Islamic Insecurities: On the nature of hyper-asabiyya

Solomonia has an interesting post on the Danish cartoon scandal with some pertinent comments about the insecurity it reveals about “a shockingly weak and fragile religion of over a billion people.”

This is a broad generalization, but bear with me. A lot of us here in the US, and I think it’s something sort of particular to the northeast, have this way of dealing with…testing…newcomers. We needle them. We apply a lit put-down humor. Just to see how they react. If they can take it, if they can even be a little self-effacing in return, or maybe give it back in good humor, then they’re in. If not, if they flip out and show their delicate ego and that hanging with them is going to be like walking on egg shells, then that’s it, it’s gonna take a lot to get them “in.”

Well if you didn’t already know it, the Muslim world is showing they just can’t take it, and in fact they can’t take even the smallest things…even a few lame cartoons in a paper no one in the world reads published in a country no one ever heard of before this happened (slight exageration — no offense).

And not only are they offended, and obviously annoyed, but they’re flipping out. How weak must these peoples’ psyches be to melt down this completely?

There’s a lot to this speculation, and it relates to the question of honor-shame cultures and their response to humiliation. Part of the problem is not merely seeing oneself in an unpleasant light, but also relates to one’s own self image. The more exceptional one feels one should be, the more painful the failure to live up to such expectations. In a chapter on Arab Self Image in his important survey of Arab Attitudes towards Israel Yehoshefat Harkabi notes that the Arabs have an exceptionally high sense of themselves which makes their defeats at the hands of the Jews so much the more painful. As a parallel, he quotes a line from Charles De Gaulle about the French (page 355):

France is not herself except when she is in the front rank… France cannot be France without her grandeur…” War Memoirs, French edition, part I, p.1.

Similarly, we find just these sentiments from a spokesman for al Qaeda:

How can [the Muslim] possibly accept humiliation and inferiority when he knows that his nation was created to stand at the center of leadership, at the center of hegemony and rule, at the center of ability and sacrifice? How can [he] possibly [acccep;t humiliation and inferiority] when he knows that the [divine] rule is that the entire earth must be subject to the religion of Allah — not to the East, not to the West — to no ideology and to no path except for the path of Allah? As long as the Muslim knows and believes in these facts, he will not– even for a single moment — stop striving to chieve it, even if it costs him his soul…”
Sulaiman abu Ghaith, “Why We Fight America” in The al Qaeda Connection, p. 16f.

In his book Islam under Siege, Akbar Ahmed writes about hyper-asabiyya, or the abreaction of masculine honor under conditions of uncontrollable loss of collective honor, the excessive group loyalty that people who feel under collective siege are driven to express. The Muslim world does indeed feel like it’s under siege by modernity, and its reaction is not only to want to destroy what it feels besieges it, but take the place of the West as the driving and dominating force in globalization. The question that faces us is, how do we deal with this?

PS. I do think the quote about the French explains why they sympathize so with the Arabs: Both people were once the leading civilization, both have had to live with history gone wrong, both deeply resent those who surpass them by the new rules of modernity.

24 Responses to Islamic Insecurities: On the nature of hyper-asabiyya

  1. Lawrence Barnes says:

    Testing a newcomer with teasing: to me, this is an alien concpt, possibly because I was born and reared in California and have no experience whatsoever with the Northeast USA. I notice the Brits do it, however, and some carry it to an extreme that they call “winding someone up.” Not my cup of tea.

    I would say Californians take a less “pushy” approach to strangers (more “wait and see” rather than “test and see”), and the same is probably true of Southerners, in general; social class may have something to do with it, as well. Some Brits consider hostile teasing a way of advancing a friendship; I point to the lost Empire and suggest the practice is terminally off-putting. Teasing is found between soldiers who trust each other with their lives, but even there definite limits are set and respected. Otherwise it is out of place in my world. In fact it seems to me to indicate a degree of insecurity! Well, it’s a murky, slippery and complex subject. Reality is created by our perception of it — and we do make excuses for our (mis)behavior, don’t we??

    Shame cultures: this is a very interesting concept, but IMHO may be a bit over-simple. France and the Arab nations are said to be similar in this respect, and therefore to show a degree of mutual understanding and even sympathy for each other? I would dispute that, but…I doubt I know enough about either culture, and if I did, it would take a long essay.

    The Danish cartoons: I am disappointed that AFAIK only one other newspaper (in Norway) has demonstrated support for the brave Danes by publishing the offensive drawings. (Think how flummoxed the Islamists would be if every newspaper in the free world ran the cartoons!) Muslims cannot be allowed to dictate limits on Western freedom of speech/press by expressing their outrage at everyday Western behavior. I believe the best way to respond to would-be tyrants is to attack them at a fundamental level. Pigs, dogs and cartoons would be my offensive weapons. Let those who cannot abide them learn that they will never be permitted to impose their suffocating values on the West. Liberty has been centuries in its evolution, and undefended, it will perish; we defend it best when we practice it pointedly. No surrender. No withdrawal. No compromise.

