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Preserving Arab Identity in the Process of Globalization

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Raphael Patai examined Arab culture from many different perspectives in his book The Arab Mind, revealing much about their value systems, behaviors, beliefs, ethos, and ability to deal with westernization within the context of globalization. Its treatment was both objective and in-depth as it focused on the issues concerning Arab civilization. Can they co-exist with the West in a way that is functional without losing their cultural identity? Will the constants of their Islamic values suffer assimilation or outright disintegration from Western influences?

This discussion will focus on these questions using Patai’s insight and expertise. It will look at the challenges, both internal and external, faced by Arabs and how it might impact their culture and, on a larger scale, the process of globalization. The real key to understanding the region, as Patai clearly stated, is getting to know the Arabs the way they see themselves. The expression of the Arab collective mind reveals the complexity of their culture. By understanding the modalities of their basic personality, the real picture emerges, which is the starting point of Patai’s book.

Arabs, without question, make up a distinctive culture whose past, both Islamic and pre-Islamic, form the basis of their sociocultural aggregate. As far back as 800 BC Bedouin societies sprung up, thus forming the substratum of their varied, but homogenous, culture. To understand the Arab “mind,” as Patai pointed out, certain assumptions concerning the developmental processes should be made. These include psychological imprinting occurring early in life, culturally patterned child rearing techniques, and commonalties of experience. 1 All of these influences, to a greater or lesser extent, form the baseline of the Arab personality.

In the child-rearing process, the value put on male-born children points to the domination of males within the cultural strata. A converse value is put on female-born children. Through culturally patterned child rearing techniques their positions are reinforced as subordinate and servile to that of males. 2 There may be over 100 million Arabs, but only half of those count when it comes to making contributions to their society. When virtually half of the Arab population is isolated in such a fashion, it has a tremendous impact on their culture being able to process outside influences.

Having said that, females are looked upon as objects of propagation to be confined within the tightly woven family structure. In essence, they are considered the property of the male head-of-household, which, by any standard of societal norms, separates and excludes them to a diminutive subset within their society. In the realm of sexual norms, the idea of female exclusivity is carried to an extreme. According to Bedouin ethos a tremendous value is put on family honor. Nothing can shame or taint that honor more than sexual infidelity by a female member. Punishment is extreme, sometimes leading to punishment of death.

Given the absoluteness placed on family honor and chastity of females in general, it is no wonder the rules regarding contact between the sexes are so strict. Furthermore, this is the main reason why female circumcision, including clitoridectomy, is practiced. 3 By comparison, male circumcision, usually performed in the young teen years, is considered a rite of passage-as a proof of courage. These practices date back to pre-Islamic times, for Islamic teaching forbids mutilation. It is only until recently that sexual mores have undergone change as a result of westernization.

Patai predicted in his book that: . . .the Arab mind will have no choice but to accept Western sex mores; and its innate ingenuity will find a way to modify and mold them until it will create, after the example of “Arab socialism,” a special Arab subvariety of the new sexuality. 4 The most immediate threat to Arab sexual mores concerns this very issue- that pernicious cultural imperialism from the West will take over. This theme often repeats itself, especially where Arab patriarchal power and Islamic beliefs are concerned. As we shall see later this is the main source of tension between East and West.

However, no discussion of the Arab mind could take place without examining, in more detail, the role of Islam. Despite some of the contradictions between Islamic tenets and mass ethos derived from Bedouin culture, Islam makes for, as Patai put it, “the central normative force in life. “5 It is also Patai’s contention that in Western societies religion is “divorced” from secular goals and values, while in Arab societies it is the “hub” from which all else radiates. 6 The Islamic component of the Arab personality is dominant, having a powerful effect on their attitudes, dispositions and motivations.

One of the major problems is the “deterministic orientation” of the Arab mind-an attitude, according to Patai, that causes “considerable difficulties when it comes to industrialization and modernization. “7 Arabs are inclined to abdicate responsibility due to an engendered passivity, for fate is the expression of God’s will. To the Arab’s way of thinking, preservation and continuation of the status quo are more important than innovation. Without the spirit of innovation, usually found in Western societies, the stifling affect of inertia fell over Arab culture, impeding their ability to cope with Western methodologies.

