Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Western and Muslim concepts of honor create an unbridgeable cultural divide

By Aussiegirl

If we are to prevail in this war with fanatical and terrorist Islam, it is extremely important that we understand our enemy thoroughly, from his perspective, not from ours. It is futile to attempt to understand "root causes", a concept that even President Bush has subscribed to in the past, if we see those "root causes" through the prism of our own culture and understanding of human nature and values. In this sense, the oh-so-tolerant West, with its notion of cultural relativity and tolerance, completely misses the mark when it comes to comprehending what we are up against. In order to fully understand what we are dealing with we need to take the world view of the Muslim, and see the conflict from his point of view, not from our own. Unfortunately, this level of cultural relativity has not penetrated the prevailing mindset, which holds that not only are all men created equal, they all think the same, feel the same and see the world the same. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to East meeting West.

The last time the liberal West encountered this form of shame and honor culture was in WWII, when Americans faced the Japanese, to whom the concept of "face" was more important than life itself. It is why there were such huge casualties when we invaded the Pacific Islands and places like Iwo Jima, when wave after suicidal wave of Japanese kept coming, long after it made any strategic or tactical sense. It was better to die an honorable death, than to live a dishonorable life.

Similarly, Islamic culture is based on honor and shame, particularly when it concerns their women. Western societies in previous centuries lived by this honor code as witnessed by the numbers of duels fought over a lady's reputation or a perceived slight to her honor. Pushkin famously lost his life in a duel when he felt compelled to defend the honor of his flirtatious and foolish wife. Eventually, duels were outlawed in Western nations, although secret duels continued to be fought on many occasions.

Our own societies have moved beyond the culture of honor and shame and become societies based on the rule of law. Our disputes are settled in courts, not in blood feuds or acts of personal revenge -- unlike the Muslim culture, which approves of and even requires the avenging of a slight to honor or an insult to family or tribe. The West has been fighting this concept since as early as the days of Shakespeare -- indeed that is a great part of what Hamlet is about. Will he take the route of "honor", and avenge the murder of his father, or, will he take the more reasonable and intellectual route that his conscience dictates? His entire conflict can be summed up in the fact that Hamlet appears to be a more modern man than the age in which he finds himself, a man who has seen beyond the reflexive notions of honor and avenging death in a personal act of murder and retribution. He instead wrestles with his conscience and tries to arrive at a logical conclusion, while everyone around him acts without a second thought to carry out the sentence required by the code of honor -- as evidenced by Laertes, who without hesitation, undertook to avenge the deaths of Ophelia and Polonius. Falstaff himself (and here we can perhaps hear Shakespeare's opinion on the matter) derides honor as a mere "word" -- a concept which can as easily be ignored as being irrelevant to a full stomach . In another Shakespeare play, "Romeo and Juliet", Shakespeare again seems to be arguing against the ancient concepts of blood feuds, as the two families gather over the dead bodies of their respective children, and lament the catastrophe that misplaced defense of honor has wrought. Indeed, where would operas be without the concepts of an honor syste? The plot lines are replete with tenors filled with vengeance at the perceived infidelity of their beloveds, and the fighting of duels, etc. But obviously Western culture has moved beyond this kind of society, to one based on the rule of law.

In addition to honor and shame, and concomitant with it, comes the Muslim sense of manhood or manliness, which involves being capable of great violence and mayhem in defense of the family name or his religion. Our own concepts of tolerance seem hopelessly weak and pathetic to a culture such as this, and in no way makes us palatable to the Muslim male, who sees only weakness -- probably the weakness of a woman in our attempts to be compassionate and tolerant. So much for winning hearts and minds!

By extension, even the concepts of victory and defeat are turned on their heads. And what our generals portray as great victories, are seen by the Muslim as defeats. And what we see as defeats of the enemy, the Muslim sees as victory. Thus, Saddam Hussein was able to portray himself as a victor in the first Gulf War, merely because he survived. He took what the greatest military power on earth could mete out, and he emerged not only still standing, but still in power. Similarly, the Taliban did not feel defeated in Afghanistan, they merely staged a tatical retreat, knowing that when the time was right they could gain their victory by repeated sneak attacks and terrrorist raids and bombings. They do not see victory in terms of body counts, or territory gained or held, but merely in the fact that they know they will never give up and will keep harrassing and attacking and inflicting shame and casualties on the Great Satan.

In Iraq, Zarqawi and by extension Bin Laden feel that they have been victorious. They have succeeded in bogging down the American military, harrassing them, inflicting casualties and showing that they can take a licking and keep on ticking.

Our entire concepts of victory, defeat, honor and shame must be understood in this proper context, or we will never be able to conquer this mentality.

