Akbar Ahmed on Terrorism and the Collapse of the Tribal Order

Car bomb in Peshawar.
Source: Mohammad Sajjad/Associated Press. 29 September 2013

Last week I penned a twopost series on the purpose of and underlying reasons for the savage terrorist attacks radical Islamic groups have launched across the world. I argued that these attacks were not “senseless” acts of violence, nor merely the results of fanatic Islamic fundamentalism, but a reaction to the collapse of traditional tribal society that defined the old Islamic order.

If Malise Ruthven‘s New York Review of Books review of Akbar Ahmed‘s newest book, The Thistle and the Drone, accurately represents its content, then the esteemed professor presents a stunningly similar argument: 

In contrast to Obama and his advisers, who identify “ideological extremism” as the primary motive for terror, Ahmed looks to the complex interactions between national state systems and tribal identities, as the latter react to the imposition of state authority. Like Hadji Murad, tribal leaders are torn between collaboration and resistance. While bin Laden himself may have become an ideologue, driven by a vision of global jihad against America, the Asiris and Yemenis who signed up as his “muscle hijackers” were motivated, he suggests, more by local considerations of honor and revenge, the usual responses of tribes that feel themselves threatened….

In this, as in numerous other settings, Ahmed puts his finger on the crucial linkage connecting the localisms of tribal conflicts with the broader Islamic notion of global jihad. His theme is not some vaguely defined “clash of civilizations” but rather the clash between metropolitan centers and rural peripheries that is internal to all modern civilizations—whether these be Islamic, Western, Russian, or Chinese. He provides numerous examples to show that the “thistles” of Tolstoy’s metaphor are to be found in a wide variety of regions, including Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Pakistan’s northwest frontier, as well as Berber North Africa, Nigeria, and Aceh in Indonesia.

Ahmed produces an impressive body of data to support his argument that tribal systems are coming under attack everywhere from the forces of the modernizing state. With regard to Waziristan, for example, where he served as a Pakistani political agent before entering academic life, he finds that

every aspect of life—religious… and political leadership, customs, and codes—is in danger of being turned upside down. The particles that formed the kaleidoscope of history and remained stationary for so long have now been shaken about in bewildering patterns, with no telling when and how they will settle into some recognizable forms.

The linkage with Islam, he suggests, is more symbolic than religious or ideological. In many Muslim societies the tribes acquire prestige through claimed (if questionable) genealogical descent from the Prophet Muhammad. In these patrilineal societies the Islamic identity thus sanctioned confers legitimacy on practices that may differ significantly from the Islamic norms applied elsewhere. For example, the Pukhtunwali, or tribal code, of the Pukhtun people of Pakistan and Afghanistan combines notions of hospitality and revenge with the “constant compulsion to safeguard what is normatively understood as honor.” The same code denies inheritance to women and permits interest on loans, contrary to sharia law.

Although the Pukhtunwali tends to be glorified over other forms of identity “including Islam itself,” Pukhtuns do not recognize any contradiction with Islam. Their claimed link to the Prophet through a common ancestor is, Ahmed writes, a “cultural master stroke” that provides every local custom with a “religious cover, however tenuous.” Hence interference with local custom, or the writ of local elders, can be represented as an attack on Islam that justifies jihad.

Ahmed argues, convincingly enough, that the acts of terror or violence directed at the US or its allies are set off as much by revenge based on values of tribal honor as by extremist ideologies.” (emphasis added) [1]

I encourage you to read the whole review.


Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context, pt I” and “Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context, pt II
T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage. 9 & 10 October 2013.

“The Middle East’s tribal DNA”.  
Philip Salzman.. The Middle East Quarterly. Vol. 15 (1). Winter 2008. p. 23-33.

 Rising Literacy and a Shrinking Birth Rate: A Look at the Root Causes of the Arab Revolution.”  
Emmanuel Todd interview with Der Spiegel. Der Spiegel English. 20 May 2011.


[1] Malise Ruthven. “Terror: The Hidden Source.New York Review of Books. 24 October 2013. Hat tip to Fabius Maximus.

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