For many Americans, the notion of a tribe may mean nothing more than what they (or their grandparents of my generation) used to see for 25 cents:  yelling and fighting with the "good guys" on Saturday afternoon at the local cinema. More sophisticated are studies of contemporary Africa, where some social scientists loath to use the term "tribe," and prefer "ethnic group" as something that is free of a primitive connotation.

For those of us on the fringes of Muslim society, the term is not so distant or exotic. And insofar as many people in North America and Europe are now on the fringe of Muslim society (either as neighbors of immigrants or relatives of young men and women involved in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, and who knows where next), the concept deserves some consideration.

"Tribe" is a close relative of "clan" and "extended family." The demarcations between the terms are not precise or widely agreed upon by social scientists who deal with the topics. What is common is a sense of relationship strong enough to influence an individual''s loyalties and behavior. "Extended family" may apply to cousins and cousins of cousins, and in-laws of in-laws where in-laws are likely to be blood relatives. Clan may be more extensive and go beyond actual blood connections within recent generations and tribe may be even greater in its range. The Hebrew term hamula (חמולה), which derives from the Arabic, is used to denote an extended family, but some dictionary translations indicate its meaning as "clan."

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Israel is a society more western and modern than others in the region, but its Arabs--and some of the Jews with backgrounds in Arab societies--are heavily immersed in the loyalties of extended families. Villages and cities show heavy concentrations of extended families, with family influences on voting and opportunities for appointment as municipal officials, school teachers, principals, and social workers. Discussions of Israeli Bedouin employ the term "tribe" for the loyalties that prevail in their settlements.

Marriage in Arab societies reflects and reinforces family loyalties. Cousin marriages were common among European Jews until the early 20th century, including those who had moved to North America or Western Europe. The practice has virtually disappeared among Jews, but still remains strong among the Arabs of Israel and elsewhere.

Strong family loyalties are not something only among lesser educated and lower status village Arabs, but are widely prevalent. Arab students at the Hebrew University have told me how their professional opportunities are limited by being members of the wrong family in cities as large as Nazareth (72,000). They have described family pressures against free expression with respect to what elders define as religious obligations. Arab women have spoken about struggling to remain in school when family members stress marriage and children.

Family is more important as a determinant of voting in the Arab communities of Israel than political ideology or party affiliation. For local elections the parties contending for office may be nothing more than extended families under the leadership of their senior males, who agree about which family member will stand for which office. Research dealing with the 1960''s and 1970''s found family voting among 80-90 percent of individuals in Arab communities.

More recent studies show a decline in family voting cohesion, but it is likely to be the strongest single influence on voting.

Honor killings and family feuds are other indicators of family loyalties. Honor killings result from a parent or sibling objecting to the romantic inclinations of a female relative. Feuds may begin with property disputes, disagreements about business or traffic accidents, and go on for generations of killings and revenge.

American politicians flaunt their respect for "family values," but they do not mean Grandpa or Uncle telling you how to vote or which cousin to marry, or causing a rejection for a job because of a squabble several generations ago.

Tribes figure prominently in writing about Libya, and make the subject relevant to one of today''s most pressing issues. As in other Arab societies, the tribes have a geographical basis in a region or town. Tribal membership affects political identification, not only with respect to the personality and tribe of Muammar Gaddafi, but to one or another of the tribes that stand with him or are fighting against him.

Writing about Libya and other Arab societies indicate that tribal and extended family loyalties may be giving way to independent thought and activity under the weight of education, but family and tribe remain strong. Loyalties come from parents, cousins, uncles, and in-laws who live close by in the same village, urban neighborhood, or family-owned apartment block. Economic support and job opportunities go to family or tribal members, and add to obligations via pay back from one generation to the next. 

When I read about American and European actions in the Libyan civil war for the sake of humanitarian values and liberating civilians from violence, I wonder who is about to be liberated, how many lives will be lost in the process of liberation, how free will be the individuals who survive, and how will they retaliate against those they accuse of killing their relatives.

Out of place in this context are western expectations, especially those of Americans imbued with the values of unfettered individualism and opportunity. I recall my conversations with Muslim students who complained about the lack of freedom within their families, in Israel''s elite university, in a society more schooled in the norms of democracy than Libya. None of those conversations makes me optimistic about Libyan liberation.


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