Learning to Think like an Arab Muslim: a Short Guide to Understanding the Arab Mentality
By Edward V. Badolato, Executive Vice President for Homeland Security
XXXX Pennsylvania Ave., 9th Fl.
Washington DC 20006
Dealing with terrorism, especially Islamic Fundamentalists, requires an intimate knowledge of terrorism, terrorist operations, and especially the key cultural features that makes up the Arab psyche. An understanding and detailed background knowledge of the Arab mentality is critical to performing accurate threat analysis. Understanding Arab culture can provide valuable insights into the changing nature of Post 9-11 terrorism, and how to rank and prioritize potential threats. To outsmart our clever and elusive Islamic terrorist foes, one must first understand what makes him tick. This paper is bases on years of experience in the Middle East, and is dedicated to helping the reader understand the Arab mentality.
The Arabs are a proud and sensitive people whose culture is mainly derived from three key factors: family, language, and religion. No adequate understanding of Arab culture is possible without first examining these three major elements and the pervading impact they have had on their culture. Cultural understanding by Americans of the Arabs is especially important at present because it can provide a basis for our own interactive behavior with them as well as a basis for interpreting their actions.
The Arab's cultural system has proven functionally useful in the Middle East because it provides the Arab with an accepted behavior pattern which dominates daily life. In the Middle East, these accepted behavioral patterns have been developed over centuries through the Arab's social response to various stimuli such as images of human nature, man's dealing with good and evil, idealistic images of correct personal behavior, concepts of political relationships and an Arab's commonly accepted view of the world as basically threatening and harsh. The Arab response to these various stimuli over a period of centuries has produced cultural attitudes which eventually developed into their behavioral characteristics.
To begin to understand the Arabs, one must first understand the major factors influencing Arab culture: family, language and religion. The kinship characteristic includes a set of group dynamics that are built around the family. Their language exerts tremendous influence on their personal interaction and emotional tenor. Their religion, Islam, is an ultimate expression of the idealism of the Arab. Any discussion of Arab culture must also include their dominant cultural concerns, such as continuation of the close knit family. Loss of their Arab identity, the corruption of youth, the incursion of the West, and the issue of Islamic fundamentalism.
The 'Five Pillars' of Islam are the foundation of Muslim life:
1. Faith or belief in the Oneness of God and the finality of the prophet hood of Muhammad;
2. Establishment of the daily prayers;
3. Concern for and almsgiving to the needy;
4. Self-purification through fasting; and
5. The pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are able.
Imam or Faith
To a Muslim there is none worthy of worship except God and Muhammad is the messenger of God. This declaration of faith is called the shahadah, a simple formula that all the faithful pronounce. The significance of this declaration is the belief that the only purpose of life is to serve and obey God, and this is achieved through the teachings and practices of the Last Prophet, Muhammad.
Salah or Prayer
Salah is the name for the obligatory prayers that are performed five times a day, and are a direct link between the worshipper and God. There is no hierarchical authority in Islam and there are no priests. Prayers are led by a learned person who knows the Qur'an and is generally chosen by the congregation.
Prayers are said at dawn, mid-day, late-afternoon, sunset and nightfall, and thus determine the rhythm of the entire day. These five prescribed prayers contain verses from the Qur'an, and are said in Arabic, the language of the Revelation. Personal supplications, however, can be offered in one's own language and at any time.
Although it is preferable to worship together in a mosque, a Muslim may pray almost anywhere, such as in fields, offices, factories and universities. Oftentimes visitors to the Muslim world are struck by the centrality of prayers in daily life.
A translation of the Adan or Call to Prayer is:
God is Great.
God is Great.
God is Great.
God is Great.
I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God.
I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God.
I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
Come to prayer!
Come to prayer!
Come to success!
Come to success!
God is Great!
God is Great!
There is none worthy of worship except God.
Zakah. The financial obligation upon Muslims.
An important principle of Islam is that everything belongs to God, and that wealth is therefore held by human beings in trust. The word zakah means both "purification" and "growth." Our possessions are purified by setting aside a proportion for those in need and for the society in general. Like the pruning of plants, this cutting back balances and encourages new growth.
