Religious Tribalism: A Major Obstacle to Peace through Justice
Posted Apr 8, 2009

Religious Tribalism: A Major Obstacle to Peace through Justice

by Dr. Robert D. Crane

The Origin and Nature of Human Community

  The moral philosopher, Norman Kurland, a self-described ecumenical Jew, is struck by the obvious fact that everyone, even a baby, knows what injustice is without having to define it.  On the other hand, hardly anyone knows what justice is, except as the opposite of injustice. 

  Justice and injustice can be approached from two perspectives.  The first is the philosophical, which reasons top-down deductively from broad principles that promote happiness or else from principles that derive from respecting the sacredness of man created in the image of God as taught in religious texts.  This philosophical approach can produce extreme opposites in application.  Ideally, it can produce normative law, in which general principles deductively govern all specific applications of justice, so that specific regulations have meaning only as the exemplify the purpose or purposes behind them.  Unfortunately, the philosophical approach can also lead to its opposite, as in the bottom-up approach of so-called Talmudic thought, which is common in every religion and can lead ironically to the principle that there are no principles other than the tyranny of the text without consideration of higher purpose.  The ideal would promote respect for human life, whereas its opposite might justify genocide if the text can be so misinterpreted.

  The second perspective, which may be a fearful reaction against the first one, is the evolutionary emotional, which operates entirely without principles or reason.  According to David Brooks’ op-ed article in the New York Times of April 7, 2009, entitled “The End of Philosophy,” this has now largely replaced rational thought as the basis for morality.  He says that morality is now like aethestics.  No-one can argue for any particular position because beauty and morality are in the eyes of the beholder.  De gustibus non est disputandum is Latin for “one can not dispute the legitimacy of different tastes.”  This is nothing more than the relativism of multi-culturalism, which denies all ultimate truth and all meaning in life.

  Michael Gazzaniga in his book entitled simply Human writes that science has never discovered any correlation between moral reason and moral action.  Steven Quartz of the California Institute of Technology said during a discussion of ethics sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation that moral judgements are rapid intuitive decisions involving the emotional processing parts of the brain.  He says that, “Our brain is computing value at every fraction of a second ... to find out what is of value in our environment.” 

  In other words, reasoning is guided by the emotions that preceded it.  Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia writes, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and ... moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”

  Next question.  What shapes moral emotions?  The modern answer is very specific.  Emotions come from evolution.  We are programmed by millions of years of experience and survival of the fittest to prefer what promotes the survival of the species.  Our survival comes not merely from superior competitiveness but from superior cooperation.  David Brooks summarizes this line of thought when he says, “We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions.  We are the descendents of successful cooperators.”

  The problem with this emotional evolutionary perspective is that it turns man’s higher nature into a means and conceives of man as an instrument of biology reacting to what has species survival value.  Human community becomes nothing more than sophisticated tribalism, rather than the product of cooperation among persons who were created in the image of God with the free will to become what they were created to be and thereby to find their true identity.  The emotional evolutionary perspective eliminates the transcendent nature of both persons and communities and denies the legitimacy of the constant search for higher meaning to provide ultimate purpose and guide one’s life. 

  As Saint Augustine wrote sixteen hundred years ago, man will find happiness only in the search for God.  Such union can come only from response to divine love.  This produces what Islamic scholars call infaq, which is the natural preference to give rather than take in life.  This produces the search for purpose in the form of compassionate justice in the form of divinely guided direction for peace, prosperity, and freedom. 

  The leader of modern American traditionalists, Russell Kirk, who is the successor to the principal mentor of America’s founders, Edmund Burke, explained the nature of transcendent justice and of the human search for it in his conclusion, quoted on page 23 of my book. Metalaw: An Islamic Policy Paradigm, Islamic Institute for Strategic Studies, May,  2000, “At the dawn of civilization, people unite in search of communion with a transcendent power, and from that religious community all the other aspects of a culture flow - including, and indeed especially, a civilization’s laws.”

Tribalistic Exclusivity: Perverter of Transcendent Purpose

  The clearest example of tribalistic promotion of a self-serving agenda under the cover of universal principles of human rights is a new organization founded under the name “International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.”  As Gilad Atzmon put it in his article of December 3, 2008, “The Lady Between the Queen and the Tribe,” one would assume that this is another of the Jewish oriented civil organizations supporting human rights, like “Jews for Peace,” “Jews for Justice in Palestine,” and “Jewish Independent Voice.”

