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by William H. Benson

April 6, 2006

     Tribalism seems the scourge of our generation.

     Scholars and observers find it convenient to carve nations and societies along sectarian, ethnic, and tribal lines.  To pigeonhole others seems an easy way to understand people.  But  tribalism carries the meaning that the tribes in a geographical region are actively hostile towards one another, which is often the case.  Civil conflict constantly churns up a society, one group battling another.  Examples are easily found.

     April 6 is Genocide Remembrance Day in the nation of Rwanda in east Africa.  On that day in 1994, Rwanda’s President was killed when his plane was shot down near Kigali Airport.  Hutu extremists were fearful that he was about to implement the Arusha Peace Accords, and that night the killings began.

      The Hutu armed militia set up road blocks and then went from house to house killing the Tutsis and the moderate Hutus.  Thousands died the first day.  By April 21, two weeks later the International Red Cross estimated that hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were dead.  By mid-May the estimate stood at 500,000, and when the killing finally ended in mid-July after 100 days, the figure stood at 800,000.

     The survivors struggle daily with the lingering impact of the atrocities: 400,000 children do not attend school because of a lack of teachers, 95,000 children are still orphaned even after twelve years, and the mental anguish can never be measured.

     Three weeks ago Slobodan Milosevic dropped dead of a heart attack in his jail cell in the Hauge, Netherlands, where he had been on trial since 2001 for crimes against humanity.  In the early 1990’s he had pursued a policy of “ethnic cleansing,” in which he had encouraged his Serbian followers to attack other sects in the former Yugoslavia.

     Communism had collapsed in eastern Europe, and Milosevic and his ultranationalist troopers had swept into the power vacuum, bringing with them hatred, mistrust, and suspicion of other ethnic groups, people whom the Serbs had lived beside for centuries.  At one point Milosevic authorized the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebenica, Bosnia.  That this Butcher of the Balkans lived his final years in a prison cell is at least one consolation.

     Rwanda and the Balkans are reminders of what happens in peoples’ minds.  They think, “It is us against them.  They are different, to be feared, skeptical and jealous of, hated, and eliminated.  Their culture, manners, language, and way of life is not like ours.”  Gentility, charity, and magnanimity gives way to suspicions, anger, a fear of a loss of power, grudges, and prejudices.

     Iraq is now split between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs.  After the February 22nd bombing of a Shiite shrine, a wave of sectarian bloodletting was unleashed.  Some 900 Iraqi civilians died in March and 700 in February.  Between 30,000 and 36,000 Iraqis have fled their homes because of sectarian violence or fear of reprisals.  “Everything has become sectarian and ethnic,” a U.S. army officer recently said. 

     “Culture—what a word!” wrote the historian Jacques Barzun in the Prologue to his work, From Dawn to Decadence.  Today the word stands for “a hodge-podge of overlapping things.”  We now have multiculturalism, cross-cultural events, an arts or science or literary culture, and cultural wars.  But underneath the pile of meanings, “culture” originally referred to a well-groomed mind, free of day-to-day interests and scraped free of provincialism.

     “Culture in this sense,” Barzun suggested, “is a simple metaphor from agri-culture.”  It refers to the process of digging up the weeds of faulty thinking, capturing or fencing out the wild animals of passion and suspicion, and planting seeds of hope and kindness and justice.  Like a garden, a person’s thoughts repeatedly need watered and weeded.


     Tribalism and sectarian ideology are familiar ruts that people so easily fall into, but they are a jungle of disappointing ideas without hope or solace or promise.