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Shame, Honor and Terror in the Middle East By: David Leo Gutmann
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 24, 2003


The rush of Arab guerrilla fighters to Iraq following the defeat of Saddam’s regular forces has mobilized a corresponding rush of pundits to the media outlets, eager to instruct us as to why the Arab Street is so angry with America. For the most part they name the usual suspects, the “Marxist–Lite” factors that our academicians and Middle East experts are comfortable with: that ours was a Capitalist war for oil; that we are seen as the new Western colonialists; that we support the settler state, Israel, against the dispossessed Palestinians, and so forth.

Mention is rarely made of long-established Arab military traditions, or of irrational features of Arab psychology, particularly their profound vulnerability to shame, and loss of honor.

In regard to military history, the Arab’s preference for guerrilla over conventional war reflects a long tradition, one that began in antiquity, with the Bedouin raiders. Their way of war- brilliantly described by T.E. Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – is based on hit and run forays by camel-mounted Bedouin who appear suddenly out of the desert, tear up an unsuspecting enemy camp, and then disappear back into the waste, carrying “honorable” loot: thoroughbred horses, camels and women.

The traditional Bedouin created a nearly pure “Shame” culture, whose goal was to avoid humiliation, and to acquire sharraf  - honor. Thus, the goal of the Bedouin raid is not to finally win a war, for such inter-tribal conflict is part of the honorable way of life, and should never really end. The essential goals of the raid are to take wealth – not only in goods, but also in honor - and to impose shame on the enemy.  Any opponent worth fighting is by definition honorable, and pieces of his honor can be ripped from him in a successful raid, to be replaced by figments of the attacker’s shame. The successful attacker has “exported” some personal shame to the enemy, and the enemy’s lost honor has been added to the raider’s store.

This calculus of shame and sharraf is an important element in all Arab warfare, whether waged by Saddam Hussein, Yasir Arafat, or a Bedouin sheik. In particular, that same dynamic drives the Arab preference for irregular over conventional war.

Irregular tactics - spiced with Terror – have on occasion defeated regular armies; but win, lose, or draw in the military sense, terror tactics can be a far more efficient means of  meeting psychological goals -  i.e., shedding shame and capturing honor - than all-out war. Here are some reasons:

First off, guerrilla warfare is the only form of combat in which Arab fighters regularly outperform the West. Little wonder then that irregular conflict, blended with terrorism, has always been the default military option for the Arabs, and one which they eagerly take up after their regular armies have been humiliated in the field. Thus, the Palestinians, backed by the whole Arab world, turned to terrorism after the calamitous defeat of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies in the Six-Day’s War, their fantasy being that the Fedayeen would redeem Arab honor and give Allah another chance to crush the Jews.

Secondly, In terms of spiritual as against purely military goals, the irregular fighter never really loses. At the battle’s end Goliath may own the bloody field, but David the stripling is always the moral victor. By crushing David, Goliath only adds to his own shame; and even if he loses, David always adds to his honor. For if David falls, his honor can never be smirched or stolen; and as a martyr he casts irrevocable shame on those who killed him.

The effectiveness of terrorist irregulars would no doubt be increased if and when they acquire weapons of mass destruction. But until then, their material impact is limited. They kill a few soldiers and civilians; they scare off some investors and tourists. But it is in the moral domain, on the battleground of David and Goliath, that they have a destructive effect far beyond their numbers.

Thirdly, the terrorist’s actions have the effect of imposing shame on the same enemy whose people he kills. A major aim of terrorist operations is to bring about the symbolic emasculation of the enemy’s military and civilian populations. Thus, as the enemy non-combatants give in to their fear of terror attacks and huddle passively at home, they become vulnerable to the terrorist’s boast, recently broadcast by Hamas: “We will win, because the Jews love life too much, while we love death.” At this point, the terrorist has succeeded in multiple ways: Insult has been added to injury, and his enemies have been psychologically castrated, symbolically re-gendered into women.

But for the terrorist to succeed militarily (as well as symbolically and psychologically) he needs to recruit supporters in the enemy camp. Shame societies avoid humiliation and attract support by blaming others for their defeats. Once established, their Victim Identity achieves for them two major goals: it triggers the rage that fuels the worst terrorist outrages, and it mobilizes the terrorist’s natural allies in the enemy camp. Thus, even as the victim posture reduces the Arab’s shame, it provokes a predictable and corresponding guilt reaction among the “progressive,” peacenik elements of the enemy society. The voices of “Peace Now” and “Move On” zealots are heard, all of them shedding their own guilt by accusing their fellow citizens of driving the victims of oppression to terrorism. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” becomes the dove’s mantra. In this manner, the progressives become useful idiots for the terrorists. As “transmission belts” they abet the terrorist’s mission of spreading guilt, shame and defeatism among the target population. Egged on by a leftist media that deplores the struggle as a “quagmire,” the terrorized, demoralized civilians soon demand an end to the long, costly, inconclusive struggle.

Finally, like the French in Algeria, the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the Israelis in Lebanon, the humiliated enemy, defeated by a numerically inferior but spiritually superior force, would slink away, carrying the burden of Arab shame with them as they go.

This is the catastrophic outcome that we are now approaching in Iraq. A premature American pullout would ignite a wave of Jihadist triumphalism, and bring on terrorist attacks, complete with WMD, that could soon render intolerable most urban life in the West.

The military effort against terrorism is vital, but not enough; we have to fight on the psychological /spiritual/ conceptual fronts as well. Where to begin?

Only regime changes towards democracy can break up the natural, hard-wired linkage between shame, victimhood and terrorism that we find in the Islamic societies. The sentimental symbiosis between the shame society’s “victims” and the “Liberal Guilt” subcultures of the targeted democracies is equally “genetic,” hence unbreakable. But there is a third crucial link in the terror chain that is not hard-wired, that can be weakened: the dialogue between the Jihad-friendly "liberal" elites and their larger, usually conservative audience, the citizens who consume their classroom lectures, their editorials, their politicized news reports and films. When, in a democracy, this citizenry loses heart, then the military war against terror is soon abandoned.

In a democracy we cannot, even in wartime, interfere with the free expression of defeatist, “Amerika” bashing sentiment; but we can, in ways consistent with the First Amendment, mount rhetorical counterattacks, from the conservative and centrist camps, that neutralize its demoralizing effect.

If we are to defeat terror, a kind of regime change is required: on our campuses, in our press, and in Hollywood. And responsive to that need, previously silenced voices are being heard. Organizations like Students for Academic Freedom, FIRE, Campus Watch, ACTA and the National Association of Scholars are fighting the good fight for free speech on our thought-policed campuses; and networks like Fox News are providing pulpits for informed conservative opinion on TV. Perhaps most hopeful of all, a lively and uninhibited blogger’s Samizdat offers new internet outlets, unmonitored by the Thought Police, for a new generation of gifted commentators who gleefully and intelligently refute the pious orthodoxies of the pro-jihad Left.

Finally, the battle against terror is won or lost at home. If we refuse to be guilty about the war that we have to fight, and if we can refuse the temptation of a shameful retreat, then we will eventually prevail on the fighting fronts as well.  

David Gutmann is Emeritus professor of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at North-Western university Medical School, in Chicago. As a clinician, he has practiced and taught intensive psychotherapy. As a researcher, he has studied universal or "Species" trends in human development across a variety of peasant societies. He is currently investigating patterns of aging among Israeli kibbutz members.




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