Monday, April 21, 2008

Islamism . . . or Tribalism?

Richard Landes

Richard Landes -- son of David Landes, who wrote The Unbound Prometheus, a classic on the rise of technology and capitalism -- has posted a blog entry, "Salzman on Tribal Islam: Insights of an Anthropologist" (4/7/2008) at Augean Stables commenting on a long article by Stanley Kurtz, "I and My Brother Against My Cousin," The Weekly Standard (4/14/2008, Volume 013, Issue 29), in which Kurtz asks, "Is Islam the best way to understand the war on terror?" and suggests that "Tribalism may offer a clearer view of our enemies' motivations."

The Salzman in question is Philip Carl Salzman, who has written a book -- titled Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Humanity Books, 2008) -- that applies the anthropology of tribes to an understanding of the Middle East. This is a neglected aspect of the reality that we face in our encounter with friends and foes in, for example, Afghanistan and Iraq -- as I've begun to perceive through the success that the US Military has had in destroying Al Qaeda in Iraq through allying itself with the tribes that had come to detest Al Qaeda, as in the Anbar Province of western Iraq, for example.

I won't attempt to summarize the entire article, but you can read it at Augean Stables for the benefit of comments interspersed by Landes -- a very bright fellow whom I got to know on a listserve about First-Century Judaism a couple of years ago (though he'd likely not recall me).

The post offers some rather hard-hitting views. Here's Kurtz applying Salzman's anthropological findings:
Arab tribesmen are preoccupied with maintaining deterrence and prepared to use force preemptively, if necessary -- rather like ├╝ber neocons. The ironic but very real parallel is a function of the de facto stateless anarchy in which Arab Bedouin live -- and the de facto global anarchy that hawkish conservatives rightly believe to be the underlying reality of the international system. Saddam Hussein's interest in being taken to possess WMDs, whether or not he actually had them, makes sense in light of the link between deterrence and reputation. The emboldening effects of America's pre-9/11 retreats in Somalia, Lebanon, and elsewhere show the reverse of the medal. Although this is a familiar litany, I'd argue that the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the rage against the Muhammad cartoons, the killing of Theo van Gogh, and a host of related acts of intimidation ought to be placed under the heading of pro-active deterrence as well.
Landes comments:
And the Western response as an invitation to further aggression. What's interesting is how the demopathic spokesmen for this side scream hysterically at "unprovoked" or "excessive" response by the Israelis or the Americans, and how well that plays before a Western audience driven by both PCP and resentment of those in the West who do fight back.
Interestingly, however, Kurtz sees tribalism, despite its honor-shame culture, as more flexible than Islam:
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.
Landes, by contrast, sees more positive value in an Islam that has shed its honor-shame aspect:
Indeed, in my reading, all demotic monotheism is against honor-shame, including demotic Islam. Monotheism in the grip of honor-shame, as much of political Islam, is imperialist. But Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has a profound core of respect for the individual soul and the willing acceptance of the yoke of heaven (i.e., ethical restraints), rather than the denominational imposition of their interpretation of that yoke -- that coincides spectacularly with the fundamental democratic notion that the social contract will only work, and democratic elections will only succeed as a means to choose leaders, if the polity has a critical mass of honest, self-regulating, morally autonomous adults. Then you have the key ingredients in civil society -- voluntarism, commitment to respect for the "other," ability to restrain one's own desires.
I wonder if this is true. Does Islam have "a profound core of respect for the individual soul and the willing acceptance of the yoke of heaven," or is it fundamentally theocratic and therefore at odds with democracy?

Either way, all three guys -- Landes, Kurtz, and Salzman -- are highly intelligent scholars worth engaging with. Read the entire, rather long post at Augean Stables.

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At 3:48 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

Hi Jeff-er-y
I have spent a lot of time reading on the Augean Stables site.
I'm still in class

At 4:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

There's a lot offered in that classroom.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this BBC story on Muslim converts to Christianity interesting as it discusses apostasy, noting that the Quran does not prescribe any punishment; rather, it is from two hadith that Islamic law derives its sentence of capital punishment.


At 7:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Sonagi, but the address looks a bit trimmed. Here's a link.

Jeffery Hodges

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