‘How America’s war on terror became a global war on tribal Islam’

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became … Continued

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam,” published by Brookings.

American troops were in Afghanistan as a consequence of the events on 9/11, which many believed to represent the larger concept of the “clash of civilizations.” While Bernard Lewis was the author of this phrase and deployed his material as a historian to expand on it, Samuel Huntington popularized the term. Most people hearing of it took it on face value to mean an ongoing confrontation between two inherently opposed civilizations—the West and the world of Islam. The war on terror may thus be seen as an extension of the “clash.” While the phrase is a gross reduction of an already simplistic frame for the understanding of history, it became hugely influential after 9/11. The attacks on that day by Muslims seemed to confirm the core idea of the clash of civilizations and offered a plausible explanation of contemporary events. Lewis was instantly elevated to the role of public prophet. Dick Cheney, the American vice president, consulted him frequently and cited his ideas on television when justifying the war on Iraq.

Cast as the irredeemably villainous enemy of the West, Islam was widely vilified and studied with the purpose of establishing its evil credentials. Commentators warned that the Quran ordered Muslims to kill innocent Jews and Christians and as a reward promised seventy-two virgins in heaven. This was both malicious and incorrect, but it was another powerful argument among the public, along with the deaths on 9/11, to justify the war on terror.

In fact, as this study sets out to establish, if there is a clash it is not between civilizations based on religion; rather, it is between central governments and the tribal communities on the periphery. The war on terror has been conceptualized as a triangle formed by three points—the United States, the modern state within which the tribes live, and al Qaeda. The arguments presented below indicate that the third point, however, is actually not al Qaeda, which at its height had perhaps no more than a few thousand members, if that, and is now reduced to one or two dozen. It is the tribal societies that have directly or indirectly provided a base for al Qaeda and other groups advocating violence. Many of these peripheral groups had been clamoring, or even fighting, for their rights from central governments for decades. A small number of al Qaeda operatives, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, found these tribes to be receptive hosts.

The United States, however, has failed to understand not only the nature of tribal society but also the dimensions of this simmering conflict between the center and the periphery. As a result, Americans have never been clear as to where al Qaeda ends and where the tribe begins and why they resort to violence. Instead they have viewed central governments as the only legitimate source of authority and force, while ignoring all reports of the loutish and sadistic behavior of the center’s soldiers, preferring to deal with Hosni Mubarak as representing all of Egypt and Pervez Musharraf all of Pakistan. Anyone opposed to these leaders was automatically seen as a foe of the United States.

The United States and central governments around the world found it mutually beneficial to forge alliances and make agreements within the ideological frame of the war on terror. For the United States and its allied central governments, the tribes across the Muslim world effectively became public enemy number one because they were outside globalization, resistant to it, and seen as the natural allies of al Qaeda. Opposition to either the war on terror or globalization was thus seen as one and the same thing, thereby risking the wrath of the United States and casting those opposed as potential “terrorist sympathizers.”

The problem was that many such tribes and communities wished to benefit from globalization but not to compromise their thistle-like 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.

Under the rubric of the war on terror, different combatants were conducting different wars for different objectives within the triangle of terror. Some were big powers fishing in troubled waters. Others were nationalist entities wanting to assert central authority. Still others were tribesmen battling to maintain their ethnic and cultural boundaries, some also unabashedly seeking to discomfit their tribal rivals. Lurking somewhere in the background were the ever-thinning numbers of individuals associated with or accused of being al Qaeda. Shifting alliances, general distrust, betrayals, paranoia, and fear marked the war on terror.

It is in the interest of the United States to understand, in all the tribal societies with which it is engaged, the people, their leadership, history, culture, their relationship with the center, their social structures, and the role Islam plays in their lives. These issues are, in fact, the subject matter of anthropology, and those commenting on or involved with the war on terror, therefore, need to become better informed about the anthropology of tribal societies. Without this understanding, the war on terror will not end in any kind of recognizable victory as current military actions and policies are only exacerbating the conflict.

