July 31, 2008 Special Dispatch No. 2010

Are the Tribes the Best Hope for a Liberal Iraq?

July 31, 2008
Iraq | Special Dispatch No. 2010

Iraqi and Arab progressives have long tended to view the persistence of tribes and tribalism as a negative phenomenon that is keeping the Middle East from developing modern societal relations based on voluntarism and a modern political system. This is particularly true in Iraq, where the Ba'th regime exploited tribalism to sustain the dictatorship.

Recently, though, some liberals have begun to rethink this view of the Iraqi tribes, and, in light of the successes of the tribal Awakenings Councils, have begun to argue that the tribes can be a force for progress and a positive alternative to Islamists. For example, in his eulogy for assassinated Sheikh 'Abd Al-Sattar Abu Risha, the founder of the Anbar Awakening [sahwah] Iraqi liberal columnist Muhammad Al-Wadi praised Abu Risha as a martyr and as a true non-sectarian Iraqi patriot.[1]

More recently, Iraqi author Hussein Karkush wrote in the liberal Arab e-journal Elaph that the tribes are relatively secular and that the Awakenings are essentially Iraqi civil society's revolt against political Islam.

Following are excerpts:[2]

"Iraqi Intellectuals... Have Persistently Described the Iraqi Tribe as 'Reactionary and Backwards'... But This Is Not Entirely Correct"

"Iraqi intellectuals, including sociologists and anthropologists, have persistently described the Iraqi tribe as a 'reactionary and backwards' institution that stands in the way of society's progress. Such a description is partially correct, but it is not entirely correct, and there is much in it that is arbitrary. Thus we need to place this description in its historical context, just as we need to place the terms 'progressive' and 'reactionary' in the context of their [historical] conditions.

"When the 'modern' Iraqi state was first founded, on the eve of the end of World War I, a 'modern' Iraqi society also began to take form and grow. Just as the state found its support in new, unified national institutions (the army and other security forces, the bureaucracy, institutions of learning, the judiciary, national radio), 'modern' Iraqi society also found its support in new unified national institutions: parties, unions and professional associations, parliament, the press, cultural activity, trade, and all that is known by the name of activities of institutions of civil society.

"Although there were some disagreements between them... the state and the developing sectors of civil society were in agreement on the goals. They both aimed for shared successes and a shared vision, the most important of which was that relations between all Iraqi 'citizens' would center on one criterion – that of 'citizenship' – and not on blood or family relations, as in the tribe – and that all citizens would be subject to one civil law...

"Thus, in the long, multifaceted struggle within Iraqi society, the 'progressive' forces – civil society institutions and governmental institutions – worked to take society forward, and opposite them were the 'backwards' forces – the tribes – that strove to preserve their own laws..."

The Mentality of the Iraqi Tribes Is More Progressive Than That of the Political Islamists

"But we see that the Iraqi tribe, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, is not the same Iraqi tribe that existed on the eve of the foundation of the modern Iraqi state at the beginning of the previous century.

"While in the 1920s, and even in the 1950s, it was rare to find tribal leaders with good reading and writing skills, today we find many tribal leaders who have completed secondary school, and even university. And while [in the past] it was difficult to find educated women in the tribes, today we find many – even daughters of tribal leaders – who have completed university studies.

"This tremendous development undergone by the tribal mentality has, in effect, abrogated many of the tribal customs that were predominant for many long years...

"If we compare the tribal mentality of today in all the Iraqi regions with the mentality of the parties of political Islam which have been at the forefront of events since 2003, we find that the tribal mentality is more open and more 'progressive' than that of the parties of political Islam, in matters of national politics, culture, and society. And it is less extreme in matters of religious practice.

"As we know, many of the settled Iraqi tribes are half-Shi'i and half-Sunni, with one half being in the Western region and the other in the mid-Euphrates region and the south.

"We can imagine the great losses that would be caused to the Shi'i and Sunni religious parties – the justification for whose existence is, from the outset, sectarian conflict – if each Iraqi tribe were to hold a conference including both its Shi'i and Sunni members, or if tribes from different sects were to hold shared conferences.

