Tuesday, October 12, 2004

"The Arab Mind"

Selections from Col. (res.) Norvell B. De Atkine's foreword to Raphael Patai’s "The Arab Mind"

One trait I have observed in Arab society — which has become more pronounced over the years — is an extreme sensitivity to any critical depiction of Arab culture, no matter how gently the adverse factors are presented. In his postscript to the 1983 edition of The Arab Mind, Patai mentions a spate of self-critical assessments of Arab society by Arab intellectuals in the wake of the "new Arab" said to have emerged after the 1973 war; but this tendency to self-criticize proved to be illusory. While we in the United States constantly criticize our society and leadership, similar introspection is rarely seen in the Arab world today.

When criticism is voiced, it is usually in terms of a condemnation of Arab acceptance of some aspect of Western culture. Criticism also often emanates from outside the Arab region and, despite the so-called globalization of communication, only the elite have access to it. This is particularly true when political systems or ideology are discussed.

In no small way, this tendency has led to the current state of affairs in the Arab world. For this reason, as well as the fact that Patai was not an Arab, some scholars are dismissive of The Arab Mind, terming it stereotyped in its portrayal of Arab personality traits. In part, this stems from the postmodernist philosophy of a recent generation of scholars who have been inculcated with the currently fashionable idea of cultural and moral relativism.

Much of the American political science writing on the Middle East today is jargon- and agenda-laden, bordering on the indecipherable. A fixation on race, class, and gender has had a destructive effect on Middle East scholarship. It is a real task to find suitable recent texts that are scholarly and sound in content, but also readable.

In fact, some of the best and most useful writing on the Arab world has been by outsiders, mostly Europeans, especially the French and British. Many of the best and most illuminating works were written decades ago. The idea that outsiders cannot assess another culture is patently foolish. The best study done on American society — to take one famous example — was written some 160 years ago by the French visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, and it still holds mostly true today.


Patai devoted a large portion of this book to the Arabic language, its powerful appeal, as well as its inhibiting effects. The proneness to exaggeration he describes was amply displayed in the Gulf war by the exhortations of Saddam Hussein to the Arabs in the "mother of all battles." This penchant for rhetoric and use of hyperbole were a feature of the Arab press during the war. The ferocity of the Arab depiction of Iraqi prowess had American experts convinced that there would be thousands of American casualties. Even when the war was turning into a humiliating rout, the "Arab street" was loath to accept this reality as fact.

More recently, the same pattern has been seen in the Arab adoption of Osama bin Laden as a new Saladin who, with insulting and derogatory language in his description of American martial qualities, conveyed a sense of invincibility and power that has subsequently been shown to be largely imaginary. Saddam Hussein used similar bluster prior to the 1990 Gulf war. Patai traces this custom, which continues to the present era, back to pre-Islamic days. It is also an apt example of the Arab tendency to substitute words for action and a desired outcome for a less palatable reality, or to indulge in wishful thinking—all of which are reflected in the numerous historical examples Patai provides. This tendency, combined with Arabs' predilection to idealize their own history, always in reference to some mythic or heroic era, has present-day implications. Thus the American incursion into the Gulf in 1990 became the seventh crusade and was frequently referred to as another Western and Christian attempt to occupy the Holy Land of Islam—a belief galvanizing the current crop of Middle Eastern terrorists. Meanwhile, Israel is frequently referred to as a "crusader state."


Perhaps the most telling validation of Patai's insight into the conflictual nature of Arab society relates to the Palestinians. While their conflict with Israel has been a bloody one over the years, it cannot approach the level of death and destruction incurred in Palestinian wars against Lebanese, Syrians, and Jordanians. Despite this great violence, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict retains its place as the primary galvanizing issue for the "Arab street."


Can a society modernize without the secular lifestyle that appears to accompany the process? Adherents of the Islamist ideology, espousing a politicized, radical Islam, see no contradiction between a seventh-century theocracy and twenty-first century technology and would answer yes; however, history does not support such a view in the Middle Eastern context. As a Muslim coworker put it, "We want your TV sets but not your programs, your VCRs but not your movies." This will be the battleground of every Arab nation for the coming generation.

In his section on the "sinister West," Patai gets to the heart of the burning hatred that seems to drive brutal acts of terrorism against Americans. Despite its lack of a colonial past in the Middle East, America, as the most powerful representative of the "West," has inherited primary enemy status, in place of the French and British. Patai points out the Arabs' tendency to blame others for the problems evident in their political systems, quality of life, and economic power. The Arab media and Arab intellectuals, invoking the staple mantras against colonialism, Zionism, and imperialism, provide convenient outside culprits for every corrupt or dysfunctional system or event in the Arab world.

Moreover, this is often magnified and supported by a number of the newer generation of Western scholars inculcated with Marxist teaching who, unwittingly perhaps, help Arab intellectuals to avoid ever having to come to grips with the very real domestic issues that must be confronted. The Arab world combines a rejection of Western values with a penchant for carrying around historical baggage of doubtful utility. At the same time, there is a simplistic, if understandable, yearning for return to a more glorious and pristine past that would enable the Arabs once again to confront the West on equal terms. This particular belief has found many Arab adherents in the past decade.

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