fact the civilized man can be more brutal than the tribalist when the civilized man goes into the honor mode. When in that mode it is not just tit for tat revenge he seeks, but the complete destruction of the disturbers of his peace.

The value of the civilized man is the value of the merchant who will take small humiliations for the sake of profit. For the tribalist no amount of profit is worth any humiliation. Which is why merchants and bankers are so despised by the tribalist.
A citizen prizes his freedom; therefore he grants it to others. He is willing to respect the rights of minorities within the community, so that his own rights will be shielded when he finds himself in the minority.

The tribesman doesn't see it that way. Within the fixed hierarchy of the tribe, disagreement is not dissent (and thus to be tolerated) but treachery, even heresy, which must be ruthlessly expunged. The tribe exists for itself alone. It is perpetually at war with all other tribes, even of its own race and religion.

The tribesman deals in absolutes. One is either "of blood" or not. The enemy spy can infiltrate the tribal network no more than a prison guard can worm his way into the Aryan Brotherhood. The tribe recognizes its own. It expels (or beheads) the alien. The tribe cannot be negotiated with. "Good faith" applies only within the pale, never beyond.

The tribesman does not operate by a body of civil law but by a code of honor. If he receives a wrong, he does not seek redress. He wants revenge. The taking of revenge is a virtue in tribal eyes, called badal in the Pathan code of nangwali. A man who does not take revenge is not a man. Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the sectarian militias of Iraq are not in the war business, they are in the revenge business. The revenge-seeker cannot be negotiated with because his intent is bound up with honor. It is an absolute.

Perhaps the most telling difference between the citizen and the tribesman lies in their views of the Other. The citizen embraces multiplicity; to him, the melting pot produces richness and cultural diversity. To the tribesman, the alien is not even given the dignity of being a human being; he is a gentile, an infidel, a demon.

The tribesman grants justice within the tribe. In his internal councils, empathy, humor and compassion may prevail. Outside the tribe? Forget it.
Civilization is a fragile thing because the lure of tribalism is always there. Socialism's appeal is that the government will take care of you in the way that being a member of a tribe did. The Nazis' appeal was to the greater German tribe. Sadly in America the Democrat Party is the Party where tribes gather; they just don't get civilization. Civilization works by encouraging the tribes to make the tribal identity secondary.

I'm going to be looking into this topic further over time. The number one question is how the tribalist can be converted either over time or by generational change to more universal values.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The civilized man pursues happiness. The tribalist pursues narrow justice.

The number one problem for the civilized and the tribalized alike is mirror imaging.

Update: 26 Sept '06 1651z

Commenter Paul noted in the comments this very interesting piece by a libertarian anthropologist: Observations on Arabs

Update: 27 Sept '06 1803z

Clayton Cramer comments.

Update: 30 Sept '06 0059z

Elder of Zion and Liberty ans Justice and Infidel Bloggers Alliance comment.

Update: 02 Oct. '06 0807z

Captain's Quarters discusses Afghan tribalism. The comments are especially good. See the one by Dale in Atlanta.

Update: 16 Oct. '06 1405z

Israel Matzav has a good bit on tribalism in Gaza.

Cross Posted at Classical Values 01 April '08.


Anonymous said...

I found that very useful, I had not fully grasped the implication of the tribal mindset. Here is a similar take:
Observations on Arabs


Anonymous said...

By the logic presented here, the citizen, dare I say "democrat", can not win respect from the tribesman, not in work, not in battle, not in the way he conducts his life. The "naive" values of individualism condemn him.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're taking this subject up. You've made a fantastic introduction.

One thing to consider is how few countries have the good fortune of the US insofar as having really no tribal root as a source of national identity. Some people argue this point but I'm confident of it. Confident enough to say that I believe the majority of Americans cannot even trace their US ancestry as far back as the civil war, which is really a very short time, but have no doubt about their identity as Americans. I was not born here, yet I feel wholly and completely American. I don't think any other culture absorbs foreigners so well.

No European country has this advantage, which explains in some part why their idea of multiculturalism has a condescending and artificial flavor. There is still a tribal chauvinism at the core of European identities. They struggle with it and constantly misunderstand US nationalism as being of a similar character.

Your quoting of the declaration of independence is exactly on point, because at the core of the misunderstanding between Americans and Arabs in particular is a different idea of how a government derives legitimacy.

liberty and justice for all.

For us, liberty is the only path to justice, not for ideological reasons but as a matter of practical political philosophy. Perhaps adherence to practical political philosophy is itself an ideology. I won't dispute that.

But when Bush says everybody wants freedom, he's wrong, because not everybody sees things the way we do. What everybody wants is justice, and for many people justice and freedom can and do stand apart. It's justice their 'street' usually demands and in a tribal culture freedom not only makes no contribution to it, it can be dangerous.

When Koffi Annan talks about "the unique legitimacy of the United Nations", he's referring to an abstraction of a tribal point of view, in which the world becomes a tribe and the UN its tribal council. Much of the world has no problem with this other than that by virtue of being an abstraction from real tribalism it is thin and weak. WE, on the other hand, have a concept of legitimacy that makes Annan's words sound absurd. We can hardly believe that he believes what he is saying. For us, the governing idea is "no taxation without representation".

Again, M. Simon, you've covered this particularly well.

