Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Main Problem in Establishing A Nation-State in Iraq

The main problem is evident, but not so obvious: it is the difficulty in realigning loyalties given to a gens, phratry, or clan to a new holder of authority, an entity based not on family but on location.

Media sources carried the statement that when the Al-Qaeda member Al Zarqawi was on the move, trying to elude US forces, the first question he would ask when going into a new location was (to paraphrase), "What is the tribe?"

This makes total sense, because power rested not in the hands of any provincial government, but in those of tribal leaders, sheiks. The tribes were composed of clans, which were composed of houses, which were composed of extended families.

Those of us in the United States who have difficulty grasping why matters are so chaotic in Iraq simply do not understand and fail to grasp the strength of ancient social organizations. (Now, since we have more information coming our way about Afghanistan, we will see the same problem, but on several orders of magnitude greater. And, a thorough knowledge of ethnology will be required in order to have any chance of success in that "graveyard of empires.")

That a repository of power should be based on blood is, if we think about it, understandable. Anyone who has seen Braveheart has an idea of the strength of allegiance to blood rather than to a remote and amorphous "state." A not too distant example of the strength of tribes as the norm for societal group boundaries can be found by considering how Native American tribes of North America were organized into tribes, that were groups of extended families.

But, we can also look closer to our times for examples of filial loyalty. For one, I would posit that if you go to any rural area of the US, you will find the bonds of loyalty following more ancient rather than contemporary channels: who is your father/brother carries more weight than who is your representative or senator. And, consider Bush I and Bush II...and, possibly, Bush III? The hands working the levers of power bear a strong family resemblance and are an atavistic reflection that which has ruled for many thousands of years.

Interesting, our notion of ruling authority as seen in current governmental structures is based a patriarchal form of power lineage. (This is not surprising, considering the Glass Ceiling and other impediments to women achieving parity in the workforce.) There is much evidence that, in much earlier times, lineage was traced through the mother. Again, this should not be too surprising, as evidenced by a saying in rural parts of Louisiana, "Mama's baby, Daddy's maybe." Why, when, and how did societies move from a matriarchal basis of lineage to that of patriarchal?

I would submit that this change, gradual though it was, came about once humans were able to create wealth that could be acquired, stored, transported, and passed down. The germ for this change lies in the establishment of sustained agriculture. Richard Manning's article, The Oil We Eat, is an excellent treatise which gives a very good account of how packets of energy (read that as packets of carbohydrates...grain, rice) eventually led not only to the creation of wealth but also to the creation of a widely spread group of social classes. Once man could grow his wealth, he realized he could grow even more by employing others.

But here's the rub...once man could acquire wealth, he had a chance to achieve immortality by passing this wealth (legacy) on to his heirs. Thus, the creation of harems, polygamist marriages, and other institutions in which men controlled women in an attempt to increase their chances of knowing who their offspring were. (Recall again that sage Louisiana adage.)

Thus, to get back to the premise of this blog, we won't be able to adequately address the issues facing us in wars of theology where geographical boundaries do not matter (as they did, indeed, in WWI and WWII) as much as ethnological/societal beliefs/practices. We must think in terms of "they" (them, all of them) think, and realize that a solution will not come in a nice little ribbon-tied package. And, interestingly, a side-benefit of such outside the box thinking might be that we might come to a better understanding of our own gender/power issues.

Mike Sledge

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