  2. John Kiehn says:

    Hypersensitivity might be one way to describe the Muslim religion, but I would say that their belief system does not accept co-existance with other religions. You are either a Muslim or and Infidel. There is no middle ground.
    With Hamas now in control of Palistine, and Iran on the cusp of being armed with nukes, WWIII is going to happen and soon… Israel and the United States cannot allow the fanatics of the Muslim world to enact jehad with nuclear weapons.. Word is that a pre-emptive strike will happen by April of this year if diplomacy fails. (and it will)
    The war described in Ezekiel 38 is about to take place. I really think the (you know what) is going to hit the fan this year.

    query from RL: are you looking forward to this?

    • Daud says:

      I am from the Eastern Side of the US and the Muslim community has been nothing but kind to me and to many new comers.

      Also, Islam has a long history of co-existing with all religions from it’s conception. The reason for recent “insecurities” are due to the lack of understanding of the Middle East. It seems like if you guys do not realize the accepted hatred and prejudices faced by Muslim in America today. I am American and pretty moderate in thinking but… It would be totally unacceptable to make a cartoon about African Americans that disrespected the race and culture. So why is it accepted to disgrace a beloved religious figure? I mean I understand in America it is ok to take images of Jesus on certain cartoons and make fun of it. I honestly think that’s offensive too. I love Jesus(pbuh) as well and think it’s distasteful and disrespectful. In fact in England there was a movie released and you know that no one said anything… Only Muslims. We do not like any religious figure being disrespected. For the Sake of God/Allah… We have to realize that by the Will of God we have been granted many freedoms. America use to be a God Fearing once. Now we disgrace the Books and the prophets of all religions and money becomes our religion. You want to live in a secular society fine… Thats your choice. Don’t push it on the rest of the world as an ideology that we should all accept. Muslims for one feel pride in their religion and would like to preserve it and protect it, God Willing.

  3. Lawrence Barnes says:

    Horrifying possibilities. Wretchard at The Belmont Club argues that nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue states like Iran are poor weapons; he and others also argue that deterrence will work against Iran. The question is not what Wretchard thinks of atom bombs in Muslim suitcases, but what the mullahs think of them. As for deterrence, the leaders of the USA and the USSR were all rational, but Iran is in the hands of lunatics who are willing to sacrifice millions of their people in order to kill fewer Jews — if the exchange will permit the destruction of Israel. Two or three bombs could do enough damage to render Israel unable to defend herself against even an incompetent invasion. Iran is much bigger than Israel and can “absorb” and actually survive a huge blow, but Israel cannot. Maybe our best hope is that the CIA will foment revolution in Iran. There are millions of Iranians who hate the insane government in Tehran. Was the bomb the other day a CIA operation, I hope??

  4. RL says:

    answer to Lawrence Barnes I:
    you wrote:
    Testing a newcomer with teasing: to me, this is an alien concpt, possibly because I was born and reared in California and have no experience whatsoever with the Northeast USA. I notice the Brits do it, however, and some carry it to an extreme that they call “winding someone up.” Not my cup of tea.

    I would say Californians take a less “pushy” approach to strangers (more “wait and see” rather than “test and see”), and the same is probably true of Southerners, in general; social class may have something to do with it, as well. Some Brits consider hostile teasing a way of advancing a friendship; I point to the lost Empire and suggest the practice is terminally off-putting. Teasing is found between soldiers who trust each other with their lives, but even there definite limits are set and respected. Otherwise it is out of place in my world. In fact it seems to me to indicate a degree of insecurity! Well, it’s a murky, slippery and complex subject. Reality is created by our perception of it — and we do make excuses for our (mis)behavior, don’t we??

    this kind of teasing and self-deprecation is also very jewish, part of a culture of dispute that assumes a kind of rough and tumble argumentation that you have to get used to. i don’t think it’s insecurity, altho in some cases, certainly, teasing someone to the point of bullying them, it is. on the contrary, it asks of everyone that they not be so self important that they take offense.

    i remember a very lively discussion in paris one night with two americans and two frenchmen, and at one point (fairly late in the evening), one of the frenchmen came back to the table and said — “you know, i was thinking, it’s really wonderful when you can disagree with people and still be friends!” that’s terribly important, and i think one of the reasons that our current culture wars are so bad is that people on the “rIght” and the “left” are both so hostile to criticism (here, i agree with Neo, i think the left is worse), that they can’t disagree without breaking off relations. the result: enemy camps, each repeating the same tired truths to nodding heads. criticism, and the ability to self criticize, are precious commodities.

    as you say: “Reality is created by our perception of it — and we do make excuses for our (mis)behavior, don’t we??

    yes we do. and the most important way not to get too self-justifying is to listen to other people who tell you sometimes things you’d rather not hear. as my favorite poet put it (in the same work he wrote the motto for this website):
    Opposition is true friendship!