Each Muslim calculates his or her own zakah individually. This involves the annual payment of a fortieth of one's capital, excluding such items as primary residence, car and professional tools.
An individual may also give as much as he or she pleases as sadaqah, and does so preferably in secret. Although this word can be translated as "voluntary charity" it has a wider meaning.
The Prophet said, "Even meeting your brother with a cheerful face is an act of charity." The Prophet also said: "Charity is a necessity for every Muslim." He was asked: "What if a person has nothing?" The Prophet replied: "He should work with his own hands for his benefit and then give something out of such earnings in charity." The Companions of the Prophet asked: "What if he is not able to work?" The Prophet said: "He should help the poor and needy." The Companions further asked: "What if he cannot do even that?" The Prophet said: "He should urge others to do good." The Companions said: "What if he lacks that also?" The Prophet said: "He should check himself from doing evil. That is also an act of charity."
Sawm or Fasting
Every year in the month of Ramadan, all Muslims fast from dawn until sundown--abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations with their spouses.
Those who are sick, elderly, or on a journey, and women who are menstruating, pregnant or nursing, are permitted to break the fast and make up an equal number of days later in the year if they are healthy and able. Children begin to fast (and to observe prayers) from puberty, although many start earlier.
Although fasting is beneficial to health, it is mainly a method of self-purification and self-restraint. By cutting oneself from worldly comforts, even for a short time, a fasting person focuses on his or her purpose in life by constantly being aware of the presence of God.
God states in the Qur'an: "O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed to those before you that you may learn self-restraint." (Qur'an 2:183)
Hajj or Pilgrimage
The pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj) is an obligation only for those who are physically and financially able to do so. Nevertheless, over two million people go to Mecca each year from every corner of the globe providing a unique opportunity for those of different nations to meet one another.
The annual hajj begins in the twelfth month of the Islamic year (which is lunar, not solar, so that hajj and Ramadan fall sometimes in summer, sometimes in winter). Pilgrims wear special clothes: simple garments that strip away distinctions of class and culture, so that all stand equal before God.
The rites of the hajj, which are of Abrahamic origin, include going around the Ka'bah seven times, and going seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa as did Hagar (Hajir, Abraham's wife) during her search for water. The pilgrims later stand together on the wide plains of 'Arafat (a large expanse of desert outside Mecca) and join in prayer for God's forgiveness, in what is often thought as a preview of the Day of Judgment.
The close of the hajj is marked by a festival, the 'Id al Adha, which is celebrated with prayers and the exchange of gifts in Muslim communities everywhere. This and the 'Id al Fitr, a festive day celebrating the end of Ramadan, are two key holidays of the Islamic calendar.
MAJOR FACTORS OF ARAB BEHAVIOR
The first major factor overshadowing all other societal demands of an Arab is that of family and kin.
The family is the foundation of Islamic society. The peace and security offered by a stable family unit is greatly valued and seen as essential for the spiritual growth of its members. A harmonious social order is created by the existence of extended families; children are treasured and rarely leave home until the time they marry.
Parents are greatly respected in the Islamic tradition. Mothers are particularly honored: the Qur'an teaches that since mothers suffer during pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing, they deserve a special consideration and kindness.
It is stated in the Qur'an: "And we have enjoined upon man (to be good) to his parents. With difficulty upon difficulty did his mother bear him and wean him for two years. Show gratitude to Me and to your parents; to Me is your final goal." (Qur'an 31:14)
A Muslim marriage is both a sacred act and a legal agreement, in which either partner is free to include legitimate conditions. As a result, divorce, although entirely uncommon, is permitted only as a last resort. Marriage customs vary widely from country to country.
An Arab's concept of the world has occasionally been described as a series of seven concentric circles with the individual Arab at the center. He is surrounded by the circle of his immediate family, and outside that circle is his extended family or tribe. Next are his immediate geographic region and then his country. Outside of his country ring is the rest of the Arab world; then the rest of the Muslim world, the "Dar al Islam," or the area of Muslim peace and stability. Outside this ring is the rest of the world viewed by the Arab as the "Dar al Harb" or war area.
The principal means of reinforcing familial relationships is through marriage. Arab marriage patterns are usually within their own family group with the most desired partners being cousins. One of the long-term results of this custom has been the development of a highly organized social structure among a closely-knit family. Even with extended family members, the goals of family well being and honor are principal considerations.
