By Miriam Cooke
02 Aug 2018
During the past twenty years, tribes,
tribal structures, functions and leadership have attracted the attention of
writers in various disciplines, including anthropology, political science, pop
psychology and business. Whereas social scientists argue over the vexed
meanings of tribe and how tribes function in modern contexts, do-it-yourself psychology
and business texts have no problem with these issues.
Their notion of the tribe is straightforward;
it affords a brilliant model for life and economic success. Recently published
mass-market books recommend emulating a formula derived from their definitions
of tribal structure to help individuals and businesses thrive. Dave Logan et
al., for example, assert that effective tribal leadership “helped humans
survive the last ice age, build farming communities, and, later, cities. Birds
flock, fish school, people ‘tribe’… The members of your tribe are probably
programmed in your cell phone and in your email address book… Tribes are the
basic building block of any large human effort” (Tribal Leadership 2008 cited
in cooke, Tribal Modern 2014). For Jonah Goldberg, the tribe materializes a
natural, perennial and universal human desire to belong to homogeneous groups.
There is, he writes, “something deeply attractive” (Suicide of the West:
Rebirth of Tribalism 2018, 13) about cooperation that includes irresistible
urges to exclude, to punish and to vaunt identity.
Our primordial “inner tribesman” apparently
values power, loyalty, reciprocity, and honour, and rejects pluralism because
it “requires tolerance and forces us to open ourselves up to the possibility
that our identity is not the only true or right one” (62). Tribes reject
democracy because it threatens tribal power politics. Theorists validating
Goldberg’s tribe-as-natural argument include: Charles Darwin for whom “The
tribe that works together survives to pass on its genes”; Elias Canetti whose
crowds draw on “tribal passion”; and Karl Marx who had hoped that if “the
workers of the world, bound together in tribal solidarity, they could overthrow
their masters.” Although Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah is not cited, his
notion of tribal solidarity or ‘Asabiya rings loud. These contemporary
and classical writers who invoke the tribe are interested less in the actual
structure and formation of specific tribes, and more in the idea of the tribe.
As a student of Arab cultures, I, too, am
concerned with this idea of the tribe but I understand it to function in an
unprecedented way in today’s Arab Gulf. In Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations
in the Arab Gulf (2014), I analyze the recent emergence of tribal identities as
part of a distinctive geo-political brand that has shot Gulf countries to
international prominence. From an economic perspective, it is noteworthy that
more millionaires are flocking to the UAE than anywhere else in the world.
Between 2003 and 2010, I visited the Gulf
region on several occasions and spent extended periods in Qatar. I was struck
by the oddly harmonious juxtaposition of ultramodern starchitecture and
cutting-edge cultural projects alongside tribal emblems and values. Why, I
wondered, did mega-rich Gulf Arabs intent on rapid modernization and playing an
active role on the global stage insist on their tribal identities? I was
surprised when Gulf Arab students respond positively to my question about
tribal and modern fitting together.
In a situation where foreigners vastly
outnumber Gulf Arabs, the need to distinguish themselves and their rights to
uncontested natural resources has become urgent. The tribal provides the key
distinguishing feature. Tribal in today’s Gulf is not traditional, not
primitive; not natural; not perennial; not anti-modern. The tribal shapes a
unique brand that modern Arab Gulf nation-states are marketing.
How are we to understand the tribal in the
brand? It marks privilege, unique rights to natural resources and citizenship,
but only for those with a pure past. If a pure past free of outsiders does not
exist, it can be created. Heritage projects help to erase pre-national hybrid
ethnoscapes marked by millennia of exchanges between Mesopotamia and Indian
Ocean (attested to by the discovery of second millennium BCE Dilmun seals);
Portuguese; Ottomans; British, Indian subjects of Raj, and French pearl
Pure blood refines this citizenship. The
new, racially determined nation-states hold the monopoly on exclusion that may
include arbitrary revoking of citizenship for those no longer deemed worthy of
membership or absolute denial of citizenship to foreigners whose blood is not
pure. Writing about newly valorized tribal identities in Sub-Saharan Africa,
John and Jean Comaroff explain that when ethnically defined populations
identify stake profit-sharing corporations, “their terms of membership tend to
become an object of concern, regulation, and contestation. And the more they
do, the greater is their proclivity to privilege biology and birthright,
genetics and consanguinity, over social and cultural criteria of belonging”
(Ethnicity, INC. 2009). This is what is happening in the Arab Gulf.
Islam deepens claims to citizenship and its
exclusive right to ownership of oil-rich land and gas-rich sea. In a 2010
survey that my Virginia Commonwealth University-Qatar students conducted with
their peers, the question of where the individual’s tribe came from and when,
often elicited the response: Western Arabia and the seventh century. Tracing
origins, even if indirectly, to the Prophet Muhammad enhanced elite identity.
The tribal constitutes the exceptional
element in Gulf Arabs’ modern identity. How can this tribal be braided with the
modern (too often reduced to Western) in such a way that it engineers the
tribal modern brand?
It is easy to see this braiding in heritage
sites like Qatar’s national museum, which fuses the desert rose with a
spaceship visual, and in sports, where the highly technologised camel racing
that sits comfortably with the FIFA World Cup plans for 2022. However, the
tribal modern brand is harder to theorize. In Tribal Modern, I argue that the
Arab Gulf brand needs to be understood through a new epistemological optic that
I call Barzakh logic. Barzakh is a Qur’anic term that designates
the metaphysical space between life and the hereafter that contains both even
as both are absent. Similarly, suspension, meeting and separation between
tribal and modern characterize Arab Gulf culture today. Retaining independence
and specificities, each shapes the other in a dynamic, cultural-political field
that allows neither compromise nor erasure. The tribal and the modern fashion
the unique identity and power of today’s Gulf Arabs.
Miriam Cooke is Braxton Craven Professor Emerita of Arab Cultures at Duke
University. She has written on the intersection of gender and war in modern
Arabic literature, constructions of Islamic feminism, Arab cultural studies,
Syria, and the networked connections among Arabs and Muslims around the world.
Her recent books include Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf
and Dancing in Damascus: Creativity, Resilience, and the Syrian Revolution.