Some Thoughts on Tribalism and Democracy

When, oh when, are we Westerners going to finally wake up and realize that people who populate such far off places as Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are simply NOT like us?

In most of South Asia and the Middle East, humans are primarily viewed NOT as individuals, but as agents of family, tribe, clan or sect. This helps explain why so many Arabs marry their cousins. In tribal societies, your blood relations are the only people you can really trust.

This fundamental difference in outlook explains much of what we find barbaric about traditional Muslim cultural practices. Assassinations in such cultures (like that of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan last December) strike Westerners as a particularly horrific species of murder. But that’s because we think of such people as individuals. If you instead see a woman (particularly one trying to run for political office) primarily as a low-status breeding agent of her patriarch’s clan in these cultures, then everything changes.

Such an intractably tribal cultural outlook is what makes Western-style democracy in such countries quite impossible. This also explains why the Neocon’s grand plans for conquest, control and “nation building” in places like Iraq and Afghanistan have met with such stiff resistance…and are ultimately doomed to fail.

The reasons many of the Neocons had such high hopes for these campaigns is that they shared President George W. Bush’s sunny (but arrogantly ignorant) claim that “freedom is universal”…that such ideas are etched in EVERYONE’s soul. That simply isn’t true.

The idea that our horrifically ignorant President (along with his equally arrogant and ignorant Cabal) have yet to fully grasp is that freedom and individuality are relatively recent developments in human history. Tribalism, on the other hand, is a deeply rooted instinct that has been “etched” in our evolutionary psychology since the dawn of Man. Even in Western societies, you can still see it pop to the surface now and then when tensions flare (gang wars, race riots, etc.)

True democracy requires consensus building and shared values. But in tribal societies, politics is viewed as a battle of “all against all” in which the strongest tribe openly appropriates the state apparatus to enrich itself at everyone else’s expense. This also includes assassinating the leaders of the other tribes if need be.

In that regard, Saddam Hussein was the ultimate tribal leader. Not only did he restrict his inner circle to Sunnis, but they were also Sunnis of his own narrow Tikriti sub-clan. The idea of creating a “representative” government that includes Kurds and Shiites with their own independent power bases would have struck him as particularly insane. So would the idea of handing power over to another tribe merely because its leaders chalked up more votes in a so-called “free” election. During most of human history, letting another tribe lord over yours also meant yielding them the power to pillage your homes and rape your women. In some parts of Africa, it still does.

This also explains why the United States and NATO are now so bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and will remain so for decades to come. Both are intensely tribal societies.

Our own Western march to individualism took centuries…a grinding process in which we moved from tribalism, through empire, mercantile capitalism and the industrial revolution while managing to also shrug off Communism and Hitler-style fascism along the way.

However, in places like Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, we are essentially asking the locals to cram all of this societal evolution into just a few years…and on our (not their) timetable.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we are, quite literally, holding a gun against people’s heads in a horrifically futile effort to get those entrenched tribal cultures to embrace such totally foreign Western-style concepts as “democracy” and “freedom” for which they have absolutely NO basis of understanding.

Such “forced compliance” simply isn’t going to happen…at least not in your or my lifetimes.