Iraq’s Anbar: is religion trumping tribe?

On many occasions, I raise a question to many speakers and graduate students: Does tribe trump religion or does religion trump tribe? The answers are interesting, intriguing, and important because of the social fabric throughout the MENA region. What is occurring today in Iraq's al-Anbar province is a case in point.

Iraqi military action in the restive al-Anbar Province against al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) raises the question again: Does religion trump tribalism now or vice versa?

Al-Qaeda purge through tribal cooperation

During the American occupation of Iraq, al-Qaeda attempted to take over the province and impose its value system on the local tribes—the Albu Fahd (Ramadi), Albu Mahal (Qaim), and the Albu Issa (Fallujah), under the Dulaym Tribal Confederation.

This attempt failed because Washington, in collusion with Baghdad, implemented the concept of tribal engagement with the creation of the Sons of Iraq (Sahwa or Awakening) based on local tribal leaders who rejected al-Qaeda's puritanical rule. After months of fighting during the 2006-2007 period, the tribes emerged victorious and al-Qaeda went into hiding.

At the time, tribalism in al-Anbar province trumped religion because clan politics were more deeply rooted in the region's socio-political ethos. The simple fact that al-Qaeda, at that time, did not comprehend the cultural narratives and traditional authority of local sheikhs, signaled an end to the Salafi-Jihadist project.

Yes, there will be more violence, and yes, there will be more attempts at igniting a sectarian battle. But make no mistake: clearly, tribalism is trumping religion in al-Anbar province and that fact will win concessions from Baghdad in the future.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Jumping forward to late 2013, al-Anbar residents began to protest against Baghdad's will. The protests were based on tribal elites and their denizens seeking greater rights against the central government including greater subsidies and improvements in housing, education and infrastructure.

Many observers saw these acts as a Sunni uprising when in fact the complaints were based more on an equal distribution of wealth and unfair treatment from the Iraqi capital based on core tribal values.

ISIS, seeing an opportunity to expand the Syrian battle space eastwards, began operations to spread its influence due to al-Qaeda’s perception that the protests were sectarian. With the arrest of the prominent Sunni leader Ahmad al-Alwani in Ramadi, the rambunctious al-Qaeda affiliate saw an opening to advance its cause into al-Anbar.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant took control of Fallujah and the nearby city of Ramadi on January 1, 2014 with the help of some al-Anbar tribes angry at Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki's government.

Gaining leverage through your enemy's enemy

The al-Anbar tribes appeared to welcome ISIS for the time being in retribution against Baghdad—but this action seems to be a stunt-- to garner greater attention from Iraqi President Al-Maliki to pressure his administration for more attention to local, domestic woes.

The effect is obvious: Al-Maliki dispatched troops to help the tribesmen against ISIS by providing them with weapons and money for their fight. Maliki stated that “there is a good response from Fallujah's sons and tribes. We do not care how long this takes."

What does the current situation portend for the immediate future? Primarily, the actions occurring in al-Anbar need to be seen through the lens of Iraqi tribal culture. The fundamental aspect of Iraqi tribal society is, to borrow from the anthropological phraseology, kinship and collectivism. Within the Iraqi tribes of al-Anbar, as in other areas of Iraq and MENA itself, family ties and strict honor codes link members often more than ethnicity or religion.

Iraqi history has shown, whether under the Ottomans, the British, or Saddam Hussein, that Iraqi tribes were extremely adaptive and that the power of the tribes—specifically in al-Anbar, had become insulated against central rule. In today’s al-Anbar province, the tribes clamor for attention and welfare support from the federal center.

Seeking leverage, the al-Anbar tribes may see ISIS as a temporary tool to receive they attention they require at the same time that ISIS thinks it can make a violent breakthrough into Western Iraq from Syria.

In addition, the al-Anbar tribes’ religiosity is relatively moderate where their understanding of Islam has been that of reverence without fanaticism. Al-Qaeda, as an ideology, is far more extreme for any al-Anbar tribe and they could never follow such diktat. Al-Qaeda also extends their hostile view towards Shiites, a fact that goes against the grain of Iraqi tribalism.

Tribes trump religion

Overall, the ISIS Salafi-Jihadis exaggerate their prowess by attempting to force the al-Anbar tribesmen to accept their values and rule of law arguing that they are fighting for them because of their shared Sunni beliefs. This strategy is doomed to failure. This futile approach by al-Qaeda in the 2006-2007 will likely fail again now.

Yes, there will be more violence, and yes, there will be more attempts at igniting a sectarian battle. But make no mistake: clearly, tribalism is trumping religion in al-Anbar province and that fact will win concessions from Baghdad in the future

Most likely, ISIS will be forced to retreat or move to other parts of Iraq where they may receive a different type of welcome. Overall, Iraqi tribes use al-Qaeda affiliates to their advantage. Much like in the game of chess, al-Anbar tribes are using the Salafi-Jihadists as pawns in a much larger game of center-periphery relations in modern day Iraq.

 

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Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.
 

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