In the New York Times yesterday, Michael Slackman wrote a long piece looking at the difficult task of being Young and Arab in Land of Mosques and Bars, in Dubai. The piece hints at some important issues though, in the nature of a newsmagazine piece, is relatively superficial. I plan on addressing the article more directly tomorrow, but as a preamble, would like to discuss some of the developmental tendencies in Arab culture that provide the substrate for the kinds of difficulties described in the article. The focus in the article is on the tension felt by ambitious young Egyptian men who move to Dubai to take part in the exuberant life there (the vibrant economic and social possibilities) and the sense of dislocation they feel coming from the stagnant Egyptian quasi-theocracy to the free wheeling "wild West" atmosphere of Dubai. My interest is to examine the intersection of the personal with the larger societal conflicts found within the Middle East.
Dubai's freedom and license present particular problems for young men who grow up in traditional Arab homes. This relates to the ways in which Arab culture attempts to civilize their boys. Civilizing one's sons is a task shared by all cultures but with very different approaches in the Arab world from the West.
One of the most important aspects of male childhood development concerns the "taming of the drives." Boys typically have much greater levels of aggressive and sexual energy than girls and have a commensurately more difficult time taming their passions. A culture that fails to assist their young men in the task of controlling their passions is a culture that is unstable and prone to violence.
Traditionally, boys have learned to control their tempers and appetites, in part, through religion. In this not all religions are equivalent. Judaism and Christianity focus on the inner world of the youngster. Sin is an inescapable risk, and atonement for harming others is paramount in both religious traditions. As well, the need to look within and find fault within, is also an important part of religious instruction for children raised in the Judeo-Christian culture. The adolescent, especially, receives help from religion in curbing his most dangerous impulses (toward violence, or perverse* sexuality, for instance.) Judaism and Christianity provide a framework and structure whereby unacceptable impulses can receive assistance from an external buttress in the difficult task of managing intense impulses. For this reason, it is not at all uncommon for adolescents to pass through a time of heightened religiosity and asceticism on the way to young adulthood, when their aggressive drives tend to ameliorate and their adult executive apparatus (the ego) can better handle the intensity of the drives.
[*I am using perverse in the sense of sexuality that has a much greater than usual amount of aggression in the mix.]
[One aspect of the "culture wars" that is problematic and routinely denigrated and dismissed by our enlightened elites, is the effect on the developing mind of the cultural sea change in sexual attitudes that were ushered in during the 1960s. As sex not only became much more of a recreational pastime, with the widespread availability of contraception and abortion, the idea that all limits on sexual expression were somehow "bourgeois" and devalued became prominent. "If it feels good, do it" was a mantra that has become increasingly incorporated into our cultural zeitgeist. Sex for recreation without consequence has become accompanied by an explosion of sexuality and pornography in the culture. Sex sells, it is a multibillion dollar business and the effect has been a simultaneous overstimulation of our young with a weakening of the societal prohibitions against what once were considered unacceptable sexual behaviors and practices. In part this is a redress against the inhibitions of earlier times, but it also represents the freeing of the Id that the left has long championed. The pendulum that swings between license and responsibility has gone quite far toward the licensing side of the ledger and the effects on society have been mixed, at best. Many people are freer than ever to live their lives the way they prefer, but there has been an accompanying diminution of responsibility for the results of our prescription that "anything goes."]
Arab culture has taken a markedly different tack from the Judeo-Christian West.
In my series on The Arab Mind I have discussed some of the child rearing habits and cultural components that are implicated in the ease with which Arabs believe in conspiracy theories and receive sanction for violence against others. There are two important trends supporting such externalization and projection that are of signficance.
First, Islam in its current fundamentalist versions, does not support the kind of self-criticism and self relection that is a sine qua non of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Since the Koran is the definitive word of Allah, understanding of the book requires rote learning with almost no room for speculation and personal discovery. In the West, although there is certainly a large and revered body of literature which attempts to explain and explore G-d's will, few pretend to know his will, while all can strive to understand it and move closer to it. Questioning authority is an aspect of the Judeo-Christian ethic that has become part of the West's secular religion. Islamic authority operates in a very different manner. Although there is no central authority in Islam, ethics are determined by a charismatic leader whose words take on the force of law for his followers. Ethics are thus imposed rather than part of an organic understanding of the world and one's place in a community. Along with the Honor-Shame dynamic, there is no religious framework that can be internalized for the control of shameful impulses. By definition, shame only occurs when the community finds out about the shameful act while guilt occurs in the absence of anyone else but the guilty party's conscience. Note, the source of shame is external for a Muslim, there is no shame unless he has been seen to be shameful, while the source of guilt is internal in guilt based Western cultures.
The second important area of note follows from the need to preserve the Koran as the final word of Allah. Like the Old and New Testament, the Koran contains passages that seek to externalize the problems within the followers of the religion. All religions include some aspect of externalization, usually framed as the need to defend the faith from non-believers and enemies. In the Judeo-Christian ethic, these prescriptions co-exist with the kind of rigorous self examination that aims to help the young person learn to control himself. Within the current versions of radical Islam, there is not only no questioning of religious doctrine countenanced but evil is explicitly situated in the non-believer and the apostate. In this version of Islam, violence, (including sexual violence, rape) is explicitly sanctioned against non-believers; in fact, it is mandated. Although the Old and New Testaments have sections which dehumanize the enemy, because they are understood as being transcribed by men, there is room for evolution and argumentation. There is much less room for such in Islam.
The problem that then arises is that an Arab young man flush with the passions of his drives is not required to contain his passions in order to become a member of his community. In fact, he is specifically directed to express his passions outside of his community. The radical fundamentalists and supporters of Sharia law, expressly sanction attacks against non-Muslims. Not only does the young man receive no help in mitigating his aggression, he is supported in its expression. This runs directly counter to Western culture. Thus, the Muslim turn against al Qaeda only began after al Qaeda was prevented from attacking Westerners and began to wreak havoc on fellow Muslims.
This has relevance for the article in the Times and for the problem of finding a way to reconcile the world of fundamentalist Islam with the world of modernity.