1. Arab Culture and the Influence of Islam
It is necessary at this juncture to preface the historical-political dissertation by explaining the nature of Arab culture and the influence of Islam on the international scene since, inevitably, diverse cultural perspectives have a bearing on the manner in which the Jewish and Arab populations in Palestine/Israel view and deal with each other. As events globally have demonstrated, the Israel-Arab conflict encompasses wider issues. The West in general and Europe in particular, is now experiencing a potential threat to its democratic values evidenced by an increasing penetration into its culture of Islamic fundamentalism whose ideology rejects the validity of and equality among differing belief systems.
Islamic theology as expressed in the Qu’ran ignites and fuels the divergence between cultures. It declares that Islam is supreme and denigrates those who are non-Muslims. Such an ideology is in conflict with western values and with those espoused particularly in Israel. Israel is viewed by the West and considered by herself as a politically western oriented state governed by a Jewish cultural majority with significant religious minorities, organised and functioning under a democratically elected political regime which is more or less accountable to its constituents. In this respect she differs markedly from the culture prevailing among her Arab-Islamic neighbours.
Although Western readers may not recognise a number of social and political factors inherent in Israeli and Arab society as differing from their own, the Palestinian conflict with the Jewish State of Israel must be viewed against a background of Arab tradition rooted in tribal culture, upon which Qur’anic doctrines have been superimposed. While these may change over time, there are certain national characteristics of a people which are generally accepted and globally recognised. For example, one acknowledges as being valid: the English “stiff upper lip”, the German obsession with thoroughness, the Japanese preoccupation with courtesy and honour, and Italian volatility. Psychologists have asserted that personality is predetermined by the genetic blueprint which can produce important societal outcomes mediated through outlook and behaviour.
Sania Hamady, in her ‘Temperament and Character of the Arabs’, makes the point that while one cannot categorise all Arabs as having the same characteristics, beliefs and value systems, it is nevertheless possible to determine through statistical analysis some basic core characteristics which may be found in the majority of a population. Where the characteristics of a particular population are examined, the frequency of specific character identifiers can be represented on a graph expressed as a symmetrical bell-shaped frequency-distribution curve with the mouth of the bell facing downwards. In a commonly seen distribution-curve, the most frequently expressed characteristics are located at the peak of the curve – which generally appears in the middle as ‘normal’ curve, with individual exceptions and deviations from the majority being represented in the tail extremities of the curve near and its base-line.
“[I]n getting socialized, the individual embodies his culture and becomes a representative of its patterns of behaviour and its values. Those reared in the same social institutions tend to show certain regularities that are common and salient in their behaviour. Characteristic of them are central tendencies towards common ways of thinking, acting and feeling. On these cultural regularities and central tendencies in behaviour the concept of national character is built. It stands for the common denominator of characteristics, with individuals varying from it in different directions and degrees. This concept does not correspond to the total personality of an individual, but describes the pattern of the culturally regular character. In studying the character of a cultural group one starts with certain assumptions…[I]t is recognised that cultural character is subject to change and that as such, no statement about it can be absolute.” (p.12)
Two premises underlie Hamady’s description:
- In statistical analysis although individual personalities may vary, the peak shows the generally exhibited characteristics of a population.
- Different Arab populations – such as Egyptians contrasted with Libyans; Iraqis with Moroccans or Bedouin in contrast with fellahin peasants – may show different centralising tendencies such that the peak of bell curve is skewed in favour of certain characteristics while the tails still account for individual deviations from the norm. The same may be said in analysing the differences between Jewish and Palestinian-Arab populations.
For sake of convenience and brevity some of these differences are summarised below in point form. They have been derived from the seminal works of Islamist authority, Professor Bernard Lewis, (‘The Multiple Identities of the Middle East’, ‘Cultures in Conflict’ and The Political Language of Islam) and other psychological and anthropological research studies into the characteristics of Arab society. In addition to that of Hamaday, four additional works among the many others may assist readers in gaining an understanding of some of the Arab cultural characteristics which have had an impact on Jewish-Islamic relations generally and continue to have on the current Israel-Palestine ideological political conflict in particular: David Pryce-Jones, ‘The Closed Circle’; Raphael Patai, ‘The Arab Mind’; Philip C. Salzman, ‘Culture and Conflict in the Middle East’ and M. Kedar, Asad In Search for Legitimacy. Salzman and Kedar in particular show how the Arab tribal culture has a direct impact on the Middle East conflict generally and on Israeli-Palestinian relations in particular.
