April 6, 2011

What are Libya's tribes?

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.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

"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."

Interesting to the intersection of two sets: people who like that kind of anthropology inside baseball and people obsessed with Obama's personal life.

So, not so many people.

Hapalong Cassidy said...

As backwards as the Arabs are, or have been - one of the biggest puzzles in history is how these backwards tribesmen were able to conquer much of the known world during the 8th and 9th century, in the process subjugating one mighty ancient empire (the Persians) and severely weakening another (the Byzantines). They happened to catch both empires while their fortuners were low, but still, the Arab successes seem to fly in the face of HBD memes. Such as smarter people from the North conquering established peoples in the South.

hbd chick said...

got ur libyan tribes (and consanguinity rates) covered right here:

libya – land o’ tribes
all tribes, all the time!
the nyt discovers tribes!
consanguinity in libya…

(^_^)

elvisd said...

The most harrowing example of the intersection of tribal and modern ideological and national interests I've heard was told to me by my best friend who is an exile in every sense of the world from Lebanon.

He came from a prominant Sunni family, and went to Catholic school. He claimed friends in every religious sect, but affiliated with the Christian-dominated Kataeb/Falange in college, as he was a Lebanese nationalist. He went to meetings, and participated in demostrations that often degenerated into street fights. In 1975, the main opposition were leftist Palestinian groups, the Shiites still being marginalized and largely off the map politically.
He started getting watched by young Fatah thugs. He defnitely stuck out like a sore thumb, being outspoken son of a Sunni family running with a Christian nationalist group,the top of his class, who partied like a fiend, and would promote visiting rock bands.
One day they nabbed him. He got tortured pretty bad-broken ribs, black eyes, etc. Somebody who witnessed the kidnapping but didn't know my friend managed to find out who his family was after a couple of days and told his father. His father was a prominent doctor and scientist. He knew good and well that any attempt to use state mechanisms would end in his son's death, so he turned to the tribal institutions: one of his patients was the sheikh of a large Shiite tribe. He called the sheikh, begging him to help him get his son back. The Shiites at that time were no friend to the Palestinians.
The sheikh dispatched a couple of dozen of his tribesmen to surround the perimeter of the building where the Fatah people had my friend, and sent someone to tell the kidnappers that they had one hour to release their captive or else. My friend says that he is very lucky to be alive.

Anonymous said...

I gave you a hint before because of your articles on Iraqi consanguinity and your part time job as a movie reviewer. Now I'll say it outright The Kings Speech looks to be about the tragedy of first cousin marriages.

Stuttering in genetic or at least The Stuttering Foundation believes it is. (http://www.stutteringhelp.org/default.aspx?tabindex=492&tabid=502)

About a half dozen chromosomes have been linked with familial stuttering. There is also the possibility of a genetic connection to autism.

Prince Albert was the first cousin of Victoria. One of her grandsons was called the "Uncle of Europe" because of all of his blood connections to other various royal families.

This same phenomenon can be seen in the Habsburgs. Their famous lip was just one of the homozygous recessives from which their line suffered. They had high achievers like Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor (the baritone in Ernani). and genetic defectives like Charles II or Carlos the son of Phillip II (the tenor in Don Carlos). Phillip II married Bloody Mary Queen of England - his first cousin. Fortunately Mary was barren.

Victoria's progeny carried hemophilia and other maladies. There have been several books and movies accusing her grandson of being "Jack the Ripper" - almost certainly tripe but just plausible enough to linger as a conspiracy theory for over a century. People familiar with the royal bloodline have been willing to believe the worst.

So it's likely that The King's Speech was not some random environmental event but the consequent of the the cultivated consanguinity in the the Windsor tribe.

Albertosaurus

dcite said...

"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."

somehow I can't imagine B.O. in a heart to heart with mom, or even in a views-exchanging dialogue. That's part of his problem. And ours.

Where are the Details? said...

I'd like to see someone informed and somewhat neutral enumerate and outline the tribes involved in this Libyan civil war.

For example, list all the major tribes, their population, location and alligence (pro or anti government or neutral). A big additional piece of info would be the fighting effectiveness and attitudes towards religion and the West (although that is subject to propaganda which is rife in our current media reportage).

From the dozen(s) of rebel casualties causing them to constantly flee Gaddafi's admittedly own starved and rag tag excuse of an army despite intensive US/NATO missle strikes, aircover and boots on the ground there is obviously not much substance to the Libyan rebels.

Certainly someone must have shown Obama this info in an intelligence report.

It makes one wonder what the hell Obama was thinking staking his (and the US's) reputation by backing such a group of losers and destablizing the region. It's clear that the rebels are not popular, cohesive or effective and they cannot rule in place of Gaddfi or his tribal base.

Obama's utter lack of intellectual curiosity and his life of never being testing yet always being praised and promoted in absence of any tangible achievement has left Obama utterly incapable to deal with big issues like this. If power corrupts, BHO is the most fertile substrate for such corruption.

No doubt, he felt whatever decision he made would be correct simply because he made it. Surely he thought his time would better spent golfing or vacating in Rio than sweating the detail because life has shown him the details never matter in advancing in life.

Kylie said...

"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."