The style of Arab parenting is responsible for much of their behavioral traits according to the noted Arab cultural expert, Dr. Raphael Patai who claims that Arab children have difficulty establishing a predictable pattern arid a differentiation between love and discipline. This fluctuation between a loving mother and stern disciplinarian father can add to the complexity of growing up and often fosters schizoid personality traits. Many Arabists have commented on the rapid change of Arab emotions and reasoning. Lawrence of Arabia spoke of this when he said that the Arabs view "everything black or white with no middle ground." This roller coaster type of behavior is often demonstrated by cool self‑control followed by uncontrolled public outbursts of emotion. This also illustrates the ease with which a crowd can become violent in the Arab world. No doubt, tightly controlled families, closeness of living space and intense family pressures contribute to another important Arab behavioral trait stemming from group dynamics. That trait is conflict.
Arab behavior has a propensity for conflict.
The Muslim community expanded rapidly after the Prophet's death. Within a few decades, the territory under Muslim rule had extended onto three continents--Asia, Africa and Europe. Over the next few centuries this Empire continued to expand its conquests and Islam gradually became the chosen faith of the majority of the world’s inhabitants. Among the reasons for the rapid spread of Islam was the simplicity of its doctrine--Islam calls for faith in only One God, Allah, and it was made relatively easy for conquered peoples to convert..
Reasons for Arab conflict may lie again with the family where competitiveness is instilled at an early age, and life generally exists under various forms of intense pressure. An old Arab saying aptly describes the competitive, hostile spirit bred into Arab children:
"I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousins, my brother, my cousins and I against the world."
Another probable cause of this intense conflict is Arab history itself, which has been dominated by warfare, domestic upheaval and struggles against invasions from outside the Arab world. The legacy of this history is a basic, almost visceral mistrust of‑ any outside group, or more specifically, any Western state whose true ultimate intentions cannot readily be determined, but which they feel will most likely be bad for the Arabs.
There are many other internal sources of conflict in the Middle East, which have existed among the Arabs themselves for centuries. Some of these long‑standing sources of conflict are strategic conflicts, economic rivalries, ideological wars, tribal and religious disagreements--and just plain cultural differences. For example, there has been strategic rivalry between the Mesopotamians of the Fertile Crescent and the Egyptians since ancient times. More recently, strategic struggles have taken place over the Lebanon, the White Nile, the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf (as most commonly refer to as the Persian Gulf).
Also economically, the conflict over scarce resources now continues with oil, land, water, and mineral rights taking the place of food, (although still strategically important in some countries), and caravan routes. Today's ideological conflicts often place the progressive socialists (Iraq, Libya, Syria and Algeria) against the conservative traditional states. There are also problems within these groups as Iraqi Baathi's against Syrian Baathi's, various "isms" such as Pan Arabism, progressivism, Wahabism, and socialism all typify the general ideological fragmentation of the Arab population and add to the spectrum of conflict. In the area of tribal and religious conflict, numerous rivalries predate recorded history. Consider that the early Islamic wars after the death of the Prophet brought on the Sunni‑Shiite tensions, which remain today in many areas such as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
When asked why the more recent Iran‑Iraq war began, one Arab historian noted that it really began at the battle of Qaddisiya over a thousand years ago when Mohammed's son‑in‑law, Ali, was defeated by the forerunners of today's Sunni Arabs. Viewed from this perspective, even the Christian‑Muslim struggle in Lebanon appeared to be part of this historic trend of religious conflict. Dynastic rivalries, such as between the House of Saudi and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has always been a factor in Arab life. Also, there is the age old struggle between the desert bedouin and the townsman such as was rekindled in the intense 1970 conflict between the Jordanian Army's bedouins of the Desert Legion and the Palestinian townsmen in Jordan.
