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The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs Format Kindle
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He finds the answer in Arab social and political culture, specifically:
1. TRIBALISM. Pryce-Jones argues that Arab culture doesn't encourage Arabs to identify themselves as members of a state, but as members of a family or tribe. Arab political life therefore consists of a multitude of warring factions, none of whom seeks the good of the nation as a whole. As Karl Popper might describe it, they ask only the personal question "Who should rule?" (and answer: "I should!") and never ask the more fundamental institutional question "How should power be organized?"
2. THE SHAME / HONOR SYSTEM. Arabs place great weight on perceptions of their honor. This consideration therefore often trumps all others and results in behavior that looks, to western eyes, like insanity.
An example is the Aswan dam. Nasser announces that he will build the dam and that it will be a great thing, thereby committing his honor to its construction and success. Therefore, when his own experts tell him that the dam is a bad idea (it will disrupt agriculture, increase the spread of some diseases, etc.), he suppresses the information and does not back down. When the Eisenhower administration revokes the promised funding for the dam (because it's a bad idea), Nasser's honor has committed him so fully to the dam that he reverses his foreign policy 180 degrees and cuddles up to the Soviet Union to get it done. And when the dam, as predicted, turns out to be a curse rather than a blessing, Nasser goes on shouting its virtues.
3. THE POWER-CHALLENGE DIALECTIC. You're either in power in the Arab world, in which case you're paranoid and watching your subordinates and allies as closely as your enemies, or you're no, in which case you lurk in the shadows, plot and scheme until your hand is ready and you make your move to challenge the power holder. There is no notion of shared power, no notion of purely institutional power.
The result is that calls for democracy, like calls for socialism, Palestinian independence and even repentance and return to the true tenets of Islam, are bogus. They mask what would otherwise be naked grabs for power by an individual or a tribal group. The Arabs are constantly and consistently betrayed by their leaders.
Note that this is NOT a book about Islam. Pryce-Jones explicitly argues that this Arab culture pre-dates Islam and that Islam itself is often used as a tool or a pretext in power challenges (as in Wahhabism, for instance).
Pryce-Jones wondered, too, for a lifetime, then took three years to produce this "interpretation", which is more comprehensive and lucid than any of the other works I've seen on the subject. His thesis is fairly simple: the Arabs, more than any other society, are bound by a code of shame and honor, which prevents them from advancing in nearly every field of human endeavor. The only dynamism in their sclerotic society is what Pryce-Jones calls "power challenging", the process by which one despot knocks another off his pedestal and assumes it himself, though even this can hardly be called dynamic, since one is just like another. They all operate according to these rules of power challenging, which may more simply be called the law of the jungle.
The shame/honor and power challenging theses explain a wide range of phenomena that can be baffling to an outsider. On one of the lowest levels, the village, Pryce-Jones gives the example of a local leader who decides to install an irrigation pump to improve agriculture. When a consultant warns of technical problems, the leader avoids the shame of appearing ignorant by pushing ahead with his plan, heedless of the warning. The pump overirrigates, leading to salinification, which ruins the village agriculture. But instead of being blamed by the village for the ruin, the local leader is honored for getting his way.
On a larger scale, why is it that Saudi Arabia, whose total revenues from oil some time ago passed the trillion dollar mark, needs the USA to defend it, needs American and European technicians to operate its oilfields, and needs imported labor from South Asia for any non-technical work? Simple: "Technical tasks, and of course laboring in all forms, demeaningly connote low status, and therefore shame." Thus, the Saudi squadrons of AWACS and other warplanes, and tanks, and sophisticated naval equipment, etc., are virtually useless to them, because while the purchase of such stuff brings honor, the maintenance and operation of it is low class and shameful. A fighter jet is little more than a trophy to show off to ones friends-and enemies. Rather than use a jet to defend themselves, "Al Saud prefer the technique of using money defensively...and to convert possible challengers into clients...the Saudis extend their money-favor nexus over the whole Middle East, enmeshing into it the entire spectrum of Arab power holders and challengers. The daily task of the Saudi ruler consists in assessing friends and opponents and then buying or holding them off, estimating and apportioning subsidies, bribes, subventions, the whole gamut of open or concealed transfers of money."
Pryce-Jones goes methodically through each Arab society, even one, Turkey, that is not technically Arab, and finds the same pattern in each: leaders that grab their power through violence, and hold onto it through violence and money. Even the much-heralded "Man of Peace", Anwar Sadat, began his career as a Nazi sympathizer, writing glowingly of Hitler in 1953 that the German had "become immortal in Germany" and that was "reason enough for pride". Sadat's subsequent protean career as a power holder took him through "pro-Nazi, pro-Soviet, socialist, capitalist, Jew-hater, and peacemaker" phases, the one constant being his always-cunning response to power challengers. After finally being murdered by a determined group of challengers, Sadat was commemorated by a handful of American presidents in his last permutation, that of peacemaker. His power holding legacy is carried on by Mubarak with Sadat's methods of repression and ample amounts of money, gotten not from oil, but from US foreign aid-payoffs for peace.
Pryce-Jones' thesis is not that all Arabs are murderous and power hungry. It does seem to be that one can't rise beyond a certain level in Arab society without being so. All of the leaders are authoritarian. None of the polities are open and democratic. Anyone who has traveled anywhere in the Middle East or Maghreb has met gentle and hard-working Arabs. Many Arabs would admire a leader such as Martin Luther King. But it would never occur to the leaders of the Arabs to take anything but a venal or violent approach to a problem. It's impossible to conceive, for instance, of Yasser Arafat leading a non-violent protest march through Israeli checkpoints on a day when Gaza was sealed off. Even if he were convinced that such an act would get him what he wanted politically, he would be unable to carry it out because of the enormous shame he would feel at being shown in such an ostensibly powerless position. What is shown in CLOSED CIRCLE is that it is impossible to take power or hold power in Arab society without employing the despotic methods of Gaddhafi or Sadat or Sadam or Faud or Arafat.
It's a pity that a book of this stature should be out of print in hardback. Something this vital ought to be available with one of the print-on-demand publishers.
Say what you want about cultural relativism and its reponsibility to respect the way of life of others, this fact (together with the other well-researched data that Mr. Pryce-Jones presents) paints a troubling picture of tribal society, feckless international intervention and, ultimately a fertile ground for the disaffected who are fed militant Islam at every turn.
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