The Nation, 10 November 2008

As you would expect from its cover date, this issue was devoted primarily to the 2008 presidential election.  As that event recedes into the past, I find it hard to imagine myself going back to re-read any articles about it.  Perhaps I may wake up some morning and find it impossible to believe that it ever really happened, and may want to look up this issue as proof that it did. 

What I want to note now is a review essay by Moustafa Bayoumi.  Bayoumi treats three books, Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict, by Sandra Mackey; Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East, by Ussama Makdisi; and Origins: A Memoir by Amin Maalouf.  Bayoumi aligns Mackey’s book with “a budding movement on anthropology’s right wing.”  Thinkers associated with this movement look at Arab societies and see one institution as paramount, the tribe.  Bayoumi cites Philip Carl Salzman, who argues (in Bayoumi’s paraphrase) “that Arabs, universally and throughout history, organize their societies along a series of ‘nested’ relationships- family, lineage, clan, tribe, confederacy, sect, and religion- with each group larger than the preceding one.  Indeed, Islam, on this account, postdates tribalism; with its ability to magnify the difference between believer and nonbeliever, it’s simply the largest tribe of all.”  The tribalist school has had great influence in recent US policy in the Middle East; a 2003 Brookings Institution report on Iraqi tribalism (“The Iraqi Tribes and the Post-Saddam System,” Brookings Iraq Memo #18, 8 July 2003) has apparently served as one of the blueprints for US occupation policy in Iraq.   Inasmuch as, according to Bayoumi, “tribalist theory presumes that tribes always impede the growth of the state,” the influence of the tribalist school over Iraq’s occupiers may explain why so little appears to have been done in the last five and a half years to develop a viable state in Iraq.

Bayoumi criticizes the tribal theorists for their conception of the Arab tribes as rigid when they are fluid.  So, “tribes don’t have fixed memberships.  Instead, they are often created out of loose and contingent notions of relatedness.  A kind of foctive ancestry is constantly made and remade to connect people to resources and to power.”  Moreover, the tribal theorists are quite wrong when they say, as Mackey does, that “All Arab societies are to some degree tribal.”  One quarter of all Arabs are Egyptian, and there is no tribal system whatever among Egyptian Arabs. 

As for the practical effect of the influence of the “tribal thesis” and its advocates on affairs in Iraq and elsewhere, Bayoumi quotes a 2008 study by political scientist Austin Long.  According to Bayoumi, Long views the use occupation forces have made of the tribalist approach as a recipe for present weakness (“ceding territory to tribal leaders it doesn’t understand”) and catastrophe to come (“sow[ing] the seeds of future state failure.”)  

Bayoumi finds a great deal more to admire in Makdisi’s book.  He relates the story of As’ad Shidyaq, a Maronite who converted to Protestantism under the influence of an American missionary in 1825.  Makdisi describes Shidyaq as “the first to try to disassociate American ideas from American culture,” an expression which I find most intriguing.  As an American and a humanist, I fondly imagine it to be possible for Americans to learn from ideas that developed in cultures other than our own, that is to say, to disassociate non-American ideas from the cultures of their origin.  I would therefore like to know more about attempts to do the opposite thing.  And of course there are American thinkers whose work I would like to think might offer something of value to people around the world, as someone like Wu Mi or Lin Yutang was able to find value in the ideas of Irving Babbitt.

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