June 24, 2019

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Responding to Nikles Column at Mondoweiss on my Honor-Shame Article


Four years ago, in response to an article I published in the Tablet, Mondoweiss posted a rather glib and superficial criticism of my analysis of the role of honor-shame dynamics in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It only came to my attention recently from a friend (HT:DQ) who thought I should answer. So here it is, late in terms of the news cycle, alas still relevant in terms of the issues involved.

Glib, simplistic, and extreme — the world according to Richard Landes

 on June 29, 2014 132

Richard Landes

Richard Landes

Richard A. Landes is an associate professor of history at Boston University.  He is an expert on millennial movements and honor-shame culture. He is also a conspiracy theorist who believes that the killing of Mohammad Al-Durrah was staged by Palestinians and sold to a gullible mainstream media all too ready to promote an ongoing blood libel against Israel.

Sigh. Here’s my response to the “conspiracy theory” accusation.

He is a key contributor to the documentary “The J-Street Challenge,” which is currently making the pro-Israel propaganda rounds.  His BU webpage says that, among other things, he is chronicling “the astonishingly foolish behavior of intellectual and policy elites in the response to global jihad.”

Including, of course, Mondoweiss, where Judith Butler goes to defend herself.

Tablet Magazine has been featuring Landes’ article “Why the Arab World Is Lost in an Emotional Nakba, and How We Keep It There.” The article focuses on how this “foolishness” relates to Israel. “By ignoring the honor-shame dynamic in Arab political culture,” asks a sub-heading, “is the West keeping itself from making headway toward peace?”  The question is rhetorical.

I should note, I had nothing to do with the title or subtitle (other than writing the piece that inspired it).

With his credentials, Landes should not be taken lightly despite his partisan positioning. All the same there is something unsettlingly glib and extreme in his analysis at Tablet. It all starts innocently enough.  The article asserts that warrior-nomadic cultures (read Arab Islam)

and pre-modern Western cultures (Celts, Greeks, Romans, Germans, Scandinavians)

have specific honor codes, the violation of which brings debilitating shame.  He relates how in such cultures the failure to avenge a killing is so shameful that it cannot be lived down.  He contrasts this with a 1000-year transition in Western Greek culture from a “shame culture” (honoring fame and reputation above all) to a “guilt culture” (marked by an internal conscience and a fear of divine retribution) underpinning our liberal democracies.

Just a point of clarification. The 1000 year process I spoke of in the article was not Dodds’ analysis of Greek culture (which was a) a faster process and b) not very complete). The 1000 year process I’m interested is from the 11th to the 21st century in which, during the last third of that period we’ve managed to establish democracies built (imnsho) on getting domesticating the honor-shame dynamic.

One might note that after the religious wars in western culture from the crusades through the Peace of Westphalia, and the disasters of the 20th Century, not least of which was the Shoah, there is reason to question whether this transition of western culture from an honor culture to a guilt culture has been such an unmitigated blessing.

I would actually consider all those examples (from religious wars to paranoid fears of implosion) to be driven by honor-shame dynamics, not caused by guilt culture so much as caused by the frustrating and infuriating success that shifting to guilt has on people still stuck in a world where alpha males dominate and might makes right (as in we x religion kill and subject you y religion as proof that “Gott mit uns.”

[If you like this kind of thing, take a look at the efforts of two philosophy professors setting about to resurrect aspects of Homerian culture in their book “All Things Shining.”] Landes, however, seems to be clear that because Arab culture has not undergone this transition—don’t try to reason with them.

Not “don’t try and reason with them,” but “don’t expect positive-sum reason to have the same impact on them that it does on us. They reason, just by a different set of rules.

