Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

It’s Not Just Islam, It’s the Tribal Mentality

by Bruce S. Thornton // FrontPage Magazine

Photo via FrontPage Magazine

Photo via FrontPage Magazine

The “nothing to do with Islam” mantra took a hit recently in one of the premier organs of liberal received wisdom, The Atlantic. Many have greeted as a revelation Graeme Wood’s article on the Islamic doctrines behind ISIS’s atrocities. Regular readers of FrontPage and Jihad Watch will not be as impressed. For years they have understood the link between jihadism and Islam. In 1994 Andy McCarthy made this connection when he prosecuted the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing the previous year, a connection that the FBI ignored or discounted at the time––a failure, by the way, that has become a pernicious tradition for those charged with protecting our nation’s security and interests. For everyone else who has been paying attention to the rise of modern jihadism, Wood’s article is a dog bites man story.

One can hope that perhaps now, with the truth revealed by one of the Acela corridor’s oracles, the jihad deniers will wise up, though I wouldn’t bet on it. Unexamined opinions comprise the bulk of the progressive mind, and are notoriously resistant to empirical evidence and sound argument. But the current mess in the Middle East results from more than just Islam and its traditional belligerence, supremacist pretensions, and illiberal religious laws and doctrines. These characteristics reflect variations on the mentality of the tribe, one antithetical to modernity and the principles of liberal democracy, and still powerful in the Middle East, the region once described as “tribes with flags.”

For all the differences among tribal peoples, the components of this mentality are consistent, from the ancient Gauls and Germans Caesar conquered and the Vikings terrorizing much of Europe, to the American Indians the U.S. Cavalry fought and the jihadist gangs rampaging in the Middle East.

First, there is little notion of a common humanity that transcends ethnicity or culture. Universal principles are scarce, and personal identity is found solely in the collective customs and traditions of the tribe. Outsiders are to be distrusted, plundered, or conquered when possible. Loyalty is not to principle, but to blood. Most tribal peoples consider their tribe the acme of humanity, the only genuine humans. Hence their word for “human” is usually identical to the name of their tribe. They are literally ethnocentric.

Second, violence, particularly against outsiders, is an acceptable instrument for resolving conflict and asserting tribal superiority. Not just the violence of war, but also the cruel torture and slaughter of outsiders, including women and children, are legitimate for serving the interests of the tribe. Indeed, what we call terrorism was a tactic of tribal warfare to prevent a full-scale war by so terrorizing enemies that they would give up without a fight, a phenomenon common in the various Indian wars of American history. Hence the scary face-paint, tattoos, war cries, bizarre hairstyles, tortures like scalping, mutilation of enemies, or slaughter of their women and children, all of which are meant to frighten and demoralize the enemy. The same intent explains the blustering threats, braggadocio, and insults typical of tribal warfare and diplomacy. These practices can be documented in tribal societies from the Iroquois to the ancient Gauls.

Next, loyalty in tribal societies counts only for those within the tribe. Alliances with other tribes or peoples are ad hoc and contingent on the immediate interests of the tribe. They can be abandoned or betrayed if circumstances or perceptions change. Moreover, respect for others beyond the tribe is based solely on their capacity to inflict violence on their enemies. The “strongest tribe,” a status based on its effectiveness and success in conflict, will attract allies, who will abandon the hegemon once it loses that perception of its strength. Thus during Caesar’s wars in Gaul various Gallic and Germanic tribes would ally with the Romans when they appeared dominant, and betray them in an instant if they thought them weak. Likewise during the U.S. Cavalry’s wars against the Plains Indians, many tribes victimized by the Sioux or Apache or Cheyenne would ally with the Americans if they seemed to be winning, then switch sides the moment they seemed weak.

Finally, tribal societies are centered on the male warrior and his honor. Forget the Women’s Studies fantasies of matriarchal tribal societies. Tribal cultures privilege males, for men fight, and the survival and honor of the tribe depends on martial valor. Women bear children and work, as the skeletons of pre-contact American Indian remains demonstrate. Female bones show much more damage from hard physical labor than do male. This doesn’t mean that women had no status within the tribe, or did not enjoy somewhat more equality than women in more sophisticated civilizations. But warrior males still dominated, and culture in the main centered on men and their prowess in war, which earned honor, what we call prestige, for the whole tribe.

Sound familiar? It should, for Islam in part is the “theologizing” of the tribal mentality. Islam’s important innovation was to redefine the “tribe” as the whole umma of believers, creating in effect a “super tribe” that transcends mere blood as the bonding agent. But the tribal warrior ethos persists–– in the doctrine of jihad, tribal atrocities in contemporary terror and its gruesome videos, the privileging of men in polygamy, honor killings, and social restrictions on women, the disdain for the infidel “other” in the Koranic belief that Muslims are the “best of nations,” the betrayal of alliances in the religious sanction of lying to infidels (taqiyya), and the obsession with “honor” that today we find in violent Muslim reactions to “blasphemy” against Mohammed or the Koran.