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He was the former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom, the first Distinguished Chair of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Among his previous books are Journey into Islam and Journey into America, both published by Brookings. He is also a published poet and playwright.

Written by

  • macnietspingal1

    Simply discuss in the media these two components of the KORAN: you can do this in your own USA tribes.
    Sura 3:3 and Sura 2:113
    If you know Hebrew buy HAKORAN. Very insite/sightful Bottoms UP

  • dcrswm

    Maybe someone should look into how many “terrorist” acts have been perpetrated on American soil by Muslims versus white men…..but no, lets ignore the fact domestic terrorism is a bigger problem….

  • cs9243

    “if there is a clash it is not between civilizations based on religion; rather, it is between central governments and the tribal communities on the periphery”
    Then it is the responsiility of these governments to educate these tribals and get them out of 7th century living and bring them upto 21st century. There was no government other than the al qaida and the tribals in afghanistan prior to 9/11 and that situation brought the 9/11 tragedy to america. I am afraid that after americans leave afghanistan,these tribals and the al Qaida will take over again.

  • rmkraus

    akbar, you can analyze forever . . . the fact remains that a few guys from your part of the world took the twin towers down and murdered over three thousand persons


    Stop all trade, aid and tourism with any country that supports muslim terrorism in any way and expect the same from all of our trading partners and muslim terrorism will slow to a trickle! A pro death world view is evil!

  • Rongoklunk

    The shame is that Americans are just as irrational as Muslims are – who expect to go to Paradise when they die; it’s something Americans believe in too, even though it defies everything we know about reality. At least in Europe most people dumped the god hypothesis after WW2, because it was only too apparent that there was nobody up there.
    But the truth is that America is just as superstitious as the most irrational Muslim; we do in fact enable them in their crazy beliefs, by being just as crazy as they are.

  • PhillyJimi1

    Hey the Christian god loves death too! Don’t exclude him from the blood party! I do agree it is evil. The Christian god even killed his own son can’t get much more evil then that. After all we just can’t ignore of fruit eating crimes.

  • Rongoklunk

    But they did it for god, remember? I guess the 72 celestial virgins had something to do with it – but like superstitious folks everywhere they expected to live for all eternity with Superdude, up there in the clouds.
    You don’t have to be crazy to believe such drivel. just religious!

  • tianxiang69

    One barely knows where to begin after reading such groundless drivel. It is amazing the lengths Muslims go to try to convince non-Muslims of the benevolence of their faith and its irrelevance to the violence perpetrated in its name. I am sorry but the opinions expressed above, and opinions are all that they are, are very unconvincing. The clash going on is about different worldviews, different understandings about the best way to organize society and the laws which should govern our lives. I am sorry Mr. Ahmed but Islam is probably the most important source of the ideas permeating both the tribal and non-tribal Muslim world right now and those ideas are in conflict with those found in most western countries. Separation of religion and state, rule of laws created by men versus a god, equality of all before the law (gender and beliefs), freedom of speech and belief, etc. I agree that the tribal nature of much of the Muslim world is also an issue that creates difficulties in bringing it in to the modern world but simply understanding that, without also understanding the teachings of Islam which chiefly inform the actions of Islamic terrorists, is hardly a recipe for success.


    So Americans should be expected to “understand” the tribal interpretation of Sharia law which mandates that if:

    A 14 year-old girls ia raped by a much older man…

    That the rapist’s wife can then accuse the raped girl of adulter on account of the fact that she got raped…

    Then the 14 year-old victim of rape can then be stoned to death under the Islamic law for the crime of adultery while the rapist gets off scot-free.

    Thanks, but under no circumstances do I think I’m gonna even TRY to understand that.

  • ThomasBaum

    Actually, it was we humans who killed God-Incarnate.

    Of course it does seem to be a very human thing for humans to not take responsibility for what they do, even so far as to blame someone else.

    This, by the way, does not in the least seem to be anything new with humans either.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “The shame is that Americans are just as irrational as Muslims are…”.

