Is Tribalism the Future?

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“This is a far, far away country about which we know very little,” said Neville Chamberlain in 1938 as he declined to take his country to war over Adolf Hitler’s claim to the Sudetenland.

Indeed, Chamberlain knew almost nothing of Czechoslovakia, inside whose borders, set at the Paris peace conference of 1919, dwelled 7 million Czechs, dominant over 3.25 million Germans, 2.5 million Slovaks, 800,000 Hungarians, 500,000 Ruthenians and 150,000 Poles, all of whom had been consigned to Prague without their consent.

Czechoslovakia was an artificial nation, its borders drawn up by Allied mapmakers to compensate the Czechs who had risen up against the Habsburg Empire and helped to defeat the Kaiser.

The world today is like Czechoslovakia 1938, only infinitely more so.

In this young century, America has gone to war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. Belatedly, in all four, we discovered that, before we plunged in, we knew nothing of the complexity of these countries.

Within Afghanistan, dominated by Pashtun in the south and east, are Hazara in the central mountains and Uzbeks and Tajiks in the north.

In Iraq, there are Arabs, Kurds, Sunni, Shia, Turkmen and Christians.

Libya, cobbled together out of the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, is home to 30 major tribes, the largest of which are the Warfalla and Margharha.

A few years back, professor Jerry Z. Muller wrote in Foreign Affairs that World Wars I and II were at root ethnonational wars of Europeans fighting to create nations where their own tribe ruled and their own culture was predominant.

Only when this was achieved in 1945, after immense bloodshed, did peace come to Europe.

Muller predicted that the ethnonational wars of Europe would be replicated across the Third World, as tribes rebelled against alien rulers and the unnatural borders imposed upon them by European imperialists.

He is echoed today by Mordechai Kedar of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam at Bar-Ilan University. Kedar argues that “the fundamental problem characterizing Middle Eastern states is that they have no legitimacy in the eyes of their citizenry because their borders are marked by European colonial interests.

“Great Britain created the borders of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and the Gulf emirates. France was involved in determining the borders of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon. Italy was responsible for the borders of Libya. Included within these borders were ethnic, religious, denominational and tribal groups who, throughout history, were often unable to live together in peace.”

Among the ethnic groups are Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Persian, Berbers, Nubians, Circassians, Armenians and Greeks. The religious groups include Muslims, Christians, Druze, Alawis, Baha’is, Ahmadis, Yazidis, Sabians, Mandeans, Zoroastrians and Jews. The denominations include Sunni, Shi’ites, Sufis, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox. And there are hundreds of tribes, small and large, in deserts, rural areas and cities.

“For a state to be considered legitimate by most of its citizens,” writes Kedar, “it must be the political embodiment of their national, communal, historical and, perhaps, religious desires.”

Only Israel and the small Gulf emirates meet these standards and are perceived to be legitimate in the eyes of their peoples.

His solution: Let the Arab states collapse and break up into small natural states ruled by homogeneous groups.

But Kedar’s description applies beyond the Middle East.

This week, we read of “intercommunal” violence in the Ivory Coast — i.e., a massacre of 1,000 people.

Is this not tribal war of the kind we saw between Yoruba and Ibo in Nigeria, Kikuyu and Luo in Kenya, Mashona and Matabele in Zimbabwe, and Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda and Burundi?

In Peru and Bolivia, ethnic politicians are demanding a redivision of the national wealth with the “indigenous peoples” receiving shares more commensurate with their superior numbers.

Tribalism suddenly seems ascendant over globalism.

Transnational institutions created to bring the world together — the IMF, World Bank, U.N., EU, NATO, WTO, G-8, Kyoto Protocol — are all under stress.

The artificial countries are coming apart. Sudan is sundering as Ethiopia did. Is Yemen next? Joe Biden argued for dividing up Iraq, which may happen when the Americans go.

China, with its crackdown on Tibetans and Uighurs, fears the pull and power of ethnonationalism. Saudi Arabia — by sending troops to aid the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain put down an uprising by its Shia majority — testifies to its us-versus-them view of the Arab world.

People are naturally attracted to the strong horse, not the weak horse, said Osama bin Laden. While democracy has great appeal to Third World peoples, it is often because democracy offers a sure path to power for the ethnonational majority to which they belong.

If Muller and Kedar are correct in their assessment of the eternal appeal of tribalism, America’s model of the ideal society — the more diverse that it is religiously, ethnically, culturally and racially, the better it is — would appear to be more than a mildly risky experiment.

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