NATIV Online        

  Vol. 1  /  2003                               A JOURNAL OF POLITICS AND THE ARTS      


The First Cultural Flaw in Thinking:
The Arab Personality

David Bukay

Excerpted from the book:
Arab-Islamic Political Culture:
A Key Source to Understanding Arab Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict
ACPR Publishers, 2003

Arab society is tribal-nomadic, with its outstanding trait being clan loyalty and the anarchy of the desert. Most of its values were shaped in the jahiliyah age before Islam. The important values in Arab conceptions and behavior reflect the pre-Islamic ideals. In the jahiliyah age, “The Arabs did not know Allah and his Messenger and the rules of the religion.”

Therefore, it is defined as “the period of ignorance”. But since the researcher Goldziher, it has been agreed that the jahiliyah was a period of wildness, tribal fanaticism, and idol worship. The tribe made up the exclusive social-cultural unit. It was in constant conflict with other tribes over sources of subsistence. The political struggle principally embodied the scarcity of resources against the many demands to obtain them. This was a society of, “His hand shall be against all men,” as God said of Ishmael. The head of the tribe was the sayid, who was chosen by the elders, and was first among equals in status. The inner social structure included the clan and the extended family. Among the tribes was the haram area, a place of agreed upon neutral holiness. It was a place for clarifications and intertribal agreements. From this, the Arabs accumulated immense experience in conducting negotiations. Thus, structures developed for obtaining mediation and compromise that were institutionalized. These were called “mechanisms of wustah or wasat”.

Despite their desert character, the city was the Arabs’ focus of change and political activity. Mecca was a center of trade and pilgrimage, since it was on the caravan routes. Religion had secondary importance in jahili society. Religious customs were observed out of tradition and feelings of respect for forefathers, but religion was fetishist, and values were fatalistic, out of absolute faith in the decrees of fate. Secular values took a central place, and were expressed in the concept of manliness (muruwwah), which meant the whole set of traits of a perfect Bedouin. The most important framework was preserving tribal solidarity (`asabiyyah). The tribe was the foundation for personal and group existence.

The critical phenomenon in its importance to Arab-Islamic society is honor. A man’s honor is sharaf. It is flexible, dynamic, and subject to change in accord with his deeds. A woman’s honor is `ird (also meaning her pelvis). In contrast to a man’s honor, this is firm and permanent. The woman grows up with her honor, and her most important role is to preserve it. The moment that a woman’s honor is lost, it cannot be restored, and a man’s honor is severely wounded. Indeed, Muslim society is based on the virginity of its daughters. Honor is the most important supreme value in Arab life, more important than life itself. A man without honor is considered dead. Hence the saying, “It is better to die with honor than live with humiliation.” A man’s place in the tribe, as well as the tribe’s place among the tribes, was according to the measure of his and its honor. When honor was harmed, shame was caused which originated in public exposure, overt to everyone, a phenomenon which severely humiliated a man. Indeed, the Arab individual is caught up throughout his whole life in intensive activity to avoid shame and advance his honor. The central means for this was vengeance. Honor is restored only when vengeance has been carried out in public and is known to all.

The other means to promote honor were giving shelter to a stranger: honorable – that is, generous – hospitality. After all, there is nothing more contemptible than stinginess; and a man’s prestige derives from his family and clan origin, his lineage. Tribal tradition and clan loyalty had dominant influence in society. Likewise significant were blood ties within the extended family or the tribe, which determined group loyalties and identifications. Most of these social traits exist to this day, and influence the functioning of Arab society as a primordial system in which symbolic values are more important and esteemed than concrete values and the overall, holistic system of beliefs. This is “a shame society”, in which everyone must behave according to the accepted norms and internalize his own feelings in the system of group behavior.

A significant phenomenon that typifies the Arab is a basic lack of trust, indeed, suspicion, and hostility toward the “other”, even if he is a neighbor and member of the same clan. This is a central phenomenon in social life, which goes to an extreme of course when non-Muslim foreigners are involved. All the mechanisms of receptions and the intensive activity of welcoming and hospitality are meant to create a defensive barrier, to soften the threatening interpersonal encounter. For this purpose, the political system has proven itself so very flexible and deeply adaptable. Life in such a hostile environment, and with resources so hard to get, has created a society of adaptability that comes to terms with reality. Political conformism is required as well as acceptance of rules of behavior, which define the society’s goals in religious terms.

