[All posts in this series can be found at The Arab Mind archive.]
There was a lively discussion after the last post in this series which centered around the question of how relevant the Arab Mind is to understanding our present day conflict with the Arab and Muslim world. As well, and not for the first time, I was taken to task for underestimating or ignoring the role of Islam in the formation of Arab culture.
For the first part, I would suggest that beyond the ad hominem argument put forth in an effort to invalidate this series, Nina, the commenter took the position that since her experiences in an Islamic country (she did not specify which country) did not match what I was describing, the series could have no validity. Perhaps she had not read the entire series, including several disclaimers, but I have tried to be clear that the Arab Mind represented a distillation of an "ideal" Arab/Muslim developmental line as epitomized by the Saudis. It is no coincidence that the Shia Persians have adopted very similar practices in their efforts to prove their bona fides as the truest representatives of Allah's will and the true heirs of the caliphate. There remains something profoundly idealized in the Muslim World (spreading out from the concentric circles around Mecca and Medina) that the most devout fundamentalist Muslims aspire to. For the second part, I would simply counsel patience; I have not yet attempted to integrate the particular teachings of Wahhabi/Salafi Islam into the Arab Mind, but would suggest that the radical interpretation of Islam promulgated by the Saudis supports all of the most problematic aspects of the Arab Mind.
To the objection that I have not spent years living in the Arab world and therefore have limited sociological and anthropological data upon which to base this discussion, I can only respond that my lack of such intimate knowledge of the culture does not mean that I can not use other sources of data and interpret such data through the lens of Psychoanalysis. Some of the data is systematic and anthropological, such as Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind and Philip Carl Salzman's Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, and some more anecdotal and sociological, as in the recent New York Times's articles about adolescent and young adult "relationships" (more below); further, I have also had a fair amount of direct discussion with Arabs and Western expatriates living in Muslim countries. Most of the data supports the contention that there are narrowly constrained approaches to child rearing and sexuality and that these approaches can be usefully applied to an understanding of the development of the typical Arab Mind.
As noted, the New York Times, as liberal and multicultural a publication as one is wont to find, published two highly revealing articles this past week which illuminate and reinforce some of the points already made in this series.
On Monday, the Times published Young Saudis, Vexed and Entranced by Love’s Rules, which argued that young Saudis have internalized the rigidly moralistic, Honor-Shame dynamic that does so much to create an inflexible character structure:
It was a flash of rebellion, almost instantly quelled. In the West, youth is typically a time to challenge authority. But what stood out in dozens of interviews with young men and women here was how completely they have accepted the religious and cultural demands of the Muslim world’s most conservative society.
They may chafe against the rules, even at times try to evade them, but they can be merciless in their condemnation of those who flout them too brazenly. And they are committed to perpetuating the rules with their own children.
That suggests that Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam, largely uncontested at home by the next generation and spread abroad by Saudi money in a time of religious revival, will increasingly shape how Muslims around the world will live their faith. Young men like Nader and Enad are taught that they are the guardians of the family’s reputation, expected to shield their female relatives from shame and avoid dishonoring their families by their own behavior. It is a classic example of how the Saudis have melded their faith with their desert tribal traditions.
“One of the most important Arab traditions is honor,” Enad said. “If my sister goes in the street and someone assaults her, she won’t be able to protect herself. The nature of men is that men are more rational. Women are not rational. With one or two or three words, a man can get what he wants from a woman. If I call someone and a girl answers, I have to apologize. It’s a huge deal. It is a violation of the house.”
The article describes the intense conflict between powerful, adolescent libidinal impulses and moral, legal, and religious strictures against the gratification of such impulses. The article also discusses one of the most destabilizing aspects of modernity, the cell phone:
Nader sank deep into a cushioned chair in a hotel cafe, sipping fresh orange juice, fiddling with his cellphone. If there is one accessory that allows a bit of self-expression for Saudi men, it is their cellphones. Nader’s is filled with pictures of pretty women taken from the Internet, tight face shots of singers and actresses. His ring tone is a love song in Arabic (one of the most popular ring tones among his cousins is the theme song to “Titanic”).
“I’m very romantic,” Nader said. “I don’t like action movies. I like romance. ‘Titanic’ is No. 1. I like ‘Head Over Heels.’ Romance is love.”
Consider the young Saudi males visceral reaction to the sight of an unaccompanied woman:
Suddenly, the young men stopped focusing on their food. A woman had entered the restaurant, alone. She was completely draped in a black abaya, her face covered by a black veil, her hair and ears covered by a black cloth pulled tight.
“Look at the batman,” Nader said derisively, snickering.
Enad pretended to toss his burning cigarette at the woman, who by now had been seated at a table. The glaring young men unnerved her, as though her parents had caught her doing something wrong.
“She is alone, without a man,” Enad said, explaining why they were disgusted, not just with her, but with her male relatives, too, wherever they were.
When a man joined her at the table — someone they assumed was her husband — she removed her face veil, which fueled Enad and Nader’s hostility. They continued to make mocking hand gestures and comments until the couple changed tables. Even then, the woman was so flustered she held the cloth self-consciously over her face throughout her meal.
“Thank God our women are at home,” Enad said.
