Review: The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal I

Review: The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam

by Robert F. Shedinger

The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2013) by Akbar Ahmed

    The title of this important new book by Akbar Ahmed—The Thistle and the Drone— may not elicit strong reaction, but the subtitle should make us all sit up and take notice. Despite the early protestations of President Bush and others that America’s war on terror does not constitute a war on Islam, Ahmed successfully demonstrates how the war on terror has become, intentionally or not, a war on a particular form of Islam—that of tribal Islamic culture. While it may be tempting to pass off the innocent victims of drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other places as the collateral damage necessary to keep Americans safe from terrorism, the truth of the matter is far more troubling and ethically fraught, and Ahmed has done a real service by taking us on a journey inside tribal culture where we come face to face with our believed-to-be enemies and are forced to confront the ethical ambiguities of our actions. Few people are better equipped to lead us on such a journey, for in a former life Akbar Ahmed was a liaison of the Pakistani government to the tribal area of Waziristan, now deemed the most dangerous place in the world. Drawing on his own personal experience and his training as an anthropologist, The Thistle and the Drone paints a highly nuanced portrait of tribal cultures around the world whose existence is threatened by their struggles with civilizational centers.

    According to Ahmed’s main thesis, the war on terror as currently conceived in United States policy circles is doomed to failure. He characterizes post-9/11 leadership in America as “the mediocre leading the confused in pursuit of the dubious” (327). American foreign policy is doomed to fail because it is not based on an adequate understanding of the workings of tribal culture. It has been well documented that tribal culture is based on an honor/shame system whereby perceived acts of shame are remediated by acts of retaliatory violence. But tribal societies have also traditionally been led by councils of elders whose function it is to hold up ethical norms based on justice and tradition, thus attenuating the impulse toward retaliatory violence. But in the modern world, traditional tribal leadership has receded in the face of the overwhelming power and influence of modern civilization and its perceived needs, and this mutation within tribal structure has led to an increase in tribal societies’ penchant for violent confrontation with the civilizational center. Given its global influence, America has become the civilizational center par excellence and therefore the target of often gratuitous displays of retaliatory violence. But confronting gratuitous tribal violence with equally gratuitous civilizational violence only serves to fan the flames of tribal violence. Ahmed argues that the problem of tribal violence can only be addressed within the framework of tribal culture itself, a process with which he has had personal experience and success. He therefore seeks in this book to provide a thorough understanding of the tribal dynamic and pleads for it to be taken seriously in shaping policy proposals in the war on terror.

    Ahmed boldly stakes out a position here that will undoubtedly be resisted by many. Calling people to a deep understanding of tribal Islam runs counter to our societal tendency to vilify perceived enemies rather than make an effort to understand them. To understand them is to humanize them, and to humanize them is to disturb that comfortable place of assurance that leads us to believe that we are in the right and that our actions are always legitimate. Ahmed turns the mirror around and forces to look into our own hearts. In relating that the military euphemism for the victims of drone strikes is “bug splat,” Ahmed demonstrates just how far we have fallen short of our own societal ideal of concern for the sanctity of all human life. The Thistle and the Drone may fascinate you with the breathtaking scope of its ethnographical reach; it may anger you with its bold attempt to see positive attributes in a cultural form almost universally viewed as primitive by Americans; but it will almost certainly disturb you with its penetrating indictment of American foreign policy and the ethical lapses for which we Americans must be held accountable. There are many books that will make you feel better, but few with a better chance to positively influence the course of contemporary history. Read it. It will fundamentally alter your view on America’s war on terror. 

Robert F. Shedinger is Associate Professor of Religion at Luther College.  His research interests are: The Syriac versional tradition of the New Testament, theoretical approaches to the study of religion, Christian-Muslim relations in the contemporary world