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Scholar: Tribalism Rules in Iran, Iraq and Syria

February 7, 2008 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg, JE Feature
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Philip Carl Salzman
In order to fully understand Middle Eastern politics and society, you must first grasp the underlying basis of Arab culture -- specifically, the tribal organization central to life in the region, according to anthropologist and author Philip Carl Salzman.

During a lunchtime event held last week at the Center City law firm of Pepper Hamilton, about 50 people gathered to learn about the roots of contemporary Arab life and the potent affect it can have on conflicts in the region. The lecture was sponsored by the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank.

Salzman discusses the tribalism issue in depth in his upcoming book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, which will be released this month from Humanity Books. In it, he traces certain facets of Islam -- such as jihad and honor killings -- and provides a historical context to understand the modern-day implications of the tribalism that influences Middle Eastern culture in countries such as Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Salzman, an anthropology professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, is no stranger to studying different cultures. He has carried out extensive field research among nomadic and pastoral peoples in Baluchistan (Iran), Rajasthan (India) and Sardinia (Italy), among others.

During his talk, he presented a slide show of photographs that he's taken over the years of a number of tribes. There were also images of the anthropologist himself living in a tent among tribal communities during his research.

'Loyal to Their Groups'

According to Salzman, the ancient tribal notion of kinship -- a bond to an individual's immediate family -- supercedes the influence of elected officials, and has done so for hundreds of years. During his lecture, the scholar explained that tribes are not formed by strangers coming together; rather, they are developed among the descendants of a common ancestor on the male line. During any conflict, these individuals will combine their resources with other closely related relatives against more distant ones, and the whole tribe will then stand together against outsiders.

"They identify themselves as part of the group," explained Salzman. "Group loyalty is critical to the culture.

"We see th[is] tribal opposition in all the Arab states today," said Salzman, pointing specifically to the conflict now raging between Sunni and Shi'ite populations since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Though both groups are associated with the Prophet Mohammad -- the founder of Islam -- they each view the threat of the other group as being worse than the threat of infidels.

In the Arab world, no legitimate leadership exists above the hierarchy of tribal leaders, noted Salzman, and that is why they won't accept state rulers. With the tribal framework, it's nearly impossible to have a constitution or a regime of law and order, thereby "generating a society where all groups are on an equal basis."

Tribal members "are loyal only to their groups," he reiterated.

This has a direct effect on the way the United States and other "outsiders" deal with Arab countries, such as Iraq, where working with the tribes is necessary, explained the writer.

Said Salzman: Because the method and ideology seem confusing and vary so completely from American culture, "we cannot assume that they think the way we do" -- or, for that matter, ever will.

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