I recall once having a discussion with someone about how hard it would be to bring Democracy to the Middle East because of the region’s tribal nature.
According to Carl Salzman, professor of anthropology at McGill University and author of the book Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, tribes are the descendants of a common ancestor on the male line which combine their resources with other closely related relatives against more distant ones, and the whole tribe will then stand together against outsiders. This tribal framework renders it nearly impossible to have a constitution or a regime of law and order, thereby “generating a society where all groups are on an equal basis.” (excerpt from Wikipedia).
In his report, The Middle East’s Tribal DNA, Salzman also states that “These groups are vested with responsibility for the defense of each member and responsible for harm any member does to outsiders. If there is a confrontation, families face families, lineage faces lineage, clan faces clan, tribe faces tribe, confederacy faces confederacy, sect faces sect, and the Islamic community faces the infidels.” (I do recommend reading this report, it’s a great overview of how the tribal system works, if you’re curious.) While the Middle East does have established states and governance, it’s not hard to imagine what kind of impact centuries and centuries of tribal rule and culture have on their modern society.
While it may seem like a lot of useless technical cultural information, it made me think; are we really all so different that we’re the same? Is the Middle East just one magnified view of the tribal nature of the world in general? While a country is not necessarily the product of a single male line, you could take into consideration the US’s reverence of the Founding Fathers. Each country of the globe is a bit like its own tribe. Some tribes prefer to live in quiet isolation and avoid conflict and turmoil with the tribes around them. Others would be the ruling tribes, establishing laws, policing the rest of the tribes, acting as the Big Brother, be it benevolent or otherwise.
Some tribes are just fine with the way things are. They don’t want to lose themselves, their culture or their identity in what they see as getting all merged and run together with the rest of the world’s tribes. (AKA Globalization). Meanwhile the Big Brother tribes feel pretty certain that they know what is best, try to police the world, resolve disputes and instill order.
Beyond a sense of tribal place, there are centuries of built up assumptions, prejudices and mistrust. Some of these global ‘tribes’ have a reputation for being aggressive and warlike, others not sophisticated enough, or strong enough. One tribe finds it difficult to trust another tribe so different from their own. Old conflicts and grievances are revisited over and over again.
Cultural beliefs can be one of the strongest forces against unification or globalization in this tribal world. Fears of losing a cultural identity, or of having other belief systems forced upon them. Religious differences are certainly paramount. If my tribe accepts your religious beliefs, does that lessen the power of my own beliefs?
Whether you are part of the “tribe” of the United States or Canada, the tribe of France or Germany, the tribe of Iraq, England, Mexico or China, there is a fear that keeps us from achieving peace. How does each country retain its identity, it’s culture and embrace the idea of united global tribe? How do I accept what you believe while holding on to my own, how do we not lose our culture, what makes us the country we are, some of whom have had nearly as many centuries to develop as those in the Middle East?
Another thing that got me thinking about this was a talk given at the Hudson Institute called Identity, Democracy and the Nation-State which discussed the debate within the academic community about whether a strong national core identity is necessary to democracy, or whether it is ultimately subversive. They discuss the role that immigrants play in defining a culture and the role of globalism and multiculturalism versus religious virtues and traditional Western values in the survival of democracy.
Like the basic steps of self-awareness and personal growth, communities and countries as a whole need to realize (or decide) that it is possible to accept, even embrace, the ideals of others and still keep a sense of identity. Instead of conflicting over who’s ideals are better, focus on healing and true balance.
In The Middle East’s Tribal DNA, Salzman comments that “The tribal notion of balanced opposition has profound implications on modern conflict. The Arab-Israeli debate is polarized and almost every “fact” contested by the other side.” Okay, not only a global tribal mindset, but something you can see happen in our very own government. Fact and counter fact, pro and con, plan and better plan.
Perhaps this is an exceptionally “thinky” post for my typically feel-good blog. But, it was something that I felt warranted consideration. From a neighborhood to a community, from a tribe to a country and extending on outward to a global scale, there is a need to realize that while our cultures, religious ideals and national heritage may differ, we are all driven by the same basic fears. And more often than not it’s fear and misunderstanding that lead to the destruction of peace.