It seems that since the beginning of our history, mankind has felt the need to live in relationship with others, to provide security, comfort and mutual support.
If I asked you which tribe you belong to, you would probably think I was severely mistaken. Unless, of course, you happened to be from a society that still operates with a tribal structure, such as Native Americans, or some parts of the Middle East.
But, since Michel Maffesoli coined the phrase in 1985, sociologists have identified many urban tribes. We may think of Western culture as individualistic, but in reality often we are seeking to fit in to a group of our peers. A young person who wears exclusively black and highlights their hair blue may seem to be expressing their own personality, but in reality they are often just conforming to the rules of the “Goth” group.
You can even find websites dedicated to helping you get the right look. One of these has the strapline “Being Goth is an entire lifestyle from the music you listen to all the way down to the unlaced military boots you wear.” Stray from the group rules, and you are no longer a member.
We can think of many examples of urban tribes if we examine Maffesoli’s definition: “Microgroups of people who share a common interest in urban areas.” Even in Turkey, where family ties are extremely strong, there are hundreds of urban tribes. Supporters of a particular football club, or political party … graduates from a particular high-school … all of these are obvious examples.
Banks and businesses play on our need to feel part of a distinct, often elite group, in their advertising. Credit cards offer privileges — if you have the right card you will gain access to all the right places, or to special treatment there. A health and fitness club near where I live bills itself as “more than just a sports club.” The clear implication is that if you are a member, you are part of a tribe that has a somewhat superior lifestyle.
And of course social media with its friend lists, followers and groups meets the same tribal need. We join Facebook groups such as Fans of Hugh Jackman or Dog Lovers in Turkey to share a passion or interest. We join groups such as Cancer Survivors or Mothers of Teenage Boys to gain support with a problem. But we also join groups such as Successful Lawyers or Marathon Runners to flatter our own ego, and to feel we are part of something that other less successful mortals are excluded from.
Sadly this group-forming tendency has caused us over the centuries to fight with those who are from a different tribe. Just think of the mods and rockers clashing in British seaside resorts in the 1960s. Or the struggles Turkey witnessed between left-wing and right-wing students on campuses in the 1970s. Or European football hooliganism in the 1980s.
Tribal groupings can lead to huge political fallout. Divisions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland led to centuries of conflict. Tensions between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus have led to an island divided to this day. Sectarian struggles in Syria and Iraq have led to an environment where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has made military gains.
It does appear that united we stand, divided we fall.
A new study on Freemasonry in the Ottoman Empire by Dorothe Sommer takes an unusual approach to the linkage between Freemasonry and our human tendency to form tribes. Sommer is a German academic who has studied Freemasonry extensively and in this new volume, published by IB Tauris, she focuses on the sociological aspects of Freemasonry in the late 19th century and early 20th century in the Ottoman Empire in general and Greater Syria (modern Lebanon and Syria) in particular.
Now, Freemasonry often has a bad press anywhere in the world. There is a general suspicion of anything that is secretive. In particular, a club that is selective about its members and refuses to divulge what goes on behind closed doors is bound to be suspected by those outside of being up to something shady. Add to that strange rituals, and Freemasonry is often castigated as a threat to a free and democratic society.
But in the Middle East, where the psyche is suspicious of any attempt by Western powers to influence politics or economics, Freemasonry is often viewed as an out-and-out evil. With loyalty to grand lodges in France or the United Kingdom, local lodges have long been viewed as an imperialist device to control the Middle East.
The age Sommer is writing about represents the height of colonial interference in Middle Eastern affairs. Oil had just been found, and was becoming important due to industrialization and the rise of the motor car. Britain, France and Germany vied with each other for control of these resources. Russia joined in, too, until revolution and a disastrous loss of life in World War I took it out of the game for a while.
But Dr. Sommer bucks the usual trend. Her main analysis concludes that rather than being a tool of European control, Freemasonry provided an avenue for solidarity among locals, enabling them to unite in the lodge across sectarian and ethnic divides, and thereby giving them the strength to resist the imperial powers.
She paints a background of strife in Greater Syria — Bilad al-Sham to the Ottomans — with Maronites fighting the Druze and Christians at odds with Muslims. The Syrian population, she says, “needed a sense of common identity and solidarity.”
The Ottoman form of government, she argues, fostered these sectarian divides as it allowed the different peoples — or millet — to form their own social structures and gave their religious or ethnic leaders some autonomy in rule. However, as the Freemason lodges used the motto “unity is strength,” they were able to provide a common framework for people to find common ground, crossing all divides with their concept of “brotherhood.”
It is an interesting argument, but one that seems to have only limited validity. It is true that Karl Marx taught that capitalist regimes use issues such as race and religion to “divide and rule” — driving wedges between workers who otherwise would have everything in common and every reason to ally and organize to fight for their rights, but instead are perpetually driven apart to the benefit of the ruling class. Workers, therefore, need a structure to unite to thwart this insidious tactic.
But to suggest that Freemasonry, which opens its doors exclusively to the wealthy and influential to the exclusion of the working class, was in some way instrumental in bringing the end to autocratic rule and protecting a nation from international interference does seem a bit of a big claim. From the viewpoint of the average local, it would appear that Freemasonry offered the alternative of political and economic control by powerful men of your own nation, rather than by powerful men of a foreign nation.
However, if we ignore the clear skew towards a rose-tinted view of the sociological effects of Freemasonry in the region, the factual part of the book is a fascinating explanation of the history of the lodges and their relations with each other and worldwide Freemasons.
“Freemasonry in the Ottoman Empire: A History of the Fraternity and Its Influence in Syria and the Levant” by Dorothe Sommer is published by IB Tauris (2015). 62 pounds in hardcover ISBN: 978-178076313-2