Here is the heart of his thesis:

For the 13 centuries before Zionism, Jews had been subject to a political status in Muslim lands specifically designed around issues of honor (to Muslims) and shame (to Jews). Jews were dhimmi, “protected” from Muslim violence by their acceptance of daily public degradation and legal inferiority. …So, the prospect of an independent state of should-be dhimmis struck Arab leaders as more than humiliating. It endangered all Islam. Thus Rahman Azzam Pasha, the head of the newly formed Arab League, spoke for his “honor group” when he threatened that “if the Zionists dare establish a state, the massacres we would unleash would dwarf anything which Genghis Khan and Hitler perpetrated.” As the Armenians had discovered a generation earlier, the mere suspicion of rebellion could engender massacres.

The loss in 1948, therefore, constituted the most catastrophic possible outcome for this honor-group ….To fall to people so low on the scale that it is dishonorable even to fight them—nothing could be more devastating. …. Arab pride called out to the Arab world for vengeance against the Jews. In the meantime, wherever Muslims held power, they drove their Jews out as a preliminary act of revenge.

And what conclusions does Landes draw?

The Arab leadership’s interpretation of honor had them responding to the loss of their own hard zero-sum game—we’re going to massacre them—by adopting a negative-sum strategy. Damaging the Israeli “other” became paramount, no matter how much that effort might hurt Arabs, especially Palestinians. “No recognition, no negotiations, no peace.” No Israel. Sooner leave millions of Muslims under Jewish rule than negotiate a solution. Sooner die than live humiliated. Sooner commit suicide to kill Jews than make peace with them. …

Many post-Orientalists, in the tradition of Edward Saïd [sic], have predicted the outbreak of democracy any decade now, from the 1990s to the “Arab Spring.” Thus, while Yasser Arafat’s “no” at Camp David shocked Bill Clinton, Dennis Ross, and a public fed on the idea of a win-win peace process, those familiar with the values of Arafat’s primary honor-group predicted that rejection.….

[E]xperts… explained why a reasonable Arafat had to say no. Of course, to make Arafat rational meant blaming the Israelis for the failure of negotiations and for the subsequent explosion of violence against them. When Cherie Blair expressed her understanding for the despair of suicide bombers, she projected her liberal world view on people who actually aspire to the highest honor their society can offer: martyrdom in the war to kill the Jews. …

The policy implications here are grave. The “rational” model assumes that the ’67 borders (’49 armistice lines) are the key and that an Israeli withdrawal will satisfy rational Palestinian demands, resolving the conflict. Attention to honor-shame culture, however, suggests that such a retreat would trigger greater aggression in the drive for true Palestinian honor….

Israelis’ future depends on their ability to understand why their neighbors hate them and what can and won’t work in trying to deal with their hostility. … As anyone paying attention knows, the Salafi-Jihadis, who have “hijacked” Islam the world over, embody this self-same honor-shame mentality in its harshest form: the existential drama of humiliate or be humiliated, rule or be ruled, exterminate or be exterminated. Dar al Islam must conquer dar al Harb; independent infidels (harbis) must be spectacularly brought low, their women raped; Islam must dominate the world … or vanish.

…[C]ulture is not a superficial question of manners. In the Middle East, honor is identity. Appeasement and concessions are signs of weakness: When practiced by one’s own leaders, they produce riots of protest, by one’s enemy, renewed aggression. …. And too few wonder whether basic logic of the negotiations—land for peace—has any purchase on the cultural realities of this corner of the globe. If only Israel would be more reasonable …

When we indulge Arab (and jihadi Muslims’) concerns for honor by backing off anything that they claim offends them, we think that our generosity and restraint will somehow move extremists to more rational behavior. Instead, we end up muzzling ourselves and thereby participating in, honoring, and confirming their most belligerent attitudes toward the “other.” They get to lead with their glass chin, while we, thinking we work for peace, end up confirming and weaponizing the Arab world’s most toxic weaknesses—their insecurity, their embrace of all-or-nothing conflicts, their addiction to revenge, their paranoid scapegoating, their shame-driven hatred. And there is nothing generous, rational, or progressive about that.