  5. RL says:

    answer to Lawrence Barnes II:
    you wrote:
    Shame cultures: this is a very interesting concept, but IMHO may be a bit over-simple. France and the Arab nations are said to be similar in this respect, and therefore to show a degree of mutual understanding and even sympathy for each other? I would dispute that, but…I doubt I know enough about either culture, and if I did, it would take a long essay.

    i’ll be happy to post it if you want to give it a go. i actually think there’s a lot to that comparison (as you can see from my post), altho the french are far more advanced in dealing with it than the Arabs. at least they have one Dreyfus affair under their belts (ie one case where the truth and the rights of an innocent individual trumped the honor-demands of major institutions like the army and the church). but they’re due for a new one (that’s what i think the al Durah affair represents) and this time, it’s the “honor” of the MSM and the quai d’Orsay that are at stake.

  6. RL says:

    answer to Lawrence Barnes III:
    on the cartoons. you are absolutely right. which is why it is so shameful of the MSM not to cover it. it is another example of the way that the MSM — supposedly modern and professional — gives in to the bullying of pre-modern mentalities.

    there’s a famous story about the German ambassador to the US, coming to visit President Washington, and while waiting, seeing a newspaper in the waiting room with a vigorous attack on Washington and his policies. when he finally got in to see Washington, he said “Mr. President, in my country we would never allow such scurrilous attacks on our leaders to be published.” To which Washington responded: “And that’s one of the differences between your country and mine.”

    would that the MSM did their jobs… i think we’d be in much less of a pickle.

  7. Solomon says:

    Lawrence Barnes: “I would say Californians take a less “pushy” approach to strangers (more “wait and see” rather than “test and see”), and the same is probably true of Southerners, in general; social class may have something to do with it, as well.”

    Yes! Definitely NOT a California thing. Also, this characteristic was first pointed out to me by a Southerner as a defining difference between Northerners and Southerners. What a Northerner might consider playful teasing would get you a Southerner’s enmity for life (huge generalization, of course).

    RL: “here, i agree with Neo, i think the left is worse”

    Another generalization that contains a current truth: “The right seeks converts, the left seeks heretics.”

  8. RL says:

    i’m reading Jacob Black-Michaud, Cohesive Force: Feud in the Mediterranean, about honor-shame cultures and “self-help” justice and the kinds of things that lead to all-out warfare, over a dozen dead over an argument about which is the brightest star (p. 133). honor is prickly. on the other hand, it’s also part of certain honor-shame cultures to develop an ability to handle insult, and engage in insult contests (true in some african american “street societies” today). southern is for sure more honor-shame than northern. western is just plain nice.

    does this relate to how quickly people speak in the northeast? — everyone’s trying to get an insult in sideways?

    as for your comment, “the left seeks heretics” i don’t get it. sorry for being stupid.

  9. pbswatcher says:

    Thanks for posting on this topic. The Danish newspaper which published the original cartoons has been forced to apologize. The Brussels Journal blog which has led the reporting of this attack on free speech is now receiving threats. Given the state of free speech in Europe as evidenced by the Italian “prove Christ existed” case, I expect Brussels Journal to be forced to remove the cartoons and their reporting. To guard against that possibility, I have reposted the cartoons and the Brussels Journal reporting thread on my blog. I urge all bloggers who care about free speech to do the same. See Farenheit 451 Alert

  10. John K. says:

    Response to “RL”
    I see the coming war as inevitable and “no” I do not look forward to this conflict. “Freedom is not free” and once again the Western nations are going to have to fight for their survival.
    The Muslim religion envisions world domanance and justifies any means to accomplish this goal. You do not have to reference to Bibical prophecy to conclude that the Middle East problem is going to boil over in a big way.
    The “fact” that Israel and the U.S. have stated that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, and that they will deal with and eliminate this threat in the coming months, should be a “big” eye opener to the world.

  11. Lawrence Barnes says:

    Thanks for the implicit vote of confidence, RL, but — I’m not qualified to shed any light on the subject of “shame cultures” and French grandeur. I pretty much stick to pigs, dogs and cartoons. Well, come to think of it, Vichy and all that, but that’s all she wrote.

    Good discussion, BTW. I’m learning stuff. More, more!

  12. Solomon says:

    RL,

    re: the “heretics” comment

    It’s something that’s been noted by some (mostly right of center people) and I agree that it is accurate in a broad sense. The American Right — so-called conservatives — tends to be much more tolerant and “big tent” with regard to those who do not subscribe to every point of “the agenda,” while currently, the Left — the so-called liberals — tend to be far, far less tolerant of those who fare question any particular point of the current set of orthodoxies. Questioning, or even wanting to engage in discussion on this or that can open one up to surprisingly hostile responses and accusations as many of those of us who have moved “Rightward” (I think neo’s experience is very similar) can attest.

