Honor and tribalism in the Middle East

politics and culture — By on July 26, 2006 at 1:08 pm

Anyone who is interested in knowing how culture influences the conflicts in the Middle East would enjoy an op-ed piece by John Tierney in yesterday’s New York Times .  Tierney describes the importance of honor in that region of the world and how it can affect everything from tribal and family loyalties to communication styles.

In the West we’ve redefined “honorable” as being virtuous, fair, truthful and sincere, but that’s not the traditional meaning. Honor meant simply the respect of the local “honor group” – the family, the extended clan, the tribe, the religious sect. It meant maintaining a reputation for courage and loyalty, not being charitable to enemy civilians. Telling the truth was secondary to saving face.

This “tyranny of the face” continually frustrates Westerners trying to understand the Middle East. When I interviewed villagers in Iraq, I discovered we usually had separate agendas: I wanted the facts, but the villager wanted to avoid embarrassing either of us. So he would tactfully search for the answer that would both please me and not dishonor his family.

Tierney concludes:

When you’re confronted with an honor culture like the one in the Middle East, there are two rules to keep in mind. One is that you are not going to placate the enemy with the kind of concessions that appeal to Western diplomats. …

The other rule is that you’re not going to quickly transform an honor culture. The Iraq war was predicated on the assumption that democracy would turn Iraqis into loyal citizens with new civic virtues. But for now the old loyalties to tribes and sects still matter more than any universal concept of justice. The men would rather have honor than peace.

It’s an intriguing insight into how cultural differences can affect international relations.

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