This review appeared originally in Critical Muslim #10 under the title “Tribal Islam”, which is useful as a way of explaining what is largely missing from the analysis of the Taliban, Boko Haram, and other Islamist armed groups, namely their tribal origins. Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is required reading for anybody trying to understand the deeper roots of such groups, particularly those who trying to develop a Marxist analysis. Akbar Ahmed is a mainstream social scientist but his research is first-rate.
We live in a period of such mounting Islamophobia that it became possible for Rush Limbaugh, one of the most venomous rightwingers in the U.S., to make common cause with Global Research, a website that describes itself as a “major news source on the New World Order and Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’”. Not long after the Sarin gas attack on the people of East Ghouta, Global Research became a hub of pro-Baathist propaganda blaming “jihadists” for a “false flag” operation. Limbaugh, who claims that there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim”, touted a Global Research “false flag” article on his radio show demonstrating that when it comes to Islamophobia the left and right can easily join hands.
Therefore the arrival of Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is most auspicious. It puts a human face on the most vilified segment of the world’s population, the “extremist” with his sharia courts, his “backwardness”, his violence, and his resistance to modernization. The central goal of Ahmed’s study is to subject the accepted wisdom of the punditry on both the left and right, which often descends into Limbaugh-style stereotyping, to a critique based on his long experience as an administrator in Waziristan, a hotbed of Islamic tribal “extremism”, and as a trained anthropologist. Reading “The Thistle and the Drone” can only be described as opening a window and letting fresh air and sunlight into a dank and fetid sickroom.
The drone in the title needs no explanation except for Ahmed’s pointed reference to Obama wisecracking at a press conference. If the Jonas Brothers, a pop music sensation, got too close to his daughters at a White House visit, he had two words for them: “predator drone”.
The thistle required more explanation. We learn that this is a reference to a passage in Tolstoy’s neglected novel “Hadji Murad” that takes the side of a Muslim tribal leader against the Czarist military campaign to stamp out resistance to Great Russian domination. Considering Putin’s genocidal war on the Chechens and his support for Bashar al-Assad’s onslaught against his own countrymen, not much has changed since the 19th century. The narrator in Tolstoy’s novel attempted to pluck a thistle for its beauty but was ultimately thwarted by its prickly stalk, a perfect metaphor for the experience of trying to subdue proud and independent peoples living in inhospitable desert or mountainous regions.
Although some anthropologists consider the word “tribal” retrograde and/or imprecise, one would never confuse Ahmed with the colonial-minded social scientist that used it as a way of denigrating “backward” peoples. For Ahmed, the qualities of tribal peoples are to be admired even if some of their behavior is negative. Most of all, they are paragons of true democracy resting on the “consent of the governed”. Their love of freedom inevitably leads them to conflict with state-based powers anxious to assimilate everybody living within their borders to a model of obedience to approved social norms.
While tribal peoples everywhere come into conflict with those trying to impose their will on them, it is only with Islamic tribal peoples that global geopolitics gets drawn into the equation. “The Thistle in the Drone” consists of case studies in which the goal is to disaggregate Islam from tribal norms. For example, despite the fact that the Quran has strict rules against suicide and the murder of noncombatants, tribal peoples fighting under the banner of Islam have often resorted to such measures, especially on the key date of September 11, 2001. In an eye-opening examination of those events, Ahmed proves that a Yemeni tribe acting on the imperative to extract revenge was much more relevant than Wahabi beliefs. While most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi, their origins were in a Yemeni tribe that traced its bloodlines back to the prophet Mohammad. And more to the point, they were determined to wreak vengeance against the superpower that had been complicit in the murderous attack on their tribesmen in Yemen, an element of the 9/11 attacks that has finally been given the attention it deserves.
In chapter three, titled “Bin Laden’s Dilemma: Balancing Tribal and Islamic Identity”, we learn that the al-Qaeda leader admitted to an interviewer that the 9/11 attacks were not sanctioned by the Quran but based on a need to “get even”: ”We treat others like they treat us. Those who kill our women and our innocent, we kill their women and innocent, until they stop from doing so.” As someone who has studied Native American tribes for some two decades, this has a very familiar ring. The Comanches, the Sioux, and the Apache lived by this credo. While they were always loyal to their own clans and treated outsiders with hospitality if they came in good faith, woe betide the aggressor who took the life of a fellow tribesman.
