Friday, February 27, 2009

The Closed Circle

One of the more brilliant and depressing books I have read is David Pryce-Jones’s The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs. I had previously read and enjoyed his The War that Never Was: the Fall of the Soviet Empire 1985-1991 (also published as The Strange Death of the Soviet Union). In the latter book, Pryce-Jones observed, interviewed and listened. You heard the voices of those involved in a way that was very powerful. Particularly as he had a very good question: how come the fall of the Soviet Empire took place with so little violence?

The Closed Circle is similar in that the voices come across very clearly and he has a very good question: what has gone so grievously wrong with Arab societies? Why the despotism, the poverty, the failure to genuinely advance?

Having read a lot of Middle Eastern history over the years, The Closed Circle continually rang true. I am generally sceptical of cultural explanations – too often they are the resort of the analytically bereft. (If I read another piece of guff about chivalry, knighthood, feudalism, guilds et al as Germanic survivals, I may do something violent: haven’t such medievalists ever bothered reading a bit of Japanese history?) But in Pryce-Jones’ case, he grounds his explanation in living experience, incentives and belief structures in a way that is very effective.
Like many observers over the years, Pryce-Jones considers the oppression of women and the structure of family life as a basic factor in the Arab dilemma. He is very keen to get the reader to see things from an Arab, rather than a Euro-centric, perspective. To make one aware of the often profound differences in outlook:
Some of the lasting themes of Western literature – courtship, the gradual realisation of mutual love, the development of these intimate feelings, their trials and fulfilments – are, of course, excluded from Arab literature, as from Arab society, with its segregation of the sexes and arranged marriages (p.397).

Arab society works on a shame-honour dialectic, a world of power-challenges, power-careerism and money-favouring.
The Arab world has no institutions evolved by common consent for common purposes, under guarantee of law, and consequently there is nothing that can be agreed as the general good (p.402).

What in the West would be seen as reasonableness and pragmatic accommodation, in Arab society is weakness. The role of rulership is domination, to predate on the society: ideologies are just convenient masks, power-structure barrackings. The analysis in The Closed Circle is congruent with Salzman’s more recent Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (which I reviewed here and discussed some implications of Salzman’s analysis here).

It is also a society that feels itself to be under massive assault. Western empires may have receded territorially, but the products, power and (worst of all) shaming success of Western society is omnipresent, both deeply attractive and shamingly unendurable. That the Jews have managed to create a state and defeat the Arabs again and again is another shame unbearable. A shame only victory and blood can wipe away – hence a Saudi newspaper 1961 headline: Capture of Eichmann, who had the honour of killing five million Jews (p.194). But the Arab conversation about why Israel kept winning, why Israelis without oil have a higher living standard than Arabs with it, cannot even begin, because self-critique outside the shame-honour dialectic is too offensive to be permitted and too dangerous to be risked.

The standard mode of politics is conspiracy (all current Arab leaders came to power from conspiracies or as the fortunate heir of past conspiracies), and conspiratorism becomes the standard mode of analysis. Israel’s success is "obviously" a result of conspiracy. Dominance is the point of politics, so the desire for dominance is assumed to apply to all. Accusations that the West seeks to destroy Islam have been the stock-in-trade of analysis for well over a century.

Given the endless failures of Palestinian politics, reading Pryce-Jones’s discussion of the destructive barrenness of the shame-honour and power-challenge dialectics for Palestinians is particularly revealing. He shows how Haj Amin al-Husseini’s violent response to Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s was all about power within the Palestinian community and, in a continuing pattern of Palestinian politics, killed more Palestinians than Jews, and far more Palestinians than did the Jews. Husseini’s enthusiastic collaboration with Hitler (including cheerleading the Holocaust) was a convenient fit – he saw Hitler as a challenger to the British and fellow enemy of Jews. That Nazism also saw Arabs as untermenschen was unimportant or unnoticeable.

Pryce-Jones delineates the destruction the PLO unleashed in Southern Lebanon after being violently expelled from Jordan (pp 292ff), a social desolation it has since proceeded to replicate in the West Bank and Gaza (Hamas has since taken over the role in the latter). The utter bankruptcy of the policy of supporting Arafat (Haj Husseini’s nephew: Arafat was still alive when The Closed Circle was published) and the PLO in its corruption, oppression and murders (including of fellow Palestinians) is revealed in all its horror: but hey, there is always that old standby of blame the Jews.

The book was originally published in 1989. There have been some hopeful recent straws in the wind since, notably the Arab-authored UN report (though it was perhaps a sign that the cover of the UN was required) and even the cancellation of an Arab League summit because the Tunisian hosts and (strangely) the Egyptians thought human rights and democracy were worth seriously talking about. Both the Moroccan and Jordanian monarchies have been moving to a more parliamentary form of politics. While the traditional monarchies of the Gulf (which does not include Saudi Arabia, a rather different beast) are, by any standard, successful societies.

Still, much of the insurgency in Iraq seems to have been a pretty standard power-challenge, just as Osama’s strangely subdued videotape compared to previous histrionics looked like a response to the US power-holder exerting its power. Yet, there are also signs that many Iraqis (admittedly more obviously and quickly the Kurds and the Shia—the perennial victims of power-holding oppression—rather than the Sunni former power-holders, though the experience of al-Qaeda up close and personal seems to have shifted opinion among the Sunnis as well) are keen to try something new, even if it comes via the infidels. We shall see.

1 comment:

  1. I read this book after I'd already worked in the Middle East several times and lived there. And I found it quite insightful for its in-depth explanations of honor/shame and power/challenge, how deeply they run in Arab society, and how they shape so much of current events in the region. It's both a timely and a timeless read.

    Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
    "Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"