Essays - Winter 2005

What We Got Wrong

How Arabs look at the self, their society, and their political institutions

By Lawrence Rosen | December 1, 2004


Two recent studies attempt to account for the Arab world’s apparent failure to keep pace with the economic, political, and scientific innovations of the West. Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? focuses on Muslim fears that foreign contacts and governmental entanglement might lead to a loss of faith, while the United Nations’ second annual Arab Human Development Report emphasizes Arabs’ lack of individual freedom and their fear that social chaos may result from questioning their own most basic assumptions. For all the insights they afford, however, neither study focuses on the deeper cultural factors on which any assessment of Arab society must be grounded.

Three concepts in particular explain the resistance of Arab culture to Western-style reform. First, by contrast to the West, in the Arab world the self is never seen as divided. Whereas in the West we imagine ourselves able to take on multiple, even contradictory roles—as when an official gives support to a law with which he personally disagrees—to Arabs this self-segmentation runs contrary to the idea of a person as a unified whole. Second, doubt about fundamental beliefs has always been equated with unbelief and the threat of chaos. Arabs are, therefore, deeply afraid that uncertainty over religious fundamentals will lead to that most dreaded of ends, the breakdown of the community of believers. Third, political institutions have never been separated from the individuals connected with them. Indeed, personal attachments—whether to a political leader, spiritual guide, or close relative—focus not on the settled expectations of position but on the constantly shifting networks of obligation through which each actor seeks to negotiate an advantageous connection. Taken together, these factors form a cultural fabric of enormous resilience and durability, but one whose very success also accounts for its resistance to Western ways of viewing the world.

The idea of the self in Arab culture is based on relationships with others. People are known, to themselves as well as to others, in terms of those with whom they have made connections—kinsmen or neighbors, fellow tribesmen or religious confederates. These connections, however, are not ready-made: ties are not prescribed by necessity, expectation, or the sanctions of an all-observing community. To the contrary, choice is constantly at work as a person considers the possible array of associates and engages— through an unending process of interaction and obligation—in relationships that grant some measure of predictability in a constantly fluctuating world. This view of the individual shows up in many domains: property ownership does not involve a person’s connection to things so much as his relationships with others as they concern such things; unoccupied space—from public streets to open land—is space that is not defined by any clear relationships and therefore implies neither collective nor private responsibility for its care; portraits that render a person’s distinctive features are spurned not because of some religious prohibition on human representation but because such pictures would not show what one really needs to know about another—the living nature of the person’s negotiated ties to other people. In both law and general acceptance a person’s acts are what make him a reliable witness, someone whose word is far more meaningful than any material evidence. Even time is divided into those events, whether recent or far distant, that are perceived as having a continuing effect on current associations or those events, no less disparate in chronology, that are seen as no longer relevant to current relationships. Every aspect of Arab culture draws energy from this engagement in relational maneuvering. The poet is both dangerous and alluring because he challenges established categories by imagining new possibilities, while the open-ended construction of buildings, musical forms, or that most associative of Arab inventions, the zero, all represent this capacity for forging connections that is so central to the divine image of humankind.

The individual, then, is the sum of these relationships: he cannot create his own moral order, however much he must construct a network that is itself moral. Social consequence is crucial: “God loves those who hide their sins,” says the prophetic tradition, not because Muslims favor hypocrisy but because they believe that actions harming the social order are more dangerous than personal failings to a community of believers. Moreover, it is inconceivable that a person could encompass multiple, and indeed contradictory, aspects of himself at a single time. A story may help sharpen the contrast to the West. I have often mentioned to Arabs the decisions by two U.S. Supreme Court justices in which each expressed his personal opposition to the death penalty but felt called upon by his judicial position to enforce the existing law. Each time I’ve done so, my Arab interlocutor asks me a series of rhetorical questions: “Who is this man? Where is he from? Who is he connected to? Has he or one of his dependents ever been attacked by a criminal?” The point of these questions is clear: if only I knew enough about these men, I would see that there is no contradiction between their personal beliefs and their professed role. Since the self is always a concatenation of negotiated traits and ties, and since a person is always identified by these connections to others, only my own imperfect knowledge of the judges’ networks of obligation could account for my misguided view of their split selves. People are a unity of relationships, these Arabs are saying, and my assumptions about segregated roles show that I am the one who needs to learn how to appraise the contexts of a person’s life.

