Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Culture of Tribalism

Lee Smith has a fascinating article in the Weekly Standard that explores the deep religious schisms in Islamic societies in the Middle East. Smith discusses the intense animosity between Sunni and Shiite factions of Islam.

Smith says that Islamic society in the Middle East has come to accept focusing their animus on external entities (Israel, U.S., Western societies) as a way of maintaining a kind of operating truce between Shiites and Sunnis, which see each other more or less as infidels. Smith says that part of the reason many in the Middle East were happy about the demise of Zarqawi is that he broke the rules of the truce. Instead of focusing on external enemies, Zarqawi used the bulk of his vicious terrorism against Shiites, whom he deemed unworthy to live.

By highlighting the centuries-old tribalistic divide between Sunni and Shiite, Zarqawi threatened to undermine domestic peace throughout the region. But that is exactly what Zarqawi wanted, since his ilk sees most rulers in the Middle East as corrupt Western sympathizers. Smith says, “Zarqawi believed, for whatever combination of religious, political, criminal, and sociopathic rationales, that to truly set the region in flames and bring down the established order, you get the people to fight each other.”

The article goes on to discuss how some of the ingrained animosity between the two Islamic factions is demonstrated in every day life and thought. It goes to show that U.S. efforts in the region are necessarily affected by an underlying ugly current that cannot be easily overcome or managed.

In the U.S. we are familiar with bigotry, and we struggle with it daily. But mainstream society has come to see it as immoral. We generally recoil, rather than celebrate acts of bigotry. We have come a long way from the days when violence in the name of bigotry was broadly accepted. We’ve still got problems. But, frankly, most Americans today simply can’t comprehend the idea that someone should deserve to be annihilated simply because they differ in their religious beliefs.

However, it seems imperative that our efforts in the Middle East must be informed by a comprehension of the cultural issues that determine the actions of the populace. The Bush team clearly believes that democratizing the Middle East will go a long way toward creating cultural tolerance. It seems to have worked in other societies, but it didn’t happen quickly in any of them.

At any rate, taming the Middle East must be viewed as a long-term effort that will likely span generations. We don’t even know if the next administration will be willing to forge ahead with this effort, let alone knowing whether future generations will stick with it.

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