Why Do Syria’s Assassination Victims and Other Arab Leaders Sport Mustaches?

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 18 2012 6:35 PM

Why Do So Many Arab Leaders Wear Mustaches?

One kind of facial hair is linked to manliness, another to godliness.

Syrian man
For many Arab men, the mustache is a sign of manhood

Photograph by Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images.

Daoud Rajha, Syria’s defense minister, and Asef Shawkat, the Syrian president’s brother-in-law, were killed by a suicide bomb in Damascus on Wednesday. In photos accompanying the news of the deaths, Rajha and Shawkat—like many men in the Middle East—sport mustaches. Why do so many prominent Arab men wear mustaches?

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

It’s a sign of virility. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his chief of staff also don prominent facial hair, as does Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Saddam Hussein and his ministers wore bushy mustaches. Even outside the ranks of government officials, many Arab men are raised to see the mustache as a sign of manhood. Because of the pride attached to its presence, the mustache has been a prime political target, and shaving off an opponent’s mustache is not unheard of. In 2003, an aide to Saddam Hussein insulted Kuwait’s minister of state when he exclaimed, “Curse be upon your mustache!”

The carefully groomed mustache has become a distinctive part of Arab culture. Under Hussein’s rule, men serving in the Iraqi army were forced to wear them. Writer Etgar Keret, in a piece for the New York Times, recalled a story his acupuncturist told him about going undercover disguised as an Arab while serving with the Israel Defense Forces. To be perceived as a convincing Arab, he had to paint on a “respectable mustache.”

Not everyone associates the mustache with power, however. Some Islamists believe that Mohammed told Muslims to grow beards to distinguish themselves from their enemy, the Persians, who typically wore mustaches. “Act against the polytheists,” the Prophet Mohammed said. “Trim closely the mustache and grow beard.”

While facial hair is not a blanket statement of one’s politics in the Arab world, it can give an indication: Many Islamists don beards, Baathists are often seen with mustaches, and liberals tend to forgo facial hair altogether.

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