Arab Culture & The Origins of Much of the Middle Eastern Violence

February 15, 2015 at 2:25 PM Leave a comment

By Lewis D. Eigen

Most people of the world are constantly puzzled by the repeated provocative violent behavior of the militant Palestinians.  Each and every time, the process has been the same.

  • The Palestinians provoke repeatedly until
  • The Israelis retaliate and attack to prevent the violence
  • The Palestinians militants and civilians suffer highly disproportionate human casualties and heavy infrastructure damage in a society that has too little infrastructure to begin with.

Why, most of the world asks, do the Arab militants keep following the same disastrous pattern?

Complex human behavior have complex, multi-facted causes.  Warped religious ideology, desire to maintain power and control, historical feelings of injustice, and feelings of desperation all contribute.  However there is another cause not given as much attention:  The Arab cultural tradition of interference to limit damage from violence.

When the Prophet Muhammad–also a brilliant political leader and governor–reformed the Arabian Peninsula, he faced a culture where tribal hostilities were the norm and there was virtual constant war.  While he and his teaching advocated war and violence, that was only in limited circumstances.  For the most part, he advocated peace and the peaceful settlement of disputes.  And the mode of settlement, most often advocated and used was mediation–a process that had existed before in the culture but had not been used as much as it could be.  Trying to get anyone to back down in a dispute was very difficult because one of the only methods of prevention that existed was the perception of strength.  Any show of weakness, would invite attack.  This was not unique to Arab culture, but was very pronounced because there were no institutional 3rd parties to protect in a sparsely populated land area–no overall kings, religious authorities, or large business interests who had power and an interest in maintaining peace.

The other prevention device of the time and culture was vengance–the perception that retaliation would take place no matter how long it took.

So once there was serious conflict, it was then very difficult to end it so retaliation cycles and feuds went on for generations.  Muhammad made great use of mediation, and extolled the mediator and the parties participating in mediation in the culture and the religion.

The art of survival there and then became one of participating in mediation once there was any violence but not appearing too willing lest one be perceived as weak.  Peacemakers had to be magnanimous from strength and not appear craven from weakness.  So in the local mediation sessions of the time, the mediators would rarely say, “Have you not suffered enough?  Put an end to your suffering”.  That would not work for the parties had to show that they were willing to suffer so as not to appear weak.  So even if they were getting whopped, they always had the future vengeance card to play if they were willing to suffer.

Already this sounds familiar in the modern Arab Israeli conflict.  The repeated unwillingness to renounce violence now and for the future is the modern manifestation of the unwillingness to give up the major tool the Palestinians have as they are getting whopped, the vengeance card.  And as long as the vengeance card is still on the table, the Israelis only rational response is to arm to the teeth with overwhelming military strength to limit the vengeance of the future to isolated incidents and not wholesale existential threats.

A good example of the cultural playout that became culturally embedded in Arab society is that of Hassan who has perceived that Mustapha had injured him or one of his relatives or his animals.  Hassan usually did not wait for an opportune moment to waylay and quietly murder Mustapha.  It would have no protective effect unless every potential enemy (everyone in the region) knew that Hassan and done the deed.  Typically what happened was that Hassan would bombast and announce his intention to exact justice and revenge upon Mustapha to his relatives and friends and anyone else who might observe his rant.  The word of Hassan’s intention would soon spread throughout the community (tribe, city, region, whatever).  After giving his intentions plenty of time to get around, Hassan would take the largest of his swords or other weapon, brandish it over his head repeating the threats of what he is going to do to Mustapha who by this time had found his largest sword and started his harangue that he did not fear Hassan and “let him come so I can properly dispatch him”.  Both of the belligerents, in their respective harangues were typically very literal about the different parts of the opponent’s body and how he would render each of them.  The more gore, the better.”

Now both Hassan and Mutapha were intelligent men and realized that in the process of implementing their dismemberment of the opponent, they themselves might suffer serious harm or worse.  So they were looking for a way out, but only if that way did not make them look weak, afraid or irresolute which would surely bring disaster and death in the future if it were exhibited.

So Hassan with his relatives, friends, allies and supporters would as openly as possible descend upon Mustapha’s known locations and whereabouts, while Mustapha’s cohort rallied around him.  With everyone having full knowledge of the impending conflict, the peacemakers — usually the elders who were neutral but even the elders on both sides prepared to play their critical part.  As the antagonists approached each other, the peacemakers would begin to restrain them by persuasion and even physically.  Their verbal entreaties were almost always focused on the benefits to the community to avert the battle.  Not losing a fighter that the tribe would need to do battle with the neighboring evil tribe or one who may materialize would be a typical argument.  Saving the wives and children of the opponent from destitution was another.  There was peace and prosperity in the village or tribe, the loss of the productive work of the opponent, and following the Prophet’s desire for peace became an important one.  The immediate object was to have the conflicting parties sit down with the mediators–almost always some prestigious elders.  With the immediate threat of violence, the mediators could then think of clever ways of settling the dispute without bloodshed, and more important to the parties, without either of the appearing weak or fearful.

