Book Review

Culture and Conflict in the Middle East

Philip Carl Salzman

Spring 2009, Volume XVI, Number 1

In his new book, Philip Carl Salzman, a professor of anthropology at McGill University, builds on and extends his previous work on what he calls “tribal communities” in Iran (Baluchis and Turkmen), Libya (Cyrenaicans), Israel (Druze of the Negev), and Egypt, Yemen and other countries (Beduins) to explain conflict in the Middle East. Salzman’s central argument is that conflict in the region is the result of patrilineal descent groups made up of several families and grouped into two or more clans that are in turn grouped into tribes continually at war with each other. “Family vs. family, lineage vs. lineage, clan vs. clan, tribe vs. tribe, confederacy vs. confederacy, sect vs. sect, the Islamic community (umma) vs. the infidels” (p. 11), he asserts, is the modus operandi of the Middle East.

Salzman starts by explaining that Middle Eastern society — one wonders whether there is such a thing — is family-oriented. He believes that families form socio economic units in which everyone is expected, not only to help his or her family make a living, protect it, and defend it against other families, clans and tribes, but also to maintain its standing so that the success or failure of any member reflects on the whole family. As he puts it, “Each member of the group is responsible for each and every other member and their acts.” This he calls “collective responsibility” (p. 67). Salzman further claims that in the Middle East, political stability is established, not by an overarching political structure, but rather by a delicate balance of power between rival groups of families or tribes, in which everybody makes sure that none of them has the ascendancy and that all of them bear burdens and reap benefits equally. He writes, “balanced opposition serves to restructure confl ict whereby smaller groups oppose smaller groups and larger groups oppose larger groups on the basis of proximity” (p. 68) . He adds that “[t]he genius of a segmentary lineage system is in the deterrence against conflict provided by the combination of collective responsibility and balanced opposition” (p. 79). He concludes that family solidarity and balance of power give a tribe “freedom, equality … and autonomy ” (p. 106), as opposed to other tribes and central governments, whose goals are to expand their control to increasingly broader areas and populations.

Once he explains what he thinks is the Middle Eastern tribal system, Salzman moves on to explain Islamism. According to him, the tribal system of organization did not disappear with Islam, but only shifted from “I and my brother against my cousin” to all of us “against the world” (p. 68). Salzman claims that Islam failed to “replace the central principle of tribal organization, balanced opposition, which was honored in the framing of the Muslim vs. the infidel opposition” (p. 159). Thus, tribalism not only survived the Islamic concept of loyalty to God and lawful rulers, but metamorphosed into Muslims against the rest of the world. In short, the enemy has become global.

Salzman concludes his argument by saying that “[t]he Middle East culture precludes universalism, rule of law, and constitutionalism” (p. 211). Change, he believes, is possible not through the replacement of traditional groups with newly conceived groups, but by the replacement of groups by individuals” (p. 210).

Some of Salzman’s observations about tribes in the Middle East are sound, but his overall thesis has little value. This book is flawed both empirically and logically. To start with, Salzman fails to examine what is distinctive about each country. The term “Middle East” is so vague as to mean almost nothing (since when did Pakistan became part of the Middle East?) In spite of the close geographic and linguistic ties of some of these countries, they have developed different forms of government, culture and institutions. The tribal system that Salzman discusses in his book is somewhat true of the tribal states of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, but it is not true of Tunisia, Egypt or Algeria. Algeria has little in common with Kuwait and Qatar, even less with Pakistan. To turn so many countries into a homogeneous whole and global “other” — to put Libya and Saudi Arabia in one basket — makes little sense from a sociological point of view. It is more polemical than scientific; its purpose seems to be to serve the political agenda of the author.

Second, Salzman overemphasizes the importance of religion in the way North African and Middle Eastern countries deal with others. A case in point is Algeria. The struggle for independence, for instance, was in no way religious. Indeed, several political movements fought for equal rights and independence in the twentieth century: radical nationalists with L’Etoile Nord Africaine, which later became Le Parti du Peuple Algerien under the leadership of former syndicalist Messali Hadj; liberals with Ferhat Abbas; and even communists with Le Parti Communiste Algerien. The contribution of the reformist Islamic movement known as the Oulema movement led by Abdelhamid Ben Badis was minimal. In fact, Ben Badis was for a long time an assimilationist.

Finally, what Salzman says about family and tribal allegiance at the country level may be true of the Gulf States and to some extent Lebanon, but in no way applies to Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Furthermore, tribalism and strong family allegiances may be strong in the countryside but not in cities. It is wrong to generalize them so as to make them the only explanation of the politics of the countries of the region. There may be more ethnic divisions and allegiances in New York City — with its Little Italy, Chinatown, and Black and Spanish Harlem and the Polish and Irish neighborhoods of Queens — than there are tribal and clan affiliations in Cairo and Tripoli.

With regard to the issue of change, Salzman subscribes to a cultural determinism that is difficult to maintain. He seems to argue that the Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait are resistant to change because of their tribal structure. He claims that those countries not only reinforced tribalism but incorporated it into the structure of the state in such a way that any form of democratic change that could end the reign of these monarchies is impossible. Salzman does not acknowledge the fact that the United States and other Western nations have not only tolerated these tribal systems, which they have considered “friendly” regimes, but have offered security and military assistance to resist change because they think it is in their best interest to do so.

These are the most obvious flaws of Salzman’s book. What is most disturbing about it, however, is the multiplication of unfounded and irresponsible statements unbecoming of a scholar, as when he says that Islam is a religion of “enslavement” (p. 142), “killing” (p. 147), “subjugation” and “humiliation” (p. 152), and “degradation” of others (p. 150). Partly out of flawed logic and conceptual confusion and partly out of what appears to be deeply ingrained prejudice, he has turned the Middle East into the kind of bogeyman we are used to in the Western media and its people into a barbarous and backward horde. One would expect better from an anthropology professor.