Culture and Conflict in the Middle East

Every so often, one reads a book that clarifies a great deal.  Anthropologist Phillip Carl Salzman’s Culture and Conflict in the Middle East is one such book.  It examines the way tribal-pastoral societies work and their interaction with peasant farmers and state power.  Much history is clarified by Salzman’s analysis, ranging from the Old Testament to the present day Middle East.

Every so often, one reads a book that clarifies a great deal.  Anthropologist Phillip Carl Salzman’s Culture and Conflict in the Middle East is one such book.  It examines the way tribal-pastoral societies work and their interaction with peasant farmers and state power.  Much history is clarified by Salzman’s analysis, ranging from the Old Testament to the present day Middle East.

Salzman analyses Middle Eastern culture (particularly, but not only, Arab culture) in terms of balanced opposition (p.11) arising out of the demands of tribally-based pastoralism.  His analytical model is usefully summarised at the end of the book.  The key concept is balanced opposition (each group of whatever size and scope is opposed by a group of equal size and scope).  It is based on affiliation solidarity (always support those closer against those more distant).  In this structure of who you belong to being defined by who you are against success in competition, conflict, and combat brings honor, while defeat brings loss of honour and shame as it demonstrates the capacity to benefit you and yours.  For loyalty is always defined as support of one’s own group in opposition to another group  (Pp210-1).  Such an arrangement is deeply particularist, a particularism not compatible with formal universalism (p.16).

Salzman basis his analysis in part on extensive field work within the Middle East.  What Salzman calls culture is often what economists would call institutions.  At all times, Salzman is careful to convey the virtues and functionality of the arrangements.  He also strongly defends looking at cultural arrangements in terms of general characteristics, and as having both strength and limitations (Pp206-8).  It is not surprising that, early in the book, there is a short dismissal of Edward Said’s analytical framework – Salzman argues that not acknowledging differences in culture is to project one’s own set of values, ways of thinking and goals onto others but that it is entirely possible to still understand different cultures (Pp 14-15).  We are all human, even if we do think in variant ways.

Salzman notes a fundamental, long-term, pattern of Middle Eastern history as being the waxing and waning of predatory central control (p.13).  Salzman makes a point of noting the predatory nature of the Muslim conquests (Pp139ff).

Even though the tribal pastoralists are deeply integrated into trade based around urban markets (Pp29-30) – a key concern is to maintain herds large enough for economic viability – the tribal pastoralists live in very different social context than the controlled sedentary peasantry, as the peasants are socially atomised while tribal nomads are far more cooperative (in Ibn Khaldun’s term, have high levels of asabiyya) (Pp 31-32).

Pastoralism is based on group and personal property rights (Pp35-36). As both peasants and pastoralists live off their property, its defence is central to social arrangements (p.48).

A key difference is that the sedentary peasants are (generally) much more vulnerable to state activity (Pp39ff).  But the relationship with the state is a complex one – there are controlled pastoralists and uncontrolled farmers (Pp42ff).  Moreover, the boundaries can shift – peasants can flee to pastoralism if state activity becomes too oppressive, or too ineffectual to stop raiders (Pp44ff).

To achieve social order, two different strategies are on offer: “self-help” based on segmented (family, clan, tribe, confederation) lineages or “authority” based on controlled specialists (Pp50ff). 

In security based on self-help, the most efficient defense is deterrence based on an image of cohesive group solidarity and successful bellicosity.  Tribesmen wish to be respected and feared by other groups. (p.57).

These two strategies are not spatially distinct, but interweave and overlap. 

Our map image of countries as large territories delineated by clear boundaries grossly misrepresents reality though much of history and in many parts of the world today.  It is more accurate to think of state entities as centers of power, functioning a bit like magnets, which control areas close to them, but which lose holding power as the distance increases … Between state centers there are marginal regions, often quite large, not under the effective control of the state (p.59). 


states tend to be strongest at their centers and weaker at great distances, and thus tribes on the peripheries tend to be more independent of the state … It would be more accurate to think of states and tribes as alternative forms of organization that shared space and power, compromising to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the circumstances (p.178). 

Even nowadays, tribesmen seek to safeguard their independence by crossing state borders (p.63).

Tribesmen have four strategies for gaining access to the wealth of the state – trade, offering “protection”, raiding and conquest (p.65).  Any or all of these may be used, depending on circumstances.

