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April 26, 2006

Tribes, Veils, and Democracy


Understanding Muslim societies

by Jon Basil Utley

Understanding much of the Muslim world can be helped by reviewing Braveheart, Mel Gibson's classic movie of Scottish freedom fighters. It shows how the clan chieftains were always ready to betray William Wallace and his Scottish nationalists for their narrow tribal concerns, and how the English king could so easily bribe and manipulate them. Such a knowledge of tribal cultures has been missing in Washington.

In chaotic, invasion-prone lands, loyalty to families and tribes was the only way most individuals could have even a modicum of security and safety. The system evolved from man's earliest history. A family or tribe would avenge murder, rape, or theft done to its members. Every outsider knew this and so thought twice about doing possible harm. Clan and tribal support also served as a form of life insurance. Children of dead parents would be looked after. The Middle East, with its open borders and constant invasions, developed the strongest forms of this tribalism long before Muhammad's time. The Old Testament well exemplifies historic tribalism.

The second major reason for tribalism in poverty-stricken societies was to keep wealth within the family. Intermarriage among cousins meant fewer heirs, so wealth was not divided among so many descendants or dissipated to outsiders; marriages were arranged with people who were trustworthy and already known. Love with an outsider would distort clan growth, and every effort was made to keep young women from meeting any strangers. Brutal examples of enforcement are typified by the occasional story of young liberated Muslim women even in Europe being threatened or even murdered by their fathers or brothers for dating outsiders.

Veils first evolved in Iran. The seclusion of women was first reported by Herodotus in his history of the Greek invasions as a Persian custom. Keeping women secluded was also a display of wealth, as it was only possible for wealthier men. The poor Bedouins could not afford to seclude their women, as they needed their work, so veils were much less common.

Thus one can understand how such extremes developed as in Saudi Arabia. Once they became rich, the Bedouins there wanted to emulate their image of wealthy societies and ended up perverting the isolation of women into forbidding restaurants, theaters, dances, sensual music, or even working or studying together, that is any stimulation of the senses or possible ways for men and women to meet other than through their parents. In less strict societies such as modern Iran, women can socialize in some ways, but are forbidden to dress up or show themselves in any provocative way to interest strange men.

In Iraq since the invasion, we have learned that Saddam really ruled through the tribes by bribing or giving special favors to the leaders, much like the English king in Braveheart with Scottish clan chiefs. A tribal elder had authority over his tribe, and it was culturally acceptable for him to control its money and resources. In Saudi Arabia, until recently it was considered traditional for the king to receive and dispense all the oil royalties. But he in turn had the obligation to look after his tribe, and every week he held an audience during which the poorest could visit him and ask for help or money.

The Romeo and Juliette Revolution

An article entitled " Cousin Marriage Conundrum" in the American Conservative explained how some 50 percent of marriages in Iraq were between first or second cousins. (The rate for Americans is .2 percent, while for Pakistanis in England it is 60 percent.) The author argues that the Muslim world never experienced the "Romeo and Juliet revolution," namely the romantic practices through which Europe evolved away from tribalism. Also, in Europe the Catholic Church condemned marriage between first cousins. Yet even a hundred years ago, marrying 2nd and 3rd cousins was still common. The daughter of a friend of my uncle's from England once told me how even until the First World War her father's generation did most socializing with their cousins.

Referring to government and culture, the author explains, "By fostering intense family loyalties and strong nepotistic urges, inbreeding makes the development of civil society more difficult." He quotes Randall Parker:

"Extended families that are incredibly tightly bound are really the enemy of civil society because the alliances of family override any consideration of fairness to people in the larger society. Yet, this obvious fact is missing from 99 percent of the discussions about what is wrong with the Middle East. How can we transform Iraq into a modern liberal democracy if every government worker sees a government job as a route to helping out his clan at the expense of other clans?"

The article also explains how this affects business structures, e.g., "larger corporations tend to be rife with goldbricking, corruption, and nepotism, all because their employees don't trust each other to show their highest loyalty to the firm rather than their own extended families," as well as military actions, where troops mistrust fellow soldiers from different clans. This is a reason Middle Eastern armies are so incompetent. The Ottoman Empire did not even develop limited liability corporate laws, a foundation for wealth creation in Europe, because most business was either government or family. Another side of cousin marriage was constant conflicts and wars. People hated and wanted vengeance against neighboring tribes and clans more than they feared foreign conquest. In America, we once had the Hatfields and McCoys, hillbillies who married their cousins and, similarly, were always feuding. Although clan loyalty is a reason why Muslim lands have been so easily conquered by outsiders, it also explains why they are very successful guerillas. Bravery, loyalty, and trust among families and clans make them formidable fighters, as the British learned long ago in Afghanistan.

Understanding Paradise

Poverty-stricken peoples and those who go abroad to live in alien cultures, e.g. Europe, are also more receptive to fundamentalist religion as a familiar cultural anchor. It was in Istanbul that I first really understood Heaven for early believers. I asked a female Islamic scholar what women would find in paradise, thinking how the Muslim paradise seems focused (to us Westerners) on sensual pleasures for males. She explained how miserable life in the deserts was during most of human history invasions, disease, constant hunger, brutality, dictators, murder, rape "nasty, brutish, and short," in the words of Thomas Hobbes. Just having enough food, living in beautiful green gardens, going to sleep with safety, living with justice, being together with loved ones: that was enough, that alone would be paradise. Such an understanding makes it irrelevant to ask what one would "do" in paradise, much less, as an American child today might ask, if the Internet and cell phones exist there. Even today, this type of paradise can look pretty good for many poor Muslims.

Building Democracy

Building democracy in such lands is obviously a very slow process. It can come about with education, economic prosperity, people intermingling in cities, and so on, but very slowly. This is why the rule of law is now considered by economists to be more important than democracy, why the successful transitions to modern society have only come about in countries where a "good" semi-dictator or ruler has stayed in power long enough to effect the change. "Justice" is a very basic part of Muslim teachings and so lends itself to the rule of law. The modern societies in Asia have all experienced stable government and laws first, then economic development and more freedom.

America's promotion of democracy is all too often framed in terms of elections and majority rule. Rarely do we hear the proponents of democracy in Washington explain about dispersal of power, protection of minority rights, legal restraints on majority rule, and so on. It is, of course, patently ridiculous to argue that because people can vote, usually along tribal lines, as happened in Iraq, that a society is therefore democratic. Instead, strong federalism should be a major objective. An interesting article in the Wilson Quarterly, "Mali's Unlikely Democracy" (spring 2006), explains that democracy is working in Muslim Mali mainly because of much local autonomy.

America can't install democracy in foreign countries, much less with bribes and bombs. What it can do is provide a framework for international rule of law, stability, and an example for foreign nations. Of course, the attack on Iraq has undermined all of this, but America is still seen as an ideal by millions.


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  • Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative and Robert A. Taft Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A former correspondent for Knight Ridder in South America, Utley has written for the Harvard Business Review on foreign nationalism and was for 17 years a commentator on the Voice of America. He is director of Americans Against World Empire.

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