The contrast to the West could not be sharper. From Greek tragedy and comedy, where individuals play multiple roles, to the twelfth-century “discovery” that we have internal states that are so separate from our overt acts and utterances that God may even reward us for having the right intent though we perform the wrong act, to the Enlightenment idea that we have the capacity to fashion our own moral selves, Westerners have accepted as obvious that the self can be divided. Conscience and morality are revealed through these very multiplicities. Theater, too, captures this sensibility, as the actor separates his private self from his public roles. But the idea of a divisible self violates Arabs’ sense of human nature and society. We are our embedded relationships, they seem to be saying, and the knowledgeable observer is one who discovers all of those attachments that make a man whole. What varies is not roles but contexts: to know someone is to understand how that person acts in different situations. To suggest that the different aspects of our connections are anything but instances of a single self reaching out in diverse and flexible ways flies in the face of revelation and common sense alike. Indeed, to the extent that it is imaginable, to divide the self—like splitting the atom—might risk the release of unknown and uncontrollable forces.

The potential repercussions of this idea of the undivided self are immensely important. Emphasizing the unity of the self means that a person does not readily segregate his diverse functions: the occupant of a political or legal position does not set part of himself aside in order to emphasize some impersonal role. Institutions are inseparable from those who occupy them, hence at any given moment the full implications of one’s webs of indebtedness are actively in play. If Allah endowed humans with reason to better themselves and their dependents in a life the Quran itself at times describes as “a sport and a game,” then one’s full, relational self is involved in every circumstance of that life. We are all, therefore, involved in that most theologically correct of games, chess, which requires only that the existing pieces and board be both endlessly engaging and revealing of what is, quite simply, true.

The American occupation of Iraq has not destroyed “the game.” So far, at least, it has done something worse: it has frozen it, made it unplayable, and it has done so without supplying any alternative. People cannot start rebuilding alliances and debts because the United States has interfered with the resources needed. We do not ourselves play the role of patron, of a big man who has built his networks from within the culture (though we may yet find we have to—and we may also find that we are really bad at it). In the absence of the game, the Iraqi people are losing their sense of order and identity, so it is small wonder that they want us out. The claim that Iraqis really favor our presence, but are scared to speak up, is misguided. We are preventing them from maneuvering in the world as they understand it, because we don’t know how the game is played. We think it just produces tyrants, not legitimate leaders.

Here the fear of doubt plays an important role. From its earliest years, Islam equated doubt with unbelief. While there have always been dissenters and skeptics, divergent opinions and interpretations never go to the fundamentals of faith. To question the unity of Allah or the place of Muhammad as the last of His prophets would be to risk not just personal condemnation but the orderliness of the community of believers that makes possible the world created for mankind. Whereas in the West doubt became to many a test of faith and an avenue to it, in Islam doubt became the primary threat to the social order. “He who believes, believes,” says the prophetic tradition; “he who does not believe, disbelieves.” Even doubt about matters other than fundamentals could become a habit, the scope of which might be hard to contain. The idea of probability, which in the West meant “authoritative” until, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it came to represent gradations of moral certainty—has not come to pervade Arab culture, and thus the continuing distinction between inviolable and mundane opinion. On rare occasions people have told me that in their youth they had expressed some doubts about God to their Quranic teachers. They were invariably advised that they must keep these thoughts to themselves, for to do otherwise would be to risk both the loss of salvation and the coherence of the world of relationship. The great threat of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses may have been not so much his portrayal of the Prophet’s vulnerabilities as his attempt to introduce the concept of doubt into a religion that views doubt as destructive of the social order.

This idea of social disorder is vital to the Arab concept of history and reality. The philosopher Susanne Langer has said that “man can adapt himself somehow to anything his imagination can cope with, but he cannot deal with Chaos.” Yet chaos, and the response to it, is itself a construct of the imagination. Whether we’re considering the Russian revolutionaries, the Ranters of seventeenth-century England, or European anarchists in the years surrounding the First World War, chaos always has a definite cultural shape and meaning. The Arabic term fitna translates well as “chaos,” but it has different resonances than the English equivalent. The Arabic word for chaos comes from a root meaning “to tempt, fascinate, seduce, and enthrall.” It portends all those enticements of political alienation and worldly allure that may lead the Muslim community to doubt and disbelief. Yet, like so many Arabic concepts that imply their opposite, the threat of chaos also implies renewal by upsetting social arrangements that have worked too long for the benefit of too few. So, following the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, what most Westerners took as examples of looting, mayhem, and anarchy may have had different implications for Iraqis themselves: at a moment when a big man falls, everyone scrambles to reconstruct bonds of indebtedness that alone might yield predictability and safety. Such moments pose exceptional dangers, since chaos, not freedom, is seen by many Arabs as the real alternative to tyranny. “It is worse to make a man live in chaos than to kill him,” goes one saying. “Better to live in tyranny than chaos,” goes another. Just as the Quran repeatedly warns against social disorder, common sense urges a person back into the game so that he can keep alive the flow of mutual indebtedness that prevents the system itself from falling to pieces.

