Saturday, July 23, 2005

Islam & Arabs

How does one learn about another culture? Most often from books and articles - which is why I maintain this webpage of references on Islam. You’d be surprised, when it comes to Islam, there really isn’t that much to learn since the religion largely revolves around one man, Mohammad, as the alleged messenger of the word of God (the Koran) and the example of Mohammad’s actual life - what is usually referred to as his sayings and deeds (the Hadiths). From the major aspects of his thought and political career, there's a clear picture: original Islam was a political supremacist ideology of conquest and domination.

I, however, insist on the distinction between the philosophy and the sociology. While Islam, as a religious philosophy, can be easily understood in its essence, Muslims, in broad demographic terms, are a vast group of disparate cultures all affected by Islam but with their own unique differences. For Arab culture, I’d recommend Patai’s The Arab Mind. There is little I can add to his excellent analysis. I continue to notice our commentators, journalists, and government leaders rediscovering in Arab lands the cultural patterns that Patai described decades ago in The Arab Mind.

Often I’m asked about my personal experience. Did I ever talk to a Muslim? Did I ever visit an Islamic country? But what can I do in a few days in some isolated location? Most of the authors I recommend have spent decades talking Muslims or reading their works. How many of the 1.2 billion Muslims should I talk to before forming a comprehensive picture? Are a dozen a good representative sample? And after 14 centuries of Islam don’t we know enough?

Living in New York City for over 50 years I’ve met many Muslims – both devout and secular – from around the world. Via the Internet, I’ve talked to many more. However, whenever I’m critical of Islam, I’m told that I shouldn't generalize from a few – that’s being bigoted. In today’s multi-cultural make-believe world I’m allowed and even encouraged to conclude something positive from the examination of one Muslim but being negative – well let’s not over-generalize, there’s 1.2 billion of them! The demand for direct experience is generally made by people who want to intimidate the critics into silence. Don’t fall for it! Obviously qualified scholars can summarize an experience I can never hope to achieve. We have to rely on the work of others.

Nevertheless, I’ve found some interesting patterns from my conversations. First, I have a suggestion on methodology. Most sociology is observational. Generally speaking, surveys ask questions that result in a superficial statistical picture. I employed an experimental method of applying a stimulus and recording the response. I often played devil’s advocate. And I tried to be provocative. It is quite revealing! Here’s one example of what I said:
What grievances do Muslims have against us? We’ve backed Egypt in the Suez Crisis, helped Egypt get back the Sinai and give them $2 billion a year, liberated Kuwait from the Saddam, protected Saudi Arabia from becoming the next Kuwait, helped Afghanistan fend off the USSR, intervened on the behalf of Bosnians, prevented genocide in Kosovo, … we are constantly helping Muslims! There are no people we help more than Muslims!

In every case where I made this speech I got back the exact same answer: “You did that for you own interest.” It was fascinating. I was amazed at such reproducible results and with such precision.

First note that the response is the opposite of the current propaganda of anti-American critics here at home. The Arab response isn’t: those actions are harmful. The response is an implicit acknowledgement of the beneficial nature of our foreign policy. However, it denies us moral credit.

The response shows a vast cultural difference between Arabs and Americans. America was founded on the idea that people help each other for mutual benefit – it’s called trade. Our great wealth comes from production and trade. We offer each other products and services for our client’s benefit and thereby earn our wealth. This is a profoundly moral process. The alternative is to steal or perhaps beg. We choose the proud route – we earn it. The Arab response shows a complete lack of moral credit in mutually beneficial actions – trade or otherwise.

At this point I tried several different paths and explored further the Arab response. Often, others join the conversation resulting in an interesting interplay. Some Americans will point to Bosnia and Kosovo as counter-examples. However, I avoid that route because it leaves the premise of Arab criticism unacknowledged. It implies that only altruistic actions have moral worth – mutual benefit has none.

I tell them that there’s a great gulf between our cultures. We’re proud of being productive and engaging in relationships for mutual benefit. They have parasitic societies that produce next to nothing and depend on luck – stepping into a puddle of oil – to provide for their well being. (Yes, we're often generous but that’s a secondary activity that depends on production.)

That tends to take them aback and often ends the conversation. They don’t expect a proud response and such distain for their failed and impoverished culture. They imagine they have the moral high ground; and they aren’t ready for criticism that's too close to home. However, to keep the conversation going I add that I oppose all they aforementioned help we've given to Arab countries over the years. The response is interesting: one of overt hostility and threats.

One response: "you have to do those things to get oil." I refuted that in a past post. In short, they have to sell oil to eat. If it’s sold into the market there’s no economic effect on us. If they cease exporting oil, we’ll live slightly less well-off and they’ll starve.

Another response: "you have to support regimes like Mubarak or else terrorists will take over." We give Egypt $2 billion a year but that’s because Jimmy Carter got suckered into brokering a deal between Egypt and Israel that was already planned in secret (according to Bernard Lewis.) Besides, Mubarak isn’t doing us a favor; he’s fighting the jihadists to stay in power. And he’ll continue to do so just as Egyptian dictators have done for the last fifty years.

It turns out that my libertarian friends are wrong. Arabs don’t want less intervention, they want more. No matter what we do it is not good enough. A large part of Arab hate is manipulative hate – it’s not all deep-seated hate (although there’s a core group of hate-filled Muslims.) Far from doing wrong we have been too generous which only encourages greater demands. And we fall for it!

In a typical rant, you might hear condemnations for our willingness to deal with Saddam in the 1980s. That will be followed by condemnations for our unwillingness to deal with Saddam during the 1990s boycott of Iraq. Finally, we’ll be damned for invading Iraq to remove Saddam. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. It doesn’t matter what we do, it will always be wrong and followed by greater demands which will never be enough.

About a year ago, the Zogby organization did a survey of Arab sentiments. They asked the standard questions and got the answers they expected. The Zogby brothers are Arab-Americans and James heads Arab-American advocacy groups. However, as part of the survey they asked for general comments. James (or was it John), talking on C-Span, was quite surprised. Over and over again he heard the same response: America only helps us because of our oil. He was dumbfounded by the fact that these sentiments, often expressed with indignation and hate, increased directly proportional to the distance from the oil-rich Gulf region.

Of course, we could say they only give us oil because they want our dollars. But that would be the cynical Arab way of looking at mutual benefit: only altruism has moral worth. The point Zogby misses is the difference I've explained above. It is this difference in ethics that isn’t being acknowledged. In Arab society, dominated as it is by such a cynical ethics, poverty and hate are the results. But I’ll leave that to another article. The purpose was to make everyone aware of the cheap manipulations and the cultural impoverishment of Arab-Islamic society. There's a vast gulf between their culture and ours.


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