Richard Burton (the adventurer and orientalist, not the actor) once pithily defined the nature of government in the Middle East as “despotism tempered by assassination.” To judge from David Pryce-Jones’ absorbing new study of Arab society and politics, things have not changed much--unless for the worse--since Burton’s day.
Pryce-Jones first came into contact with the Arab world as a child in 1941, when he was evacuated from Vichy France to Morocco in the care of an uncle, a Spanish diplomat. His next encounter was 15 years later, as a young officer in the British army at the time of the Suez expedition. It was not until 1967, however, when he covered the Arab-Israeli war as a correspondent, that he began to reflect upon the irrationalities and contradictions of Arab behavior which, among other things, had subjected them to ignominious defeat in that war. At intervals over the next 20 years, by means of wide reading and extensive travel in Arab lands, he made a valiant effort to penetrate the labyrinth of the Arab psyche, to discover, if he could, the subterranean springs of those self-destructive urges exhibited by so many Arabs so much of the time, to the bafflement and dismay of Western onlookers. Along the way, he published a most perceptive study of the Palestine Liberation Organization, “The Face of Defeat,” which was noteworthy for its exposure of the way in which the rank and file who carry out the organization’s dirty work are cynically manipulated by their leaders, secure in far-off, comfortable havens.
The fundamental question to which Pryce-Jones addresses himself in “The Closed Circle” is why it is that constitutional government, as understood in the West, has never evolved in the Arab world. Why is it that representative and parliamentary institutions, protection under the law, individual rights and guarantees, have failed to take root in Arab soil even though their seeds were planted and replanted in several Arab countries by Britain and France after both World Wars I and II? Instead, the Arabs of late years have resorted more and more to their basic social and religious institutions, the tribe and Islam, to provide the structure of government. Any progress toward political maturity has been stultified by their inability to comprehend any loyalty other than that to family, tribe or religious sect. Loyalty to the state, to the nation or to the constitution is a concept devoid of meaning for them. In its place there is only the tradition of obedience to the ruler; in other words, Oriental despotism.
The state and its treasury are only there to be seized and plundered for the enrichment of family, tribe or faction. (Consider, for example, the regimes currently in power in Libya, Syria and Iraq.) Inevitably, of course, the wealth and power of a ruler or ruling clique excite the envy of other ambitious spirits, provoking them to challenge the existing regime. Because no sophisticated political machinery exists for the expression of that challenge, it will, like tribal or family feuds, be resolved by violence. Arab custom and tradition offer no alternatives. And the successful challenger, with equal inevitability, will resort to the repressive methods of his predecessor to retain his new-found power. So the cycle of violence becomes perpetual.
Is there any hope that the Arabs will ever break out of the closed circle of repression and violence into which they have locked themselves? Pryce-Jones doubts it, if only because they are bedeviled by their obsession with “face,” or what he describes as “the shame/honor concept.” The trouble about the question of face is that it is, to a very great extent, only skin-deep, i.e. it depends upon shallow and superficial considerations. Honor is not just a matter of manliness, family, tribal code, religious faith, etc. but also of ostentation, magniloquence and bravado. Shame, for its part, resides not only in the betrayal of duty or code or family but also in occupying a lowly station in society, in being poor, or being employed in a menial occupation. In contrast to the prevailing attitude in Western society, shame for an Arab does not derive so much from the commission of misdeeds (what is a misdeed to a European or an American is not necessarily one to an Arab) as from being bested by another. Thus there is no shame in engaging in what Westerners would regard as lying or cheating, especially in commercial transactions; for the exclusive aim is to come out on top, regardless of the methods used. It is an attitude that has caused much misunderstanding and ill-feeling between Arabs and Westerners.
The operation of the principle may again be seen in the use of family connections to attain wealth or high office. Whereas in the West a man who gained high office solely by virtue of his family connections would attract a certain degree of contempt, in Arab eyes, a man who did not use his family’s position to enrich himself or advance himself to high office would be an object of scorn and shame.
Hand in hand with the question of face goes the abuse of public office for personal gain, or, as Pryce-Jones has it, “the money-favor nexus.” Baksheesh (bribery or handouts) is so integral a component of Arab life that its deleterious consequences are rarely questioned. To further oneself, or even to survive, in the immense pyramid of Arab society it is necessary to placate those above with money, deference, humility. Conversely, those above consider themselves entitled to demand of those below abject subservience, sweetened by appropriate offerings of baksheesh. It is a system that degrades all.
Much of the psychological burden carried by the Arabs originates in their confused attitude, compounded equally of envy and resentment, toward the Western world. Modern Arabic literature, he points out, is permeated by both self-hatred and hatred of the West and all its works. But much of the nihilistic vaporing of Arab intellectuals, as he also makes clear, is copycat stuff, picked up during a sojourn in Europe or America.
The Arab peoples deserve something better than this from their soi-disant intelligentsia. They also deserve, as Pryce-Jones observes toward the end of his brave, honest and thoughtful book, a better system of government than they have had to date, or at least a better class of ruler.
The omens, one regrets to say, are not propitious.