Monday, November 9, 2009

Tribalism, conquest and the benefits of canon law

That the Middle East is a region subject to regular conquest (both external and internal) has long seemed to me to be crucial to understanding the current Middle East. There is a sense in which it is a region whose volkerwanderung never ended.

Ibn Khaldun postulated regular conquest of urban centres by tribal peripheraries as being the central dynamic of history. A recent review essay of a new book (which I reviewed here) on tribalism in the Middle East puts ibn Khaldun's model well:
… outlying tribes tied together by traditional kinship solidarities conquer, settle, and rule a state. In time kinship loyalties loosen, the rulers urbanize and grow effete, their state loses control over distant tribes, and the cycle begins again.
Regular conquest means regular "institutional flattening". One never moves out of the pattern of the predatory state:
… traditional Middle Eastern states are more like magnets, exerting force on territory near the center, while losing power with distance. The Ottoman Empire (and the British) ruled the tribes loosely, demanding an annual tribute but generally leaving them to govern themselves. ... The traditional relation of the state to the peasant, notes Salzman, "is that of the shepherd to his flock: the state fleeces the peasants, making a living off of them, and protects them from other predators, so that they may be fleeced again." Salzman asks us to think of traditional states as "cliques determined to impose their power for the pleasure of dominance and the profit of extortion."
I would argue it is no accident that it was civilisations on the unconquered fringes of Eurasia (Western Europe and Japan) which developed remarkably similar institutional arrangements, creating or speedily adapting modernity. States constantly confronted with the danger of pastoralist conquest (Russia and China) developed unifying autocracies in self-protection (not entirely successfully in the case of China, given two of its last three dynasties were conquering pastoralists) which proved somewhat less adept at dealing with modernity.

The problem for the Eurasian autocracies was, if central power became limited, the whole structure became susceptible to conquest. There wasn't the sustained social space to develop the dense web of institutional balances that generated modernity. Indeed, both Co20th Russia and China were then subject to internal conquest by a centralising ideology that engaged in yet another (and particularly virulent) round of institutional flattening. Leninism wasn't a release from the cycle, it was a particularly vicious manifestation of it.

So the history of the Soviet Union conformed to Ibn Khaldun's model of predatory rule. First, a group bound by common feeling (asabiyyah) seizes power (Lenin), then the ruler separate himself from the original group to entrench his own power (Stalin), then the system slowly decays as group solidarity fades and corruption erodes social resilience and regime power (Khruschev to Chernyenko) until it finally collapses (Gorbachev).
This wider pattern of vulnerability was particularly strong in the Middle East. The stagnation of Islam is a striking feature of modern history. To take a particularly emphatic example; in 1450 Gutenberg created the first movable-type printing press in Europe. By 1500, over 200 cities and towns in Latin Christendom had printing presses. The first printing press in Muslim North Africa was not set up until 1832. It took a few years for the printing press to reach the Christian side of the Mediterranean, a few centuries for it to cross to the Muslim side.

There is something in the argument that natural law theory (the notion that God was a "constitutional monarch" who conformed to set rules in dealing with his Creation) gave Latin Christendom an intellectual advantage, particularly in the development of science, over an Islam where the mainstream view became that any such suggestion was an unreasonable limitation on Allah's absolute sovereignty.* But it was an advantage that Latin Christendom shared with Orthodox/Greek Christendom without having much in the way of beneficial intellectual and technological effects for the latter. Favourable institutional structures seem more important. Though that Islam had a single legal model (sharia) while Christendom was free to develop a much greater variety of legal models meant that Christendom had a wider range of possibilities for the selection processes of history to work on.

Confronted with regular conquests and states that were either strong and predatory or weak and predatory, the social response was the "balanced opposition" of tribalism. A network of lineages, tribes, clans and families that provide shifting networks of support to provide protection and status.

Which leaves the state marooned from positive associations:
The Ottoman Empire (and the British) ruled the tribes loosely, demanding an annual tribute but generally leaving them to govern themselves. To a remarkable extent, this holds true today. While the precise degree of centralized power ebbs and flows, tribes living in what are often quite large territories on national peripheries exist largely free of state power.
Far from viewing this as a disability, Middle Eastern tribesmen consider life beyond the state as the surest way to avoid dishonorable submission. Statelessness is an essential condition of dignity, equality, and freedom.
With all the strife that "honor codes" involve. And the pull of such codes is very strong:
Even when an individual is inclined toward modern attitudes, the need to protect the honor of the group draws him back to tradition. Salzman tells the story of a Druze serving in the Israeli army who shot and killed his sister to preserve family honor.
The young woman had lived in America for several years and returned to visit her family wearing Western garb. Her brother was inclined to ignore this, until his uncle's loud complaints about their endangered family honor were heard by the neighbors. Salzman's point here is that honor depends less on the action itself (e.g., wearing earrings) than on public knowledge and response. What's notable, however, is that the key characters in this honor killing are a relatively modernized young man and his sister. Experience in the Israeli army and time in America had worked a change on both. Yet the responsibility of each individual for the honor--and therefore the safety and prosperity—of the group as a whole makes it difficult to break away from tradition.
One can see why Middle Eastern Jews fled the newly independent Arab countries in such numbers. There was literally no place for them. No overlapping lineages, no common identity. One can also see how problematic creating Lebanon out of varied groupings has proved to be.

It also gives reason to be grateful that the Catholic Church had such strict rules about consanguinity. It shut off the re-braiding of kinship systems as an alternative source of protection and support in Latin Christendom after the Roman collapse. Instead, much more formal relationships became binding features of social life. Investment in maintaining and improving a common social space slowly and gradually created the dense institutional networks from which modernity arose.

To the extent that we take such things for granted (perhaps too much). It certainly becomes extremely difficult to enter into the mindset where such common social spaces are far more attenuated and subject to very serious competition for provision of basic social order:
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.
Islam is a conquest religion, which is why it proved to be so suitable for a region of conquests:
In a sense, Islam's founding triumph was to raise the stakes of balanced opposition by uniting all the Arab tribes in an ultimate feud against infidel outsiders.
In its first 1000 years, Islam aggressed (generally very successfully: the Reconquista was the only successful sustained counterattack prior to 1683) against every single culture it came up against. It was only meeting more effective predators which brought that to a halt. And the jihadis think it is time for history to revert to its "proper" pattern.

How much the underlying tribal model pervades Islam is a fascinating question. One could argue that Bengali or Malay Islam is a rather different beast because it is in a very different social context. But most of the money for Islamic missionary work (including within Islamic countries) comes from a country where the underlying tribal model is very strong.

Whatever the answer, it is very important to understand the very different understandings of the state and political life that pervade much of the Middle East.

*It is worth noting that the relevant pictures of God conformed to the underlying social understanding of political authority which then likely fed back into said social understandings. This is connected to Avner Greif's point that Christianity grew up in a settled, law-bound Empire while the Prophet (and Islam) had to build political authority.

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