Tyranny in the Islamic world

Keeping the tribe alive

In this essay, Libyan author Faraj Alasha explains how Arab autocrats use tribal logic to run institutions of state, turning political parties into family clubs and loyalty to the country into loyalty to the head of the ruling clan

The Arabic word for "tribe" – qabila – has the same root as the particle qabla, which is used to denote everything that is prehistoric: the pre-urban age, the pre-civilisational era, etc. Tribal life means primal life; life in collectives, families, clans and traditions; life in a pre-political, pre-ideological, pre-state environment.

If, as assumed by modern civilisational philosophy, the history of the city is the history of the mind and the city is essentially the home of mental and institutional rationality, then the history of the tribe is a history of mythology and legend, a history in which the village dominates everything and everything is subject to the changing of the seasons, the lunar calendar and the rain, where all that one has is all that soil, animal and loom provide.

In this world, everything is in God's hands and hinges on his bounty or his wrath, the source of fertility and drought respectively. The thing that keeps the tribal community together in all this is the concept of the shepherd and the flock, whereby the shepherd is the one who protects his flock and dictates to it. To this end, the shepherd provides pastures and water and guards the sheep with his hounds.

Tribal tyrants

The official biographies of clan tyrants such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Gaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh all sing the praises of each of these men for having tended sheep as children, just like the Prophet Muhammad.

Libyaʹs former dictator Muammar Gaddafi (photo: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images)
Of honourable shepherds and despots: the official biographies of clan tyrants such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Gaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh all sing the praises of each of these men for having tended sheep as children, just like the Prophet Muhammad. Gaddafi even wrote a book "The village… the village… the earth… the earth and the suicide of the astronaut", which presents rural tribal society as the romantic ideal, while associating modern city life with all that is negative

Tribal structure is simple and prehistoric. Based on oral tradition, it is kept alive by signs, symbols, signals, places and objectives. Its narratives are consistent and strict. Nothing breaks through its socio-cultural oral heritage and its unquestioned, habitual activities with regard to way of life, methods of production and oral cultural traditions – all of which remained unchanged for centuries until the dawn of the Age of Colonialism and Oil.

It was only the surreal geological coincidence known as oil deposits that turned everything upside down. Before the discovery of oil, tribes (e.g. on the shores of the Persian Gulf or in Libya) relied on water and pastures for their survival and produced their food themselves by keeping livestock and raising crops. The most complex instrument they possessed was an animal-drawn plough. Their children listened by candlelight to their grandmothers telling stories of demons and the daughter of the sultan and the heroic deeds of Abu Zayd al-Hilali.

Indeed, all was as it was in the days when the medieval sociologist Ibn Khaldun wrote: "Co-existence and co-operation [of tribes] for work, the construction of dwellings and the production of food extends only as far as is necessary for life and survival without ever going beyond that and without them being in a position to do more."

Power through authority and violence

With its principle of tribal cohesion on the basis of kinship and ancestry, the clan society, which was suddenly transformed into an urban society by the influx of petrodollars and population grown, fed like a parasite on the modern city-state system, which is built on institutions that in turn are built on authority. This authority is based on the distribution of responsibility, on clearly defined regulations and on constitution, the law and justice. It is the opposite of the personified authority in the form of the strength of an individual, the shepherd or the sheikh, who is basically responsible for everything.

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