From a historical perspective, Arab culture did not begin to wake up from its lethargy until Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and conquered Egypt. This was at the beginning of the industrial revolution, which had a tremendous impact on the Arabic world. As things progressed, cataclysmic changes, brought about by two world wars, changed the map of the Middle East. In the 1950s Arab nation-states emerged independent, but at an interdependent level with the West. The growing pains suffered by Arabs in their attempt at nation building and modernization was significant.

But nothing was more damaging to the Arab mind, as Patai pointed out, than the loss to Israel in 1967 Arab-Israeli War. As a result of their failure, a deep scar was left on the Arab psyche; their honor was shamed. It would not be until the October war in 1973 with Israel that their honor would be restored. 9 This was also the time they realized they had a significant role to play in the global economy, given the dependency of the West on Middle Eastern oil. But still, there own economic stability was frail at best. In order to progress economically a compromise with the West would have to be struck.

Moreover, the challenge of resolving conflicts within their ranks was an affront to the ideal of Arab unity. The problem of unity among Arabs brings into question the preservation of identity in the face of globalization. One hundred and thirty-two years of colonial rule created “marginality”- a term Patai used to express “the state of belonging to two cultures without being able to identify oneself completely with either. “10 The French, in particular, impressed their culture upon the Arab culture, creating a dichotomy between the elite, (including urban middle class), and the masses or uneducated poor.

Cultural dimensions were created with the introduction of French education in North Africa, as well as French and English education in Lebanon and Egypt. 11 Often the Western-educated Arab lived in two worlds- that of home and family where colloquial Arabic was used, and that of the French or English language when dealing with work-related activities. Why not use just one language? The answer according to Patai was: “Arabic is an inadequate medium for modern communication, thought, science, and scholarship. “12 In other words, the Arabic language is not conducive to Western thinking, as it requires a whole different mindset.

This process of having to live in two different worlds brings up the question of marginality within the Arab culture. Although Arabs may be proud of their heritage, they hate the backwardness of its people and inadequacies of its culture. Although they may be envious of Western civilization and what it has accomplished, they feel equally revolted by its lack of spirituality. The effect of this constant pushing and pulling can lead to a split personality, or, at the very least, marginality within the culture.

Having to cope with cultural duality leads to marginality, which is the main reason for ambivalence-and ambivalence leads to a certain kind of stagnation. Patai quotes from his book the Arab author Hisham Sharabi, who summarized the problem: This generation’s psychological duality, its bilingual, bicultural character are clear manifestations of this fact. It has to judge itself, to choose, and to act in terms of concepts and values rooted not in its own tradition but in a tradition that it has still not appropriated. 13 Arab unity also comes into question when looking at the spectrum of their geo-political state.

Civil disobedience is the norm, rather than the exception. Rival political alignments have led to internecine strife on many levels. The hostility between Sunnite and Shiite Muslims belied the ideological expectation of Islamic cohesion. 14 Divergent interests and personal ambitions of Arab leaders have worked more against each other, rather than for each other. We have seen Arab nations, such as Afghanistan and Iran, devolve in their societies to prevent Western influence.

The central problem facing all Arab Muslims, as Patai stated in The Arab Mind, is: . .how to find a new way of life-Islamic in character-which will be halfway between the East and the West and which will provide the internal stability necessary to enable Muslims to face their problems independently. The Arab World can borrow technology from the West but it must find the answers to its deeper problems within itself. 15 In sum, there needs to be a cathartic synthesis between East and West that achieves balance without losing Arab identity. Many areas will need to be addressed, both internal and external, for this to happen.

The Arab mindset, status of women, education and literacy, national, intranational, and international economies, traditionalism and rigidity verses progressiveness, language barriers, inter-Arab conflicts, corrupt political regimes and resistance to Westernization all figure into the dynamic. The process of integration within the realm of globalization will take decades. Forecasting the evolution of these divergent Arab nations will be difficult. Having said that, success can only be measured in terms of peace and prosperity within their own sphere-not from any Western evaluation.

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