At such times, women may appear as a special threat to orderliness. Whether it is their irrepressible sexuality or men’s vulnerability to it, to many Arab men, women, as holders of men’s good opinion of themselves, threaten relationship itself by confuting particular ties. Lacking an indispensable ritual place in the practice of Islam, women nevertheless test its central requirement—the maintenance of a unified community of believers. To bind women to inferior social roles is therefore not merely to express male dominance, it is to focus on one of the central sources—along with ignorance and irreligious passion—of societal disruption. A real tension exists, however, between two basic cultural propositions. For it is also a basic precept of Arab culture that particular individuals may rise above the natural tendencies of their category, so that (to use their own rhetorical form) even a woman, if learned, may be wiser than many men or, contrary to the usual formula for awarding custody, may be the better parent for an older child. The probing of these boundaries, when brought about by changing conditions and exacerbated by implications not of their own making, leads many Muslims to equate Westernization with the breakdown in boundaries. As one Moroccan judge told a writer: “What we call chaos is what you call civil society.”

Politics, then, is intensely personal. Power accumulates by building alliances, trading in information and obligations, and convincing others to rely on you rather than on someone else. In such an environment, stable political or religious institutions, which change very little no matter who occupies positions within them, tend to contradict the general sense of how things are. Whether the subject is a legal proceeding or a political election, the credibility of a religious scholar or the reliability of a trading partner, the crucial questions are always: who is this person, who owes him what, what kind of reciprocity is possible with him? When people have tried to codify customs in some Arab countries, they have found that participants did not understand the project. How, those approached would say, do you expect anyone to decide a legal case without emphasizing who is involved? Legitimacy, then, is not an attribute of the office but of its occupant. If a political figure can capture a given office, he is, ipso facto, legitimate. It is, therefore, a grave error when Western commentators assert that the regimes of the Arab world are not legitimate in the eyes of their citizenry. To the contrary, these leaders are highly legitimate—in the sense that they have arranged dependencies in culturally recognizable ways. It is also true that any successful contender will be just as legitimate. Thus, it is dangerous nonsense to suggest that if present leaders are removed, more legitimate ones will necessarily take their place.

The flip side to this culture of legitimacy is the vulnerability and transience of any leader’s network. The pattern was set by the Prophet himself, who, by not designating an heir, left matters for those who followed to sort out. When in the years after the Prophet’s death the first caliphs were all assassinated, it was established that each contender succeeds or fails not by inheriting a position but, like any chieftain or warrior, by justifying through his actions his claim to preeminence over others. A common saying captures this fact: “On the third day after his death, his properties divided, his power dispersed, a man ceases to exist.”

The whole culture reinforces this idea. If time exists as sets of relationships, once such relations are no longer binding they go into a kind of attic of memory. Since the relationships that do still bind are not necessarily the most recent ones, people will speak of “current” matters that may long precede more recent ties that have been severed. Memory skips like a stone on the water, touching the relationships that still exist wherever they may fall in time. Since at every point choices are being made among those with whom one can form ties, repetition—whether in story, ornament, or music—is not mere redundancy but a representation of the opportunity to exercise choice at every juncture.

In the West, thanks to Max Weber, we speak of the “Protestant ethic,” how work demonstrates our sense of moral worth—now often detached from its implications of salvation. In the Arab world, by contrast, we might speak of a “tribal ethic.” This does not mean that all Arabs belong to tribes or that, in the West, only Protestants are affected by the Protestant ethic. Tribes have certain characteristic features: they can shift shape or lie dormant as they adapt to the changing political situation; they can redistribute power when major figures leave the scene and can counterbalance them during their periods of ascendancy; and they treat all units of society as morally equivalent. These tribal characteristics, formed into a general ethos, inform contemporary Arab culture. Thus, there is considerable ambivalence to power even when a given figure unquestionably wields it. Each person can choose those upon whom he or she will depend. And each person regards himself and others as morally equal, whatever the difference in worldly power.

Concepts of human nature and political power are mutually reinforcing. If it is vital for a person to be able to move about freely in the world, then to be bound up by a superior power is to risk the loss of identity. If reason best controls passion through attachment to strong leaders or teachers, then it is an act of moral control to depend on a person who has proven his ability to forge connections. To do this, however, will be to chafe at the weakness, indeed the symbolic effeminacy, of serving as a leader’s disciple. Similarly, to restrict an Arab to a given territory, where he is unable to forge ties freely with others, is to attack his most vital ability. To regard women as less able to exercise self-control is to justify men’s power over those regarded as simultaneously indispensable and dangerous to the order of the game. Ambivalence to power—whether it’s the power of a saint, parent, politician, or mate—thus creates the capacity to build alliances even as it replicates society’s limitations on the acceptable means of their construction.

