Understanding the Arab mind and cultural mentality is a contentious issue and one that has been debated from a number of points-of-view. Many modern scholars and researchers claim that much of the analysis of Arab culture is biased towards a Eurocentric and Western perspective. Critics claim that generalized statements of the constitution and characteristics of the Arab mind are often denigrating and racist in their views of the differences in cultural norms. The subject is fraught with political and social sensitivity and many critics compare modern analyses of Arab culture to colonial discourse of Africa in the past, where the "other " or the different culture is seen as essentially inferior. This is even the case, claim some critics, when the analysis of Arab culture is seemingly well intentioned.
The difficulty in understanding another culture without bias and prejudice is one of the central aspects and problematics in research and international relationships mentioned by modern scholars. This is a particularly important aspect when it comes to the Middle East and the present state of political and cultural sensitivity that exists in the world. Scholars also refer to the many culturally biased views of the Arab culture which has in fact exacerbated hostilities and diplomatic problems in the Middle East. An example of one extreme is given by the well respected Middle Eastern expert and Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Juan Cole. The following extract from his commentary shows an obviously biased and denigrating view of the Arab culture.
The Arab mentality is made of 'a sense of being a victim', 'pathological anti-Semitism', and 'a tendency to live in a world of illusions', said Prof. Rafi Israeli, a lecturer in Middle Eastern studies at Hebrew University, on the witness stand Wednesday, adding that the Arabs neglect sanitation in their communities. "Most of the Arab villages are dirtier, physically - it's a fact."
(Cole, J. 2004)
Perceptions and views like these are obviously damaging to cultural and social relationships. They can also be seen as provocative and may in fact motivate and increase hostilities and tension, as well as acts of terrorism. Of course bias and misrepresentation and interpretation also exist for the Arab side in many cases. The following extract is an example of a biased view of Israel. "I was taught that the Jews were evil; Israel was the devil, and the only time we will have peace in the Middle East is when we kill all the Jews or drive them into the sea ... " (Nyquist, J.R.)
The point being made in this paper is that all assumptions and generalization about any culture and particularly about the Arab culture in these politically sensitive times are dangerous in that they suggest a difference and an otherness which is the essence and root of perceived bias and discrimination.
2. The Arab Mind by Rapheal Patai
The above comments are particularly applicable to the well -- known work on Arab culture by Raphael Patai, entitled Arab Mind. The book has been seen in some quarters as one of the definitive works on the subject, but has also been harshly criticized as being biased and overly generalized from the point-of-view of other sectors of the academic and research community.
The introduction to the book was written by Colonel Norvell DeAtkine, director of Middle East Studies at the JFK Special Warfare Centre and School at Fort Bragg, who specializes in terrorism and urban warfare. He outlines the laudable intentions of the book as follows:
To begin a process of understanding the seemingly irrational hatred that motivated the World Trade Center attackers, one must understand the social and cultural environment in which they lived and the modal personality traits that make them susceptible to engaging in terrorist actions. This book does a great deal to further than understanding. In fact it is essential reading. (Atkine, N.B. 2004 p.49)
Raphael Patai's seminal work, The Arab Mind, was published in 1973. The work discusses the upbringing of a young Arab boy and girl. It also covers areas such as the Arab concern with honor and courage, as well as what the book refers to as patterns of extreme behavior within the culture. Central to the discussion in the book is the analysis and attempt to understand the hostile attitude towards the West, which is described as being "ambivalent." There is also a large section which has been devoted to sexual mores and norms in the society. Another section deals with language and linguistic issues from a Western viewpoint. Arab nationalism and Western influences are also explored in the work.
Patais' work has had various criteria receptions. When it was first published in 1973 it was well received. However, it was severely criticized by the eminent scholar, Edward Said, in his work "Orientalism." Said stated that the book was clear evidence of Western bias and was used as means a means "of serving and legitimating imperial dominance over the Oriental 'other'. (Qureshi, E. 2004) However, the book was read and admired in diplomatic and military circles and became popular when a new edition was released in 2001. Since then experts from disciplines such as anthropology, politics and sociology have roundly condemned the book, often in intense terms. A discussion of the book and the matter of the Arab mind and mentality are perhaps best facilitated by reference to the array of critiques that have been leveled at it in recent years.
Despite its laudable intention the book has been criticized on a number of levels by various eminent scholars and experts in the field. In terms of the overall understanding of the Arab mind and culture it is important to take these critiques into account in order to establish a formal basis of understanding without hidden and unconscious prejudices.
Patai paints a picture of a typical Arab family in the book. He also describes Arab child-rearing practices. He states that crying girl babies are usually ignored while attention is given only to the crying male child
... male infants are picked up immediately and soothed by female relatives. "This comforting and soothing of the baby boy," Patai states without equivocation, "often takes the form of handling his genitals" -- a tactic that was also used "simply to make him smile." Of the Arab mother-son relationship, Patai observes, "her breast, his greatest source of pleasure and gratification, was his for the asking." (ibid)
Patai further describes how the male child must be hardened by the father to assume the typical male Arab personality. Another generalization that is made about Arab culture in the book is about sexuality, which forms an extensive part of the work.
The centerpiece of "The Arab Mind" is Patai's portrait of Arab sexuality, which he considers uniquely fraught and confused. Patai breezily invokes "the all-encompassing preoccupation with sex in the Arab mind." Despite public repression, he writes, "in private, it has been found that sexual activity is more intensive among Arab students than among Americans." On the subject of masturbation, Patai writes authoritatively, but without citing any source, that "whoever masturbates, however, evinces his inability to perform the active sex act, and thus exposes himself to contempt." (ibid)
The above comment also refers to Patai's assertion of "the Arab view that masturbation is far more shameful than visiting prostitutes." (Patai R. 1973 p. 144)
The above examples immediately open up a wide range of criticism. Firstly, critics are of the opinion that many of the observations made by Patai are made without any anthropological or scientific foundation -- for instance, with regard to the comments on Arab masturbation. Patai also deals with Arab language which he criticizes as being characterized by exaggeration. He links this assessment of language to a predilection within the Arab mind for fantasy and a disconnection with reality. "In his view, the Arabic language itself, with its confusion of eloquence and exaggeration, is to blame for fostering a disconnection with reality and a connection instead with aggression and fantasy. (Qureshi, E. 2004)
Partai also suggests that Arab music is uncreative and repetitive and is indicative of the innate limitations of the culture. (ibid) Many critics are negative in their response to these views and question the veracity of the research material in the book. One of the central and most general critiques of the book is that it is essentially flawed in terms of its methodology.
The book is of the discredited genre that was once called "national character studies," but what anthropologists today dismissively call "diaperology," for its laughably reductionist argument that culture can be explained by how a nation toilet-trains and mollycoddles its children, especially boys. Patai chooses to focus on the shame factor while on the potty, while other diaperologists have treated childhood rebellion, resistance and retention. (Werner, L.)
This central criticism is also reiterated by other commentators.
Patai's work is emblematic of a bygone era of scholarship focused on the notion of a "national character," or personality archetype ...…