  There is nothing inherently wrong, he says, with Jews maintaining a form of segregation that allows them to operate ideologically, intellectually, and spiritually within a closed racially or ethnically oriented circuit.  True multi-culturalism praises such pride in one’s own identity as long as it does not carry the baggage of hostility toward everyone else.  There is a danger, however, that promoting universal human rights from their own racially orientated cells will cut them off from the universalism that they preach. 

  The danger is highlighted in the case of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, which claims universalism but uses it purely as a front for tribalistic lobbying.  This group says about itself, “The IAJLJ strives to advance human rights everywhere, including the prevention of war crimes, the punishment of war criminals, the prohibition of weapons of mass destruction, and international co-operation based on the rule of law and the fair implementation of international covenants and conventions.”

  Then comes the kicker in fine print: “The Association is especially committed to issues that are on the agenda of the Jewish people, and works to combat racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and negation of the State of Israel.”  This implies that this organization has an agenda formed or provided from somewhere unspecified.  It is not committed merely to fight those who deny Israel’s right to exist, but was formed to combat any “negation of Israel.”  It is committed to political silencing in contradiction to the values upheld by those who uphold truly transcendent and universal values. 

  After a lengthy discussion of an apparent miscarriage of justice by Scotland’s first woman judge, Lady Cosgrove, Gilad Atzmon concludes that we “should see the obvious contradiction between the tribal and the universal, ... and we should do so soon for the benefit of humanity but also for the benefit of so many Jews who have nothing to do with the crimes that are committed on their behalf.”

  It is ironic that Muslims are quick to accuse Jews of tribalism without seeing, as the Bible puts it, the mote in their own eye.  One could replace the word “Jewish” with the word “Muslim” in this article and perhaps gain a better understanding of why Americans generally are suspicious of Muslims and especially of Muslim participation in public life. 

  All communities face a dilemma between asabiya in its worst sense and asabiya in its best sense, both of which are emphasized by Ibn Khaldun.  The bad asabiya is self-justification with no concern for other communities or even in derogation of them.  This is the basis of the ghetto mentality that rightly fears suicide through assimilation.  Good asabiya is pride in one’s own community as a basis for cooperation with other communities in bringing out the best of both.  This is the basis and essence of integration, which is more Islamic than the avoidance of assimilation through the extremism of confrontational rejectionism.

  The solypsistic or even autistic focus on oneself is the chief barrier to bringing Islamic wisdom to enrich American public life.  If we had the power of the Jewish lobby this strategy would make sense but would nevertheless be immoral.  Since we have the power only to lead rather than to command, our only strength in bringing out the best of Islam is to focus outwardly rather than inwardly.  So far, this strategy is incomprehensible to the vast majority of foreign-born Muslims in America and is not the dominant issue even among African American Muslims.

  When I was Director of Legal Affairs at the American Muslim Council in 1992-94, we were discussing the creation of a think-tank in association with the AMC.  When I asked Lee Hamilton, then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and now a leading adviser to President Obama, for advice, he told me that Congress would be beating down our doors for advice if we had a Muslim think-tank focused on foreign affairs.

  He qualified this invitation with two requirements.  First, the expertise either within or marshaled by this think-tank must be equal to that marshaled by other think-tanks on the specific issue being addressed, which suggests that it must be equally well funded, preferably with an endowment that would assure a reliable funding base for an annual budget of about $5,000,000.  Congressman John Conyers said that the Pakistani community, or even the 1,000 Pakistani doctors alone, could easily fund a think-tank twice this size, which would match the minimum budget of the top twenty think-tanks in Washington that deal with foreign affairs.  As I have been saying for thirty years, any Muslim think-tank with a first-year budget of less than a million dollars, growing incrementally by the same amount every year for five years, would be under-capitalized and like most under-capitalized businesses might eventually constitute a rip-off of the investors/funders. 

  And, second, Congressman Hamilton said, the sole purpose of the think-tank should be to improve American foreign policy on behalf of America, not on behalf of Muslims or any Muslim countries.  This, of course, would pose an enormously greater challenge than mere funding, as indicated by the response to a plenary address that I gave in the mid-1980s at the ISNA Convention.  My assigned topic was “A Strategy for America.”  I spent half an hour laying out the guidelines for a strategy to promote American enlightened interests around the world, which I contended were eminently Islamic because the founding principles of America in the Preamble of the American Constitution were the best statement of Islamic thought ever penned.  The Preamble listed justice as the purpose of America and prioritized defense, internal stability (tranquillity), prosperity, and freedom in that order as the product of justice, not as its cause.  Before Islamic intellectual life went into hibernation as a force in public policy six hundred years ago, the great Islamic scholars developed the world’s first code of human responsibilities and rights in the normative guidelines of Islamic jurisprudence, known as the maqasid al shari’ah, which provide both the substance of justice and the founding purpose of America. 

