The tribe and the war on terror

The following is an excerpt from chapter six of “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became … Continued

The following is an excerpt from chapter six of “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam,” published by Brookings.

The metaphor of the drone for the war on terror in the age of globalization and the thistle for the tribal societies caught up in it brings to light the complexities of several important issues emerging from the interaction of two completely different kinds of societies: the nature of tribes, especially those with the segmentary lineage system, and the central role their identity plays in their lives; the breakdown of relations between the center and periphery; the importance of analyzing tribal peoples of the periphery within the frame of their social structure, lineage, and code of honor and within their perception of Islam, not through theology and sacred texts alone; and the challenges tribal societies face as a result of globalization, exacerbated by developments after 9/11 and the war on terror. This study also provides irrefutable evidence of the strength of primeval emotions in societies today and the weakness of modern political thought with its ideas about democracy, civil liberties, and human rights in checking the violence and corruption of the state. The cases have illustrated the complex interplay between cause and effect in human affairs, which is why my team and I have wandered in the dense thickets of several scholarly disciplines in search of answers. On a philosophic and humanitarian level, the study points to the real possibility that one type of human society may be facing extinction—that of tribes.

All is not lost, however. Young Pukhtun boys—defying drones, suicide bombers, and the guns of the security forces—are still playing football and cricket in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, the Kurds are still singing the songs for harvest, and in the midst of anarchy Somali and Yemeni parents still want the best possible education for their children to secure their future. These communities still celebrate the great festivals, and the children still expect sweets and toys on these occasions. There is still joy at birth and marriage, sorrow and mourning at death. Glimmers of light, love, and hope can be seen in this study. The action of the commander of the Philippine forces who was formerly in charge of military operations in the Sulu Province, Major General Ruben Rafael, offers an example of how to proceed. In 2007 the general gave a public apology to the Tausug for atrocities committed by the military. Soon, members of the audience started to cry, including the Tausug mayor of the town, who exclaimed that in the history of the province a military officer had never apologized to them in such a way before. Likewise, the devastation wrought by the 2004 tsunami in Aceh resulted in the outpouring of emotion and prayer accompanied by humanitarian aid and autonomy from the central government. After decades of warfare between center and periphery, peace finally came to Aceh.

Bright-colored flowers still bloomed in the midst of the dark and bleak battle scarred landscape. I received one such flower in the form of a message from Mahdi Murad, a young Kurd in northern Iraq who had just performed in my allegorical play Noor at the American University in Sulaimani; it was produced by Peter Friedrich, a dedicated American professor who inspired his students. We had never met, but Mahdi’s heart was overflowing with love as he wrote: “We all prayed for you and expressed our gratitude to you for writing such a great play.” Then, from a region plagued by war and genocide, this young student made an offer to a professor safe and secure in Washington, D.C.: “Please let me know if I can assist you in any way.” Mahdi went on to write not of revenge and honor lost but of tears and redemption, and in this he conveyed a message of compassion and love for all. Saddam’s missiles and mustard gas and the anarchy of the American invasion could not extinguish the Rumi in Mahdi’s heart:

As I am writing you this e-mail, my eyes are full of tears. . . . If you could have seen the audience, you would have known that almost everyone lost someone very close to them in a war. I say a war because there have been many of them since the day we were born. However, none of us have had the opportunity to cry for the people we have lost. We, Kurds and Arabs in the ‘Noor’ cast, are joining hands together to shed the light of the life of every single person of our country. We gather together to shed our last tears to the sad events our people have experienced so far. We, the cast, stood together, as Kurds and Arabs, to cry for the innocent sons and daughters we lost. But it would be selfish to do just that. We also cried for the soldiers, on all sides, who gave their lives. We also cried out against corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen, to cry out a warning to everyone who thought someone was evil just because they spoke Kurdish or Arabic or English. We cried for all these things, but most of all, we cried for every Noor in every home, wherever she was.

In effect, Mahdi was saying—no more; there must be a different way. Mahdi’s tears in search of Noor, or light, are an apt metaphor to conclude this study. There could be nothing more human than tears of compassion shed in the yearning for illumination.

The test is to see a common humanity in the suffering of others. If people can rise above tribe, race, and religion to reach out to others not like them, it will save humankind in the twenty-first century. It is a daunting task. Perhaps it is necessary to seek guidance from our ancestors and apply their wisdom to the present time. If the world is to become safer, more harmonious, more compassionate, then both the non-Abrahamic and the Abrahamic societies have much to offer. The path to nonviolence and peace shown by the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist sages, the lessons of the great Guru Nanak of the Sikhs to embrace all humanity, the knowledge of the Jewish savants, the commandment of Jesus to love one another, and the exhortations of the Prophet of Islam, known to his followers as “a mercy unto mankind,” to express compassion at all times—all may be combined and reduced to one universal shibboleth: to go out and “heal a fractured world”—tikkun olam.

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He was the former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom, the first Distinguished Chair of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Among his previous books are Journey into Islam and Journey into America, both published by Brookings. He is also a published poet and playwright.

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