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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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Anthropologists and legal historians have long identified certain tribal cultures—warrior, nomadic—with a specific set of honor codes whose violation brings debilitating shame. The individual who fails to take revenge on the killer of a clansman brings shame upon himself (makes him a woman) and weakens his clan, inviting more open aggression. In World War II, the United States sought the help of anthropologists like Ruth Benedict to explain the play of honor and shame in driving Japanese military behavior, resulting in both intelligence victories in the Pacific Theater and her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Taking her lead, the great classicist E.R. Dodds analyzed the millennium-long shift in Greek culture from a “shame” culture to a “guilt” culture in his Greeks and the Irrational, where he contrasted a world in which fame and reputation, rather than conscience and fear of divine retribution, drive men to act.

But even before literary critic Edward Saïd heaped scorn on “honor-shame” analysis in Orientalism (1978), anthropologists had backed off an approach that seemed to make inherently invidious comparisons between primitive cultures and a morally superior West. The reception of Saïd’s work strengthened this cultural relativism: Concerns for honor and shame drive everyone, and the simplistic antinomy “shame-guilt cultures” must be ultimately “racist.” It became, well, shameful in academic circles to mention honor/shame and especially in the context of comparisons between the Arab world and the West. Even in intelligence services, whose job is to think like the enemy, refusing to resort to honor/shame dynamics became standard procedure.

Any generous person should have a healthy discomfort with “othering,” drawing sharp lines between two peoples. We muddy the boundaries to be minimally polite: Honor-killings, for example, are thus seen as a form of domestic violence, which is also pervasive in the West. And indeed, honor/shame concerns are universal: Only saints and sociopaths don’t care what others think, and no group coheres without an honor code.

But even if these practices exist everywhere, we should still be able to acknowledge that in some cultures the dominant voices openly promote honor/shame values and in a way that militates against liberal society and progress. Arab political culture, to take one example—despite some liberal voices, despite noble dissidents—tends to favor ascendancy through aggression, the politics of the strong horse,” and the application of “Hama rules”—which all combine to produce a Middle East caught between prison and anarchy, between Sisi’s Egypt and al-Assad’s Syria. Our inability, however well-meaning, to discuss the role of honor-shame dynamics in the making of this political culture poses a dilemma: By keeping silent, we not only operate in denial, but we may actually strengthen these brutal values and weaken the very ones we treasure.

Few conflicts offer a better place to explore these matters than the Arab-Israeli conflict.

***

In order to understand the role of hard zero-sum, honor-shame concerns in the attitude of Arabs toward Israel, one must first understand the role of the Jew in the Muslim Arab honor-group. For the 13 centuries before Zionism, Jews had been subject to a political status in Muslim lands specifically designed around issues of honor (to Muslims) and shame (to Jews). Jews were dhimmi, “protected” from Muslim violence by their acceptance of daily public degradation and legal inferiority. Noted Chateaubriand in the 19th century: “Special target of all [Muslim and Christian] contempt, the Jews lower their heads without complaint; they suffer all insults without demanding justice; they let themselves be crushed by blows. … Penetrate the dwellings of these people, you will find them in frightful poverty.”

For more than a millennium, Arab and Muslim honor resided, among other places, in their domination and humiliation of their dhimmi—and when the occasional reformer equalized their legal status, he struck a heavy blow to Muslim honor. Noted a British envoy on the impact of Muhammad Ali’s reforms: “The Mussulmans … deeply deplore the loss of that sort of superiority which they all & individually exercised over & against the other sects. … A Mussulman … believes and maintains that a Christian—& still more a Jew—is an inferior being to himself.”

To say that to the honor-driven Arab and Muslim political player, in the 20th century as in the 10th century, the very prospect of an autonomous Jewish political entity is a blasphemy against Islam, and an insult to Arab virility, is not to say that every period of Muslim rule involved deliberate humiliation of dhimmi. Nor is it to say that all Arabs think like this. On the contrary, this kind of testosterone-fueled, authoritarian discourse imposes its interpretation of “honor” on the entire community, often violently. Thus, while some Arabs in 1948 Palestine may have viewed the prospect of Jewish sovereignty as a valuable opportunity, the Arab leadership and “street” agreed that for the sake of Arab honor Israel must be destroyed and that those who disagreed were traitors to the Arab cause.

