Earlier this month, I traveled to San Jose State University to participate in a panel discussion about the war in Iraq, put together by my friend, history professor Jonathan Roth. During the course of my remarks, I proposed that perhaps the biggest obstacle to a peaceful, stable and democratic Iraq was its people's continuing allegiance to tribal customs and affiliations. "There is no more oppressive way to organize a society than along tribal lines," I said--noticing, as I did, a distinct stirring among some members in the audience.
After the panel, I asked Jon about that reaction. An anthropology professor, he told me, had taken umbrage at my critique of tribalism. "No, no, he's got it all wrong," the multiculturally-minded academic muttered. "Vincent doesn't know the first thing about tribal society."
Well, thank God my knowledge about Iraq's tribes is second-hand. Neither I nor, I dare say, the anthropology professor, would care to live in a system that ensnares the individual in an inescapable web of kinship relations, where genealogy, rather than citizenship, define one's place in society, and a woman's freedom, self-fulfillment and life are hostage to that most pernicious of concepts, "honor." Indeed, my two visits to Iraq convinced me that tribal blood and family ties lie at the root of nearly all the pathologies afflicting that nation- irrational violence, misogyny, religious fanaticism and, perhaps most troubling, the inability of even educated people to fully internalize abstract principles of behavior and government. To put it another way, Iraq will never emerge from despotism until some force, be it America, the United Nations or the Iraqi people themselves, destroys the regressive bonds of tribalism that shackle the country's energies.
But let's not kid ourselves. It's not just Iraq we're talking about: it's the Arab Middle East. From the corrupt ruling family of Saudi Arabia to the homicidal martyrs of the PLO to the endless cries of victimization from the Arab "street," the inability of millions of people to transcend desert-born traditions of honor, sexual repression and revenge have retarded the progress and prosperity of a vital area of the world. And when you add in the influence of a failing religion- how else are we to view Islam? - you get a formerly vibrant culture that is devolving into a death cult responsible for the mass-murder of thousands of people. This is why the invasion of Iraq is so fundamental in preventing future attacks like the September 11 disaster. America's "War on Terror" is in reality very much a "War on Tribalism."
Recently, two books have appeared that highlight the regressive viciousness of Arab tribal culture, and serve as means to approach the thorny question of why Muslim nations are so poor, culturally backwards and violent. These books will, with any luck, stick in the collective craw of academia's multicultural industry.
The first is called Burned Alive: A Victim of the Law of Men, by a Palestinian woman who calls herself "Souad." Twenty-five years ago, Souad relates, she had the misfortune to meet a man who seduced and eventually impregnated her without bothering to make good his promise to marry. Being with child and unmarried is a virtual death sentence in traditional Arab cultures, and so it was that Souad's brother-in-law, in order to protect the "honor" of the family, doused her with a flammable liquid and set her on fire. Burned over 90 percent of her body, she was left for dead, and only by the intervention of a Swiss-based humanitarian worker did she manage to survive. Today, her identity hidden, she lives somewhere "in Europe."
What makes Souad's ordeal so ghastly is not only her immolation, but the social sanction the "honor killing" possesses in tribal society: in one chilling passage, she describes actually overhearing her parents plan her murder. Recalling her childhood, she relates watching her mother smother to death at least one unwanted baby girl and has dim recollections of seeing her brother strangle her sister with a phone cord. But even death seems merciful compared with the conditions under which Souad and other Palestinian girls lived. Forced to avert their eyes from men, regularly beaten by their fathers or brothers ("A day without beating was unusual"), locked and sometimes tied up in their rooms at night, chronically uneducated, frequently disposed of ("It's nothing if a woman disappears"), condemned to loveless marriages, psychologically incapable of rebelling, a female in Souad's Palestine lives like "a small animal that eats, works as fast as possible, and is beaten." Have conditions for women improved in Palestine over the last 25 years? The book doesn't say, but judging by statistics released by Palestinian police that list 31 "honor killings" in 2002, the tribal custom is alive and well.
Burned Alive does not address the subject of religion. But the second book, Irshad Manji's The Trouble With Islam does-explosively. Manji, a Uganda-born "South Asian Muslim," as she puts it, is a Canadian TV personality who has already become familiar on U.S. media. With a fearlessness that is very rare among liberal Muslims, she unleashes a full-blown assault on the pieties that surround the "religion of peace and tolerance"- even to the point of describing the Koran as a book "profoundly at war with itself." Although her polemic covers a lot of ground (including a chapter entitled "Thank God for the West"), Manji argues in essence that the violence, resentment and misogyny that taints Islam is due to its domination by Arab "cultural imperialism," which has tethered the religion to "Arab tribalism."
"Could it be," she asks, "that Muslims are taught to imitate the dynamics of the Arab tribe, where sheikhs rule the roost and everyone else chafes under their rule?"
Manji calls this primitive version of the Prophet's teachings "desert Islam"- in effect, a religion based on a seventh century Bedouin view of the world, which has degenerated into the narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, self-pitying mentality expressed by the today's ulema from Mecca to Finsbury Park. Proposing a reform movement she names "Operation Ijtihad" (after a tradition of discussing and analyzing certain aspects of Islam), the author calls for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to challenge "desert Islam" and reopen the doors to a vibrant, questioning, spirit in the religion. "Unshackling the Muslim world is an ambitious effort that will require an array of allies, Westerners among them, if only to deal a decisive blow to tribalism," she says.
This is powerful, valuable stuff. Manji is giving us a means to level much-needed criticisms against Islam without entangling ourselves in charges of religious bigotry or racism. It's not Islam that's at fault for so much carnage in the world, we can argue, nor is it the Arabs, rather, it is the fault of "desert Islam" -a corrupted version of Allah's will which, rooted in archaic tribalism, is dragging the entire Middle East into a moral, economic and cultural morass. CAIR, academics, European intellectuals and other multicultural apologists for tribal oppression may squawk, but it is high time we initiate an "Operation Ijtihad" against them as well. Or as Manji puts it, when it comes to curbing our outrage over the barbarities excused by "desert Islam," "Non-Muslims do the world no favor when they hit the moral mute button."