In addition, it would be prudent to note that gangs operate on this level as well, which is perhaps why Islam and gang and prison culture are finding themselves to be quite at home with one another. This is a disturbing trend as Islamic preachers find ready converts in the gang-ridden, criminal underclasses that populate our prisons. These criminal and gang subcultures, with their heavy emphasis on machismo and masculine concepts of honor and vengeance, find a comfortable fit with the tenets of Islam, in a way that perhaps the more peaceful and tolerant expressions of Christianity do not. Indeed, perhaps one reason we find to our consternation that Islam is making big inroads in converting large numbers of Hispanics is the Latino culture of machismo, which also finds much in common with the Islamic sense of maleness and virile domination and defense of family and clan.

We would be wise to take into account these cultural characteristics, and not make the mistake that the compassionate liberal makes -- which is that given enough understanding and tolerance, the other fellow will see your point of view, and come in the end, to be as tolerant as you. In a sense, this is the illogic of tolerance, it assumes that tolerance is the logical endpoint of all understanding and culture. It is not. And this hubris of liberal tolerance -- that in the end the ultimate expression of human understanding and development is to be tolerant of all points of view -- will be its ultimate downfall.




MORE THAN MERELY A WORDMore than merely a word

http://www.JewishWorldReview.com We're learning the hard way that the secular liberalizing forces that shape values in the West give us no protection from Islamist terror. The pride we take in our tolerance, our determination to fight fair, to look for the "root causes" of poverty, ignorance and oppression to explain the anger of the likes of Zacarious Moussaoui and the evil of Sept. 11 put us at peril. Most of the Sept. 11 terrorists grew up in middle-class comfort and knew neither poverty nor oppression.

Moussaoui, nurtured in the Islamic culture, became virulently and violently anti-American, contemptuous of the "soft" psychological and sociological interpretations Americans make of the Islamist enemy. He was even contemptuous of the two jurors who took into account his unhappy childhood, his father's hot temper and his hostile relationship with his mother as mitigating causes of his viciousness, and spared his life.

So what could honor have to do with it? For the Islamic terrorist, a lot. In a remarkable book tracing the significance of the concept of honor, James Bowman warns that to understand the jihadists it's essential to understand their definition of "honor" and "manhood." Honor, as they define it, is even more important than the dogma of their dogmatic religion. "It is natural enough in a culture like ours, informed by the psychotherapeutic revolution, to think even of geopolitics in terms of psychology and emotions," he writes in "Honor: A History." "But these are irrelevant in an honor culture." He cites Osama bin Laden to make his point.

"We believe that we are men, Muslim men who have the honor of defending Mecca," bin Laden told an al-Jazeera TV interviewer in 1998, sneering at "the weakness, feebleness and cowardliness of the U.S. soldier" when the Clinton administration withdrew from Somalia. Bin Laden has particular contempt for the "toughness" of the Americans who send women to war against men: "By G-d, Muslim women refuse to be defended by these American and Jewish prostitutes."

The tactics of the American interrogators who forced prisoners to wear women's panties as a humiliation tactic to break down their resistance offends Western sensibilities, but as an interrogation tactic the American interrogators understood the Islamist codes of honor. Offensive or not, it often worked.

President Bush was harshly criticized at home for offending "the Arab street" with the use of the word "crusade" to describe the mission in Iraq, but it did not occur to his critics that the use of female soldiers was far more offensive to the Arab culture and code of honor. Israeli women who fought against Arab armies in the war for Israeli independence in 1948, for example, suffered extraordinary casualties because the Arabs were determined not to lose to women.

Nothing feeds the rage of Islamic men more; they regard fighting women as a direct violation of their honor culture. Saddam Hussein understood that well and made specific allusions to honor in his speeches to the Iraqis before the invasion by the West, reminding them to "remember all the meaning of what makes a man at times like these, in which they preserve for their children and progeny a record of honor."

The "honor killings" by Muslim men of adulterous wives and liberated daughters in Europe, who replace the chador with blue jeans, is regarded in the West as evil divorced from any semblance of honor. But such killings nevertheless testify to the brutal rigidity of the Islamic code of honor, which is fundamentally an appeal to the natural modesty of women. Such ideas are not found in the Koran, where the killing of innocents is forbidden, but are rooted in a pre-Islamic culture that demanded the killing of women who "shamed" their men. Only later were these ideas codified in dogmatic Islam.

In the Arab world, David Pryce-Jones writes in National Review, such ideas of honor are the "social glue" that holds the society together. A high-profile public shame, like the Asian obsession with "saving face," must be maintained at any price. "Shame sears the soul and has to be wiped out and avenged in a public way that all can witness and appreciate ... That is the wellspring of the fanaticism we are witnessing."

