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Iraq's Tribal Threat

I have often argued in this blog that the adaptation of Islamic beliefs to tribal customs is one of the main problems facing Islam’s efforts to modernize. Whether manifested in so-called “honor” crimes in Jordan, or in Afghanistan’s makeshift legal system in places like the border town of Khost, tribalism asserts itself where government has broken down, providing some form of law and hierarchy at the price of allowing socially regressive practices and corruption. I sometimes like to measure tribal leaders by what I call the “Godfather factor” – just how little they have to say to make themselves understood.

Over the past two years in Iraq, the U.S. has turned to these very leaders to try to drag the country out of the frying pan. With American backing, Sunni tribes succeeded in driving al-Qaeda members out of their strongholds in most Sunni cities. But in doing so, the U.S. has entrenched a new class of tribal rulers like Sheikh Ahmed Abu Rishe, who I met last month in Ramadi. He is the self-styled “victor of Ramadi,” the provincial capital of the Sunni dominated Anbar province. Sheikh Ahmed, pictured here outside his new political offices surrounded by tribal supplicants seeking his favor, scores rather highly in the Godfather stakes.

Sheikh Ahmed Abu Rishe

Sheikh Ahmed claims to be a social liberal, and says the reason he turned against al-Qaeda was that it challenged conservative, yet tolerant, social mores. “[Al-Qaeda members] were taking women off the streets and beating them for not wearing the full hijab, and shooting men without beards who did not pray five times a day,” said the Sheikh. “This brought a deep shame to our families, so we rejected them.” Nevertheless, an important part of tribal custom for Sheikh Ahmed is the ability to distribute largesse and patronage to his 8,000 armed followers –¬¬ and therein lies one of his main challenges to Iraq’s fragile system of governance. Sheikh Ahmed says that most of his forces have been incorporated into the local police force, and that he is keen to become part of the political process. To that end, he has set up a party to compete in provincial elections scheduled for later this year. “We want to create a political party that will represent all of Iraq,” he told me. However, members of the Iraq’s Shia-dominated government have reacted with a mixture of disdain and fear to the rise of Sheikh Ahmed and others Sunni tribal leaders like him. Tahseen al-Sheikhly, head of the country’s reconciliation committee, sees Sheikh Ahmed’s political ambitions as tribalism writ large. “Tribes don’t make states,” al-Sheikhly said. “They are an important part of the social framework of Iraq, but to build a state you need technocrats and politicians. We are concerned that under the guise of politics, tribal leaders are pushing their own local agendas... and they are doing so with the backing of armed militias.” Of course, until recently, the Iraqi government’s main party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, had its own militia called the Badr Brigade (now folded into the Interior Ministry.) So in turn do the Kurds, in the form of the 60,000-strong (figures vary) Peshmerga, and the radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In fact, far from creating a new tribal power in Iraq, the U.S. military has simply enabled the Sunnis to gain a degree of parity. The question is whether the different sides can settle their differences peacefully and find a political solution that can meet everyone’s ambitions. When asked on that point, the Sheikh said very little.

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Comments (32)

DE Teodoru:

By now-- after we really hit Iraq with a giant egg beater-- tribes are a means to an end and not the traditional end they used to be. We expected our people to work through the tribes building infrastructures so they would favor us. But our managers decided to steal the money for themselves. So now we have tribes cross-cut by gangs and all are out to make the doe, forever realigning. Our crooked "heroes" went to Iraq intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb. Most came back with mental or physical injuries or in bovxes. But other came back with big fat accounts in global banks at expense of US taxpayers. As Poggo said: we have met the enemy and he isn't the tribes, he is our crooked war managers.


I totally agree with Fairweather's discretion that Islam and tribalism don't mix.

When tribalism flourish, it means that the society is heading in the wrong direction. However, by returning to Islamic values, tribalism will subside.

Islamic values will eventually wipe out the influence of tribalism from the society.

Non tribal moslem:

Again you link "honor killings" to tribal norms... this means that you're implying that non-tribal moslems put their women up for graps!!?? you also imply that non-tribals have no honor.

Your are doing like what non-Kurdish Turks say when they point their fingers towards the Kurds once the honor killing thing is mentioned..

Honor killings are an unfortunate incidents which has got nothing to do with Islam. It indicates their failure of Moslem families to live with morality, failure of the whole society to spread morality, and the failure of governments to protect its youth by not fighting immorality.