This reality expressed too the collective’s superiority over the individual. In contrast to modern societies which promote the individual’s interests, and in which the ethos is what the individual takes and receives from the generality, in Arab society, the ethos is what the individual does for the collective. There is a communal consensus in contrast to an individual’s opinion. Islam does not encourage individualism, rather favoring organized, orderly authority. The individual does not exist by his own right, and he and his opinions are unimportant, except through his belonging to a group framework. This is based on the hadith attributed to the Prophet: “The opinion of the many cannot be mistaken.” There is nothing more contemptible than individualism, which is viewed as factionalism and as harming the achievement of goals. This is also the basis for the attitude towards political opposition, which is not accepted in principle. Therefore, one may analyze the Arab personality as moving along a continuum in accordance with the following criteria:

  1. The syndrome of honor – shame – vengeance: The gap between the desire to promote personal and collective Arab honor, and the fear of shame and humiliation (`ib) which will be caused, if the dishonor is exposed in public. This is the important test, the openness of shame, the damage to honor. These cause the Arab personality to act with unrestrained cruelty and violence in the pursuit of blood vengeance. Indeed, the means for preserving honor and even reinforcing it is revenge. In the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel is guilty and deserves to suffer vengeance:

    Due to its very existence as a Jewish state, when there is no Jewish people;

    Due to its location as a state in the heart of the Middle East, when it divides the Arabs,
    preventing them from reaching their goals; and

    Due to its activity as a violent, imperialist state, expanding to obtain additional Arab territories.

    Can a solution be reached in these circumstances? The answer touches more on the balance of forces and Israel’s effective deterrence than on issues of honor, since in the last analysis, national interests are what decide. Nevertheless, the issue weighs heavily on attaining legitimacy and assent (if only resigned and reluctant) for Israel’s existence.

  2. Internalized personality in contrast to externalized personality: Jews and Christians internalize the guilt. The Jews extend one cheek in the sense of, “We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have committed crimes,” while Christians extend the second cheek, in the sense of “mea culpa”. In contrast, the Arabs externalize guilt: “Do I have a problem? – You are guilty!” Among them, there is no attempt to compromise. They have no tolerance for the justice and rights of the other. From their vantage point, justice and rights are totally on their side, and nothing will divert them from their total, one-sided position. Among Arabs, you will not find the phenomenon so typical of Judeo-Christian culture: doubts, a sense of guilt, the self-tormenting approach, “Maybe we were not entirely OK,” or “Maybe we need to act or react differently.” These phenomena are totally unknown in Arab-Islamic society, towards outsiders. They have no doubts about their positions or the justice of their side. They have no sense of guilt that they may have erred. They have neither twinges of conscience nor any regrets that they may have done wrong to anyone else. From their viewpoint, they have no problem concerning unbelievers, and no difficulty accusing or acting against those who do not live in dar al-harb. The phenomenon of the murderers by suicide, sometimes called suicide bombers, is an absolute indication. There is no condemnation, no regret, no problem of conscience among Arabs and Muslims, anywhere, in any social stratum, of any social position. For the most part, there is total support without reservations. And if there are doubts, they have to do with the effectiveness of the phenomenon, not with condemnation of it. The argument is made that Israel deserves it, since Israel has been totally dehumanized. From their viewpoint, just as in the Nazi conception, the Jews are not human beings. Rather there is a total commitment to destroying the State of Israel – politicide, and liquidating the Jewish people – genocide.

  3. Factionalism vs. Unity: The Arab personality oscillates in the space between the anarchic Arab character, separatist and violent, and the need to act jointly to achieve goals. This is the syndrome of polar reversals between factionalism and unity, between competitiveness and cooperation, between the aspiration for tribal freedom, the free spirit of the desert, and accepting authority and submitting to government. This is the syndrome between the stormy, violent personality, and the demands of society and the environment for conformity and submission. This is the syndrome between clan loyalty and tribal separatism on one hand, and accepting tyrannical, authoritarian rule submissively, without challenge, on the other. In this anarchic and violent society, the fear of social breakdown and disorientation is paramount, and dictates passive patterns of behavior. Above all, the most important continuum for understanding the Arab personality is that between submission to and fawning over those with perceived power, at one end, and cruel, violent, anarchic, unrestrained wildness, at the other.

