Richard A. Landes is an associate professor of history at Boston University. He is an expert on millennial movements and honor-shame culture. He is also a conspiracy theorist who believes that the killing of Mohammad Al-Durrah was staged by Palestinians and sold to a gullible mainstream media all too ready to promote an ongoing blood libel against Israel. He is a key contributor to the documentary “The J-Street Challenge,” which is currently making the pro-Israel propaganda rounds. His BU webpage says that, among other things, he is chronicling “the astonishingly foolish behavior of intellectual and policy elites in the response to global jihad.”
Tablet Magazine has been featuring Landes’ article “Why the Arab World Is Lost in an Emotional Nakba, and How We Keep It There.” The article focuses on how this “foolishness” relates to Israel. “By ignoring the honor-shame dynamic in Arab political culture,” asks a sub-heading, “is the West keeping itself from making headway toward peace?” The question is rhetorical.
With his credentials, Landes should not be taken lightly despite his partisan positioning. All the same there is something unsettlingly glib and extreme in his analysis at Tablet. It all starts innocently enough. The article asserts that warrior-nomadic cultures (read Arab Islam) have specific honor codes, the violation of which brings debilitating shame. He relates how in such cultures the failure to avenge a killing is so shameful that it cannot be lived down. He contrasts this with a 1000-year transition in Western Greek culture from a “shame culture” (honoring fame and reputation above all) to a “guilt culture” (marked by an internal conscience and a fear of divine retribution) underpinning our liberal democracies.
One might note that after the religious wars in western culture from the crusades through the Peace of Westphalia, and the disasters of the 20th Century, not least of which was the Shoah, there is reason to question whether this transition of western culture from an honor culture to a guilt culture has been such an unmitigated blessing. [If you like this kind of thing, take a look at the efforts of two philosophy professors setting about to resurrect aspects of Homerian culture in their book “All Things Shining.”] Landes, however, seems to be clear that because Arab culture has not undergone this transition—don’t try to reason with them.
Here is the heart of his thesis:
For the 13 centuries before Zionism, Jews had been subject to a political status in Muslim lands specifically designed around issues of honor (to Muslims) and shame (to Jews). Jews were dhimmi, “protected” from Muslim violence by their acceptance of daily public degradation and legal inferiority. …So, the prospect of an independent state of should-be dhimmis struck Arab leaders as more than humiliating. It endangered all Islam. Thus Rahman Azzam Pasha, the head of the newly formed Arab League, spoke for his “honor group” when he threatened that “if the Zionists dare establish a state, the massacres we would unleash would dwarf anything which Genghis Khan and Hitler perpetrated.” As the Armenians had discovered a generation earlier, the mere suspicion of rebellion could engender massacres.
The loss in 1948, therefore, constituted the most catastrophic possible outcome for this honor-group ….To fall to people so low on the scale that it is dishonorable even to fight them—nothing could be more devastating. …. Arab pride called out to the Arab world for vengeance against the Jews. In the meantime, wherever Muslims held power, they drove their Jews out as a preliminary act of revenge.
And what conclusions does Landes draw?
The Arab leadership’s interpretation of honor had them responding to the loss of their own hard zero-sum game—we’re going to massacre them—by adopting a negative-sum strategy. Damaging the Israeli “other” became paramount, no matter how much that effort might hurt Arabs, especially Palestinians. “No recognition, no negotiations, no peace.” No Israel. Sooner leave millions of Muslims under Jewish rule than negotiate a solution. Sooner die than live humiliated. Sooner commit suicide to kill Jews than make peace with them. …
Many post-Orientalists, in the tradition of Edward Saïd [sic], have predicted the outbreak of democracy any decade now, from the 1990s to the “Arab Spring.” Thus, while Yasser Arafat’s “no” at Camp David shocked Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross, and a public fed on the idea of a win-win peace process, those familiar with the values of Arafat’s primary honor-group predicted that rejection.….
[E]xperts… explained why a reasonable Arafat had to say no. Of course, to make Arafat rational meant blaming the Israelis for the failure of negotiations and for the subsequent explosion of violence against them. When Cherie Blair expressed her understanding for the despair of suicide bombers, she projected her liberal world view on people who actually aspire to the highest honor their society can offer: martyrdom in the war to kill the Jews. …
The policy implications here are grave. The “rational” model assumes that the ’67 borders (’49 armistice lines) are the key and that an Israeli withdrawal will satisfy rational Palestinian demands, resolving the conflict. Attention to honor-shame culture, however, suggests that such a retreat would trigger greater aggression in the drive for true Palestinian honor….
Israelis’ future depends on their ability to understand why their neighbors hate them and what can and won’t work in trying to deal with their hostility. … As anyone paying attention knows, the Salafi-Jihadis, who have “hijacked” Islam the world over, embody this self-same honor-shame mentality in its harshest form: the existential drama of humiliate or be humiliated, rule or be ruled, exterminate or be exterminated. Dar al Islam must conquer dar al Harb; independent infidels (harbis) must be spectacularly brought low, their women raped; Islam must dominate the world … or vanish.
…[C]ulture is not a superficial question of manners. In the Middle East, honor is identity. Appeasement and concessions are signs of weakness: When practiced by one’s own leaders, they produce riots of protest, by one’s enemy, renewed aggression. …. And too few wonder whether basic logic of the negotiations—land for peace—has any purchase on the cultural realities of this corner of the globe. If only Israel would be more reasonable …
When we indulge Arab (and jihadi Muslims’) concerns for honor by backing off anything that they claim offends them, we think that our generosity and restraint will somehow move extremists to more rational behavior. Instead, we end up muzzling ourselves and thereby participating in, honoring, and confirming their most belligerent attitudes toward the “other.” They get to lead with their glass chin, while we, thinking we work for peace, end up confirming and weaponizing the Arab world’s most toxic weaknesses—their insecurity, their embrace of all-or-nothing conflicts, their addiction to revenge, their paranoid scapegoating, their shame-driven hatred. And there is nothing generous, rational, or progressive about that.
There is certainly nothing wrong with engaging in honor-shame scholarship. One can’t begin to think about honor killings without examining honor and shame dynamics in Muslim culture. Studying transformations from ancient Greek shame culture (“fame and reputation”) towards conscience and fear of divine retribution (Christianity?) may well be fruitful and informative for understanding Muslim extremist culture. To suggest that anyone thinks otherwise is a straw man.
On the other hand, for Landes to suggest that an honor-shame culture necessarily means that Palestinians will, therefore, never accept Israel and that they will always hate and want to rape, pillage, and destroy…and don’t even think about land for peace or easing up on the harshness of the occupation… is to engage in a fantasy rationalization of a pretty simplistic sort.
The discussion of “dhimmi” is advanced by Landes without a trace of acknowledgment that it describes the dynamic of the Israeli occupation to a tee. It’s dhimmi them or dhimmi us, so let’s dhimmi them! If that’s the only choice, then let’s abandon this project already. Similarly, the allegation of Arafat “shocking” Clinton with his rejection is presented without the faintest concession to subtlety (see link).
Landes is using “shame and honor” to tap into our revulsion at ISIS, at abominations like honor killings, and he is doing this to justify a brutal occupation with visions of a new holocaust. But ISIS is not Ramallah. And what about China and Japan? Don’t they have a shame and honor culture? Didn’t Japan make peace after World War II and become one of the world’s top economies? Are Palestinians human beings you can make peace with? Read Pamela Olson.
As Landes’s participation in the hit piece on J-Street, and his propagation of conspiracy propaganda on the Mohammad Al-Durra killing suggest, this is not scholarship, it is rationalization to justify an unacceptable status quo.