No sane Moslem on this earth would love to live to the day when he discovers that his daughter or his son was involved in honor defiling situation...However, Moslem parents didn't bring up their children with good morals, they will end up reaping the fruits of their seeds.


Anyone who thinks Americans aren't tribal hasn't been to a Texas high school football game.

Usama, I agree with your Richard Burton comment. Looks to me as if Fairweather is doing for the American empire what Burton did for the British empire - putting the natives (I resist using the "w" word) in context. Luckily, there are many Arabs and Muslims speaking very well for themselves elsewhere.


Fairweather is the WaPo's mini-Richard Burton. He shall illuminate the fair reader of the goings on in the Orient of the Muhammadans as they struggle to be like the noble civilized Anglo race.

Shall Fairweather growith a beard in our to blend in with the common folk?


I respect Abraham for bringing rationality to his tribe,and I don't think he had an iota of fascism in his blood.

I repsect Jesus for rebelling against the greedy Rabbis of the temple.I don't think he planned to seed the existing grandeur of the Church.

I respect Mohammad for reforming the Arabs.But I don't think he was expecting that his reforms will outlive their utilty.

These men hated religions as much as we hate the putrified remains of their endevours.

The lesson from these stories is simple,i.e.,prevent putrifaction of existing social order.


how many tribes were there during the time of Abraham? ask an Ashke Nazi and never ask a Sephardic because you will get to different answers.

what is hasidism?
who are Aske Nazis?
who are Sephards?



Get a brain.


Somali, Somali, Somali,
How you epitomize the racism that you see in everyone else. As if you need to be a Muslim to understand Islam. That's like saying you need to be a Jew to understand Judaism.


Seriously--Dear Washington Post--for the love of God, if you are going to have a 'blog' about Islam, please have it be written by someone who knows, say, a scholar or, hey! A Muslim! Or, how about we also get columns about Judaism and Christianity written by non-Jews and non-Christians? Then we can talk about how both of these non-religions/ideologies permit large scale invasion and occupation of other countries that happen to have the resources that WE want. Hmmm? How about it? Or, if you are going to change the name and make it about politics in the Middle East, how about hiring someone who knows something about politics...or in this case when discussing tribes and tribalism, a social anthropologist. Oh, wait, this blog isn't supposed to be serious, is it...


LOL - is there some other "expert" in the room, please? This one has lost all credibility with me.


What exactly is the point of this article? There is no analysis. None. It reads like a synopsis of news reports on U.S. support for the Sunni tribal leaders and the inevitable reaction of the Shias. I defy anyone to show me Mr. Fairweather's conclusions or judgment on all this.

Buried in his collation of media reports is a nugget of valuable information. That is the fact that the U.S. military's aid to Iraqi tribal leaders is a 100% contradiction of our self-proclaimed goal of establishing a secular-oriented democracy governed by the rule of law. No two forces on earth work at greater cross-purpose than democracy and tribalism. By turning to Sunni tribal leaders to win the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq, the U.S. has undermined its own long-term goals in Iraq. It's a classic penny-wise-and-pound-foolish approach.

The very fact that we have had to foster tribalism to secure a temporary reprieve against anarchy in Iraq is the best argument I can think of for getting out as soon as possible. It shows the depth of the quagmire we sink into any time we attempt to "bring democracy" to some tribally, religiously, ethnically, and regionally divided third-world cesspool. Nothing we can do will ever overcome all these deep divisions. We will search endlessly for the light at the end of the tunnel. Declare victory, lay down some red lines, and get the hell out, now.


Another American-centric piece of poop. This guy needs to take the plank out his own eye. ISlam doesn't need to modernize - it's just different. It's the countries that need help to modernize - look at the difference between, say, Dubai and Chicago. I know where I'd rather live - and Dubai still has strong tribal connections.

Americans needs to get out a bit more and stop fixating on Islam - their preferred own brand of christianity reeks of hypocrisy and nationalism and looks almost medieval - or worse -- to outsiders.


Michael and Mr. "Fun" are humanists???

I am thrilled because I will always have a job!!

what is frightening is that these remarks are "not offensive" to the very few readers of this forum.

Dr. S.
Clinical Psychologist


Tribalism has been practiced by Cro-Magnons since the last Homosapian near-extinction a hundred thousand years ago. It was and is the easiest group protection mechanism that can locally establish a 'turf' in which members can survive. Tribal affiliation is also the easiest mechanism for preying on other Cro-Magnons who might not be as well armed. How else would you be able to obtain a wealth of wives and cattle?