The rest of the article describes how one of the young men desperately seeks contact with a woman. He desires romance, the kind of romance he saw in "Titanic" and has no chance of obtaining in his culture. His friend exhibits the kind of enhanced ascetic religiosity often found in young men who are deeply shamed by their sexual interests and use the strictures of their religious to help them control their unacceptable impulses.
The second Times article, published yesterday, is from the point of view of young Saudi girls. Alia has just gotten engaged:
A cellphone picture of Alia’s fiancé — a 25-year-old military man named Badr — was passed around, and the girls began pestering Alia for the details of her showfa. A showfa — literally, a “viewing” — usually occurs on the day that a Saudi girl is engaged.
A girl’s suitor, when he comes to ask her father for her hand in marriage, has the right to see her dressed without her abaya.
In some families, he may have a supervised conversation with her. Ideally, many Saudis say, her showfa will be the only time in a girl’s life that she is seen this way by a man outside her family.
The separation between the sexes in Saudi Arabia is so extreme that it is difficult to overstate. Saudi women may not drive, and they must wear black abayas and head coverings in public at all times. They are spirited around the city in cars with tinted windows, attend girls-only schools and university departments, and eat in special “family” sections of cafes and restaurants, which are carefully partitioned from the sections used by single male diners.
The girls are fascinated by boys and men, discuss whether it is acceptable to have a male "friend" on Facebook or to text a man, yet they make a virtue of necessity and appear to idealize the moral rigidity of their religiously ordered culture:
Ms. Tukhaifi and Shaden both spoke admiringly of the religious police, whom they see as the guardians of perfectly normal Saudi social values, and Shaden boasted lightly about an older brother who has become multazim, very strict in his faith, and who has been seeing to it that all her family members become more punctilious in their religious observance. "Praise be to God, he became multazim when he was in ninth grade," Shaden recalled, fondly. "I remember how he started to grow his beard — it was so wispy when it started — and to wear a shorter thobe." Saudi men often grow their beards long and wear their thobes cut above the ankles as signals of their religious devotion.
"I always go to him when I have problems," said Shaden who, like many of the young Saudi women interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition that her last name be omitted. "And he’s not too strict — he still listens to music sometimes. I asked him once, ‘You do everything right and yet you’re listening to music?’ He said, ‘I know music is haram, and inshallah, with time I will be able to stop listening to music too.’ " Haram means forbidden, and inshallah means "God willing."
She added, "I told him, ‘I want a husband like you.’ "
As with the boys, the creeping infection of Western mores is planting the seeds for trouble. After a discussion of what they have lost (the ability to play freely with their male cousins) and expressing their yearning for those lost halcyon days via talk of "milk kinship", they describe their hopes for romance:
"My sister and I sometimes ask my mom, ‘Why didn’t you breast-feed our boy cousins, too?’ " Shaden continued.
She was referring to a practice called milk kinship that predates Islam and is still common in the Persian Gulf countries. A woman does not have to veil herself in front of a man she nursed as an infant, and neither do her biological children. The woman’s biological children and the children she has nursed are considered "milk siblings" and are prohibited from marrying.
"If my mom had breast-fed my cousins, we could sit with them, and it would all be much easier," Shaden said. She turned back to the stack of DVDs she had been rifling through, and held up a copy of Pride and Prejudice, the version with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, a film she says she has seen dozens of times.
"It’s a bit like our society, I think," Shaden said of late Georgian England. "It’s dignified, and a bit strict. Doesn’t it remind you a little bit of Saudi Arabia? It’s my favorite DVD."
Shaden sighed, deeply. "When Darcy comes to Elizabeth and says ‘I love you’ — that’s exactly the kind of love I want."
Human sexuality, libido, is a powerful force. In a highly traditional Honor-Shame culture where sexual expression is extremely tightly constrained, adherence to a rigid and moralistic religious ethos is a necessity; one's life depends upon correct behavior. Yet when technology makes it impossible to keep the freedom (romance) and license (pornography) of the West at a distance (cell phones, the internet, videotapes, DVDs) such deeply conservative societies are at significant risk of destabilization. Young people are fueled by their desires; when they have no hope of gratifying their desires, they can either suppress such desires as dangerous or channel them into culturally acceptable outlets; unfortunately for the West, the Saudis have chosen to channel their passions into Jihad and the young men mentioned in the article are of no doubt that Jihad is an externally directed struggle for the supremacy of Islam.
While the New York Times articles are meant to show some of the conflicted nature of Saudi adolescent sexuality, they are far more revealing of the tectonic strains accumulating in Saudi society. When your world is a desert, literally and figuratively, it is possible, because necessary, to strictly police one's sexual ipulses. When the world can no longer be kept at bay by the sands of the inhospitable desert and Baywatch is in your living room, forces are unleashed that will find an outlet one way or another. Repression and rebellion are hand in glove in the traditional, tribal based culture of the Arab Mind. The West's response to Arab terrorism is forcing a cork into a bottle in which the pressure is building exponentially. Until the Arab Mind comes to terms with modernity, a task for which their character, culture, and religion leaves them particularly ill prepared, our problems with Islamic terror will persist.