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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Islamic Period:  Diversity and Pluralism

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Framing the Issues

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Tribes, Urban Dwellers, and States

We tend to think about divisions in the Middle East as based on religion, ethnicity, and gender. Nonetheless, socio-economic and socio-cultural differences also influence the identities of the inhabitants of the Middle East. One such socioeconomic division is between the region's settled and urban communities, and its nomad and tribal populations.

Noted sociologist and philosopher Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) had argued the region's history was mostly influenced by a tribe-state relationship, in which tribal dynasties, united by a feeling of tribal cohesion and solidarity [in Arabic: ‘Asabiyya], took over the civilized and urban communities and established new states in their stead.

The attitude toward tribal communities in the Middle East was complicated. On the one hand, the first Islamic state emerged from the Arab tribes of Arabia. Arabic poetry and noble qualities, like hospitality, generosity, and courage in battle, were associated with the tribal tradition. Many of the states in the region originated from tribal communities. In the modern Middle East, tribal solidarity assisted in the formation of Saudi Arabia, and tribal politics were crucial to the states in the Arab gulf. States like Yemen and Jordan took great pride in their tribal heritage and presented it in national museums. On the other hand, the relations between tribes and states are also strained. States found it extremely difficult to make the tribes pay taxes and had to reach certain agreements with tribal leaders in order to assure orderly tax collection. In the pre- and early modern eras, nomads attacked settled communities and robbed pilgrims and travelers. The latter phenomenon was extremely perilous to Islamic states, as it jeopardized the Hajj to Mecca. Tribes, acting on their own or in conjunction with a broader tribal confederation, were often in conflict with each other, and this further endangered a state's security.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries successful attempts were made to settle nomads in villages in order to assure tax collection and conscription to the army. The tribal structure, however, remained strong also in villages. With the rise of nation-states, tribalism was seen as an element that endangered nationalism, as a person's loyalty was mostly to his or her tribe rather than the nation. At times tribalism was intertwined with sectarian and ethnic problems, since some tribal communities differed in either their ethnicity or their religion from the majority community (for example Kurdish tribes in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey). Urban educated elites showed much contempt to certain tribal norms, like honor killings, which they considered archaic and primitive. Middle Eastern states employed a variety of means to handle such difficulties, which included, in addition to settlement and punitive campaigns against rebelling tribes, the expansion of education among tribal communities, conscription to the army (a means taken up successfully in Jordan), and appointing tribal leaders as political representatives of their communities. In certain Middle Eastern states, especially in the Arab gulf and North Africa, tribal relations affect not only the relationship between the countryside and the city, but also political relations, as the tribal affiliation with the state's leadership is of immense importance. 

Supporting Links:

Fandy, Mamoun. “Tribe vs. Islam: The Post-colonial Arab State and the Democratic Imperative.” Middle East Policy Council Journal. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 4, 2010).

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