Arab Honor and Shame
Patai starts by noting “Much has been written on the subject of honor (sharaf) among the Arabs. What has not been emphasized … is that there is a strong correlation between honor and group survival. Honorable behavior is that which is conducive to group cohesion and group survival. [p95] … Two components of the honor syndrome which have most to do with group survival are virility and kinship spirit. In the Bedouin hierarchy of values it redounds to the honor of a man to have many children, and especially sons. [p97] … [O]ne of the reasons for the general Bedouin preference for endogamy [marriage within the family]: the child-bearing capacity of its women must be preserved for the ingroup in order to make sure that all the natural increase or replacement thus obtained will take place within its own ranks rather than those of another, potentially hostile, group. [p98]
“Historically, the sense of honor was so much tied to the group spirit that both were (and still are) referred to by one and the same term, “`asabiyya,” which means primarily “family spirit” or “kinship spirit.” … Although Muhammad condemned `asabiyya as contrary to the spirit of Islam, this could not eliminate it from the consciousness of the Arabs. Ibn Khaldun, the great fourteenth-century theoretician of Arab history, even went so far as to uphold `asabiyya as the fundamental bond of human society and the basic motivating force in history.” [p99]
A group dynamic is at play in the psychology of shame. “Shame must, of course, be carefully distinguished from guilt. ‘Shame’ has been defined as a matter between a person and his society, while ‘guilt’ is primarily a matter between a person and his conscience. A hermit in a desert can feel guilt; he cannot fell shame. … What pressures the Arab to behave in an honorable manner is not guilt but shame, or, more precisely, the psychological drive to escape or prevent negative judgment by others.” [p113] Patai also covers the well known ethos of “sexual honor” which result in “honor killings,” in Chapter 8; [p126] This is widely known and requires no summary.
Honor and shame, for an Arab family/tribe is seen as a key survival factor. Dishonor brings physical danger to the family. Thus, the contempt an Arab/Muslim holds for the other is expressed by violence to the other’s family. In Israel the main targets of suicide bombings are not military but civilian. What is being expressed is “you brought shame and death to your family.” This isn’t a second best choice because of a lack of military power; this is an end in itself. Arab/Muslims know that Western morality inhibits retaliation in kind. Indeed, they’ll exploit such moral sentiments in the West whenever Arab civilians are inadvertently killed. No such complaint would be lodged against a fellow Arab.
Israel, for a time, had a policy of evicting families of suicide bombers. At least one such family turned in their son to prevent losing their home. However, Arabs quickly provided funds to reward families and neutralized this policy (Saddam was one such funding source.) No doubt if Israel killed the family of suicide bombers the shame/honor dynamic would diminish the high regard of being a shaheed and most likely end suicide bombings. Israel, of course, can’t do this. One Arab reporter, while gloating, told his American counterpart that "with all your technology you can’t respond to this manner of fighting." There is a perverse pride in being able to kill the families of civilized people knowing how difficult it is for them to do the same in return.
This, of course, is not true historically. In World War I, when Germany deployed chemical weapons to killing the allies, France and England put aside their moral reservations and engaged in similar methods. Given that the wind generally blows from West to East, this gave the allies a slight advantage. Consequently, the Germans didn’t make this mistake again in WWII. Hitler, however, believed his air superiority gave him an edge as he bombed civilians in London. He didn’t expect the British to acquire the capacity to bomb German cities. The UK accepted the practice of bombing populous cities far sooner and to a greater extent than the USA.
In war, moral sensibilities tend to move as the enemy lowers the bar. However, we are now fighting a war where, for the first time, a society accepts an absolute deontological prohibition against adjusting military technique given the enemy’s decent into savagery. No such barrier was everlasting for the UK in Europe or the USA in Japan. It is reasonable to hesitate to cross such barriers depending on the stage of the war, scale of the war and the costs of the war. But one wonders where the breaking point lies.
Returning to Patai he makes an interesting observation of what he calls “rhetoricism.” Quoting Edward Atiyah “It is a characteristic of the Arab mind to be swayed more by words than by ideas, and more by ideas than by facts.” Patai notes that “Some writers go so far as to postulate an inner relationship between language and manhood: strong manhood is co-extensive with strong rhetoric. … To the Arab mind, eloquence is related to exaggeration, which is not meant to be taken literally but which only serves the purpose of effect.” [p52] By the way, Patai died decades before Baghdad Bob.
“The psychological mechanism which produced all these untrue assertions was similar to the one which produces the typical dream of wish fulfillment: the strong desire that an event should take place … produces a verbal statement in which the desired event is represented as an accomplished fact.” [p54] We’d call that lying. Patai describes the “substituting words for deeds” as an Arab way of living. “The intention of doing something, or the plan of doing something, or the initiation of the first step toward doing something—any one of these can serve as a substitute for achievement and accomplishment. … By expressing the future act in the form of an intention, he achieves a measure of psychological relief; thereafter it no longer appears imperative to carry out the intended act.” [p67]
One of the failures of the current administration and our intellectuals is their inability to pass moral judgment. This first and foremost has a destructive effect on the cognitive clarity and morale of our fellow citizens. However, it also allows the enemy to fantasize that they are in the right and that they are honorable.
As I discussed in the past, I believe that verbal assaults could, in part, substitute for physical assaults in establishing a deterrent. Both the honor/shame mechanism and the rhetorical-substitution effect suggest we are denying ourselves the use of a very effective weapon.
Our current policy of appeasement and moral self-flagellation, earns the contempt of the enemy. Our morality makes us look weak. Our inability to proclaim our moral superiority convinces the enemy they are in the right. Our complete failure to extol the virtues of civilization and damn the savagery of these barbarians only emboldens them. Given our current course and their nature, we are headed for a great war once we reach the breaking point.
Update: For a better discussion on the military dimensions see Grant Jones.