Various strategies are adopted to ensure lineages are large enough to be viable (p.93).  These are based on intrinsic, internalised and extrinsic motivations (pp102ff).  Marriages are arranged for the benefit of the lineage (p.114) with group solidarity, asabiyya and honour being closely related (p.115). 

Interlineage conflicts arise because people feel they must defend themselves against all threats or become an open target (p.117).

The situation of the sexes is not equivalent.  Men can add to their and the lineage’s honour, women can only detract from either (p.118).  Naturally, in circumstances where one is defined by group loyalty and public perception, it is not the act, but the public knowing of the act that generates shame (Pp120ff).

Men’s honour comes from strength, women’s from childbearing contributing to the rank and strength of the lineage (p.128).  Children and livestock are highly (and rationally) desirable (p.132).  In other words, patrilineal arrangements based around, and designed to generate, male strength lead to male domination, with lower standing for female roles.  Salzman’s analysis make “honour” killings (which he discusses [p.121ff] as part of a wider pattern of control) make perfect sense.  (Such functionality gives the vile practice more staying power.)

The tribal context of Islam

Salzman very much sees Islam as arising out of, and reflecting, this tribal culture of balanced opposition.  The default Islamic attitude to non-Muslims is one of conquest and dominance (p.146).  A dominance universal in its nature, since Allah made everything (p.148).

Thus, Islam is universalist in its aspirations.  Indeed, it is more so than Christianity not only because it is a territorial religion, but because it deems Islam to be the original religion, the religion of Adam and of all the Prophets (p.152).  So Jews and Christians have always been in error, there was never a time when they represented the operating Covenant.  And wilfully in error too, since Submission to God was always possible.  Muhammad is merely the Seal of the Prophets, God’s message was always there. Thus the universalism of Islam is very much a layered universalism (Muslims over non-Muslims, men over women).

In this milieu of being defined by who you are against, Arab rejection of Israel becomes “overdetermined’ being based on conflicting material interests, use of Israel as an external enemy and scapegoat by Arab regimes, definition-by-opposition and challenged honor (p.163).  Attempts to learn from Israel’s success are blocked.  Indeed, the self-image of being religiously superior undermines any pressure for change (p.171), despite the Arab world’s poor performance across a wide range of social indicators (p.194).

Salzman assembles clear evidence of Muslim bellicosity – Muslims are far more involved in intercivilisational conflicts (the “bloody borders” problem) than members of other civilisations, while Muslim states are far more militarised and far more likely to resort to violence – and more extreme violence – than non-Muslim states (Pp172-3).

In this context, inter-tribal politics is “winner take all” with all social contests being zero-sum games (p.184): 

At the top of the ruler’s priorities must be cementing relations with tribal groups and discouraging adventurism.  He does this by constant travel and visits to tribal regions with his impressive entourage to persuade tribesmen of his worthiness as leader and his steadfastness against any challenge.  These deadly serious royal parades take place within a general, agonistic cultural milieu, in which, at all levels, each and every relationship, engagement and transaction is a struggle between parties.  It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, in these circumstances, might makes fight, and the winner is always right (Pp198-9).

The pattern of balanced opposition is so entrenched (precisely because it is functional) that its patterns extend way beyond tribal pastoralism.  

Balanced opposition is not seen here only in the formal structure of tribes, but more broadly in society, throughout the range of social transactions.  At the maximal level, the state apparatus is balanced against the weight of the surrounding tribes, and is constantly trying to keep its balance (p.199).

Arab culture inculcates strong virtues which are, however, not conducive to a formally ordered society.  Turkish and Iranian cultures are both more amenable to the strategy of authority (p.200). 

Rulership based on glory of the ruler, where all deference is humiliation, leads to regimes seen as unjust and illegitimate, hence the regular pattern of religiously-inspired insurgencies (p.201).  Which, even if they achieve power, fail to resolve the problem as they inevitably fall prey to the exigencies and failures of politics – a pattern Salzman sees as currently operating in mullah-ruled Iran (p.202).

