Think Again: The solution is in the semantics

The refusal of American and Western policymakers to understand the Arab/Islamic world in its own cultural terms has fueled decades of futile peacemaking.

PLO chairman Yasser Arafat holds the second phase of the Oslo peace accords after the initialling of the document, September 24. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PLO chairman Yasser Arafat holds the second phase of the Oslo peace accords after the initialling of the document, September 24.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Multiculturalism – which celebrates the diversity of cultures and treats them as all equally worthy of respect – is all the rage in academia and other precincts of the Left. Yet that celebration of diversity often is little more than a cover for intellectual sloth, and a total lack of interest in the actual nature of any particular culture.
And where that sloth prevails, its corollary is likely to be an unfounded projection of one’s own culture onto others.
Nowhere is that phenomenon more evident than in American foreign policy on the Middle East.
Last month, I attended a panel in Jerusalem titled “Why Have ‘Peace Plans’ Backfired: How Honor-Shame Dynamics Affect Arab-Israel Relations.”
Anthropologists have applied the term honor- shame to societies organized around clan and tribe, in which group identity takes precedence over individual identity. Those societies are governed by elaborate codes of honor, the breach of which requires expiation in blood. If, for instance, someone outside one’s clan kills a member of the clan, it is incumbent on members of the clan to avenge that killing, regardless of who initiated the conflict or why, because the death of the clan member weakens the clan.
In honor-shame cultures, win-win thinking is absent; rival clans bear a zero-sum relationship to one another – whatever brings honor to one, of necessity brings shame to the other; honor is achieved by defeating and thereby shaming the other. Disputes tend to last forever. Harold Rhode of the Gatestone Institute, who served as a Middle East analyst in the US Defense Department for nearly 30 years, noted that in Hebrew the verb for payment comes from the same root as completeness and peace. The payment represents the end of a transaction in which ownership passes once and for all to the other party. In Arabic, the three-letter root for payment is the same as that for pushing – in other words, the transaction is never complete, what is yours today may be mine tomorrow; your possession is only temporary.
Rhode began by arguing that it is first crucial to know the cultural context within which one is acting. Only then can one begin to develop a strategy.
Knowledge of one simple fact could have spared all the futile peacemaking efforts since 1967: Any land that was under Islamic sovereignty is forever considered Islamic territory, dar al-Islam, and it is the duty of Muslims to secure its return to Islamic sovereignty.
The very idea of a Jewish state in the heart of the Muslim Middle East was thus unthinkable for Muslims from the beginning. Abd al-Rahman Azzam Pasha, the first head of the Arab League, declared on the eve of the end of the British Mandate, “If the Zionists dare establish a state, the massacres we would unleash would dwarf anything Genghis Khan and Hitler perpetuated.”
Not only was the creation of Israel a sacrilege, but the defeat in arms of seven Arab armies by the Jews, who were second-class-citizen dhimmis in every Muslim society and thereby feminized, constitutes a humiliation that must be reversed by force of arms. The refugees of the War of Independence have been frozen in time since then, expressly forbidden from integrating into another Arab state, so that they would remain a permanent attack force to avenge the humiliation of 1948.
The honor-shame dynamic and the Islamic prohibition on ceding territorial sovereignty has not only left Arabs and Muslims unreconciled to Israel’s existence; they have not even accepted the loss of Andalusia (Spain) to the Christians in 1492. Rhode shared a story of how his mentor Bernard Lewis, the greatest living scholar of the Middle East, once joined a group of Turkish friends on a tour sponsored by an Islamic research institute in Cordoba.
Not suspecting the Turkish-speaking Lewis of being Jewish, the tour guide confessed, “We are determined to bring back Islamic control of Spain.”
At Camp David, Ehud Barak conceded to Yasser Arafat all of the Temple Mount, retaining nothing for Israel except the land under the Mount. Upon hearing the offer, Arafat jumped up and shouted, “I will not be having tea with [Egyptian leader Anwar] Sadat.” He meant that were he to agree to any concession, he would be assassinated just as Sadat was for bringing dishonor to the Arab nation by signing a peace treaty with Israel.
