The Origins of the Current Violent Collision Between Arab and Western Cultures
As suicide bomb attacks become almost commonplace, planned and delivered by any of a number of extremist organizations who seem to harbour a virulent hatred of the West, we are forced to ask what it is that we in the West have done to ignite such a furious response? After all we don't hate the Arabs. The Crusades have been history for a thousand years. We are happy to recognise the Arab sovereign states and we are happy to pay the price they set for their oil. So why do they seem to hate us so much? It is a question that deserves a little thought.
It is as well to be clear here about what I mean by 'Arab culture'. The Afghans are not Arabs. The Pakistanis are not Arabs. The average Iraqi would be insulted if he was called an Arab. So why do I talk about 'Arab' culture even though the Taliban and various other terror organizations whose bitter hatred is focused on the West, come from countries that are not populated by ethnic Arabs? It is because they have embraced the Arab culture centred on the Muslim faith, the Arabic (or Persian) language and Arabic customs. So, there is a broadly shared culture which is spread wider than the Arab League and that is how I use the term.
It has been said that the ignorance of the Arab culture in the West is only exceeded by the ignorance of the Western culture by the Arabs. Their excuse is a much lower standard of education than is enjoyed in the West, coupled with a provincialism that stems from subsistence level poverty in generally agricultural communities. So what is the excuse of the West?
There is a pervasive sense in the West that our culture is superior to all other cultures on the planet. A thousand years of political development has meant that Western countries are democratic states of one form or another. It is considered a self-evident truth that this has to be the best and fairest way of running a country, so everybody should be like us. Our moral and intellectual values stem from the Bible and a generally Christian religious background. The runaway success of our Western Culture shows that the values and morals we generally espouse must be superior, so everybody should be like us. There is no need for us to learn about other cultures.
This viewpoint was at its strongest in the Victorian era, when the last great phase of empire building by Western nations and proselytising by Christian missionaries was at its height, and which was justified by such attitudes. Although such a Western Culture centred viewpoint started to be questioned in the West during the 1920s, firstly by anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict in her ground breaking book, "A Pattern of Cultures", the afterglow of that viewpoint is with us still when assessing cultures different from our own.
And the Arab culture is very different from Western culture. While Christianity and Judaism are religions based on revelations handed down by God, the absolutism in adherence to 'the word' that held sway in the West a thousand years ago has gradually evolved due to social pressures and a greater knowledge of the world about us. This means that the truths contained in religious texts are seen as correct because they agree with our understanding of nature, not the other way around. The Koran is also a revealed text, in this case to the Prophet Mohammed by his God, Allah. But the Arab world, by contrast, has remained absolutist and fatalistic.
I recall a friend who spent a short time as a lecturer in physics at the University of Teheran in Iran, and who asked a student why it was that electrons circled around the nuclei of atoms? The student shrugged his shoulders and replied, "It is the will of Allah." This automatic refrain has held at bay the intellectually more challenging concept of cause and effect in understanding the workings of the world; both in its natural processes and in the development of a philosophical framework concerning what is right and wrong. Where Allah moves the chess pieces of life according to His whim, where is the need for an ordered logic on how the Great Game should proceed?
The notion of politicians as servants of the people, who should not take advantage of their privileged position, is based on Christian ideals and is alien to the Arab mind. Tyranny and despotism are accepted as being ordained from on high, and maintained by a sullen jealousy of those who wield the rod by those who suffer under it.
The other great difference is the principle of shame and honour which is used to justify conduct in Arab culture. This deeply embedded cultural trait is often ascribed to the Islamic religion, but actually long pre-dates the Muslim epoch. One result is that lying and cheating - morally reprehensible in the West - is perfectly acceptable in the Arab mind as a means of avoiding shame. The lie to avoid the shame of having to admit to a wrong deed, or stealing/cheating to avoid being shown up as inferior to another by virtue of wealth or ability. So, it follows that there is no shame in relieving another of the surplus cash he obviously does not need at that moment, as there would be in the West. The shame is actually in the fact that another has more surplus wealth that you, and that shame must be neutralised to maintain your honour! A more disturbing example (to the Western mind) is what can happen if a girl turns down a proposal of marriage. There have been well publicised cases where the deep shame of such a rejection is erased by throwing battery acid into the face of the girl, so making her unworthy of a proposal of marriage from anybody else. A complex system of marriage brokers and arranged marriages serves to avoid such scenarios.
But the most extreme manifestation is the shame that pulses ever present in the background of Arab culture, regarding the invasive success of Western culture in their own lands. A thousand years ago, the Arab world was the centre of learning and the repository of wisdom. Europe was a cultural backwater, just crawling out of the Dark Ages and blinking at the brilliance of Ancient Greece, whose achievements were conveyed and significantly added to in Arab texts. But today, the pervasiveness of Western cars, phones, TVs, luxury goods, and even most domestic goods - by design if not manufacture - means that Arabs are immersed in a sea of physical chattels and philosophical ideals that are not their own. Their impact on present-day Western Culture, by contrast, is insignificant. Name the last Arab Nobel Prize winner, or an Arab conductor of a Western symphony orchestra?
Of course, for the vast majority of Arabs - as in the West - the limited ambition of getting through the day, of putting bread on the table and keeping a roof over their head, is quite enough. But there are undoubtedly a few for whom this deep and humiliating shame of Arab culture demands a response. The tenth century poet, al-Mutanabbi wrote, "High honour is not safe from injury unless blood is spilt on its flanks." Only the shedding of blood will allow these few to have honour in their own eyes once again.