Center Versus Periphery in Muslim Nations — Dr Akbar Ahmed



I HAVE been fascinated by the relationship between Muslim tribal societies living on the peripheries of modern states and central governments. The neglected subject is explored in my 2013 book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam.

These tribal societies have their own culture—they live as part of clan groups and by a code of honor stressing hospitality and revenge—and even a distinct understanding  of Islam. While the tribes, governed by councils of male elders, seek to maintain their independence and preserve their identity and customs, central states seek to extend their authority over the entirety of their territory and can clash with the tribes.

Think of Pakistan and its relationship with the tribes in Waziristan or the Baluch in Baluchistan. In fact, in The Thistle and the Drone I outlined 40 case studies including the Moroccan Berbers, the Kurds and their relationship with several central governments like Turkey and Iraq, the Somalis, Yemenis, and, in East Asia, groups like the Tausug in the Philippines.

In the era of the war on terror, with reports of “terrorists” in tribal areas, central governments backed by international partners like the United States often took advantage of the opportunity to move against the tribes which often resulted in brutal measures, as I outlined in my book. As the book argues, more than a clash between civilizations based on religion, we see one between central governments and tribal communities on the periphery.

The often difficult relationship between state and tribe, center and periphery, ruler and those living on the boundaries of the realm, however, is not a new one. It has interested scholars, commentators, and politicians throughout recorded history. Those drawn to the subject range from the likes of Herodotus, Plutarch, Julius Caesar, and the Indian Kautilya of long ago to the Arab Ibn Khaldun of medieval times and Bernard Lewis and Albert Hourani of the modern era. In recent decades, anthropologists have made a rich ethnographic contribution to the discussion. In addition, many anthropologists have sounded the alarm about the current plight of tribal societies and connected the dots between their predicament and the role of the modern state.

In history, rulers and administrators representing a strong center tended to view the periphery as an unattractive or less than admirable segment of society. The periphery, in turn, saw the center as predatory, corrupt, and dishonorable, an entity to be kept at arm’s length. From the time of the Mughals to that of the British, for example, the Indian center referred to the Pashtun areas as yaghistan, or a “land of rebellion,” and ghair I laqa, which means alien, strange, or foreign (as opposed to ilaqa, which means area under central government control).

A common feature of the tribal groups I examined in the book, apart from their Islamic faith, is that after World War II they found themselves, without their permission and in many cases against their will, part of a newly formed modern nation state. Clans and communities that had lived together for centuries were over nightsliced into two—and some more than two—by international boundaries. Many tribes were now at the mercy of those they had traditionally opposed or fought against. Some new states had a Muslim majority and some were non-Muslim with only a small Muslim population.

A puzzling feature of today’s world is that tiny nations like Nauru (with a population of 9,300), Tuvalu (10,000), and Kiribati (barely 100,000) have independent status with full membership in the United Nations, whereas much larger ethnic groups that not long ago lived as independent or semi-independent societies find themselves divided among different nations and subjected to increasingly repressive policies in their own land. An estimated 50 million Pashtuns have been split mainly between Afghanistan and Pakistan; some 30 million Kurds between Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq; about 30 million Oromo between Ethiopia (which has the largest share)and Kenya; about 15 million Fulani among Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, and across West Africa; and 6 million Tuareg among half a dozen countries in Africa—Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria.

As a consequence, once masters of their universe, these communities have been reduced to third-class citizenship in their own homes. In many of the regions, the discovery of oil and minerals in the twentieth century compounded tribal problems with the center, which relentlessly pursued the potential wealth for its own gains. As a result, the disparity in economic and political power between center and periphery, already wide, grew wider. Little was done for the people on the fringe—as is obvious from a cursory glance at the Baluch in Pakistan, Kurds in Turkey, and the Uyghur in China.

Now reduced to impotency, tribal peoples saw the state encroach on their lands, forcing them to settle elsewhere while flooding their areas with settlers of different ethnicities linked to the center. Government officials mocked their customs and language and denied them employment. These minority communities were demonized by the majority. Children at school and even the press and government officials often referred to them as “monkeys without tails,” “reptiles,” or “animals.”

The problem was that many such tribes and communities wished to benefit from globalization but not to compromise their own tribal identity. They also had to contend with central governments more interested in monopolizing globalization’s many benefits—developments in information technology, transport and communications, medicine, trade, and commerce—and in the central government’ s policy of promoting the politics, language, and culture of the dominant group at the center. Little more than crumbs—a cell phone here, a job in a security firm there—fell to the periphery.

The sheer desperation of these communities and the brutality they faced from the center are highlighted in films like Turtles Can Fly (2004). An entire generation of young people on the periphery is growing up in a climate of fear and violence. Both Muslim and non-Muslim leaders who deal with Muslim populations need to keep this demographic reality in mind.

The center and the periphery are engaged in a mutually destructive confrontation across the globe that has been intensified by the war on terror. A clear principle of cause and effect shapes the relationship between the attacking central authority and the resisting tribes. The draconian and often indiscriminate measures enacted by the center’s security agencies and the military provoke the unrestrained retaliation of the desperate periphery.

Attacked one day by a drone strike, the next day by their own central government security forces, the next day by violent groups like the TTP, and the next by tribal rivals, these tribal societies say, “every day is like 9/11 for us.”

It is in the interest of central governments in the Muslim world and their international partners like the United States to understand the people of tribal societies, their leadership, history, culture, their relationship with the center, their social structures, and the role Islam plays in their lives. Without this understanding, the war on terror will not end in any kind of recognizable victory as the current actions and policies, which stress military force over all else, are only exacerbating the conflict.


(The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity. The article first published in Daily Times.)

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.


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