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Honor/Shame, the Middle East and the American Left

The Gospel of Luke 14:1, 7-24:

14 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath ... . 7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

That last paragraph isn't the parable, by the way, which is found in vv. 16-24. Jesus's discourse on jockeying for position illuminates the kind of cultural values that Jesus grew up in 2,000 years ago, and which is still found across most of the Middle East today (and, in his renunciation of those values, helps explain why he made such powerful enemies). Cultures of honor and shame are literally foreign to Western minds. Matters of honor and shame have certainly been powerful in Western history, but such concerns have always been tempered and tamped by Jesus's teachings that "all who exalt themselves will be humbled." And the twentieth century's blood-drenched years did nothing to preserve the concept, either. Jonathan Rauch, writing in National Journal, explains,

Singularly, however, the West has backed away from honor. Under admonitions from Christianity to turn the other cheek and from the Enlightenment to favor reason over emotion, the West first channeled honor into the arcane rituals of chivalry, then folded it into a code of manly but magnanimous Victorian gentlemanliness -- and then, in the 20th century, drove it into disrepute. World War I and the Vietnam War were seen as needless butcheries brought on by archaic obsessions with national honor; feminism and the therapeutic culture taught that a higher manly strength acknowledges weakness.

He goes on to explain that in Arab culture, one's standing in the community is of paramount importance. What Easterners call "saving face" is a real force in the Middle East. Why else, Rauch asks, would Saddam lie about possessing WMDs, knowing that the lies could bring about his downfall and demise? "Saddam was more concerned about saving face -- preserving his reputation for being fierce and formidable -- than about his office or even his life. Indeed, he could not feel otherwise and still count himself a man."

The Middle East Quarterly explains the essence of the honor/shame culture:

[I[n traditional Arab society ... a distinction is made between two kinds of honor: sharaf and ‘ird. Sharaf relates to the honor of a social unit, such as the Arab tribe or family, as well as individuals, and it can fluctuate up or down. A failure by an individual to follow what is defined as adequate moral conduct weakens the social status of the family or tribal unit. On the other hand, the family's sharaf may be increased by model behavior such as hospitality, generosity, courage in battle, etc. In sum, sharaf translates roughly as the Western concept of "dignity."

Honor, then, is what is granted by the community, by the social units of society. Likewise, shame or disgrace is also so given. I demur, though, that what MEQ describes at sharaf corresponds, even "roughly," to the Western concept of dignity. A person's dignity comes from self-concept: you cannot rob me of my dignity because of my inherent worth as a human being. The idea of dignity of mankind was a concept that undergirded the American revolutionists and that led Thomas Jefferson to write that, "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them." I wrote several years ago that the American Civil War pitted the Southern states' honor concepts against the Northern states' dignity concepts.

Holy War from the legacy of the American South is waged from an offense to the nation that is seen as a stain upon the national honor, or as vengeance for wrongs done to the nation. (Southern concern with honor was a major contributor toward both Southern secession and the attack on Fort Sumter, precipitating the worst war in our history.) Honor can be restored only by confronting the foe with great force. The foe's surrender or destruction restores the national honor. Honor codes have not played a large role in shaping the Northern model of of Holy War. Instead, the Northern codes spring from ideas of the dignity of humankind, and deep notions of sin and judgment. From the Northern model, Americans readily answer the call to colors to liberate the oppressed and punish the oppressors, a combination that probably springs from the North's Puritan and Calvinistic founding.

Back to MEQ:

In contrast, ‘ird relates only to the honor of women and its value can only decrease. It translates roughly as the Western concept of "chastity" or "purity." And as with chastity or purity, exemplary moral behavior cannot increase a woman's ‘ird but misconduct reduces it. In addition, ‘ird trumps sharaf: the honor of the Arab family or tribe, the respect accorded it, can be gravely damaged when one of its women's chastity is violated or when her reputation is tainted. Consequently, a violation of a woman's honor requires severe action, as Tarrad Fayiz, a Jordanian tribal leader, explains: "A woman is like an olive tree. When its branch catches woodworm, it has to be chopped off so that society stays clean and pure."

This dynamic, says MEQ, explains "honor killings" in Muslim societies, but especially Arab ones, in which a woman whose chastity has been compromised, even by rape, is punished.

As for rape, society perceives the violated woman not as a victim who needs protection but as someone who debased the family honor, and relatives will opt to undo the shame by taking her life. Failure to do so further dishonors the family.

