The Role of Culture in the Middle East Conflict:

What The State Department Overlooks

Dr. Steven E. Rothke

The Bush Administration and new foreign policy leadership inherit many brewing crises, most notably the Arab-Israeli conflict, now in its 53rd year. Yet perhaps the most vexing international relations issue being passed down from the prior dozen Administrations is a seriously flawed world-view that all nations and peoples utilize the same problem solving approaches (i.e., Western logic), have the same aspirations for peaceful coexistence, and hold the same respect for contracts and treaties. The role of culture, religion, and traditions, are given little or no weight in Washington's calculus of understanding the behavior of foreign states and how to relate to them. These oversights have led to years of failed peace initiatives and thousands of lost lives.

A recent body of research by Professor Richard Nisbett and colleagues at the University of Michigan, summarized in an upcoming issue of Psychological Review, indicates culture has a meaningful impact on how people think. As it turns out, not all peoples hold a devotion to Western logic or show a tendency to think in terms of linear cause-effect relationships. For example, in a series of social psychological studies, they found that those raised in Oriental cultures tended to think more "holistically," paying greater attention to context and relationship, relying more on experience-based knowledge than abstract knowledge, and showing more tolerance for contradiction. Those raised in the United states or Western Europe were found to be more "analytic" in their thinking, tending to detach objects from their context, to avoid contradictions, and to rely heavily on formal logic. Westerners were also found more likely to make attribution errors – a tendency to explain human behavior on the basis of the traits of individuals even when powerful situational forces were at work. This type of conceptual error can be seen to operate in Washington when a foreign leader is described as a proponent of peace because he speaks in moderate terms while ignoring the war-like rhetoric in that nation's press and people on the street. The other major finding relevant for foreign policy analysis was that Americans are more likely than Asians to stick with the rules of logic when logic and experiential knowledge are in conflict, and more likely to actually solidify rather than modify their opinions when faced with evidence contradictory to their opinions or when their logic was based on implausible assumptions. Again, this can be seen to operate at the State Department and the White House over the past half century where advisors have dug their heels into the "logic" that peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors is at hand given only the right land-for-peace concessions despite 53 years of hard experiential evidence that no concessions are ever enough. The lesson from this body of research is that the American "world-view" needs to be reassessed and the cultural and cognitive differences between the parties to the Middle East conflict need to be much better understood and considered.

Key cultural differences between the Arabs and Israelis that contribute to the ongoing conflict but have been largely ignored in Washington include child rearing practices, customs for social interchange, views on what constitutes an agreement, and religion. In Western cultures, guilt is the principal tool for socializing children; however, in traditional Arab homes of the Middle East it is shame.1 The impact of the latter is a lack of self-criticism and capacity for remorse for behavior; one learns to yield to social pressure and criticism and to primarily behave in a way that avoids further humiliation. In such a system, wrongdoing is defined as something wrong done in the presence of others leading the actor to seek to obscure or conceal his intentions or actions. The individual comes to believe that he is not responsible for his actions but is rather a victim of the pressure to avoid humiliation. In this type of society, one seeks to avoid open disagreements; instead, social flattery and amusement of the other set the tone of social discourse. Unfortunately, rather than genuine agreements between people, temporary solutions abound. There is no expectation to keep promises because individuals do not feel free to say "no." One learns to become duplicitous as a tool of adaptation. The word for this in Arabic is neefik meaning having two faces. It is very unlikely that this developmental experience is left at the door when Arab, Israeli, and American negotiators meet, a fact often neglected by Americans and recently by the Israeli leadership as well. Another implication of the role of shame in the upbringing of Arab children is that it often leads to a sense of rage in response to the humiliation. This sense of rage can be seen to operate in the acts of extraordinary brutality, by Western standards at least, seen in the killings of the captured Israeli soldiers at a Palestinian police station last fall. This rage is usually easily elicited, and the rage of the poorly educated masses is frequently misdirected against the West by charismatic leaders of the Middle East; it is also noted in acts of brutality against fellow Arab or Moslem States.

Religion can also have a significant impact on thinking and behavior. Islam, the predominant religion of Middle Eastern Arabs, does not separate church from state and thus pervades most aspects of its followers' lives.2 A principle tenet of Islam is that it is the duty of the believers to strive to convert or at least subjugate the nonbelievers. This struggle does not end until the whole world has accepted the Islamic faith or is beholden to the Islamic State. The means by which this is accomplished is jihad or holy war. When advantageous, the war can be interrupted by an armistice or treaty of limited duration. However, no permanent peace is possible – only a final victory is acceptable. An early precedent for this was the Treaty of Hudaybya between Muhammad and the Quraysh people of Mecca. What was supposed to be a ten-year agreement was broken after three years, by some accounts, when Muhammad had the military strength to conquer the Quraysh. Of great concern is the fact that Yassir Arafat makes frequent reference to this treaty in his Arab language speeches to his people, presumably drawing a parallel between the temporary nature of Muhammad's treaty with his own intentions toward Israel (the nonbeliever state of the Middle East).

