Part V: Essentials of Tribal psychology

Dr. Abdishakur Jowhar

I know very well, just as you do, that the number 4 precedes 5 in counting. Yet here you have part five of my series and you are still waiting for the fourth part. I intend to ask for your indulgence and lenience. What I will say now in Part V, you will find, is indeed a necessary prelude to Part IV. The central question of why tribal organization of society places it at such a precarious evolutionary stress demands an answer. And it has to be answered before possible solutions and emergent conditions are considered. There is some quasi-technical language here. So sit back. Have a cub of sweet Somali tea on me and enjoy!

The tribe exists inside our mind. It is the internal psychological representation of the plural pronoun “us”. It is always defined in terms of its counterpart “them”. Tribe is a social construct. We make the tribe together and it shapes and organizes our worldview. It is inherited but not through genes. It is inherited through stories, myth, and coalition building. Tribal ancestral lineage rings true only because of the power of repetition. In reality it is nothing more than mere folklore. The development of a tribal identity resembles the acquisition of language. It happens early under the influence of the social environment and outside the conscious awareness of the individual.

The great Swiss Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung may have known nothing of Somali tribes. Still of all the psychological theories his constructs comes closest in capturing the nature of tribal psychology (collective unconscious, archetypes, persona and shadow). The tribe lives in the collective unconscious of group members.

In the following pages we will explore the psychological nature of the Somali tribe leaning heavily but not exclusively on Jungian theories. Such a study of the Somali tribe is essential and necessary as a basis for understanding the Somali Crisis.

Grandiose Tribal Self Image

Tribal identity infuses members with positive self-image. This is essential for the psychological prosperity of the tribe. Each tribe describes itself in the most exalted terms. The members are taught that their tribe has the smartest, the strongest, the most honest and even the most handsome of men and the most beautiful of women etc. The tribe builds its identity and that of its members on this diet of positive images of the collective self. Carl Jung calls this collectively enhanced, touched up, highly exaggerated self-image the “exalted self”. We will call it the Grandiose Tribal Self. This is the tribal counterpart of the Jungian construct of the Persona (the public person, the mask a person wears when presenting himself to the world, only the best of the best of his traits are allowed to be visible on this mask)

The émigré Somali found the grandiose tribal self a rather useful tool particularly when he has to fight out of the new-immigrant dungeon. The tribal Somali comes in with absolute conviction of his superiority and if the rest of the community does not know it, well he will just have to teach them. Such a strong self-image is half the battle in any competitive environment. This is one circumstance in which the Grandiose Tribal Self Image comes in very handy.

The Tribal Shadow

Unfortunately individuals and tribes have many less savory qualities that are known to be an essential part of the human experience. For sure there is deviousness, jealousy, dishonesty, greed, immorality, weakness, cowardice in all human groups and tribes and nations and societies. Yet no self respecting Somali tribe will be caught dead accepting these negative qualities.

As a group tribe members insist on actively projecting the negative descriptors onto other tribes known to them. It is so common to hear a Somali tribal maintaining, “They are cowards, they are immoral, they are devious, they are dishonest, they are corrupt, and they know nothing of justice. My tribe… we are honorable people”. Projection is a term used in psychology when a person attributes one’s own unacceptable traits to others. Projection is a subconscious process meaning the person doing the projection is not consciously aware about it. So when a Somali tribal utters these words he is not even aware that he is actually describing a part of himself and his own tribe.

The more a tribe takes on the mantle of superiority, the more likely it is to project its less savory characteristics on to other tribes. This may seem illogical and it is. However it is the way tribal psychological drama works. I will lean again on Carol Gustav Jung described these negative qualities as our own shadow that we cast upon others, the evil that is ingrained in us as human beings and that we see only in the “other”.

A Beautiful Example

As I read through Somali web pages assessing their reflection of tribal identity I came across an article that provides a beautiful illustration of the concepts of the grandiose tribal self and its shadow. I thought I would share with you an extensive quote from that article. The article was published on the Internet on April 25, 2005. I have removed the name of the tribe, and the name of the writer to prevent stigmatizing any person or any tribe. I am confident that you have come across similar content many times in Somali discourse. You can insert any Somali tribe’s name and the quote will remain as valid.

