It’s Not Just Islam, It’s the Tribal Mentality
By Bruce Thornton
Danish translation: Det er ikke bare islam, det er stammementaliteten
Source:, March 12, 2015
Published on March 25, 2015

The “nothing to do with Islam” mantra took a hit recently in one of the premier organs of liberal received wisdom, The Atlantic. Many have greeted as a revelation Graeme Wood’s article on the Islamic doctrines behind ISIS’s atrocities. Regular readers of FrontPage and Jihad Watch will not be as impressed. For years they have understood the link between jihadism and Islam. In 1994 Andy McCarthy made this connection when he prosecuted the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing the previous year, a connection that the FBI ignored or discounted at the time––a failure, by the way, that has become a pernicious tradition for those charged with protecting our nation’s security and interests. For everyone else who has been paying attention to the rise of modern jihadism, Wood’s article is a dog bites man story.

One can hope that perhaps now, with the truth revealed by one of the Acela corridor’s oracles, the jihad deniers will wise up, though I wouldn’t bet on it. Unexamined opinions comprise the bulk of the progressive mind, and are notoriously resistant to empirical evidence and sound argument. But the current mess in the Middle East results from more than just Islam and its traditional belligerence, supremacist pretensions, and illiberal religious laws and doctrines. These characteristics reflect variations on the mentality of the tribe, one antithetical to modernity and the principles of liberal democracy, and still powerful in the Middle East, the region once described as “tribes with flags.”

For all the differences among tribal peoples, the components of this mentality are consistent, from the ancient Gauls and Germans Caesar conquered and the Vikings terrorizing much of Europe, to the American Indians the U.S. Cavalry fought and the jihadist gangs rampaging in the Middle East.

First, there is little notion of a common humanity that transcends ethnicity or culture. Universal principles are scarce, and personal identity is found solely in the collective customs and traditions of the tribe. Outsiders are to be distrusted, plundered, or conquered when possible. Loyalty is not to principle, but to blood. Most tribal peoples consider their tribe the acme of humanity, the only genuine humans. Hence their word for “human” is usually identical to the name of their tribe. They are literally ethnocentric.

Second, violence, particularly against outsiders, is an acceptable instrument for resolving conflict and asserting tribal superiority. Not just the violence of war, but also the cruel torture and slaughter of outsiders, including women and children, are legitimate for serving the interests of the tribe. Indeed, what we call terrorism was a tactic of tribal warfare to prevent a full-scale war by so terrorizing enemies that they would give up without a fight, a phenomenon common in the various Indian wars of American history. Hence the scary face-paint, tattoos, war cries, bizarre hairstyles, tortures like scalping, mutilation of enemies, or slaughter of their women and children, all of which are meant to frighten and demoralize the enemy. The same intent explains the blustering threats, braggadocio, and insults typical of tribal warfare and diplomacy. These practices can be documented in tribal societies from the Iroquois to the ancient Gauls.

Next, loyalty in tribal societies counts only for those within the tribe. Alliances with other tribes or peoples are ad hoc and contingent on the immediate interests of the tribe. They can be abandoned or betrayed if circumstances or perceptions change. Moreover, respect for others beyond the tribe is based solely on their capacity to inflict violence on their enemies. The “strongest tribe,” a status based on its effectiveness and success in conflict, will attract allies, who will abandon the hegemon once it loses that perception of its strength. Thus during Caesar’s wars in Gaul various Gallic and Germanic tribes would ally with the Romans when they appeared dominant, and betray them in an instant if they thought them weak. Likewise during the U.S. Cavalry’s wars against the Plains Indians, many tribes victimized by the Sioux or Apache or Cheyenne would ally with the Americans if they seemed to be winning, then switch sides the moment they seemed weak.

Finally, tribal societies are centered on the male warrior and his honor. Forget the Women’s Studies fantasies of matriarchal tribal societies. Tribal cultures privilege males, for men fight, and the survival and honor of the tribe depends on martial valor. Women bear children and work, as the skeletons of pre-contact American Indian remains demonstrate. Female bones show much more damage from hard physical labor than do male. This doesn’t mean that women had no status within the tribe, or did not enjoy somewhat more equality than women in more sophisticated civilizations. But warrior males still dominated, and culture in the main centered on men and their prowess in war, which earned honor, what we call prestige, for the whole tribe.

Sound familiar? It should, for Islam in part is the “theologizing” of the tribal mentality. Islam’s important innovation was to redefine the “tribe” as the whole umma of believers, creating in effect a “super tribe” that transcends mere blood as the bonding agent.

But the tribal warrior ethos persists –– in the doctrine of jihad, tribal atrocities in contemporary terror and its gruesome videos, the privileging of men in polygamy, honor killings, and social restrictions on women, the disdain for the infidel “other” in the Koranic belief that Muslims are the “best of nations,” the betrayal of alliances in the religious sanction of lying to infidels (taqiyya), and the obsession with “honor” that today we find in violent Muslim reactions to “blasphemy” against Mohammed or the Koran.

Ignoring the tribal mentality is as dangerous for our foreign policy as downplaying Islamic doctrine. The chronic disorder in northern Iraq today is not just about the Sunni-Shi’a divide, or ISIS’s dream of a caliphate. It also reflects the bewildering number of tribes and clans in the region, whose complex alliances and enmities continually shift depending on circumstances and the perceptions of which tribe is the stronger. Our ally today can instantly become our enemy tomorrow. Factions that appear “moderate” today can become jihadist terrorists tomorrow. Our “friends” will tell us what we want to hear today, and then betray their words tomorrow. Most important, anything we do that creates the perception of weakness––especially concessions, or failure to inflict revenge, or acts of mercy––will also damage our prestige as the “strongest tribe” and invite tribes to abandon us.

These tribal practices defined most peoples, including Europeans, before the advent of modernity. They have survived among Middle Eastern Muslims because they were encoded in religious doctrines that promise global power for the tribe of the faithful in this life, and paradise in the next, especially for jihadist warriors. This amalgamation in part explains the spectacular success of Muslim warriors for a 1000 years, a record of martial achievement the memory of which today fuels the resentment and anger of those Muslims who wish to restore that lost honor. It also contributes to the difficulty of many Muslim societies to reconcile with modernity, particularly liberal democracy and its cargo of human rights, confessional tolerance, and equality for women and those of other faiths.

Of course, worldwide millions of Muslims have managed to transcend tribalism and adjust their faith to modernity. But millions more haven’t, and it is they who are fomenting most of the mayhem and murder on every continent except Antarctica. Our tactics and strategies in confronting this threat must indeed be based on a correct understanding of the spiritual imperatives that motivate the jihadists. But they also must take into account the tribal mentalities that respect force and honor the strong.

The Obama administration’s serial appeasement of Iran––currently the “strongest tribe” spreading its influence throughout the region–– has damaged our prestige among allies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, who are already shopping around for a more reliable and forceful partner. If we want to destroy the jihadists, check Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and protect our interests, we must again become the “strongest tribe.”

Bruce S. Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received his BA in Latin in 1975 and his PhD in comparative literature - Greek, Latin, and English - in 1983, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Thornton is currently a professor of classics and humanities at California State University in Fresno, California. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays and reviews on Greek culture and civilization and their influence on Western civilization. His latest book, published in March 2011, is titled The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama's America.