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Why the Arab World Is Lost in an Emotional Nakba, and How We Keep It There

By ignoring the honor-shame dynamic in Arab political culture, is the West keeping itself from making headway toward peace?

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A Palestinian protester aims sparks from a flare toward Israeli security forces during clashes near the Israeli checkpoint in Hebron on Feb. 25, 2013. (Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images)
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The condescension of this remark is matched only by its inaccuracy. Not only does it consider the entire leadership of Hamas morons, but it ignores how deeply the psychological trauma of Israel affects the Arab world. Hamas’ Khaled Mash’al, by no means a two-digit-IQ-er, spoke thus at the height of the intifada:

Tomorrow, our nation [Islam not Palestine] will sit on the throne of the world. … Tomorrow we will lead the world, Allah willing. Apologize today [you infidels], before remorse will do you no good. Our nation is moving forwards, and it is in your interest to respect a victorious nation. … Before Israel dies, it must be humiliated and degraded. Allah willing, before they die, they will experience humiliation and degradation every day.

Even among the most Westernized Arabs, the wound of Israel’s existence cuts deep, as does the instinct to accuse Israel for Arab failures. Ahmed Sheikh, editor in chief of Al Jazeera, blames Israel for the lack of democracy in the Arab world:

The day when Israel was founded created the basis for our problems. … It’s because we always lose to Israel. It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West’s problem is that it does not understand this.

Sheikh’s conclusion is not that ending the fight with Israel might lead to democracy, but rather that once the West lets the Arabs win against Israel, then they’ll build democracies.

As transparently inaccurate an understanding of the Arab world’s problems with democracy as this appeal might be, it has many Western takers, eager to preserve their “rational choice models.” Many post-Orientalists, in the tradition of Edward Saïd, have predicted the outbreak of democracy any decade now, from the 1990s to the “Arab Spring.” Thus, while Yasser Arafat’s “no” at Camp David shocked Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross, and a public fed on the idea of a win-win peace process, those familiar with the values of Arafat’s primary honor-group predicted that rejection. If “that which has been taken by force must be regained by force,” then nothing Arafat “got” in negotiations could possibly wash away the shame of a cowardly stroke of the pen that legitimized Dar al Harb in the midst of Dar al Islam. As a result, while Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak (and, reportedly, some younger Palestinian negotiators) mourned, Arafat returned to the Middle East a hero.

None of this mattered to experts like Robert Malley and Robert Wright, who explained why a reasonable Arafat had to say no. Of course, to make Arafat rational meant blaming the Israelis for the failure of negotiations and for the subsequent explosion of violence against them. When Cherie Blair expressed her understanding for the despair of suicide bombers, she projected her liberal world view on people who actually aspire to the highest honor their society can offer: martyrdom in the war to kill the Jews. Israelis themselves offer ample support for this reversal of responsibility. Unable to tell the difference between strategy and tactics, they criticize “both sides” for playing zero-sum games, even though only their side considers that a reproach.


The policy implications here are grave. The “rational” model assumes that the ’67 borders (’49 armistice lines) are the key and that an Israeli withdrawal will satisfy rational Palestinian demands, resolving the conflict. Attention to honor-shame culture, however, suggests that such a retreat would trigger greater aggression in the drive for true Palestinian honor, which means “all of Palestine, from the river to the sea.” Recently, military historian Andrew Bacevich, expressing the logic of win-win conflict resolution, wrote that only by leveling the playing field between Israelis and Palestinians, by weakening the too-dominant Israelis, could negotiations really work. By ignoring “strong-horse” Arab political culture and its deep grievance with the “Zionist entity,” he never even raises the possibility that parity would produce more conflict, indeed, behavior akin to Syria’s civil war, rather than the Scandinavian model of civility he invokes. Israelis, even the peace camp, instinctively know this and resist those kinds of concessions; outsiders and the dogmatically self-accusatory view that resistance as the cause of the problem.

For Israelis, the stakes of these abstruse debates over the meaning and importance of honor-shame culture could not be higher. Israelis’ future depends on their ability to understand why their neighbors hate them and what can and won’t work in trying to deal with their hostility. It would constitute criminal negligence to ignore these issues.

But the problem goes far beyond Israel and her neighbors. As anyone paying attention knows, the Salafi-Jihadis, who have “hijacked” Islam the world over, embody this self-same honor-shame mentality in its harshest form: the existential drama of humiliate or be humiliated, rule or be ruled, exterminate or be exterminated. Dar al Islam must conquer dar al Harb; independent infidels (harbis) must be spectacularly brought low, their women raped; Islam must dominate the world … or vanish. The language of Shia and Sunni Jihadis alike reverberates with the sounds of honor, plunder, dominion, shame, humiliation, misogyny, rage, vengeance, conspiracy, and paranoid fear of implosion.

It’s not that our policy makers—and here I speak of not only Israel but the democratic West—don’t take account of honor-shame dynamics. They just don’t take it seriously. For them, what they regard as childish, superficial concerns can be palliated with polite words and gestures, and then these good people will behave like rational choice actors, and we can all move forward in familiar, sensible ways. So, when the Pope Benedict’s remark about an “inherently violent Islam” set off riots of protest throughout the Muslim world, the onus was on the pope to apologize for provoking them. Only thus could one spare Muslims global derision for randomly killing—killing to protest being called violent.

But culture is not a superficial question of manners. In the Middle East, honor is identity. Appeasement and concessions are signs of weakness: When practiced by one’s own leaders, they produce riots of protest, by one’s enemy, renewed aggression. Benjamin Netanyahu stops most settlement activity for nine months. Barack Obama goes to Saudi Arabia for a reciprocal concession he can announce in Cairo. King Abdullah throws a fit and the Palestinians make more demands. And too few wonder whether basic logic of the negotiations—land for peace—has any purchase on the cultural realities of this corner of the globe. If only Israel would be more reasonable …

When we indulge Arab (and jihadi Muslims’) concerns for honor by backing off anything that they claim offends them, we think that our generosity and restraint will somehow move extremists to more rational behavior. Instead, we end up muzzling ourselves and thereby participating in, honoring, and confirming their most belligerent attitudes toward the “other.” They get to lead with their glass chin, while we, thinking we work for peace, end up confirming and weaponizing the Arab world’s most toxic weaknesses—their insecurity, their embrace of all-or-nothing conflicts, their addiction to revenge, their paranoid scapegoating, their shame-driven hatred. And there is nothing generous, rational, or progressive about that.


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Why the Arab World Is Lost in an Emotional Nakba, and How We Keep It There

By ignoring the honor-shame dynamic in Arab political culture, is the West keeping itself from making headway toward peace?

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