    Hostility and suspicion are dominant characteristics in the Arab personality. This is expressed by the saying: I and my brothers against my cousins’ sons; I and my cousins’ sons against the neighbors; I and the neighbors against the members of the other clan; I and the members of the other clan against outsiders. On one hand, flattering welcomes and gestures of politeness, but at one and the same time, continuing suspicion of the other and his intentions. The custom of hospitality, which is so famously an Arab social phenomenon, can be seen in the context of obtaining honor and externalizing it towards the environment; while the dancing around the guest derives more from fear that the latter might take up with the host’s wife and daughters. The mechanisms of reception and the polite welcomes in Arab society are meant to soften the interpersonal encounter which is so oppressive and threatening, to create a defense barrier.

  4. The Collective Culture of Stubborn Social Limits: Characterizing the Arab personality are various taboos and prohibitions of social and class hierarchy, in a constant attempt to be “OK” and to protect the accepted rules, to avoid failure in a matter that is likely to embarrass or to shame your rival in public. This refers to a puritanical society of firm prohibitions, which is based on its daughters’ virginity. This is a culture of hierarchy and discipline, of stiff homogeneity, contrasting with the pluralism and competition that indicates flexible heterogeneity in Western culture.

This is a culture where rumors are an integral part of social activity, and they quickly become absolute truth that cannot be challenged. It has to do with exaggerations, flights of fancy, and especially, in a society that believes in conspiracies, a society wherein every date is important, that remembers everything and forgives nothing. This is a society wherein the lie is an essential component of behavior patterns, and lying is endorsed by religious sages. The famous Muslim theologian, al-Ghazzali, claimed that the lie is not wrong in itself. If the lie is the way to achieve good results, then it is permissible. It is necessary to lie when the truth might lead to unpleasant or undesired results. This is a society in which looking someone straight in the eye is forbidden, since it constitutes a challenge; there is also, for example, the prohibition to use the left hand, “the dirty hand”. Body language, like the manner of walking and the way of sitting, is very prominent. Indeed, the Arab personality is very diffuse from the structural and stratification standpoint.

Two additional factors influence the traits of the Arab personality, its behavior, and its functioning:

First, the language as a cultural phenomenon, which makes it possible to understand the social environment and communicate with it:

Language is critical in importance in Arab culture. The Arabs are motivated by admiration for the Arabic language and wide use of witticisms, sayings, fables, and allegories, as a filter of high importance for preventing shame, and consequently, for evading frictions and conflict. These bring the Arab personality to pathos and bellicose rhetoric, and from here to exaggerating reality, to overemphasis, to overstatement. In all forms of interpersonal communications, there are several phenomena: exaggeration in describing events (mubalaghah), personal boasting of one’s deeds (mufakharah), and repeated stressing of words (tawqid). Even Peres took pride – explaining his usual failures – and asserted that the role of the word in the Arab world is totally different from that in the West. “Among us, a word is a commitment, and among them a word is a decoration.” As proof, he cited a passage from the Syrian poet Kabbani to the effect that the Arabs have been subject to 1,500 years of imperialist occupation by poetry.1

This contrasts with Western conventional speech habits in the area of under-emphasis and understatement. Here is the cultural problem at full intensity, which has implications not only for public opinion, but also for explaining situations and determining policy. What happens in the cultural encounter between the overstatement approach of Arab culture and the understatement approach of Western culture? This is one of the main factors in Israel’s difficulties in the international system. Despite Israel’s being existentially threatened, and suffering inhuman terrorism, it is condemned in the West as if it were the violent aggressor. Indeed, the influence of the Arab language on the behavior of the Arab personality is astonishing. Not only are they convinced that it is the most beautiful of all languages, but also that it proves their superiority and the superiority of Arab culture. The Arab linguist al-Tha`alibi stated, whoever loves the Prophet, loves the Arabs. And whoever loves the Arabs, loves the Arabic language. The Prophet Muhammad is the most excellent of all prophets; the Arabs are the best, most admirable people of the world; and the Arabic language is the most excellent of all tongues.

Second, the phenomenon of time:

This too is a cultural matter totally different from its counterpart in Western culture. There are three kinds of time: physical-atomic time, which is accepted throughout the world, and is represented by our clocks; experiential time which is personal, and expresses a man’s emotions and concepts; and periodic-emotional time, which is by tiredne/alertness of man and beast, in regard to sleep. Western culture sanctifies the “here and now”. It wants “to make time”, to arrive much more quickly anywhere. For that purpose, it builds modern vessels, craft and instruments (missiles, airplanes, automobiles, computers) that enable it to advance quickly in time. The reason for this is that it is infected with impatience, and the time at its disposal is not enough to finish all its tasks.

