Usually, It’s Tribalism that Matters

Posted in: Reflections Articles

Bart Binning, Ed.D.  “Usually, It’s Tribalism that Matters” – 11.18.14

There is neural evidence that humans interact with each other based on a tribal paradigm. Research by Robin Dunbar, Peter Killworth, and H. Russell Bernard suggest that the human brain can effectively interact with between 150 and 290 individuals. Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point concludes that the human brain is wired in a way that works with a small number of people, and once the limit is reached, hierarchical schemes or stereotypes are required to understand larger groups.

As transportation and communication technology increases the number of people with whom we interact, changes are required to compensate with our instinctive tribal paradigm. Judeo-Christian societies tend to choose Cultural Pluralism and democratic political institutions. Followers of Confucius, Machiavelli, Mohamed and others have historically chosen autocracy or theocracy with Muslims historically embracing the Caliphate as a religious/political institution.

It is suggested that many world conflicts may be traced to fundamental difference of tribalism, cultural pluralism, and theocracy.

Tribalism – can be defined as a “way of being” based on individual relationships of kinship and/or mythology in which tribal members have few significant political or economics distinctions, but they have a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates one member of one tribe from a member of another tribe. Members of one tribe tend to identify themselves with their language’s word for “people” or “human being,” while referring to others as being less than human.

A tribal society deals with large numbers of people though familial clans. Tribal societies tend to be agrarian, livestock herders, or a combination of the two, with common ownership of land. The tribe’s (and clan’s) chief is often elected. Historically, tribes view the land as being owned by the community (or clan) with the chief’s primary duty being a steward of the land.

Cultural Pluralism – is largely a Judeo- Christian, Western concept, where smaller groups within a society can maintain their unique cultural identities, values and practices, provided they are consistent with the laws and values of the society’s dominant culture. In this context, Multiculturalism is Cultural Pluralism without a dominant culture, and has been the official policy of Canada, Mexico, and the most of the European Union, since the 1970’s. It is suggested that a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement for a successful pluralistic society is the society’s expectation of social integration (the process of accepting new members into the group/society), rather than cultural assimilation (changing new members to exhibit the characteristics of another group).

Caliphate – is a state whose primary basis for government is Islamic religious law (sharia) with a “Caliph” being the supreme religious and political leader. As such, the Caliphate is The sovereign state embracing all Muslim tribes, with the Caliph being the successor to the Prophet Muhammad’s position as the supreme political, military, and administrative leader. Historically, the Ottoman Caliphate began around the time the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453. The Christian Orthodox Church was allowed to maintain its autonomy and land, in exchange for accepting Ottoman authority. In the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1775, large territories of the Ottoman Empire were ceded to the Russian Empire, with the Caliph retaining spiritual authority over the Muslims in the ceded territories, and the Russians becoming official protectors of Christians in the Ottoman territories. The Ottoman Caliphate lasted until 1924, and was the last of the Caliphates until 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the name and title of the Caliph Ibrahim, and declared himself the head of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Historically, the Levant consists of Cyprus, Israel/Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and parts of southern Turkey.

Moving beyond Tribalism – It would appear that a major source of the world’s conflicts are related to changes in society required when Western countries set national boarders and established associated western style institutions without regard to tribal influences and without a process to establish cultural pluralism. For example, most of Africa is tribal. Within some tribes there are clans that are Muslim, Christian, and a few have been Jewish. Yet, when Christian South Sudan was separated from Muslim north Sudan, tribal warfare continued – warfare, which is largely based on issues of tribal communal land ownership rather than religion.

One way to address the issue of tribalism’s communal land issue is to transfer title to the individual. Another way is to adopt a communist political system where there is no private ownership of land. For example, Peru’s Shining Path was a Maoist guerrilla movement that started in the 1980’s in the highlands of the Peru’s Ayacucho Region. The insurgent conflict was based on issues of land ownership rather than political philosophy. Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, in his book The Mystery of Capital, notes that once Peru instituted land reforms that provided a mechanism for indigenous tribes to obtain clear title to their communally owned land (rather than having title usurped by government officials) support for the Shining Path evaporated.

Tribalism in the Mid-East – The questions of how multiple tribal identities transform into a national identity, and a national identity becomes a political state (nation building) is of particular interest in the mid-east. On May 19, 1916, representatives of Great Britain and France secretly signed the Sykes-Picot agreement in which most of the Arab lands under Ottoman rule were to be divided into British and French spheres of influence. This agreement, and subsequent treaties at the end of WW I, lead to the establishment of national boundaries, ignoring the interests of religious sects (tribes) such as the Alawites, Jazirans, Kurds, Assyrians, and Palestinians. In December 2013, Romain Caillet of the Carnage Endowment for International Peace, reported that a primary goal of ISIL is to reject the political divisions established by the Sykes–Picot Agreement as it absorbs territory, initially in Syria and Iraq.

Nation Building – It is arguable that the western concept of Nation Building is, in part, the process of inculcating cultural pluralistic concepts into tribal societies. It is also arguable that the failure to perform nation-building tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan has lead to a continuation of tribal conflicts with religious overtones.

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