Anthropology, Tribal Politics, and Iraq

It’s rare to see anthropology used in debates about Iraq and the Middle East. Too often we’re reduced to the same marginalized position—for example, is participation by anthropologists in human terrain systems ethical or not? (For more on that, see Greg’s Culture Matters post here, Savage Mind’s summary, and Rick Shweder’s essay.) But today David Brooks has an essay in the New York Times entitled A Network of Truces. He builds off of Stanley Kurtz’s review essay, I and My Brother Against My Cousin, which analyzes Philip Salzman’s new book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East.

Salzman basically calls attention to the vastly different sociopolitical organization that happens in Iraq, where tribal affiliation and segmentary politics make for a very different playing field than the liberal democracy, nation building Western stance.

David Brooks uses this approach to justify the surge and argue for a slow withdrawal (which many would take as meaning no withdrawal), not exactly the use of anthropology that many anthropologists would advocate. And Kutz is after even bigger fish, writing at the end, “We’ve taught ourselves a good deal about Islam over the past seven years. Yet tribalism is at least half the cultural battle in the Middle East, and the West knows little about it. Learning how to understand and critique the Islamic Near East through a tribal lens will open up a new and smarter strategy for change.” This stance recreates the good vs. evil, civilization vs. barbarians (tribes in this case) dichotomy that helped get us into the problem in the first place.

But for anthropologists who whine about not getting our ideas included in the public debate, here are two big publications bringing anthropology to the fore. I especially recommend the Kurtz review, since it provides a good overview of anthropological thinking about tribes, political organization, and the such before turning to its own political points.

So get in touch with the New York Times and the Weekly Standard to express yourself, and please feel free to debate this issue below.

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