James Bowman: Importance of honor in the Middle East

Historians in the News

To Hezbollah, there is no such thing as “collateral damage” from its missiles. Israel keeps telling the world that its army aims only at military targets, but Hezbollah doesn’t even pretend to. Its soldiers proudly fire away at civilians.

These terrorists consider themselves men of honor, and unfortunately they are — by their own definition. We in the West can call them barbaric, which they also are, but they’re following an ancient social code, even if we can’t recognize it anymore.

The best guide to this code is James Bowman’s new book, “Honor: A History,” which is not a quaint collection of stories about dueling noblemen in Heidelberg. If the obsession with defending one’s honor seems remote now, it’s not because the urge has disappeared. We’ve just forgotten how powerful it is.

In the West we’ve redefined “honorable” as being virtuous, fair, truthful and sincere, but that’s not the traditional meaning. Honor meant simply the respect of the local “honor group” — the family, the extended clan, the tribe, the religious sect. It meant maintaining a reputation for courage and loyalty, not being charitable to enemy civilians. Telling the truth was secondary to saving face.

This “tyranny of the face” continually frustrates Westerners trying to understand the Middle East. When I interviewed villagers in Iraq, I discovered we usually had separate agendas: I wanted the facts, but the villager wanted to avoid embarrassing either of us. So he would tactfully search for the answer that would both please me and not dishonor his family....

The problem today, as Bowman sees it, is that the whole concept of defending one’s honor has been devalued in the West — mocked as an archaic bit of male vanity or childish macho chest-thumping. But if you don’t create a civilized honor culture, you risk ending up with the primitive variety.

“The honor system in Arab culture is the default honor system, the one you see in street gangs in America — you dis me, I shoot you,” says Bowman, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “We need a better system that makes it honorable to be protective of those who are weaker instead of lording it over them.”

When you’re confronted with an honor culture like the one in the Middle East, there are two rules to keep in mind. One is that you are not going to placate the enemy with the kind of concessions that appeal to Western diplomats. “Hezbollah is fighting for honor, to humiliate the enemy, not for any particular objective,” Bowman says. “Israel has no choice in what it’s doing. Nothing short of victory by either side will change anything.”

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