Nationalism and the Iraqi people

Some interesting points from this American Interest article:

There is no ‘Iraqi People’. The phrase should be banned as misleading and purely rhetorical. . . . What is not understood is that Iraq, like the other countries of the region, still stands at a level of social evolution where the family, clan, tribe and sect command major allegiance. The idea of the individual autonomous voter, necessary and commonplace in our own systems, is relatively foreign.


Fox begins this chapter by describing New York Times columnist John Tierney’s bafflement in September 2003 upon discovering that the lavish weddings regularly taking place in his Baghdad hotel were mostly marriages of first cousins who were the children of brothers. Questioned about this practice, the young people told Tierney, “Of course we marry a cousin. What would you have us do, marry a stranger? We cannot trust strangers.”

That, as others might have told him about endogamous marriage, is what pairing up in low-trust cultures without functional central authorities often entails.

This leads to an interesting question: Which came first, trust between tribes or the creation of a modern state? You may be lost, but let me elucidate. We live in a trusting society. Trust allows us to work, engage in business and play in relative comfort. To use a horribly trite cliche, trust is the grease in the cogs of the social machine. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case for tribal societies, as their affiliations are located at the kin level and not at the village or state level. Perhaps, it is a foolish question to ask, but I wonder if trust or the creation of the modern state came first. Were people thrown into new relations and then society adapted? Or, did we slowly expand our circle of trust and then the state came. UPDATE: Upon reading some Durkhein and Tonnies, I have realized that this is not a simple dichotomy. Please forgive me, intellectual gods.

One other point:

Numerous unforeseen events during the Iraq occupation have illustrated the priority of tribal authority. When men came out and stole copper wire connecting hospitals to the electricity grid, indignant U.S. soldiers tried to make the thieves see that their actions would hurt “the Iraqi people.” True to form, the thieves responded just as Aouda had a hundred years before: Who were these “Iraqi people”, they wanted to know, whose claims outranked those of their own needy relatives? The thieving clansmen felt no responsibility for some mythical collectivity called “the people” that, as far as they knew, did not include them and that, in any case, foreigners had invented without their approval.

The reason why they felt no responsibility is twofold, both closely related. One is because of their sense of law, which Benjamin Powell has described in detail with regards to Somalia. Because law only applies to kin groups, people outside of this kin group are literally outlaws, they are outside the purview of ones laws. Then there is ingroup cohesiveness. As Jonathan Haidt explains, morality is based on a mix of five foundations, and this is surely a moral issue. One of these foundations is ingroup/loyalty:

The challenge of reaping the benefits of cooperation in groups larger than dyads, particularly in the presence of intergroup competition for resources, made it adaptive for people to value belonging to groups while being vigilant about and hostile toward cheaters, slackers, free-riders, and traitors.

Though I have hardly done it justice here, there is an important link between law and respect for the law and ingroup/loyalty that I will save for another day.

First published Jul 8, 2011