What Are Libya`s Tribes?
April 06, 2011, 01:47 PM
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I'm reading Francis Fukuyama's upcoming book The Origins of Political Order,, and I got interested in the differences between family tree-based tribes and territory-based states. For example, in Libya, Gaddafi, normally a modernizing statist, has, in extremis, armed the tribes that are on his side.

How's that work, anyway? How do you have lineage-based and territory-based polities co-existing?

I made some notes for a blog post ("Work in Ishi, the last wild California Indian, somehow"), then went to look up the famous Arab saying about "I against my brother ..." And I found this excellent 2008 article by anthropologist Stanley Kurtz in the Weekly Standard, "I and My Brother Against My Cousin." It's great to find something exactly on your wavelength, but by a guy who actually knows what he's talking about. Kurtz's article even begins:

On the morning of August 29, 1911, a half-starved Indian stumbled down from a remote canyon near California's Mount Lassen and surrendered at the corral of a nearby slaughterhouse. Reluctant, in accordance with tribal custom, to divulge his personal name, he called himself simply "Ishi," or "Man."
Kurtz writes:
I thought of Ishi while reading Philip Carl Salzman's new book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Humanity Books, 224 pages, $34.95). ... Salzman specializes in the study of Middle Eastern nomads. He, too, is something of a last survivor of a once proud band. What Salzman has managed is to have preserved, nurtured, deepened, and applied to our current challenge a once-dominant anthropological perspective on tribal societies: the study of tribes organized into "segmentary lineages." It was one of the great achievements of modern anthropology. Yet, over the past 40 years, scholars have largely rejected and forgotten the study of segmentary lineage systems. ...

The anthropological understanding of tribal social structures—especially in Africa and the Middle East—has been shunned for 40 years as exaggerating the violence and "primitivism" of non-Western cultures, discouraging efforts at modernization and democratization, and covertly justifying Western intervention abroad. Decades of postmodern and postcolonial studies have conspired against the appearance of books like Salzman's. ...

In the Islamic Near East, however, the term "tribe" has a fairly specific meaning. Middle Eastern tribes think of themselves as giant lineages, traced through the male line, from some eponymous ancestor. Each giant lineage divides into tribal segments, which subdivide into clans, which in turn divide into sub-clans, and so on, down to families, in which cousins may be pitted against cousins or, ultimately, brother against brother. Traditionally existing outside the police powers of the state, Middle Eastern tribes keep order through a complex balance of power between these ever fusing and segmenting ancestral groups.
The central institution of segmentary tribes is the feud. Security depends on the willingness of every adult male in a given tribal segment to take up arms in its defense. An attack on a lineage-mate must be avenged by the entire group. Likewise, any lineage member is liable to be attacked in revenge for an offense committed by one of his relatives. One result of this system of collective responsibility is that members of Middle Eastern kin groups have a strong interest in policing the behavior of their lineage-mates, since the actions of any one person directly affect the reputation and safety of the entire group.
Universal male militarization, surprise attacks on apparent innocents based on a principle of collective guilt, and the careful group monitoring and control of personal behavior are just a few implications of a system that accounts for many aspects of Middle Eastern society without requiring any explanatory recourse to Islam. The religion itself is an overlay in partial tension with, and deeply stamped by, the dynamics of tribal life. In other words—and this is Salz-man's central argument—the template of tribal life, with its violent and shifting balance of power between fusing and fissioning lineage segments, is the dominant theme of cultural life in the Arab Middle East (and shapes even many non-Arab Muslim populations). At its cultural core, says Salzman, even where tribal structures are attenuated, Middle Eastern society is tribal society. ...
If Peters found important exceptions to the classic pattern of alliance and feud along lines of male descent, Salzman showed there was a systematic explanation. He found that when erstwhile nomadic tribes settle down, a given clan's location and its immediate neighbors begin to trump the call of traditional kinship loyalties. Yet even settled tribes preserve the classic kin-based ideology of feuding and alliance, precisely because they might someday be forced by economic necessity—or by war with the state—to pick up and move. The further nomads are from the settled life of a state, the more they rely on kin-based, segmentary, balance-of-power principles to keep order. So even after settlement, Bedouin preserve classic segmentary kinship ideology as a kind of "social structure in reserve" for times of movement, crisis, and conflict.
And that sounds like Libya these days. You have a bunch of former nomads who have settled down with TVs and Fiats, but they stand ready to organize along their ancestors' tribal lines when crisis breaks out.

President Obama's mom was an anthropologist (she got her Ph.D. in 1992), so he might actually know a little of this stuff. It would be interesting to find out what side his mother took in the ultra-politicized Anthropology Wars and what Obama's views of his mother's views are. Of course, that would involve somebody in the press asking the politician specific questions, and, of course, such things are just not done.