Why is the Middle East so at odds with modern life, laggard in everything from literacy to standard of living, from military prowess to political development?
A profound new book by Philip Carl Salzman, professor at Mc Gill University, with the deceptively plain title Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Prometheus), offers a bold and original interpretation of Middle Eastern problems.
An anthropologist, Salzman begins by sketching out the two patterns of rule that historically have dominated the Middle East: tribal autonomy and tyrannical centralism.
Tribal self-rule is based on what Salzman calls balanced opposition, a mechanism whereby those Middle Easterners living in deserts, mountains, and steppes protect life and limb by relying on their extended families.
This immensely intricate and subtle system boils down to (1) each person counting on paternal relatives (called agnates) for protection and (2) equal-sized units of agnates confronting each other.
Thus, a nuclear family faces off against another nuclear family, a clan faces a clan, and so on, up to the meta-tribal level.
As the well-known Middle Eastern adage sums up these confrontations, "I against my brother, I and my brothers against my cousins, I and my brothers and my cousins against the world." On the positive side, affiliation solidarity allows for a dignified independence from repressive states.
Negatively, it implies unending conflict; each group has multiple sworn enemies and feuds often carry on for generations.
Tribal autonomy has driven Middle Eastern history, as the great historian Ibn Khaldun observed over six centuries ago.When a government faltered, large tribal confederations would form, leave their arid badlands and seize control of the cities and agricultural lands.Having seized the state, tribes exploited their power unabashedly to forward their own interests, cruelly exploiting their subject population, until they in turn faltered and the cycle started anew.Salzman's tour de force lies in updating Ibn Khaldun, demonstrating how the dual pattern of tribal self-rule and tyrannical centralism continues to define life in the Middle East, and using it to explain the region's most characteristic features, such as autocracy, political mercilessness, and economic stagnancy.It accounts, likewise, for the war of annihilation against Israel and, more generally, Islam's "bloody borders" – the widespread hostility toward non-Muslims.The dual pattern even explains key aspects of Middle Eastern family life.