Paradigms: PCP vs. HJP

This is the final installment in the series on Paradigms, in which I compare and contrast the two opposing paradigms on the Middle East.

PCP vs. HJP
A Personal Assessment
By: Richard Landes

As the exposition of these two paradigms indicates, they both have strong and weak points, and they both tend towards a level of generalization that hopefully disturbs people. But as Kuhn says: “From the start [observations] presuppose a paradigm… [that] embodies a host of expectations about nature [in the current discussion about human nature], that fails to function the moment these expectations are violated.” (Kuhn, Structure, p. 126). The question then, is less: Which one is (much more) right? But: When does one or the other help us understand the situation better? And: How do we keep track of both so that we can observe carefully rather than be blinded by our expectations?”

Both unquestionably simplify. PCP1 [Politically Correct Paradigm], whose strength is its commitment to the basic positive-sum principles of civil society and a willingness to engage in self-criticism even under fire, has immense difficulty registering the depth of hostility and zero-sum commitment in Arab political culture. As a result, it tends, through “even-handedness,” to want to attribute equal amounts of good and bad faith to both sides as a kind of “therapeutic” intervention. PCP2 [Post-Colonial Paradigm] goes still farther in the demonic “self”-criticism of the West whose sins justify any violence and the romanticization of Arabs and Muslims as opponents of empire. From moral equivalence to moral reversal.

HJP, on the other hand, can become so suspicious of all “moderate discourse” as forms of demopathy, that it tends to lock all Arab political discourse into that mold. This makes it difficult to detect complexity in the forces at play, even though it is precisely in the complex forces at work that any hope of resolution lies. To lump “secular” Arab governments, deeply hostile to Jihadi sentiments, along with Islamists, may miss a major distinction.

On the other hand, we need to guard from the Liberal cognitive egocentrism LCE of assuming that in Arab political culture, “secular” means roughly the same attitudes towards religion and public space as it does in ours. Although it may be an anomaly to PCP, we need to register the ways in which both “secular” dictators (like Saddam Hussein) and Islamists respond to the imperatives of Arab and Muslim honor-shame and both use religious language. We need to be aware of the degree to which the apocalyptic war message spreads on the wings of winning honor and avenging shame. Only then, for example, can we understand both the remarkable consistency of Arab hostility towards Israel almost regardless of how “practical” they’d like to be. Similarly, only then can we begin to understand the dilemma of Arab regimes that want to be pro-Western, but cannot afford to go so far as to be favorable to Israel.

Part of the problem relates to the range of human behavior one imagines. PCP focuses primarily on constructivist solutions for all, and looks for the positive-sum behavior among the Arabs and Muslims needed for such solutions; HJP sees primarily zero-sum behavior among the Muslims and focuses on realistic (zero-sum) solutions. PCP is highly self-critical of zero-sum Western behavior (symbolized by their moral assault on Israel), and remarkably reluctant to ask for self-criticism from the Arabs and Muslims. HJP can use Arab and Muslim transgressions to excuse or dismiss Western self-criticism.

The common observation – there’s good and bad on both sides has one great merit: it opens up our range. We can look for the lust to dominate on both sides, and for the will to live in peace on both sides. The problem, till now, has been the way such “even-handed” language leads to the idea that there’s not only fault on both sides, but it’s equal… even more our fault than theirs. The issue is not whether there are good and bad people on both sides, but what different cultures encourage, what they nurture, as, for example, in the different ways the Palestinians respond to terrorist elements in their midst and the way Israelis do. If we misjudge the issues here, however generous and self-critical we may wish to be, then as the expression goes, we could be sharing our lunch with a polar bear. The PCP notion that even mentioning Eurabia is a form of racism, rather than an issue to explore can be suicidal.

The recent emergence of global Jihad in the last 20 years makes misjudgments all the more dangerous. Apocalyptic movements, when they take, are like forest fires. They have to burn themselves out. The only possibility is to create buffers and manage the flame. That means finding moderates in the Muslim world who can create conditions where the ferocity of Jihad has less appeal and therefore cannot move from the margins to the center of the religion. The problem is that, if you misidentify the moderates, and empower the demopaths, instead of throwing water on the buffer zone, you throw gasoline. The British or Dutch generosity and tolerance towards Muslims has only increased the boldness and aggression of Islamist and Jihadi sentiments.

So the point is, that we need to keep both paradigms in mind as we explore our relationships with political and cultural players from the Arab world, and look for ways to get Arabs wavering between the difficult demands of civil society for moderation, self-criticism and tolerance on the one hand, and the tempting if dangerous demands of honor-shame culture for dominion on the other, to shift to civility. In order to do so, we need to probe.

An example of such probing, until recently sorely lacking from a media with a pronounced tendency to avoid confrontation with representatives of the Arab and Muslim world, came in a British TV interview with a Muslim cleric in the summer of 2005 after the July 7 bombing. When asked if bombing buses in Tel Aviv was the moral equivalent of bombing buses in London, the “moderate” surprised his interviewer by repeatedly refusing to define suicide terrorism as “murder” choosing instead to call it “struggle.” The question thus brought out the possibility that the moderate’s discourse, tailor-made for a credulous audience, had a demopathic subtext. The point is not that all Arabs are demopaths (not even necessarily this one, who may be bowing to the honor-shame demands of his constituency not to denounce attacks on Israel), but that enough of them are. Therefore, as a matter of principle, we Westerners have a right to test for double-talk. And the gold standard is a genuine willingness to self-criticize.

