Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Psychological History of Palestinian Arabs - Part 1

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13

Understanding history is difficult unless one understands the psyches of the major players in history. This applies not only to individuals but to groups as well. Members of relatively homogeneous groups tend to think similarly and knowing how they think is a critical piece of the puzzle in understanding how they act.

Unfortunately, historians generally do not put primary emphasis on the state of mind of the subjects of their histories. Events are listed and discussed but not the psychology of the people involved. There are a number of reasons for this: historians are trained to deal with facts and to discount conjecture, and there is no greater conjecture than to guess how someone thinks. The reluctance to look at history through this prism is perhaps also due to an understandable reluctance to place entire groups of people into a single bucket, as this seems to be too close to racism. Paradoxically, today's Western mindset where the disgust of racism is paramount may be hurting the understanding of the mindsets of other cultures and historical periods.

In starting this series of posts, I am engaging in some hubris. I am not a historian, nor a psychologist, nor a demographer, nor a sociologist, and I'm not even a professional writer. To make matters worse, I do have biases that I freely admit. Even with these shortcomings, I hope that I can contribute in a small way to the understanding of today's issues revolving around the Arab-Israeli conflict. Especially in this case, there is really no dividing line between history and current events, and too much history glibly assumes that all people think the same way - an error that has great ramifications in our time as well.

In the wake of the 1948 birth of the state of Israel came the creation of a wholly new people, known today as "Palestinians." They became a people as a result of a confluence of events that, in the end, brought them together and gave them a shared identity. This essay will attempt to show how these Arabs who originally came from all over the Middle East ended up perceiving themselves as a separate people, how their Arab mindset became the specifically Palestinian Arab mindset, and ultimately how the Palestinian Arabs became who they are today.

One other note: leaders of societies do not necessarily reflect the thinking of their people, and the Palestinian Arabs have had many leaders who acted in ways that were counterproductive to their people as a whole. This essay is not as concerned with the psychology of the leaders nearly as much as with the Palestinian Arabs themselves, as a group.

The Arab psyche in the early days of the Zionist movement

The psychology of the Arabs of Palestine in the decades before Israel's founding is indistinguishable from that of all Arabs. This is because, to the Arabs, Palestine was just another Arab district in the larger Arab world, usually associated with southern Syria. While the Arab world was hardly unified, from the average Arab man's viewpoint there was little difference between one area and another, except for some minor cultural differences.

We can divide the major components of the Arab psyche into three major groups, each of which include some corollaries and subgroups. The major groups are Honor/Shame, Community and Unity, and Islam.

The most important and overriding component of the Arab psyche is that of honor, and its flip-side of shame. Although there is some controversy about this, I posit that there is nothing inherently better or worse in an honor/shame culture versus the "guilt" culture that typifies the Western psyche. The emotions of shame or guilt can be constructive or destructive depending on how the individual deals with it. And outside circumstances can accentuate and amplify these attributes. People in the Far East exhibit the same honor/shame viewpoint although they exhibit it somewhat differently than Arabs do.

In brief, in an honor/shame society, more emphasis is placed on how the individual is perceived by others rather than how he views himself. The appearance of wrongdoing is far more upsetting than actual wrongdoing, and the respect of others is more prized than self-respect.

Honor/shame can be divided into two complementary components: seeking honor and avoiding shame.

The idea of honor as a positive incentive is critically important. The Arab man in the early 20th century, as with the Arab men in previous centuries, aspired as individuals to be honorable, and in a part of the world where there was little chance for real social or political advancement, this desire would be concentrated on the idea of raising a family honorably. The basic requirement of supporting a family is to make money.

The disincentive of shame is spoken about much more nowadays than in the past, as the phenomena of so-called "honor killings" get some measure of publicity. The fear of being shamed predates Islam and has always been a very powerful concept.

Almost every other major feature of the Arab mindset in general, and the Palestinian Arab mindset in particular, can be traced back to understanding the overwhelming importance the Arab people ascribe to honor and shame. But there are others that need to be understood.

Community and unity
Like other peoples, Arabs build and take pride in their communities. But through the first half of the twentieth century, they did not feel as much allegiance to their individual countries as they did towards the Arab "nation" as a whole. This is understandable as national boundaries were somewhat arbitrarily decided by the West and were ignored when possible.

The commonality that Arabs throughout the region had dwarfed any possible differences. Most shared the same religion, all spoke the same language, almost all shared a distrust of outsiders and particularly Westerners. Not that there weren't conflicts within the Arab world but on a personal level the differences were quite small.

Ties to a particular region were somewhat tenuous. When the need arose, Arabs were not reluctant to move elsewhere. Perhaps it was the influence of the Bedouins but the Arabs have been historically much more nomadic within the sphere of Arabia than most other peoples. In those times, Arabism was a much stronger tie between people than Islam was.

