April 08, 2008

I'm talkin' 'bout jahiliyya, ya khayy

Abu Muqawama and his flatmate, Londonstani, have a running joke about the jahiliyya, which is best defined as the age of ignorance that preceded the Prophet Muhammad on the Arabian peninsula. Whenever we see some girl walking down the street wearing little by way of clothes, we'll stare, shake our heads, (stare a little more) and then remark ironically, "Man, what jahiliyya!"

Drug use, drunkenness, rock 'n' roll, and other forms of debauchery (or fun) get similarly thrown under the category of jahiliyya in our vernacular. Londonstani likes to say that if he tried to explain to his father that there was pornography on the internet, his father would have no idea what he was talking about. But if he said, "Dad, there's jahiliyya on the internet," Londonstani's father would know exactly what he was talking about.

Abu Muqawama thinks about jahiliyya a lot, mainly because he often notes how much crap goes on in the Middle East that has less to do with Islam and more to do with tribal traditions that pre-date the Age of Islam. (Honor killings are but one example.) That's the point of Philip Carl Salzman's new book which is reviewed here in what David Brooks called, today, a "brilliant" review. Abu Muqawama gets as nervous when he reads the phrases "brilliant" and "in the Weekly Standard" together as he does when he reads "military analysis" and "in the New York Times" together. But he must admit that while he doesn't care too much for Stanley Kurtz's predictable jeremiads against the academy in the National Review, he does a nice job with this book review.

With their technologically advanced armies, modern Middle Eastern states may look like they've put an end to the independence of tribes. Yet with tribal rebellions centered in Iraq's Anbar province and Pakistan's Waziristan region, one way to think of the war on terror is as an unexpected recrudescence of classic tribe/state antagonism. ...

Since 9/11, we've understood Islam as the fundamental source of the cultural challenge coming from the Middle East. That has given rise to a strategy of direct assault--an almost Voltairean attempt to deflate religious pretensions in hopes of forcing a change. Islam itself may be a complex extension of tribal culture, yet technically, Islam is defined as something different from, and sometimes antagonistic to, pure tribalism. When Muslim immigrants in Europe debate amongst themselves female seclusion, cousin marriage, and honor killings, reformers argue that these are "cultural" rather than strictly "Islamic" practices. There is truth here and also an opening.

While tribalism is in one sense culturally pervasive in the Middle East, tribal practices are less swathed in sacredness than explicitly Koranic symbols and commandments--and are therefore more susceptible to criticism and debate. Even jihad and suicide bombing can be interpreted through a tribal lens. We've taught ourselves a good deal about Islam over the past seven years. Yet tribalism is at least half the cultural battle in the Middle East, and the West knows little about it. Learning how to understand and critique the Islamic Near East through a tribal lens will open up a new and smarter strategy for change. The way to begin is by picking up Salzman's Culture and Conflict in the Middle East.

Kurtz's review is a little maddening because at one point he suggests that tribalism endures because of Islam -- because it reminds people of society during the time of prophet -- and at another point suggests, correctly, that tribalism is something that exists outside of or contrary to Islamic traditions.

Abu Muqawama isn't sure if Kurtz gets this tension. On balance, he seems to think of Islam and tribalism as one and the same. Islam, however, suggests a community that transcends the old tribal divisions. And that's a powerful idea that Kurtz (almost) gets.