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Center versus Periphery in Muslim Nations

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 a go 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 eth no graphic contribution to the discussion. In addition, many an thropologists 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, ora “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.
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.”



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