It is no surprise, in light of the cultural and religious background of the majority of the Arabs of the Middle East, that there is no Arab language equivalent of a permanent agreement. The closest word, teswiyeh, refers to a temporary settlement. It stems from a form of situational bargaining (i.e., an agreement to be broken when a better opportunity comes along) as opposed to the Western concept of contractual bargaining that carries the expectation of permanence and enforcement by legal remedies. This is the way of doing business in much of the Middle East (i.e., agreements are made to be broken). Yet, Western interpretations are made of the statements of Arab negotiators (i.e., they genuinely want a permanent peace) and pressure is then put on Israel to trade its security for Arab promises for peace.

The overall political strategy of the Arabs derives from many influences including the sense of humiliation and rage resulting from developmental experiences, the reliance on duplicity as a tool of social adaptation, and the religious imperative of jihad. The Arab position is one of Totalism, which is defined as:

"the aim of and often obsession with total wins regarding basic issues in conflict. It entails the complete elimination or subordination of the other. It derives from highly negative and monolithic perceptions of the enemy who is viewed as intrinsically evil, inherently aggressive, or basically inferior, with no right to the of attainment of his aims."3

States or peoples displaying a Totalist strategy view their opponents as having no legitimacy where as the view of the self is grandiose sometimes to the point of megalomania. This is likely in response to underlying feelings of inadequacy, victimization, powerlessness, and humiliation (such as might be expected following many years of shame and degradation as noted in the Arab culture). In psychology, this deep blow to the self-esteem is known as a narcissistic wound. This is not only found in the present culture of the Arabs; the precedent for this long-term sense of outrage and humiliation may be the rejection of Muhammad as the true prophet by the Jews of Medina in approximately the year 622 (which was followed two years later by a series of wars he waged against several Jewish tribes leading to executions of men and forced slavery of women and children). Thus, Totalism is a psychological compensation or form of restoration of the self-image following repeated narcissistic wounds. Achievement of the aims of the Totalist State often requires a long-term approach. Nationalist or religious propaganda maintains the peoples' fervor for the cause. Accommodations with the enemy are acceptable for short periods of time but only complete elimination of the other satisfies their aspirations (note the parallel to jihad). Gestures of cooperation by the enemy, even when backed by firmness, are interpreted by totalists as weakness who expect that their enemy will eventually give up or be worn down -- an extraordinary parallel to today's Middle East peace process peppered by Israeli concessions on one-hand and intifadas and terrorist attacks on the other. The Totalist strategy is the antithesis of the way democratic states of the world operate, including Israel and the US, another great divide in how the parties to the conflict think.

The examples discussed here demonstrate clearly how culture and religion impact on how a people think, set their goals and expectations, view others, and act. The outlook by America's foreign policy elite over the past 50 years, particularly on the Arab-Israeli conflict, completely fails to take these critical issues into account. Instead, the US can be said to be guilty of a "cognitive elitism," assuming the entire world thinks the way that we do. This perspective assumes that the Arabs and Muslims of the Middle East would give up a 1400-year-old grievance for a simple set of land gifts by Israel or a peace of paper cosigned by the President. This is delusional thinking as much as it is elitist. It is time for a very serious reassessment of the process by which our foreign policy leaders assess and predict the behavior of nations. The differences in culture, religion, and traditions of social discourse between our Western allies and their adversaries must be considered before any self-mutilating gestures for peace are asked of Israel. This is not an argument that one culture is good and the other is bad or that one religion is right and the other is evil; cultures and religions should be respected. It is simply a matter of more clearly recognizing these differences, utilizing them in formulating a foreign policy and taking peace initiatives, and having the will to back our allies with strength when these differences threaten their and our existence.

Sharabi, Hisham. Family and cultural development in Arab Society. The Jerusalem Quarterly, 1977 (winter), 60-72.

2 Lewis, Bernard. The Political Language of Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (1988)

3 Kaplowitz, Noel. National self-images, perceptions of enemies, and conflict strategies: Psychopolitical dimensions of international relations. Political Psychology, 11(1), 39-82, 1990.


Dr. Rothke is Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago IL.

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