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March 4, 2016

Responding To: Human Security in the Face of Violent Extremism

Tribalism and Modernity

Tribalism is hard to overcome. It hangs on even among those you’d expect to be more humane in their outlooks.  I recall my horror when to my dismay I heard two young Arab Catholic priests defending “honor killing,” an offense the government of Jordan was attempting at the time to suppress.

Despite their Christian commitments and their advanced education, their moral universe was still one in which women were the honor of their male relatives; and that honor could be instantly lost by the women’s association with men outside the family.   

In their church careers the two priests had wandered far from their desert origins, but they were still enmeshed in its tribal values. Neither “Thou shalt not kill” nor “Love your enemies” were principles that overruled family and male honor.   

We Americans and Europeans live in an egalitarian society, where everyone is of equal worth and even criminal offenders have their rights. Even when we think of honor, we think, in the first place, of an individual dishonoring himself by corruption or treason, for example, not of being dishonored by others. In the modern military, dishonorable discharges are a rare occurrence, though it wasn’t so even 100 years ago.   

In the tribal society, a man has standing only if his honor is not stained by others. The primary units of society are the family, the clan, and the tribe; and the “honor” of the unit can be lost by the action or treatment of its female members. As Ms. Zainab Bangura writes, “In the areas these [extremist] groups control, women’s bodies have become the ground of contestation between traditional and progressive values.”   

Worse, rape has gone from being a crime of war, as Ms. Bangura explains, to a systematic weapon of war against both women and their male family members. Reading Ms. Bangura’s reports of systematic abuse of women across Africa, the Middle East, and even Latin America, one wonders what it would take to turn back the tide of violent misogyny.   

Some small areas of the Arab Middle East, like Lebanon and to a lesser extent Jordan and the West Bank, have been able to move beyond fundamentalist tribal values to permit cosmopolitan culture to grow on Arab soil, but even they are threatened by religious fundamentalism. In Syria and Iraq, Baathist authoritarianism, whatever its other human rights offenses, allowed private life to flourish.   

The same might be said of Ataturk’s secularized Turkey, but now that too has been put in question, first by the election of a “moderate” Islamic government and then by its turn to presidential authoritarianism.   

The struggle between tribalism and modernity has grown even more intense as a result of the latest phase of Western cultural modernization with the emergence of sexuality and gender as areas for the exercise of expressive individualism, especially through the legalization of gay marriage and the normalization of transgender identities.   

We must be grateful for Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Bangura’s activity in defense of women’s rights. But neither international law nor military force can close the gap between the world’s tribal extremists and the modern West. Resolution can only come—over an extended period of time--through an intercultural encounter where each side comes to recognize the values of the other and is willing to identify moral limits it is willing to live by in a common life.  

Drew Christiansen, S.J., is a professor of ethics and global development in the School of Foreign Service and co-director of the Program on the Church and the World at the Berkley Center.

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