Saturday, November 22, 2008

Iraqi Tribes at MESA

This evening I attended the MESA session "Tribes and States in the Early Modern and Modern Middle East: Social Reality, Cultural Identity and Popular Perceptions," which was organized by the University of Chicago's Orit Bashkin. One of the panelists was Reidar Visser, who talked about the tribes in contemporary Iraqi politics. He used the case of the Bani Malik, and particular their influential Al Bu Salih lineage, to demonstrate that tribe had no predictive value for political allegiance.

This isn't terribly shocking to those who have studied Arab tribalism, though I gather it is to policymakers. I did wonder, however, where it leaves us, particularly given Visser's call for the United States and other actors to pay more nuanced attention to the potentially constructive role of the tribe as one element in a number of cross-cutting identities and interests for Iraqi individuals. (Note: That's my perception of what he said, not an exact quote.) In the Q&A session, I asked whether, even if the formal genealogical alignments did not correlate with political allegiance, the broader tribal identities might if correlated with other factor such as geography or location amidst networks of patronage ties so that one could conceivably make an empirical observation like, "The Bani Malik in Nasiriyya tended to cooperate with the Italians." Visser said this wasn't the case. This raises in my mind the question of what role, exactly the tribal identity would play if people were to begin using it in a more nuanced manner.

My entry point into Arab tribalism was my dissertation research, which involved a study of the primary sources on Arab tribes in the early Islamic period and readings in anthropology to get rid of some current understandings drawn from that discipline which I found problematic as they were being applied to my topic. In their place, I wound up borrowing a different anthropological language which explains tribes from the perspective of the individual as a source of assets and options which are, in certain settings, the only ones they have, but in others are supplemented by assets and options provided by, for example, state structures. I apply this understanding freely to contemporary Iraq because the observations on which it was based were all made in the 20th century, and I invoked it in writing about the 7th and 8th only because it clicked with the sources. When we talk about affecting tribal behavior, are we talking about somehow accentuating these assets and options?

Because I'm at an academic conference, I was just distracted by academic pondering by a social call, and I don't remember exactly where I was going with this. It had something to do with tribe as an idea, and pondering whether it was possible to make a tribal policy of any kind without reformulating that idea, much like in subtle ways implementing new kinds of state policies reformulates ideas about the state. That said, consider this a report from the Middle East Studies Association annual meeting, day one.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



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