Civil Society in Iran: The Case of the Tribes

Lois Beck

Added and edited with Negar's username.

A discussion of tribal society in Iran relates well to the recent literature on civil society in the Middle East. When scholars list the kinds of associations that they include under the rubric of civil society, however, they usually neglect or ignore the role of tribes. When tribes are mentioned in the wider literature on Iran, they are often presented as elements of Iran's premodern, traditional history or as anachronisms, disappearing or soon to disappear, in a modernizing nation-state. Tribes in my view are an excellent example of the networks of associations and organizations that are now of much interest to scholars and other. Civil society refers to different kinds of autonomous groups and organizations that serve as buffers between individuals and the state. It also refers to certain attitudes and values. Tribes are interest groups par excellence; attention to them in the literature on civil society has been negligible to date.

In this essay, I analyze the characteristics of the tribes of Iran in the recent past and in the present and then outline the general history of their relationships with the Iranian state. I include a discussion of the impact of the Islamic Republic on tribal society. I provide examples from many tribes, particularly Qashqa'i, with whose history and society I am most familiar.

Some scholars note that civil society emerges where the state has voluntarily withdrawn. Other scholars, often with Iran or other Middle East countries in mind, note instead that civil society emerges where the state has failed. The analysis of this essay indicates that, if the case of the tribes of Iran is a good example of one type of civil society, then the relationship between the state and other dimensions of civil society would be more complex than simply the state's voluntary withdrawal or marked failure. The different components of civil society free the state from certain obligations and forms of control and offer benefits to their participants; these benefits, nonetheless, are often ones the state is unwilling or unable to deliver. The state may even try to suppress the activities of civil society. Just as tribes interrelate in complex ways with the state, so too do the other components of civil society. As with tribes and states, the relationship between civil society and states is dynamic and adaptable to changing circumstances.