Does Obama have any abiding interest in any subject that can't be directly related to his race concerns (which are in turn concerned with his self-esteem)? I'm not aware of any. So I'm guessing if he was exposed to this stuff, he probably didn't bother to take it in.

Furthermore, a man with a black father and white mother who lists himself as black on the census is probably not interested in discussing his mother's views on anything.

I think you give Obama more credit for intellectual curiosity than he merits.

cruft said...

The bible again explains this situation in the description of Ismael as having his hand against every man and every man's hand against him.

Anonymous said...

You're reading Francis Fukuyama's upcoming book?

Did he send it to you? Is Fukuyama a crime-thinker? I'm sure the SPLC, ADL and other professional thugs would be interested in any guilt-by-association.

Too Tall Jones said...

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..

This sounds a lot like some European regimes. Germans brutally massacred thousands of innocents all over Europe based on their 'guilt' and the French likewise massacred hundreds in various colonial wars based on similar guilt. And personal monitoring has been a speciality of Russia for almost a century..

ATBOTL said...

"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."

That sounds familiar.

Anonymous said...

12 tribes of Israel and 120 or 1200 tribes of Ishmael(or Arabs).

Anonymous said...

What is the relation between tribal "chiefs" and their tribes/clans? To the chiefs inherit their position or are they partially chosen? In any case why doesn't the U.S. work with these tribal/clan groupings instead of against them when they design state-level parliamentary institutions (let the chiefs choose their areas representatives the way the "chiefs" do here in the United States) instead of imposing individualistic/nuclear family assumptions on non-Western societies? I thought that was the way empires were supposed to be built -- the way the Romans did it. Go with the local rulers. Or maybe we do already. Does anybody know?

Reg C├Žsar said...

...what side his mother took...

Shades of the old joke:

Foreigner lost on London street: "Pardon me, sir, but which side is the Foreign Office on?"

Briton: "Yours, I'm afraid."

Hail said...

Steve is behind the curve on this one. HBD-Chick has been posting about tribalism behind the Libyan Curtain for months.

It's interesting: We all sort-of accept that Saddam Hussein was partly a "tribalist", a Sunni-Arab nationalist working for his own within the "Iraq" Frankenstein-state. Yet for some reason we regard Gaddafi as simply an arbitrary autocract, whose only loyalty is to Kelptocracy. I guess it's just easier to view things in crude black-and-white.

hbd chick said...

@where are the details: "I'd like to see someone informed and somewhat neutral enumerate and outline the tribes involved in this Libyan civil war.

"For example, list all the major tribes, their population, location and alligence (pro or anti government or neutral)."

yeah, i'd like to see such a list, too! there is a partial list of libyan tribes on wikipedia. and, afaict, there is -- broadly speaking -- an east-west divide in libya with most of the eastern tribes in libya supporting the rebels and, eh, quite a few of the western tribes supporting gaddafi.

but, there are divisions EVERYwhere and constantly shifting allegiances. the warfalla, for instance, one of the western tribes -- kinda/sorta supporting gaddafi -- somedays -- maybe -- it's kinda hard to tell.

it was members of the warfalla tribe that tried to oust gaddafi in '93, so clearly they're not 100% loyal to him. what are they up to now? i think maybe they're hedging -- waiting to see who comes out on top. they probably would like to see gaddafi out, but they probably want to be in charge, not let some unrelated easterners take over the place!

the warfalla, btw, is one of the major tribes with a large number of people in it. so is, iirc, the al-zuwayya tribe in the east. the gaddafi tribe is actually one of the smaller ones, numbers wise.

then there are (what look to be) tribal-based disputes within the rebel forces -- the al obaidis vs. the firjians.

so, i say, good luck to the libyans in creating a modern "democratic" nation out of all of this (if that's what they really want). i, for one, am not holding my breath.

Anonymous said...

Hey Steve, I really miss your book reviews. I know you still do them occasionally, but not like the old days...

Anonymous said...

This sounds a lot like some European regimes.

The second bit is more or less universal in conflicts (collective guilt), but the first and last bits (militarization of males to pull together a large standing army and a relatively regimented society) could be linked with (long since deceased) late 19th century and early 20th century European ideas about how to build a militarized nation.

Just not on a tribal basis, but on a "territory-based polity" political basis and with a military doctrine and widespread acceptance of "decisive conflict".

This might be why these ideas are relatively appealing in some of these Middle Eastern societies - it's a scaling up into a national pattern of something which is not exactly alien to life as lived.

TGGP said...

I didn't reread the whole Kurtz piece, just jumped to the end to see if he had any suggestions for how neoconservative foreign policy can work given the tribalism of that region. I suppose it's too his credit that he doesn't do a whole lot to offer hope, understandable given that it was 2008. Parts of it reminded me of James Scott's "The Art of Not Being Governed". I think Scott goes too far in what Kurtz calls the post-modern "kaleidoscopic" view on tribes, but overall I'd still recommend the book.

David said...

Not all the Libyan tumult is really internally generated. Here.

Tommy said...

Speaking of Arabs, Steve is likely to get much more traffic after this book is released:

http://arstechnica.com/apple/news/2011/04/authorized-biography-of-steve-jobs-to-arrive-in-early-2012.ars