Rape in such societies is not held to be principally an offense against the woman, as it is in the West, but against first the men of her family and secondarily the other women, whose reputation for chastity can be sullied by libertine ways of one. Because it is not really dishonorable for a man to commit rape as much as for a woman to endure rape, things like this occur:

On May 31, 1994, Kifaya Husayn, a 16-year-old Jordanian girl, was lashed to a chair by her 32-year-old brother. He gave her a drink of water and told her to recite an Islamic prayer. Then he slashed her throat. Immediately afterward, he ran out into the street, waving the bloody knife and crying, ‘I have killed my sister to cleanse my honor.' Kifaya's crime? She was raped by another brother, a 21-year-old man. Her judge and jury? Her own uncles, who convinced her eldest brother that Kifaya was too much of a disgrace to the family honor to be allowed to live."

The psychologist who uses the nom de blog of Dr. Sanity explained in Shame, the Arab Psyche, and Islam, that in Arab cultures, the principal concern over conduct is not that which is guilty or innocent, but that which brings honor or shame.

[W]hat other people believe has a far more powerful impact on behavior than even what the individual believes. [T]he desire to preserve honor and avoid shame to the exclusion of all else is one of the primary foundations of the culture. This desire has the side-effect of giving the individual carte blanche to engage in wrong-doing as long as no-one knows about it, or knows he is involved.

In contrast, he says, the West has a Guilt/Innocence culture. "The guilt culture is typically and primarily concerned with truth, justice, and the preservation of individual rights."

The great difference between the two cultures is illustrated by this matrix:


The key: if your principal concern about your social self is your standing in your community and what others think about you rather than your own inherent sense of conscience and personal sense of worth, then you are operating on a honor/shame model.

I am wondering whether honor/shame codes play a much larger role for the left side of the American political aisle than is first evident. It was mostly from that side of political aisle that just after 9/11 the plaintive cry was raised, "Why do they hate us?"

To many people in the Middle East and beyond, where US policy has bred widespread anti-Americanism, the carnage of Sept. 11 was retribution. And voices across the Muslim world are warning that if America doesn't wage its war on terrorism in a way that the Muslim world considers just, America risks creating even greater animosity.

Note how the concerns of others is implied to be of supreme importance even in waging war, even if the others are the actual enemy. The Abu Ghraib offenses called forth honor/shame language from all around the aisle.

U.S. military policy was to treat the detainees at the Abu Ghraib facility outside Baghdad in the same manner as enemy prisoners of war. ... For an American soldier, there are few crimes more shameful than breeching the standards of conduct established by the laws of war. ... Nothing will regain the respect of the Iraqis and the world more than doing the right thing in Iraq. That is the most determined response that America can make to the betrayal at Abu Ghraib.

Then there was the entirely false report that copies of the Quran had been abused at Guantanamo, which evoked strong honor/shame language from Western critics, especially on the left:

This is worse than Abu Ghraib; Abu Ghraib represents the physical and psychological torture of a few Muslims, Quran desecration represents a spiritual, emotional and psychological torture of all Muslims. Even if it turns out that the Newsweek report was false, most people will see it as a cover up and another American attempt to eschew accountability.

Note that this author deliberately eschews a guilt/innocence code by claiming that that fact of innocence does not matter. Only the perception of guilt matters. Then he comes to another part of the honor/shame code: rectufying by penance or even debasement of the offender:

The ramifications of mistakes such as this one, even if it is proven that ultimately the report was a false one, will take a long time to rectify. Perhaps Newsweek should dedicate a special issue to celebrate the Quran and the deep devotion that Muslims hold for it.

These words come as no surprise since their author is one Muqtedar Khan, a Muslim teacher in the United States. And it is no surprise that he was writing not for, say, National Review, but for Common Dreams News Center, "Breaking News and Views for the Progressive Commnity." (As for National Review, see this piece on the story and note its concern with truth or falsehood of the allegations, that is, whether the accused is guilty or innocent.)

So is the left side of aisle more concerned with image than with substance, that is with the opinion of others rather than the interior compass of the self? It seems to me to be so. I am not saying that, politically speaking, the right side of the aisle evinces no such conerns - pundits love to wax eloquent about how all politicians need to make sure they are attractive to the base of their party. But it does seem to me that the left side overall acts more within honor/shame frameworks than the right side. If so, it also helps explain why the left side is pretty fast to sympathize with the aggrieved feelings of Muslims generally when it comes to US policy: accusations are more important than evidence.

Crossposted at DonaldSensing.com


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