Thursday, January 17, 2008

Doonesbury, Arab Exceptionalism, and Cultural Bias

Part of what I do as a professor is to inform my students about Hispanic culture. This has the double effect of showing them that there are more than one way to do/view something, and it also allows me to explain how Hispanic culture does certain things differently. We all see certain behaviors by the recent wave of immigrants in the last two decades that are different from how we do things. By explaining to my students the causes and rationale for the behavior, I try and help both parties understand one another better, and hopefully avoid misunderstandings based on ignorance.

For example, it was my experience in Costa Rica that many people could not afford a good stereo. Therefore, if you were blessed enough to be able to afford one, being neighborly, you would turn it up loud enough that all your neighbors could hear the music too. In our culture, we don't all like the same kinds of music. It was my experience that people of all ages just liked music in Costa Rica; it didn't really matter what kind. Therefore, people would put it on one radio station (the programming isn't anywhere near as segmented there either), crank up the volume, and blast it as loud as they could. Here, music that loud gets a banging on the door, a call to the police, and gossip amongst neighbors about these "Damned Mexicans and their music."

That's a cultural conflict between two peoples who generally have much in common. When we start comparing American culture to that of Iraq/Pan-Arabia/and general Islamic culture, then we run into some serious misunderstandings. Why do some Muslims seem to get so incensed over things that to us are not even offenses. It's easy to say that they are immature, insecure in their faith, etc., but I can't convince myself that it's really that simple.

On Sunday, Gary Trudeau ran a Doonesbury strip that sort of encapsulates Western incredulity at an aspect of Islamic culture that we don't appreciate: the seeming reluctance to let bygones be bygones. Here's the strip. Go read it in case my hotlink doesn't work.

That bolding of "Matter" in "What's the matter with you people?" perfectly encapsulates our concept of forgiveness and history. This could be attributed to the Christian enculturation of Western society, and its precepts, but it can't be just that. There has to be some element of Pan-Islamic, at least Pan-Arabic, culture that we just don't get.

It's not hopeless though. Egypt and Israel, Jordan and Israel: these three nations fought bloody wars with each other, but came to the peace table and made peace. Perhaps they will go to war again someday, but for now, this lasting peace seems to go against the notion of Arab Exceptionalism, that somehow the Arabs were just different, and were never going to assimilate into Western cultural (and therefore, International) mores.

I would be in favor of starting a free-ride study-abroad program for American college students to go and study in the Arabic universities and live amongst Muslims for an extended period of time (say two years). We need for more of us, other than CIA spooks and Oil Company execs, to understand truly this enigmatic (to us) people.

I like the Doonesbury comic because it reflects my personal beliefs about forgiveness and making peace, but I also recognize the cultural bias that it represents.

I wish I spoke Arabic; I imagine that Al-Jazeera and the legion Arabic blogs could give me some insights into my Arabian brothers.

1 comment:

chattypatra said...

I agree with you, except that this phenomenon is not exclusive of the Arab culture. I am sure you know that this has been (and is still) happening throughout history, and in many countries. Here is a list of famous feuds, from Wikipedia:

Famous blood feuds:

1. Njál's saga, an Icelandic account of a Norse blood feud.
2. The Percy - Neville feud
(1450s; England).
3. The Wars of the Roses
(1455–1487; England).
4. The Campbell - MacDonald feud, including the Massacre of Glencoe (1692; Scotland).
5. The Donnelly - Biddulph community feud (1857-1880; Ontario, Canada)
6. The Clanton/McLaury - Earp feud, also known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1881; Arizona, USA)
7. The Hatfield - McCoy feud (1878–1891; West Virginia & Kentucky, USA)
8. The Pleasant Valley War, also known as the Tonto Basin Feud
(1882-1892; Arizona, USA)
9. The Capone - Moran feud, including the St. Valentine's Day massacre (1925-1930; Chicago, Illinois, USA)
10. The Gunn - Keith feud
11. The Talbot - Berkeley feud
12. The Feud of Scampia (2004-2005; Naples, Italy)

So, you see, I think this is not a cultural issue - although it might seem more prevalent in certain cultures as a whole - for example, Jews vs. the rest of the world. I think this is more a human nature factor.

The thing is, it seems crazy to many people here because, as a prevalently Christian nation, the Golden Rule has been embedded into our collective consciousness. At least it was, for a long time.

Things certainly changed after 9/11. Still, I think this type of behavior has always been in effect in our culture at a more regional level and, if we are honest with ourselves as a people, we'd admit that what we say we believe in and what we actually do as a nation are frequently two very different things.

Hum...that sounds dangerously close to a cynical remark. I need to go repent. Nah...I'll chuck it up to middle age!