I’m going to preface by saying that I’ve just thrown political correctness out the window in this article. It’s a social construct anyway, and I don’t think I can get my message across within that constraint. I ask that you don’t crucify me and know that my heart is in the right place and will stay that way throughout the article, even if you might find some of it jarring at times.
Europeans are losing their minds, sometimes literally, with the melodic war cries of “Allah hu Akhbar!” echoing in the background.
Can we blame them? They let in a mass immigration with good intentions, only to get a slap in the face when their legal system is turned down in favour of Sharia. Why are they enforcing and maintaining the same cultural norms that were proven not to work, that caused the conflicts that led them to flee? Can’t they realize that the West is thriving and Islamic countries are floundering for a reason?
The reason can be summed up in one word: Honour. Honour is the reason Eastern cultures would sometimes rather die than admit they were wrong about something, or accept defeat on behalf of their culture and value system.
Like Europe, I learned that the hard way, although my head is still firmly attached to my neck. I lived in Singapore for two years, where I, a very individualist, creative, Westerner, felt ostracized for reasons I couldn’t comprehend. I am well-liked back home in North America and in the expat community in Singapore. I’ve found reasonable success and respect both socially and academically. So why couldn’t I find that same respect and success in Singapore that I found in the West?
In Singapore, immersed in Eastern culture and staying at the home of a professor who teaches a course on cultural studies, I was able to analyze what I witnessed with someone who knew the points of comparison between Eastern and Western cultures. I had the unique opportunity of immersion outside the expat bubble, with an American professor who had lived on every continent except Antarctica for at least ten years each. In addition to that, he was born and raised in the Arab world and expelled for being Jewish, so if anyone knows the nature of the beast, it’s him.
Living and working in Asia was a massive culture shock. I did not work with expats – I worked entirely with locals. When putting the locals’ behaviour in a cultural context – meaning collectivist vs. individualist – I was able to better understand what values influenced their actions and how I could best maintain harmonious relations with them. The same collectivist values that characterized the East Asian culture I was exposed to can also explain the cultural divide between Israelis and Arabs in the Middle East. It might even be the missing link we’ve been looking for.
West: Individualism, Individual achievement, progress, universalism, individuality, diplomacy, peace, secularism, every man for himself, personal responsibility, hedonism, equality.
East: Collectivism, honour, tradition, tribalism, conformity, violence, victory, piety, every man for each other, communal responsibility, humility and deference, strict hierarchy.
The reason why many Asians living in the West are overrepresented in prestigious fields is the same reason why an Arab Palestinian wouldn’t dare utter a word of sympathy toward Israel even if he might think it inside: Family honour is literally the most important thing in the universe to them. It’s even more important than life.
Easterners don’t think of themselves as independent individuals. They think of themselves within the context of their “in-groups.” The desire of the in-group becomes their own desire, as there is no separation between the two. It doesn’t matter if Yi Xing doesn’t like medicine or law or engineering – she pursues it because it is what her family wants, and what her family wants trumps all else. Their approval is more important than her individual happiness.
In East Asia, children who do well in school make their family look good and gain status (hierarchy). Many good families make the tribe look good, and many good tribes mean the culture looks good. Honour gives status, and status is the end goal. Middle Eastern culture is similar, but piety and propriety are most valued, not so much education (generally). If Fatima leaves her house without a male escort, or without the hijab, and someone catches her, it reflects badly on her family for not teaching her “right from wrong” and generally being a poor quality family, which removes status. Ishak posting a pro-Israel post on Facebook, similarly, humiliates his family for not teaching him “right from wrong,” for going against the good of the tribe. The families feel personally responsible for teaching Fatima and Ishak a lesson, to keep them in line, because one person’s mishap is considered akin to the entire in-group’s mishap. That is due to the lack of a solipsistic concept of “I.” They never had the Cartesian “I think therefore I am” epiphany that kickstarted the Western enlightenment.
Honour is seen as more important than life. Individual lives are subordinate to the will of the collective, which is why a Palestinian Arab wouldn’t think twice about being used as a human shield for what is deemed the will of his people. Human shields might reek of conspiracy to the western mind, but it they make perfect sense in an Eastern context. They’re a form of martyrdom, which is seen as the highest honour as it is the ultimate rejection of individualism.
Moreover, if a family member has shown that they refuse to abide by cultural norms and values, the family will consider one of two options. The first option is distancing themselves from the offender via ostracism, banishment, disowning. Asserting, “we had nothing to do with this!” as discretely as possible. The other option, if Option 1 is not feasible or doesn’t work, is disappearance, a.k.a. honour killing. The offending family member would be removed, and the other members will pretend they do not exist but see it as a cautionary tale, a deterrence from future rebellion. Not all Middle Easterners support honour killings, I’d wager that most don’t, but it is a prevalent problem that is an extreme manifestation of this obsession with hierarchy, honour, conformity, and tribalism.
Conformity is a big deal in collectivist cultures. Standing out is strongly discouraged, as it’s considered selfish. Deferring to the “in-group” is a sign of humility, a key collectivist value. Modesty is another manifestation of this obsession with conformity and not standing out. Drawing attention to oneself as an individual undermines the family and the hierarchical order. Moreover, it can incite jealousy, which can undermine the social harmony of the in-group. As a result, the nail that sticks out is hammered down – hard. Social harmony is the ultimate goal, and in collectivist cultures, it is thought to be achieved through conformity – if everyone is the same, they won’t have anything to clash over! Therefore, if your tribe believes Israel is evil, so must your family. If your family believes Israel is evil, so must you. Going against them is seen as the ultimate slap in the face. It is non-conformity, which causes everyone in your in-groups to lose honour and slide down the hierarchy.
