Why We Will Never See Democracy in the Middle East

In the five years since 9/11, much looking-back has been done. The problem is we haven't looked back far enough. To understand the nature of the enemy in the Middle East and to evaluate the prospects for democracy and peace, we need to extend our gaze not five years into the past, but five hundred and even five thousand.

I've spent the last four years writing two books about Alexander the Great's campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, 331-327 B.C. What has struck me in the research is the dead-ringer parallels between that ancient East-West clash and the modern ones the U.S. is fighting today -- despite the fact that Alexander was pre-Christian and his enemies were pre-Islamic.

What history seems to be telling us is that the quality that most defines our Eastern adversaries, then and now, is neither religion nor extremism nor "Islamo-fascism," but something much older and more fundamental.

Tribalism

Extremist Islam is merely an overlay (and a recent one at that) atop the primal, unchanging mind-set of the East, which is tribalism, and its constituent individual, the tribesman.

Tribalism and the tribal mind-set are what the West is up against in Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, the Iraqi insurgency, the Sunni and Shiite militias, and the Taliban.

What exactly is the tribal mind-set? It derives from that most ancient of social organizations, whose virtues are obedience, fidelity, warrior pride, respect for ancestors, hostility to outsiders and willingness to lay down one's life for the cause/faith/group. The tribe's ideal leader is closer to Tony Soprano than to FDR and its social mores are more like those of Geronimo's Apaches than the city council of Scarsdale or Shepherd's Bush.

Can the tribal mind embrace democracy? Consider the contrast between the tribesman and the citizen:

A citizen is an autonomous individual. A citizen is free. A citizen possesses the capacity to evaluate the facts and prospects of his world and to make decisions guided by his own conscience, uncoerced by authority. A congress of citizens acting in free elections determines the political course of a democratic community.

Historian Steven Pressfield is the author of the just-release novel The Afghan Campaign. He has written four other historical novels including "Gates of Fire," "The War of Art," and "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

A citizen prizes his freedom; therefore he grants it to others. He is willing to respect the rights of minorities within the community, so that his own rights will be shielded when he finds himself in the minority.

The tribesman doesn't see it that way. Within the fixed hierarchy of the tribe, disagreement is not dissent (and thus to be tolerated) but treachery, even heresy, which must be ruthlessly expunged. The tribe exists for itself alone. It is perpetually at war with all other tribes, even of its own race and religion.

The tribesman deals in absolutes. One is either "of blood" or not. The enemy spy can infiltrate the tribal network no more than a prison guard can worm his way into the Aryan Brotherhood. The tribe recognizes its own. It expels (or beheads) the alien. The tribe cannot be negotiated with. "Good faith" applies only within the pale, never beyond.

The tribesman does not operate by a body of civil law but by a code of honor. If he receives a wrong, he does not seek redress. He wants revenge. The taking of revenge is a virtue in tribal eyes, called badal in the Pathan code of nangwali. A man who does not take revenge is not a man. Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the sectarian militias of Iraq are not in the war business, they are in the revenge business. The revenge-seeker cannot be negotiated with because his intent is bound up with honor. It is an absolute.

Perhaps the most telling difference between the citizen and the tribesman lies in their views of the Other. The citizen embraces multiplicity; to him, the melting pot produces richness and cultural diversity. To the tribesman, the alien is not even given the dignity of being a human being; he is a gentile, an infidel, a demon.

The tribesman grants justice within the tribe. In his internal councils, empathy, humor and compassion may prevail. Outside the tribe? Forget it. Can Shiites really sit down with Sunnis? Will the pledges of Hezbollah or Hamas to Israel prove true?

Historian Steven Pressfield is the author of the just-release novel The Afghan Campaign. He has written four other historical novels including "Gates of Fire," "The War of Art," and "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

The democratic virtues of the Enlightenment, the Rights of Man and the American Constitution are not virtues to the tribesman. They are effeminate. They lack warrior honor. "Freedom" to the tribesman means the extinction of all he and his ancestors hold dear; "democracy" and Western values are a mortal threat to the ancient and proud way of life that the tribal mind has embraced (whether Scythian nomads, Amazon warriors, or American Indians) for tens of thousands of years.

The tribesman isn't "wrong" or "evil." He just doesn't want what we're selling. We will not convert him with free elections or with SAW machine guns. To him, 9/11 is only the most recent act of badal in a clash that has been raging for more than two thousand years. We will not find the way to contest him, let alone defeat him, until we see the struggle against him within the greater context of this millenia-old, unaltering, East-West war.

Historian Steven Pressfield is the author of the just-release novel The Afghan Campaign. He has written four other historical novels including "Gates of Fire," "The War of Art," and "The Legend of Bagger Vance."