Blogs > HNN > Iraqi Tribes and Christian Metal in Marrakesh

May 11, 2005 12:07 pm

Iraqi Tribes and Christian Metal in Marrakesh

I got a call today from a producer at one of the major cable talking head shows, as I do periodically, asking if I'd like to come on the show to discuss the latest disaster in Iraq. We did a pre-interview for about 20 minutes, after which I waited as usual about two hours for the call that would let me know if I needed to shave today and iron my suit jacket or could continue the day in shorts and a t-shirt.

As has happened too many times to count since President Bush was reelected, I was ultimately rainchecked to some time in the future when there would be time for a more full discussion of the issues behind the day's violence. As usual, the show went on to feature the usual assortment of retired military men and intelligence analysts—the very people who brought us the mess that is Iraq in the first place—prognosticating on how to get out of it.

Even when reporters and producers really want to feature in depth discussions about the realities of Iraq and the war on terror, it's increasingly difficult for them to do so because news directors and corporate managers have Fox-ified the news to an extent that any critical perspectives are considered a direct threat to America, and thus their bottom line. Even if one could speak freely on the air, what is there really to say at this point? "The nation's recent death toll now stands at more than 365," is how the LA Times put it on its homepage today. Even my friend, Sheikh Anwar, a determinedly optimistic and "elastic" Shi'i cleric from Sadr City, sounds more depressed than I've heard him on the phone, and he's lost his wife and so much more since the beginning of the occupation without losing hope.

What the producer had asked me to discuss was the issue of why and how tribes in the Iraq-Syria border are supporting the insurgency. Of course, I'd have about 2.5 minutes to explain this phenomenon in a way that the average cable viewer could understand. This is not so easy, especially since the whole focus on 'tribes' is itself misplaced. In fact, it's kind of sad really how American and (largely exile) Iraqi officials keep thinking, whether it's with Ghazi Yawwar or now Sadoon al-Dulaimi (the new Defense Minister from a "powerful Sunni tribe"--whatever that means), that if only they can buy off one Sunni with good tribal connections the insurgency will just collapse as the country's Sunni population falls into line behind its "traditional" leaders.

But this idea of what tribes are is in fact quite inaccurate. Tribes in Iraq and most everywhere else in the Middle East today are an extremely complicated set of ideas, identities and structures that resemble a "traditional" American political patronage machine than they do some kind of atavistic traditional set of loyalties bound by such emotions as "loyalty," "honor" and of course, "revenge." The fact that the people running Iraq—whether Iraqis or American "advisors"--seem to have such an unsophisticated understanding of tribes is a bit disconcerting to say the least.

Basically, the tribal structure in Iraq is a combination of "state" and "social" tribal networks. This means that the Baath regime of Hussein put great effort, especially after its loss of the 1990-91 war, into re-consolidating its power by strengthening its patronage of various tribes allied to Hussin's Tikriti clan of the al-Bu Nassir tribe. So the so-called traditional tribal structure operating today is in many ways the creation of the Baath regime during its last decade and a half in power. Mixing with that is the social-tribal structure, which has long operated as among the most powerful social and political structures/networks in the country precisely to the degree that central government control has been rather weak and unable to deliver services or security on its own. These tribal affiliations can cut across ethnic and sectarian divisions, similar to Palestinian and other societies. As important, tribes are also bisected by class-economic position and closeness to the regime. A poorer member of the Tikriti clan could wind up in the grave next to a Shi'i oppenent of the regime if crosses someone higher up in the clan-government system in any way.

But on top of the tribal-political structure must be overlaid the religious component, which is that Hussein allowed in innumerable Wahhabis in the last decade precisely to shore up a Sunni front against the Shi‘a who were his primary threat and enemy. The Wahhabis themselves have strong tribal affiliations, and this helped strengthen the tribal-religious nexus across the "borders" between Iraq and Jordan and Iraq and Syria. When you add to this a situation where Iraq's national identity is in severe flux and the state is not function correctly if at all, it's not surprising that people would focus their loyalties and political energies toward maintaining long-term networks that don't depend on the vagaries of political and military power to sustain them. This is one reason why a "Jordanian" like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi can so easily blend into Western/Northern Iraqi society, since there are strong tribal networks connecting this region across the two "international" borders for centuries. So in reality we're not dealing merely with"tribes" but rather with a complicated matrix of political, consociational, religious, nationalistic, local, economic and cultural forces, all brought together into the cauldron of post-September 11 militarized globalization. That's not a good soundbite, however.

