A culture of honor vs. a culture of law

By Vic Rosenthal

Some questions about the Arab-Israeli conflict and a possible answer:

Why do attempts to compromise with the Palestinians, such as the Camp David proposal, always fail?

Why have the Palestinians chosen terrorism as their preferred means to their political ends? Sometimes it seems as though the violence is an end in itself, and is even counterproductive.

Why is it so hard for Jews and Arabs to understand each other?

I think the answers to these questions lie in the importance of the related concepts of honor and shame in the Arab culture, which is a “culture of honor”.

Here is one explanation of this concept:

One can contrast cultures of honour with cultures of law. In a culture of law there is a body of laws which must be obeyed by all, with punishments for transgressors. This requires a society with the structures required to enact and enforce laws. A culture of law incorporates an unwritten social contract: members of society agree to give up most of their rights to defend themselves and retaliate for injuries, on the understanding that transgressors will be apprehended and [punished. Cultures of] honour typically appear among nomadic peoples and herdsmen who carry their most valuable property with them and risk having it stolen, without having recourse to law enforcement or government. In this situation, inspiring fear forms a better strategy than promoting friendship; and cultivating a reputation for swift and disproportionate revenge increases the safety of one’s person and property. Thinkers ranging from Montesquieu to Steven Pinker have remarked upon the mindset needed for a culture of honour.

Cultures of honour therefore appear among the Bedouins, Scottish and English herdsmen of the Border country, and many similar peoples, who have little allegiance to a national government…

Once a culture of honour exists, it is difficult for its members to make the transition to a culture of law; this requires that people become willing to back down and refuse to immediately retaliate, and from the viewpoint of the culture of honour, this tends to appear to be an unwise act reflecting weakness. [emphasis mine] – Wikipedia (based on Pinker)

Note that honor in such a culture inheres not in the subject, but rather in the opinions held by others about the subject, since these are what determine his ability to protect himself and his property. In an honor culture, an attempt to take a man’s property (women generally are property, they don’t have it) must be met with an immediate, usually violent response not so much to recover the property as to protect himself by reputation against further depredations – he must defend his honor.

Closely related to honor is its absence or loss, shame or humiliation. And like honor, it is important to see that shame also inheres in external opinions about the subject.

Honor in relation to female relatives is highly sensitive, and sometimes minor transgressions – or, because of the external nature of honor and shame, merely rumored or suspected transgressions – result in the murder of the woman involved by her own family members, who have no other way to wipe away the shame that accrues to the family because of what others think. Such “honor killings” are prevalent in the Palestinian territories and even among the relatively well-educated Israeli Arabs.

One of the characteristics of honor is that even a small loss cannot be tolerated. There is a Bedouin story (I am still looking for the source) about a rich man who allows someone to steal something of little value from him, on the grounds that it’s not worth the confrontation. Soon the thief, emboldened, has taken the man’s camels, and then the formerly rich man finds himself sleeping in the sand as the thief has taken possession of everything, including his tent and his wife. The moral of the story is obvious.

We can see why compromise is unthinkable when honor is involved. Once you lose your honor, you can lose everything. No one will be afraid of you, and they can take everything, including your life.

Consider the Jewish and Arab experience. Ashkenazi Jews, at least, have been living in closely regulated societies for hundreds of years, where there were well-developed systems of laws and mechanisms for adjudicating disputes and punishing criminals. Their society is imbued with the ideas of the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch in which law is supreme over individual actions. Theirs is a “culture of law”.

Arabs, on the other hand, have a tradition that reveres the independent nomad, who sweeps across the desert, gaining honor by raiding other tribes. Some are only a few generations from actually living in this manner. This “culture of honor” sees violent action as the only appropriate, manly, response to humiliation in any form. David L. Guttman explains how Arab methods of warfare, including terrorism, spring naturally from this culture:

This calculus of shame and sharraf [honor] 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. Here are some reasons:

First off, guerrilla warfare is the only form of combat in which Arab fighters regularly outperform the West. Little wonder then that irregular conflict, blended with terrorism, has always been the default military option for the Arabs, and one which they eagerly take up after their regular armies have been humiliated in the field. Thus, the Palestinians, backed by the whole Arab world, turned to terrorism after the calamitous defeat of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies in the Six-Day’s War, their fantasy being that the Fedayeen would redeem Arab honor and give Allah another chance to crush the Jews.

Secondly, In terms of spiritual as against purely military goals, the irregular fighter never really loses. At the battle’s end Goliath may own the bloody field, but David the stripling is always the moral victor. By crushing David, Goliath only adds to his own shame; and even if he loses, David always adds to his honor. For if David falls, his honor can never be smirched or stolen; and as a martyr he casts irrevocable shame on those who killed him.

Thirdly, the terrorist’s actions have the effect of imposing shame on the same enemy whose people he kills. A major aim of terrorist operations is to bring about the symbolic emasculation of the enemy’s military and civilian populations. Thus, as the enemy non-combatants give in to their fear of terror attacks and huddle passively at home, they become vulnerable to the terrorist’s boast, recently broadcast by Hamas: “We will win, because the Jews love life too much, while we love death.” At this point, the terrorist has succeeded in multiple ways: Insult has been added to injury, and his enemies have been psychologically castrated, symbolically re-gendered into women.

Unfortunately, most Westerners, particularly Jews, coming from a culture of law, simply cannot understand the culture of honor. They do not understand, for example, that the enormous humiliation of the nakba of 1948, when the Jews (allegedly) dispossessed the Arabs from their land, can’t possibly be removed by the compromise of a two-state solution. Nor can the humiliation dealt out in the wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973 be banished by a treaty. And the constant reminders of who is ruling whom dealt out daily in the territories can’t possibly be overcome by rational arguments about why checkpoints are necessary for security!

Arab leaders know this well, and make use of it. The power of the conception that the Jews are ‘humiliating’ the Arabs, so carefully presented over and over in exactly these terms is so great, that appeals to historical accuracy and pragmatic problem-solving are woefully inadequate.

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