Democracy must also be viewed in light of this political culture. If the “tribal ethic” is one part of the equation, the other might be called “the spirit of reciprocity.” The fluidity of obligation—where an economic tie may be called up in a marital alliance, or access to a business opportunity may be called up as a political debt—suffuses and knits together Arab society. But if the ability to create obligation lies at the heart of relationships, then to the extent that people cannot be separated from their roles, it makes sense that the state, as an impersonal entity, should be seen as incapable of genuine reciprocity. Occasionally people even say, half in sadness, half in jest, that bribery is “our” form of democracy, which they elaborate in the following way: if a big man says do such and such a thing but I can bribe a lower official not to do it, then I can exercise some restraint on the big man’s power—and isn’t democracy really about limitations on power?

Moreover, many analysts have argued that in order to develop democratic institutions it is vital to have an established middle class. But, it could be argued, no middle class exists in Arab countries. Such a class requires not just awareness of itself but institutionalized continuity—of family fortunes and attitudes, of organizations, and of structural relations to a stable group of power brokers. In the Arab world there are upper classes, royal classes, and the haute bourgeoisie, who remain close to power. But the middle class is not an unchanging group; rather it is, like all other matters, an aspect of the self. You would not say that a person is a member of the middle class but that he is a middle-class person. The significant feature is a quality of the individual rather than a persisting status of a group. Parents cannot easily pass along the success they may have had in this middle range because so much depends on force of personality and individually fashioned connections. This might be another example of the tribal ethic’s leveling effect. Whatever its sources, its frustrations cannot be underestimated.

To ask, then, why the Arabs have not developed in the sciences or in the arts of government when they once led the world assumes that the indicators of a successful culture point in only one direction, that success can only be measured against the accomplishments of the West. But even if we set aside for a moment the question of judging other cultures at all, perhaps some alternative explanations are worth considering. Take, for example, the question of scientific investigation. It is possible that in the Arab world science proceeded as far as it did when research and theorizing could be viewed as affecting the world of relationships. Thus, the discovery of various mathematical propositions or chemical compounds, the development of engineering skills, medical cures, or architectural insights all served, given their conceptual emphasis, to create new or intensified relations among men. Science may have been measured by its ability to affect that broader game of human interaction. However, once science began to move into realms where its effects on relationship were, in terms of Arab culture, neither credible nor commonsensical—where inquiry approximated doubt and pure experimentation was not clearly connected to something affecting human ties—science became less significant. The ways in which outside technology is accepted underscore this point. Movies, cell phones, and modern transportation fit immediately into the culture—film because it shows people relating to one another in many different ways, cell phones because they serve the connections people are always negotiating, transportation because it enhances the mobility necessary to forge bonds of dependence. On the other hand, Freudian psychology, moral speculation, or stories in which fact and fantasy are indistinguishable convey no significant meaning.

But to argue that anything has gone wrong, an expression of Western self-congratulation, obscures the accomplishments, and the criteria for assessing accomplishment, of another culture. When President Bush says of the terrorists and their supporters that they hate us because they hate freedom, he misses the point. Most Arabs see themselves as far more free (to build relationships) than we who are constrained by material things and impersonal institutions. (Would we say, for example, that someone who defers to the authority of the Catholic Church or a noted rabbi hates freedom?) Moreover, the Arab view of human nature has great merit. Islam sees humans as maneuvering to advantage in a world whose constant probing for the new must be kept within bounds so that what hurts society does not outweigh what helps it. Equivalence, rather than equality, is at the center of their concept of justice—a recognition that people are not all the same, that to treat others in ways true to their nature is more fair than to treat them as if they were identical. At the same time, for Muslims, a person can always overcome any limits by developing his knowledge and his worldly contacts. Freedom of choice, however, may carry different overtones given the different histories of the Arab nations: for Moroccans, it might imply an ease of movement owing to the brief period of colonization; for Egyptians, the imagined license of irony and political humor; for Iraqis, the tightly circumscribed demands of kin and territory. For suicide bombers, freedom of choice can mean the recapturing of order through visible martyrdom.

There are no prerequisites for democracy, no preconditions for freedom. For better or worse, Arab political culture has its own ways of managing power and of suffusing time and circumstance, person and place, advantage and attribute with local meanings and consequences. The question is not whether anything went wrong but whether, by withholding judgment long enough to grasp the Arabs’ own sense of meaning, we in the West can come to understand the terms by which they see their world—and our own.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments are closed for this post.