I provide today, at "The Middle East's Tribal Affliction," a summary of Philip Carl Salzman's new book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, with its over-arching explanation of what makes the Middle East distinctive. Here is a summary of the summary:
the Middle East lacks abstract principles by which to measure actions "against general criteria, irrespective of the affiliation of particular actors." Instead, intense particularism requires a family member to support a closer relative against a farther one, regardless of who may be at fault. Tribesmen and subjects, not citizens, populate the region. That most Middle Easterners retain this us-versus-them mentality dooms universalism, the rule of law, and constitutionalism. Trapped by these ancient patterns, Salzman writes, Middle Eastern societies "perform poorly by most social, cultural, economic, and political criteria." As the region fails to modernize, it falls steadily further behind.
This might sound awfully abstract, so here is a specific and very practical instance of how Salzman's theory helps explain phenomena that would otherwise be mystifying in Gaza – the prominent political role of a tribal family, the Dagmoush, and the relationship between Fatah and Hamas. I'll draw on separate newspaper accounts for information. The first, on the Dagmoush clan, is "Powerful, unchecked clan surges in Gaza," by Dion Nissenbaum and Ahmed Abu Hamdan of the McClatchy newspapers, April 5, 2007:
Along the southern stretches of Gaza City, in a stronghold surrounded by concrete barriers and patrolled by armed guards, a powerful clan has evolved into a force that the Palestinian Authority is afraid to confront.
Dion Nissenbaum, Jerusalem bureau chief for the McClatchy newspapers, suggests that the man at right is Mumtaz Dagmoush.
Palestinian officials suspect Mumtaz Dagmoush and his extended family of 15,000 of involvement in every major recent crisis in Gaza, from the capture of an Israeli soldier last summer to the unresolved kidnapping of a BBC correspondent last month. … "If there is a way to describe Gaza, it is Mumtaz Dagmoush," said a veteran Israeli security official who has tracked the rise of the family. He spoke about the issue on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of his work. "It's clan, it's business, it's terrorism, it's international terrorism and it's a place where everybody has lost hope that the government is going to do anything about it."
Members of the new Palestinian Authority recognize the threat. But they're reluctant to challenge the family's power, which often trumps all other Palestinian loyalties. "If I try to arrest someone I will end up in a confrontation with the whole society," said Ali Sartawi, a member of the Muslim fundamentalist movement Hamas and the Palestinian Authority's new justice minister. "An agreement with the families is very important for establishing law and order. They have to be partners. Confrontation is not an option." …
Talat Dagmoush told McClatchy Newspapers that his family is willing to cooperate with the new government only if it demonstrates that it's willing to crack down on all crime in Gaza, not just on one group. "At this point my allegiance is to my clan," Talat Dagmoush said in a telephone interview from Gaza City. "My allegiance is to my family, but I look forward to cooperating with a strong government." …
The Dagmoush family's home turf is a large Gaza City neighborhood cordoned off by huge concrete barriers, charred cars and burning dumpsters. Guards keep watch on who comes and goes down a narrow street that serves as the main entry into the neighborhood. At night, gunfire into the air warns off possible intruders from the stronghold, which is home to more than 3,000 men among its 15,000 residents.
From here, Mumtaz Dagmoush built his power base largely by aligning himself with Hamas, which swept elections 16 months ago, though the groups have since had a falling-out. Over the past two years, according to the Israeli army, Dagmoush and his allies have been involved in a series of provocative attacks, including the September 2005 assassination of a reviled Palestinian intelligence chief and a thwarted assault last April on the main cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel. …
The family gained new prominence last June when Palestinian militants stormed an Israeli outpost along the Gaza Strip border and captured a 19-year-old solider, Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Among those taking part in the attack was a group calling itself the Army of Islam, which Israeli security sources say is led by Mumtaz Dagmoush. Two months later, a group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades kidnapped two Fox News journalists and held them for nearly two weeks. The pair won their freedom only after being forced to make a videotaped conversion to Islam. Anita McNaught, the wife of the abducted Fox cameraman, said all the available evidence pointed to Mumtaz Dagmoush as the man behind the kidnapping. But, as with previous kidnappings of journalists and aid workers, the Palestinian Authority didn't punish or arrest anyone.
The Dagmoush alliance with Hamas crumbled in December when two family members were killed in a clash with Hamas militants. Since then, the clan has demanded that Hamas turn over 18 men who it says are responsible for the deaths. "The blood is hot and we cannot suppress the feelings of vengeance," said Talat Dagmoush, who called on Hamas to accept a mediator to solve the dispute. "We do not want to take vengeance but, at the same time, we do not want our rights to be ignored."
The second report, "Fatah, Hamas may join ranks," is by Khaled Abu Toameh, in The Jerusalem Post, November 29, 2007:
Fatah will fight alongside Hamas if and when the IDF launches a military operation in the Gaza Strip, a senior Fatah official in Gaza City said Thursday. "Fatah won't remain idle in the face of an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip," the official said. "We will definitely fight together with Hamas against the Israeli army. It's our duty to defend our people against the occupiers." The Fatah official said his faction would place political differences aside and form a joint front against Israel if the IDF enters the Gaza Strip. "The homeland is more important than all our differences."
(January 24, 2008)
July 27, 2008 update: For a vivid example of the tribal role in Saudi Arabia, see "Saudis Face Soaring Blood-Money Sums: Tribes, Families Are Demanding Millions" in today's Washington Post.
June 1, 2011 update: The Salzman thesis applies in the lawless Sinai region of Egypt, according to a report by Tim Whewell of the BBC, "Egypt revolution leaves Sinai increasingly lawless."
June 4, 2011 update: And for tribal justice in Iraq, see "As Iraqi Militants Flee, Families Are Targets of Blood Reckoning" in today's New York Times.
Apr. 6, 2014 update: Today comes a report on an Arab-Nubian clash of clans in Aswan, Egypt that has already taken 25 lives.