Neither is this: The reality is that the vast majority of Sunnis, and most Shi‘a too, want the US out of Iraq ASAP. The US has no intentions of leaving Iraq, ASAP or any other time frame for that matter. The new Iraqi government needs the US to survive, but can never have true legitimacy as long as it endorses anything but a swift US withdrawal from the country (talk about your catch-22…). Ultimately, the Iraqi leadership and the US have fundamentally opposite needs: the Iraqis to get rid of the US, the US not to leave any time soon. So somebody please tell me how this is supposed to end in anything but more blood and wasted (read: stolen) money given the current dynamics?

Anyway, that's what I would have told the interviewer had I gotten on (which is no doubt why I didn't get on). Instead they had a nice discussion about how strong the insurgency is and can it be defeated soon. Well, as a US general admitted, it might take 'weeks, a month, or months," it's hard to say for sure. "But we'll win." That's reassuring to know…

In the meantime, Morocco has just experienced what I believe to be its first "heavy metal festival."
But it wasn't Ozzfest; instead it was a bunch of evangelical metal bands who were there to proseletyze with the clearly implicit support of the Bush Administration—and, astonishingly, the support of the Moroccan government, who believes that by currying favor with the evangelical Christian power structure and letting them come in and try to convert Muslim youth they'll get Bush to turn a blind eye to Morocco's continued occupation of the Western Sahara. And needless to say it's working—at least for the Moroccan government, as the evangelicals have already gone on record as supporting a reassessment by Bush of US positions on the occupation. But as most heavy metal fans interviewed for the article explained, since fans by and large can't understand the lyrics or speeches, the chances of being converted are pretty slim. But they sure like the high speed distorted guitar riffs! Not surprisingly however, the Moroccan Islamist movement is not so thrilled.

As I wrote about in a previous posting, I am working on a project titled "heavy metal Islam" that I s exploring how heavy metal, hip hop and other so-called "western" art forms are being utilized by Muslim youth as a way of critiquing their governments and societies. Morocco happens to have among the most advanced metal scenes, and almost 20 of its members was arrested by the same government a couple of years ago and charged with Satanism for their taste in music. Today, while the homegrown and irreligious version of metal is still under threat, Evangelical metal bands from the American heartland are welcome in by the "Amin al-Muamin"—the Commander of the Faithful," the title of Caliph that the Moroccan King's father arrogated for himself.

But the sacrilegious metal heads are not taking things lying down. June 2-6 they have organized their own festival of progressive culture, music, politics, including metal, hip hop and other Moroccan styles, which I'll be performing at with some Moroccan musician friends. I hope to send a posting from there. At the very least, it will be interesting to see if politicized heavy metal and rap is any more up to the task of social change in Morocco than it has been in the US since the decline of political hip hop in the 1990s…

Finally, returning to the theme of democracy in Egypt, the election rules just passed by the Egyptian Parliament will make it little easier for people to run for office or be elected outside the main party, thus making the talk of true democratic opening in Egypt practically meaningless. What is quite hopeful however is that the opposition "Enough" movement plans to fight the new rules through civil disobedience if necessary. That could be a major turning point in the struggle for Arab democracy if it happened. Anyone who cares about true democracy in the region should follow this closely and write letters to Bush and Co not to allow Mubarak to crush this crucial movement.

Quote of the week on democracy: from al-Jazeerah, 4/23: "UN Security Council Resolution 1559 calls for an end to foreign military presence in Lebanon and the disarming of all militias. The US wants Syria out of Lebanon before Lebanese elections, and stresses that there is no point in holding national elections with foreign troops still in the country. Mustafa Bakri, editor of Al-Osbou weekly magazine, says he wants to know why the same did not apply for Iraq. "Why were there 140,000 US soldiers in addition to thousands of other foreign troops in Iraq when the elections were held?" he asked in an interview with

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