"In addition – and this is an important point – the moral and cultural universe of the tribe is not [based on] immutable sacred texts. It is this-worldly and civil, susceptible to being changed, altered, and transformed. The tribal sheikh rules in accordance with what he thinks best, and his orders draw their strength from his standing and his wisdom. In contrast, [leaders] of the parties of political Islam present themselves, in one way or another, as Allah's representatives on earth."

"The Awakenings are a Civil/Secular Revolt"

"...The tribal Awakenings are one of several bellwethers announcing that the monopoly of the parties of political Islam on political life is starting to retreat...

"Today there is a political vacuum [as a result of] the total 'desertification' operation... imposed on society by the Saddam regime over the past three decades. Due to the [resulting] absence of strong civil, liberal, democratic, and left-wing parties, and the absence of any deeply rooted union activity, the only major force at present (I repeat, at present) capable of taking on the behemoth – that is, the strong parties of political Islam – is that of the tribes. This contest indeed took shape in the Awakenings.

"The Awakenings stand on a completely different ground – or at least a very different ground – than political Islam (not Islam, but political Islam). The Awakenings are a civil-secular revolt, and they are the antithesis not just of the extremist Islamist groups, but also of political Islam in general."

"Sheikh 'Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha said: 'The Awakening is the right direction on the right road against falsehood.' He said that members of 'Al-Qaeda take advantage of specious and incorrect fatwas and have taken hold of Islam as a cover for themselves' (interview on Al-'Arabiya, June 3, 2007).

"Another member of the Awakenings, Sheikh Kamal Al-Mu'ajjal Abu Risha, went even further than Sheikh 'Abd Al-Sattar Abu Risha, and said that 'the Awakening is working to achieve general national goals for all Iraqis: security, justice, and democracy.' In his view, 'Islam has an active role in our society, but we reject the interference of clerics in politics. The authority of the cleric must not transcend the mosque, and he must not hold sway over political decision-makers' (Al-Hayat, January 13, 2008)."

Anbar Salvation Council Head Sheikh Hamid Al-Hayis: "I Wanted to Ban the Wearing of the Hijab at Anbar University – And They Called Me Chirac the Second"

"Sheikh Hamid Al-Hayis, head of the Anbar Salvation Council – which is considered the armed wing of the Awakening – went further than the other two when he described himself as 'very liberal.' He said that he wanted 'to build Anbar on the model of the cities blossoming with nightclubs, hotels, and global trade. We will make Ramadi Iraq's Dubai.'

"Then he said: 'I wanted to ban the wearing of the hijab at Anbar University, and they called me Chirac the Second.' One of Al-Hayis' objections to the Anbar provincial council, which is close to the Islamic party, is that the Islamic party wants to turn Anbar province into 'a Wahhabi region' (Iraqi satellite TV, February 11, 2008).

"Of course, we cannot help but notice that some of these statements are part of a power struggle, and may be rhetorical exaggerations. Perhaps seeing them as merely words that express only the views of the speaker would be correct – and perhaps these views are exaggerated, and are a 'secular' extremism that is not appropriate for the current condition of Iraqi society. Perhaps all that is true. Yet we should take note of the fact that these views are being said for the first time since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. Apart from the leaders of the tribal Awakening, we have not heard any organized political force, any independent politician, any academic figure, or any media outlet clearly and openly expressing such views.

"Also, these Awakening leaders would not be frankly stating the positions and views we cited if they were not convinced that that the popular temperament would accept these views – since if this were not so, the mere stating of their views would be political suicide for them. Imagine, for instance, if they said they were against Islam – would such statements go over?"

If The Mobilization of the Iraqi Tribes Continues, It Will Strike Panic into the Hearts of the Political Islamists

"This new popular temperament is not limited to the Western region of Iraq and its tribes; it is a collective 'Iraqi' temperament. We have seen how the contagion of the Anbar tribal awakening has now spread to other tribes. This is what we have started to see among the tribes of the mid-Euphrates and the southern region. This temperament is moving towards breaking the monopoly and the hegemony of the parties of political Islam...

"All this is not to say that the parties of political Islam will disappear today or tomorrow. These parties have their members, defenders, and supporters, and thus they have a popular base. But from now on they will not sleep well. The mobilization of the Iraqi tribes has begun to disturb their sleep, and if this mobilization continues and deepens, it will strike panic into these parties' hearts."

[1], September 17, 2007.

[2], July 21, 2008.

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