Worse: The threat to Arab honor did not come from a worthy foe, like the Western Christians, but by from Jews, traditionally the most passive, abject, cowardly of the populations over which Muslims ruled. As the Athenians explained to the Melians in the 5th century B.C.E.:

One is not so much frightened of being conquered by a power which rules over others, as Sparta does, as of what would happen if a ruling power is attacked and defeated by its own subjects.

So, the prospect of an independent state of should-be dhimmis struck Arab leaders as more than humiliating. It endangered all Islam. Thus Rahman Azzam Pasha, the head of the newly formed Arab League, spoke for his “honor group” when he threatened that “if the Zionists dare establish a state, the massacres we would unleash would dwarf anything which Genghis Khan and Hitler perpetrated.” As the Armenians had discovered a generation earlier, the mere suspicion of rebellion could engender massacres.

The loss in 1948, therefore, constituted the most catastrophic possible outcome for this honor-group: Seven Arab armies, representing the honor of hundreds of thousands of Arabs (and Muslims), were defeated by less than a million Jews, the surviving remnant of the most devastating and efficient genocide in history. To fall to people so low on the scale that it is dishonorable even to fight them—nothing could be more devastating. And this humiliating event occurred on center stage of the new postwar global community, before whom the Arab league representatives had openly bragged about their upcoming slaughters. In the history of a global public, never has any single and so huge a group suffered so much dishonor and shame in the eyes of so great an audience.

So, alongside the nakba (catastrophe) that struck hundreds of thousands of the Arab inhabitants of the former British Mandate Palestine, we find yet another, much greater psychological catastrophe that struck the entire Arab world and especially its leaders: a humiliation so immense that Arab political culture and discourse could not absorb it. Initially, the refugees used the term nakba to reproach the Arab leaders who started and lost the war that so hurt them. In a culture less obsessed by honor and more open to self-criticism, this might have led to the replacement of political elites with leaders more inclined to move ahead with positive-sum games of the global politics of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan. But when appearances matter above all, any public criticism shames the nation, the people, and the leaders.

Instead, in a state of intense humiliation and impotence on the world stage, the Arab leadership chose denial—the Jews did not, could not, have not won. The war was not—could never—be over until victory. If the refugees from this Zionist aggression disappeared, absorbed by their brethren in the lands to which they fled, this would acknowledge the intolerable: that Israel had won. And so, driven by rage and denial, the Arab honor group redoubled the catastrophe of its own refugees: They made them suffer in camps, frozen in time at the moment of the humiliation, waiting and fighting to reverse that Zionist victory that could not be acknowledged. The continued suffering of these sacrificial victims on the altar of Arab pride called out to the Arab world for vengeance against the Jews. In the meantime, wherever Muslims held power, they drove their Jews out as a preliminary act of revenge.

The Arab leadership’s interpretation of honor had them responding to the loss of their own hard zero-sum game—we’re going to massacre them—by adopting a negative-sum strategy. Damaging the Israeli “other” became paramount, no matter how much that effort might hurt Arabs, especially Palestinians. “No recognition, no negotiations, no peace.” No Israel. Sooner leave millions of Muslims under Jewish rule than negotiate a solution. Sooner die than live humiliated. Sooner commit suicide to kill Jews than make peace with them.

***

Yet somehow, however obvious these observations are, their implications rarely get discussed in policy circles. Current peace plans assume that both sides will make the necessary concessions for peace, that compromise can lead to an acceptable win-win for both sides. As one baffled BBC announcer exclaimed, “Good grief, this is so simple it could be resolved with an email”; or as Jeremy Ben-Ami puts it, “It would take sixty seconds to lay out the basic solution.” But it’s only simple if you assume that Arabs no longer feel it’s a hard zero-sum game, that any win for Israel is an unacceptable loss of honor for them, that their “honor group” no longer considers negotiation a sign of weakness, compromise, shameful, and any peace with Israel, any Israeli “win” no matter how small an insult to Islam. During and (more remarkably) after Oslo, it became a matter of faith among both policy makers and pundits that the old era of Arab irredentism was gone. As one NPR commentator noted (during the intifada!), “Any Palestinian with a three-digit IQ knows that Israel is here to stay.”

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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