Culture and Conflict in the Middle East
by Philip Carl Salzman
(Amherst, NY, Humanity Books, 2008), 224 pp.

Reviewed by Joseph Morrison Skelly, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, College of Mount Saint Vincent, United States Army Reserve

While serving with the United States Army in Iraq, this reviewer shared an insightful conversation with two local women who suggested that I stay in the country after my tour of duty ended. “Yet where would I live?” I asked. “With us, you can join the al-Joubouri tribe,” said the first woman. “No, live with us, the al-Tikritis,” insisted the second (obviously, she was a Sunni). Struck by a flash of inspiration, and hoping to promote national unity, I exclaimed, “I will join the al-Iraqi tribe!” Appreciating my effort, both women smiled. Then the first remarked, “Good idea, but, no, you must join my tribe.”

The persistence of the tribal loyalties of these Iraqis is illuminated by Philip Carl Salzman, professor of anthropology at McGill University, in his superb new book, which “explores the contours and consequences, both liberating and restricting, of Arab culture, as an opening into Middle Eastern life.” He is concerned with how societies in the region maintain stability, and concludes that “Arab culture addresses the universal problem of order and security in an ingenious and time-tested fashion,” namely, by relying on the central organizing principle of “balanced opposition.” This means that “everyone is a member of a nested set of kin groups, from very small to very large. These groups are vested with responsibility for the defense of each and every one of its members and responsibility for the harm that each and every one of its members does to outsiders.” It is not a scenario pitting man against man, but “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.” In short, “The thesis of this book is that balanced opposition is a dominant theme in Arab culture and a central structure in Arab society.”

One set of opposites is tribe and state. Essentially, Salzman argues, “Balanced opposition, a decentralized system of defense and social control characterized by self-help, is a ‘tribal’ form of organization. Tribes operate quite differently from states, which are centralized, have political hierarchies, and have specialized institutions – such as courts, police, an army, with tax collectors providing the means for support – to maintain social control and defense.” In the past, “Members of tribal societies understandably resisted being incorporated into states, preferring their independent and egalitarian communal lives to exploitation by an arrogant and brutal elite.” This attitude still percolates today, and, throughout the course of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, the author peels back layers of modernist assumptions to map the tribal topography of the Middle East.

Salzman elaborates upon his thesis in a series of compelling chapters on topics such as peasant and nomadic life, security and defense, honor and rank, tribal organization, tribal-state relations, and contemporary case studies. Having written previously about the Baluchi tribesmen of Southeastern Iran (Black Tents of Baluchistan), in this volume he travels to Yemen, among numerous other places, to trace the differences and similarities between the hadr (settled farmers) and the bedu (nomadic herders). Salzman finds “[i]n spite of the dichotomy between hadr and bedu, there was continuous movement of people between country and town.”

Three vital “social mechanisms made this possible:” a tradition of “safe conduct,” religious sanctuaries (or hawtah), and religious mediators. This type of interaction has led to a blurring of traditional lines in some locales. It means that while most “peasants are cultivators, and most pastoral nomads are tribesmen,” in certain regions “there are some pastoralists who live under the control of the state and can rightly be considered peasants” and “there are cultivators who live largely independent of the state, and who participate in tribal structures.”

The author also utilizes his anthropological approach to explicate one of the overriding social values of the Middle East – honor. In a compelling section of his book, he discusses the personal and collective dimensions of this Arab preoccupation. “Honor,” Salzman writes, “is deemed to reside with those who are able to maintain their equality, independence and freedom. This is true for both individuals and groups. Subordination of any kind results in a loss of honor and a sense of shame. Subordination is regarded as a loss of manhood, as manhood and manly virtues—assertiveness, strength, courage, tenacity, endurance, and capability—are equated with honor. As the Arabic proverb puts it: ‘He who rules over you, emasculates you.’” In this way, “relations between individuals and between groups are shaped by the competition for honor. This is no less true for the settled and urbanized Arabs as it is for the nomadic Bedouin in the desert, no less true for farmers, drivers, wholesalers, and craftsmen as it is for camel herders.”

Salzman is interested in the broader implications of his research, or “the consequences of balanced opposition for other aspects of Arab society and culture.” It certainly poses a challenge to state-building. How so? Its “particularism of loyalties is not consistent with a universalistic normative frame, for example, a constitution of rules which is inclusive, applying equally to everyone. Balanced opposition is rule by group loyalty, rather than rule by rules. Factionalism is the norm; there is a constant fission into smaller groups in opposition to one another, and fusion into larger groups opposed to one another. This structural contingency too is inconsistent with constitutional rule in which rules apply to all and are upheld by all at all times.” Salzman has done us a service by pointing this out, by reminding us of how the “cultural frame of complementary opposition in the Middle East thus underlies many of the difficulties in building a civil society, establishing democracy at the state level, maintaining public support for state institutions, founding creative educational institutions, inspiring economic development, and building an inclusive public culture in the Middle East.”

Still, while tribalism presents real challenges to modernity in the Middle East, it need not be the region’s unending destiny. During a recent seminar in New York City on Professor Salzman’s book, Dr. Daniel Pipes, the Director of the Middle East Forum, pointed out that the past is not necessarily prologue: after all, at the turn of the last century Asia seemed consigned to an eternity of underdevelopment, but has recently enjoyed decades of accelerated growth. The course of history may change in the Middle East. But first the region must clear the hurdles ahead, which this serious study reminds us of, and why Dr. Pipes calls it one of the “most important books I’ve read during nearly four decades of studying the Middle East.” There can be no finer endorsement.