Shakespeare's Falstaff famously said that honor was merely a "word." Perhaps, but it's a word with many meanings. If we want to succeed in our mission to the Middle East, we had better get on with understanding all those meanings.

9 Comments:

At 7:04 PM, Anonymous Pindar said...

Aussiegirl, this excellent analysis of yours gave me a lot to think about. In particular I was struck by your idea of why Hispanics are drawn to Islam. Here's the prize quote from your article: the mistake that the compassionate liberal makes -- which is that given enough understanding and tolerance, the other fellow will see your point of view, and come in the end, to be as tolerant as you. In a sense, this is the illogic of tolerance, it assumes that tolerance is the logical endpoint of all understanding and culture. It is not. And this hubris of liberal tolerance -- that in the end the ultimate expression of human understanding and development is to be tolerant of all points of view -- will be its ultimate downfall. You have pinpointed the basic superiority feeling of the tolerant liberal, who seeks to draw all the benighted ones up to his level. It is also the viewpoint of one who can't believe that evil exists, and that no amount of argument could change the evil to good.

 
At 12:51 AM, Anonymous verity said...

Liberals always assume that if we just 'reach out' and offer understanding, our sensitivity will be reciprocated.
It seems that western liberals are really the only people who have the unshakeable belief that we are all the same under the skin; that culture doesn't matter. Of course the Islamics and the Latinos know that culture does matter, and that there are differences that we ignore at our peril.

 
At 4:04 PM, Anonymous Jimjax said...

Aussiegirl, I think you underestimate the level of similar honor systems here in the US. There is a genetic component to the process: men are hardwired to defend their family and womenfolk using whatever violence is needed. This drive is perhaps culturally diminished in the more learned and educated, but still thrives in those less blessed with educational and acculturization opportunities. I would also argue that it is a primary force in the compulsion to defend this country by those who enlist. So we who stay home are benefitting from this ongoing American honor system. This is the good side of such an honor system.

The less-good side appears in the 2005 movie "Sin City" which was all about this honor culture albeit in cartoonish format. The male heroes endeavored to defend the honor of their love interests while the women were displaying the "showy sexuality of the lower class" to put a good face on things. Set in the underclass culture of thuggish boyfriends and exotic dancers and prostitutes, it emphasized how this primitive honor system continues in the more primitive levels of our culture, driving the murder rate up in poorer neighborhoods.

 
At 4:40 PM, Blogger Liberty said...

Aussiegirl,

Your unique experience with the enemy without and the enemy within salts the wounds of naive, illiberalism, mutated today from the classic liberal founding of the U.S. Will they admit to the true smarts smarting?

The question for today's illiberals (busy now legitimizing the illigitimate as they turn our country over to illegal codependents for their Nanny State; therefore, incapable of a coherent answer)is:

What would be the result of tolerating intolerance? While they're busy, you and I can span the globe of possibilities: logically, culturally, spiritually, economically...the vasty deep, the ultima thule.

Next, we can be honorably fit enough to ask: does unquestioned allegiance--submission, if you will--to God, by whatever name Man grants Him, dishonor God? cf. The Garden of the big hurt and think about it from God's point of view, cultural relativists.

Furthermore, does honor involve more than a brute force for blood sport? Would it involve, instead, a resilience of mind that God imbued and expects from his offspring, along with sufficient humor and at minimum a survivor's splotch of mercy so that God's patience might not be tried to the core by some tiresome, brutish, brittle-brained devil-boys masquerading as real, honorable men who would, by contrast, be up to the in-born charge of salvation's grace?

Lady Liberty
~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 
At 4:17 AM, Blogger Chris said...

I'm only halfway through reading this, and have to comment. You wrote:

"Our own societies have moved beyond the culture of honor and shame and become societies based on the rule of law."

Not in the ghetto, it hasn't. There is still a culture that will shoot someone for a perceived "dis" today, and it is popular.

Shame has been lost in the popular "ghetto" culture, and so-called "main stream" culture. You are right on that part.

Speaking of "shameless," check out LEAVWORLD: GRAFFITI POLITTI. I think that you might appreciate my worldview, though I'm not quite as eloquent as you are.

 
At 4:19 AM, Blogger Chris said...

I forgot to say, EXCELLENT POST!

 
At 4:11 PM, Anonymous KarenT said...

Another way to look at societies is as "shame-based" or "guilt-based". In the West, we tend toward the latter. When either honor or guilt is taken to extremes, or when either takes precedence over other ethical values, societies suffer.

