The clash of civilizations we’re living through is widely seen as a battle between Islam and Christendom. I’m convinced it’s more basic than that. The reason Iraq and Afghanistan remain unsettled battlefields isn’t that our two civilizations can’t agree on the nature of God. It’s because we can’t agree on the nature of man.
In the West, we take it for granted that human beings are autonomous individuals. We decide for ourselves how we dress, where we work, whom we marry. Our political system is an atomized democracy, in which everyone is expected to vote according to his own idiosyncratic values and interests. Our pop music and movies are about misunderstood loners. The ethos of individual empowerment fuels daytime talk shows.
The ethos of individualism has become so fundamental to the Western world view that most of us cannot imagine any other way of conceiving human existence. But in fact, there are billions of people on earth — including most of the world’s Muslims — that view our obsession with individualism as positively bizarre.
In most of South Asia and the Middle East, humans are viewed not primarily as individuals, but as agents of a family, tribe, clan or sect. As Rutgers scholar Robin Fox wrote in a brilliant essay — excerpted in last month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine — this explains why so many Arabs marry their cousins. In tribal societies, your blood relations are the only people you can trust.
This fundamental difference in outlook explains much of what we find barbaric about traditional Muslim cultural practices. Honor killings — to take a newsworthy example — strike Westerners as an especially hideous form of murder. But that’s because we think of people as individuals. If you instead see a woman primarily as a low-status breeding agent of her patriarch’s clan, everything changes. By taking up with an unapproved male, she is nullifying whatever value she once had as a human. In fact, her life has negative value in the sense that her shameful lifestyle is an ongoing humiliation to the men expected to enforce discipline within the clan’s ranks.
An intractably tribal outlook also makes Western-style democracy impossible — which explains why nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq has become such a thankless slog.
The reason many of us post-9/11 hawks had such high hopes for these campaigns is that we shared George W. Bush’s sunny claim that “Freedom is universal. Freedom is etched in everybody’s soul.” It turns out that’s not true. As Fox notes, freedom and individualism are relatively recent development in human history. Tribalism, on the other hand, is a deeply rooted instinct that has been “etched” on our soul since simian days. Even in Western societies, you can still see it rise to the surface when tensions flare (a point Paul Haggis made with exquisite artistry in his Oscar-award winning film, Crash).
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. In this regard, Saddam Hussein was the ultimate tribal leader. Not only did he restrict his inner circle to Sunnis, but they were Sunnis from 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 completely insane. So would the idea of handing over power to another tribe merely because its leaders chalked up more votes in an election. During most of human history, letting another tribe lord over yours meant yielding the power to pillage your granaries and rape your women. (In parts of Africa, it still does.)
This explains why the United States and NATO have gotten nowhere with grand national political projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are both intensely tribal societies. In both places, progress has come at the micro level — with military commanders sitting down with individual tribal patriarchs and, essentially, bribing them with guns and money. In the West, we call that corruption. In tribal societies, it’s politics.
Is there something about Islam that serves to lock in mankind’s inherently tribal instincts? Perhaps. The word Islam translates to “submission.” And empirically speaking, there does seem to be something within the faith that discourages individualism and the democratic freedoms associated with it.
On the other hand, the non-Muslim nations of sub-Saharan Africa are every bit as tribalized as the Muslim nations to the north. In any case, the successful integration of millions of Muslims into Western societies shows that, after a generation or two, at least, the faith hardly prevents immigrants from coming around to our democratic, individualistic ways.
As for our foreign entanglements, it’s worth noting Fox’s warning that our own Western march to individualism took centuries — a grinding process in which we moved “from tribalism, through empire, feudalism, mercantile capitalism, and the industrial revolution … shrugging off communism and fascism along the way.” In Iraq and Afghanistan, we are essentially asking local Sheikhs to cram all of this into a few years. We shouldn’t be surprised if it takes a little longer.
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