The West’s hidden tribalism

By Khaled Diab

Tribalism and sectarianism afflict Western societies too. So why is that they seem to be tearing the Middle East apart but not and America?

Charles Rogier leads revolutionary volunteers during the Belgian revolution against William I of the Netherlands.
Charles Rogier leads revolutionary volunteers during the Belgian revolution against William I of the .

Thursday 17 September 2015

The disintegration of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and – and the increasingly likely redrawing of their maps once the dust settles – are widely regarded, both in the West and within the , as a symptom of tribalism and sectarianism which the “artificial borders” imposed by the imperial powers were unable to contain.

While it is true that many of the conflicts in the region have taken on a tribal, sectarian or even religious dimension, or a combination of the three, they did not start that way. The idea that centuries-old Sunni-Shia animosities are behind the violence in, say, Syria or Yemen, are simply self-serving myths and half-truths.

Yet the media and politicians continue to fixate on this conviction, echoing  the late Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir's infamous quip that: “Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world – the rest are just tribes with flags.”

While a number of countries in the region are small enough to qualify as a tribe with a flag, this is not unique to the Arab world. And I'm not just thinking of Africa and other developing societies here.

Despite the Enlightenment's focus on individualism and the shining light of reason, the West, after all these centuries, has not shaken off many elements of its traditional tribalism, and new forms of tribalism have also emerged.

As a small example, take , the country of which I am a naturalised citizen. Not belonging to either of its two main linguistic communities, I have often been baffled by the amount of mutual bitterness and distrust on view.

The quiet conflict between Flemings and Walloons that has been simmering for over a century could easily be framed in “tribal” terms – what is (ethno-)nationalism, after all, except a broader form of tribalism. However, to do so, would be to oversimplify an extremely complex situation.

As for “artificial borders”, Europe, like the Middle East, is replete with them. The two world wars were, at least partly, a case of borderline insanity.

Belgium is a prime example of how fake European frontiers are. Following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and the dissolution of the First Empire, what is today Belgium was handed over to the king William I.

Like Sunnis in modern-day Iraq, the minority controlled the state, though all citizens theoretically enjoyed legal equality.

Some 15 years later, as revolution fomented in neighbouring France, the Catholic majority of the Southern Netherlands revolted in what become known as the Belgian Revolution. How much of it was sectarian and religious and how much a reaction to William I unlimited (despotic) power and his bulldozer approach to modernisation (imposing modern notions of equality on his traditionalist subjects and stripping the of its centuries-old privileges) is hard to ascertain.

Sect was the apparent driver of the conflict back then. Language is today.

Responding to the uprising, the great European powers agreed to give “Belgium” its independence, drawing lines in the mud similar to those they would draw later in the Middle Eastern sand. Belgium was destined to serve as a buffer zone (read: regular punching bag) between Germany, France and the Netherlands.

And faultlines like this abound across Europe. In fact, there isn't a country in Europe whose borders are not artificial, whose historical frontiers do not overlap with that of its neighbours and whose population is not a messy mix of peoples.

This raises the question of how and why it is that European states manage to keep their tribal undercurrents in check, while the Middle East is apparently being torn asunder by the very same forces.

That's because it is not. If it were, then Egypt should be – due to its apparently more homogenous nature and far clearer historical boundaries, not to mention the regional headstart it got as a modern nation-state – the most stable country in the region.

Tribalism is the symptom, rather than the cause, of the Middle East's ills. Unlike the generally much older nation-state experiment in Europe, many Arab states have failed and others are on the brink of failure.

This is due to a complex mix of poor governance, corruption, authoritarianism, economic and gender inequality, poverty, under-education, foreign domination, overpopulation, environmental stress, and more. The vacuum left by this enormous, state-shaped black hole has enabled the demons of  tribalism and sectarianism to rear their ugly heads.

That does not mean that the West is immune. It is simply cushioned by effective governance, relative prosperity, greater freedom and the painful memory of the totally destructive power of modern-day tribalism, both between nations and within them.

But there is no room for complacency. Disintegration can come fast, like a chain reaction, order can quickly descend into disorder, and the most “civilised” can rapidly move into the most “barbaric”.

Many of the ingredients of that sort of unravelling are already in place, but the secret combination that unleashes mayhem has not yet been mixed together. Early signs of this include the growing “tribalism” within and between European states, including the Greek-German standoff and the rising spectre of far-right nationalism from France to , not to mention huge levels of youth unemployment, growing hardship and inequity.

