By Daniel Pipes, January 24, 2008.
Why is the Middle East so at odds with modern life, laggard in everything from
literacy to standard of living, from military prowess to political development?
A profound new book by Philip Carl Salzman, professor at McGill University,
with the deceptively plain title Culture and Conflict in the Middle East
(Prometheus), offers a bold and original interpretation of Middle Eastern
An anthropologist, Salzman begins by sketching out the two patterns of rule
that historically have dominated the Middle East: tribal autonomy and tyrannical
The former pattern, he argues, is distinctive to the region and key to
Tribal self-rule is based on what Salzman calls balanced opposition, a
mechanism whereby those Middle Easterners living in deserts, mountains, and
steppes protect life and limb by relying on their extended families.
This immensely intricate and subtle system boils down to (1) each person
counting on paternal relatives (called agnates) for protection and (2) equal-sized
units of agnates confronting each other. Thus, a nuclear family faces off
against another nuclear family, a clan faces a clan, and so on, up to the
As the well-known Middle Eastern adage sums up these confrontations,
“I against my brother, I and my brothers against my cousins, I and my brothers
and my cousins against the world.”
On the positive side, affiliation solidarity allows for a dignified independence
from repressive states. Negatively, it implies unending conflict; each group has
multiple sworn enemies and feuds often carry on for generations.
Tribal autonomy has driven Middle Eastern history, as the great historian Ibn
Khaldun observed over six centuries ago. When a government faltered, large
tribal confederations would form, leave their arid badlands and seize control of
the cities and agricultural lands. Having seized the state, tribes exploited their
power unabashedly to forward their own interests, cruelly exploiting their
subject population, until they in turn faltered and the cycle started anew.
Salzman’s tour de force lies in updating Ibn Khaldun, demonstrating how the
dual pattern of tribal self-rule and tyrannical centralism continues to define life
in the Middle East, and using it to explain the region’s most characteristic
features, such as autocracy, political mercilessness, and economic stagnancy.
It accounts, likewise, for the war of annihilation against Israel and, more
generally, Islam’s “bloody borders” – the widespread hostility toward
The dual pattern even explains key aspects of Middle Eastern family life. The
imperative to aggregate more agnates than one’s neighbors, Salzman argues,
means developing tactics to outnumber their male progeny. This has several
- Marrying one’s daughters to cousins, as a way for the family to
benefit from their fertility.
- Practicing polygyny, so as to benefit from the fertility of multiple women.
- Scrutinizing other families’ females, hoping to catch them in an immoral
act, thereby compelling their men-folk to kill them and forfeit their fertility.
This last point suggests that balanced opposition largely accounts for the
well-known Middle Eastern custom of “honor killing,” whereby brothers murder
sisters, cousins murder cousins, fathers murder daughters, and sons murder
Significantly, the woman’s indiscretions are tolerated within the family
and lead to murders almost only when they become known outside the family.
More broadly, balanced opposition means the Middle East lacks abstract
principles by which to measure actions “against general criteria, irrespective of
the affiliation of particular actors.”
Instead, intense particularism requires a family member to support a
closer relative against a farther one, regardless of who may be at fault.
Tribesmen and subjects, not citizens, populate the region. That most Middle
Easterners retain this us-versus-them mentality dooms universalism, the rule of
law, and constitutionalism.
Trapped by these ancient patterns, Salzman writes, Middle Eastern
societies “perform poorly by most social, cultural, economic, and political
criteria.” As the region fails to modernize, it falls steadily further behind.
It can advance only by breaking the archaic system of affiliation solidarity. “This
is possible not through the replacement of traditional groups by newly
conceived groups [such as political parties], but by the replacement of groups
Individualism will make headway among Middle Easterners, however,
only when “what they are for is more important than whom they are against.”
That fundamental change may take decades or even centuries to accomplish.
But Salzman’s deep analysis makes it possible to understand the region’s
strange affliction and to identify its solution.