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The Middle East’s Tribal DNA



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As Condoleezza Rice tries to keep momentum alive for her Annapolis initiative, the State Department’s attention is focusing once again upon the political disputes surrounding Arab-Israeli conflict.  But can the political issues be separated from the cultural and religious?  Anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman provides an alternate analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or more broadly, “Islam’s bloody borders,” here.

A couple of excerpts: 

The concept of “honor” infuses raiding and predatory expansion. First, fulfillment of obligations according to the dictates of lineage solidarity achieves honor. Second, neutral mediators who resolve conflicts and restore peace among tribesmen win honor. Third, victory in conflicts between lineages in opposition brings honor. Violence against outsiders is a well-worn path for those seeking honor. Success brings honor. Winners gain; losers lose. Trying, short of success, counts for nothing. In Middle Eastern tribal culture, victims are despised, not celebrated….

Building on the tribal system, Muhammad framed an inclusive structure within which the tribes had a common, God-given identity as Muslims. This imbued the tribes with a common interest and common project. But unification was only possible by extending the basic tribal principle of balanced opposition. This Muhammad did by opposing the Muslim to the infidel, and the dar al-Islam, the land of Islam and peace, to the dar al-harb, the land of the infidels and conflict. He raised balanced opposition to a higher structural level as the new Muslim tribes unified in the face of the infidel enemy. Bedouin raiding became sanctified as an act of religious duty. With every successful battle against unbelievers, more Bedouin joined the umma. Once united, the Bedouin warriors turned outward, teaching the world the meaning of jihad, which some academics today say means only struggle but which, in the context of early Islamic writing and theological debates, was understood as holy war.



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