“Let me clearly state here that the noble ( the name of the writer’s tribe) people are mainly a proud, good cultured, and good natured people who share whatever little they have with others. They are also a cooperative, visionary, and progressive people; positive attributions in which our enemies fail to emulate from us time and immemorial”

“ In addition, I would like to state here that the enemies of the (the name of the writer’s tribe) have six things in common as indicated below: 1. Tremendous greed, selfishness, and a blinding envy. 2. Intoxicating power hungriness.
3. Lack of the know-how to govern a nation. 4. Culture of unchecked oppression, injustice, and tyranny. 5. Quest to one day defeat and rule the ( the name of the writer’s tribe ) people by hook or crook. 6. To one day ethnically cleanse all the ( the name of the writer’s tribe ) people and to grub their huge territories, and
7. Their futile attempts to destroy the cause and existence of (our country) “

This is not an exception in tribal psychology. It is the norm. The grandiose tribal self and the shadow is one of the factors that are driving the impending extinction of Somali tribes.

Group Polarization

The tribe in war is an altogether vicious animal. Tribal identity gains dominance over that of an individual’s self identity in situations of tribal conflict and competition. Tribal identity almost takes over during times of war. Tribe members at such times drive themselves into an extreme an irrational frenzy. Normal language is replaced by unintelligible animal noises. “Tolaayeey, tolaayeey, Waar Hayaaye”

In war dehumanization is a tribal weapon of choice. Tribes refer to their enemies as “cockroaches”, "our game", “mad dogs”, “rats”, “savages”, “slaves” “traitors” etc. The dehumanization allows the tribal killers to circumvent the built-in human aversion to killing members of its own species. This is what would allow the tribal warrior to attack and kill all the men and women of a family, killing even the children and aborting those still unborn. The warrior avoids guilt because the enemy is not human, only vermin, dogs and traitors. “So what if I kill one more dog, the less of them the better this world is,” he will insist justified in his moral superiority. He can sleep peacefully at night. The more atrocities the warrior commits the more he can claim a hero status among the members of his tribe. Dehumanization is part of all tribal and group atrocities. It has been christened Group Polarization. It is a term initially introduced to describe the psychological state that drove groups of white people, who could even be decent folk in their normal lives, go about lynching Black Americans in their spare time. It also explains the inhuman atrocities that are the hallmark of Somalia’s tribal wars.

Group Think

Tribes think alike. More. Tribes share political leanings. The political support of a tribe is not based on any principle. It is ephemeral and shifting like the dessert sand. The tribe is locked in a perpetual dance of instantaneous changes and twists of political allegiance. And strangely enough the vast majority of each tribe ends up in the same political camp with each new dance.

It is really amazing to observe this phenomenon in action. Members of the tribe develop consensus on national issues so swiftly that one would wonder whether the tribal collective awareness transcends time and space. This is the concept of groupthink at work. Members of a tribe do not need discussion papers and consensus generating conferences held to synchronize opinion. They share basic assumption that allows them to develop similar view spontaneously, instantaneously.

Tribes place a very high premium on cohesiveness, consensus and unity above anything else. This is ingrained and nurtured in the mind of every tribe member from the early days of his life. The tribe stifles dissent particularly when it comes to issues related to other tribes, but dissent and innovation of any kind is extremely repressed in a tribal society. There is no social structure that is more conservative than a tribal society. It is this suppression of dissent that is at the root of the longevity of the tribe and the explanation for its fossilized values. The result is Groupthink

Tribal Selective Information Filter

This is perhaps the most pervasive and most devastating aspect of tribal psychopathology. The Selective Information Filter is a mental mechanism that is firmly established in the minds of tribe members.

The tribe filters information about the world through a sieve of self-interest; whatever happens to the “other” matters only in so far as it benefits or hurts the tribe. Members actively and selectively filter out information related to other tribal groups. Members of a tribal group remain ignorant of the triumphs and misfortunes of others; they suffer a colossal poverty of information. This is the reason Somalis who speak the same language don’t really understand one another and remain forever unable to engage in the reconciliation necessary for nation building.

Somalis are information junkies. They know what is happening everywhere in the world. They know nothing of what is happening in their own backyard. They embraced the Internet with gusto, as a source of information but it has not helped Somalis break the tribal information filter. They have just gone ahead and created hundreds of tribal cyberspace reservations that provide predominantly tribe laced and often dangerously cooked information. In essence they are dying of poverty of information in the midst of plenty.

To this very day Non Isaaq Somalis have exceedingly limited information of the massive destruction of Hargaysa and its population by the fascist regime of Siyaad Barre in the late eighties. Non Majeerteen Somalis know very little about the genocide in Mudug and Majeertenia in the early eighties. Those who do not belong to the Digil/Mirifle tribe remained predominantly unaware about the humanitarian disaster and torment in the “City of Death”. And today Non Hawiye Somalis remain woefully ignorant of the massive human cost of Warlordism. Somalis see only tribes; they see not suffering human individuals of men, women and children with names and families and the capacity to feel pain.

