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The Islamic State: Balancing the Islamic and Tribal Identities

Image by Marc Veraart

Image by Marc Veraart

The article was first published in the International Academic Forum’s Eye Magazine – Issue 7 – Summer 2015

International media has recently reported that the Islamic State group (IS) demanded the release of an Iraqi woman, Sajida Al-Rishawi, detained in Jordan in exchange for the Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh, whom they captured and later executed. Yet, the organisation’s insistence on seeking the release of a woman raises many questions about the nature of a group that exacerbates the subordinate role of women in the communities which it rules. What needs to be looked carefully at in this situation is that by insisting on the realease of Sajida Al-Rishawi and not any other male prisoners held by Jordan, IS attempted to portray her arrest as a violation of women which is a matter of high sensitivity in the tribal society and thus applied to the tribal idiom of honour which is  then used as a rational for the group’s acts of revenge.[i]

In no part of the Middle East are the tribal elements more sharply defined than in Iraq and the East of Syria where IS dominates. The population that inhabits this part of Syria and Iraq is largely tribal, defined by anthropologists as being part of an independent, regional political groupings made up of structurally similar segments.[ii] The leaders of IS, who are mainly Iraqis and Syrians,[iii] were born and raised in tribal communities themselves and often speak animatedly and with pride of their tribes and the honour of their people. In all of the IS videos and statements, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph, is not identified by his name and surname only but by the Quraysh tribe from which the Prophet Mohammed descends.[iv] These links to the Prophet provide a kind of cover to court alliances with Sunni tribes by helping him establish legitimacy as the “purest” of Muslims by carrying the prophet’s blood in his veins.

Throughout history to the present day, tribal identity and Islamic identity have been in constant struggle and every Muslim with a tribal background is in a dilemma over how to balance the compulsions of the tribal background and the teachings of the Islamic faith. Although Islam tried to adapt all the tribal codes of honour and revenge, tribal influences remained to permeate even the most cosmopolitan Arab states such as the UAE. What this short article seeks to argue is that the actions of IS are swayed much more than has been previously assumed by a tribal template hidden beneath an overtly religious surface.

One of the main principles of Arab tribalism is honour. Arabs are taught that honour is more important than wealth, fame, love or even death.[v] Thus, whenever there is transgression against honour, there are reactions that seem on the face of it emotional because they are not based on calculation but rather stem from revenge. According to the central institution of the tribes, when honour is violated, it must be avenged by the entire group. Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, scatters clues to this thinking by frequently using the word “honour” in most of his speeches. As the coalition started its air strikes against the group, al-Adnani asked all the Muslims in an audio release to be prepared to take up arms saying “I swear by Allah that the enemies will force you to carry them and you will carry them voluntarily or by force even after a while because this is how honour will be safeguarded and dignity will be retrieved and the rights recovered.”[vi] Likewise, in tribal codes, any member of the enemy’s community is liable to be attacked in revenge for an offense committed by one of his community. Al-Adnani called on Muslims in Western countries to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.”

A few months after his appeal, two French citizens of Algerian origin attacked a satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris killing 10 of the magazine’s journalists while shouting: “We have avenged the Prophet Mohammed, we have avenged the Prophet Mohammed, we have killed Charlie Hebdo.” IS has praised the two gunmen who stormed the offices of the magazine in Paris as “heroic jihadists”. The most sensitive part of tribal honour pertains to transgressions against women as it directly relates to the honour of the men in the tribe. Violation of women provokes the most violent reaction. Again, al-Adnani’s speeches and statements of other IS leaders are replete with sentences about the violation of Muslim women by enemies. “The crusaders have killed nine Muslim women three days ago by striking a bus transporting them from Sham to Iraq,” Al-Adnani said addressing the tribes of Syria and Iraq. “Will you leave the disbeliever to sleep safely at home while the Muslim women shiver with fear of the roars of the crusader airplanes above their heads day and night?” Thus, to atone for the shame incurred by this aggression on Muslim women, the tribesmen feel they must seek violent vengeance.

Moreover, the group’s execution of hostages from the US, UK, Japan, Egypt and Jordan, without requiring any explanatory recourse to Islam, is an implication of the system of collective guilt. The horrific manner in which the executions have taken place ought to be placed under the heading of pro-active deterrence.[vii] Arab tribes have always existed in an effective state of anarchy where the resort to retaliatory force was an effective technique for suppressing future challenges. The continuous release of beheading videos shows genuine master of the technique of deterrent intimidation.

To conclude, understanding the influence of tribalism upon the development of Islam and, by extension, IS, requires an acknowledgement of the basic characteristics and dynamics of Middle East tribalism. IS’ attitudes towards its adversaries reflect the influence of tribal values. Without this understanding, the war on terror will not end in any kind of recognizable victory as the current military actions are merely exacerbating the conflict.

Image courtesy of Marc Veraart

The article was first published in the International Academic Forum’s Eye Magazine – Issue 7 – Summer 2015

[i] Ahmed, A. 2013: The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam. Brookings Institution

[ii] Salzman, P. 2008: Culture and Conflict in the Middle East. Prometheus Books

[iii] Orient News. 21/9/2014: ISIS Leaders, Names and Surnames.

[iv] INSITE on Terrorism. 12/08/2014. A Biography of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

[v] Ajami, F. 2009: The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey. Vintage Books Ed edition

[vi] Fursan Al-Balagh Media. 2014. “Seven Facts”. The English Translation of speech of sheikh Abu Mohammed Al-Adnani Official spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq

[vii] Kurtz, S. 2008: I and My Brother Against My Cousin. The Weekly Standard

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About Haian Dukhan

Haian is from Palmyra in Syria and is a doctoral student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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