Examining Identity in Amman
This post is primarily for paid subscribers since I haven’t posted an exclusive nugget in a while. It’s another deleted chapter from my upcoming book. This chapter chronicles a 2010 reporting trip I took to Jordan for a story about the changing nature of identity among Arab youth.
The story was for a three-part series that my of radio program America Abroad was producing on Arab youth. The series won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi award the following year—just have to get that in there.
Like generational change anywhere in the world, Arab youth were looking at identity differently than their parents did. Their parents had largely come of age during the Nasserist era in the region when there were efforts to build a pan-Arab state under secular, socialist rule. While that movement failed, it did spawn political movements that downplayed religious or sectarian identity and promoted Arab identity. Hence, at that time, most people in the region identified first as Arab, then by their nationality, and third by religion.
By 2010, it had flipped. As I found in Jordan, most young Arabs identified first by religion, second by tribe, and third by nationality. Many youth had abandoned “Arab” as an identity in part because of their frustration with the corruption and ineffectiveness of Arab governments and because they felt that non-Arab countries like Turkey and Iran were doing more to support the Palestinian people than the Arab countries were.
Because I spent so much time exploring identity politics in the Middle East in particular, but also in countries in Africa, South Asia, and Eastern Europe, I started paying more attention to identity politics in the United States. It didn’t take a Ph.D. to see that there were similar forces at work in the United States in the late 20th Century and early 21st.
The world in general has become more tribal and larger identities like ethnicity and nationality are receding in places as sectarian, tribal, political party, or other narrower identities are rising. That was one of my disconcerting takeaways from my years roaming around places like the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan and Pakistan—humans are inherently tribal creatures and leaders around the world have become better at stoking tribal identity.
Political narratives aimed at uniting heterogeneous groups have been making way for identity politics and battles among bases. Hence, the proliferation of independence movements, civil wars, coups, or efforts to carve out autonomous enclaves in countries like Serbia, Sudan, Syria, or Scotland.
Tribal or identity schisms of one kind or another were at the center of many stories I reported. My first international reporting trip in 2007 was to Serbia. I visited Mitrovica, which was a divided city in what was then the Kosovo region of Serbia. Serbs lived in north Mitrovica, Kosovo Albanians in south Mitrovica and the Ibar river divided them. People described fearing, not trusting, and even hating those on opposite banks. It was an eye-opening experience to see such a stark and intense tribal divide like that.
I saw similar divides in Sudan and what became South Sudan, where I witnessed the internal schisms that would lead to conflict after South Sudan gained independence. In Libya in 2011, I saw the tribal lines that would result in civil war there once the common enemy of Qaddafi was gone.
Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Congo, Cyprus, Mali, Pakistan, and of course Afghanistan. So many places I have traveled have experienced some sort of internal conflict or crisis that broke/breaks down on sectarian or tribal lines. When larger entities like national governments or political parties are not able to govern and provide for the common good, people will revert to smaller entities that look out for them.
I remember an evening when a friend took me on a driving tour of the mountain villages north of Beirut. As we drove, he would point and say, “That’s the Maronite village. That’s the Armenian village,” and so on. He described how the political parties that catered to each sect would provide private water and other services because the national government could (or would) not. Lebanon has been one of the most fragile countries for decades because of its tribal nature.
I will end this stream here before I get too far into discussing America. Suffice to say, there are similar forces at work here, and political leaders in both parties—with the help of social media and other modern technology—are increasingly adept at manipulating identity politics. I feel identity hierarchy in America has changed in ways similar to what I reported on in Jordan. I think our tribal identities have grown stronger and people are seeking to associate only with their tribes.
One other note before this post continued for my paying customers. My post two-weeks ago on the situation in eastern Syria and concerns about a potential Turkish ground operation was ahead of the curve. The topic has been getting more attention lately, including from James Jeffrey, who knows the situation as well as anyone. He’s pushing for negotiations to avoid an escalation. I have often disagreed with him for arguing that a negotiated political transition in Syria is possible and should be U.S. policy, but his latest piece on Turkey and Syria is narrowly scoped and reasonable.
However, I’m not sure what the zone of possibility is. Last week I attended a security forum in D.C. and a member of the Turkish opposition cornered me when he saw my press badge. I explained that National Defense Magazine focuses on the defense industry, not geopolitics in the Middle East and Eurasia. But he still wanted to talk.
One of the takeaways from the conversation is that he and the opposition are firmly convinced that Erdogan will launch a ground operation in Syria to target Kurdish forces. And he said many in the opposition agree it is necessary to take firm action against Kurdish militants and terrorists in Syria. So, it didn’t sound like there were many moderating forces inside Turkey, and it will be interesting to see if the United States can talk Turkey off the ledge on this one.
Now, back to Amman…