But many in this discussion are suggesting that the tribal mechanism is created by various manipulations of national states and religion. Neither has anything to do with ancient tribal instincts and the proof of that is that 'tribes' form over and over again in every city on the Cro-Magnon planet, usually for the purpose of controlling this or that block of territory for economic purposes.

The belief that 'humanist' values do not include an evolving spiritual awareness but are somehow related to tribalism has missed some things concening recent brain activity research involving functional MRI. Total brain activity does NOT equal the sum of the parts by any measure. Both the atheists and religious obsessives might be riding a camel or donkey when it comes to spiritual evolution among Cro-Magnons.


In the first sentence of this article author says that
"..........adaptation of Islamic beliefs to tribal customs is one of the main problems facing Islam’s efforts to modernize".
My doubt is ' is Islam trying to modernise '. I am getting whatever information I have through reading newspapers. I dont remember to have read that except in Turkey there is any such move. I have read that some good samaritans in Turkey are opening some school where the good aspects of the religion is taught. It is a commentable attempt.
But then Turkey was modernised by Ata Turk Kemal Pasha nearly a centuary back. And also that sadly enough there is a tendency there to slide back to earlier period.
I have also read that many of those young women in West who wore jeans and tops and mingled with men are trying to adopt hijab and stop mingling with the opposite sex. If it is due to compulsion from parents, one can understand. But when it is of ones own free will then it is really retrogression. It is due to the hypnotic hold the religion has on the people. In the private life if one prays not five times but fifty times it does not matter If one does not take a particular food it is alright. But in the society one should be like any one else.


Christianity, Judaisim are not exactly models to honor either. While I don't agree with certain Islamic customs....I think Christianity is a bootleg - terribly altered - religion that was forced upon people 1st by murder and colonization. Kissing the ring of a pope...soundz like a cult to me.


Did the Italians get there tablecloth designs from the phony headgear worn by ahab-the-arab? I still have reservations about the local buildings in the ahab world. They seem to be dated, even earlier that the old west in the US. This is probably another indication of a religion gone bad, holding back humans. I still love the sat dishes on top of those adobe huts.

I'm sorry but these people are really creepy. I am so glad that I am not in the armed forces today. I would be in prison because I would have killed everyone of those MF's that showed their faces. They are all enemies of the modern world.

We screwed the pooch when I was in Vietnam, a really unnecessary war and I suspect we will do it again in Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan is probably the only justified battle in the theater. My brain wants to kill all these ba$tards.


Michael, as a Humanist, I too believe that all religions/superstitions are cults and I further believe they are and have always been the most destructive forces on earth.

The world will be a far better place when all the world's religions/cults are thrown onto the ash heap of history, and especially the muzlum so-called religion.

For the most part, I dislike the religion, not the believers of that religion but I must take exception to the muzlum religion and it's followers who are so deeply and fanatically opposed to my freedom to believe or not believe whatever I choose that muzlums should be contained in the ratholes from which they came from and every effort made to eliminate that particular cult of hatred from the face of the earth.


I just now posted a comment regarding the arming of the tribal leaders to fight the Al Qaeda in Iraq. This strategy can be a little more improved. Don’t stop at arming only the tribals. Better arm every player. Give each party plenty of arms and ammunitions. It is like the big industries donating to the political parties to be on their good books. Irrespective of whichever party wins you are always the winner. In addition to dispatching the arms to the concerned parties the same can be dropped from air with the label ‘ with warm regards and a happy and enjoyable war, from Uncle’. That way even those who could not get when the shipments were made to the known players can get it. The most important thing is that there should not be any dearth of arms.
Occupation forces can go back to their respective countries. As far as they are concerned no more body bags. Whatever body bags are there it will belong to Iraq itself and no shipping required. No necessity of searching for more burial grounds.

When everything is over one can go safely and start digging.


FunTravelAdventure...thank you for putting this religion in perspective. However, I think that this may apply to Christianity too as there have been many wars fought between various Christian sects. I think they are all cults.


izlum and civilization don't mix

izlum and humanity don't mix.

izlum and modernity don't mix

izlum and normalcy don't mix

izlum and free thinking don't mix

izlum and ignorance do mix

izlum and backwardness do mix

izlum and violence do mix

izlum and murder do mix

izlum and hatred do mix

izlum and dishonesty do mix

izlum and treachery do mix

Need proof, look at somalia and somalis and other muzlum cesspools.


