Observations on Arabs

SINCE THE BEGINNING OF THE IRAQ phase of this conflict of civilizations, I've experienced the teeth-grinding frustration of watching both pro- and anti- Iraq sides make the exact same mistake—that of supposing that these people are bascially Americans in funny costumes. In this respect, George Bush and Michael Moore are equally clueless, as was Jill Carroll apparently.

I went to live and work in Saudi Arabia in 1998, and I "made my year" as expats there put it. That phrase means that I actually stuck out the whole year, instead of "running" from my contract, an occurrence so common that you only have to say "he did a runner" to explain why someone isn't showing up for work anymore. And while my experience wasn't nearly as unpleasant as Jill Carroll's, I could have told her a thing or two before she went to Iraq armed with her overflowing good will.

In the case of the Kingdom, I went there with a certain sympathy for Arab grievances, a belief that America had earned a lot of hostility from "blowback" from our ham-handed interventionist foreign policy and support for Israel etc. I came back with the gloomy opinion that over the long run we are going to have to hammer these people hard to get them to quit messing with Western Civilization. And by the way, among "rational, fair-minded" non-interventionist libertarians, not a damn one of them has asked me, "What in your experience caused you to change your mind?" Instead what I get are gratuitous insults followed by insufferably condescending lectures about how wrong I am. So, with the caveat that one of the first things I learned was that the term "Arab" covers a lot of territory, here are some observations and some tentative conclusions about Arabs, more specifically about Arabs from the oil states about why we have misunderstood each other to the point that we are fighting a war with some of them and are pissing off the rest of them. I suspect that many of these also apply to Iranian Islamists, but I have never been there and note that Iranians are not Arabs and have a different cultural history.

1) They don't think the same way we do.

No, I mean THEY REALLY DON'T THINK THE SAME WAY WE DO. Yes, yes, I know we are all human and share the same human nature (perhaps the most disastrous mistake of Marxism was the denial of this elementary fact). But within the scope of that shared human nature, there are a lot of different ways to be human. We Americans have a basically open attitude to our fellow human beings and sometimes forget this. Combined with the fact that most Americans are linguistic idiots, we tend to assume that anyone who learns to speak English learns to think like us.

2) When you meet them in just the right circumstances, they are a very likable people.

Arabs are often easy to like, but difficult to respect - as opposed to Israelis, who are often difficult to like but impossible not to respect. From their nomadic heritage they have a tradition of generosity and hospitality to guests that warms the heart. This does not in the least affect the fact that no friendship with you is ever going to remotely equal the obligations they have for their family, tribe or the community of the Believers.

3) Their values are fundamentally different from ours, their self-esteem is derived from a different source.

And you know what? Theirs is PHONY. Yes I know, I'm making a cultural value judgment, the cardinal sin when I was a grad student in Anthropology. With us, the most important sources of self-esteem are useful work and the love of a good woman. Being good at something that requires skill (even a hobby) and being of primary importance to somebody just because you are who you are. Work for them, is something to be avoided. The basic forms of work: making stuff, growing stuff and moving stuff around, is taken care of by a class of indentured servants, usually non-Arab Muslims from the Third World, and even today, by outright slaves. The Kingdom is a modern country, they abolished slavery in 1967, but old expats have reported seeing slave auctions as late as 1981. The point being, in a slave society, work is not honorable (as De Tocqueville pointed out) and cannot be a source of self-worth.

"Of conjugal love they know nothing." (Thomas Jefferson on the French aristocracy.) In a land of arranged marriages, where the whole society is geared towards a strict segregation of the sexes and women are at least semi-chattels, romantic love is rare—and greatly desired. In the Kingdom I found a few students with a consuming interest in romantic poetry, whom I had to teach very discretely. Most of them were just obsessed with sex however. And interestingly, when visiting the West or the fleshpots of Bahrain, they are said to have a tendency to fall in love with the prostitutes they patronize.

Without honorable work, romantic love or any accomplishments not overshadowed by those the West, their sense of self-worth comes from being the possessors of the One True Religion. And Allah doesn't seem to be delivering on his promises of being exalted above the unbelievers these days.

4) Not only can they not build the infrastructure of a modern society, they can't maintain it either.

The very concept of "maintenance" is foreign to them. This is what drives the foreign instructors in the Gulf absolutely mad. The per capita richest countries in the world resemble Eastern Europe or Latin America in the tackiness and run-down appearance of the buildings and streets. An electronics technician new to the Kingdom once told me how his first job was to inspect a junction box in the desert. He had to pry it open with a crowbar as it had evidently not been opened since it had been installed several years earlier.

This is expressed in the inshallah philosophy, "If God wills it." A Palestinian friend of mine explained to me that even the weather forecaster will qualify his prediction, "It will rain tomorrow. Inshallah." Or, "I will meet you tomorrow, inshallah." (But God understands that I am a very unreliable person.)

5) They do not think of obligations as running both ways.

