Monday, June 19, 2006

On tribalism

Steven Pressfield has an interesting take on the Middle East in today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Essentially, he does not see us at war with radical Islam, but rather with tribalism.
Islam is not our opponent in Baghdad or Fallujah. We delude ourselves if we believe the foe is a religion. The enemy is tribalism articulated in terms of religion.

For two years I've been researching a book about Alexander the Great's counterguerrilla campaign in Afghanistan, 330-327 B.C. What has struck me most powerfully is that that war is a dead ringer for the ones we're fighting today -- even though Alexander was pre-Christian and his enemies were pre-Islamic.

In other words, the clash of East and West is at bottom not about religion. It's about two different ways of being in the world. Those ways haven't changed in 2,300 years. They are polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable.

It is an interesting piece, and the part tribalism plays in the conflicts of the Middle East should be looked at in more depth by Western nations. The problem is that right now, it doesn't play well into anybody's vision of this conflict, be it the right's or the left's.

Just the same, there are some flaws to Pressfield's theory. First, he seems to be strongly in favor of a Middle East ruled by strongmen in the name of stability. Unfortunately, it is strongmen in the Middle East who have in part led us to where we are today. I think he gets to that point by looking at tribalism in a vacuum, without seeing the uncomfortable overlay of modernity which makes it impossible to address the issue in pure terms of tribalism. Still, he raises some thoughts which are worth further discussion and debate.

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