Where the rule of law prevails, it is because of broad agreement on certain ethical values which take precedence over personal honor. But the rule of law can become perverted by an excessive sense of collective guilt which encourages laws transferring responsibility away from those who commit crimes to "the larger society", to "the previleged", to "the deep pockets", etc.

Where humility and adherence to higher ethical values precede the earning of a specific honor or recognition, I think there is a place for it in society, especially when teaching children. And an appropriate sense of guilt can be motivating rather than paralyzing.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the "self-esteem movement" in American education is that many people lack self-esteem in our guilt-based society, We sometimes are made to feel guilty for feeling good when we we have done something particularly well. However, it has been found that children and teens who engaged in anti-social behavior already had more self-esteem (un-earned) than they needed. They are also naturally short on a sense of guilt. It is even possible to jettison both appropriate shame and guilt in our therapeutic culture.

One of the things which we in the West have a hard time understanding is that a focus on maintaining an honorable reputation for one's family, religion or countrymen can lead people to reject the obvious. For example, when that Egyptian pilot crashed his airliner a few years ago, the idea of a good Muslim Egyptian man doing such a thing was so unthinkable that all sorts of conspiracy theories were hatched in Egypt to explain the crash.

In the West, however, this seemed dishonorable. Many of us have a different sense of honor, where admitting that one of our countrymen did something hideous is seen as a strength, rather than a weakness. Many of us see adherence to ethical values (i.e., telling the truth) as more honorable than mindless defense of the honor of those in our group who behave dishonorably or stupidly.

My husband works in a prison. Prison gangs do, indeed, operate on the basis of avoiding shame and maintaining honor. However, they at least tend not to deny stupidity on the part of one of their 'homies'. They not infrequently abandon or turn on a fellow gang member who violates their own code of honor.

 
At 11:04 PM, Blogger David Porta said...

AussiegirlQUOTE
Indeed, where would operas be without the concepts of an honor system? The plot lines are replete with tenors filled with vengeance at the perceived infidelity of their beloveds, and the fighting of duels, etc. But obviously Western culture has moved beyond this kind of society, to one based on the rule of law.
AussiegirlUNQUOTE

Western culture has moved beyond this? Mississippi? Alabama? Or, Dixie, generally?

Statistically, in New York, you are much more likely to be murdered by a stranger than by someone you know.

Statistically, in The South, you are much more likely to be murdered by someone you know than by a stranger.

"Honor" is HUGE in The South. Maybe that is why they are so much more polite in The South than up North. If you give offense, there may be blood to pay. (Whereas, in New York, at the drop of a hat folks will tell you, "Go to hell." At the drop of the same hat, in Alabama, they are more likely to tell you, "Well, bless you're heart.")

AussiegirlQUOTE
These criminal and gang subcultures, with their heavy emphasis on machismo and masculine concepts of honor and vengeance, find a comfortable fit with the tenets of Islam, in a way that perhaps the more peaceful and tolerant expressions of Christianity do not.
AussiegirlUNQUOTE

So, what is the difference between the "honor / machismo" culture of the Moslem world, and the "honor / machismo" culture of Latin America?

Well, a quick answer to that is, "Different religion."

But, as Protestantism has made great inroads among the entrepreneurial working class in Latin America in the past 30 years, Latin American governments, in concert with the Catholic Church, have taken steps to thwart Protestantism.

So, maybe a better quick answer would be, "No suicide bombers."

Honor is a good thing. Honor without morality and the rule of law is the problem.

That a culture of murderous fanatics is a culture rooted in honor is not a judgement on honor, any more than that Germany gave rise to the Third Reich is a judgement on western culture and civilization.

The culture of murder in the Mideast and in Africa idolizes the Third Reich. That is a judgement on the culture of murder.

It isn't about the culture of honor. It *is* about the culture of murder.

 
At 8:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, I find your wife's, aussiegirl, post to be quite insightful. For years, particularly as an Intelligence-Security-Reconnaissance officer in the USAF, I have argued that fundamental differences in worldviews place a chasm between Western Civilization and Islam that can only end with the defeat of one of them, and that I believed that on our present course it would be the West that would submit to either Dhimmitude, slavery, or death, the only options available to non-Muslims in an Islamic world.

With the ascension of the Obama/Reid/Pelosi liberal socialist triumvirate I believe that we will submit to Dhimmitude as Spain essentially has done rather that state that our way of life (as envisioned by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) is worth fighting or dying for.

So for those living in the Eastern US I suggest buying a prayer rug and learning the direction of Mecca; in the West they should learn Spanish in order to submit to Aztlan. The dream of a democratic Republic under the rule of Constitutional law that would be a beacon of hope to the world is an anachronism.

 

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