Good Questions All: Responses to Ken Lydell’s Comments

Ken Lydell who has an excellent blog comments here often and left this series of questions as a comment to my radio interview. I think they raise excellent points particularly since they address issues of what lies behind outrage and indignation in terms not of what’s been done to you, but who did it.

Great interview! Your view has much in common with mine.

Some things to think about. From 1517 until France and England took charge of the Arab world the Turks bled the Arab world dry through taxation, treated Arabs as inferiors and with great cruelty suppressed Arab dissent. Arabs were docile subjects in spite of the honor-shame dynamic of Bedouin culture. Nevertheless, Arabs bear no ill will towards Turks. Why not?

Excellent question. Churchill, the Orientalist racist, once famously remarked that the Arabs don’t mind being oppressed as long as it’s by one of their own, which seems to mean, any Islamic regime. They admire the fierce independence of the Beduin, but they are caught in the humiliating hierarchy of bureacracies at work for “aristocratic empires.” Patai, whose book has significant flaws, but nonetheless is right far more often than the current crop of (anti-)Orientalists, has a chapter on this aspect of Arab character in hierarchy — lots of authoritarianism, humiliating those below while subservient to those above. He cites a particular Arabic term for the personality type, I think, if you can find it.

France and England did not ruthlessly exploit the Arab world. In fact, they did quite the opposite and it is likely that they spent more money improving the lives of their Arab subjects than they earned from their colonial possessions. This was a sea change from the systematic oppression of the Ottoman empire. So why the great resentment at this brief episode of European colonialism?

Another excellent question. I’m not a specialist on the imperial period, so can you offer some examples of this argument “ei bono” (to their advantage). People are understandably reluctant to believe these kinds of claims. I’d investigate the problem in terms of the classic split between a powerfully positive-sum formula (european technology and civil society) in the hands of aggressive capitalists and messianic missionizers aiming at maximum exploitation.

The honor-shame dynamic of Arab culture is pre-Islamic. There are other elements of Bedouin culture that interact with Islam and contribute to Arab irredentism. What are they?

What is the traditional role of Muslim clergy in Muslim societies? In what ways is modernity incompatible with that role?

Another excellent question. My working hypothesis is that what I call demotic monotheism is, when consistent, hostile to the dynamics of honor-shame warrior culture. Indeed its demotic (popular) dimension, monotheism challenges the domineering attitudes of this mentality of honor to the strong, shame to the weak. That’s why Nietzsche called it a slave morality — it treats strong and weak equally before the law and in principles of fairness. That’s why some apologists can legitimately argue that Islam is against honor-killings. But the kind of monotheism that gives into honor-shame reverses the attitudes: you are wrong because we are right; your humiliation proves us right; our God is honored by the subjection of unbelievers. That’s where theocracy justifiably gets its bad name.

Answers to these and other interesting questions can be found in David Pryce-Jones “The Closed Circle” and Raphael Patai’s invaluable “The Arab Mind”.

Bring some passages you like from these books and we can discuss them. I don’t have my copies available.

Ken Lydell

6 Responses to Good Questions All: Responses to Ken Lydell’s Comments

  1. Ken Lydell says:

    Interesting reply. I am inclined to believe that Arabs were submissive to Turks as a portion of them were once submissive to the Ilkhanate because both Turks and Mongols were more than willing to engage in the level of violence needed to keep Arabs in line. In this regard all parties were playing by the same set of cultural rules. It was all in the family, so to speak. I am not sure a higher level of abstraction is required for a satisfactory explanation.

    European colonial powers introduced to the Arab world the notion of mass benefits. Government income was to be shared with the general population in the form of public services and works. The French and English were quite industrious in this regard and deserve credit for what they achieved.

    The concessions and monopolies granted to European capitalists at worst made some items more expensive for Arabs than they would have been in a competitive market. I can find no evidence of ruthless economic exploitation as the Arab world had little in the way of economies to exploit. Nor have I found evidence of aggressive or objectionable missionary activity on the part of French Catholic priests or Anglican clerics. Some other explanation of the Arab colonial trauma is needed, I suspect.

    The Japanese have an honor-shame culture as do the Arabs. That dimension is expressed by the two cultures in very diffent ways. I suspect that the key differences are the product of different family systems. Consanguine marriage and extreme familism in Arab societies and those like them dramatically intensifies the honor-shame dynamic.

    I will save the powerful centrality of the Muslim clergy in Muslim daily life for another comment. It needs to be examined carefully as it defines the traditional personal and institutional power of the Muslim clergy. Perceived threats to that power in large part provide an explanation for the violent rejection of modernity by so many members of the orthodox Muslim clergy.


  2. Daniel says:

    I dont have time to read this post in detail right now so i’ll return to it later.

    I just wanted to say that i’m listening to your Tovia Singer interview on my iPod, and congratulations on a fantastic interview – one that will be studied in centuries to come as our descendents try to make sense of how we in the West could be so stupid at the start of this millennium.

    But my heart sank when you said that Israel has to take out Hezbollah this time and not let Nasrallah call a victory. It hasn’t exactly played out that way in the death cult surrounding Israel, so what now?

    Is our greatest strength, freedom, our greatest weakness?

  3. RL says:

    response to Daniel:
    pretty amazingly stupid. it has me, as a historian, astounded — and part of our job is to track and explain self-destructive behavior. what’s so striking among the others of my profession is that the very analogies they should be examining — 30s in Germany, fall of the Roman Empire — they either ignore (the first) or they claim it didn’t happen (the second).

    part of what has me most amazed, is the role of moral posturing in all this stupidity. in order to preen on the global stage as the cutting edge of moral probity, the europeans are willing to commit suicide. that argues for an amazing level of importance for moral self-image in people’s behavior. makes me realize why the jews are such big players despite their numbers — they’re the people to compete with.

    as for your question about the victory of nasrallah — i think it’s really bad and expect an effort to start another intifada. whether the israelis are ready to stop anything (or can) is another matter.

    in the meantime, there are lots of things that have emerged from this — especially reutersgate and its metastasis — which i think provide real opportunities. up to us to take advantage of them.

    and yes, freedom is paradoxically a strength and a weakness — in order to be free you must allow others to be free (Hegel’s big insight), and that means vulnerability. the weakness only becomes fatal when you can’t tell dupes from demopaths… which is our current state, and that, i’d argue, due to the kind of compulsive anti-zionism and anti-americanism that Ellen’s cartoon illustrates so well.

  4. wqzmpfjydu6 says:

    I’m not sure I agree with the generalizations applied to Arabs but for the sake of discussion, these issues have a lot to do with the fact that many Arabs are victims of propoganda spread by dictators and bigoted religious leaders (Islamists), both intending to preserve and increase their personal power. Dictators calling the Turks “Imperialists” wouldn’t generate any foreign aid for their efforts. Inspiring jihad against the Turks wouldn’t get any new converts to Islam.

    Islamists respect strength and despise weakness. This was seen with crystal clarity during the conflict in Lebanon where Hezbullah gleefully used civilians as shields and endangered them for propaganda purposes. They demonstrated their belief that people with guns are strong and powerful, the civilians are weak and therfore to be used as tools.

    Islamists hate the west because according to their way of thinking our values demonstrate a weakness of character yet the west is more powerful militarily and economically.

    When the 98 pound weakling beats up the 200 pound bully, the 200 pound bully becomes psychotic.

  5. Voyager says:

    I wish to append a quotation listed in Stephen Dorril’s book “MI6” and attributed to MI6 Station chief in The MIddle East, George Young, presumably before he was removed by Macmillan:

    no matter whatever wealth or material welfare they may acquire, either by their own acute intelligence or by the fruits of Western development and commerce, a point will always come when the discrepancy between their dreams and the reality becomes too great to bear, and there will be a desperate effort to find relief in a new focus of hate…………………

    The Arab’s chief characteristic
    is a simple joy in destruction which has to be experienced to be believed….There is no gladder sound to the Arab ear than the crunch of glass, and his favourite spectacle is that of human suffering…..While the European has been building, the Arab has looted and torn down.

    page 569 hardback

  6. Ken Lydell says:

    On my question of Arabs and Turks the following.

    The insurgency America and its allies have been fighting for years could have been put down by Saddam Hussein in a month. This would have been largely achieved through the massacre or imprisonment of families whose members were suspected of participating in the insurgency. It would have been cruel and immoral by Western standards but highly effective. If we had put the likes of Hafiz Assad in charge of pacifying Fallujah or Ramala he could have done so in a few days without sustaining a casualty as he did when pacifying Muslims insurgents in Hama.

    Arabs were as docile as lambs under more than 350 years of Turkish rule while being bled white with taxation and treated as inferiors. The Ottoman Empire understood the quantity and quality of violence needed to keep Arabs in their place as did the Mongol Ilkhanate. Homo Arabicus can be house-broken if you are willing to pay the terrible price of sinking to its level to do so.

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