In dealing with Arabs, consideration must always be given to their patterned behavior for dealing with potential conflict. Especially in military affairs, the undercurrents of traditional conflict can limit the number of options available to a decision maker and limit his overall capability to correct a problem. Historically, this has been evident in the difficulty in making and maintaining Middle Eastern alliances. Suspicion of a traditional enemy's territorial ambitions die hard, and international troop movements to shore up Arab allies or as part of a peacekeeping force are usually very difficult because of the fear that the visiting soldiers may be used against the host government or that they will be very reluctant to leave. Likewise, new pacts on military agreements with western foreign powers are initially viewed negatively by an Arab state's neighbors because of the potential impact on inter‑Arab affairs as well as a xenophobic fear of the West. Experience has shown that it is fairly unusual for an Arab state to enter into an agreement with an outside power without first consulting with its neighbors to allay their fears about a potential change in the local balance of power and to forestall potential conflict.
Because conflict appears to be such a normal behavioral characteristic in Arab group dynamics at the individual. group or even international levels, it seems reasonable that the Arabs would have developed a traditional means of settling their differences--and they have. Over the centuries they have developed a ritualized. form of mediation for dealing with conflict. A study of Arab history, and even present day events. points out that the traditional methods of mediation have been used time and time again. In large scale hostilities the mediation may at times seem ineffective to a Westerner, but it does serve several purposes. It interrupts the fighting, lets cooler heads prevail and gives each side an honorable way out of the quarrel.
The methodology is essentially the same for a small personal quarrel or a war. It is arranged around a mediator who plays a specific role. The mediator or wasit is usually a man (or country) of personality, status, respect, wealth and influence with both sides. Picking or persuading the perfect mediator is obviously the sine qua non of successfully mediating a conflict. Traditionally it has been the rule that a mediator meets with much greater success if he is a man of prestige. Custom requires that the steps in mediation follow a specific pattern: separate the fighting parties, make it physically impossible to continue the fighting, arrange a solution which will not cause a loss of face or honor to either side, and then guarantee the restitution or final agreement. There are numerous examples of conflict mediation in the Arab world from the personal to the international level. They are all ritualized and it appears that the major difficulty lies in getting the right mediator at the outset. A lesson the United States has had difficulty grasping in its long quest for Middle East peace.
In the Arab world there is little stigma placed on the loss of self control and what westerners would consider hysterical public outbursts of emotion. This is a particularly frequent factor in group dynamics, and it is often demonstrated by the way in which a crowd can suddenly give way to outbursts of anger and violence. Reasons given for this generally lead back to the Arab family--closeness, competitiveness and conflict. Also, some cause might be related to the Arab means of vocal expression where they routinely express themselves by shouting, often accompanied by angry gestures in the marketplace, when correcting children, at funerals, etc. Opportunities for emotional outpourings are frequent in an Arab's daily life, and with the impetus of crowd mentality, these emotions are likely to break loose with chain reactions.
An Arab crowd is high strung emotionally, and violent crowds are a frequent occurrence during periods of stress and crisis. Deaths of national leaders, political rallies, anti‑western rallies, etc., all qualify as reasons for Arab disorders. There can even be less serious reasons, for example in Lebanon the author witnessed a severe riot in 1978 over the unpopular outcome of a beauty contest.
EMOTIONAL IMPACT OF THE ARABIC LANGUAGE
Arab Emotions and Hyperbole.
The second major factor influencing Arab culture is language. The Arabs place a high value on the Arabic language, and it exerts an overpowering psychological influence over their behavior. Arabic scholars have long known that even though most languages are influenced by the culture and people who speak it‑, Arabic has an influence over the psychology and culture of the people who use it. "English cannot even challenge Arabic for its sheer power and ability to impact on the emotions of the listener," according to the noted Arab‑‑American historian, P. K. Hitti who also states that "no people in the world has such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and is so moved by the word, spoken or written."
Not only are the listeners moved, but Arabic has an impact on speakers as well. Orators are prone to be carried away in verbal exaggeration when speaking before an audience. This exaggeration is called mubalagha in Arabic, but it is not considered to be a derogatory term by the Arabs. Rather it is considered to be an admirable capacity for oratorical eloquence. A key point in understanding Arab hyperbole is that their mentality finds nothing wrong with eloquent exaggeration because they feel that words really shouldn't be taken at all times at their face value. The Arab Scholar, Edward Atiyah, supports this by his comment that Arabs as a people are swayed "more by ideas than by facts." The mastery of a rich rhythmic vocabulary with lyrical phrases is a highly valued oral skill which is often attained even by illiterates.