As a result of the obsession with hierarchy, honour, and conformity, innovation is strongly discouraged as it requires necessarily deviating from the norm, which is a cardinal sin in collectivist Eastern culture. As such, tradition reigns, as it is considered the ultimate form of conformity. As a result of this obsession with conformity and continuity, extreme traditional religious or spiritual ideals and superstitions, that have long been washed away from mainstream Western culture, remain and thrive. Piety is seen as the ultimate form of subservience, humility, conformity, tradition, and respect of hierarchy, so it is prized. Religious zeal is seen as a form of tradition, of honouring the tribe, and deferring to a higher power.
A main feature of Islam, which was a product of Middle Eastern Arab culture, is total submission to God. If a tribal leader who has a lot of honour claims something on behalf of God, ideally based on an interpretation of the Quran or the Hadith, not only is it believed, but it is considered shameful not to outwardly believe it.
Finally, tribalism. Throw in hierarchy, extreme conformity (a group of individuals within a family who aren’t allowed to have minds of their own, and a group of families within a tribe that aren’t allowed to have minds of their own), tradition, and piety, and you have fertile ground for tribal warfare. When a tribe (let’s call it Tribe A) is confronted by another tribe (Tribe B), whether accidentally or on purpose, they will fight, as Tribe A allowing Tribe B to win a fight causes Tribe A to lose tribal honour. If Tribe B grows out of control and starts building settlements on Tribe C’s land, Tribe C must assert itself violently or else Tribe B will continue to take advantage. Only the well-being of one’s own tribe matters, so screwing over another tribe to improve your own tribe’s survival doesn’t matter, especially if you can beat them in battle (this is why corruption is so rampant in collectivist societies). Violence is the language tribes use to assert their power over other tribes. Tribalism creates a groupthink, a belief that everything my tribe does is right and everything other tribes do is wrong. That’s another reason why it’s so hard for even American Arabs to break free of the “Palestinians are our brothers and therefore good and Israelis are not and therefore bad” trope we see everywhere.
Tribalism, or who to support in a conflict, follows a hierarchy.
The hierarchy in Eastern culture goes as follows:
Family > Clan > Tribe > Your Sect of Islam > Muslim > Eastern
When the East is fighting the West (e.g. Russia vs. USA), the East (e.g. Russia) is supported without question. When a muslim is fighting a non-muslim, the muslim is supported without question, no matter what. (Muslim Palestinian > Israeli Jew, always.)
If two muslims are fighting, one is in the same sect and the other is in a different sect, you support your sect no matter what. (e.g. Sunni Muslim > Shia Muslim, unless you’re both fighting the same non-muslim enemy).
If two muslims from your sect are fighting, you support the one in your tribe (e.g. Iraqi Sunni > Palestinian Sunni). If two people in your tribe are fighting, you support the person in your clan. If two people in your clan are fighting, you support the person in your extended family. If two people are in your extended family are fighting, you support your immediate family. It’s that simple.
This hierarchy is the reason Muslims tend not to think twice in supporting each other and uniting against the common non-muslim enemy, the Jews.
If we want to get through to our adversaries, we have to frame our arguments and approach in terms of their values. It’s possible, but we are so in the dark that we refuse.
Unfortunately, in our culture, we are so obsessed with tolerance that we sacrifice ourselves because of it. We refuse to teach and admit cultural differences exist, believing in a shared humanity that transcends all cultures and backgrounds. Admitting cultural differences exist, and that one culture might be preferred over another, is considered patently racist, which is why American Jews and Israelis in America are so drawn to the notion from the more left-wing Israeli parties that we all want the same thing, and that we can do it if only we stop fighting and start talking. Yet this lovely albeit patently untrue idea fails to take into account the uniquely tribalist struggle that the Eastern, collectivist Arabs see this to be, and the fact that they are doing this to reclaim honour they believe is lost, so they won’t stop at anything, not even death. Honour is more important than life, and us being in a land they tried so many times to conquer is humiliating to them and makes them lose honour and status. Sticking to dialogue and sucking up to them, as Obama is doing, is to them a sign of weakness, which will cause them to take advantage of us as much as possible. It is extrapolating a Western cultural norm and value to an Eastern situation where it does not apply.
THIS lack of acknowledgement of a very real and very important meeting of cultures is where the danger lies in voting for the left-wing parties in Israel. Due to the US’ almost homogenously individualist cultural landscape, the collectivist way is not only completely unanticipated and unaccounted for, but outright dismissed as racism and sweeping generalization when brought up. Unfortunately, with this level of conformity in the Middle East, generalizations are not only often accurate, but warranted. Furthermore, with the notion of tolerance being important in the West and directly counter to tribalism in the East, an American who fears being branded as a racist is prone to ignoring the elephant in the room.
The biggest issue we experience among the West is not only this complete misunderstanding of the East (due to lack of immersion), but also a tolerance so obsessive that we wind up tolerating the intolerant. Our tolerance is seen by opportunistic tribal cultures as a weakness, and is therefore exploited. We have seen this happen very clearly in Europe, and know that America is soon to follow if we continue raising our kids with complete unawareness of real cultural differences and how they impact the global landscape.
“Maybe if they’re nice to them, they won’t want to kill us,” is how you sum up the Western orientation towards the hostile East in one sentence, and the appeal of the left among open-minded, open-hearted, naive youth. Unfortunately, being nice won’t change a thing. Obsessed with conformity, teeming with a proselytizing religious zeal, they will always hate us as long as we don’t conform. Sucking up will only cause them to see a weakness in us that they will exploit.
Unfortunately, the best solution is cultural education, which will never happen because cultural relativism is the dominant ideology, bolstered by a warmhearted desire to welcome immigrants and make them feel at home.
I just wish my generation had the luxury of understanding that without learning the hard way.