In the mind of the tribalist all other tribes “deserve the devastation that befell them, if indeed there was any such devastation to begin withl”. Only his tribe has a legitimate cause for grievance. All others are making it up. Somalis everywhere are blind to the agony of other Somalis. This ignorance leads to moral relativism where genocide is considered with the deserved anger and disgust in some circumstances and awful silence in others.

The Tribal Boundary

I read somewhere (and I don’t remember exactly where) that the Chinese definition of a tribe is “a nation without borders”. Tribes are defined by ancestral lineage and myth and not by geography. Somali tribes, true to the definition, have no boundaries. The boundary of the tribe constantly expands or contracts as a function of the last battle. Tribes understand clearly that they take that which they can, animals, land, water or women. Tribal territory is an ephemeral phenomenon that is eternally under construction. The contradictions between the sovereignty of the state, communal tribal claims of land ownership and today’s accelerating private land grab will have significant political, economic and social consequences. The boundary issue will derail any peace initiative based on tribes. It will lead to enduring wars between and within tribes into the foreseeable future. It is one of the reasons that bring about the evolutionary ramifications.

The boundary-less-ness of tribal society will unleash the next wave of pre-extinction Somali civil wars. Hold onto my prophetic words: The Boundary Wars are just around the corner.

Finally: The Nature of Tribal War

Unlike war between states and contrary to Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum, tribal war is not about politics and it is not a continuation of politics by more lethal means. Anthropological research reveals that the most common cause of tribal warfare is revenge. Tribes don’t fight for principles. They fight to get even. A tribal force is devoted to the defense of the honor and sanctity of life of its own and to the spilling of the enemy’s. Tribal war is personal. It is immediate. It is emotional. And it is ugly.

Revenge is a problematic emotionally charged motive. It has long-term memory. And even more seriously revenge demands more than mere justice, more than mere punishment. The victim of the revenge has to be taught a lesson. He must come to know in no uncertain terms how wrong, how terribly wrong he was to take on this tribe. “Do you even know who we are? They don’t even know!” The revenge seekers will exclaim.

The manner of tribal killing itself becomes this “teaching” opportunity. Tribal wars are therefore particularly and intentionally full of atrocities. Victims of tribal wars may be skinned or burned alive. Their dead bodies maybe mutilated and displayed. The aim of tribal revenge is not to achieve balance, but to attain vindication and total submission or extermination of the other. A tribe that fails the bloody test of revenge takes the risk of finding its resources, land and homes plundered, women carried off and men bullied.

There is another crucial characteristic of tribal wars that should not be missed. Tribes do not have a standing army. This is a central feature of tribal war. Warrior groups are organized on an “as needed” basis. In tribal war the decision to go to war is made by those who fight the war. The male members form a kind of a citizen militia. Once a specific engagement is over the force disbands. Its members go home to their families. Tribal wars are financed by voluntary donations of group members. The logistics of a tribal war is limited to a single engagement or at the most to brief series of engagements always separated by extended periods of time. The time is needed to replenish resources and bury the dead. Tribal war is one of retail and not wholesale. It is not an industrial war. It is a subsistence war. Its economic viability is always under threat. This makes tribal war one of opportunity, stealth and improvisations with a short, explosive and brutal course, a war designed for limited clashes with maximum impact.

A standing army requires a stable and efficient economy that could produce sufficient goods and resources for the troops. Tribes live predominantly in a subsistence economy with no surplus that could be spared. In those circumstances when an originally tribal force becomes organized on a more permanent basis with sufficient resources for multiple engagements, the tribe losses control over it and it ceases to be a tribal force. Instead it becomes the nucleus of a state, a feudal lord, kingdom, warlord, a criminal gang or some other coercive social organization.

In Part IV I will explore emergent conditions and the new story of Somaliland. This will be the last part of this series. I want to express deep appreciation for all the responders. Your writings have shaped my thoughts to a large extent. Stayed tuned for Part IV. In the meantime, like they say in American and in Somali… Peace! Nabad!

Abdishakur Jowhar MD, FRCP(C), DABPN
E-mail: [email protected]

The opinions contained in this article are solely those of the writer, and in no way, form or shape represent the editorial opinions of "Hiiraan Online"


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