Tribalism, Culture and the Nation-State

by Rebecca Bynum (Feb 2007)


A few years ago, before the attacks of 9/11, I remember thinking quite clearly that the world was moving toward increased integration, with our loyalties correspondingly expanding to embrace ever greater swaths of humanity. I remember thinking that in the period from the founding of the American Republic up to the Civil War, American loyalties had at first been given to states and regions. Indeed, the Articles of Confederation, which were adopted in 1786, were finally given up because they provided for a central government without the power to tax, without the power, that is, to withstand the long-established power of the states. The Civil War did not do away with the enduring Federal system by which we are both citizens of states and of a nation, but did end forever, or so we thought, the idea that one’s loyalty to state or region might rival, or even surpass, loyalty to the nation.

Modern Europe consists of established nation-states, each with its own history, culture, language and literature. After two disastrous world wars, the first disastrous in the loss of life, the second in the loss of both life and morale, Europe needed to find a way, or thought it did, to make sure that such events were never repeated. Nationalism was deemed the culprit and so two supra-national organizations were formed, the UN and the EU, in order to integrate the nations of the world and create the means for peaceful conflict resolution.

It seemed possible at that time to envision world wide integration with an international government to take care of international affairs, a national government to care for national affairs, a state government for state affairs and local government to govern local affairs and so forth – all to be democratically elected, of course. The elimination of warfare itself seemed to be within reach and a government of mankind, by mankind and for mankind a real possibility in the coming generations. All this seemed to require was the transference of individual loyalty to larger and larger groups. Nationalism seemed to be a dying anachronism: we would be citizens of the world, owing allegiance to all mankind and warfare would be a thing settling into the dustbin of history.

Instead, of course, we see with a very long lag  – just the way at the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars,” may have been followed by the Briand-Kellogg Pact “outlawing war,” which pact had dozens of signatories  by the time Adolf Hitler came to power, and started a systematic program of German rearmament, and by the time the Japanese were making plans to take, and had taken part of, what they then called Manchukuo (Manchuria).  

Today the rivalry between China and the United States looks more and more like the Great-Power rivalry between England and Germany in 1912. The menace of Islam has already weakened the Atlantic Alliance, and helped to split America from Europe. That menace now has caused the United States to expend large sums, and to focus almost all of its attention, on ways to deal militarily with a threat that, for now, is not primarily a military one, but a matter of ideology and demography.

And there was another force at work during this same post-war period: that of multiculturalism, which was, then as now, actively seeking to weaken the internal cohesion of Western nations, and more importantly, western culture, by removing what Richard Weaver calls the “tyrannizing image” of Christianity. The problem is that without this strong and polarizing ideal, culture and society is left with nothing to adhere to, no natural morality and nothing which creates order. So much so, that today a new tribalism is emerging in our midst (see John Derbyshire’s “Will the United States Survive until 2022?”). Young presidential hopeful, Barack Obama wrote in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father” published in 1995, this description of black student life at Occidental College in Los Angeles:

“There were enough of us on campus to constitute a tribe, and when it came to hanging out many of us chose to function like a tribe, staying close together, traveling in packs… It remained necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names.

To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists.”

For Obama, embracing American culture would be to “sell out,” so he embraced the forces seeking to undermine what is to him a “foreign” culture. Today, he is plausibly running for our nation’s highest office; to represent our nation and culture to the world. This is America in the 21st Century.

In the Islamic world, where the ideal is loyalty to the world-wide Islamic community as a whole, the reality is that loyalty to the nation-state is constantly undermined and tribalism continually returns as the ever-present the fall-back position. Sunni and Shia loyalties today are quickly supplanting loyalty to individual Muslim nation-states, beginning with, but not ending with, Iraq, nation-states which are in any case regarded as a western imposition. It goes without saying that no state can remain standing long which cannot demand the loyalty of its people.

One is reminded that quite recently in the 19th Century, the failure of the American Indians to form a true nation-state and thus quell their crippling internecine tribal warfare was perhaps the major cause of their disastrous defeat at the hands of the much more highly organized and integrated American state. Islam, having no concept of the nation-state whatsoever, will forever be host to internecine tribal warfare and will not be strong enough to command loyalties of disparate groups in those Muslim countries, such as Iraq or Lebanon or even Pakistan, where Shi’a as well as Sunnis exist in large numbers, or as in Sudan or Algeria or Morocco or Iraq, where non-Arabs live in large numbers together with Arabs. This is not a situation the West should deplore however, as Hugh Fitzgerald has been continually and patiently pointing out over the last four years.

A primary function of the nation-state in the West is to preserve and defend Western culture. And culture, being a direct creation of mind, actually an accretion, over time, of a series of minds, and in the Western world those minds have largely been informed with, even formed by, until quite recently, by religious ideals that come out of a long Judeo-Christian tradition. Western culture, then, is an outgrowth of the religious ideal; that which men hold to be of the highest spiritual value. As I have maintained before, Western Christian culture is based on the conception of God as a benevolent, dependable and loving father and of the universe as containing an inherent moral order. Hinduism, Buddism and Confucianism also hold to the conception of a morally ordered universe that is discoverable by the human mind.