Given this analysis of Jihadi intentions and activities among a group whose size is changing and not clear to any observer, the aggressive assumption of PCP – that any attempt to designate more than a tiny minority of Muslims as Jihadists is a kind of war-mongering racism – hurts all parties to civil society. The real moderates are the people ready to redefine in their own cultural idiom the civil terms of what brings honor to a man – helping your own people get out of camps and begin a decent life – and what brings shame to a leader – sacrificing your people to your own selfish needs. They need our help and we need theirs. There may be many people in the Arab world who genuinely want change, and who, consciously or not, hate us because, although we talk a good liberal game, we expect so little of them that we ask nothing in the way discipline or self-criticism, and leave them in the clutches of ruthless people. It is our job to help them, not the demopaths who exploit them and wish to take advantage of our generosity.

As for our own self-criticism, part of what has knocked both paradigms off kilter and encouraged the demopaths, comes from the extraordinary – one might even say pathological – levels of self-criticism “we” (“progressives”) direct at ourselves (see MOS). This PCP2 hyper-criticism – the West is the evil empire – without any acknowledgment of the immense accomplishments of civil society, slides effortlessly into demopathic discourse of people with a virulently imperial plan.

At the same time it gives wings to the politics of resentment. The “anti-imperialist” hostility of much of the world to the USA that drives PCP demands for US withdrawal from Iraq, needs attention in this light. For the Europeans to root for the Iraqi “insurgents” to drive the US forces out of Iraq, seems suicidal. European nations are prime Western targets of Jihadi ambitions, and the US retreat will only embolden Europe’s already aggressive Muslim populations.

Sober progressives need to ask how much of the moral indignation against Bush and Blair, like the demonization of Sharon may come from deep and unacknowledged resentment masquerading as moral outrage and ultimately irrational. In this light, the job of Americans may be less to seek the favor of the Europeans by appeasing this resentful attack with concessions to its suicidal logic, than to work through the issues with intelligent and realistic European leaders and intellectuals.

The problem that faces any serious progressive today, is that, right now, Western academic and media discussion of the Middle East conflict, largely committed to PCP 1 and or 2, terrified of the accusations of racism and Islamophobia, have offered us blue pills, not red ones. They avoid paying attention to the genocidal Jihadist languge and the demopaths who cover for it. They either omit it from their reports, or, if they must acknowledge the violence, translate it into familiar terms of resistance to injustice (“insurgents” PCP1; “freedom fighters, minute men” PCP2).

Said’s Orientalism has above all had the effect of issuing a gag-order on any criticism of the Arab world discussion of honor-shame dynamics in the Arabic world blinding us to the emergence of a powerful and ruthless enemy. The failure of Middle Eastern Studies as a field to help us understand either honor-shame or Jihadi dynamics represents a major intelligence failure. This failure to study these issues seems all the more curious since one would expect progressives to recognize and oppose the exploitation of a people by its elite, and to critique the scape-goating discourses with which these elites distract their victims from realizing the source of their suffering.

On the contrary, the attention of most of western PCP Middle-Eastern scholarship focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict, in particular on Israel’s moral and political failures. From the JP’s perspective, this focus, rather than helping us understand, serves largely to channel and legitimate scape-goating discourse that prolongs the very conflict it claims to want to resolve fairly. This PCP contribution to violence and suffering seems to rest on two key moral failures: a) the application of an exceptionally demanding peace-time standard of democracy and civil rights to the young democracy Israel while it is fighting a battle for survival, and b) a secret moral contempt for the Palestinians whom they apparently consider so primitive that any behavior no matter how morally depraved – suicide terrorism – gets glossed as understandable “frustration and rage.” “What choice do they have?” (PCP1) treats them like predatory animals from which we have no moral expectations. (We don’t reprimand our cats for killing and playing with dead mice. And “resistance is not terror” (PCP2) gives a free hand to one of the most ruthless and oppressive organizations in today’s deeply troubled world.

The media’s approach does not represent moral even-handedness, or even a moral accomplishment at all. Ironically, given its own self-perception, such thinking is an appeal to the worst in both our own and the Arab and Muslim world’s moral thinking. By echoing and transmitting the Arab world’s shame as Israeli inflicted pain, the MSM have become enablers of the Arab world’s increasingly pathological addiction to Judeophobic paranoia. We are now all paying the price of our own press’s inability to distinguish between terrorists and freedom fighters, between the arsonists of civil society and the firemen.

The revulsion of the progressive to the orientation and observations of JP needs to be confronted, not indulged in, especially when the PCP approach shows such serious signs of back-firing. We need not turn to war just because we observe that others are at war with us. The common PCP objection that to see the world through JP leaves no hope, reflects not a courageous confrontation with real problems, but an ostrich policy that increases not only the likelihood of war, but the extent of the damage that will occur when it does break out. If PCP1 wants to find constructive solutions to problems, they will have to pass through the observations of JP and create new and dynamic ways to deal with the problem.

Swallow the red pill
… and then let’s talk about humane and just solutions. They’re there. It is our denial and lack of imagination that keep us from finding them.

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