On Tribalism-Radicalism Nexus

Citizenship Initiative, led by David Jacobson and his colleagues at the University of South Florida, offers global Tribalism Index- a quantitative measure of tribal culture that can gauge degree of tribalism-  to study development of radical movements and terrorist networks around the world. Their database will be ready for public soon.

In their recent article in New Global Studies, Jacobson and Deckard utilize this new Index and come to interesting conclusions such as the following:

Regression models that include both Muslim population percentage and level of tribalism demonstrate that, in the absence of a clear tribal culture, adherence to Islam does not make for susceptibility to extremism. Furthermore, these models show that it is within tribal environments that Islamist movements are best nurtured. The Tribalism Index proves of greater utility than the Failed States Index for eliciting the dynamics of violence in tribal societies, while illuminating the inaccuracy of seeing militancy as a function of Islam as such.

The article’s suggestion to consider tribal structures in development of radicalism needs to catch social movement scholars’ attention. A recent Op-Ed piece in NY Times, How Drones Help Al-Qaeda, explains how a drone attack that kills one individual in Yemen would lead a whole tribe joining the radicals, fighting against the USA. Of course, this fact does not suggest that the tribal structure is necessarily bad in eliminating radical groups. Yet, as noted in one of my earlier post, civilian deaths is one remarkable issue to consider. As suggested in the piece,

 Yemeni tribes are generally quite pragmatic and are by no means a default option for radical religious groups seeking a safe haven. However, the increasing civilian toll of drone strikes is turning the apathy of tribal factions into anger.

Exploring the tribalism effect seems worth pursuing.


Filed under Daily Disruption

8 responses to “On Tribalism-Radicalism Nexus

  1. Jeff Goodwin

    I wonder what tribe Mohammed Atta belonged to?

    • Mustafa Gurbuz

      I appreciate your comment Dr. Goodwin. Certainly you’re right in indicating radicalization in non-tribal contexts. Alienation and isolation in Western contexts have nothing to do with tribalism, of course. Yet, what I’ve learned from your book, No Other Way Out, is that radicalism could easily develop in exclusive and weak states. Since you’re an expert on the issue, I’d love to hear your opinion about tribalism effect in these countries. During my fieldwork among Kurds in Southeast Turkey, I was amazed how the tribal structures were still quite powerful under a modern nation-state structure. In many exclusive and weak states, I believe, tribalism effect is remarkably visible.

  2. Jeff Goodwin

    Ethnic and tribal leaders pursue their interests when they can, and they tend to fight back, like any political authorities, when they’re attacked. Oh, and they tend to use religious rhetoric. None of this is surprising. Movements typically build upon existing social connections and popular idioms. The U.S. southern civil rights movement was built from churches, and its leaders used religious rhetoric. If clans were stronger in the southern African-American community, I’m sure the movement would have worked through them too. Maybe it did.

    But I think Al Qaeda and its imitators are a different can of worms altogether. This is missed by analysts like Jacobson and Deckard who work with an undifferentiated notion of “religiously motivated violence” (which they seem to equate with “terrorism”). Yet their own study demonstrates a negative correlation between tribalism and cross-border violence. And they note that transnational Islamic jihadists are hostile to tribal and national identities. I just don’t see how tribalism is connected to the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. or to the 7/7 attacks in London in any direct way. Hence my sarcastic quip, what tribe did Mohammed Atta belong to?

    • David Jacobson

      The quip, “Which tribe did Mohammed Atta belong to?” misunderstands what statistical research, and what the Tribalism Index, does. The relationship here concerns religiously motivated violence vis-a-vis the level of tribalism of a society (defined in national terms). How tribalism is operationalized is discussed in the article. Egypt, from whence Atta came, scores very highly. Even then, a perpetrator will not *necessarily* come from a country that scores high in the TI: The TI predicts significantly and at very high levels, but not at one hundred percent. (Gender disparities is the most heavily weighted factor for reasons discussed in the article. Atta, as it happens, made his views on women very, very clear.) Finally, this kind of research will show patterns, not the actual mechanisms linking, for example, particular tribes to particular outcomes. Our current research is exploring those mechanisms, in a variety of ways. The issue is also discussed at much greater depth–historically, socially and politically–in a forthcoming book: http://www.amazon.com/Of-Virgins-Martyrs-Sexuality-Conflict/dp/142140754X

      • Jeff Goodwin

        I’m a bit confused by this reply. You seem to argue that your statistical research (or any statistical research) can’t really explain why Atta did what he did. But then you imply that Atta’s actions had something to do with his views about women, which you link in turn to tribalism in Egypt. Now, you can’t have it both ways. Either your research illuminates Atta’s behavior or it doesn’t. If you really want to argue that Atta did what he did because of his views about women, which originated somehow in tribalism, I’m all ears. Flesh out your explanation so others can evaluate it. Having read extensively about Atta and 9/11, I would say such an explanation not only fails to add to our knowledge about Atta, but actually diverts us from the key processes that put him in that cockpit.

      • David Jacobson

        No I don’t say that. But perhaps you should first take a primer in methodology and I will be all ears.

  3. Jeff Goodwin

    Don’t be mean. You wrote, “Egypt, from whence Atta came, scores very highly [on the Tribalism Index]. . . . Gender disparities is the most heavily weighted factor [in the index] . . . Atta, as it happens, made his views on women very, very clear.” Sure sounds like you’re making an argument about Atta along the lines I suggested. If not, what are you claiming about him?

  4. i come to this post belatedly, and perhaps no one is watching it now, so i’ll be brief. i read the paper with interest, since i have long wondered about what a tribalism index might look like, for similar as well as for different reasons. this paper offers a worthy attempt, and i’m quite in tune with many of its points. at the same time, it seems biased toward emphasizing a rather negative view of tribalism, even though in general the tribal form of organization undergirds many (most? all?) societies in positive ways as well. what’s so important about the tribal form is the kinship it provides, and i’d wish to see indicators that get at that, rather than seeing so much stress put on gender inequality as a leading indicator. there are lots of “tribes” — e.g., from sports fans, to occupy activists — for whom gender inequality is not a defining variable. it does seem significant for analyzing the paper’s subject matter, but i still wonder about its accuracy and meaningfulness.

    a few suggestions for further reading that may (or may not) interest you:

    — “Al Qaeda and Its Affiliates: A Global Tribe Waging Segmental Warfare” at

    — “In Search Of How Societies Work: Tribes — The First And Forever Form” at

    — for additional elaboration that many failed states are failed tribes, see a subsection in:

    — also try to get ahold of major jim gant’s paper on “one tribe at a time” in the archives somewhere at steven pressfield’s blog.

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