Friday, February 6, 2015

The problem is preternatural tribalism, more than Islamic extremism — a reiteration

For years I’ve tried to make the point that jihadi terrorism reflects extreme tribalism, even more than it expresses religious extremism. The point extends from TIMN.

My major effort to call attention to this point was in my paper on In Search Of How Societies Work: Tribes — The First And Forever Form (2007), including via prior op-eds reprinted in its Appendix. Later I tried anew by supporting Steven Pressfield’s efforts at his blog to promote Major Jim Gant’s ideas in his paper One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan (2009). I also brought the point up occasionally in posts here at my blog.

All to such little effect that several years have passed since I last tried to make the point again. Mostly, I’ve just stewed in discouragement.

Lately, however, happenstance at two blogs I follow provided occasions to offer interim reiterations. This post logs my comments from those occasions.

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The first occasion was a post by Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation on “Why Islamists Beat Liberals in the Middle East” at the War on the Rocks blog, August 27, 2014. It observed that Islamism is “an attractive ideology that will almost inevitably supersede the appeal of its secular, liberal rivals.” Moreover, it claimed that “What the Middle East needs right now is a secular force that dreams a secular dream.” This analysis appeared to make sense, but like so many such analyses, it was mostly about Islamism as an expression of religious extremism — the kind of analysis that I now find dulling and discouraging.

So I left a somewhat contrary comment, as follows:
“I constantly read that countering Islamism is the key/top problem. But there are reasons to think otherwise; so let me suggest a different angle, based on a view about social evolution.

“Extreme Islamism has much in common with extreme tribalism. In many regards, religious extremism is an overlay atop a deeper dynamic: extreme tribalism. This has been the case for all sorts of religious extremisms across the ages. Thus, countering tribalism — tribalized mindsets — may be more key than countering Islamism.

“Tribes are the first form of organization behind our centuries of social evolution. Hierarchical institutions, modern markets, and new information-age networks arose later. Each form (and its philosophical implications) has both bright and dark sides; societies can get them wrong as well as right, in ways that affect their usage of the other forms.

“When matters go well, societies advance by adopting and using these forms progressively (T+I+M+N). When matters do not go well — in particular, if leaders make a mess of the institutional and market forms, or if individuals cannot find places for themselves in the institutional, market, or emerging network realms — then people revert to organizing and behaving in terms of the tribal form, often in dark ways.

“No society can do well without the tribal form. It is initially expressed best in families, clans, and real tribes; later in community spirit, civic clubs, and patriotic nationalism; as well as via positive group identities about religion, ideology, ethnicity, and even commercial brands. So, tribes and tribalism per se are not a bad thing — not at all, some is good and necessary.

“But dark sides often show up too, as in urban youth gangs, criminal gangs, sectarian militias, partisan cliques, millenarian movements, charismatic cults, etc. And when people turn darkly tribal, they exhibit similar patterns of thought and action, no matter their religious or other identity: They boldly tout their unique identity. They exalt “us” and demonize “them. They express sensitive narratives about respect, honor, pride, and dignity for themselves — plus revenge and retribution for transgressors.

“Dark-side extremists often coat all this with religious references. But it is their tribal mindset, not their religiosity, that is the driving force. They have selectively reduced their religious pretensions to tribalist tenets. Thus, the “war of ideas” and “countering violent extremism” should be rethought, making extreme tribalism rather than Islamism the key challenge. Or so I’d wish to suggest.” (source)

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More recently, a post by Stanton Coerr titled “Guest Post: U.S. Marines, the Forever Tribe by Stan Coerr” at the Zenpundit blog, January 30, 2015, prompted me to comment as follows, expecting it to be just a one-off side-comment:
“As one who wrote years ago about “tribes — the first and forever form”, I am heartened to read this. The Marines are a shining modern example, blending institutional and tribal principles in positive balanced ways.

“Elsewhere, however, I was disheartened to see New York City police unionists opt to engage in public displays of a negative tribalism, showing institutional and tribal impulses spiraling out of balance. Not to mention other city police.

“One of our country’s key challenges at home and abroad, including for grand strategy, is dealing with the continued rise and spread of so many dark varieties of preternatural tribalism.” (source)
But afterwards, blogger-in-chief Mark Zafranski inquired how I’d characterize ISIS from a TIMN perspective. So I fashioned a long reply:
“Much as I appreciate seeing so many efforts to analyze ISIS (and earlier, Al Qaeda) as a network and/or a hierarchy of some new kind, I continue to believe (as I did with Al Qaeda) that the tribal form is relentlessly at work as well, if not more so. Thus, I’d propose (as I tried with Al Qaeda) that ISIS and affiliates are operating much like a global tribe waging segmental warfare. ISIS and ilk seem classically tribal in terms of what drives them, how they organize, how they fight. Viewing ISIS mainly as a cutting-edge, post-modern network phenomenon of the information age, while not inaccurate, misses a crucial point: Al Qaeda and affiliates are using the information age to reiterate ancient patterns of tribalism on a global scale. The war they are waging is more about virulent tribalism than religion. As I’ve said before, the tribal paradigm should be added to the network and other prevailing paradigms to help figure out the best policies and strategies for countering these violent actors, organizationally and ideologically.  (reference:

“But this is a trying and troublesome point to make effectively, because network and religion paradigms have powerful holds around analysis, strategy, and the media. Heads may nod when I bring up the tribal form and its implications for analysis and strategy, but not many analysts are suited to working on it (anthropology has basically ostracized the concept, and anthropologists would rather argue about it than help out). Moreover, bringing up the tribal paradigm means recognizing the significance of all sorts of negative modern expressions that may make some people averse and uncomfortable (e.g., Fox News broadcasts more tribalists intent on tribalizing than any other network, in my view).