    Rather amazing that you believe that all Americans are identical in their beliefs as you believe that all Muslims are identical in their beliefs, quite a personal belief system that you have there.

    Is this belief system something that you have come up with on your own or is this the belief system of a group you belong too that you are espousing?

  • Secular1

    901 words of predictable drivel coming from the so called islamic moderate, who carried water for MUsharraf. After reading it it could have been written by any 2 bit muslim writer. What I am saying, he is a 2 bit writer. Of course usual crap, west must think through every thing , without the muslims getting the notion that west is patronizing them. In the meanwhile muslims do whatever they do and there is a good reason why they bat-crap-crazy. If west cannot figure it out, then what. West is wrong again,

  • tlwinslow

    A global war on tribal Islam, or on the fundamentalists who still insist on real Islam as practiced by their Prophet? To them the masses of non-fundamentalists are slackers who have sold-out to the infidel West. it’s too bad that the world didn’t exterminate Islam completely back a hundred years ago when they had a chance before the two world wars. They could have done it by occupying every Muslim country and separating the children from the adults and raising them without seeing a mosque or Quran, then releasing them at age 18-19 on probation, kind of like they did with the Japanese and Germans after WWII. Now it would take an all-out effort of the West allied with China and India, which seems kind of hard to make work. The alternative, however, is unimaginable horror, which we’re headed towards daily in the nuclear age.

    Read my Winslow Plan for Defeating Islam and see why it will have to be done one day no matter the cost.

  • Rongoklunk

    Surely it’s not just Islam – it’s religions in general – who try to persuade us that there’s a God up in the sky, and everlasting life if we behave ourselves. Muslims believe something similar.

    Christians enable Islam because they believe crazy things too. In reality we should be laughing at their ancient beliefs – and teaching them about reality, and giggling at their silly superstitions. But they can laugh back and say that Westerners are just as superstitious, and they’re right. Even though in our world scientists and intellectuals like Hawking and Dawkins (and many others) ridicule ‘faiths’ and superstitions, and write books
    encouraging us to face reality – and the truth, because reality is a lot more exciting BECAUSE there’s no God. Even the late great astronomer Carl Sagan thought the same thing, that dragging a God into it belittles it, makes it more like Disneyland.

    At least, we can take comfort in the fact that religion is losing credibility, and believers, all the time, and nonbelief is the definite trend. Stats show us this. It can only continue because higher education eventually demands it. Truth must trump ancient superstitions in the end. Knowledge has to win.

  • Rongoklunk

    It might interest you that a recent book by David P Goldman, called
    “How Civilizations Die” (And Why Islam Is Dying Too);

    is arguing that the Muslim birthrates are falling disastrously low. He says that educated Muslim women are not having lots of babies like their mothers did, they’re just having one or maybe two; and this is a very bad sign for the future. He’s looking at eventual population collapse in Islam, and quotes UN statistics to support his point of view. He has graphs and charts and seems to have done his homework. You library will probably have copies. Check it out. I haven’t finished reading it, so I’m not entirely convinced. But it is interesting.

  • Abey

    As long as there are people who believe that the Quran is the manual the creator had ordained for people to escape their sorry state of affairs in this life into a Paradise flowing with wine, milk and honey as well as black eyed young virgins dedicated to their service, the sorry state of present day situation shall endure..

  • ThomasBaum

    There are also those that look at islam as the blueprint, so to speak, for world domination in the here and now.

  • edbyronadams

    There are many examples in history of tension between the center and the periphery. Human beings are a tribal species and if you can’t be the alpha dog in one context, the urge to take your followers somewhere else and form a new hierarchy is part of the human condition. The problem in the Muslim world, looking from the outside is that while the religion has a veneer of universality, in practice it promotes fractures. I suppose that some of that arises because of the animosity of the Arabs at the time of Mohammed resenting the more bourgeois Jews.

    A fractured society does present danger to those of us on the other side in an era of widespread precision weapons that pose a danger to air and sea transport but it poses a greater danger to Muslim societies riven with so many conflicts in an era of the same weapons and the possible use of WMD as well.