How America’s war on terror became a global war on tribal Islam

‘How America’s war on terror became a global war on tribal Islam’

by Akbar Ahmed


American troops were in Afghanistan as a consequence of the events on 9/11, which many believed to represent the larger concept of the “clash of civilizations.” While Bernard Lewis was the author of this phrase and deployed his material as a historian to expand on it, Samuel Huntington popularized the term. Most people hearing of it took it on face value to mean an ongoing confrontation between two inherently opposed civilizations—the West and the world of Islam. The war on terror may thus be seen as an extension of the “clash.” While the phrase is a gross reduction of an already simplistic frame for the understanding of history, it became hugely influential after 9/11. The attacks on that day by Muslims seemed to confirm the core idea of the clash of civilizations and offered a plausible explanation of contemporary events. Lewis was instantly elevated to the role of public prophet. Dick Cheney, the American vice president, consulted him frequently and cited his ideas on television when justifying the war on Iraq.

Cast as the irredeemably villainous enemy of the West, Islam was widely vilified and studied with the purpose of establishing its evil credentials. Commentators warned that the Quran ordered Muslims to kill innocent Jews and Christians and as a reward promised seventy-two virgins in heaven. This was both malicious and incorrect, but it was another powerful argument among the public, along with the deaths on 9/11, to justify the war on terror.

...  In fact, as this study sets out to establish, if there is a clash it is not between civilizations based on religion; rather, it is between central governments and the tribal communities on the periphery. The war on terror has been conceptualized as a triangle formed by three points—the United States, the modern state within which the tribes live, and al Qaeda. The arguments presented below indicate that the third point, however, is actually not al Qaeda, which at its height had perhaps no more than a few thousand members, if that, and is now reduced to one or two dozen. It is the tribal societies that have directly or indirectly provided a base for al Qaeda and other groups advocating violence. Many of these peripheral groups had been clamoring, or even fighting, for their rights from central governments for decades. A small number of al Qaeda operatives, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, found these tribes to be receptive hosts.

The United States, however, has failed to understand not only the nature of tribal society but also the dimensions of this simmering conflict between the center and the periphery. As a result, Americans have never been clear as to where al Qaeda ends and where the tribe begins and why they resort to violence. Instead they have viewed central governments as the only legitimate source of authority and force, while ignoring all reports of the loutish and sadistic behavior of the center’s soldiers, preferring to deal with Hosni Mubarak as representing all of Egypt and Pervez Musharraf all of Pakistan. Anyone opposed to these leaders was automatically seen as a foe of the United States.

The United States and central governments around the world found it mutually beneficial to forge alliances and make agreements within the ideological frame of the war on terror. For the United States and its allied central governments, the tribes across the Muslim world effectively became public enemy number one because they were outside globalization, resistant to it, and seen as the natural allies of al Qaeda. Opposition to either the war on terror or globalization was thus seen as one and the same thing, thereby risking the wrath of the United States and casting those opposed as potential “terrorist sympathizers.”

The problem was that many such tribes and communities wished to benefit from globalization but not to compromise their thistle-like identity. They also had to contend with central governments more interested in monopolizing globalization’s many benefits—developments in information technology, transport and communications, medicine, trade, and commerce—and in the central government’s policy of promoting the politics, language, and culture of the dominant group at the center. Little more than crumbs—a cell phone here, a job in a security firm there—fell to the periphery.

Under the rubric of the war on terror, different combatants were conducting different wars for different objectives within the triangle of terror. Some were big powers fishing in troubled waters. Others were nationalist entities wanting to assert central authority. Still others were tribesmen battling to maintain their ethnic and cultural boundaries, some also unabashedly seeking to discomfit their tribal rivals. Lurking somewhere in the background were the ever-thinning numbers of individuals associated with or accused of being al Qaeda. Shifting alliances, general distrust, betrayals, paranoia, and fear marked the war on terror.

It is in the interest of the United States to understand, in all the tribal societies with which it is engaged, the people, their leadership, history, culture, their relationship with the center, their social structures, and the role Islam plays in their lives. These issues are, in fact, the subject matter of anthropology, and those commenting on or involved with the war on terror, therefore, need to become better informed about the anthropology of tribal societies. Without this understanding, the war on terror will not end in any kind of recognizable victory as current military actions and policies are only exacerbating the conflict.


Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He was the former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom, the first Distinguished Chair of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Among his previous books are Journey into Islam and Journey into America, both published by Brookings. He is also a published poet and playwright.

This article is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam,” published by Brookings. This article was also published on The Washington Post.  Type Akbar Ahmed into the TAM search engine for many more articles by Prof. Ahmed.


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