    So comes the expression: The Right seeks converts, the Left seeks heretics.

    oh now i get it. so it should really read: The right seeks converts, the left seeks out heretics.”

  13. Joanne says:

    I can understand about insecurities, that reactions reflect a culture or state of mind more than anything else. But, I’m sorry, that shouldn’t have to apply to the educated and sophisticated Arabs, of which there are so many. A bit of maturity isn’t too much to ask of the elites.

    Also, this assumption that one, by definition, must occupy a higher place in the human food chain borders on racism. How else to describe the corollary, that certain others must, by definition, occupy a lower place in the human food chain. In the West, people would know enough to at least be ashamed to express such attitudes.

  14. RL says:

    Joanne wrote:
    I can understand about insecurities, that reactions reflect a culture or state of mind more than anything else. But, I’m sorry, that shouldn’t have to apply to the educated and sophisticated Arabs, of which there are so many. A bit of maturity isn’t too much to ask of the elites.

    that really depends. if the entire culture is insecure, then the elites feel particularly vulnerable because they are public representatives. this gets back to honor-shame issues: if my peer groups is a) insecure and b) overcompensates by demanding aggressive behavior from its public leaders, then the position of the elites in such a situation is difficult in the extreme. the role of the “Arab Street” in prolonging the Arab-Israeli conflict is in part due to this very dynamic.

    Also, this assumption that one, by definition, must occupy a higher place in the human food chain borders on racism. How else to describe the corollary, that certain others must, by definition, occupy a lower place in the human food chain. In the West, people would know enough to at least be ashamed to express such attitudes.

    interesting use of the word ashamed. you illustrate the point that we never get away from honor and shame completely. but we do define what brings honor very differently: for the westerner (esp the liberal) we pride ourselves on not being racist, zero-sum, supersessionist. we criticize every aspect of our culture that still contains elements of this dominating drive. but for a tribal warrior honor-shame culture, dominion is honor.

    we have a post on this at The Second Draft under game theory. modernity is based on the notion that win-win resolutions are not only possible but desireable. indeed, we define them as “rational.” it is from the commitment to this logic that we get civil society, human rights, democracy.

    the problem with most pre-modern thought is that it’s zero-sum: i can only win if you lose. it has its own compelling logic and represents a radically different form of rationality. it also produces cultures of impoverishment, what i call prime divider societies. understanding the dynamics — including the emotional dynamics of the two choices, which game theorists often ignore in their determination to quantify — lies at the heart of overcoming liberal cognitive egocentrism.

  15. Antidhimmi says:

    I wonder if the reaction to these cartoons represents a somewhat different dynamic. While the apparent insecurity of the Muslim world is an appealing explanation for their reactions to satirizing their blessed prophet, there is another factor at work. By forcing abject apologies, don’t they assert their superiority? Isn’t it another way of humiliating the infidels and proving that they can be manipulated by clever Muslims to accept their secondary status? At the least it makes media more careful about criticizing anything related to the Muslim religion or behavior of Muslims that has a religious base. I think so. I also think it is a mistake to cater to these supposedly raw Muslim feelings. It reinforces their sense that they can assert control of western media by forcing us to accept their definitions of acceptable thought.

  16. RL says:

    agreed. this is just as much a power-play and an assertion of territorial control as the riots in france and the withdrawal from gaza. if we throw our weight [a billion people] around, play by rules that no one else would or could [because people wouldn't tolerate it from anyone else], then we assert our power both in the present and in the future.

    the very fact that the MSM won’t treat this shows how intimidated they are. here’s where Solomonia’s comment comes in to play: we need to insist on this because it’s a test of character, something made all the more significant since Muslim media do not hesitate to run the most revoltingly demeaning cartoons about other religions.

    here’s where even-handedness can and should be a moral principle: if you can dish it out, expect to get it back.

  17. [...] iticize. We are faced with an effort on the part of an ever-more aggressive global Islam, hyper-sensitive to any criticism however deserve [...]

  18. [...] he pathologies of “honor-shame” culture — what Akhbar Ahmed calls “hyper-assabiyya” — in among Palestin [...]

  19. [...] problem of Islam, Israel offends precisely the kind of cultural attitudes that produce the hyper-aggressive hostility of Islamism. For peo [...]

  20. [...] tion of this need to dominate (women, minorities, non-Muslim dhimmi, heretics, dissidents, Beta males). For those who wish to forget histo [...]

  21. [...] this week PBS Watcher left a comment here that he had posted the Danish cartoons and urged others to do the same. I have taken them from [...]

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