How good is the idea of bringing one more factor into the present bedlam. Is it a good strategy? Are these tribal leaders that dependable? As one of the person has posted, it is technocrats and politicians ( not corrupt ones ) and administrators who are required to build a nation. Not the tribal leaders who maintain a rag-tag army by paying largesses. The only advantage, I know it is a cynical one, is that these people will fight with each other and eliminate many and then it will be easy to fight with the remaining ones. That way it is good to bring as many of these players into the arena. It is not going to solve the problem by taking the help of tribals. It is due to the similar tactics taken to drive Russia out of Afghanistan which has resulted in the Frankenstien Monster of Taliban. This new experiment will only help to create one more monster.


islam's very existence depends on tribes. Somali, go chill and eat some pork chops.


The central premise of the article misses the central element in the evolution of Islam, and I think misses the broader issue altogether as a result. The central divide between the Sunnis and Shi'ites comes from the lineage of Islamic leaders who would follow Muhammad, with the overwhelming majority of Muslims, the Sunnis, opting to embrace the tribal system, with the tribal leaders chosing from among themselves who was most worthy to lead, essentially making the Caliphate an uber-tribal confederation, with the Caliph's primary job being to preserve the conditions within the state to allow people to submit to the will of Allah as they saw it. This is, to answer the Shi'ite tribalism question above, why you hear more about tribalism with respect to the Sunnis than you do with the Shi'ites.

Within the Shi'ite community, they adopted a stronger central leadership authority, first in the Imams (those descended from Fatima and Ali), and since then through the recognized clerics, the Ayatollahs. These leaders play a much more formal role in Shi'ite culture and wield more power than the informal leaders of the Sunni world, and as a result the history of the Sunni world has been cooperation between Islam and Tribes, while the Shi'ite leaders and tribal leaders have been constant rivals.

This was how the Brits kept the Shi'ite majority in minority status for so long, and laid the foundation for Sunni nationalists and Ba'athist s to take power when they left. THe Shi'ites in Iraq converted fairly recently (mainly in the 1800s), and largely as a form of rebellion against the Sunni Ottomans. The Shi'ite leaders were tied to the Ottoman rivals in Persia, and came to Iraq as Persians. The conflict of religious structure and ethnic tensions between Arabs and Persians led the Shi'ites unable to unite, as the Brits and Arab Nationalists would play off the tribal leaders against the religious leaders to keep them fighting amongst themselves while the Arab Sunnis consolidated power.

The divide here isn't about Islam itself, it's part of the fundamental fight within Islam over Sunni vs Shi'ite, and all the other dividing factors that plague the region (ethnicity, nationalist tendencies, etc.). It's no surprise that the Sunnis embrace tribalism, and the Shi'ites seek to undermine it at all costs, both due to the history of the faith, and the country itself.



How does current tribalism differ from the tribalism that has been present since the inception of Islam? Although Muhammad decried tribalism, isn't one of the main beliefs of Shia that Sunnis follow the trodden path of Quraysh tribal leaders who usurped Muhammad's divinely-approved bloodline?


Fairweather talks about Sunni tribalism. We constantly read in the papers about Sunni tribalism. But are the Shias tribal? I can't recall reading about Shi'ite tribes. Is this an oversight, or does it reflect a real difference between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias?

Also, would it be more precise to speak of clans? The Scots had clans, speaking the same language and having the same religion. How does the Iraqi situation compare with the old Scottish clan system?



your thinking pre-dates tribal thinking. You have a long way to go before you catch up with civilized discourse.


"How many people have 'they' killed over the course of 100 years?"

That's funny. It is easier if we don't look too close at what we're saying. Now yer getting the hang of this.


Somali has a point:
between America and Europe, how many people have they killed over the course of 100 years?

50 million?

And how many wars have they been involved in?

10? 15?

Mr Fairweather in Iraq is fairly myopic. America invaded Iraq with Britain and shuffled the people about to satisfy their Anglo American imperial interests. Now, so and so is against so and so because this or that, and usually America is playing them against each other to manipulate a beneficial outcome (ie. applied Game theory).

It is idiotic for a Westerner to ponder about the problems in a country of Muslims who have lived over 20 years under a secular dictatorship, 13 years of sanctions, 3 major wars, occupation, and blame it on Islam.


Who the hell is this guy writing this garbage? Are you Muslim Buddy? You are NOT even Middle Eastern.

You are some white guy. probably christian or jew. And I hate it when the murdering white man lectures me about MY RELIGION>

What the hell do you, yes, you, know about Islam white man? NOTHING!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOTING!!!!!!

Ted Baines:

What happened to the blog " islam and Divorce"

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