Over the past weeks, and for that matter months and years our television screens have featured Western experts trying to figure out the root cause behind fundamentalist Islamist terrorist attacks. We persist in trying to understand what’s happening through a Western point of view. We say: “these guys are radicalized because they were not given ample opportunities to succeed and integrate into Western society.” We try using a linear, cause and effect, rational if not scientific approach to understand the terrorists’ motives. But can we ever get clarity studying the situation only through the perspective of our own lens?
Western logic is based on the premise that all people seek freedom, prosperity, peace, education and success. And we measure these goals based on our own standards. Yet we fail to recognize that perhaps these goals are not at the top of the list of the Arab Muslim world where many of the radical terrorists are being cultivated. The Arab Muslim view of history, personal success, religion and land is very different from that of the West.
Here are a few of the cultural factors that inform the differences in view:
Time – The Western temporal perspective is usually focused on our own lifetimes, give or take, a few years. In the Arab world, the perspective on time is much, much broader. The individual is seen as speck along a timeline of centuries of shared history. Time is not measured from cradle to grave but rather through lineage and traditions. There is pressure to concentrate on preserving a way of life for generations to come through rules and social norms.
Religion – In the Arab world, religion is not just a set of beliefs but a key part of one’s a social identity. Unlike in the Western world where nationality forms much of our social identity, in the Arab world one’s religious (sometimes ethnic) affiliation forms individual social and personal identity. This is why atheists rarely exist in the Arab World. Arab atheists are considered as having no identity, affiliation or allegiance. We have seen how nation states throughout the Middle East are violently redefining themselves along the lines of their population’s religious affiliations and identities. Those nation states were held together by ruthless dictators for decades. Once these dictators are ousted, conflicts around social and cultural identities fuel religious wars over territory and land.
From its infancy, Islam was charging forward, conquering, fighting and winning. It is unlike Christianity and Judaism that experienced subjugation, persecution and the need to accommodate and adjust in order to survive. Islam was formed as a victorious religion.
Land – Unlike most people in the West who view land as a commodity, Arabs tend to have a strong emotional connection to their land. Land in the Arab world is inherited, rarely sold or bartered. As such, the land is holy and sacred, having a value worth dying for.
The Individual – Individualism is a completely Western concept. Many societies around the world and Arab society in particular see the individual as a component in a more important social structure. Society does not serve the individual; the individual serves society. Everyone lives and dies to sustain the group and maintain its cohesion. Self-sacrifice is expected and honorable.
Unlike Islam, Christianity and Judaism have gone through self-critical reformations that challenged the establishment and confronted the concept of the individual versus church versus God. That is the way in which these once brother religions departed ways. Islam has not endured a reformation. It requires total obedience of its adherents who must accept without reservation its tenets. This in turn supports the closed versus open societies in which Islam rules.
Honor – In the western world, personal honor might be appreciated but does not alone inform one’s behavior or opinion of someone else. The West plays it loose. In Arab society, if one’s honor is challenged, there is no choice but to act to protect it. Honor killings are but one example of this.
Clearly, each of these factors could also be true for other non-Arab cultures. The Japanese have strict social laws around honor and family. The Chinese see time on a very long spectrum that incorporates ancestors who lived a thousand years ago. Latin American countries are quite religious and the church plays a part in everyday life. In Africa, tribal societies are the norm and communities are more group versus individual oriented.
But with the terrorism we are seeing today, it is the combination of all of these attributes that creates the perfect storm for radicalization across Arab states. It is one reason we don’t see this level of radicalization in other societies. Singular instances of terrorism yes, but not widespread Jihad.
It is impossible to change a culture. This clash of civilizations will be dealt with by many generations to come. But this doesn’t mean we should not at least make an effort to understand both why there is a conflict and why the terrorism we experience today has reached this level.