More than merely a word

Posted: May 18, 2006 12:05 AM

We're learning the hard way that the secular liberalizing forces that shape values in the West give us no protection from Islamist terror. The pride we take in our tolerance, our determination to fight fair, to look for the "root causes" of poverty, ignorance and oppression to explain the anger of the likes of Zacarious Moussaoui and the evil of Sept. 11 put us at peril. Most of the Sept. 11 terrorists grew up in middle-class comfort and knew neither poverty nor oppression.

Moussaoui, nurtured in the Islamic culture, became virulently and violently anti-American, contemptuous of the "soft" psychological and sociological interpretations Americans make of the Islamist enemy. He was even contemptuous of the two jurors who took into account his unhappy childhood, his father's hot temper and his hostile relationship with his mother as mitigating causes of his viciousness, and spared his life.

So what could honor have to do with it? For the Islamic terrorist, a lot. In a remarkable book tracing the significance of the concept of honor, James Bowman warns that to understand the jihadists it's essential to understand their definition of "honor" and "manhood." Honor, as they define it, is even more important than the dogma of their dogmatic religion. "It is natural enough in a culture like ours, informed by the psychotherapeutic revolution, to think even of geopolitics in terms of psychology and emotions," he writes in "Honor: A History." "But these are irrelevant in an honor culture." He cites Osama bin Laden to make his point.

"We believe that we are men, Muslim men who have the honor of defending Mecca," bin Laden told an al-Jazeera TV interviewer in 1998, sneering at "the weakness, feebleness and cowardliness of the U.S. soldier" when the Clinton administration withdrew from Somalia. Bin Laden has particular contempt for the "toughness" of the Americans who send women to war against men: "By God, Muslim women refuse to be defended by these American and Jewish prostitutes."

The tactics of the American interrogators who forced prisoners to wear women's panties as a humiliation tactic to break down their resistance offends Western sensibilities, but as an interrogation tactic the American interrogators understood the Islamist codes of honor. Offensive or not, it often worked.

President Bush was harshly criticized at home for offending "the Arab street" with the use of the word "crusade" to describe the mission in Iraq, but it did not occur to his critics that the use of female soldiers was far more offensive to the Arab culture and code of honor. Israeli women who fought against Arab armies in the war for Israeli independence in 1948, for example, suffered extraordinary casualties because the Arabs were determined not to lose to women.

Nothing feeds the rage of Islamic men more; they regard fighting women as a direct violation of their honor culture. Saddam Hussein understood that well and made specific allusions to honor in his speeches to the Iraqis before the invasion by the West, reminding them to "remember all the meaning of what makes a man at times like these, in which they preserve for their children and progeny a record of honor."

The "honor killings" by Muslim men of adulterous wives and liberated daughters in Europe, who replace the chador with blue jeans, is regarded in the West as evil divorced from any semblance of honor. But such killings nevertheless testify to the brutal rigidity of the Islamic code of honor, which is fundamentally an appeal to the natural modesty of women. Such ideas are not found in the Koran, where the killing of innocents is forbidden, but are rooted in a pre-Islamic culture that demanded the killing of women who "shamed" their men. Only later were these ideas codified in dogmatic Islam.

In the Arab world, David Pryce-Jones writes in National Review, such ideas of honor are the "social glue" that holds the society together. A high-profile public shame, like the Asian obsession with "saving face," must be maintained at any price. "Shame sears the soul and has to be wiped out and avenged in a public way that all can witness and appreciate ... That is the wellspring of the fanaticism we are witnessing."

Shakespeare's Falstaff famously said that honor was merely a "word." Perhaps, but it's a word with many meanings. If we want to succeed in our mission to the Middle East, we had better get on with understanding all those meanings.