(Philip Carl Salzman, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Prometheus Books, Amhurst, NY, 2008; M. Kedar, Asad In Search for Legitimacy, Sussex Academic Press, Brighton, 2005, especially Chapter 6, “Psychological Elements” (hereinafter “Kedar” )
See also Salzman, The Middle East’s Tribal DNA (“Tribal DNA”); The Iron Law of Politics, Vol 23, No.2 Politics and Life Sciences, 20, (“Iron Law of Politics”) where the author argues that only two out of “Equality”,” Personal Freedom” and “Peace” can be achieved at the same time. All three values cannot be attained simultaneously http://www.meforum.org/article/1813 ; Stanley Kurtz, I and My Brother Against My Cousin, http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/014/947kigpp.asp;
Richard Landes, Salzman on Tribal Islam: Insights of an Anthropologist, The Augean Stables, April 7, 2008, http://www.theaugeanstables.com/category/islam/ ; also Edward Said and the Culture of Honour and Shame: Orientalism and Our Misperceptions of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 13 Israel Affairs, Issue 4 October 2007, pages 844 – 858 http://www.theaugeanstables.com/conspiracy-theory-article/ ; J.G. Peristiany, Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1966;
These references may provide the non-professional lay reader with some insight into Arab culture and the effect which some of its characteristics impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations in particular, and the increasing clash between Islamic fundamentalism and Western democratic values in general. The references may assist in identifying the assumptions underlying decision-making in the Arab world and the manner in which they differ from the process in the West. A failure by the early Israeli leadership and by the American, European and British politicians and diplomats – especially the British – to understand these differences and take them into account has contributed significantly to the continuation of the Arab-Jewish conflict:
- Power within Arab society is structured upon tribal protocols and based upon family kinship by virtue of which members are to be protected against external attack and secured in their advancement beyond the family – (witness Saddam Hussein’s power in Iraq). Salzman expresses it thus:
“Arab culture addresses security through “balanced opposition” in which everybody is a member of a nested set of kin groups, ranging from very small to very large. These groups are vested with responsibility for the defense of each member and responsible for harm any member does to outsiders. If there is a confrontation, families face families, lineage faces lineage, clan faces clan, tribe faces tribe, confederacy faces confederacy, sect faces sect, and the Islamic community faces the infidels. Deterrence lies in the balance between opponents. Any potential aggressor knows that his target is not solitary or meagre but rather, at least in principle, a formidable formation much the same size as his.”
Balanced opposition is a “tribal” form of organization, a tribe being a regional organization of defense based on decentralization and self-help. Tribes operate differently from states, which are centralized, have political hierarchies, and have specialized institutions—such as courts, police, tax collectors, and an army—to maintain social control and defense. (Tribal DNA) (gma emphasis)
- In kinship or tribal group disputes with an outsider, success in attaining an objective or ambition by one family or group is viewed as a loss for or restriction upon the other. It is a zero-sum game because failure threatens tribal identity;
- Low level violence is an important mechanism of social control. It is proof of serious intention and the will to proceed in the group interest no matter what the rights or wrongs. If employed in retaliation immediately after an alleged offence, it acts as a deterrent against future attack;
- However, verbal threats of violence are used in Arab society to intimidate an adversary without necessarily ending in violence; there is a proclivity to substitute words for actions – a factor sometimes misunderstood in Western society;
- Leadership is achieved not by election but by the male acquisition of power, respect and authority arising out of conflict with and competition among contemporaries. Leadership is therefore constantly challenged. The power holder will mount challenges against other power holders within his own group and his equals in the region;
- Leaders maintain their positions by the creation of reciprocal relationships among their supporters. In return for financial largesse and the appointment of family, friends and close supporters to positions of power and wealth, the leader builds a network of personal obligations towards himself. It was in this manner that Yassir Arafat, supported by his Tunisian political dependants who accompanied him to Gaza in 1994, was able to control the political and commercial activities in the Palestinian populated territory. In contrast to Western society, meritocracy is not the acknowledged criterion for advancement in the Arab world. In fact, it may be the reverse, if it presents a challenge to the leader’s authority;
- In the Arab world, the acquisition of honour, pride, dignity and respect and the converse – avoidance of shame, disgrace and humiliation are major keys to Arab motivation and justification of conduct.
