TOPICS: Wars less about ideas than extreme tribalism

Western strategists and policymakers should stop talking about a clash of civilisations and focus on the real problem: extreme tribalism. Recent events — riots in many nations protesting cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, Sunni-Shiite warring in Iraq, the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan - confirm that the West is not in a clash with Islam. Instead, Islam, which is a civilising force, has fallen under the sway of Islamists who are a tribalising force.

Unfortunately, the tribalism theme has difficulty gaining traction. After the end of the Cold War, many American strategists preferred the optimistic “end of history” idea that democracy would triumph around the world, advanced by Francis Fukuyama in 1989. A contrary notion - reversion to tribalism - made better sense to other strategists, such as France’s Jacques Attali in 1992. Indeed, the emergence of ethnic warring in the Balkans and elsewhere confirmed that when societies crumble, people revert to tribal and clan behaviours that repudiate liberal ideals.

Perhaps partly because the idea of “tribalism” sounds too anthropological for modern strategists, it has not taken hold. American thinking has shifted to revolve around a more high-minded but less accurate concept: “the clash of civilisations” articulated by Samuel Huntington in 1993. But major clashes are not between civilisations per se, but between antagonistic segments that are fighting across fringe border zones (like Christian Serbs vs Muslim Kosovars), or feuding within the same civilisation, such as Sunnis vs Shiites in Iraq.

Al Qaeda terrorists are extreme tribalists who dream of making the West start over at a razed, tribal level. This travail is sure to persist, fuelling terrorism, ethno-nationalism, religious strife and sectarian feuds. Thus, the cartoon protest riots pose an effort to mobilise an Islamic global tribe, not a civilisation.

What maintains order in a tribe is not law but kinship principles stressing mutual respect, dignity, pride, and honour. A tribe may also view itself as a realm of virtue, but see outsiders as a different realm that may be treated differently, even brutally, especially if they are “different.” Much of the world is still like this. Of particular concern to strategists, a dense arc of tribal and clan systems runs across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, up into the “stans” of Central Asia. Tribalism, for good and ill, is alive everywhere, all the time.

So let’s shift away from the civilisation paradigm. The tribalism paradigm is better for illuminating the crucial problem: the tribalisation of religion. The “war of ideas” should be rethought.

Western leaders keep pressing Muslim leaders everywhere to denounce terrorism as uncivilised. But this approach, plus counter-pressures from sectarian Islamists, has put moderate Muslims on the defensive. An approach that focuses on questioning extreme tribalism may be more effective at freeing up dialogue and inviting a search for common, ecumenical ground. — The Christian Science Monitor