Why the Arab World Is Lost in an Emotional Nakba

(Tablet) Richard Landes - Anthropologists and legal historians have long identified certain tribal cultures - warrior, nomadic - with a specific set of honor codes whose violation brings debilitating shame. Arab political culture tends to favor ascendancy through aggression, the politics of the "strong horse," which combine to produce a Middle East caught between Sisi's Egypt and al-Assad's Syria. For the 13 centuries before Zionism, Jews had been subject to a political status in Muslim lands specifically designed around issues of honor (to Muslims) and shame (to Jews). Jews were dhimmi, "protected" from Muslim violence by their acceptance of daily public degradation and legal inferiority. To the honor-driven Arab and Muslim political player, the very prospect of an autonomous Jewish political entity is a blasphemy against Islam. While some Arabs in 1948 Palestine may have viewed the prospect of Jewish sovereignty as a valuable opportunity, the Arab leadership and "street" agreed that for the sake of Arab honor Israel must be destroyed and that those who disagreed were traitors to the Arab cause. Damaging the Israeli "other" became paramount, no matter how much that effort might hurt Arabs, especially Palestinians. Sooner leave millions of Muslims under Jewish rule than negotiate a solution. Sooner commit suicide to kill Jews than make peace with them. Current peace plans assume that both sides will make the necessary concessions for peace, and that compromise can lead to an acceptable win-win for both sides. As one baffled BBC announcer exclaimed, "Good grief, this is so simple it could be resolved with an email." But it's only simple if you assume that Arabs no longer feel it's a hard zero-sum game, that any win for Israel is an unacceptable loss of honor for them, that any Israeli "win" no matter how small, is an insult to Islam. Ahmed Sheikh, editor in chief of Al Jazeera, explained: "It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West's problem is that it does not understand this." The writer is a professor of history at Boston University.

2014-06-27 00:00:00

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