If constitutionalism (in the broad sense) and the rule of law are crucial to modernity, then the Middle East has a problem.  For Arab culture in particular lacks the sense of overarching rules and formal structures because the frame of reference is always in terms of one’s own group and loyalty to it (p.205).  This, Salzman argues, is extremely unconducive to democratic rule (p.209).  Which will only prosper if individualism gains more sway against group loyalty (p.210).  For the particularism of Middle Eastern culture precludes universalism, rule of law and constitutionalism, all involving the measuring of actions against general criteria, irrespective of the affiliation of particular actors (p.211).  For progress to occur, Middle Easterners will have to decide what they are for is more important than whom they are against (p.212).

I found Salzman’s book deeply enlightening, both about general patterns of history going back centuries, extending (both spatially and temporally) beyond Islam, and about Islam itself.

Conceptions of God

Building on Salzman’s analysis, since God is the ultimate Authority, conceptions of God reflect the prevailing conceptions of authority.  Thus, if authority is male, God is gendered as male: as He is in all the Middle Eastern monotheisms (Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam).  They are all very much God-the-Father religions.   Judaism and Zoroastrianism are both particularist monotheisms lacking universalist aspirations.  (Very Middle Eastern in a sense – our God is the God of the universe, but He is ours, so there.)  The two universalist monotheisms – Christianity and Islam – arose in very different contexts with very different conceptions of authority and thus very different conceptions of God.

Christianity – growing up within a law-bound Roman Empire – was not originally concerned with political authority and social order (the Romans took care of those) but with moral order.  But the legacy of Greek political thought and Roman order made it natural to think of God as law-bound, as a law-keeper.  Otherwise He was a capricious and wilful tyrant.  So the idea of God as a “constitutional monarch” who kept the laws of His Creation, because a good ruler is law-bound, was natural to Christianity.  In the words of Adelard of Bath in the C12th:

I do not detract from the power of God, for all that exists does so from him and by means of His power.  However, this is not to say that nature itself is chaotic, irrational, or made up of discrete elements.  Therefore it is possible for men to achieve an understanding of this rational order inherent in nature, an understanding as complete as the extent to which human knowledge progresses

Even the conception of the Trinity creates a sense of God as being ordered. 

Conversely, Islam grew up in a deeply tribal society where Muhammad created a political order as part of his new religious order.  A tribal society based on balanced opposition with a radiating pattern of loyalties that get more intense the closer the kin connection. “Me against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and my brothers against the world” as the Arab proverb runs.

In tribal society, honour comes from winning, since one’s loyalties are entirely defined by connection and opposition.  The more complete the victory, the greater the honour – for the greater the triumph over the defining opponent.  So, the greater the domination, the greater the authority, for the greater the honour.  Hence to suggest any limit on the absolute sovereignty of Allah is to impugn His honour.  Even in suggesting that there is any ordering in His will.  Contrast Adelard of Barth’s contemporary Al-Ghazali in his deeply influential The Incoherence of the Philosophers on precisely the same topic as Adelard was writing on above:

our opponent claims that the agent of the burning is the fire exclusively; this is a natural, not a voluntary agent, and cannot abstain from what is in its nature when it is brought into contact with a receptive substratum. This we deny, saying: The agent of the burning is God, through His creating the black in the cotton and the disconnexion of its parts, and it is God who made the cotton burn and made it ashes either through the intermediation of angels or without intermediation. For fire is a dead body which has no action, and what is the proof that it is the agent? Indeed, the philosophers have no other proof than the observation of the occurrence of the burning, when there is contact with fire, but observation proves only a simultaneity, not a causation, and, in reality, there is no other cause but God. 

(Philosophers might note David Hume’s argument on causation being put several centuries before Hume.)

It is not hard to see which view is more conducive to the development of science. But not only the development of science.  For if to suggest there are limits to the absolute sovereignty of Allah is to impugn His honour, then it is an easy step to the jihadi view that democracy is blasphemous because it intrudes on the sovereignty of Allah.  Just as prevailing notions of authority affect the conception of God; conceptions of God, in turn, affect how the world is understood.

Al-Gazali’s view was contested within Islam – Ibn Rushd (Averroes) wrote his The Incoherence of the Incoherence in response.  But al-Ghazali’s view won out because it resonated in Middle Eastern culture.  Averroes was far more influential in the West, because his views resonated among the Christian heirs to Classical civilisation.

It is a great mistake to not acknowledge that Islam is a different civilisation, with different fundamental presumptions, than our own.  Salzman’s book is deeply enlightening about those differences and from whence they arise.

Post a comment