The Arab Mind/The Western Mind


Are there significant differences between Western and Arab thought processes in terms of analysis and decision making?

In the West, analysis is based on what is termed the scientific method. This involves observing measurable or empirical data, forming a hypothesis and finally testing it while making every attempt to eliminate preconceived notions and emotional bias. Whether this occurs in the lab or in an individual’s mind, Westerners strive to form conclusions based on unbiased analysis, devoid of our hopes and fears. For example, pre-existing beliefs can result in confirmation bias, where a person with a particular view is led to interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions or belief systems. While we may or may not succeed in completely eliminating our biases, the goal is to approach issues utilizing this methodology.  

But employing the scientific method to analyze events is a uniquely Western enterprise. It is the result of the historical experiences of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Reformation and most importantly, the Enlightenment. Rational thought and objectivity were prioritized.

The Arab world never passed through these historic, intellectual movements. Hence, in addition to reasoned analysis, thought processes rely heavily on emotions, hopes and fears. In Understanding Arabs, Margaret Nydell, professor of Arabic at Georgetown University states: “While objectivity is given considerable emphasis in Western culture, the opposite is true in Arab culture…Westerners are taught that objectivity, the examination of facts in a logical way without the intrusion of emotional bias is the mature and constructive approach to human affairs…Arabs believe differently.” Nydell continues: “Arabs consciously reserve the right to look at the world in a subjective way, particularly if a more objective assessment of a situation would bring to mind a too-painful truth.”

During Operation Protective Edge, the Israel-Gaza war of 2014, it was agreed by all observers that Hamas was using human shields to protect their fighters and military installations. When some of these civilians were killed, Hamas fully expected that the international community would ignore their tactic and place full culpability for the civilian deaths on Israel. For Hamas, the truth was clear: Israel had killed the civilians and deserved the blame. The fact that Hamas’ actions were the underlying cause of the deaths (by all rules of warfare), was ignored by the organization. Their interpretation of events and reality was determined by a thought process that prioritized wishes and desires rather than objective analysis. That Hamas didn’t attempt to deny that the tactic was employed offers evidence as to their mindset.

The late Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who held professorships at Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University and Princeton states in his seminal book, The Arab Mind that, “What the Arab mind does is to elect purposely to give greater weight in thought and speech to wishes rather than to reality, to what it would like things to be rather than what they objectively are.”

When Palestinian President Mohammed Abbas declares that the Israelis have changed the rules governing prayer at the temple mount, is he consciously lying or has he convinced himself that such utterances are true because they serve his own purposes: to be viewed by the Palestinian population as a guardian of Islam and a stalwart in defending a Muslim holy place against defilement. When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu attempted to prove that no such change has occurred and even offered to place cameras on the mount to buttress his claim, Abbas disregarded it. He preferred to believe that which served his interest rather than objective facts. Even as the whole world was witness to Netanyahu’s offer of proof, Abbas remained committed to his demonstrably false narrative.

In 2011, as part of their biennial surveys of the Muslim world, Pew Center for Social Research asked residents of eight Middle East countries who they thought was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center. Less than twenty-five percent responded that they thought Arabs had executed the attack. Here too, opinions were formed and deductions were made based more on hopes and personal biases rather than on incontrovertible facts.

Examples abound. During the four major Arab/Israeli wars (‘48, ‘56, ‘67, and ‘73), Arab generals at the front invariably reported to their respective governments that victory was at hand. And without corroboration, the Arab media reported that their armies would soon be celebrating victory in Tel Aviv, while in truth their militaries were devastated and in full retreat. The same occurred during the Israel’s recent wars against Hamas and Hezbollah. In both cases, when the wars ended, victory was claimed by the Arab side. It didn’t matter that the facts demonstrated that the ratio of casualties and the loss of equipment were extremely lopsided in Israel’s favor. Reasoned analysis was supplanted by preferences and emotional bias.

For Westerners to believe that people of different cultures and histories analyze phenomena in the same way that they do smacks of both ethnocentrism and naiveté. Indeed, many of our analysts and much of our media are as trapped in their own ideological frameworks and historical narratives as the Arabs are in theirs.

The irony, of course, is that many of those who most passionately and consistently promote multiculturalism and cultural relativism seem to be, paradoxically, unwilling or unable to heed their own advice, and view the Arab world through its own unique history and societal norms.

One cannot claim to respect non-Western cultures, while simultaneously insisting on viewing them exclusively through a Western lens.

Intellectual honesty requires striving to understand the world not as we wish it to be, but as it is.