by Mumia Abu-Jamal
As the temperature of war increases in Iraq and the U.S. increases troops in Afghanistan, an unanswered question looms. Not “what is a nation” so much as “why is this a nation, and when”?
When we speak of Iraq, Afghanistan or even Pakistan as nation-states, we are really speaking of political elites in their capitals and of relatively new political identities that are not truly agreed upon even in those states.
Many of these nations had their borders drawn, not by themselves, but by diplomats in Europe, more for their interests than the inhabitants thereof.
Let me give but one example: Remember the former Pakistani president-general, Pervez Musharraf? In the year he was born, there was no Pakistan. He was born a citizen of northwest India.
In many of these countries there are millions of people who see themselves, first and foremost, as members of ancient tribes, to whom loyalties lie. They are Pashtun, Punjabi or Tajik.
In Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiographical work, “Infidel,” she recounts the childhood memory of her and her sister standing in their back yard in Somalia, reciting the lineage of their clan. Standing over them was the daunting figure of grandmother, a switch in hand, and woe to the child who would forget or overlook an ancestor.
Her grandmother didn’t demand that they recount the rulers of Somalia. What was important was tribe, clan and sub-clan histories and lineages.
For millions and millions of people in Africa and South Asia, one’s clan is crucial; nation is ephemeral. For before nation, there was clan. When one is in distress, there is clan. When one is endangered, there is clan.
Nation is a collection of strangers. Nation is the faraway capital. Nation is the oppressive force that imposes taxation, or unwanted military presence.
As the U.S., under Obama, plans to downsize in Iraq and beef up in Afghanistan, it faces a force that Americans have not had to consider for several centuries: the power of tribes. (Here, I speak of the so-called “Indians,” a European name imposed on a host of tribes, clans and sub-clans.)
This is the true social and political power that lies beneath the ossified and often corrupt national governments in which the U.S. has invested billions.
There is the formal nation-state, with all the structure that Americans like, but unseen is the true movers and shakers of society – identity formers – tribes.
This may be the rock upon which all U.S. efforts – all of its billions, all of its military might – shatters.
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