"The future of Iraq may well belong to the tribes who promote mutual dependence and responsibility and do not just repeat the tired slogans of progress, democracy and peace", writes Miriam Cooke.
Miriam Cooke is an American academic in Middle Eastern and Arab world studies. She focuses on modern Arabic literature and critical reassessment of women's roles in the public sphere.
Until last month, the Iraqi crisis was all about the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds. It was as though the violence was about competing visions of Islam, with Kurds an offshoot of Islam. But there are Sunni Kurds and Shiite Kurds, just as there are Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs. So who are these Iraqi fighters?
We are beginning to hear about a new category: tribes and their leaders. At first, it was generic Sunni tribes who grabbed the headlines. Now, these tribes are being named, e.g. the Kaisi and the Dulaimi tribes. Recently, the Shiite Maliki tribe was added to the confusing mix. Yet what is still emphasized is religion not tribe. Last week, The New York Times’ C.J. Chivers wrote of “pop-up Shiite tribal fighting groups.” He reported that the Shiite tribal leader Sheikh Haidar Al Maliki was organizing his tribe in Baghdad “to ensure that the tribe’s call-up ran efficiently.” That is why Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is from a branch of the Maliki tribe, supported their June 21 demonstration.
If we are to understand the events now unfolding in Iraq, we must move beyond the usual categories – Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd – and recognize that it is the complex relations between tribal groups that are driving the Iraqi civil war.
How else are we to interpret the June 24 Washington Post report on the role of armed tribal factions in negotiating a cease-fire and securing the Baiji refinery complex? A tribal council official is reported to have said on Tuesday, “We now control 90 percent of the refinery.” The tribes arranged buses to take hundreds of Iraqi army officers away. Tribal leaders are now responsible for providing the ISIS-controlled territory with fuel. It may not yet be clear what kind of relationship the tribes have with ISIS, but they have clearly been instrumental in its swift victories from Mosul to just north of Baghdad.
So who are these people at each other’s throats? And what are they fighting for?
Numerous large and small tribes are contesting World War I boundaries that the British and French arbitrarily drew through their tribal territories. Today nearly 100 years later, tribes are fighting to get their lands back. Does that mean that the chaos currently engulfing the region will bring on Armageddon if the US does not intervene? I doubt it. Iraqi tribes are less interested in attacking DC than in retrieving their tribal territory.
Iraqi tribes are not marginal primitives. They are modern, and in places like the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, Arab tribes are globally powerful. This is a recent phenomenon. During the colonial period in the Middle East tribes were disaggregated in an attempt to modernize what were considered to be backward social formations. While the tribal structures became less visible, the idea of the tribe persisted and has been making a comeback in Arab Spring countries like Libya, Yemen and Morocco but also in Syria and Iraq. Many tribes boast lineages and solidarities that predate religious affiliations. And while religion shouldn’t be discounted, it’s only one element that factors into tribal identity.
Tribes matter in Iraq today. We need to learn about the tribal identifications that link the Kurds, a people made up of about forty tribes clustered in part of what they call Kurdistan, the Turkmen tribes, and the Arab tribes. Haydar Ali Joulaq, a Turkmen tribal leader, boasted last week that his tribe had repulsed ISIS from their region. His opponent Anbar tribal chief Ali Hatim Al Sulaimani, leader of the 3-million-member Dulaim tribe, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “It is the tribal rebels who are in control of the situation in Mosul … this is a tribal revolution, but the government is trying to force us all to wear the robe of the terrorists and ISIS. The revolution does not belong to anyone, but the tribal revolutionaries are the masters of the scene. Iraq is heading towards partition. There are two choices; either Iraq becomes a sea of blood, or each community rules itself.” (http://www.aawsat.net/2014/06/article55333359)
Each tribe should rule itself. Is that such a bad thing? In short, each tribe should rule itself. It may be that tribal structures, norms and values can provide a model for good governance today. Some in the American business community seem to think so. A 2008 corporate CEO manual entitled Tribal Leadership. Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization advocates tribal leadership as a business model. Neither democratic nor autocratic, tribes function according to a highly effective principle of mutual dependence. The leader is as dependent on his merchants, soldiers, intellectuals and workers as they are on him. If he begins to rule unjustly they can demand his removal or leave him for another ruler who will provide their basic necessities.
The future of Iraq may well belong to the tribes who promote mutual dependence and responsibility and do not just repeat the tired slogans of progress, democracy and peace. Let’s let the Iraqi tribes reassert themselves in whatever way they see fit. Let them fight over the land they claim to be theirs. It may be that the tribal model can succeed, where American military force failed.
miriam cookeis Braxton Craven Distinguished Professor of Arab Cultures at Duke University. She is author of several books, most recently “Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf” (University of California Press, 2014). Other books include “Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official” (Duke, 2007) and “Nazira Zeineddine: Biography of an Islamic Feminist Pioneer” (Oneworld, 2010).