The Arab Middle East today remains beholden to its foundational culture, Bedouin tribal culture. We see Arabs to this day cleaving to their kin groups, their tribes, their religious sects, manifesting in their actions group loyalty, support of closer over more distant, and balanced opposition, each party defined as much by whom they stand against, as what they stand for. At every level honour is at stake: tribes vs. tribes or sedentary authorities, Sunni vs. Shia, Arab vs. Kurd or Persian. Nor should we ignore the loss of Arab honour in their defeats by the Israelis, and the persistent Arab desire to regain that honour.
Honour in the Arab Middle East takes two forms: Sharaf is public standing, and is derived in the main from a man's political status. 'Ird is personal standing and is derived largely from the proper behaviour of the women with whom a man is affiliated. Honour can be understood only as part of tribal culture, Arab tribal culture.
For the individual, tribal membership means that, should he get into trouble, he will have committed allies to call upon. But the other side of this is that another member of his group, should he get into trouble, can call on him for support. In fact, in a case of violence perpetrated by a member of his group, he is a legitimate target for reprisal, for vengeance, by the group of the injured party. If his group settles, paying blood money, he must contribute from his scarce resources. If larger scale conflict breaks out, his group mobilizing to fight, and this is far from rare, he must join in and be ready to engage in combat.
In the Middle East, honour is for the winners, shame for the losers.
This all seems fair, but what if the offender from his group is an idiot who does stupid things, and has gotten into conflict through poor judgment? Or perhaps the offender from his group, a man distant in kinship, is greedy or violent, and has no justice to his claim and act? Must each member of the tribe nonetheless put his interests, his finances, his well-being, and those of his wife and children, at risk for these undeserving causes? Yes, of course he must, or else the collective security of the group would disappear, and individuals would be on their own, and vulnerable to any insult, offense, or attack.
Now we have come face to face with the tribal version of the universal organizational problem of how to inspire people to set aside their short-term interests in favour of long-term interests, and their individual interests in favour of collective interests. One way is to instill ideals, such as "duty," that lead people to bridge the short-term/long-term, individual/collective gap. Implied is a positive social judgement of those to fulfill their duty, and a negative judgment of those who do not. The Baluchi tribesmen speak of whether a lineage, a tribal segment, is patopak, solidary, or betopak, disunited, with the implied judgment that topak is desirable, and to be patopak is admirable.
Honour is thus a positive reinforcement, a reward for correct behaviour. Honour works similarly for the segment as a whole; its reputation depends upon its successful defence of its interests, no matter how prejudicial that defence is to the short term interests of its individual members.
Sharaf is not just a matter of doing the right thing, of formalistic conforming to the requirements of tribal norms. Rather, public standing, or the political status of a group, is the result of its success in defending and advancing its interests, and thus its success in competition with other groups of like magnitude in the tribal order. Sharaf, in short, is the reward for winning, and the recognition of the winners. In the Middle East, honour is for the winners, shame for the losers.
There is not one Arab nakba, the establishment of Israel. Rather, all of modern history is a nakba for the Arab world, a self-induced, cultural nakba as the Arab world has clung to pre-modern tribal forms: The seventh century C.E. remains the ideal for the Arab world. But modern liberal society depends upon a constitutional foundation, governing institutions based on law, politics allowing constant recall, and civil society going about its business peacefully. Loyalty must be to the constitution, not to groups. Building a modern society and liberal state on a tribal culture is building on shifting sands.
Philip Carl Salzman is a professor of anthropology at McGill University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.