While there were many Christian and Jewish Arabs, the vast majority have been Muslim, and the relationship between Islam and the Arab world has been a two-way street. Islam itself has been very influenced by Arab customs (such as women covering their faces, which is mentioned as an Arab habit in the Talmud that predates Islam) but Arab culture and thinking have likewise been influenced by Islam. It is difficult to know which influences the other more. Examples of Arab cultural habits that probably at least partly a result of Islam would include charity, misogyny and a level of supremacy.

Each of the three main categories include other aspects of personality and mindsets.

The Honor/Shame mentality spawns an entire host of feelings and potential actions. One of the corollaries to Arab pride and sense of honor is the importance of manliness. Masculinity is functionally equivalent to honor in the Arab world, as honor is all about how one appears and not so much about how one thinks. The man is the breadwinner of his household, the defender of his people, the public face of his family and the leader of his community. Aggressiveness is an attribute of masculinity but it is not a necessity to prove oneself through aggression. It can be exhibited through macho posturing but this is by no means a necessity. Quietly supporting one's family is also an attribute of manliness. Unfortunately, misogyny is often a result of this attribute as well.

Conversely, the fear of being emasculated is a strong component of the Arab psyche.

Another possible outcome of the honor/shame mentality is dishonesty. In cases where telling the truth can cause disgrace, it is preferable to lie. The incentive to lie increases with how high a position one occupies because any mistake he makes could cause a commensurate amount of disgrace.

Another aspect of the Palestinian Arab personality that can be ascribed to honor is itinerancy. Arabs tended to wander from place to place within the Arab nation. The purpose would usually be financial, and quite justified - to be able to make enough money to raise a family in an honorable fashion. For most of the history of the Middle East one can find Arabs migrating from place to place, and even after the Western world imposed semi-arbitrary borders they would be ignored.

One of the famous Arab attributes that come from their sense of community and unity is that of hospitality. Within the Arabian sphere, all likely guests were, in a sense, family. Any Arab traveling to any other village or area could rightfully expect to be treated as an honored guest. This attribute would be extended to strangers as well, and while the Arab world on a political level was highly sensitive about Western influence, individual travelers from the West seem to have been treated generally well.

Arab Anti-semitism has many possible sources, but for now we will assume the influence of Islam. Arab anti-semitism has historically been of a fundamentally different type than Christian Jew-hatred. Notwithstanding the Damascus blood libel of 1840, for the most part Muslims and Arabs are correct when they say that Jews lived in relative peace under Arab rule. However, living in peace is not the same as living as equals. The tolerance of Jews in Arab nations was salted with contempt. Even so, overt anti-semitism was relatively rare before the 20th century, and some argue that the influence of Christians in Arab lands accelerated these ideas.

In Islam, dhimmis (Christians and Jews) are second-class citizens, forced to pay allegiance and taxes to their Muslim masters. Islam looks upon itself as building upon and improving Christianity and Judaism. Dhimmis may live in Muslim lands but they may not display conspicuous religious symbols; they may not use church bells or blow shofars in public, or even to build or expand churches or synagogues in many circumstances. The punishment for murder of a dhimmi was rarely equivalent to that of a Muslim, and dhimmis could be executed for blasphemy.

So while there was not the same overt hatred towards Jews than Christian Europe exhibited too many times, the clear mindset of Muslim Arabs as the 20th century dawned was that Jews and Christians were beneath them.

Islamic supremacy was a difficult position to maintain in the early 1900s. The Western world had dominated the Islamic world militarily, culturally and scientifically since the Muslim defeat in 1683 at Vienna. Colonialism had already been encroaching on the edges of the Arab world since the 18th century and Europe was dividing up the Islamic world after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. The Islamic idea of a global 'Ummah had steadily deteriorated from the heights of the 15th and 16th centuries to a mere dream after World War I. So while the Muslims may have privately felt that Christians were just as low as Jews, in fact they maintained a healthy fear and respect for Christians who had beaten them. And their sense of being shamed by the Westerners so thoroughly translated into a hate that could not be acted upon without losing even more control.

But there were still Jews who seemed to still accept their dhimmi status in the Islamic world, and the fact that the Christian "ummah" seemed to hate them even more than the Arabs did made the Arabs think that at least they are not on the very bottom of the international food chain.

There are two other layers of the Arab psyche that need to be understood. They are hardly unique to Arabs but, in combination with the other characteristics we described, they are important to understand.

The first is projection. Everyone tends to think that others think as they do, and the West is at least as guilty of this mistake as anyone else. In this case, we are dealing with the Arabs assuming that the West is similar to them - in unity, in cohesiveness, in religiosity, and in hate. We see this today, with Arab (and other) Islamists referring to the entire Western world as "crusaders" and their conviction that everyone is working in concert against them.

The second is lack of sophistication. Although the American-run universities in the Arab world since the 19th century made a dent in how the Arab intelligentsia thought, the vast majority of Arabs were not well educated and especially not aware of other ways of thinking. As a result, any event or rumor could set off a mob mentality (the "Arab street") that would be impossible to control with logic.

Given this background, we can now begin to understand the Arab reaction to Zionism from its founding until the birth of Israel.

(It took a while to write Part 1 so don't expect Part 2 very soon, but I wanted to get this posted.)