On Jordan’s Tribal Myth

Who would’ve thought it, but after MP Mustafah Hamarneh gave a talk on tribes and was criticized for it by MP Adbul Kareem Dughmi in parliament, a heated debate on the role of tribes has finally found some place in the public sphere. Hamarneh claimed he was not insulting Jordanian tribes when he said that they were turning in to militias, and essentially, his talk really boiled down to building a country based on citizenship rather than allegiances to tribal affiliations. It seems to me that the missing context for all this has actually been the peace talks. Centered squarely in HM King Abdullah’s portfolio, critics have been fanning the flames of skepticism, resurrecting the age-old tried-and-tested fantasy of the “alternative homeland”; a secret plan to move all Palestinians in to Jordan and declare it their new country. To even consider this as an option is considered sinful by most Jordanians (regardless of origin), not only because it would mean a complete surrender of historic Palestine, but also because such a move would force Jordan to grapple with it’s biggest elephant in the room: our national identity.

It is the topic that poisons every well. For example, only several weeks ago there seemed to be some mobilization over granting Jordanian mother’s the right to pass on their citizenship to their children, a struggle that has been a constant fixture of the activist landscape for years now. The news was greeted with some jubilation, but the fight was far from over as ultra-nationalists spent the weeks that followed vilifying the issue, and framing it as yet another attempt to destroy our fragile social makeup – the one that supposedly maintains the political status quo. The issue was no longer about the right of a Jordanian mother to give her kid the same rights his peers have, but rather how granting such rights would turn Jordan into Palestine.

So this seems to represent the contextual backdrop on top of which this sudden debate about tribes has emerged, and it’s one that is also articulated somewhat by columnist Mohammad Abu Rumman. If you note Dughmi’s attack on Hamarneh, they are all thrown in to the same pot. One might argue that given the sensitive politicization, this would be the absolute worst time to advocate for these causes, or have a debate about the elephant in the room. But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps this is the absolute best time to start that conversation.

Dughmi throws a grenade and sits back to watch other MPs pounce like well-trained lackeys. If that wasn’t political orchestration, then I don’t know what is.

What’s Being Said
In her column, Nermeen Murad emphasized the need for Hamarneh to use the word “some” when referring to tribes, as not all tribes are equal. Indeed, there is a tendency to view Jordanian tribes as one monolithic group dubbed “East Bankers”, but that is no more an accurate reflection than it is to say all “West Bankers” behave, believe and act as if in unison. Murad builds on this to highlight the prevailing myth of tribal advantage, “because in the same way that not all Jordanians are equal, not all tribes are equal either (in the eyes of the political webmasters in Jordan).”

If anything, neoliberal modernization has ensured the differences within the subgroups. Some have benefited, while others have not. When it comes to “East Bankers”, this is more true now than ever before. Whereas Jordanians at large benefited from various government subsidies during the region’s oil boom in the 70’s, the post-IMF era of the late 80’s instigated a re-writing of the social contract in the 90’s. A total reliance on tribes forming the backbone of support for the state could no longer be counted on simply because it wasn’t the kind of loyalty the state could afford anymore (under conditions made by foreign donors like the IMF). This meant finding other ways of catering to a community that has largely been alienated from the kind of centralized economic development seen in Amman and other urban centers. Politically – the parliament came to represent the venue for politically appeasing tribes, but deriving mass economic benefits from political representation is slim in Jordan. Thus, the state gravitated towards the military, and security apparatus as a whole (made up mostly of East Bankers), making them that new favorited sub-group, along with the affluent business elite of the Capital. In a paradigm where the state shakes hands with the elite and the security apparatus almost simultaneously, you end up with the downsides of the status quo we have today: a mostly security-dominated state with centralized privileges on one hand, and a largely unaccountable business landscape that was ripe for corruption, on the other.

Meanwhile, Hassan Barari takes the political argument further in his column, and claims that it is the one-man one-vote system that has pushed people to “identify with their sub-national identities.” Yes, the voting system also plays a significant role in solidifying the standing of tribes in the political scene. And yes, it is done so by design. There is, at this point in our history, no secret about this. He is also correct in suggesting that when “the trust gap between ruling elite and society” widens, people tend to “fall back on their sub-national identity as a means of protection.” However, when Barari argues that no single tribe has become a non-militarized militia, and that “those who act outside the law are individuals who can be tribal or non-tribal,” – I would have to disagree. Yes, tribes have not turned in to the conventional definition of a militia as we imagine the representation to be. However, we cannot brush aside the fact that groups, with ascribed tribal and geographic affiliations, have regularly displayed acts of collective action that resemble a militia. Whether it’s the alarming increase of campus violence that has been mostly tribal-driven, or the closure of major roads with burning tires and the occasional AK-47 as demands by locals are made to the state, or large families setting a police station on fire to free one of their arrested sons.

This takes me to a recent online discussion I had regarding the issue of media’s seemingly automatic attribution of social violence to tribes. Here, I argued that one of the key problems is finding a definition for these terms: tribes and tribalism. A common statement you’ll hear whenever the issue arises is that there is a difference between “tribes” and “tribalism”. While the former represents people organizing themselves in to groups, the word “tribalism” is designed with more derogatory connotations in mind – it is meant to identify the negative behaviors or attitudes that stem from people’s loyalty to the tribe. But these words all ascribe to old definitions, and both tribes and tribalism are facing new experiences in a contemporary context, which naturally demands new definitions to be formed.