The upshot is: Temporary treaties and arrangements can be worked out with the Palestinians and relations between us might be managed, but the hope of a truly final agreement in Palestinian eyes is impossible, given the present nature of Arab society.
That perspective, however, has been totally ignored by American policymakers. As in so much concerning the Muslim world, they have been cowed by Edward Said’s Orientalism, in which he argued that any discussion of the Muslim world as being driven by an honor-shame culture was derogatory. So, instead, our foreign policy experts apply the various “rational actor” models of game theory from which cultural and religious considerations are excluded. That the Palestinians may have different goals and priorities than Western rational actors, and that achieving statehood, as long as Israel continues to exist, is not high on the list, does not occur to them. Perhaps it is too painful to consider that there are those not eager “to give peace a chance.”
Prof. Mordechai Kedar provided an amusing example of the type of misunderstandings that arise out of different cultural assumptions. In the heady early days of the Oslo process, an economic conference was held in Casablanca to which Israel was invited for the first time. Shimon Peres led a very large Israeli delegation. The point of the delegation was to demonstrate to the Arab delegations Israel’s productivity and creativity as a way of cementing their support for peace. Peace would be a win-win for Israelis and Palestinians alike, Peres urged.
But that is not the message the Arabs heard. They saw in the delegation an Israeli intent to colonize the Arab world. Arabic-language papers of the time reported on Israel’s desire to take over the Arab world and have the Arabs working for the Jews. For them, Israel’s glory could only bring their shame.
A thriving Israel is the mirror constantly thrust in the face of the Muslim world, reflecting back its shame. Apart from the oil taken out of the ground for it by others, the Muslim world produces nothing of marketable value and contributes nothing to civilization.
Prof. Richard Landes, who chaired the evening, published an article recently in Tablet Magazine titled “Why the Arab World is Lost in an Emotional Nakba, and How We Keep it There,” in which he argued that the Western response to Muslims’ sense of humiliation achieves just the opposite of its intent.
The profuse apologies for every offense, real or imagined, against Islam and its founder – apologies that would not be tendered to adherents of any other religion – and the constant pressure on Israel for concessions, will not salve Arab shame or make them more conciliatory. All that such efforts do is convince Muslims of the weakness of their adversaries, and whet their appetite for more aggression.
THE REFUSAL of American and Western policymakers to understand the Arab/Islamic world in its own cultural terms has fueled decades of futile peacemaking. But that is far from the most costly outgrowth of the unwillingness to take culture seriously.
The whole project to build a stable democracy in Iraq was predicated on a materialist assumption that all human beings desire personal freedom as their highest priority, and that given the proper constitution and government structure, they can all realize their desire to live in a stable representative democracy.
But all people are not the same, and all cultures do not place the same value on individual freedom. As David Goldman argues in How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam is Dying Too), representative democracy depends on very high levels of trust between citizens.
They must believe that the members of rival political factions or parties share a commitment to a set of procedures and structures embodied in the constitution which guarantee each side that if their views do not prevail today, they may yet do so tomorrow.
But members of tribe- and clan-based societies trust no one outside their own clan or tribe. Trust in abstract constitutional principles that all sectors of society agree to uphold is not something that is within their frame of reference. And as a consequence, the blood and treasure expended by America to create a stable democracy in Iraq was spent in vain.
BUT THE most costly outgrowth of the refusal to take culture and religion seriously may be yet to come in the form of a nuclear Iran. The West would prefer to ignore the jihadi impulse, as well as the jihadi’s willingness to sacrifice his life to preserve the tribe to which he belongs.
The most sacred act of pagan society is war, through which the individual consecrates himself to the future of the tribe or clan by risking his life in aggressive warfare against enemies. He risks nothing, according to the German Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig, by sacrificing himself for his tribe since he has no existence except through his tribe. Rosenzweig viewed tribal Muslim society as essentially pagan in nature, with Allah ruling as an arbitrary Oriental potentate, according to his wholly arbitrary will, as the entire pantheon of pagan gods rolled into one.
Indeed, never has suicide – in the form of Muslim suicide bombers – played such a large role in military conflict as it does today. The danger which should keep us all awake at night is that a nuclear Iran would become the first suicide-bomber nation.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in
The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.