Monday, July 24, 2006
Posted by Daniel Greenfield 10 Comments
Most people remember the Iraqi Information Minister's outrageous statement that are no American troops at Baghdad International Airport. Some were outraged by it, others bemused by the sheer baldfaced denial of reality. Few realized that in truth they were getting a view into how Arab cultures cope with defeat.
Arab cultures cope with defeat by first denying it happened and then by pasting conspiracy theories over it. Few Arab states ever admit they were defeated. Saddam erected statues to his victory in the 1992 Gulf War and the Iran-Iraq War. Egypt celebrates its victory in the Six Day War. This attitude is not just a matter of historical revisionism but how Arab countries and Arab societies approach wartime as well. With his entire air force destroyed and Israeli forces advancing on Cairo, Nasser and the entire Egyptian political and military establishment continued to insist that they were winning. Nasser even telephoned the King of Jordan telling him that the Israelis were on the run and it was time to join the war and reap the rewards. Predictably Jordan joined in. Disastrously.
Orientalists often celebrate the 'Death Before Dishonor' cultures of the east and romanticise them. The reality though is that an honor and shame based culture is not a moral culture. It is a culture in which each man must see himself as a hero and twist and warp reality to maintain his status. Honor comes before everything else. An Arab family may kill their daughter is she dishonors their family by having a fling or marrying the wrong man. Arab families will send their sons off to blow themselves up, because this too elevates their honor, which is more important than life. Given a choice between living in peace and dying with honor, Arabs will choose the mythological chimera of honor because they would rather die than face the truth and have others see their shame.
This is why vendettas in the Arab world never end until one side is completely decimated. As long as both sides continue to live, the pressure of shame and honor compel them to continue killing each other. There may be truces and pauses in the violence but sooner or later the killing always resumes. It's why peace is ultimately impossible.
In the culture of Islam the meaning of peace is identical to the meaning of Islam itself which is submission. The entire religion of Islam is premised on submission to Allah. To the Muslim mind, non-Muslims can only attain peace with Islam by submitting to them as the messengers of Allah. There can be no peace with a non-Muslim only a truce. The only kind of temporary peace Arabs can even contemplate is one in which the enemy makes sufficient concessions that the Arab side feels it 'won' even when it lost. Such was the peace Egypt made with Israel, but even that didn't save President Sadat from being assassinated.
To understand why the Palestinians won't make peace with Israel, the simple answer is that any peace would require admitting to a defeat. As long as the terrorism continues they can insist to themselves that they never lost because they keep on fighting. The moment they reached a genuine accord with Israel and ended the killing, no matter how much land they gained, the mythology they built up about Israel and themselves will come crashing down on them.
The same misguided sense of honor that requires them to murder their daughters rather than accept that they may have had a fling with a boy, requires them to continue killing Israelis, regardless of the consequences to themselves. The Israeli counterattacks then further feed their own mythology of themselves as victims, as oppressed and as defiant fighters of the monstrous Israeli war machine. The so-called cycle of violence is really a cycle of shame and honor, in which to atone for their shame, they go out and kill until they feel honorable again.
Reaching a lasting peace becomes a hopeless task because peace can only be made with people who are prepared to compromise. And compromise would be a shameful act. Every Arab leader who even tried was subjected to numerous assassination attempts. So Arab leaders under pressure by the West to make peace begin playing both sides. To Israel and the West they promise peace and to their own people they promise war and of course it's only war that they deliver. None of this is considered dishonorable to them because their sense of honor is rooted in no moral code, but in their own desire to appear mighty and powerful in their own eyes. Their honor is entwined with their ideas of masculinity and strength and they cannot compromise on it without destroying their sense of self.
Unilateral Israeli concessions are also useless since they only embolden a delusional enemy to believe he is winning and no concession can ever be sufficient since there will always be some pretext for further violence, not because the concession wasn't sufficent but because the violence wasn't sufficient.
Violence compensates for the failures of Arab states and Arab cultures who see themselves as great and yet see their world status as small. They believe they should be the world's leaders yet they cannot acknowledge their own flaws and reform them. Trapped in this box they reason their way out of it by resorting to conspiracy theories, by believing that they are being suppressed and that only more violence is the answer. Their own losses become proof of the enemy's evil and the battles themselves become victories to be celebrated.
There can be no real communication between Western and Arab cultures because the assumptions in place preclude communications. Western cultures continue to believe that Arabs are just like them except with an accent. Arab cultures continue to believe that Western culture have brought them low and are keeping them down and that they can only rise by destroying them. Arab responses to Western diplomacy all come couched in the deceptive and manipulative phrasing of people who believe themselves to be cunningly gaining advantage of an enemy and Western diplomats continue to be baffled when nothing they do produces any results. But the Arab cultures are only implementing Theodore Roosevelt's famous maxim about diplomacy. They keep saying 'Nice Doggie, Nice Doggie' over and over again to America, Europe and Israel while looking for a big enough stick. With Iran's atom bomb program they may soon have it too.
Peace requires finding a middle ground but Arab cultures can only see themselves as victims or heroes. They have no middle ground. They're either overrunning the enemy or being victimized by him while continue to courageously resist him. Finding an enemy becomes a basic psychological need for them in order to continue believing in their own self-worth.
Only honor can wipe away shame and shame comes from any sense of failure or inadequacy. War redirects the numerous forms of shame that Arab cultures produce in men at a greater enemy than each other or their own governments. The war can never be lost because they can never admit defeat until it is as overwhelming as it was in Japan, another honor-shame culture that utterly refused to acknowledge they were losing until the situation was so dire they were on the verge of annihilation. And yet even then the Japanese High Command was formulating plans to wipe out most of their own women and children in order to free up resources for fighting the war. It was only a desperate and unprecedented move by the Emperor that finally ended the war.
But there is no emperor to step in and end the war here. It will only end when we surrender or until they realize they have no choice but to admit defeat and do as the Japanese did, reshaping their culture into one that can learn from the West and compete with us in other areas than warfare. Until that day comes the violence will only grow worse.