Re-imagining The Tribe
Many tribes no longer operate the same way they used to, and the more ultra-nationalist proponents that consider all-things-tribal to be sacred undebatable ground, cling to romanticized ideals of how the tribal system worked in the past; before the nation state. I always found this ironic because despite being at odds with Islamists, both groups are still entangled with how they imagine the past.

Essentially, most of the present-day stories regarding “tribal” related violence can be attributed to disgruntled youth who depend on other disgruntled youth in their family to rise to the defense of the “tribe” in a spur-of-the-moment fashion, with the elders playing a marginalized role. Meanwhile, in other cases, some tribes continue to operate under a classical structure but with greater centralization of power – allowing specific members of the group to benefit from state perks, in return for reigning in their marginalized constituency. Moreover, the environment in which tribes exist has dramatically been re-shaped. This dissatisfaction with the status quo is not sudden but built on years of economic marginalization, with livelihoods being dependent largely on promises and unwritten social contracts. Lacking equal opportunities to education, jobs, markets, infrastructure, transportation, funding, and resources – when pushed, they play out their discontent on the streets. While residents of Amman might point to rising skyscrapers as signs of a Jordan moving towards a model of modernization, filled with desk jobs, business suits, entrepreneurs, etc., the residents of other towns around the country see modernization in a completely different light. They see an agricultural sector, which was essentially a sustainable way of life for many, killed off through neoliberal policies. They see their economic prospects dwindle; restricted to a choice of joining the military, selling farmland to survive, or taking up the only kinds of sustainable jobs that don’t require them to spend half their salaries on transportation: government jobs.

So again: how do we define the role of tribes in a modernization context? How do we define it beyond the myth that has been built around it, and continues to ensnare it?

It’s not an easy question. While a national identity tends to be fluid in nature, shifting and mutating as it evolves and as various forces seek to shape it both deliberately (Jordanian mothers and citizenship), as well as inadvertently (refugees influx) – tribes are a classical social structure that is trying to exist in a fluid state, in an age that has deemed them obsolete; a mismatch with the centralized nation-state. And so the issue of the need for equal political representation that comes so easy to many of us, becomes a question of survival for many tribes who are undoubtedly destined to be rendered depoliticized in the face of a modernization approach that favors class over ethnography. Although I admit, at the end of the day, this argument is dependent on whether the state is really genuine about political reform – and the fact that no one really, really knows for sure, helps fan the flames of identity-uncertainty.

While the Jordanian mother wonders whether her kids will inherit her national identity and the rights that come with it, the East Banker questions whether this evolving national identity seeks to include him at all, or simply hammer in the final nail in the coffin that would confine him to total economic and political obscurity. For the marginalized tribe and its disgruntled members – the family name and the weight in numbers it carries represents the last major source of protection from a state that seeks to alienate them, and an identity that is being reshaped along class lines. Tribal reactionaries are not a product of a sudden aggression towards the state – this is discontent that is over 20 years in the making.

Dangers In The Narrative
The sheer complexities of the issue of tribes are too extensive to boil down to a single writing – entire books have been written on the topic. But there are major points to take away from all this.

Indeed, there is a danger in painting all tribes with the same brush despite the fragmented nature of reality. There is a danger in attributing the kind of non-negotiable ultra-nationalism we see today as being a key feature of all tribes, framing all tribes as an impediment to reform-driven, democratic development. There is a danger in ignoring the economic plight that tribes have been facing this past generation. There is a danger in casting all tribes as backwards, while ignoring a more pragmatic, decently-educated segment of youth that (in many cases) has formed a layer beneath the advertised surface (i.e. the “dinosaurs”); a segment that is still struggling to translate their grievances into political action through activism and street protest.

We know there is a danger in using tribes as the go-to scapegoats to the larger problems at hand, and we also know that tribes represent a social structure that won’t be going away any time soon. This leaves us with trying to redefine tribes in a modernization context – a definition that might include cultural and social attributes but not necessarily political or economic ones.

As Hamarneh suggests, in building a progressive country with a thriving civil society, everyone is supposed to come along for the ride, and equal opportunities must be assured – and it’s here that the question of groups trusting one another becomes pertinent. Western media hasn’t helped by reducing all of Jordan’s woes to East Banker versus West Banker – two groups that are cast as oppositional forces vying for power – but most of us know better. Most of us have moved beyond the definitions steeped in an unresolved 1970’s narrative, and most of us know that these two groups are not, monolithic in nature. They consist of countless sub-groups that do not move as one, nor necessarily agree with one another, or even share the same relationship with the state. But what they do share is a label.

That said, the question of where tribes fit in the modernization model remains an important one to ask, and I’m glad someone’s asking it out loud in a political forum. It not only helps dispel the myth of Jordanian tribes, but it’s also the gateway to a conversation about national identity, in a nation that is far from socially stagnant. In the face of this glaring question, ultra-nationalist forces seeking to preserve the status quo have arrived promptly on the scene, and it would be flawed to suggest that such parties are a representation of Jordanian tribes. Instead, they represent politically-motivated self-interest. No more, and no less.

On a last note, say what you will about the man, but Hamarneh and his Mubadara initiative is bringing up issues that have been swept under the rug in the name of “national interests”. Despite all the kinks, if it continues to grow and move away from centralized figures that can be targeted or scapegoated, then Mubadara could provide a viable option in the next election. Today, it represents a rare and interesting experiment in the sluggish evolution of Jordan’s parliamentary politics, and perhaps even a precedent that could pave the way for competition.

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