People may continue to be proud of their tribal roots if they choose to, but they will gradually shed their blind loyalty
By Qais Ghanem, Special to Gulf News
April 3, 20
Let us start with the definition of “tribe”. This usually means a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations, together with dependents, or adopted and accepted strangers, often joining through marriage or as spoils of war. It is a precondition for members of a tribe to possess a strong feeling of identity and loyalty for a true tribal society to form. Tribal peoples saw only the members of their own tribe as worthy, and denigrated all others as something less.
Through my Ottawa radio show, Dialogue with Diversity, I learnt that the word “Inuit” for the indigenous inhabitants of the frozen northern parts of Canada simply meant “people”. But at school I had learnt that such people were called “Eskimos”, a word which is easily remembered. But then I learnt from my Inuit guests that the word actually meant “eaters of raw meat!” The term therefore represents the denigration and dehumanisation of another “tribe”, which once dehumanised could be exploited or harmed or even killed with impunity.
The concept goes back thousands of years, and has been documented in ancient Rome where political divisions of the Roman people represented three original distinct tribes. The hold of the tribe is extremely strong, which makes it very difficult to leave the tribe or to marry across the tribal boundaries, as Shakespeare depicted in the story of the ill-fated Romeo and Juliet, when they dared to love across the Montague-Capulet “tribal” divide.
Tribalism is used to preserve the characteristics and way of life of the tribe. At one point in time, it was the norm which protected human and material resources, such as water and pasture, thus maintaining society, including in the Arab world. Today, the term is chiefly derogatory, characterised by a tendency to form groups, or by strong and often blind group loyalty.
The tribal system has nothing to do with Islam; indeed, if anything, Islam tended to diminish tribalism by demanding a greater and more absolute loyalty to Allah and Islam itself. Thus, whereas Bani Umayyah, and Bani Quraish, the Prophet Mohammad’s(PBUH) own tribe, were Muslim, the Ghassanids were Christian and Bani Aws were Jewish.
Today in Yemen, both south and north, there are dozens of major tribes that wield a lot power and can muster quick support and ready loyalty of its members. To name a few, we have the well known names of Hashed and Bakeel in the north and the Awaleq and Maharah in the south. During socialist rule of the south, tribal labels were quite effectively discouraged, but the tendency seems to be returning since the unity of the two Yemens.
By contrast, in my own city of Aden, there was no tribe or talk of the tribe. Yes, I knew that my forefathers came to Aden from Hugariyyah, and before that from Makkah, but it was only a matter of curiosity, not loyalty. I did go to our very small village after the age of 50, and it was good to see our humble beginnings, but that was all. Will Yemeni society ever discard tribalism?
Modern democracies have managed to rid themselves of tribalism as a result of one or more factors. Amongst these is the emergence of a very strong and omnipotent leader or dictator, such as Benito Mussolini in Italy or Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia. Another is the occurrence of world war, where atrocities and catastrophes proved to be blind to tribal barriers. A third is the slow process of education, which, for example, narrowed the differences between Scottish clans, after they had come under central rule by the English Crown.
But the most important factor, in my opinion, is the establishment of citizen equality and the rule of law, whereby the citizen no longer needs his tribe to protect his rights, and literally fight the transgressor for those rights; because they would already be guaranteed to him by the constitution, which in turn is written and modified by parliament, which in turn is elected by the citizens — all citizens from all tribes and non-tribes.
Therefore, what Yemenis need to do over the next five years or so is to start by forming committees of learned legal experts and academics, who have had exposure to English law, French law, as well as Sharia law, and to copy some of the relevant and applicable work already done in other Arab and Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey.
At the same time, a one-man-one-vote genuine and internationally monitored democratic system should be fast tracked, in order to assure citizens that they have equal rights to influence government and the very members of parliament who are supposed to stand on guard for those rights.
Yemenis may continue to be proud of their tribal roots if they choose to, but they will gradually shed their blind loyalty to the Hashed, or Awaleq or Maharah tribes, just as the Scots shed it to the MacDonald, MacKenzie and MacTavish clans.
Dr Qais Ghanem is a retired neurologist, radio show host, poet and novelist. His two novels are Final Flight from Sana'a and Two Boys from Aden College. He lives in Canada.