Sunday, August 28, 2005

Honour is a two-way street

From Jerusalem Post Breaking News from Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish World: Aug. 28, 2005 2:57 Updated Aug. 28, 2005 14:07 "The politics of honor in the Middle East", By GERALD STEINBERG ...

In a recent column on Iran's attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, Rami Khouri advised the US government and the International Atomic Energy Agency to avoid insulting Iran or impinging on its honor. Khouri, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star and a respected Arab analyst, makes many to references to honor, particularly in discussing Palestinian-Israeli relations. And this is not exceptional, as honor is one of the most repeated themes in politics and human relations.

But it is also very problematic. In the case of Iran, for example, after the shadow government under the control of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei climbed far out on a limb by building and then operating illicit uranium enrichment plants, we are told that the response must avoid insulting Iranian honor. Similarly, the apologists for Yasser Arafat's failure to discuss any compromise proposals at the Camp David summit in July 2000 are still trying to sell the claim that this was due to perceived insults on the part of Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton.

In many cases, 'honor' is also a one-way street. Iran's dignity must be protected, but there is no parallel concern regarding the stream of Iranian insults directed at 'the Great Satan' or 'the Little Satan' (Israel). And there are no references to honor when missiles are paraded through the streets of Teheran with placards declaring 'Wipe Israel off the Map.' In the same vein, while Israelis are often chastised for alleged insults to Arab dignity, there is no international outcry when Israeli and American flags are burned in the public squares of Arab cities.

This double standard, which gives selective license for insults and threats, and protection from penalties for violating commitments and treaties, is often excused in terms of cultural differences. According to the dominant diplomatic and academic theories, Eastern cultures are more sensitive to issues of status and dignity than those in the West. Therefore, we are told, US, European and Israeli negotiators (in this sense, Israel is part of the West) must be particularly careful to avoid any words or actions that might be seen as demeaning, but must themselves be immune to such concerns.

Arabs and Muslims are often seen as obsessed by honor. Young women murdered by family members are considered to be victims of "honor killings," and legal proceedings, including punishment, are very lenient. In this and many other areas, the sanctity of culture often excuses behavior that, in other circumstances, would be condemned as unacceptable.

.... "culture" can often be a source of manipulation. The relative acceptance of Arab honor killings reflects the low status of women and male dominance in these societies. In these cases, personal codes of honor are substitutes for a functioning legal system based on
equality and justice.

Similarly, in international politics factors such as national honor and dignity gain exaggerated importance in the absence of a functioning and equitable legal system. Honor provides a convenient cover for pursuing policies that would otherwise lead to sanctions, or even military responses.....

The writer directs the Program on Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University and is the editor of

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