Part of what makes early Jewish history relevant to this discussion is that the ancient Jews were in a way like America is today. The term "people of the book" is not just a pejorative description of a dhimmi status, it is also an accurate portrayal. The Jews have always been, as they are today, an ethnic hodpodge, and not a race of people at all. The Jews are an idea, just as America is an idea.

And this is where an important distinction needs to be made. America, qua the idea of America, is the secular heir to Christendom. One can say that god is dead, but one would be more accurate to say that our god is dead, while theirs is very much alive and kicking.

Anyway, America, because of its unique history, is a probably unreproducible and archetypical example of Kantian universality in its culture and laws. As such, it considers itself to be the rightful heir to the crown of legitimacy. We consider our cause to be righteous.

Islam and communism are the organizing principles that have been used to greatest effect to supercede tribalism in the east. Both achieve universalism, though not in a way that we approve of, and both consider themselves contenders for this crown as well.

So, leaving aside the merits and demerits of the Big Ideas themselves, the way those Big Ideas interact with tribalism is of much consequence.

Duchess Of Austin said...

Shahar, you are very eloquent. But there is one little bitty point in your essay that I would take issue with...

Where you say " America, qua the idea of America, is the secular heir to Christendom. One can say that god is dead, but one would be more accurate to say that our god is dead, while theirs is very much alive and kicking."

I wouldn't say our God is dead. That maks us sound too much like, ugh, Liberals...I would say our God is more of a spirit, than alive and kicking, as it were, not to mention that he doesn't ask us to sacrifice our mortal lives in His name. At least I haven't gotten that.

Other than that little point, I enjoyed reading it and pretty much agree with your points.

Anonymous said...


you could be right. I wouldn't rule it out at all.

Duchess Of Austin said...

I've got it!!!

I slept on my answer to Shahar, and didn't like the way I'd worded it to begin with, it didn't convey the idea I had wanted to convey very well....so here's the new, improved wording!

Our God isn't dead, he just doesn't micromanage our lives like the Prophet says Allah wants to!

Anonymous said...


hate to burst your bubble, but in the sense in which the phrase has historically been used, god is truly dead. but you have to understand 'god' here to mean something more akin to 'tribalism', in other words pre-enlightenment methods of political organization.

God is mostly now a private rather than a public matter.

But it's never safe to assume that matters are what they appear. America, as we know it today, could instead be a multi-century gestation period for a new tribe. It could give birth to a new god.

Maybe a cyber diety with hybrid cyborg children and a penchant for certain memorable catch phrases like, "and to all, a good night".

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...


This page got me thinking.

Hizbollah is a stateless tribe, feeding off of a tribeless state.

yes it has a state sponsor, but aside from that, it draws its strength from the failure of the Lebanese state to achieve legitimacy.

The Lebanese are not a tribe, or if they are they are a fractured one. At the same time, the Lebanese state has not established itself on a firm and true democratic footing, emulating a western democracy. Instead it has one of these makeshift democracies that are simply set up to fail.

No matter what security protocols are arranged in the near future, none of these basic facts about Lebanon is going to change. Therefore it will remain vulnerable until it finally fails. I don't see any other possible conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Tribes with Flags...

In spite of many "attempts" at state building, the Arab world remains one of tribes and clans. In most of the Arab world, states were used by one Tribe against the others.

There is a difference between "tribe", or "3ashireh", and "clan/family". Most Arabs live as part of "clans" or "families", and more or less within the law of the country. Tribes have their own, unofficial, law.

In Lebanon, the few tribes that exist are shiite tribes in the upper bekaa, where the Dandash and Jaafar. The rest are clans or families...

The main issue is the Arab world is that structure of a country never really got past that of a city-state, or a group of city-states. This allowed central government easy local control; only strong tribes or clans could escape such control.

In Lebanon, with the economy and decision making centered on Beirut. The "state" never really challenged local tribes or clans, or tried to promote a national identity. Even today, the Lebanese define themselves as who they are not, rather than who they are.

Anonymous said...

very important topic and interesting reading


Anonymous said...

That suggests to me that Lebenon has the best chance to become the next Democratic Republic in the Middle East. The power structures have broken down and the people are free to form their own associations.

M. Simon said...


You are correct about me bluring the distinction of the terms.

I was looking for a word, well understood, that encompases the idea of hereditary groups larger than a family.

It goes. Family. Band. Clan. Tribe.

Anonymous said...


Your statement has left me a bit confused. Most of us, when we talk about tribalism in regards to Lebanon, would probably use the term in reference to confessional divisions within the country. For example we might discuss the interests of Druze as apposed to the interests of Christians, all as part of a loose discussion of 'tribalism'. But clearly you mean something else and more specific, so I wonder if you could say a bit more about it.

Also, if the clan, and not the 'tribe' or the confessional community, is the fundamental social unit in Lebanon, why is the government set up as a set of compromises among the confessional communities instead of as a set of compromises among the various clans? Is this something that could be changed to achieve a better outcome?

M. Simon said...


My guess is that a clan is too small a unit to effectively administer.

The coalitions get too complicated to hold together. The American system is better in that respect as the coalitions are formed before the elections.

I'm going to do a bit on span of control based on anthropology in the near future. A very interesting subject.

Anonymous said...

> I'm going to do a bit on span of control

That's good - I want to read that.

The impression I have is that dividing the country along religious lines is a big mistake that invites foreign manipulation and, based on what jeha is saying, ignores the genuine social structure of the country. So what if someone who really cared about the country and had some common sense could reformulate the government? What would it look like?