It is an understatement to say that the Arabs merely value their language, for it is a most beloved possession. One reason for their love affair with Arabic is the melodious pleasure derived from hearing and saying certain traditional words and patterns of words derived from its rich literary heritage. But probably the most important underlying reason for their love of Arabic is the Qur'an and the belief that this holy book, set forth in Arabic, is an expression of man's highest earthly linguistic achievement.
Understanding the Arab's love of Arabic makes it easier to comprehend that speakers are admired, not so much for what they say, but how they say it. For example, Egypt’s President Nasser could hold crowds spellbound for hours with his eloquence. After the Six Day War in fact, crowds of Arabs would gather around every village television set to admire and applaud the Rais—the President's--marathon speeches because of their elaborate flowing classical style. Even today, Nasser's speeches remain as a prime example of the orator's craft, and for years students of Arabic at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute in Washington. D.C. studied them as an example of mubalaghato hear his long speeches, appreciating not so much what he said, but how he said it.
EMOTIONAL IMPACT OF THE ARABIC LANGUAGE
Arab Emotions and Hyperbole.
The second major factor influencing Arab culture is language. The Arabs place a high value on the Arabic language‑, and it exerts an overpowering psychological influence over their behavior. Arabic scholars have long known that even though most languages are influenced by the culture and people who speak it‑, Arabic has an influence over the psychology and culture of the people who use it. "English cannot even challenge Arabic for its sheer power and ability to impact on the emotions of the listener," according to the noted Arab‑‑American historian, P. K. Hitti, who also states that "no people in the world has such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and is so moved by the word, spoken or written."
Not only are the listeners moved, but Arabic has an impact on speakers as well. Orators are prone to be carried away in verbal exaggeration when speaking before an audience.
One should never underestimate the behavioral impact that the Arabic language has on the Arab people. Its psychological influence lies in three main areas: general vagueness of thought; overemphasis on words at the expense of their meanings and stereotyped emotional vocal responses to specific situations. The most difficult of these behavioral influences for Americans to understand is overemphasis and exaggeration. There are numerous examples of how exaggeration and emphatic overemphasis can lead Arab speakers down the path to outlandish public statements. For example, Patai tells the amusing story of the A‑‑bomb made by a Syrian tinsmith: "On the eve of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, Musa Alami. a well known Palestinian leader was attempting to gain support in various Arab capitals. In Damascus the President of Syria told him: "I am happy to tell you that our Army and its equipment are of the highest order and we'll be able to deal with a few Jews; and I can tell you in confidence that we even have an atomic bomb ... yes it was made locally; we fortunately found a clever fellow, a tinsmith..."
Most Arabic scholars feel that this mubalagha as well as tawkid (assertion) is almost a linguistic game played between speaker and listener. In his article on the influence of language on Arab psychology, the Arab scholar, Dr. Edward Shouby, comments on mubalagha and tawkid, and his words are worth remembering:
"Arabs are forced to over‑assert and exaggerate in almost all types of communications, as otherwise they stand a good chance of being gravely misunderstood. If an Arab says exactly what he means without the expected exaggeration, other Arabs may think that he means the opposite. This fact leads to misunderstandings on the part of non‑Arabs who do not realize that the Arab is merely following a linguistic tradition."
Shouby's comments emphasize the important concept that the average Arab uses exaggeration and overemphasis without even being aware that he is doing it. It is very difficult for an Arab to make a simple statement of fact. For this reason it usually pays to be cautious about focusing on exact translations of Arabic statements such as the long rambling tirades of Gadhafi from which the emotional and inflammatory mubalagha statements are usually quoted directly by the Western press
There is also a bit of wish fulfillment in Arab exaggeration. They at times can have such a strong desire for an event to take place that they make a statement that confuses the desired action with an accomplished fact. The general vagueness of thought and ambiguous structure of the Arabic language itself also contributes to this tendency to exaggerate and substitute words for action. For example, in sentences expressing wishes such as Wallahi la fa' altu which can be literally translated "By Allah, I did not do (it) , can actually mean "By Allah I shall not do (it)." Another example is the word phrase badrab which literally translates "I want to beat," but actually means "I shall beat." This linguistic subtlety between desired actions and accomplished fact should be considered when listening to the emphatic statements of Arabs. It is obvious that time and action can have very subtle connotations in the translation of Arabic. Westerners should be wary of this.
