What's wrong with The Arab Mind.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 27 2004 12:40 PM

Inside The Arab Mind

What's wrong with the White House's book on Arab nationalism.

Book cover

In one of his recent New Yorker articles about Abu Ghraib, Seymour Hersh quoted an unnamed academic on the Bush administration's view of Arab culture. In the White House discussions of the subject, the academic said, two themes emerged: "one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation." And, he explained, "the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior" was a book with what Hersh described as a "25-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression"—Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind.

Although academics like to believe that scholarly work affects policy-making more than it actually does, The Arab Mind has enjoyed a sufficiently popular reputation since its 1976 publication to suggest it might have influenced the administration. Certainly, the book is well known in military circles. "At the institution where I teach military officers," as retired U.S. Army Col. Norvell De Atkine writes in the book's foreword, "The Arab Mind forms the basis of my cultural instruction."


However, either Hersh's source didn't read Patai closely, or the White House didn't. Patai never says that Arabs understand only force. His position is closer to the idea that Arabs would rather trash-talk than fight, but that once the fighting starts, then "psychological mechanisms come into play, making it practically impossible for either side to stop fighting, unless totally and hopelessly defeated, or unless mediation can bring about a settlement of the dispute." This insight, however, seems of limited value, since it applies to practically all societies.

As for Patai's take on Arab ideas of shame and honor, he notes that saving face is important in a society where the reputation of one person can affect an entire family. And as a culture with traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity, "extreme modesty and bashfulness ... characterizes Arab sexual conduct in public." No doubt it would be humiliating in such a culture for men to be forced into sexual positions with other men and photographed, but then it's hard to imagine the society that wouldn't be enraged by it. As for sex generally, Patai shows that Arabs aren't much more repressed than Westerners. He notes the "extreme matter-of-factness with which sexual desires and functions" are discussed—a phenomenon that's "always been perplexing to the Western observer."

Patai, a Hungarian-born Jew who died in 1996 at 86, was a keen and sympathetic observer of Arab society. An author of more than 40 books, including one titled The Jewish Mind, he was a popularizer of difficult ideas, and also a serious scholar who taught at Princeton and Columbia. He came by his interest at a young age. In the preface to The Arab Mind, he related how at age 10 he met the famous Hungarian expert on Islamic law and history Ignaz Goldziher. "Remember," Patai's father told the boy, "you shook hands with the greatest Orientalist alive." It was the start of a lifelong infatuation. "When it comes to the Arabs," he wrote, "I must admit to an incurable romanticism."

Yet, The Arab Mind is one of the most bloodless books ever written on the Arabs. It reads like a report Mr. Spock might have filed after his tour with the Enterprise. Captain Kirk and the crew would have agreed that earthlings are conflict-prone and frequently illogical, but they also would have wondered why their friend had rendered them without color or depth. The Arab Mind relies so heavily on generalizations and statistics that it represents the Arab world as one inhabited by automatons who simply enact the roles that their culture and climate have designed for them. Patai's method seems to substantiate the claims of fundamentalist sheiks and pan-Arabist ideologues alike: Arabs are merely the instruments of a greater power, sometimes, like God, merciful; or sometimes, like the United States and its Zionist/imperialist colleagues, extremely cruel.

The very title of The Arab Mind suggests that it's possible, and desirable, to reduce a set of cultural ideas and circumstances to a single concept. Patai's term is more than the vulgar shorthand of mass politics (e.g., "the black community"). It belongs to an old tradition that classified races according to their ostensibly characteristic traits, a field pioneered by 19th-century European writers and shared by, among others, T.E. Lawrence. "They were a limited, narrow-minded people, whose inert intellects lay fallow in incurious resignation," Lawrence wrote in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom of the men he campaigned with during World War I. Nevertheless, Lawrence not only liked Arabs but was an influential advocate of Arab nationalism, the idea that Arabic speakers, from Morocco to Iraq, constitute a nation merely because they speak Arabic.

Lawrence and the British encouraged Arab nationalist ambitions. They hoped that Arab officers in the Ottoman army would turn on their Turkish masters to fight for an independent Arab nation. Lawrence's Arab revolt thus dovetailed with British plans to dominate the region. Or so it seemed. As the late Iraqi-born scholar Elie Kedourie explained in the recently reissued The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, the British found themselves in over their heads. They brought down the Ottomans, but they also ruined their own position in the Middle East. The Arab nationalism they'd promoted finished them off.

But there was nothing natural or inevitable about a nationalism that sought to unite disparate peoples on the basis of a shared language. Large parts of the Arabic-speaking world had little interest in the ideology. For instance, throughout the 1920s Egyptian intellectuals defined a specifically Egyptian identity, based not on language but on geography and a history reaching back to the Pharaohs. The Egyptians' idea of nationalism was derived from the French, English, and American model, which included political rights for all citizens. Pan-Arab nationalism, in contrast, was inspired by the Germans' 19th-century language-centered conception, which regarded the nation as more important than the individual. What made the German model especially appealing to pan-Arabists is that it emphasized a stance against foreign powers. The Germans saw their cultural and political integrity threatened by France, especially during the Napoleonic wars. The Arabs, for their part, feared a succession of external forces: the Ottomans, the French and the British, and then the United States and Israel.

By the time of Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 coup, Egypt was fully aboard the pan-Arabist program, and in 1967 he directed the Arabs' war against Israel. Their defeat made Arab intellectuals reflect on the conditions that had brought about such a humiliating disaster. Rather than detail, for example, specific economic problems or the incompetence of particular military leaders, many intellectuals (Patai quotes several of them) tended to criticize Arab culture using abstractions like "Arab backwardness." So, Arabs because of their love of flowery language were susceptible to the high-flown rhetoric that inspired them to war, or their militaries were organized along tribal principles ill-suited to modern warfare, or Arabs were averse to physical labor and couldn't produce their own military hardware. True or false, all of these criticisms assume that different peoples, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf, can be reduced to some essential quality—an Arab mind. Patai's book, published nine years after 1967 war is a compendium of these views, drawing on European racial theory and the Arabs' self-criticism of their ill-fated nationalism.