Ahmed elaborates on the connection between American Indians and Muslim tribal peoples in chapter six titled “How to Win the War on Terror”, citing Benjamin Franklin who saw the tribes of the Northeast as paragons of democracy and freedom:
The Indian Men, when young, are Hunters and Warriors; when old, Counselors; for all their Government is by Counsel, or Advice, of the sages; there is no Force, there are no Prisons, no Officers to compel Obedience, or inflict punishment. Hence they generally study Oratory; the best speaker having the most Influence. The Indian Women till the Ground, dress the Food, nurse and bring up the Children, and preserve and hand down to posterity the Memory of Public Transactions. These Employments of Men and Women are accounted natural and honorable. Having few Artificial Wants, they have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious manner of Life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the Learning, on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous and useless.
Unfortunately, this is where I have to part company with Akbar Ahmed’s analysis since he gives far too much credit to the founders of the American republic whose treatment of the tribal peoples might ostensibly serve as a guide to Pakistan’s relations with the Pakhtun in Waziristan. Despite the respect that Franklin held for native peoples, the behavior of the American industrialists and plantation owners that followed him were governed by the need to safeguard private property. The American Indian was simply not allowed to live as hunters in the Great Plains as they had in the past since cattle generated far more profit than the free roaming Bison.
Even on the basis of words, there were problems indicated early on. Ahmed cites Thomas Jefferson favorably as arguing against “an augmentation of military force proportioned to our extension of frontier.” However, this is the same Thomas Jefferson who proposed removal of the Cherokee Indians from the Southeast to west of the Mississippi, a policy finally carried by Andrew Jackson in the “trail of tears”. To show that he meant business, Jefferson told Secretary of War General Henry Dearborn “if we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi.”
To a large extent, Ahmed’s hope that the White House can be persuaded of the counter-productiveness of drone attacks rests on a view of American history much more in accord with its rulers’ self-portrait than Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. Ahmed details his meetings with both the Bush administration and Obama’s on how to deal with terrorism, an invitation that would only be extended to someone who tends toward an “inside the beltway” perspective. No matter the limitations of such an outlook, the world would certainly be better off if the Obama administration adopted his proposals on a wholesale basis. For that matter, it would also be far better off if Obama’s campaign promises going back to 2008 had been adopted, promises that convinced some that the Islamophobia of years past would be abandoned. Those hopes now seem vain, especially with the White House’s indifference to the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt and Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing murderous attacks on Syrian neighborhoods in the name of defeating “extremists”.
“The Thistle and the Drone” is not only a stunning analysis that will allow you to see the “war on terror” in a new way; it will also have lasting value as a reference book that can be drawn upon for its scholarly citations and baseline for considering “trouble spots” like Somalia, Mali, and Libya. As someone who has more than a glancing familiarity with these nations, Ahmed’s book went a long way to clearing away the lingering fog.
My interest in Somalia and Mali was heightened by the need to provide some historical background on two films (I am a long-time critic whose reviews appear on Rotten Tomatoes website). The first was “Captain Phillips”, a narrative film based on Somali pirates seizing a cargo ship. My research persuaded me that the stiffest resistance to the pirates came from the Islamic Sharia Courts that saw such crimes as “haram”, or against Islam. It was this Islamic coalition that America and its Ethiopian and Kenyan allies were determined to crush as part of the war on terror. The second film was “Behind the Blue Veil”, a documentary on the Tuareg who have been in a struggle with the Malian state. They are regarded as a jihadist threat rather than a proud people asserting tribal claims for sovereignty and demanding social and economic justice.
Despite Ahmed’s admiration for tribal values, he is no romantic when it comes to Somalia’s clans that he blames for most of the country’s recent troubles. Under Siad Barre’s “socialist” dictatorship, all expressions of tribal identity were suppressed. As was the case with Libya’s Gaddafi, the centralizing state was for all practical purposes the instrument of clan rule in and of itself. Siad Barre ruled on behalf of the Darod Marehand subclan and Gaddafi on behalf of the Gadafa, a Western tribe that tried to bring the Benghazi-based Cyrenaica tribe under its thumb.
