On Arab Dignity, Real and Imagined

Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs, posted an essay in today’s CiF titled “We in the Middle East have replaced humiliation with dignity” which managed a very tricky polemical feat: romanticizing to the point of absurdity the history of  Arab and Muslim rule in the region, while simultaneously attributing most if not all of their political maladies as the legacy of colonialism and Cold War alliances.

Indeed, its hard not to read Davutoglu’s plea for Arab unity – and his utterly fantastical view of the vast region as one which enjoys political, cultural and social homogeneity – as something of a throwback to the failed Nasserite pan-Arabism of the 50s and 60s.

Davutoglu casts blame for Arab failures thusly:

“there were two abnormalities in the last century: first, colonialism in the 1930s, 40s and 50s that divided the region into colonial entities…The second abnormality was the cold war, which added a further division: countries that had lived together for centuries became enemies”

Not content to simply blame the legacies of colonialism and the Cold War for Arabs’ political and social failures, he then suggests that outside forces have stunted the growth of unity and democracy:

“Now it is time to naturalise the flow of history. I see all these revolutions as a delayed process that should have happened in the late 80s and 90as in eastern Europe. It did not because some argued that Arab societies didn’t deserve democracy, and needed authoritarian regimes to preserve the status quo and prevent Islamist radicalism.”

“Some countries and leaders who were proud of their own democracy, insisted that democracy in the Middle East would threaten security in our region.”

Laying out his broad vision for the region, he says:

“But in order to undertake that restoration, we need a plan, a vision…we need to trust the masses in our region, who want respect and dignity. This is the critical concept today: dignity. For decades we have been insulted. For decades we have been humiliated. Now we want dignity.”

Oh yes,  Arab “humiliation”.  Anyone familiar with Richard Landes’s meditations on the Arab honor-shame culture wouldn’t be the least bit surprised at such a characterization.

Briefly, Landes defines the dynamic this way:

“A calculus…that must be resolved in victory over the humiliating enemy, and a mind-set of suspicion that views everything as zero-sum manoeuvres (I win, you lose), and interprets all concessions as acts of weakness not generosity.”

Many observers much more astute than myself have concluded that the first step in the Arab world’s political progress must be to acknowledge their own considerable role in perpetuating regressive political pathologies, and cease scapegoating others for this lack of progress.

Along this line, a CiF commenter, and diamond in the rough, named “HushedSilence” summed it up perfectly:


Such rhetoric, of course, represents a quite heterodox view among the Arab vox populi, regarding the root cause of the political problems in the Middle East – but are profoundly important ideas which the Turkish Foreign Minister, leaders throughout the region, and the Arab “street” desperately need to hear.

15 replies »

  1. What struck me about the article was – for all the talk of “we have been the centre of civilisation” and “we have been humiliated” – the complete omission of the Ottoman empire.

  2. This article is really unique: It is all about the Middle East and it doesn’t mention Israel or Palestine even once ! (I posted a comment that pointed it out but it was deleted)

  3. Pretzelberg:

    Yes, it was the Ottoman Empire that humiliated the inhabitants of the Arab world for 400 years. He also talks a lot about youth,freedom,change, etc, while at the same time Turkey is arresting authors, censoring the internet, etc, etc. He obviously doesn’t understand the current changes in the ME.

  4. here is Bat Ye’or on the honour-humiliation nexus in Arab societies:

    Quote: To appreciate fully the ignominy of the dhimmi status, the term humiliation must be placed within the context of the value system of Arab societies where honour has a predominant place. Endquote.

    Poor Davutoglu – his figleaf of dignity is looking a bit threadbare – I suggest he and his Islamo-fascist pals find some new territory to conquer.

  5. I wonder what the personal limits of this honour concept are? I know from the news that for women the honour of the family is so delicate and valuable that death to protect it is not taking it too far. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard of men being killed to protect the family honour. So this concept must be sexual in nature only.

    There’s friction between clans/hamullahs on the basis of honour.

    What is most worrying is that honour doesn’t seem to demand care of the unfortunates in society as HushedSilence says. A neighbour of mine who did military duty in Gaza told me that children who are in his words ‘autistic’ which I imagined would include disturbed children, are tied up outside the house, like dogs. When you have a state run on this basis a general lack of human rights is the result. Naturally, people who are part of minorities, like Jews, would be easy prey for the honour-driven, who would gain status at their expense. Altogether it sounds like a depressing and frightening kind of society to live in where you would have to watch every word in case you infringed somebody else’s honour.

  6. “They” are very sensitive to being/feeling humiliated and easily confuse the latter with the former, pretzelberg.

    I read an article about the sort of upbringing which gives rise to this combination of magical thinking, big talk and hair-trigger sense of grievance. It is heavily dependent upon shaming and corporal punishment, rather than rewarding good behaviour, to keep children in order and it is widespread in the Arab/Muslim world.

    MargieinTelAviv, that would not surprise me. These ignoramuses may well believe that an autistic child would bring dishonour on the household, or is a punishment from their sky pixie for not being good enough Muslims.

  7. The Arab world is so obsessed with the question of its honor, with delusions of being constantly humiliated despite colonialism being dead and buried for over three decades (compare the political map of the globe from 1945 and 1980), with conspiracy theories all around, that it has no mental energy left for lifting itself up, and in fact would be as unmentioned in the daily news as the region of central Africa if it were not for its oil.

    The Jewish State has the opposite problem: So itching is it to look “pragmatic” and “realistic” that it throws even the most basic sense of honor to the wind, and has thus become a doormat for everybody; a state which any bottom-level diplomat on an unofficial visit feels fit to tell not to build on its own territories, knowing that not even the prospect of being declared persona non grata is in the cards.

  8. As another obstacle to making peace with Israel Arabs cannot admit that they didn’t win all those wars.

  9. Myself and MindTheCrap have clearly got thumbs-down from certain posters.
    You’d almost think there were politicial motives involved.

  10. What a load of crap that article was.


    “countries that had lived together for centuries became enemies””

    Those “countries” were created circa 1920 for the most part by the victors of WW I. The Ottomans subjugated a vast territory under single rule by force of arms, but hardly because it was such a love-fest from west to east or north to south.

    Of course, the dignified, multi-country EU-like Nasserite pan-Arab world that casts off the shackles of the colonialist carve up would be … the new Ottoman empire, headed, perhaps, by a worthy Turkish visionary such as … Ahmet Davutoglu.

    What is going on in the Moslem world is an internecine war between Sunni and Shiiate for control Islam that has little or nothing to do with democracy, colonialism, imperialism, and other high-flown ideas (or settlements on the West Bank).

    The Wahabis, hating both sides, are happy to stir the flames wherever possible by encouraging an extremist view of Islam and watching their Sunni and Shiite neighborsbomb each other to death (about 48 killed today by the religion of peace, BTW).

  11. pretzelberg, there, there! You might think that if you were a teensy weensy bit paranoid, but you aren’t……

    Are you?