“First, fulfillment of obligations according to the dictates of lineage solidarity achieves honor. Second, neutral mediators who resolve conflicts and restore peace among tribesmen win honor. Third, victory in conflicts between lineages in opposition brings honor. Violence against outsiders is a well-worn path for those seeking honor. Success brings honor. Winners gain; losers lose. Trying, short of success, counts for nothing. In Middle Eastern tribal culture, victims are despised, not celebrated.”(Tribal DNA)
- The honour-shame axis is particularly important in Arab culture as is perceived arrogance on the part of an opponent who asserts a counter-claim or an unjustified claim to honour.
These may have been crucial factors which constrained both President Asad of Syria and Yasir Arafat from moving forward in their respective peace negotiations with Israel. Asad demanded an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines despite UN Resolution 242 to the contrary; Arafat was unable to retreat from the political position regarding the ‘Right of Return’ into which he had committed himself to the Palestinian masses.
Interestingly, Kedar’s recent research into the emotive and psychological elements of the speeches of Asad and others as published in the Syrian press, shows a consistent reference to the following psychological spectra: (see Chapter 6 especially)
- Honour versus Shame: manifested in expressions of interpersonal communication, greetings and in public behaviour such as hosting meetings, protocol positioning among leaders for photo shots at public gatherings and among their respective entourages. Shame on the other hand can only be expunged by revenge. Failure so to act results in the accrual of honour to the other side.
- “Honor for Arabs in the Middle East is a constant concern and worry, as it is easily challenged and lost. [I] can be increased by timely and effective action. …[The] quest for honor encourages or leads to offensive action by individuals or groups against others for [its] rewards … [R]elations…are shaped by the competition for honour” (Salzman p.107)
- Courage versus Fear: acts of bravery bring honour while fear expresses cowardice especially in war and discourages those who seek to escape the risks, hardships and losses which invariably follow.
- Tenacity versus Deference: tenacity in maintaining the legitimacy of Arab demands while its opponents – Israel - in making concessions defers to Arab supremacy.
- Loyalty versus Treachery: loyalty to the Arab nation and the need for its protection versus treachery for which the punishment is death.
They illustrate the remarkable difference in Arab cultural values and political postures from those expressed generally in the West and in Israel particularly.
In the resolution of a dispute, for example, the payment of compensation for injury caused by a victor and its acceptance by the victim brings honour to the victor and shame to the vanquished. Whereas in Western society, fair compensation for injury caused is accepted as being due on the merits of the case without the factor of shame entering the equation and having political consequences. This may to some degree explain why the Palestinian refugees have continued to refuse compensation and rehabilitation in preference to their continued assertion of a right of return. This has been exacerbated by most of the countries in which they reside where they have not been given opportunities to become assimilated – employment, ownership of property and citizenship (Saltzman interview 24.07.08)
- The Arab mind tends to give greater weight to wishes expressed in thought and speech than to what exists in reality; to what he wishes things to be, rather than to what they are objectively. (Patai, p.175)
- Kedar develops the last point – that what is wished in thought and speech becomes a major part of the reality in decision-making. He considers emotion, rather than logic, as playing a more important part in Arab society than in the West. Arab leaders choose their words not as a mere rhetorical device to win support, but as a bonding function between the ruler and the ruled. Leaders, such as Asad and Arafat, did not present themselves as the heads of government or revolutionary organisations.
