Detribalizing the Muslim Community
Despite the noble teachings of Islam, tribalism, in a disturbing sense, seems to thrive far too well in Muslim communities, both locally in America and at international levels. And these tribalist mentalities and behavior are hampering the advance of the Muslim community.
By tribalism and tribalist mentality, I mean the way of life and the mentality that characterized our "tribal" ancestors. According to historians, for about 40 millennia before civilization emerged, people lived in small tribal groups, using primitive stone tools to hunt for and gather foods. From the organizational perspective, the tribal society was clannish, mutually isolated, closed and antagonistic in matters of territorial dispute.
In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1990), Princeton University Psychologist Julian Jaynes argued that these ancient tribal people operated in a semi-conscious mental state. They were not fully conscious as reasoning individuals, even though they could perform most tasks necessary for survival as a tribe.
Tribalism has survived the stages of civilization even to the modern time. In The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) the Austrian-born British philosopher of science Karl Popper explained how modern civilization couldn't fully recover from the shock of transition from the tribal (closed) society to the open society that sets free the critical powers of people. He argued that in the form of totalitarian movements or forms of social control, tribalism struck back at civilization time and again.
Like snowballs, tribalism has gathered many layers or dimensions today. We can talk about ethnic tribalism, ideological/political tribalism, religious tribalism, and even global tribalism. If the early tribal societies were mutually isolated, closed, and "unintelligent," the present "global village" due to the new technologies is also ironically retribalizing humanity because there is an absence of reasoned moral action.
Even then, as inheritors of rich moral and intellectual traditions, Muslims have failed to throw off the legacy of tribalism. Throughout the world, ethnic, regional or national ties appear to be privileged by Muslims. Primarily because of tribalism, the global Muslim community (i.e., nations) cannot forge a much-needed unity and common stance on international issues. They haven't been able to develop a common market of the Muslim world and have failed miserably to defend the rights of Muslims everywhere. Even at a local level in the U.S. where the community integrates Muslims of various nations and "tribes" from all over the world, the tribalist mentality has bred tension or souring social interaction. This has retarded the growth of development projects in many Muslim communities.
Since Islam teaches principles of freedom, human dignity, equality, governance by contract, the rule of law and popular sovereignty in matters of social interaction, the key to detribalizing the Muslim community must be sought within its framework. The democratic environment in the U.S. should allow Muslims to revitalize the consultative spirit.
From a cogent socio-psychological perspective, behavior leads to attitude change instead of the other way around. Accordingly, once Muslims coming from multiple backgrounds work together and experience productive tension in solving problems, they will realize and internalize the value of unity. Since Muslims have already started working in this manner, detribalizing the community must be a matter of time.
Mohammad A. Auwal is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles and is a regular columnist for iviews.com