Ignoring the tribal mentality is as dangerous for our foreign policy as downplaying Islamic doctrine. The chronic disorder in northern Iraq today is not just about the Sunni-Shi’a divide, or ISIS’s dream of a caliphate. It also reflects the bewildering number of tribes and clans in the region, whose complex alliances and enmities continually shift depending on circumstances and the perceptions of which tribe is the stronger. Our ally today can instantly become our enemy tomorrow. Factions that appear “moderate” today can become jihadist terrorists tomorrow. Our “friends” will tell us what we want to hear today, and then betray their words tomorrow. Most important, anything we do that creates the perception of weakness––especially concessions, or failure to inflict revenge, or acts of mercy––will also damage our prestige as the “strongest tribe” and invite tribes to abandon us.

These tribal practices defined most peoples, including Europeans, before the advent of modernity. They have survived among Middle Eastern Muslims because they were encoded in religious doctrines that promise global power for the tribe of the faithful in this life, and paradise in the next, especially for jihadist warriors. This amalgamation in part explains the spectacular success of Muslim warriors for a 1000 years, a record of martial achievement the memory of which today fuels the resentment and anger of those Muslims who wish to restore that lost honor. It also contributes to the difficulty of many Muslim societies to reconcile with modernity, particularly liberal democracy and its cargo of human rights, confessional tolerance, and equality for women and those of other faiths.

Of course, worldwide millions of Muslims have managed to transcend tribalism and adjust their faith to modernity. But millions more haven’t, and it is they who are fomenting most of the mayhem and murder on every continent except Antarctica. Our tactics and strategies in confronting this threat must indeed be based on a correct understanding of the spiritual imperatives that motivate the jihadists. But they also must take into account the tribal mentalities that respect force and honor the strong.

The Obama administration’s serial appeasement of Iran––currently the “strongest tribe” spreading its influence throughout the region–– has damaged our prestige among allies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, who are already shopping around for a more reliable and forceful partner. If we want to destroy the jihadists, check Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and protect our interests, we must again become the “strongest tribe.”

Copyright © 2015 FrontPage Magazine. All rights reserved.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

12 Thoughts on “It’s Not Just Islam, It’s the Tribal Mentality

  1. You got it dead on.

    Hopefully, our next Prez. will understand what you just stated and act accordingly as this current one is a hopeless appeaser, if not a very cunning mis-information master working on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood!

  2. That “millions of Muslims have managed to transcend tribalism” would seem to me the best awareness Americans might support to build a more peaceful foreign policy. Our national interests are perhaps better served through assisting and aiding in the emergence of a peaceful Muslim alternative to tribalism everywhere, especially in political parties. The tribe is ready to expand once more into the global ummah…demonstrating peaceful, non-violently for common goals we all share. “Arab Spring” needs to be a re-usable template openly promoted by global communication enhancements. Arab Spring was after all the, a protest against unlawful expansion of authoritarianism by an elected president exceeding his constitutional limits. Several died leading to what we in the west saw as the culmination of an eventual, peaceful Arab Spring.

    OUR OWN ATTEMPTS AT ARAB SPRING TURNED INTO A TRANSPARENT RUSE BY SHADOWY ELEMENTS

    Misguided military men in the US tried to run our own American Spring. The last effort to do so was taken over by the hard right Militia Tribe bathed and nurtured with it’s unique prayer inside the fundamentalist tribe inside Christianity only to see its calls rebuffed. Calls for 15-million persons to shut down Washington D C became calls for 10-million protesters, then 1-million, then the reality of demonstration day shrank to dozens to a few hundred at best. American Spring seemed to backfire as a result.

    PEOPLE ARE SMART. LIBERATE OURSELVES PEACEFULLY BECAUSE GOVERNMENT WON’T

    People seem to know they have to liberate themselves because government won’t (or can’t) and violent demonstrations backfire. Governments seem good at facilitating but terrible at actually liberating mankind. We replace a WWII Nazi threat with an emergent, aggressive predatory form of capitalism which is somehow strangely identical to the WWII Nazi threat. The dominant elites today seem to form their own tribe… and you and I don’t get to manage it, not even through our congress. The only tool we have is some power associated with the internet used in peaceful ends.

    OR CAN WE MANAGE IT?

    Peaceful protesters the world over seek the same things, restrained government, liberty of the masses, open transparency in real time, freedom of commerce and travel. These common desires are all facilitated in the act of protest, by the power of the internet.

    The sooner we enable the student protester anywhere in the world, texting, talking live, and sending videos unhampered into the 4G global Ethernet received by anyone else, the sooner the tribe becomes unrecognizable from your own children.

  3. Gary Westgeest on March 18, 2015 at 12:20 pm said:

    Never cease to enjoy this guy’s thinking and writing.