  The response of the thousand or so people present at the ISNA Convention was total silence.  Twenty years later, I happened to meet a Muslim who was there.  He said that my talk was the most life-changing encounter of his life, but he added, “I was probably the only Muslim there who understood a word of what you were saying, and it took me twenty years to really appreciate your message. We all expected you to outline a strategy to counter American foreign policy in the world, not to develop an Islamic strategy for America.”

  The best strategy for Muslims in America and in the world is to do the exact opposite of those Jews who want a Jewish State and of those Muslims who want a so-called Islamic State.  Such a triumphalistly tribalistic strategy, like the autistic strategy of the NeoCons to counter global chaos by unilateral preemption, inevitably must ultimately defeat the purpose of its proponents and eventually destroy them, as it has eliminated every civilization since the beginning of time. 

  The universal strategy taught in the Qur’an, in the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, and in the writings of the great Islamic scholars calls for the pursuit of peace, prosperity, and freedom through compassionate justice, based on the statement of the Prophet Muhammad that every person is created in the image of God, which means that the purpose of every person is to become what one is and to reflect this real identity in community solidarity.  Thomas Jefferson’s advice to future generations was simple.  He advised us always to remember “that no nation can remain free unless its members are properly educated, that education consists primarily in learning virtue, and that no nation can remain virtuous unless every one in both one’s personal and public life is infused with loving awareness of God.”  Any other focus constitutes polytheism, which is the worship of anything other than God, such as an Islamic state, a Christian state, a Jewish state, a Hindu state, or any other secular ideology that perverts the revealed teachings of the world religions.

  Since Islam is the most universalist religion in the world, it behooves Muslims to act accordingly.  They should invoke other faith traditions in defense of human rights, particularly those that concern Muslims, just as they should invoke the Qur’an in defense of universal issues, particularly those that do not primarily concern Muslims. 

  A model and unique experiment in the institutionalization of Muslim thinktanks has been underway for several years by Imad ad Dean Ahmad’s Minaret of Freedom.  As a one-time leader of America’s Libertarian Party, Dr. Ahmad not only invokes the teachings of America’s founders equally with those of the vast Islamic heritage, but is attempting to by-pass the funding problem by publishing a Directory of Muslim scholars by specialty.  This marshaling of scholarly expertise is designed to give government and media ready access to Muslim experts vetted by their peers. 

  This is the first step in building a real think-tank that can network with other like-minded think-tanks in Washington, which is how foreign policy generally is made in America.  Following the example of the Heritage Foundation, which is one of the top three foreign policy think-tanks in the world, The Minaret of Freedom, is holding a Resource Bank meeting this spring of all the scholars listed in its Directory.  One purpose is to start a process of coordinating their efforts both in making the universal principles of Islam better known and in networking with other think-tanks in Washington and around the world to translate the universal paradigmatic thought of the maqasid al shari’ah into guidance for shaping the policy agendas developed in Washington’s think-tank industry, which, in turn, shape future policy.


  Perhaps the most profound statement of the un-Islamic nature of religious tribalism was made by Abubakr al Shingieti, the Director of Research at the International Institute of Islamic Thought:  “The identification of universal values with a particular religion, e.g., Jewish values, Islamic justice, or Christian love, has always been problematic.  This mode of identification carries with it a false sense of exclusivity with dangerous political consequences, such as colonialism.  This is why Islam is a continuous struggle for transcendence.  Its universality is embedded in its historical relevance across the space-time spectrum.  A true Muslim cannot make any exclusive moral claims to justice, love, or any human value.  Even the political claims to the establishment of justice have communal limits, besides divine guidance. 

  “This dialectic of transcendence and temporality is at the heart of the project of worship for the Muslim.  It is what constitutes a dynamic understanding - and practice - of tawhid.  It is also the essence of pluralism in Islam: from a direct and private relationship with God at the individual level, to a communal interpretation of Islam - the shari’ah - that embraces other faiths and their laws as part of a new community of faith.

  “The ultra-Salafis who are trying to hijack Islam are just as guilty as the Jewish and Christian Zionists who are trying to hijack Judaism and Christianity.  They are united with the secular positivists in their failed attempts to put true religion, the pursuit of transcendent reality, in a straight jacket.”