Now that tradition, for individuals and groups, is what allowed the Arabs to survive and Islam to thrive.  And it still operates strongly in the Middle East.  We can reflect on the contemporary situation and how many of the outside efforts to impose peace run contrary to this tradition.  So when a Western nation says to a delegation of even moderate Palestinians that they should stop the provocative attacks because they will only get more of their fighters killed and it is counterproductive, it goes nowhere.  It is for them a loss of their major responsibility of being able to protect their people in the future.  Even if they made peace with Israel in this way and it held (which they doubt), then the Shiites would sense the weakness and try and take over the Sunni dominance.  Or the neighboring Arab countries would carve up the Palestinian land and/or they would be dominated by those hegemon nations.  Long before the 20th century creation of Israel and the dispute that followed, the Arab countries have been invading, attacking, and destabilizing each other except when they were prevented from doing so by Colonial powers (Western and the Ottoman Empire which “brought peace to the Middle East”).

In the most successful peace achievement in the Modern Middle East–the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, in order to sell it to the Egyptian Parliament and the Public, that nation had to start a surprise war with Israel, do some significant military damage, and get a cease fire before their country was totally destroyed.  But despite the fact that their entire Air Force was wiped out, the war was sold to the Egyptians as a victory for Egypt, but for the fact that a cease fire was imposed by the other countries (the “elders”).  Therefore, they could then be magnanimous and if they got back the entire Sinai Peninsula make a political calculus and make a treaty.  They did not show weakness or fear.

Unfortunately, the Palestinians are weak in almost every facet of life.  Poverty is prodigious; personal and organizational corruption is rampant; governance is incompetent; education is ideological and impractical for the modern world; the military is undisciplined and is not under a unified command; its industry is feeble; and complicating the situation is the fact that there is a de facto civil war and no government that speaks for both of the major political factions.  Without the largess of the United Nations, some of the other Arab counties, and many of the Western nations including the U. S., the Palestinians are saved the ultimate embarrassment of being a failed state, by not being a state at all.

However, in many ways the Palestinians have more potential for a successful modern state. They have a better literacy rate than most Arab countries, and they tend to be much harder and more intense workers than others.  They are less sexist and some of their leaders in politics and other fields have had successful women.  Their contact with Israeli business and industry that was very common before their extremist violence prompted the Israelis to close down the economic ties and cross employment.

On the other hand, they have shown themselves to be very destabilizing to other Arab countries.  When the PLO went too far in Jordan, the Jordanian military ejected them (killing thousands in the process) in the country and they then went to Tunisia where they became a political military force challenging the government itself.  Today, the fertility rate of the Palestinians living in Jordan has propelled them to demographic and political parity with what has become a traditional Palestinian hostile Jordanian population, keeping the entire nation in a state of constant instability.  Other Arab nations will allow Palestinians to work in their country but bar them from citizenship.

In the modern world, the Palestinians (and the rest of the world) suffer as a result of their literal adhesion to customs that were already traditional 1300 years ago.  Considered against the background of history, the Arabs and the Islamic world is not a backward as they appear to be.  Compare Islamic behavior and doctrine of today to that of the Christians in the year 1300.  The Christian world after 1300 years was far more primitive, irrational, immoral, and incompetent than the Moslems of today, their 1300 year birthday.  The Christians were not just beheading some criminals and iconoclasts, but burning thousands at the stake and practicing every kind of torture that man has imagined.  There was no semblance or even lip service to rights or democracy.  And the Islamic science of today while very backward compared with the West was for more advanced than that of the Early Christians of the 14th century. True, they have had the benefit of Western contacts and communications but still as a religion, Islam has not yet gone through a Reformation which took Christianity 1500 years to accomplish.  So the Islamic Arabs of today are a combination of a relatively new religious culture with touches of modernity throughout their society.

So the great dilemma is how to strengthen the Palestinian entity sufficiently so that they can let the mediators do their traditional things and have peace without being and appearing weak and suing for peace.  This is especially difficult when the Palestinian extremists keep attacking and provoking Israel who after a certain amount of provocative attacks, retaliates and not only have the Palestinians suffered human casualties, but a substantial proportion  of their infrastructure is destroyed, amking them even weaker and more feeble.

What some critics call the worst thing about the current pattern, is that the very militant Palestinians, when they decide to try another aggressive provovation, feel that they can say and do anything and the community elders (world opinion) will impose a cease fire before too much damage is done.  They can therefore attack with impunity.  The problem is that it is getting harder and harder for a multipolar world to act swiftly and the Israelis are no longer responding so fast to the entreaties of the “elders”.

However, that is what diplomats–Arab, Israeli, and Western–get paid for.  It is they who must create a formula for Palestinian agreement to peace that does not do violence to the Arab tradition and culture. All else is destined to fail until Islam goes through a Reformation and looks outward as well as inward.  The modern world–even the Islamic part–does not want to wait that long.  In their 2014 debacle, the Palestinians (Hamas in Gaza) fired over 7,000 rockets into Israel while the “elders”were urging the parties to de escalate the violence and urged Israel not to retaliate. At first the mediation not only protected the Gazans from retaliation but rewarded Hamas for their warring activities.  When Israel had enough, they retaliated and resisted the “elders” entreaties for moderation and ceasefire.  Finally, after a decade’s worth of infrastructure was destroyed, about 500 Hamas fighters killed (compared to very few of the Israelis), and a similar number of Gazan civilians killed by the fighting, there finally was a ceasefire.  However, that cease fire could easily have been made much earlier with much less damage.  The “elders” had recommended a cease fire and the Israelis accepted.  But the Arab tradition being what it was, Hamas would not accept.  They were getting beaten so badly, that to accede to a cease fire would, they perceived, make them look unwilling to suffer and continue the cycle of revenge, both of which the cultural tradition told them were more important than anything in the present.  It was a cultural clash between the 21st century and the 14th.

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Entry filed under: History, Politics.

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