“In contrast, a vast apparatus, indeed a veritable industry, has grown around discussing jihadi extremism and counter-extremism from the standpoint of religion. The religious aspects are undeniably important, but after watching the back and forth among various religious scholars and pundits over many years, I still think that what’s going on is more about tribalism than religion, and that dwelling on religion is not the best way to counter the jihadi movement. Maybe a way to bridge from religion to tribalism in order to root out extremism is to ask: Are you fostering Islam, or are you fostering tribalism? And what do you think your answer means?

“Since this movement has arisen in a part of the world that, in my view, can’t seem to get any of the TIMN forms right in order to construct modern societies — it’s fraught with failed tribes as well as failed states, etc. — I expect that, if ISIS takes hold over territory and consolidates a caliphate-type state, the outcome will be a vicious fascism. Moreover, its options for future expansion may include something new: a global “panarchy” (see Wikipedia article on its original meaning, which is different from recent modern network usage) consisting of semi-autonomous zones and nested enclaves that abide more-or-less the surrounding state/country, but obey the caliphate — an Ummah-state quite distinct from a nation-state. But maybe I’m being too speculative? (But maybe it’s been tried before — e.g., by the Papacy?).

“Elsewhere here at your blog, I applaud Charles’ post about “unholy war”. He too is trying to come up with a way to get beyond the hold of established religious terminology. I have a similar problem with terminology about the tribal form. Since “extreme tribalism” hasn’t quite worked for me, I’m currently trying out “preternatural tribalism” as a focus. Who knows?” (source)
Today I’d say some of those sentences are overstated. The Middle East isn’t exactly a region that doesn’t “get any of the TIMN forms right”. And my speculations that ISIS may be trying to create a “panarchy” and an “Ummah-state” don’t have much substance behind them. But, overall, the above will do for now as a tentative interim reiteration.

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Coda: All religions are tribal to varying degrees — or can be made so. Yet all religions are meant to enable people to transcend their tribalism. This seems especially the case with the three great religions that arose in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Across the ages, each has had its own bouts with extreme tribalism, then finally returned to seeking transcendence. Today, it is painful to watch savagery spread in the name of religion, largely as a result of so many people yearning to be tribal and to behave tribally toward others.

I keep hearing it said that people are being radicalized by Islamist extremists — indeed, I just heard it again minutes ago on a cable news program. And I say no, that’s not quite right; for above all they are being tribalized. And it makes a difference — ideologically, strategically, and tactically — whether what’s going on is more about radicalization or tribalization.

Just take a look at the major recruitment appeals — they’re about achieving identity, belonging, connection, pride, honor, respect, and dignity, not to mention appeals about Us-vs.-Them and revenge, as well as about being part of a grand movement. Those are all traditional tribal appeals, not radical ideas.

[UPDATE — February 20, 2015: According to a recent post at Brookings, J. M. Berger has come around to inquiring “Why religion is not the most useful way to understand ISIS”. He finds that ISIS has much in common with a broad range of “identity-based extremists who claim to be its exclusive guardians”. Accordingly, he says,
“To understand and counter ISIS’s threat and appeal, frame it properly. Identity-based extremism and millenarian apocalyptic cults provide a far more useful framework for understanding ISIS than Islam does.” (source)
This gets close to my argument above, for the identity-based extremist groups he discusses are generally very tribal, whatever their religion.

I’m also reminded that Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013) overlaps well with my argument — though his focus is mainly on tribes in the Middle East, not extreme tribalism as a mindset.]


Timothy Mansfield said...

David, I deeply appreciate that you keep bringing the TIMN perspective to these conversations. The mainstream Islamist perspective seems a little barren both in depth of thinking and also in practical effect.

I was struck in this blog by your statement that anthropology has abandoned "tribe" as an analytical concept. Other than your own work, do you have any advice on who might write about the Tribal form in useful ways?

David Ronfeldt said...

all good to hear. i welcome the encouragement. and i like your question, for it is one i’ve wondered about too. i’ve been collecting materials about it for some time, but i’m still far from going through them and writing a new post. i can offer a few preliminary remarks nonetheless.

right now i’m not aware of any person or center that could do what i’d like to see done. but there are positive signs:

• this past year or two i’ve seen more references to tribal this-or-that, tribes, and/or tribalism than ever before, and across a broader array of domestic and foreign fields. usage is growing and spreading into new areas.

• many expressions indicate that the writer or speakers grasps that the tribal form is a distinctive form of organization, thought, and behavior. he or she is not just using “tribe” or “tribal” merely as a trendy synonym for, say, being partisan or divisive.

• it would help if the writer or speaker could lay out what he or she understands to be the distinctiveness of the tribal form, not just by itself but also relative to (i.e., in comparison to) other major forms. i see only hints that this may be occurring when someone seems to notice differences between tribal and institutional modes of behavior. i don’t expect adoption of the full TIMN framework, but something comparative along those lines would help embed the significance of tribes and tribalism into people’s thinking, so its significance doesn’t just float as a loose concept.

• it would also help if the writer or speaker would view tribes in an evolutionary sense, as a first-and-forever form, whose enduring nature and significance changes as societies progress and/or regress. as with the prior point, this is not happening to the extent i’d like to see, but it is happening better than several years ago.

i hope that helps as a reply. onward.