Posted by: hobbesonafob | May 28, 2009

A dusty book highlighting how difficult nation-building is…

From being an award-winning guest at the Forum for International Trade Training 2009 Conference (see here if you’re bored), to sneaking into a session on COIN for the Congress of the Humanities and Social Science , I’ve been pretty busy. Fortunately I have found time to read the Sanusi of Cyrenaica (1949) by this guy: 


This guy, Sir E.E. Evans-Pritchard, is a British anthropologist who conducted a study on the Bedouin in Cyrenaica (modern-day Libya). This book was recommended to me by an erudite anthropologist well-versed in the arcane. Unfortunately, Evans-Pritchard’s book is often overlooked, which is a shame because I would like to believe some of his writings are just as important as T.E. Lawrence’s.

One of the lessons this book has is indirectly related to nation-building. This lesson can be summarized as follows: nation-building is bloody difficult.

The Bedouin of the Cyrenaica were described not unlike the independent tribes of Arabia and even North-Western Pakistan. Their master status seems to be linked to their ability to defy foreign governance; the Bedouin were able to operate relatively independently from Turkish and Italian administration. Evans-Pritchard describes the Bedouin in the following passage:

What is perhaps more important is that they are prepared to live on what Europeans consider to be a low level of civilization. They do not feel the need for expensive roads and ports, electric light, wireless sets, telephones, schools, churches, newspapers, and so forth; and clearly their economy could not support them. Time and again colonists, tempted from their homes by the short sea routes and the wooded plateau, have settled in the country and dispossessed the Bedouin, but in the end it is the Bedouin , and not the colonists, who have survived. 

That being noted, there was one group that was able to exercise a semblance of control influence over the Bedouin. This influence was exercised by the Sanusiya  religious order that was characterized by its cross between Sufism and Wahhabism. It was founded by an Algerian scholar named al-Sayyid Muhammad bin ‘Ali al-Sanusi al-Khattabi al-Idrisi al-Hasani in 1837-ish. Eventually, it was the Sanusiya Order that would become the intermediaries between the Bedouin and the Ottomans, and it was the Order who would slowly “morph” into the “state” representatives for the Bedouin of Cyrenaica when it came to dealing with the Italians during their colonial adventures in Libya. This relationship between the Sanusiya Order and the Bedouin is described by Evans-Pritchard as being formed by having a common enemy:

What gave stability to this new relationship between the Bedouin tribes and the Sanusiya Order, turning the sacred Head into a secular leader and the religious organization into a government, and changed a loose federation of tribes into a nation, was common hostility to outside interference, an ingredient supplied in measured quantities by the Turks and copiously by the Italians.

Even before the Sanusiya Order made in-roads with the Bedouins, there were specific pre-conditions that fostered the Order’s relationship with the Bedouin. The Order was able to take advantage of the long history that religious mystics played in Bedouin:

So, long centuries before the Grand Sanusi began his mission in Cyrenaica, the Bedouin were used to the sight of an ‘alim, a learned man — for anyone who can read and write is a learned man to the Bedouin — coming from the west [north-west Africa] to heal their children and beasts, break droughts, write talismans, and teach them the beliefs and law of Islam. Such a man was also a muhakkam, one who arbitrated in their disputes and said the fatiha at their settlements and undertakings to make them binding.

Eventually the Order began to set up houses/territories (a zawiya) for its leaders in Cyrenaica and this brought about the demand for learned-men in the area:

A tribal zawiya seems generally to have been founded in the following manner. A tribe or tribal section saw with envy that a neighbouring tribe or section had a zawiya. They sent a deputation to the Head of the ORder and asked him for a Shaikh to teach their children, cater for their religious needs, settle their disputes, and so forth. The Head of the Order granted them their request and sent them a Shaikh chosen from among the learned and pious men who surrounded him at Jaghbub. 

Furthermore, the opportunity cost of creating a zawiya was much lower than one would expect:

The Shaikh of a new zawiya would point out to the local tribesmen that he and his companions had no means of supporting themselves or of maintaining the zawiya. The various sections nearby then gave to the lodge the lands adjoining it, this estate surrounding a lodge being known as its haram. On the plateau the lodges were generously endowed with arable, in the the steppe with wells, and in the oases with date-palms and springs. Later, further gifts of arable, wells, springs, and date-palms, or partuse of these, would sometimes be made, especially when there was a dispute between two sections about ownership of property and neither would give way to the other, for they might then settle the matter by surrendering their claims to the zawiya.

In other words, the Order kicked back, supplied their expertise, and watched their wealth grow (their wealth grew substantially). What a great business model. 


The relationship between the Sanusi and the Bedouin of Cyrenaica was hinged on pre-existing cultural norms, social norms, historicity, and the make-up of the Order, which happened to favourably coincide with ALL of these factors. The Order had pre-conditions that nation-builders today would love to have in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The example of the Order in Cyrenaica illustrates the amount and degree of preconditions needed to obtain social influence without enduring conflict.

In Contrast

I would argue that nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq lack these preconditions. Compared to the low-cost methods that the Order was able to engage in, the return-on-investments in Afghanistan and Iraq have been lackluster for Western nation-builders. Furthermore it is important to note that the Order was sought by the Bedouin and invited into their territories – another stark difference to current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. A very stark difference indeed.


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