By Dan Green – Director of Bridges for Communities
The other day an incident occurred at Mutah University in Jordan which highlighted something in Arab society that we from the West often find difficult to grasp – the power of tribe. The Jordan Times reported that more than 50 students were involved in a large-scale brawl, throwing rocks, hitting each other with sticks and destroying university property, which resulted in the evacuation of the university and the suspension of classes. The fight occurred after a small provocation between students of two particular tribes – I don’t know yet exactly what happened, but the interesting thing to me is that those involved then contacted their relatives, who came back the next day and took the violence to a new level.
This isn’t the first incident of its kind while I’ve lived in Jordan. I witnessed several smaller fights between tribes while I was teaching at the University of Jordan, and about a year ago there was violence in the city of Salt after a student was killed there. The original incidents that sparked these conflicts were allegedly small – a dispute over a chair, an inappropriate conversation with a girl etc. But I also had my first taste of tear gas when members of a tribe attacked police after one of their family had been killed during a raid on his house (see photo to the left from a local paper). So how, and why, do these seemingly small or individual incidents result in major violence between large groups of people? And do we in the West have anything similair to compare it with?
There is an Arabic proverb which says انا على أخوي وأنا وأخوي على ابن عمي وأنا وابن عمي على الغريب which means “Me against my brother. Me and my brother against my cousin. Me and my cousin against a stranger”. In other words, when things get rough I will lay aside differences with those closest to me and stand with them against an external threat. When push comes to shove, its ‘us’, against ‘them’.
Here in Jordan tribes play a major role in society. These tribes, groups of related families who claim descent from a founding ancestor, go a long way back in nomadic Bedouin life and are each associated with certain geographical regions they used to live in. The map below is from 1900 – as well as the names of cities and areas, it shows the names of the tribes and where they each lived at that time. Tribes such as Bani Hassan, Bani Sakhr, and Howeitat today contain several hundred thousand members each, and so carry a lot of power. When a member of one of these tribes is offended or injured, it is the duty of his or her tribe to come to their defence as described by the proverb above. The strong sense of family honour is what gives this mix the potential for incidents like that at the university this week.
Given that I only have 7 cousins (a pathetically low number compared to many of my students who come from large families and may have over 50!), it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t stand much chance in a Jordanian tribal conflict! That’s one very good reason to try and stay out of trouble here, and the truth is that this tribal family nature is a dynamic that we in the West can find hard to relate to.
‘Tribalism’ is not completely absent from our own society though. I’d suggest that all of us have a desire to ‘belong’, to be part of a group that is bigger than ourselves, and since our wider families don’t really offer us this in the West we may look for it in other places. Perhaps part of the appeal of football in Britain is that it gives us the sense of ‘us’ against ‘them, the feeling of being joined with thousands of others by a common passion – and at times a common grievance when things don’t go our way. Weren’t the riots across the country last year also a kind of tribal angst, carrying along many people who had no history of vandalism or crime? Isn’t there something tribal about concerts, in that powerful sense of togetherness that comes from singing with people (even those we don’t know)?
There have been times when I have even thought I felt something tribal at church gatherings. Could the power of ‘us’ gathering together, with common beliefs and views, actually lead us into dangerous territory where we begin to inadvertently ‘other’ those on the outside? And yet our faith teaches us to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. In other words, we seek to treat the stranger, my cousin, my brother all exactly the same way – ‘doing unto others as you would have them do unto you’.
Now if we could all start trying to do that, whether we live in the East or the West, perhaps there’d be less ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the world, and Mutah University could resume its classes without the fear of rocks coming through the window!
Update: Since this blog was posted there has been a new article in the Jordan Times about the escalation of violence at the university: see http://jordantimes.com/mutah-university-brawl-gets-ugly-guns-and-knives-used