But the problem goes far beyond Israel and her neighbors. As anyone paying attention knows, the Salafi-Jihadis, who have “hijacked” Islam the world over, embody this self-same honor-shame mentality in its harshest form: the existential drama of humiliate or be humiliated, rule or be ruled, exterminate or be exterminated. Dar al Islam must conquer dar al Harb; independent infidels (harbis) must be spectacularly brought low, their women raped; Islam must dominate the world … or vanish. The language of Shia and Sunni Jihadis alike reverberates with the sounds of honor, plunder, dominion, shame, humiliation, misogyny, rage, vengeance, conspiracy, and paranoid fear of implosion.
By Richard Landes:
Anthropologists and legal historians have long identified certain tribal cultures—warrior, nomadic—with a specific set of honor codes whose violation brings debilitating shame. The individual who fails to take revenge on the killer of a clansman brings shame upon himself (makes him a woman) and weakens his clan, inviting more open aggression. In World War II, the United States sought the help of anthropologists like Ruth Benedict to explain the play of honor and shame in driving Japanese military behavior, resulting in both intelligence victories in the Pacific Theater and her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Taking her lead, the great classicist E.R. Dodds analyzed the millennium-long shift in Greek culture from a “shame” culture to a “guilt” culture in his Greeks and the Irrational, where he contrasted a world in which fame and reputation, rather than conscience and fear of divine retribution, drive men to act.
But even before literary critic Edward Saïd heaped scornon “honor-shame” analysis in Orientalism (1978), anthropologists had backed off an approach that seemed to make inherently invidious comparisons between primitive cultures and a morally superior West. The reception of Saïd’s work strengthened this cultural relativism: Concerns for honor and shame drive everyone, and the simplistic antinomy “shame-guilt cultures” must be ultimately “racist.” It became, well, shameful in academic circles to mention honor/shame and especially in the context of comparisons between the Arab world and the West. Even in intelligence services, whose job is to think like the enemy, refusing to resort to honor/shame dynamics became standard procedure.
Any generous person should have a healthy discomfort with “othering,” drawing sharp lines between two peoples. We muddy the boundaries to be minimally polite: Honor-killings, for example, are thus seen as a form of domestic violence, which is also pervasive in the West. And indeed, honor/shame concerns are universal: Only saints and sociopaths don’t care what others think, and no group coheres without an honor code.
But even if these practices exist everywhere, we should still be able to acknowledge that in some cultures the dominant voices openly promote honor/shame values and in a way that militates against liberal society and progress. Arab political culture, to take one example—despite some liberal voices, despite noble dissidents—tends to favor ascendancy through aggression, the politics of the “strong horse,” and the application of “Hama rules”—which all combine to produce a Middle East caught between prison and anarchy, between Sisi’s Egypt and al-Assad’s Syria. Our inability, however well-meaning, to discuss the role of honor-shame dynamics in the making of this political culture poses a dilemma: By keeping silent, we not only operate in denial, but we may actually strengthen these brutal values and weaken the very ones we treasure.
Few conflicts offer a better place to explore these matters than the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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