Tribalism and the hijacking of the Islamic Faith

What do Afghanistan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Mali, northern Nigeria, Pakistan’s tribal areas and Yemen have in common?

They all have Muslim populations, are socially backward, mistreat women, and have a profound distrust of reason and modern education. Above all, they are tribal societies that use Islam to rationalise and uphold archaic tribal values and laws.

Unsurprisingly, most of them are caught up in violent conflicts fuelled in equal parts by tribal loyalties, faith and ignorance. Shi’ite-Sunni rivalry is one fault line dividing the Muslim world. The second one is the tension between those aspiring to democracy, and the autocrats who oppress and misrule them.

But the third fault line derives from history and social development. Across the world, nations that had nautical trade links tended to be more receptive to new ideas as ships brought not just goods, but books and travellers from distant lands.

By contrast, societies that evolved far from the sea tended to be more inward-looking; trading caravans covered shorter routes in general, and brought goods from similar regions. And while Yemen traded extensively for centuries, the dominant north of the country remained largely insulated from the southern coast. The trajectories that Muslim societies took after their conversion to Islam obviously differed, but two broad categories soon emerged. Countries that had already achieved a level of civilisation in their pre-Islamic period retained their culture, combining it with their new Muslim identity.

Extremist Muslim groups have given Islam a bad name worldwide.

Persia, Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus were all centres of ancient civilisations and retained their sophistication. And after the Turkish occupation of Constantinople, the conquerors acquired features of Byzantine culture. In India, between the Sultanate period and the fall of the Mughal empire, Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad were synonymous with refinement and gracious living. Perhaps Islamic civilisation reached its apogee in Muslim Spain in Grenada, Cordoba and Seville.

But Riyadh? Jeddah? Mogadishu? For centuries, Muslim nations in the hinterland played little part in world affairs, and contributed nothing to human advancement. In fact, this absence of creativity has remained unchanged.

What has changed, however, is their role in contemporary affairs. In the case of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, the emergence of oil as an essential source of energy a century or so ago has transformed their fortunes, and made them major global players. But this stroke of luck has done little to change their tribal attitudes or autocratic outlook.

The oil embargo of 1973 caused a sudden spike in oil prices, and gave Saudi Arabia a huge cash injection that permitted it to finance the export of its literal, austere Wahabi version of Islam around the world. It has focused on madrassahs in the poorest Muslim countries where children are made to memorise religious texts, but are taught little else.

Wahabi influence and money has thus transformed the social and religious landscape across much of the Muslim world. This vision has fuelled extremism by excluding other, less-rigid interpretations of Islam, deeming followers of different sects non-believers.

The normal trajectory from tribalism to liberal democracy passes via feudalism and industrialisation. But as the tribal societies mentioned here have very little agriculture, the feudal phase simply did not emerge. And although oil has transformed some of them into wealthy urbanised states, this change has not been accompanied by a change in social attitudes. Thus, while rich Saudis may drive expensive cars and live in lavish homes, most of them remain Bedouins at heart.

This would be no bad thing had it not been for the fact that this adherence to a literalist belief system, and the conviction that anybody not sharing these views is somehow inferior, has major implications for the world. It is no coincidence that the majority of the 9/11 bombers were Saudis.

While we find the self-styled Islamic State’s violence repugnant, we tend to forget that it mimics the Saudi penalties of beheading and flogging, as well as the repressive attitude towards women. Harsh geography combined with tribal laws often produces a cruel penal system as we have seen across the societies we have examined briefly here. The Taleban, Boko Haram, IS and al-Qaeda are not that far from Riyadh in the way they punish those deemed as having transgressed the rules.

Through mindless terrorism, extremist Muslim groups today have given Islam a bad name across the world. Foreigners are unlikely to analyse the fault lines dividing the Muslim world in an effort to understand what lies behind the insanity gripping so many Muslims.

And yet, by lumping the entire Islamic world into one monolithic whole, they overlook the underlying tensions and divisions. To this day, the West has refused to acknowledge the Saudi role in the export of the toxic ideas that have inspired two generations of terrorists.

Until we can learn to distinguish between these different strands of Islam, we will not understand why and how our faith has been hijacked.

First published by the Nation/Asia News Network