Across  the Atlantic, the United States has among the greatest inequalities in the advanced industrialised world, enormous inter-racial tensions, massive gun crime, mass incarceration, growing class divisions, and rising animosity between the north and south.

While Western societies appear robust enough today to deal with these challenges, the chance still exists that, with time, the “never again” of yesteryear will become the “not again” of tomorrow. Let's hope that does not happen.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 14 September 2015.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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8 thoughts on “The West’s hidden tribalism

  • Pingback: FAQ ME: Answers that make sense of the Middle East - The Chronikler

  • OK maybe “faintly ridiculous” was a bit unfair but I knew it would get you to respond quickly!

    I don’t think it’s partly the fact that the two world wars have taught it a very important lesson – I think it’s entirely because the two world wars have taught it a very important lesson. But this doesn’t change the fact that the lesson has been taught. And the rest of your claims are unverifiable because they are based on things that might possibly happen in the future as opposed to things that are actually happening now. Pinker is particularly good on the issue of the decline of violence in Europe, btw.

  • “faintly ridiculous”? Always such a charmer, Alex. I wish you’d read what I actually wrote, instead of what you think I wrote. Of course, most of Europe is (currently) far away from the tribalism of yesteryear, but that’s partly because two world wars have taught it a very important lesson. But tribalistic/sectarian faultlines are never far below the surface and, if history is anything to go by, can quite rapidly (re)appear under the right conditions, such as Germany’s economic meltdown during the Great Depression. During WWI, everyone thought they’d be home for Xmas. As for Shiite v Sunni, Protestant v Catholic has been every bit as polarised and bloody. It’s quieted down in recent times but you’d be surprised how quickly that too could change under the wrong circumstances.

  • You never really define what you mean by tribalism, so it’s hard to assess your claims, but I don’t agree that the single example of European tribalism you cite in your article – that of Belgium – can really be compared to what’s happening in Syria or Iraq; I also think it’s false to imply that it’s only good governance which is preventing Flemings and Walloons from killing one another. There is simply no example of sectarian violence in Europe such as the Shiite vs Sunni violence we see in today’s Middle East – the last (although significantly less violent) example was perhaps Northern Ireland, where violence has now been reduced almost to a trickle. Regarding European borders, certainly there are many more European states which are significantly more homogeneous than the Middle Eastern states embroiled in conflict, e.g. most of Central and Eastern Europe, and even – to a lesser extent – Western European countries. You also say that Egypt should be the most stable country in the Middle East (if the tribal theory holds), but you dismiss this possibility without saying which other country is the most stable (and without defining what stability means in this case). Instability has infected the entire region, but one would argue that the most stable entities at this point in time are Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and perhaps the Gulf States (and of course Israel) – they are also the most homogeneous. Whatever the current problems Europe faces, the suggestion that it may soon descend into Middle Eastern style violence appears faintly ridiculous, and an attempt to avoid confronting the indigenous causes for the region’s current difficulties.

  • Within the confines of the space available, I do delve into the various sorts of tribalism. But there’s only so much you can fit into an article.

  • You’re right in saying that tribalism also exists in Europe, and elsewhere. But you fail to explain the different extent of the phenomenon, both when compared to the Middle East and internally between the different European countries. Each has a different set of historical processes that have affected the expression of tribalism: tribalism in modern Britain is mainly over the status of Scotland, whereas the much more recently United Italy suffers from failed central government and massive corruption, which exacerbate the more prominent regionalism.

  • There’s certainly a cultural tribalism going on in Europe – Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, Catalunya, Bavaria even are examples – within the settled borders and the overarching EU, but it’s not clear why you say it’s “hidden”. smile emoticon It’s actually difficult to escape from, and it’s often spilled over into violence (like the IRA and ETA). And unless toleration means “we’re not going to kill you or imprison you”, at least since the breakup of the Ottoman empire there seems little toleration of tribal and cultural variety and freedom of expression and celebration in the wealthiest countries of the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, and occasionally Lebanon. smile emoticon So there is a multicultural undertow, at least as rich as in Europe, but that’s the tribalism that’s been “hidden”, surely, except from scholars and real travellers. Or am I missing something? smile emoticon


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