In contrast, in Arab culture, there is time in abundance. It can be wasted indefinitely. After all, it is not necessary to do everything here and now. This is one of the prominent cultural phenomena of what is humorously defined as an IBM culture: inshaAllah (if God wills it), buqra (tomorrow), Ma`lish (it is nothing). This is the reason for the totally different approach to negotiations among the Arabs, for the lack of speed in agreeing to accords, and for the tendency to postpone till tomorrow dealing with complex problems. In Western culture, everything is viewed as a “window of opportunity”, in an admired and attractive expression. Time is valuable and should be quickly and efficiently exploited. Meanwhile, in Arab culture, the belief is that one should not hurry, since haste is the work of Satan (al-`ajalah min al-shaitan), and one should not hurry, not even for blood vengeance.

The most striking phenomenon for understanding the matter of time is in regard to the refugees. Even today, 55 years later, they are not ready to give up the dream of return, and they do not at all want “to take the key off the child’s neck, the key to the house in Palestine as a symbol of “going home”. While Israel shaped a supreme goal of obtaining tranquility and hedonistic pleasure at almost any price, in the wake of mental weariness and being morally worn down, Palestinian society formed a policy focused on patience in obtaining its goals and standing fast and firmly on the ground (sumud). The Hamas added to this the jahili expression: rubat, which appears in the Qur`an five times and refers to the characteristics of tribal warfare, to the preparations required for victory in war. Today, it serves Palestinian society as a means for exciting and agitating the masses with religious slogans, and an ideology of Islamic warriors.

The phenomenon of patience and capacity to suffer (sabr) and steadfastness on the ground (sumud) is embodied in another cultural gap: the Jews were a wandering, persecuted people who lived with the mentality of a minority in a cultural enclave. The main thing was to save one’s life, to flee before the flood. The notion of being a victim is in their genes, and is represented by lobbying the powerful and by appeasing. The Jews in Israel are much more concerned with what the world will say about them than with what is required and must be done for their own interests. The Jews are prisoners of their past, and lack capacity for national suffering and loyalty to the soil, while possessed by fears and high emotion over existential threats. In the nexus between man and soil, they always prefer man.

The Arabs, in contrast, are characterized by the mentality of a conquering majority (“Islam is righteous because it is victorious; Islam is victorious because it is righteous.”), despite their many failures in the last two hundred years. Muslims steadfastly hold their ground, despite the oppression by their rulers, and are ready to kill and be killed for the sake of Islam and the soil. They too are prisoners of their past, in notions of superiority and victory, and in the confidence that their future will be like their glorious past. The Christian Crusader unbelievers failed and likewise will be the fate of the infidel Jews. Israel will not long exist, since after all, the Jews are not a nation. Conversely, in the quandary between man and soil, the Arabs always prefer soil. An apt summary of the matter was written by the famous Egyptian journalist, Muhammad Hassanayn Haykal, former editor of the daily, al-Ahram:

Arab logic tends to retreat in the direction of the instinct. Our thoughts are dust while our emotions are fire. We were and still are tribes, raging at one moment and quiescent at another. We hold our weapons in front of one another, and later we clasp each other’s hand and embrace as if nothing had happened.2

Ajami proves that the kind of Western modernity that the Arabs imported gave birth to a monstrous, arid world, a false image of modernity, since they have no spirit of curiosity, nor hunger to know by totally changing values nor openness to absorb and process other matters. Therefore, the Western “modernity” of the Arab world will always be a “rented” form of modernity, which was imported by stratagems and with outside ingredients. The way to avoid this is sincere effort and full commitment to advancing Western and universal values in order that they become a focus of Arab society.3 Otherwise, the same hybrid creature of destructive neo-patriarchy will be created, that creature that combines the negative features of both cultural worlds.4 Islam of course totally rejects, without hesitation, modernity and sovereignty.



Yedi'ot Aharonot, September 2, 1994.


al-Ahram, October 15, 1970.


F. Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.


H. Sharabi, Neopatriarchy: The Theory of Distorted Arab Society, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.