Thursday, April 16, 2009

Shame, the Arab, and Islam

[Excerpt from Dr. Sanity's]


This piece by David Gutmann is one of the best psychological analyses of shame and the Arab psyche I have read, and because it deals with something so critically important, I [Dr. Sanity] am going to quote a rather large [part of it]:

The Arab world is suffering a crisis of humiliation. Their armies are routed not only by Americans, but also by tiny, Jewish Israel; and as Arthur Koestler once remarked, the Arab world has not, in the last 500 years or so, produced much besides rugs, dirty postcards, elaborations on the belly-dance esthetic (and, of course, some innovative terrorist practices). They have no science to speak of, no art, hardly any industry save oil, very little literature, and portentous music which consists largely of lugubrious songs celebrating the slaughter of Jews.

Now that the Arabs have acquired national consciousness, and they compare their societies to other nations, these deficiencies become painfully evident, particularly to the upper-class Arab kids who attend foreign universities. There they learn about the accomplishments of Christians, Jews, (Freud, Einstein, for starters) and women. And yet, with the exception of Edward Said, there is scarcely a contemporary Arab name in the bunch. No wonder, then, that major recruitment to al-Qaeda's ranks takes place among Arab university students. And no wonder that suicide bombing becomes their tactic of choice: it is a last-ditch, desperate way of asserting at least one scrap of superiority—a spiritual superiority—over the materialistic, life-hugging, and ergo shameful West.

But this tactic is not, I suggest, a product of Islam. Rather, it is a product of the bruised Arab psyche. Remember that the Japanese also turned to suicide tactics in WWII to evade the humiliation of defeat. Though their religion was Shinto rather than Muslim, they too constituted a paradigm shame/honor culture, and defeat brought about, as with the Arabs, a furiously suicidal/homicidal response. After their armies had been defeated, their fleets sunk, their cities set aflame, and their home islands invaded, they launched the kamikaze bomber offensive, thereby committing a hi-tech form of hara-kiri, their usual remedy against intolerable shame. It is in this way that the modern Arab world resembles the Japan of World War II. In both cases it is not religions but psychic wounds, the wounds inflicted by defeat and evident inferiority, that inspire suicide bombers.

It is often asserted that the changes set in train by modernization are particularly toxic to the Arabs. No doubt this is true. But if we are going to be therapeutic, our diagnoses need to be more specific; we need to identify the particular pathogens that are released by modernization. Besides sharpening their sense of inferiority relative to the West, modernization threatens to bring about the liberation of women (as in Afghanistan and Iraq). I say "threatens," because the self-esteem of Arab males is in large part predicated on the inferior position of their women. The Arab nations have for the most part lost their slaves and dhimmis, the subject peoples onto whose persons the stigmata of shame could be downloaded. But anyone who has spent time among them knows that Arab males have not lost their psychological need for social and sexual inferiors. In the absence of slaves and captive peoples, Arab women are elected for the special role of the inferior who, by definition, lacks honor. Arab men eradicate shame and bolster their shaky self-esteem by imposing the shameful qualities of the dhimmi, submission and passivity, upon women. Trailing a humbled woman behind them, Arab men can walk the walk of the true macho man.

Hence the relative lack of material achievement by Arabs: the Arab world has stunted the female half of its brain pool, while the men acquire instant self-esteem not by real accomplishment, but by the mere fact of being men, rather than women. No wonder, then, that the Arab nations feel irrationally threatened by the very existence of Israel.

Like America, the Jews have brought the reality of the liberated woman into the very heart of the Middle East, into dar al-Islam itself. Big Satan and Little Satan: the champions of Muslim women.

I contend that female liberation is the most hopeful development in the Middle East, greater even than the first stirrings of democracy. I believe that Arab women have a greater stake in liberal democracy than Arab men, and as they acquire political power, they will fight for it.

As for suicide bombings, jihadism and the macho posturing of Arab men, they are desperate remedies against further humiliation, against the perceived threat of “castration,” by their own women. Until Arab women achieve freedom and independence, we can expect, at least for awhile, to see Arab men cling to these remedies.

Even then, some Arab men will probably backslide to even greater suicidal/homicidal tantrums. Others, (perhaps even a majority) no longer able to project their deficiencies onto Arab women, will begin to recognize the flaws in themselves. These converts would adopt the self-critical stance that is already showing up among some daring Arab intellectuals and even religious leaders. And when Arab men can no longer acquire instant self-esteem by demeaning their women, some of them might even turn to the arts of peace, and try to acquire the sense of self-worth via instrumental rather than illusory psychological means.We cannot, in the end, correct all the distortions of the Arab shame/honor ethos. But by pledging our support for Arab women's liberation—for instance, by advocating expanded liberties for women in the text of the new Iraqi constitution—we can hasten its erosion.

Gutmann takes pains to separate the toxic aspects of the Arab psyche from Islam. This is the only part of his argument that I do not find compelling.

it seems to me that the Arab psyche has had centuries to be slowly absorbed by Islam and that in many cases, and in most important aspects, the two are now inseparable. We can see this in the fact that even in Indonesia, Thailand and non-Arab locales where Islam has been embraced it retains both Arab misogyny and intolerance.

Alternatively, it might be argued, that Islam takes root and grows best when it is in the toxic nutrients of Arab-shame/honor cultures.

It is also important to remember that Mohammad himself was Arab and most of the Koran is pretty consistent with what is known about his personality and style.On the other hand, it is only in the fairly recent history of Islam (e.g. in the last century) that Islam appears to have fully embraced the subjugation of women under the guise of "protecting" them and preserving honor.

This earlier article by Gutmann also discusses shame in the Arab world:

In regard to military history, the Arab's preference for guerrilla over conventional war reflects a long tradition, one that began in antiquity, with the Bedouin raiders. Their way of war- brilliantly described by T.E. Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – is based on hit and run forays by camel-mounted Bedouin who appear suddenly out of the desert, tear up an unsuspecting enemy camp, and then disappear back into the waste, carrying "honorable" loot: thoroughbred horses, camels and women.The traditional Bedouin created a nearly pure "Shame" culture, whose goal was to avoid humiliation, and to acquire sharraf - honor. Thus, the goal of the Bedouin raid is not to finally win a war, for such inter-tribal conflict is part of the honorable way of life, and should never really end. The essential goals of the raid are to take wealth – not only in goods, but also in honor - and to impose shame on the enemy. Any opponent worth fighting is by definition honorable, and pieces of his honor can be ripped from him in a successful raid, to be replaced by figments of the attacker's shame. The successful attacker has "exported" some personal shame to the enemy, and the enemy's lost honor has been added to the raider's store.

This calculus of shame and sharraf is an important element in all Arab warfare, whether waged by Saddam Hussein, Yasir Arafat, or a Bedouin sheik. In particular, that same dynamic drives the Arab preference for irregular over conventional war.

Irregular tactics - spiced with Terror – have on occasion defeated regular armies; but win, lose, or draw in the military sense, terror tactics can be a far more efficient means of meeting psychological goals - i.e., shedding shame and capturing honor - than all-out war.

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Also see


Sex and Sexuality in Islam
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6

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