With us, contractual and moral obligations tend to be equal and reciprocal. They don't see it that way. The obligations of the superior to the inferior do not equal those of the inferior to the superior. Obligations within a family or clan outweigh all others. That is why we had to take care not to sit members of the same clan near each other during exams. If one asks another for help, he has to give it. In spite of promises to the school and even when the clansman is a total stranger. Obligations to other believers outweigh all obligations to unbelievers and especially when the believers are fellow-Arabs. And in contracts with unbelievers, the obligations of the Believer to the kaffir are not equal to the obligations of the kaffir to the Believer.

6) In warfare, we think they are sneaky cowards, they think we are hypocrites.

In our civilization, when two men get down, either seriously or just "woofing", what do they say? Some variation of "I'm going to kick your ass." Am I right? Here's what I heard in the Kingdom, "Hey, don't f**k with me, or someday you get a knife in the back." I'm not saying that wouldn't happen to you in the West, but most men would be ashamed to make a threat of that nature. We don't understand that direct shock battle is not necessarily the law of nature. When overwhelming force is brought to bear on them, they become cringing and obsequious. To put it bluntly, they lie their heads off to get you to turn your back on them. Try to see it from their point of view—how else do you expect them to act when you have the overwhelming force? You expect them to meet you on equal terms when the situation is so unequal? What other tactics are available but prevarication and delay followed by a sneak attack? Folks, what we call "terrorism" is quite close to the historically normal way of warfare among these people.

7) In rhetoric, they don't mean to be taken seriously and they don't understand when we do.

Thus an ultimatum is often not taken seriously and the reality comes as a surprise. Remember the "Mother of all Battles"? Like many other Mediterranean peoples, Arabs don't seem to mind making a scene in public and have a high blown sense of drama. Paul Harvey once described how he had spent the Suez Crisis hiding under the bed in his hotel room because of the blood-curdling radio broadcasts, before he learned that Arabs talk like that when they're arguing over a taxi. "This is my taxi and I will defend it to the death!" "You lie, it's mine and rivers of blood will flow in the street before I give up my taxi!"

An Arab will scream at you, get into your personal space and sometimes kick dirt on your shoe—and they react with utter surprise when an American up and decks him. "What did I do?" To say the least, this makes negotiations difficult.

8) They don't place the same value on an abstract conception of Truth as we do, they routinely believe things of breathtaking absurdity.

I cannot begin to tell you of some of the things I've heard from Gulf Arabs or read in the English language press in the Kingdom. "The Jews want Medina back." (Medina was a Jewish city in the time of the Prophet.) The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has been turned into an immensely popular miniseries on Egyptian TV. The Blood Libel (the medieval myth that Jews need the blood of non-Jewish babies to celebrate Passover) is widely reported in the Arab press, and widely believed. Allah will replenish the oil beneath Arabia when it runs out.

9) They do not have the same notion of cause and effect as we do.

This involves some seriously weird stuff about other people being responsible for their misery because they ill-wished them. I've read in the English-language press of the Kingdom serious admonitions against using Black Magic to win an advantage in a dispute with a neighbor. The columnist did not deny the efficacy of Black Magic, he just said it's forbidden to use it. On one occasion I was trying to explain the concept of "myth" to them and I used the example of the djinn. I wasn't getting through to them at all and was concerned that I had mangled the pronunciation of the word when it dawned on me that the reason they didn't understand what I was getting at, was that they had no doubt that the djinn were real.

10) We take for granted that we are a dominant civilization still on the way up. They are acutely aware that they are a civilization on the skids.

Anyone who looks at the surviving architecture of Moorish Spain can tell that Islamic civilization has seen better days. There was a time when cultural transmission between Islam and the West went overwhelmingly from them to us. (Note the recent discoveries of Sufi symbols engraved on the structural members of European cathedrals.) Now the situation is reversed, and it is humiliating for them.

11) We think that everybody has a right to their own point of view, they think that an idea (outside the MullahÕs) is not only self-evidently absurd, but evil.

In the West, and America more than anyplace else, we have internalized the notion that everyone has a right to their own opinion, and that said opinion is perfectly valid for them. When we meet a people who think that an idea is insane and evil, we are sometimes left in the absurd position of defending their idea as "perfectly valid for them". Doesn't work that way for them, God's Truth is laid out in some detail in the Koran, and not to believe it is a sin.

12) Our civilization is destroying theirs. We cannot share a world in peace. They understand this; we have yet to learn it.

Another culturally-imposed blindness we have is the notion that everybody can get along with enough good will. There is absolutely no evidence to support this and a great deal to oppose it. Can the subjugation of women coexist with Western Civilization with Western media ubiquitous throughout the world? Can a pluralistic and tolerant society be governed by Islamic law? Can a modern economy exist where interest is forbidden and many forms of business risk-taking are considered gambling, and thus forbidden? Can a society that educates its young men by a process of rote recitation produce critically thinking, technically educated men to build and operate a modern economy? Can you even teach elementary concepts of maintenance to a people who believe that anything that happens is inshalla (As God will it)? To compete, or even just survive in the world they must become more like us and less like themselves—and they know this.

Steve Browne
August 22, 2006

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