Philip Carl Salzman on the Desert Code: Us vs. Them

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Posted by Marni Soupcoff

To this day, the culture of the Arab world is heavily influenced by its birth among the Bedouin nomadic tribes of Arabia, and the tribal spirit that dominated their societies.

Those tribes maintained order and security through what anthropologists call “balanced opposition,” by which groups hold one another in check through group unity and mutual deterrence. In such a tribalized world, each person is a member of a nested set of kin groups, from very small to very large, defined by descent through the male line. These groups are vested with responsibility for the defence of members, as well as responsibility for any harm those members do to outsiders. This is called by anthropologists “collective responsibility.”

If there is a conflict, everyone unites with closer kin against more distant kin, so that small groups unite to face opposing small groups, and large groups unite to face opposing large groups. It is family vs. family, lineage vs. lineage, clan vs. clan, tribe vs. tribe, confederacy vs. confederacy, sect vs. sect — and, finally, the Islamic community (the umma) vs. the infidels.

This is where deterrence lies, in the balance between opponents. Individuals do not face groups, and small groups do not face large groups. Any potential aggressor knows that his target is not solitary or meager, but is always, in principle, a formidable formation much the same size as his.

Through the doctrine of collective responsibility, each member of the group is implicated in the actions of each other member. All group members may be called upon to fight in order to defend a member in a conflict, or to seek vengeance, or to pay compensation in the case of a group member unjustly causing injury to another.

Of course, many individual group members would rather avoid being dragged into fights or debts by the arrogant assertions, irrational passions, or rash adventures of their fellow group members. So these group members put pressure on other group members to behave cautiously and prudently, and to avoid pursuing opportunities to enter into conflict.

It is common, for example, for older men to urge caution upon the young men who tend to have quicker tempers, and for those group members somewhat more distant in kinship from those directly involved in the conflict to urge prudence upon the close kin, who feel the insult, injury or loss more strongly.

The aggressive strain among Bedouin societies arose from the desire among groups for a larger population, and thus greater military strength; and larger herds and territory, and thus greater prosperity. For young men, raised as warriors, raiding for livestock was seen as a rapid path to socioeconomic advancement within their group. The consequent predatory raiding for livestock and aggressive territorial expansion led to ongoing military conflicts among tribal segments, tribes, and tribal confederacies.

Balanced opposition works, to the extent that it does, because individual members of groups come to the aid of their fellow group members, even at serious risk of injury or loss of life. Why do they do this? For two main reasons: one pragmatic, the other cultural.

The pragmatic reason is the strong belief that the only people who can be counted on for help are members of one’s kinship group. You act to support your fellow members, on the understanding that they will come to your aid when you are in need. This is termed “generalized reciprocity,” and is an expression of rational self-interest.

The cultural reason is that your honour depends upon your living up to your commitments. If you are not willing to set aside your short-term personal interest, your comfort and safety, to come to the aid of your fellow group members, you lose your standing, and are not respected by others. You are avoided as a partner in any enterprise.

Bedouin tribes, like all tribes acting on these principles, operated quite differently from states, which are centralized, have political hierarchies, and have specialized institutions — such as courts, police, and an army, with tax collectors providing the means for support — to maintain social control and defense. While tribes tend to operate democratically, states in the Middle East, and elsewhere until modern times, have tended to rule tyrannically. Those who governed did so in their own interest, and usually at the expense of the general populace. States expanded whenever possible, bringing in more loot for the rulers and their followers, more bodies for their armies, and more peasants to tax. Members of tribal societies understandably resisted being incorporated into states, preferring their independent and relatively egalitarian communal lives to exploitation by an arrogant and brutal elite.

Because Bedouin tribes were the founding population of the Arab world, balanced opposition became a dominant theme in the region’s culture. Countless generations of herding, and of interacting with fellow tribesmen in the desert, put an emphasis on local independence, and the primacy of one’s group. It also emphasized the military virtues of honour, prowess and courage, and the goal of domination of other groups through violence. At the largest geographical scale, this mind-set eventually would come to motivate the wars waged by Muslims against infidels.

The concept of balanced opposition has proven problematic in the modern era. In particular, it has led many in the Muslim Middle East to focus more on who their enemies are — whether they be from another lineage, another tribe, a different Islamic persuasion, or, worst of all, despised infidels — than what possible commonalities they have with their alleged adversaries, and what benefits might accrue from pluralistic co-operation.

When mobilizing against alleged enemies becomes a group’s highest priority, what falls by the wayside is serious attention to the needs and desires of one’s own people, and to the advantages that come from building a modern, post-tribal society.

Philip Carl Salzman is a member of the Board of Directors of SPME. He is the author of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007), from which this article is drawn. This book is available through SPME Mart. Philip Carl Salzman is co-editor of the book “Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israel Conflict

Philip Carl Salzman on the Desert Code: Us vs. Them

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Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman served as professor of anthropology at McGill University from 1968 to 2018. He is the author of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; the founding chair of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences; the founding editor of Nomadic Peoples; and the author of Black Tents of Baluchistan; Pastoralism: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State; Thinking Anthropologically, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; and Understanding Culture.

Read all stories by Philip Carl Salzman