The 'Closed Circle' of the Arab
Viewed through the prism of the West, which draws its sustenance from the twin fountains of Athens and Jerusalem, the character and plight of Arab existence has been viewed as romantic, tragic, and uniquely foreign to our sensibilities. The fact that its spirit is wholly antithetical to ours has been a point of contention between advocates of multiculturalism and those jealous of the West's rich patrimony.
That the Arabs are a civilization deeply stratified along lines of family, clan, and tribe is a fundamental observation. If, however, one overlays the Arab's psychological predisposition to the "power/challenge," money-favoring, careerist, and "shame/honor" dynamics of culture, we in the West cannot hope for any genuine alliances based upon anything more solid than contingencies of transitory mutual advantage. Moreover, the liberal West must come finally to the stark realization that the Arab world is a zone where democracy and human rights, as we view them, cannot flourish, because such a Western abstraction cannot set its tendrils down in the flinty earth of unenlightened self-interest. In the realm of the Middle East, politics and prestige are as they have always been -- the currency of a zero-sum game.
In the late 1980s, David Pryce-Jones authored a book entitled The Closed Circle, in which he interpreted the psychic rudiments of the Arab weltanschauung -- and unless one understands this mentality on its own terms, the Occidental mind will never gain traction either in negotiations or in bridging the gulf between civilizations -- to the West's own peril. Although it was written several decades ago, no other book has ever offered a convincing understanding of the Arab's rationale in decision-making and conduct. Without understanding the dynamic of the Arabic "power/challenge" struggle, their entire culture appears to the West to be one of madness instead of intense and never-ending calculation for superiority and honor at the expense of anything that even approaches what the West views as political stability, human rights, and moral virtue.
In the light of such cultural dynamics, we err gravely when we rely upon projecting the suppositions of Western values into the cauldron of the Middle East. As a case in point, the Western powers have naively sought to reduce the Palestinian question to one of real estate and the contractual exigency of a settlement where give-and-take is an implicit axiom. However, undergirding the prospects of such an agreement are the complications of the "shame/honor" dialectic and the Islamic tenet that once a land has been claimed for Allah, it belongs in perpetuity to the faith. Therein, the struggle between Arab and Jew is fraught with the contagion of shame and the resulting loss of honor at having been bested by the loathsome Jew. If one throws into the mix the military humiliations of the last century at the hands of Israel and the Western Powers, it becomes readily apparent that the Arab psyche that glorifies domination and revenge cannot countenance such a transaction, especially now that the Star of Islam is ascending on the world's stage.
The Arab world and its Islamic worldview have proven inconsistent with the tenets of modernity and free intellectual exchange because of the former's inability to both wield and relinquish power and to brook dissent. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the close of WWl and the creation of the Middle Eastern nations out of whole cloth, the orderly transfer of power in Arab States is practically a null set. Instead, we see the ancient motifs of "power challenging" occurring again and again -- actuated through conspiracy and temporary coalitions that are usually stratified along tribal loyalties. No sooner, however, than one dog reaches the top of the heap does a new round of murmuring arise through those participants who feel that they are being shortchanged or disrespected through the money-favoring nexus -- proving true the old adage quoted in a recent column that "an Arab cannot be bought, only rented."
Without institutional mores set in place in which power devolves peacefully and without rancor, ruthless violence has been the only means by which power is maintained or usurped in the Arab world. Despite the window dressing of political rhetoric that promises freedom and change following the downfall of a corrupt regime, no amount of ideological overlay ever changes the deep-set cultural barbarism in which only the names change at the top while the losers are purged and the weak brutally fleeced.
For the suffering millions who have endured life under Islamic theocracy or Pan-Arabic Socialism, the song has ever remained the same. The West, and in particular the American administrations of the past century, have been played like proverbial fiddles because in failing to understand the Arab consciousness and its animating interests, they believe, like all good liberals believe, that all cultures and moralities are commensurate and therefore rational and receptive to calculations of long term expedience. By not heeding the "power/challenge dialectic," we fail to understand what motivates the manifest treachery and butchery in the Middle Eastern arc -- either from paranoid dictators or in the rising host of new tyrannical carnivores who wait in the wings in hopes of one day being given the opportunity to strike and therein wield the reins of unmixed power.
By ignoring the "shame/honor" duality, we fail to grasp the subterranean darkness that motivates the honor-killings of daughters or apostates who "blacken the face" of the Arab family. In this perverse milieu, the shedding of "guilty" blood is the only manner in which a face can again "be whitened." As a tribute to the cultural gulf that separates our sensibilities, it is incomprehensible to us that this barbaric filial vengeance is not only deemed justice, but indeed morally laudable in the twisted logic of the Arab's exaggerated sense of pride.
The great schizophrenia of the Arab mind must wrestle with two mutually exclusive thoughts: that Arabs are the most blessed of the earth while in fact being the most wretched. Unable to reconcile these twin polarities and in turn incapable of the self-reflection necessary for a civilization's enlightened Reformation to occur, a host of scapegoats are necessary in the form of Jews, infidels, and imperialists who are persistently denying the chosen people their proper station. Until this transformation occurs, the remedy for the Arab soul will be "more Islam" and an unending return to filial bloodshed, intrigue, and unrelenting tyranny both between man and woman and between regime and subject. Having proved the biblical adage that "the dog returns to its own vomit," the closed circle of the Arab heart retains a sickness that is never cured and a lesson that is forever unlearned.