Arab idealism as expressed through Islam is a dominant cultural feature.
Based on its linguistic origin, the Arabic word 'Islam' means to achieve peace--peace with God, peace within oneself, and peace with the creations of God through submission to God and commitment to His guidance.
Islam is not a new religion but the final culmination and fulfillment of the same basic truth that God revealed through all His prophets to every people. For a fifth of the world's population, Islam is not just a personal religion but a complete way of living.
Over a billion people from all races, nationalities and cultures across the globe are Muslim--from the rice farms of Indonesia to the heart of Africa; from the skyscrapers of New York to the Bedouin tents in Arabia. Only 18% of Muslims live in the Arab world; a fifth are found in Sub-Saharan Africa; and the world's largest Muslim community is in Indonesia. Substantial parts of Asia are Muslim, while significant minorities are to be found in the Central Asian republics, India, China, North and South America, Eastern and Western Europe.
The Islamic religion has always been a source of law and sociopolitical ideology, and from past to present,
As Muslim civilization developed, it absorbed the heritage of ancient civilizations like Egypt, Persia and Greece, whose learning was preserved in the libraries and with the scholars of its cities. Some Muslim scholars turned their attention to these centers of learning and sought to acquaint themselves with the knowledge taught and cultivated in them. They, therefore, set about with a concerted effort to translate the philosophical and scientific works available to them, not only from the Greek and Syriac languages (the languages of eastern Christian scholars), but also from Pahlavi, the scholarly language of pre-Islamic Persia, and even from Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. Arab scholars became the keepers of the period’s science and knowledge—an accomplishment upon which many modern Arabs look back upon with great pride.
Over the years, Arab philosophers have attempted to rationalize and legitimatize their ideals in terms compatible with Islamic idealism. The Islamic scholar. W. Cantwell Smith, has aptly described the Muslim's almost quixotic loyalty to the Islamic ideal as "a passionate but rational pursuit of that social justice that was once the dominant note of the faith and the dominant goal of its forms and institutions." The idealism of Islam can be viewed as the ultimate set of personal rules for Arab behavior, and it provides an all encompassing code of interpersonal relations. This code is embodied in the Shari'a which is a sacred body of Islamic law derived from the Qur'an The Shari’a dominates all aspects of life and society in a way that is almost incomprehensible to an American.
The Qur'an is the very word of God, Almighty. A complete record of the exact words revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. The Qur'an was memorized by Muhammad and his followers, dictated to his companions, and written down by scribes, who cross-checked it during the Prophet's lifetime. Not one word of its 114 surahs (parts or chapters) has been changed over the centuries. The Qur'an is in every detail the same unique text that was revealed to Muhammad fourteen centuries ago.
The Qur'an is the principal source of every Muslim's faith and practice. It deals with all subjects that concern us as human beings, including wisdom, doctrine, worship and law; but its basic theme is the relationship between God and His creatures. At the same time, the Qur'an provides guidelines for a just society, proper human conduct and equitable economic principles. For example, it encompasses how they run their government, their legal courts, their schools, their businesses, their social life, and their religion. It has been described as being as totally encompassing. It is as if one single document contained our constitution, our legal code, national education policy, business practices, inter‑personal etiquette, and the Bible.
Some might argue that Islam is another means developed by Arab culture as a way to cope with and forestall the Arab's basic behavioral tendency towards conflict. Nonetheless, Islam is interwoven with Arab culture and its rules give a distinctive pattern to the Arab's daily life. Various verses of the Qur'an symbolize this acceptance by man of God's pattern. The Arab doesn't always live in a tight patterned world of justice and order, but as Smith says: "he tries".
It is this mixture of Islam and Arabism which provides an interesting combination of many prized elements of Arab culture. Pride and sensitivity, the ideal of manly virtue, the Arabic language, dignity, and the all important concept of honor are all interwoven between Islam and Arabism. it is these valued ideals which hold Arab society together. Consider that Arab society, like most societies, has common loyalties and traditions. Yet, in the Muslim world there is an additional system based on personal conviction with a carefully worked out system of values and beliefs based on Islam as the common ideal. In a very real sense the Arab community is a living example of a religious ideal with "religious" being used in a truly personal sense.