Islamic culture is centered around a very different, but equally strong and polarizing idea. Morality in Islam is not found through the individual embrace of progressive value; the discovery of ever greater truth, beauty and goodness. Instead, morality is set down in the unchanging and unchangeable doctrine of Islam, which to the western mind appears wholly arbitrary except with one overriding principle: that which perpetuates and promotes Islam is moral, while that which weakens Islam is immoral. Islamic doctrine is the ideal around which the Islamic culture is organized. Muslims consider Western concepts of good and evil as simply abstract notions. They only “reliable” way Muslims distinguish the two is by referral to the doctrinal texts. The Qu’ran Hadiths and Sira are quite literally “all ye know and all ye need to know” on earth for believing Muslims. The concept of religious progression is anathema, and is thought to be the road to corruption.

Richard Weaver writes in Visions of Order, “A culture then is a complex of values polarized by an image or idea. It cannot be perfectly tolerant or even tolerant to any large extent because it lives by homogeneity. It therefore has to exclude on grounds which are cultural and not “rational” what does not comport with its driving impulse.” (pg. 20)

This is certainly true of Islamic culture, based as it is on the sacrifice of the individual in favor of the group and mainly concerned with its own perpetuation. The individual does not matter; his proper place is to submit to Allah and not even to question whatever rules have been laid down by Allah – rules as to what is prohibited, and what commanded, for “Allah knows best. “ He must accept even  that which might offend his sense of reason or of goodness, and the willingness to submit, to ignore the workings of reason, or of one’s sense of right and wrong that might transcend, or even differ, from official Islamic doctrine – say, the rules pertaining to women, or the hostility and even hatred directed at non-Muslims who may here and there be tolerated if the fulfill their duties as non-Muslims under Muslim rule, but there is no room for individual thought, questioning, or  imposing values or hierarchies or judgments on the rules set down by Allah, expressed in the Qur’an, and made further sense of by what Muhammad himself did or said. Whatever helps Islam is moral, whatever allows for the spread of Islam is good, whatever helps the forces of Islam to dominate everywhere, and to ensure rule by Muslims, is similarly good by that very fact. It makes sense. It coheres. It would be strange if the total ideology of Islam, which is far more than a religion prescribing rituals or offering an explanation of creation, but an attempt to organize and regulate every area of life, did not have such a result.

By contrast, the Western religious ideal operates primarily on the individual (who then influences the culture) and is to a great extent dependent on the temperament, cultural background and personal experience of the believer (see The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James). Western religious sects rest ultimately on the spiritual experience of an individual or individuals. As James points out, religion is so vital to human experience that, as we discovered in the case of communism, it cannot be legislated away or forced out of existence. Religion is an essential part of the human experience. The problem is, religion may be a force for good or a force for evil, depending on what is venerated.

The Islamic religious ideal is the opposite. Islam operates on the group as a whole and is dependent on the conformity of the individual to the ideal of the group. It is also dependent on religious legislation with no regard for individual experience. Muhammad is regarded as bringing the final revelation, and so all other revelation, including the auto-revelation of the individual is generally not tolerated. The Islamic religion cannot change; therefore the Islamic culture cannot change, though it may accept the products of non-Muslims, that is, of the modern world, it cannot change in its underlying values. It must either expel or force conformity on all that is not Islam in order for Islamic society to integrate culturally. And Islam is a master integrator.

Richard Weaver, again in Visions of Order, explains:

“In speaking of culture’s power to influence and to bind I have more than once used the word “integrate,” since a culture is something unitary gathered about the dominating idea. But “integration” and “segregation” are two sides of the same operation. A culture integrates by segregating its forms of activity and its members from those not belonging. The right to self-segregate then is an indispensable ground of its being. Enough has been said to show that our culture today is faced with very serious threats in the form of rationalistic drives to prohibit in the name of equality cultural segregation. The effect of this would be to break up the natural cultural cohesion and to try to replace it with artificial politically dictated integration. Such “integration” would of course be a failure because where deep inner impulse is lacking cohesiveness for any length of time is impossible. This crisis has been brought to our attention most spectacularly in the attempt to “integrate” culturally distinct elements by court action. It is, however, only the most publicized of the moves; others are taking place in areas not in the spotlight, but all originate in ignorance, if not in a suicidal determination to write an end to the heritage of Western culture.” (pg. 21)


Indeed it would seem that in the contest of cultures we find pressed upon us, so surprisingly, and so unexpectedly, Western culture continues to be engaged in the process of active disarmament. We in the West are denying to ourselves the one essential element of self-determination, that of segregating and expelling that which does not conform to Western cultural standards. There are some things the West cannot tolerate and still expect to survive. I believe the inequality of women at law, including polygamy and enforced dress, to be one of those things. But there is so much more, in the alien and hostile creed of Islam, that cannot be assimilated, nor tolerated, by a Western society that wishes to remain intact.