“Rather [they are] the object of an emotional relation, as an older brother, a kindly father are revered teacher, a distinguished leader a source of pride and a model to emulate; and from there it is only a small step to “the sun of the nations”, infallible (ma’sum) like Mohammad the Prophet, or the eternal ruler by the Grace of God” (Kedar p. 208)
It may be fair to conclude that Arab audiences identify with their leaders, and in being persuaded by rhetoric tend to be less analytical and critical than a western audience when listening to speeches, promises and aspirations of their respective leaderships. If this is so, it goes some way to explaining why Arab political decision making tends to be consensual rather than confrontational, thus hiding the real divisions in society. However, even the emergence and creation of a clear cut opposition with an agenda different from the then ruling elites would not necessarily bring about a peaceful assumption of power were it to win an election. Position and power in Arab society does not purport to be based on meritocracy (as the West believes its system to be so based) but on family and tribal connections.
In comparing segmentary societies, such as those of the traditional Arabs, in contrast to complex Western societies,
“the [former] base order on a balance of coercive potential and effective force, each segment ready and able to mobilize and apply coercion in defense of its interests, and rely on the deterrent influence of a balance of force to maintain order. In these societies, [most] men are warriors, and all men must concern themselves with effectively applying coercion in defense of their interests. Facing a serious dispute or an injury, threatened or actual, the men of a segment mobilize to act militarily…”
[On the other hand,] complex societies, based on divisions of labor among specialized occupations, can support a state apparatus that claims to monopolize legitimate coercive force. Only agents of the state, such as police and soldiers, are authorized to apply coercion on behalf of the society at large, and self-help is outlawed. Weapons and skills training for coercion are largely restricted to agents of the state. Formal procedures are instituted to draw upon established codes for the peaceful resolution of disputes. Individuals in a conflict commonly turn to lawsuits rather than taking direction action. Thus most men in a complex society are not directly involved in the maintenance of order. Physical coercion by agents of the state is ideally restricted to the ultimate recourse and rarely should be applied.” (Salzman, Iron Law of Politics p.30)
This dichotomy is characteristic of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and raises the issue as to whether the two societies can ever peacefully coexist alongside each other without a considerable cultural shift in the traditional values of both.
For Arabs, power is decentralised and self-help provides the basis of security. The bearing of arms is an expression of masculine maturity and the right to resort to force is personal. The tribe helps provide for basic needs rather than the State, which is seen essentially as a herdsman who shears (taxes) rather than tends (provides services) his sheep (the civil population). The more remote state institutions are from him, the greater the Arab freedom to set his own priorities and needs – subject to those of his family, sect and tribe. For Arabs personal honour, freedom and equality reside outside the Rule of Law, rather than subject to it, and appear to be more important than peace. Indeed it is sometimes said that the underlying norm of Arab society is that of war with intermediate periods of peace
In contrast, for Jews tribal group-identity and allegiances do not generally exist. Peace has a higher value for them; it is imprinted as an intrinsic and continuous theme in Jewish prayers and daily language and it is a constant, with war being intermittent and even then only when thrust upon them. Although equality tends to be traded off in favour of personal freedom, communal obligations imposed by the central power of the State try to redress the imbalance between individuals. Conflict between individuals or between the rights of the individual and those of the State are resolved by independent courts of justice.
Traditionally the carrying of books rather than arms was the Jewish norm. To the extent that military training and weapons have become necessary for security, their provision and legal use resides in the exclusive control and authority of the State and is subject to its direction. So does the maintenance of the public peace and good order. For Israeli Jews, their political leadership is freely elected from among candidates who present themselves as being capable as well as being accountable to the electorate – at least in theory if not always in practice. If they fail to gain re-election, power and authority is transferred without violence to those who succeed to office. While the avoidance of personal humiliation and loss of face is important, it does not reach the same level as that in Arab society
Matters become more problematic when one of the societies advances its values with a greater religious consciousness than the other. An even greater chasm is created where the religious dogma of one group embraces death and martyrdom in support of its cause while the other views the sanctity of life as one of its highest values.
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