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July 30, 2008

Culture and Conflict in the Middle East

Philip Carl Salzman – ISBN – 9781591025870

This two-hundred page tome is worth far more its thirty-five dollar price. A Mideast scholar said it was one of the most important books of the last four decades. It is an easily read disquisition because of the author’s crisp style and avoidance of trivia which commonly bury the casual reader. Most of us know that something is wrong with Islam; he circumspectly explains what . . . and why.

Salzman is an anthropologist, but the text embraces history and psychology along with culture, and he contextualizes all of this as he outlines his unique explanation of Islam’s problems. It is Islam he discusses . . . in ways consistent with the facts as he emphasizes that he is not being judgmental. Rather, he delivers information as he interprets it, as did Bernard Lewis in What Went Wrong. The bibliography is long, and includes myriad expert tracts.

His section on the Rise of Islam (fewer than 50 pages) is stunning. Amongst the things he dispels forever is the much-touted maxim that Islam is a religion of peace. It is not, never has been . . . and he persuasively documents it using Muslim sources. During their conquests from the 7th to the 11th century, millions were slaughtered, more millions enslaved, and the survivors of their holocaust were reduced to dhimmitude: expropriated, suppressed and degraded. The hallmark of Arab Empires was the enslavement of conquered peoples—except for those murdered, of course. Even men who converted to Islam were stripped of their belongings, their wives and their children. In the era of Muslim dominance most of the world functioned the same way, but they were exceptional in that they were more cruel.

“We have repeatedly been told of the tolerance that existed in the Muslim world, and of the flourishing of minorities under the enlightened guidance of Islamic law and Muslim rulers. But the historical evidence for a darker picture is overwhelming and irrefutable.”

His critical observation is that Arabic—and therefore Islamic—culture is composed of balanced opposition between like groups, which served their early culture optimally. It established “a substantial degree of order and security” necessary for survival in their desert environment. Balanced opposition results in individual and group independence, encourages freedom and courage along with equality and responsibility, but it also lends itself to bellicosity and friction. It breeds specific loyalties and a rigid honor culture. We’ve all heard this described as my kin against yours, our tribe against others, Sunni against Shia, and all Muslims against the world (especially religions other than Islam.)

At each level of affiliation there is an enemy. For each act the relevant question is: who acted and who is closest to me? All parties agree about what they are against, but never upon what they are for. This negativity and rigid honor (see below) precludes the development of a state as the West understands it; one of law and order, objectified by things upon which we all agree and delegate to government. Thus we concede to the state those things which we cannot do, or do so well alone. They do not. They move thru a chain of affiliations seeking resolution. There is no law, per se, except that prescribed in the Koran . . . or by the sword (now the Kalashnikov or the homicide bomber.)

Huntington (in The Clash of Civilizations) observed that neither “rule of law” nor “constitutionalism” have ever existed in the Arab Mideast because of this commitment to the group. There is no recognizance of abstract, universally applicable rules, and law has never been a factor in political order. The ultimate goal is winning, not acceding to a rule.

In their world, state authorities have always used the peasantry to provide income. For 4,000 years of history the tax collectors, police and the army have been tools of population control. There is no beneficence. Urban areas produce little or nothing, as they depend on the hinterlands for those materials necessary for consumption and trade.

Remote tribes have always had the power to avoid many state sanctions, and have often warred against it. They war for independence and/or the purpose of becoming the state, so that their tribe controls the largess. There is the potential for a war of all against all, which is controlled in some measure by intra-family or tribal balance. This provides space to live with a level of security, predictability, and understanding.

One is honor bound to provide whatever is needed by the balanced group to which he belongs. In turn he lives with the assurance that if in need he will be assisted. Honor thus becomes all. It is earned by victory and lost in defeat. Victims are despised, not celebrated. Honor is more important than any measurable form of success; even life itself. Notwithstanding, success is sought and measured by how much chattel or territory is controlled. It is honorable to do whatever is necessary to prevail. “Winner-take-all” is the only rule: might makes right. Right and wrong are questions never considered. Morality demands that one strive, always, to advantage one’s own group and disadvantage the adversary. Nothing is more common in the history of tribes than battles between them over territory, livestock, watering holes and women. Even marriages arranged for the purpose of retaining asset control, and women, as chattel, are traded and assigned as such.

In the U.S. it has been sarcastically noted that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” We use that maxim in sports, but they honor it in all parameters at all times. They regularly lie, cheat and steal; they fight to the death rather than surrender, despite overwhelming odds. Islam teaches that surrender isn’t an option. Recall that before “Charlie Wilson’s War” Afghans fought Hind Helicopters with Enfield rifles while children threw rocks. A truce is allowable if it serves a purpose: recovery from battle, rearming, or reconnoitering, but resumption of conflict is required victory is assured. It is dishonorable and verboten to leave the field. Hence there is unending conflict, and this has prohibited progress in their societies for centuries. They are constantly at war with someone.

• In the world of the past half century or so, two-thirds of global conflicts involve Islamic countries, either against other Islamic countries or the rest of the world. Eighty 80 percent of those conflicts are violent, and half are full scale wars. Quietude exists only when it is imposed by a dominant regime (e.g. Hussein, Mubarak, or the Saudis)
• Illiteracy in the Muslim world is nearly 50%, and most of the educated are taught in the West. When they return home they seldom find employment outside government since there is no industry. Average output of the Arab world per million inhabitants is 2% of that in industrialized nations.
• The GNP of the entire Muslim Mideast is about equal to that of South Korea, and most of that is derived from oil, found by the West, processed by Western technology, and used in large measure by the West, with Western supervision. The incredible sums taken in by the sale of oil are used by the state to suppress the peasantry, reward the brethren, and make war on each other and the world.
• Rather than study and correct the problems, they seek someone to blame; usually the West.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not over land! Muslims believe Allah has ordained Islamic rule, and it is the duty of Muslims to enforce that principle. A secular, pragmatic solution has no appeal; similarly so with the rest of the world.

There have, indeed, been periods of European imperial disruption, but these have come and gone without displacing tribal society and its balanced opposition. “It is to the [culture] that we must look to understand the current circumstances and difficulties of the Arab Middle East. The lesson is that in the Arab world, [as everywhere else], culture matters” . . . multiculturalist beliefs notwithstanding.

I could go on, but ‘twould be more rewarding and informative if you just read the book. Highly recommended!

Posted by respeto at July 30, 2008 12:13 PM