There is certainly nothing wrong with engaging in honor-shame scholarship.  One can’t begin to think about honor killings without examining honor and shame dynamics in Muslim culture. Studying transformations from ancient Greek shame culture (“fame and reputation”) towards conscience and fear of divine retribution (Christianity?) may well be fruitful and informative for understanding Muslim extremist culture.  To suggest that anyone thinks otherwise is a straw man.

I’d say “demotic religiosity” which is particularly strong in some strains of monotheism, to be found in all three major variants.  As for the “straw man” of those who oppose honor-shame analysis, one has only to read either Edward Said or many of the comments to my article to see people who dismiss honor-shame analysis as racist.

On the other hand, for Landes to suggest that an honor-shame culture necessarily means that Palestinians will, therefore, never accept Israel and that they will always hate and want to rape, pillage, and destroy…and don’t even think about land for peace or easing up on the harshness of the occupation… is to engage in a fantasy rationalization of a pretty simplistic sort.

Talk about setting fire to straw men. a) I don’t think the Palestinians are stuck in this mode forever, but certainly for the foreseeable future especially as long as Western progressives don’t pressure them to move on. b) I think the idea that the Israeli occupation is harsh, especially given the disgusting way that Palestinians protest by targeting civilians, is part of the problem. The ‘occupation’ may not be nice, it may not be fully respectful of the dignity of the Palestinians, but in comparison with, say, the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank and the Egyptian occupation of Gaza (1948-67), just to take to comparable examples, it’s vastly less harsh.

The discussion of “dhimmi” is advanced by Landes without a trace of acknowledgment that it describes the dynamic of the Israeli occupation to a tee.

No it doesn’t, and the fact that you can think that it describes the Israeli occupation to a tee (sic?), illustrates just how little you understand about dhimmi culture.

It’s dhimmi them or dhimmi us, so let’s dhimmi them!  If that’s the only choice, then let’s abandon this project already.

Is this a replica of Daniel Levy’s “if Israel can only live by the sword, then maybe it’s not such a good idea?” Funny, I thought the idea was to move on from “rule or be ruled.”

Similarly, the allegation of Arafat “shocking” Clinton with his rejection is presented without the faintest concession to subtlety (see link).

Pundak (the ‘hero’ of the above post), is a poster boy for liberal cognitive egocentrism (everyone is like us, positive-sum minded) and a ferocious case of hopium. The tenacious insistence that if Israel just made more concessions to the Palestinian leaders, they would make peace has brought untold tragedy on both the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Landes is using “shame and honor” to tap into our revulsion at ISIS, at abominations like honor killings, and he is doing this to justify a brutal occupation with visions of a new holocaust. But ISIS is not Ramallah.  And what about China and Japan?  Don’t they have a shame and honor culture? Didn’t Japan make peace after World War II and become one of the world’s top economies?

Bad example. The only reason Japan (and Germany) made peace and got on with their lives is because they were utterly crushed and had no alternative. Surely you’re not suggesting that Israel do to the Palestinians what the Americans did to the Germans and the Japanese. In  fact, alas, ISIS and Ramallah/Gaza City have much more in common than either has with any Western seat of government.

Are Palestinians human beings you can make peace with?

The mistake here is a common confusion among LCEs between human and humane. As one student said in seminar, it’s dehumanizing to call someone sadistic. No. Sadism is a uniquely human trait. It’s ridiculous to think that because someone’s human, then you can make peace with them. If they’re humane, then it shouldn’t be too hard. As Golda Meir put it, “when the Palestinians love their children more than they hate us, there will be peace.” Still hasn’t happened.

Read  Pamela Olson.

Really? That’s your proof that Palestinians are ready to make peace?

As Landes’s participation in the hit piece on J-Street, and his propagation of conspiracy propaganda on the Mohammad Al-Durra killing suggest, this is not scholarship, it is rationalization to justify an unacceptable status quo.

Pretty sad. Gives new content to ad hominem. Contentless criticism hiding behind name-calling. Full circle from the opening salvos, with little gained in between. Talk about glib and superficial.

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