The implosion of clan-based warlordism led Islamists to seize power in Somalia in a manner reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan. After the Sharia Court government was toppled by the West and its African allies, the struggle took an even sharper Islamist turn under the auspices of Al Shabab (“the youth”), a group that was responsible for the terrorist attack on a Kenya shopping mall in September 2013.
Since Washington regards Al Shabab as an al-Qaeda affiliate, it has deployed drone attacks at them, often victimizing innocent herdsmen. Like Afghanistan, Somalia seems destined to be part of a senseless “war on terrorism” when the only real solution to its problems—a Sharia based government willing and able to resolve contradictions between its rival clans—had been eliminated.
Mali threatens to become another example of unceasing warfare against a jihadist threat with the Tuareg serving as victims of an American crusade incapable of making critical distinctions between genuine enemies and those unfortunate enough to be wrongly perceived as such. No other people are less deserving of this treatment than the Tuareg, who, like the Kurds, were victims of circumstances far too frequent in Sub-Saharan Africa. French and English colonialism left behind states that did not map to the traditional tribal structures. Furthermore, if you belonged to a tribe that straddled multiple state entities, you were powerless to defend your interests as a people. Regarded by the state of Mali as bothersome nomads, the Tuareg were forced to rely on themselves and their heterodox Islamic beliefs in which the men wore the veils and the women bright and colorful garments.
The French were determined to assimilate the Tuaregs as farmers, something that was as inimical to their values as it was to the Sioux and the Comanches. When Mali gained independence, the drive to assimilate kept apace. The military rulers banned the Tuareg language just as the Kemalists would ban the Kurdish language. In all of these postcolonial states, there was a tragic and unnecessary urge to follow in the footsteps of the colonizer. If you were Islamic in your beliefs and lived according to thousand-year-old tribal norms, your suffering was magnified when you were unfortunate enough to live within the borders of a “modernizing” non-Islamic state like the USSR. Stalinist oppression of its Caucasian Islamic citizens went to genocidal extremes.
The government of Mali was determined to bring the nomads under control, from poisoning their wells to killing their herds. After many years of suffering and neglect, the Tuaregs rose up against their oppressor. In early 2012 the Tuaregs took control of a vast region of northern Mali the size of France. Viewing the Malian state as a firm defender of “law and order”, the U.S. attempted to aid its troops with C-130 transports of arms and supplies. There are two main Tuareg rebel forces in the area, one carrying the banner of tribalism and the other al-Qaeda’s Black Flag. There are worrisome signs that Washington lacks the capability to distinguish between the two. It has called upon the Algerian government to provide military aid to Mali in the name of fighting al-Qaeda but it is likely that the bullets will be fired at Tuaregs whatever banner they carry. The Algerians have been merciless against the Berbers, the Tuareg’s northern cousins, so one must regard any alliance between Mali and Algeria as inimical to the rights of Islamic tribesmen once again.
Let me conclude with some thoughts on Libya, which should not be construed as a criticism of Ahmed’s research. Since I lack his expertise and those of the research team that worked under his direction, I only offer this in the same way that I would pose a question to a speaker at a conference who has just delivered a powerful and informative lecture.
“The Thistle and the Drone” treats Libya almost as an example of a clan-divided society after the fashion of Somalia. But I have been under the impression that such tribalism has always been exaggerated. In an interview I conducted with a young Libyan who took part in the rebellion, I was assured that there are no real tribes in Libya now. He claims that he has no idea what tribe he belongs to and that population flows from one city to another has largely eroded tribal society, mostly through unforced assimilation.
However, there are still centripetal tendencies in Libya that threaten the country’s future. Are they tribal? Can a modernizing state based on the will of all its citizens be created in a timely enough fashion to preempt a Somalia type evolution? A lot rests on such an outcome and one can only hope that scholars like Akbar Ahmed can help provide the insights necessary to help move the struggle forward.