Even though the nomadic bedouins presently make up a very small portion of the Arab population, they have always been considered the "Arabs par excellence" and the repository of traditional Arab culture and values. The bedouin ethic is thought to be the ideal moral code by most Arabs. The code of the bedouin is simple: it is essentially based on courage, hospitality, honor, generosity and self‑respect. These simple but admirable virtues make up the basic code of the desert which is admired as an ideal by all Arabs. In fact, tracing one's lineage to bedouin stock has been considered a claim to social status for many Arab leaders. For example, in Iraq both former President Kassem and Saddam Hussein both had their genealogy traced to desert tribes.
Some motivation for this could be attributed to a form of nostalgia for a better time, when life was simpler and more manageable, such as it was with the nomadic bedouins. It must be emphasized here that most bedouin traits are derived from honor, dignity and self‑respect, and an American would heed well the importance of these to an Arab. Honor (sharaf) has been highly valued since early Arab history because it was conducive to group cohesion and survival. Sharaf probably follows from the fact that shameful behavior or cowardice would weaken the group and endanger society.
Arabs are extremely sensitive to any slight to their honor, and it follows that any insult to one's honor must be revenged. There are even times when a personal incident can bring dishonor on an entire family, such as a scandal involving a female family member's sexual honor or in the instance of a blood feud. During 1968, the author observed that as part of their security duties, Israeli Druze border guards would kill or injure Palestinian commandos operating in the Jordan Valley area. The Palestinian's family was then honor bound to take revenge against the Druze guard or his family unless a conciliation involving blood money could be arranged.
Honor can also be the collective property of as large a group as an entire army. For example the relaxed, conciliatory approach taken by King Hussein towards the gradual takeover of the country by Palestinian fedayeen in 1970 shamed and angered his Bedouin Army. The King's strategy was essentially to avoid a fight until a solution could be worked out, but this situation, along with strident Palestinian actions, caused the Jordanian Army to feel insulted and to have lost face (more specifically in Arabic terms "to blacken their face"). Symbolically, some armored units tied women's brassieres to their vehicle antennas to express their collective dishonor and the feeling that Hussein had made them into women.
A key point to consider is that right or wrong, in all matters involving honor, an Arab must behave with dignity and self‑respect or lose face (wujah). It is important in any confrontation to leave the Arab a way to withdraw or back down without losing face. Nasser's dispute with Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles over Aswan in 1956, served to illustrate this. What Dulles began as a routine reappraisal of our foreign aid program became personalized by Nasser into a matter of national honor.
Because dignity, self‑respect and honor are so vulnerable to external actions, the Arab is extremely heedful of being slighted and may often see personal insult in comments or deeds which carry no such intentions. Even long‑time residents of the Middle East, such as Jordan's legendary Glubb Pasha, could mistakenly provide such an unintended slight. The day before a ceremonial review of the Arab Legion was to take place, Glubb said to his orderly: "I don't really want you tomorrow; you can have the day off and take your wife to the review, if you like." Whereupon the deeply insulted orderly replied: "So you think I am the kind of person to sit with women?"
Any discussion of the role of bedouin traits in Arab ideals would not be complete without mentioning hospitality and generosity which go hand in hand. Providing hospitality is a matter of both face and honor to an Arab. To be inhospitable is shameful. During the hospitality, the host is always expected to be generous and Arabs often entertain lavishly. It is interesting to note that the Arab word for generosity, karim, also means distinguished, noble‑minded, noble‑hearted, honorable and respectable. This gives some idea of the esteem with which generosity is valued.
The Pan Arab movement involves a "one world" consciousness of the Arab world as well as an important Arab political concept. Indeed, this feeling of a monolithic Arab entity is enhanced by the strong religious, linguistic, social and economic ties uniting most Arabs. This would appear logical because of their similar attitudes toward life, language and history. The Islamic religion itself provides a powerful cohesive effect and gives a further spiritual sense of commonality within the Arab world.
