Historians mark the 19th century as the era of 'nationalisms' because it witnessed the emergence of the nation-state, organized around the themes of consolidation of new political identities and territories that signified the formation of geographically-defined markets and currencies. Richard Griggs (1992) states that 'France's claim to being a nation, or even a nation-state, was pre-Orwellian double speak'. For Griggs, the now popular, though erroneous, formula of nation-state was initiated when Louis XVI began retitling the royal departments of France. The distinction between a state which binds its citizens by legal and military means, and a nation which is the product of cultural evolution as a region, was not obscured until the period of the French Revolution. Nations were defined in cultural terms, as distinct peoples with a common history, common territory, common language and often, a shared religion. The cultural annihilation of historic nations is often portrayed as 'modernization, economic development or land reform'. Nation resistance to state expansion is now called 'terrorism', nations forcefully incorporated into states, which maintain a distinct political culture but are not internationally recognized, while the state as we know it today is characterized as a single centre of power.
Studies of people with order but no government are referred to as borderland studies, not area studies. Akbar Ahmed's book is a study of borderlands, in this case Islamic hill tribes. His work is part of a larger collaborative project with multiple goals, to include ethnographic, comparative and historical, along with humanitarian and diplomatic goals. The former ambassador to Waziristan looks to develop a theory of relationships that have deteriorated with the onset of state and empire; perhaps an Islamic anthropology, in contrast to Judeo-Christian anthropology. The book discusses 40 examples of peripheral groups and their relations with state authorities to illustrate the relationship between centre and periphery, from Waziristan to Yemen, across North Africa to Indonesia and the Philippines. The tribal groups discussed are characterized by egalitarianism and a commitment to freedom, a strong sense of hospitality, and relations defined by common ancestors, a tribal lineage system, as well as a strong sense of justice connected to a highly developed code of honour and revenge – all present with 'thistle-like' characteristics.
Tribal Islam is grounded in pre-Islamic and non-Islamic customs merged with a veneration of orthodox Islam and as such is one of the many variants of Islam. We learn for example, that Bin Laden was descended from the Saudi province of Asir which lay between the Saudis and Yemen and was annexed by Saudi Arabia in 1934 after bitter fighting and massacres. Yemen was also the ethnic affiliation of most of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Akbar Ahmed is very clear in pointing out that Bin Laden's actions were diametrically opposed to Islamic beliefs when aligned with tribal customs, although seeking to balance tribal and Islamic identity. And, according to Ahmed, America's war on terror is in reality more tribal than Islamic, with hill people becoming the targets of American killer drone technology.
Tribal reactions respond to the socially destabilizing effects of globalization and the concomitant loss of cultural identity. Ahmed argues that the US has conflated the struggles between tribal Islam and oppressive central governments with 'terrorism' or radical fundamentalist Islamists who want to destroy America. For Ahmed, the way out is to reconstruct traditional forms of society based on the lineage systems at work within these structures and the values in tribal codes, and to grant them a degree of cultural autonomy and political participation. If violence can be displaced into culture, it can be particularized and dealt with; if associated with religion it is an unsolvable problem, according to Ahmed. He speaks not of a 'clash of civilizations', rather of that between central governments and tribal peripheries.
Ahmed indicates that centre/Muslim periphery problems started with European colonization as part of post-colonial nation building and the drawing of disruptive borders – as with Waziristan being drawn in part between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Old oppressive colonial governments were replaced by new oppressive national governments. The American tendency to perceive threats is seen by Ahmed as at odds with its founding ideologies, and American overreactions in the 'war on terror' have exacerbated pre-existing centre/periphery conflicts in other modern states. Centre/periphery dynamics have shifted from state/tribe to America/tribal Islam from Waziristan to Kurdistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond. Drones and cruel central government invasions will not work, given the indication that brutal revenge attacks will continue from the periphery. Experts on terrorism ignore both culture and historical context.
We are reminded that revenge is a system of dispute resolution: 'the aim of revenge in a traditional society is to provide a measured response aimed at correcting an injustice and ensuring stability', governance without government (p. 25). Thus Ahmed's recommendation for a federal government of autonomous tribal areas, promotion of tribal culture, access to opportunities and efforts at reconciliation; drone wars are cruel and counter-productive.
Drones kill innocent men, women and children. For Ahmed, the question of relevance means moral. But, using our talents to contradict the power of the state and empires poses the problem or dilemma as one of maintaining objectivity. For me, Ahmed is speaking about professional ethics: there is no such thing as objectivity, which I see as a mechanism controlling ethnographic content. Justice Cardozo had it right when he said that we may try to be objective, but we see with our own eyes. The pain and suffering that Ahmed and his team have both recorded and witnessed is real, and he argues for compassion and kindness as a moral duty; through knowledge and research we can learn to co-exist and have mutual respect – we are all humans.
Actually anthropologists have always been relevant, depending on what the power structure wants. In dealing with the periphery, whether Native Americans or the hill peoples of Waziristan, whether dealing with World War II or the Vietnam War, when we serve the power structure we may indeed be considered relevant. A good negative example is the Canadian anthropologist Diamond Jenness who was complicit in the service of the state and its Canadian Indian Policy, but not in the service of Native peoples (Kulchyski 1993). When dealing with the periphery we have supported assimilation, the creation of reservations, and sometimes even closed our eyes to mass killings.
Thus the dynamics Ahmed is interrogating – the colonized wished to civilize the centre and the periphery, followed by independent states who continue the same trajectory of control and civilizing of the periphery after borders were drawn. However, the challenge now is the attack on both the state and the periphery from global corporate capitalism in the guise of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and international trade deals. In this light, Ahmed's The thistle and the drone and his journeys to the United States and Europe and comparisons that cut across geographic areas, may be an antidote for the dilemmas of both the periphery and the state. However, the problems of corporations controlling the world's resources is on the front burner as well – thus the question of who would truly benefit through such dynamics – the next dimension in studying the pathways to power. A must read.
The writer is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley