Chaim Shmuel left a long and challenging note in response to my post on the impact of the media on European Muslims. I got a similar complaint in a private email from one of my research assistants. It raises important questions and seems worthy of a separate post in response. (CS in blockquotes)
the article by John Rosenthal is very, very interesting. however, i have a bone to pick with you. This seems to be your underlying motif, the core of every post you have at this site: “the only way the Arab world will ever achieve some semblance of democracy is in learning from the Israelis. But that would mean, of course, swallowing pride and learning some modesty”.
Actually, I never stated it quite as boldly as I did in this post, so I’m not sure it’s my underlying motif of every post, but I’ll own it nonetheless, even if I end up changing or clarifying substantially by the end of this discussion.
But what is the distinction that you always draw? ‘We’ bend over backwards for peace, for restraint, for international approval, while ‘they’ ruthlessly pursue jihad, manipulating us in the process. Therefore, ‘we’ are commendable, and ‘they’, despicable. But Israel, and more broadly, the Jews, always fail precisely when behave this way. They appear ridiculous and contemptible, and rightly so.
I’d be a good deal less sweeping in my language. 90% (or more) of the time that one is restrained and conciliatory in a civil society, it produces positive-sum results. It doesn’t “always fail.” It fails when you are dealing with an honor-shame culture at war with you, which views all your concessions as contemptible weakness. If you (we) continue to behave in such ways, continue to get blindsided by the violence our appeasement elicits, then we are indeed ridiculous. But I would never say that bending over backwards for peace and consensus is a bad thing. On the contrary, sacrifices for the sake of peace are great and generous deeds. Only in contexts where it clearly backfires and produces war does such behavior become problematic.
This bears a striking similarity to what the inmates say…
about their efforts at assimilation, which is very compelling. I found it quite believable, natural, and, resonant. For example: ‘“One imitates them,” he says, referring to “Westerners” in general, “and one thinks that’s good and one tries to become a little Westerner, even though the West despises us and finds us even more hideous when we imitate it. The Muslim loses his dignity and his sense of honor and becomes like a monkey who imitates his master: the West”’. We see clearly what the problem is, and it’s a very old, and very serious concern, both for individuals and for groups of any kind. If i’m not mistaken, before Herzl wrote The Jewish state, he was asking the pope for an audience so as to discuss a way of converting all the Jews. It was the Dreyfus affair that changed his mind…the inability to integrate into French society…
There’s a very important distinction to be made here between imitating and learning from other cultures. I’m not a fan of either imitation or assimilation, either for Jews or for Muslims (or Christians in a secular society for that matter). There’s an excellent book by Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi of England) called The Dignity of Difference. The point I’m trying to make is that civil society has a set of rules that everyone can live by and still maintain their identity. It would be an enormous loss if Arab culture disappeared in an effort to ape Western styles; just as it is an enormous loss that Arab culture insists on identifying itself with the kind of prime-divider, authoritarian styles that have so far characterized the political culture in the Arab world, it will not only fail to “keep up” with the modern world, but will perpetually feel humiliated by its appalling performance.
What this adjustment without losing cultural specificity (both Arab and Muslim) would involve is really not clear. In a sense, it’s up to the Arabs and Muslims to negotiate that. There’s a joke about a British Jew who decides he’s going to assimilate, so he shaves his beard, cuts off his payyes, buys a three-piece pin-stripe suit, bowler hat and umbrella, and looks at himself in the mirror and starts to cry. “Don’t worry, Moishe,” his friend says, “you can grow the beard and payyes back.” “I’m not crying because of that,” Moishe responds with an English accent, “I’m crying because we lost India!” That kind of assimilation no one needs, not even the Brits.
It isn’t so good they found jihad, sure, especially for Jews, but you can see how vapid, how morally depraved Western society is, how reasonable it is for them to hate France, and the reasons they hate it. Let me clarify: Jihad, not reasonable. Hating France, reasonable.
This is an interesting formula. But I do think there are more interesting and generous ways to find your self-respect than turning to a really vicious form of vengeance for your lost honor. I don’t consider exploding in anger and seeking to destroy that which has rejected you, an honorable response. On the contrary, it suggests a fundamentally immature reaction, in which self-respect can only be retrieved by violence and dominance.
As for hating France… I have a very complicated relationship to the French. I’m a historian of medieval France; I admire certain aspects of their culture and think that they have contributed in their own way to the emergence of a free society. They also have major shortcomings – arrogance to hide insecurity, hypocrisy and self-deception to hide weakness, and a disastrous addiction to moral Schadenfreude that makes for a culture and politics of resentment. And all of these shortcomings are right now killing the French, like a man with a 300 Cholesterol count who insists on washing down his cheeseburgers with truffles. It may taste good, but freedom demands discipline, and self-indulgence can forfeit the hard-earned privileges of freedom.
I know plenty of people who have already written France (and Europe) off as lost to the Islamic demographic and ideological juggernaut. I don’t agree, although the prognosis is not great, especially as long as the Europeans refuse to acknowledge what they’re up against. (And here their media play a key role – hence my reference to the MSM as an Augean Stables.) But I think that French culture for all its shortcomings, is a distinct and valuable contribution to world culture, admirable in many ways. And if you feel free in hating the French (presumably for their hypocrisy and treachery to allies and their brown-nosing of enemies), then I think you have all kinds of reasons for hating the Arabs. Don’t fall prey to HRC, in which your indignation only falls on honkeys, and spares the “authentic” indigenous cultures of the world.
Of course you could say something like it’s their fault for not integrating, but that is not an adequate solution. Ok, so you say to them, you should be more like us. They have found a way to be more like us, at least ‘us’ before we go astray: they have stopped imitating the master, they stopped trying to be a part of a society that rejects them, which, i think, is pretty admirable. We should learn from them! They have sought and found a way to gain self-respect, and even, yes, honor.
There are, as far as I’ve been able to make out, at least two different kinds of honor – the honor of integrity, and the honor of dominion. When Judah says to Tamar (Genesis 38), “you are more righteous than I,” he loses his honor as dominion (humiliated in front of his fellow “big men,” when he could gain honor in their eyes by burning Tamar for shaming his household with her sexual promiscuity), but he gains honor in integrity. I have no problem with the Muslims of the West regaining their honor by rejecting the effort to assimilate with Western secular styles (which are, often, but not always, empty). But, if you will, they need to find a new form of Islamic identity, not regress to the “rule or be ruled” version of Islam that characterizes both Jihad and the Islamic empires it spawned.
Secular society is not necessarily hostile to religion. On the contrary, by demanding that its member renounce the drive to impose their own religion on others, by forcing religious people to articulate their beliefs in ways that attract rather than intimidate others, they bring out the best in religion. And by allowing everyone freedom of religion, they make it possible to live a dignified religious life without either being humiliated by others or corrupted by the effort to dominate others. My sense is that Islam, just as much as Christianity and Judaism, has the ability to generate an egalitarian religiosity that renounces the need to dominate. (This, by the way, is one of the big differences between the US and the Europeans. The latter have a tendency to show profound contempt for anyone who believes the “superstitious” nonsense of religion. As a result, they really have fewer cultural resources to resist the onslaught of a religion of fervent believers.)
This is a fundamental part of making peace with your surroundings, and it is a very widespread struggle, not just Islamic. Rosenthal notes: ‘It is important to note that in the most psychologically informative accounts, the primary feeling is of “not being French.” The “discovery” that the “authentic” — or, at any rate, “not French” — self is in fact Muslim is a secondary interpretation of this sense of “otherness.”’ Even if the outcome is terrible, you have to admit that the logic is valid, and those early years of Israel’s existence is proof of the manifestation of that inner desire to not be like everyone else.
Again, the logic is valid; but the “terrible” conclusion not valid both in terms of respect for one’s neighbors (let’s not forget that it’s French society with its commitments to freedom of religion that make it possible for these Muslims to pursue other options), and in terms of the very psychology of self-respect. They haven’t made a move towards real autonomy if they go from slavish imitation to blind destruction. Self-respect means, among other things, being more concerned with one’s own self-integrity than needing to either beg or force others to give you respect.
Why would they want to be like Israel?
From their point of view? They want Israel’s power, and, I suspect, many of them also would like Israel’s freedoms. It’s just a question of whether they’re willing to give up the freedoms of a prime-divider society, like honor-killings.
Israel could not even outrank the United Arab Emirates in the list of most corrupt countries, and that is just one in a host of problems with the country. (http://www.transparency.org/news_room/in_focus/cpi_2006/cpi_table)
I visited this site. I don’t have time to examine what their criteria are, but it looks less than convincing. Remember that Reporters without Borders had Israel below the Palestinian Authority in “freedom of the press” in their first annual rankings (2002). I would want an extensive view of the data that lies behind this list before I took it seriously.
Beyond that, your remark is a good example of what I’d call “prophetic rhetoric” (which I’d now say has become so common as to appear “accurate.” There is a huge difference between what counts (and appears publicly) as corruption in a civil society like Israel’s, and Arab (or for that matter, most “third world”) countries. In most places, corruption is the norm, not noticed, not denounced, largely legitimate (civil servants are paid a pittance and expected to get bribes to keep afloat). When there’s a corruption scandal in Africa, an Africanist friend of mine told me, the reaction of most people is “what a fool to have gotten caught.” You, however, not only want to compare Israel (a society in which the Prime Minister can resign because his wife had $10,000 illegally in a foreign account) with a society in which, as Bernard Lewis put it, wealth is acquired by “taking, not making,” but you also want to claim it’s inferior. As a spur to “shaming” Israelis into become less corrupt, that’s okay, I suppose. But don’t think that with this rhetoric you’re describing reality.
The fundamental problem is that Israel is becoming like any other Western nation, whose people are concerned basically with leading an affluent, comfortable, easy life, kind of like this one: “But my ideal was to be French, to act like the French: to have my wife, my kids, my car, my apartment, my house in the country, to become an average Frenchman and live in peace. . .”
First, I’d like to say something on behalf of affluence. We all have the desire and capacity to enjoy this world… its sensual and intellectual, as well as its spiritual possibilities. It is part and parcel of being a compassionate and loving human being to want to make life good for oneself and others (starting with one’s children, family and friends). In most cultures, the ability to enjoy this world is overwhelmingly reserved for the elites (alpha males and their families). Civil society and (primitive) capitalism have made it possible for those benefits to accrue to a much wider range of people who are willing to work for it – “make not take.” (This means, among other things, that one must overcome the typically elitist contempt for manual labor: even if one doesn’t do it oneself, at least have respect for those who do.)
As far as I can make out, the laws laid out in Exodus and Deuteronomy are the earliest extant political program for a society of free peasants, people who walk upright (as opposed to the deference one must pay the elites in prime-divider societies), work the land, and eat to their fill (including meat, generally the preserve of the aristocracy). The idea of a society of free people who work and enjoy the fruits of their labor strikes me as a particularly noble idea… and not one that demands a particular religious adherence. It’s not a question of creed, but of morality. As one commoner in a Spanish medieval market put it, “I don’t care if I’m dealing with a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. I care if he’s honest.”
The problem with the West is not the bourgeois dream, it’s the vapid, materialistic existence that such dreams can induce. That’s precisely why I’m not a fan of assimilation. On one level, the whole materialistic rat-race is one of the conspicuous consumption of keeping up with the Joneses, of pinning one’s identity to the opinions of others rather than taking delight in what one has and has earned. (Ultimately, I think that too comes down to a failure to disengage from honor-shame culture.)
Voter turnout was the lowest it has ever been this past election. One Rabbi here in Boston asked me if I had been to Israel. I said yes, I stayed in Tel Aviv. He said, chuckling, but Tel Aviv isn’t Israel; it’s a suburb of Los Angeles.
The original vision was to make it the eastern Mediterranean Barcelona. But even as such, it’s got its own distinct character. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but surely attractive to many. But it’s not a cultural catastrophe. Israel is not just Tel Aviv (despite what many Tel Avivis think). As for voting patterns, Israel still have one of the highest rates of turnout in the Western world. Just as the world is divided between people who have too much and not enough (food, attention, time, freedom), so are countries divided between people who would love the privilege of voting, and those who spurn it. But again, avoid the prophetic rhetoric, certainly if you want to discuss “reality.”
We see plainly from Rosenthal’s article there is absolutely no reason for the Arabs or Muslims to want to be more like us, at least not the present incarnation of us, unless we want them to have the same kind of reaction they do with the French.
I think you’ve focused on the least attractive aspects of the West (us), given a pass the least attractive in the Arab world, and end up misgauging the situation. As a historian who works on prime-divider societies, in which the elite systematically oppresses and the commoners (for the sake of stability, of course), I can assure you that modern western, secular society has accomplished miracles; that there is a great deal to admire and want to learn from (note! Not mimic). And I think many Arabs and Muslims, even if they won’t admit it, feel that way.
What I meant when I said the Arabs could learn from Israel is not that they imitate it, but that they learn lessons from it about the nature of freedom (of speech) and mutual respect (including of women). Again, you can roll your eyes and say, “Israelis? Mutual respect? You must be kidding.” But that response itself, I think, shows how little you appreciate the enormous efforts at preserving freedom and mutual respect that make Israeli society – under pressures never before experienced by a civil society – possible. Just talk to a secular Jew – who may dislike the religious Jews a great deal — but nonetheless accepts the idea that they not serve in the army. He may want them to do national service, but he understands that their culture cannot survive the impact of army service, and, however disgruntled, accepts the importance of that culture’s survival. Israeli is astonishingly accepting of diversity.
Were cultures who have yet to develop a system that works by the rules of civil society — equality before the law, tolerance, freedoms of press and assembly, etc. — that repects their own culture’s deeper elements, including religion, that individuates without falling into the trap of a soulless scientism and techonological indulgence that threatens the planet with its excess appetite, then I’d say we have a great deal to learn from them.