Pan Arabism as a powerful political ideal has been a unifying force in the Arab's struggle for independence, first from the Turks, and in recent times, from the West. Arabs can become very emotional about Pan Arabism, and a strong feeling of solidarity with Arabs in other countries has become a potent political consideration. These feelings of Arab solidarity have also been given expression by the Arab League which was founded to promote inter‑Arab cooperation. It is in these expressions of brotherhood that Pan Arabic ideals actually can occasionally cause political motives to disappear and internal differences to be smoothed over in the emotional climate of Arab unity‑ It must be understood, however, that although Pan Arabism is an emotional state of mind which is very important to Arabs, the Arab people are still a long way from becoming one nation.
AREAS OF DOMINANT ARAB CONCERN
Although the Arab considers the family as the basis of Arab society, he holds even stronger views about Islam as the complete solid structure of society. Another area where there is a challenge to traditional Arab identity is with the elite class, and especially the western trained technocrats. These bilingual individuals frequently suffer an ethnic identity crisis, not belonging to the West, yet not able to fully return to basic Arab life.
The most dramatic response to the Arab identity crisis is presently being made by the Islamic fundamentalists. These fundamentalists such as seen among al Qaeda, the muhajidiin of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, and the Afghan Taliban, who all signify a change in the political behavior of Muslims. According to Professor Leonard Binder of the University of Chicago, these fundamentalists are seeking cultural authentication through domination of the political scene.
Another significant concern is the danger of the loss of Arab identity. The proud Arab sees and intimately feels the daily impact of modern technology, new social mores and western culture. The long haul diesel trucks are replacing the camel caravan, the quick snack shops are replacing the coffee shops, and western movies and music are frequently preferred by Arab youth. Infringement on Arab identity may cause a nostalgic quest for the good old days, and even in some cases, a reactionary backlash against symbols of western progress.
One of the most bitter and frequent complaints of theses groups against the West is that it is attempting to corrupt Arab society. Some Arabs feel that even simple, innocuous entertainment such as Western films and music are counter to the general morality of the Arab world. Relaxed standards of dress, women's liberation, alcohol and rock music are all considered by some Arabs to be an affront to Islamic purity. Not only do Arabs see tangible evidence that individuals are falling prey to Western influence, but they frequently sense that the fundamental values of the population are generally being corrupted.
The disintegration of traditional Arab society, along with loss of identity and outside corruption, is another paramount concern of the Arab. Huge segments of the population simply cannot cope with modernity and the social and political changes taking place. No one really knows where it will end. Westernization of the education system, women’s rights and inclusion in the work force, vastly improved literacy levels, better nutritional standards, advanced health and hygiene, introduction of social services and inclusion of the poorer classes in democratic political processes are all having tremendous impact on the old way of life. The Arabs wonder if it will be for the better.
This paper was initially written by Ed Badolato in 1980 when he was a student at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I, and it was part of a three-part research effort on Arab culture. Part I . "A Clash of Cultures: The Expulsion of Soviet Military Advisors from Egypt," was published in the Naval War College Review, March-April 1984, pp.69-81. It was a standard handout used by various military attaché offices in the Middle East to describe how not to act when dealing with the Arabs. Part II. “A Short Guide to Understanding the Arabs”, formed the basis of this article. Part III.” The Cultural Mindset of the Arab Military” was also used in training US military personnel headed for the Middle East.
Ed Badolato, a career Marine officer, was the distinguished graduate of the War College’s Class of 1980. He began his first of several tours in the Middle East in 1967, shortly after the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, when he was stationed on the Golan Heights. He was one of the first US military to actually deal with emerging Middle Eastern terrorists. He spent three tours in Viet Nam serving mainly with infantry and long-range Marine reconnaissance units. During his career, he commanded every sized Marine unit from platoon to regiment.
He served in various capacities in nearly every country in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, including tours as the Defense and Naval Attaché in Beirut, Damascus, and Nicosia where he organized various special counter terrorism activities. Following his retirement from the Marine Corps, he served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for Presidents Regan and Bush, (1984-89)where he was the principal architect of the U.S. government's readiness and response to terrorist threats to our energy infrastructure--as well as all counterterrorism security planning for the US’ fifty-eight nuclear weapon facilities.