Of those human impulses lying at the base of religion, and thus at the base of culture, the urge to sacrifice is one of the most primordial. Sacrifice originates in the idea of man being born in forfeit to the gods, born in original sin. He owes the gods something in return for his continued existence, or continued prosperity, or continued happiness and success. The thought that the wrath of God must be assuaged is very ancient. Think of Agamemnon’s attempted sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia so to obtain a favorable wind for his fleet. Man is engaged in perpetual bargaining with God.

God was, and indeed still is, thought to demand some kind of payment for his favor. We in the West substitute for direct sacrifice; we pay our churches and synagogues. The concept that God will reward the payee for this payment by directing the contribution back “tenfold” (see the 700 Club, etc.), or that the payee will be rewarded by God in some other manner, is born of this ancient and primitive religious bargaining impulse.

Man is constantly seeking to balance the books with God by thanking him through sacrifice in times of plenty, or by sacrificing in order to receive God’s favor in times of scarcity or turmoil. This thinking has given rise to other rituals of propitiation, such as Catholic confession, performed in order to appease the wrath of God upon the commission of sin, or ritualized prayer to thank God for his bounty, and so forth. The urge to self-sacrifice may also be prerequisite to all our ideas of saintliness. But added to this and underlying all this, is still the individual relationship with, and communication with, God. Western Religion is, at bottom, a personal experience for which ritual is only an aid, not an end in itself.

In Islam, on the other hand, sacrifice and ritual fill the entire horizon. There is little or no room for personal religious experience. Allah is not courted by the soul, but rather, is obeyed through the bodily obedience to Islamic doctrine, which is in itself an all-encompassing sacrifice. There is no allowance for exceptions. The mujahadeen, or warriors for Allah, who sacrifice their all for Islam in order to destroy the enemies of Islam, are the closest thing Muslims have to saints; saints all cut from the same cloth, the form of Islamic martyrdom.

As civilization progressed, the primitive urge to sacrifice to either please or appease the gods eventually grew into group renunciation which developed into societal taboos, (thou shalt not…). Taboos, in their turn, make laws, build social institutions and are important elements in cultural cohesion. The religious taboos in Islam are part of a highly developed system, so much so, that permitted vs. not-permitted, halal vs. haram, are carried close to absolute levels through the imposition of draconian punishments, such as stoning for adultery. As a cultural segregator, Islam has no equal. It is ruthless in excising, quickly or slowly, that which is not-Islam, and this, of course, is a key to its success.

In order for the Western world to effectively deal with Islam, it must be just as ruthless a segregator and expel that which is not-West, in this case, the cultural practices of Muslims. For practical purposes this means expelling Muslims themselves, who would naturally take their cultural practices with them and be re-absorbed into the Dar al-Islam.

At this point, it is useful to remember that all war results in the movement of peoples. The mass movements following WWII were perhaps the largest in human experience, when ethnic Germans were expelled from all over Eastern Europe. Sometimes these expulsions were a matter of government decree as in Czechoslovakia through the Benes Decree, while others fled in response to the social pressure exerted by their neighbors. But the fact remains, millions were uprooted from the territories of Poland, Russia and Czechoslovakia to be resettled into the then shrunken German homeland. They endured hardship, starvation, disease and death. The transfer could have been handled more humanely, but it was necessary they be moved. Indeed, had they been moved before the advent of the war, it is doubtful Hitler could have launched his invasions as quickly and effectively as he did, and thus the actual shooting war may well have been less devastating in the end.

It seems to me, we have come to a crossroads. We have the choice either to expel the current threat and the people bearing it, and then to contain that threat within certain boundaries, or we can continue with business as before, as the states and elites of Europe continued to do all through the 1930s, through the re-militarization by Hitler of the Rhineland, and the enormous German rearmament, and the Munich capitulation, and the Anschluss hysteria, until finally the invasion of Poland, which finally created a situation impossible to ignore, and both Britain and France went to war. And by that time, the Germans were too strong, had been allowed to become too strong with no counter-measures, just as the Japanese had been ignored in East Asia, and all that was left was the outcome we all know: total, devastating war.

If total war is to be avoided this time, populations of those who cannot conceivable assimilate, whose motivating beliefs makes them permanently hostile to Western political and legal and social institutions, and who in ways we cannot always fathom or predict, may now be, or if not now may later become, or their children may become if they remain devout Muslims, threats to our physical security and our national security, that will require constant, and very expensive monitoring. Our sentimental belief that everyone wants the same thing, and that all creeds are essentially the same, will no longer do, and the kind of preemptive population transfers undertaken by Czechoslovakia (and many other European states), after World War II, when the Volksdeutsche sent to Germany, will have to be considered, discussed, and ultimately, have to take in a perfectly rational, no-nonsense, unhysterical and humane way. Recent decades have seen all kinds of population transfers (Hindus and Muslims, Greeks and Turks, Jews and Arabs), and also simple expulsions, especially by Muslim countries: Libya with Egyptians and “Palestinians,” Saudi Arabia with Yemenis, Kuwait with “Palestinians,” Iraq with Egyptians and now with “Palestinians,” and so on. It can be done.

Total war is not inevitable. A few wise, though politically difficult, steps taken now will do much to avoid a much greater catastrophe, likely to be visited on our children, if we do nothing.


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Rebecca Bynum contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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