  4. dupere on March 18, 2015 at 12:37 pm said:

    “” As tensions with Russia spiral, where is NATO””, from reuters. “”” Sequestration cuts put american lives in danger, military chiefs say””, from washington times. General says 8 to 10 years to return Air force to full readiness. 2016 election message—–taxes,employment, freedom from big-government overreach, Security-Security-Security. Barry hussein Obama, his puppet democrats and the corrupt Media, have put The Entire World in Danger. ( and they are to dim-witted to realize it )

  5. libra on March 18, 2015 at 2:18 pm said:

    And before Obama the weak –there was slick willy who just ignored all of the calamitous messages the mullahs and their terrorist armies were sending, And before slick willy and traitor Obama–there was Jummuh cahter who deposed the shah of Iran and brought kohmeni back from Paris to wreak death and destruction upon the world but especial,ly on his own countrymen., the Cole, the first world trade center bombing, the embassy bombings were all tests and the weak uber liberal so called leaders of the strongest country on earth. They just bent over grabbed their ankles and awaited the next attack. Even now–Obama the quisling traitor is giving the gift of nuclear weapons to the Neanderthal mullahs of Iran. The quisling does this as he disses the only ally we have in the middle east–Israel. He should be tried for violating the Logan Act and maybe he should explain where the 350 K he sent to Israel to try to defeat netanyhou came from.. I do not believe the quisling wrote a personal check for the 350k–it came from the taxpayers and was added onto the 18 trillion dollar tab How much more does this quisling need to do before our congress stops him?.

  6. Frank G Morley on March 18, 2015 at 4:36 pm said:

    This article is very insightful. And it really nails the problem (of our understanding this Islamic violence against the West) on the head. We are trying to deal politically with nation states, and the people who are fighting aren’t identifying with these entities at all. Iran et. al. recognize this but we are in the weeds.

    I am living in Africa and see the jealousies and discrimination dealt to those who are out of one tribal clique or another. It seems ridiculous and completely out of my experience as a westerner, but people here just accept it.

    Just look at Zimbabwe and the Indibele vs. Shona distress under Mugabe. Similar problem in South Africa. And I am thinking that the same conditions exist in the northern African states, only worse, such as the Boko Haram (sp.??).

    My take on this is that we exterminate rather than negotiate.

  7. David A. Park on March 19, 2015 at 10:07 am said:

    Terror is suppressed by the application of an even greater terror against it. Reason in negotiations cannot be applied to enemies who not only fail to adopt it but actually despise it as a philosophy. There is some doubt whether or not the will even exists in the U.S. today to actually do what is necessary to defeat such enemies. The first consideration isn’t negotiation or appeasement but the total destruction of an enemy first and foremost. Any consideration of collateral damage, of mercy, of rebuilding must await a victory assured. Anything less is merely the future for the new slaves who lost and survived.

  8. WRFREE on March 20, 2015 at 4:43 am said:

    You know it seems to me the administration’s jihad deniers appear to have the belief that no matter how ISIS behaves ‘we’ are still in control as to the direction the war will take to defeat them.

    Let’s hope under the circumstances Obama isn’t the duped Varus to ISIS’ brutal and calculating army of little Arminius’ one day. If the administration is walking in a forest with this Islam business, it could have Teutoberg all over it.

  9. I have no easy solutions and this article points out why. The current terrorist actions are the same as that which propelled Islam hundreds of years ago. I strongly affirm the insights and summary of the real issues facing a modern western person. Shame based cultures operate totally out of honor and honoring our heritage and tribe.

  10. VDH,

    I think that the late John Keegan would have agreed with much of what you wrote.

    By the way, I was reminded recently about your thesis on the “western way of war”, while watching some footage of the fighting in Iraq. Looking at those brief film clips, it appeared that the fighters were quite content to blaze away with heavy weapons at a distance, without there being any suggestion of a desire to close with their opponents. (In turn that reminded me of something TE Lawrence wrote about Faisal’s arab troops not being suited to assaulting trenches.) Perhaps you might revisit this issue in a future article?

  11. John Lewis on March 21, 2015 at 10:40 am said:

    The list of anti-American acts by the FBI is interesting. My favourite bungle is the case of Qian Xuesen, or Tsien Hsue-shen according to an older transliteration. It was evident from early on that he was an upcoming star of rocketry. The FBI accused him of Communist sympathies and had him stripped of his security clearance. He was then detained for the next five years. Finally he was exchanged for some American pilots which fell into Chi Com hands, and went to China.

    We are talking about Tsien Hseu-she, the father of Chinese military rocketry! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qian_Xuesen Note the photo of Tsien in the company of Theodore von Kármán and Ludwig Prandl, two greats of aerodynamics.

    And no one in the FBI ever suffered for this bungle of bungles. I would have liked to see a few of the directors hanged over this, but – Tsien was just a funny little yellow man.

    What should have been done? Probably nothing – so far as I can see, Tsien wanted to stay in the US, wanted to continue to build a splendid career in US rocketry. Maybe if there was concrete evidence of espionage he should have been warned, and told to give his best stuff to the US. If he was to be gotten rid of, well …. I know you Americans are squeamish about that sort of thing, but your British and Canadian allies are NOT.

  12. Rocco Pirro on March 28, 2015 at 10:05 am said:

    7th Century minds with 21st Century weapons…All they need now is a few nukes to throw around.

    I wonder if old Abraham realized all the trouble it would cause when the threw Hagar and Ishmael out of his tent?

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