Counter-Terrorism: The Curse of Cultural Awareness


January8, 2007: The war on terror puts a premium on "cultural awareness." But in the Arab world, being aware of the culture, and reporting on it accurately, can be considered politically incorrect back home. Consider, for example, some of the things that expatriates, working in Arabia, have been reporting for decades, and now thousands of U.S. troops are experiencing as well.

Arabs have a different attitude towards work. While Americans have a thing for "keeping busy" and being entrepreneurs, Arabs look up to the man of leisure. Government jobs, which require little work, are much sought after in the Arab countries. While there are hard workers and entrepreneurs in Arab countries, they are not admired as they are in the United States. This difference in attitudes creates all sorts of "culture clash" problems, as both groups see their attitudes as the natural and normal ones. Each groups sees the others attitudes as alien and odd. However, the lack of hard work and initiative is a major reason why the Arab world has fallen behind other cultures in the last fifty years. Arab countries with oil have used a lot of the money to hire foreigners to do their work for them, rather than investing in their economy and education. Thus countries like South Korea, which has no oil, and was poorer than most Arab countries half a century, is now wealthier than any Arab nation. The South Korean example is one of many similar ones in the Far East and other parts of the world. Arabs are coming to accept that their work habits may have something to do with their shabby economic condition, but this is still a minority opinion.

Arabs really have a problem with personal responsibility, which is a bedrock characteristic in any strong economy. The cause of this Arab problem is the concept of "inshallah" ("If God wills it.") This is a basic tenet of Islam, although some scholars believe the attitude preceded that religion. In any event, "inshallah" is deadly when combined with modern technology. For this reason, Arab countries either have poorly maintained infrastructure and equipment (including military stuff), or import a lot of foreigners, possessing the right attitudes, to maintain everything. That minority of Arabs who do have the right attitude towards maintenance and personal responsibility are considered odd, but useful. The "inshallah" thing is made worse by a stronger belief in the supernatural, and magic in general. This often extends to technology. Thus many Iraqis believe that American troops wear sunglasses that see through clothing, and armor vests that are actually air conditioned. When they first encounter these beliefs, U.S. troops thought the Arabs are putting them on. Then it sinks in that Arabs really believe this stuff. It's a scary moment.

Arab loyalties rarely put nation at the top. Family, clan and tribe always come first. This is not unusual, but the lack of patriotism is definitely more pronounced in Arab lands. This also leads to trust issues, since foreigners are considered the ultimate outsider, and someone an Arab is free to exploit any way he can. Building trust with Arabs is difficult. You can do favors, even save lives, and that will get you some gratitude. But friendship in the Western sense is hard to come by, and easily lost. This is further complicated by religious issues. Islam has a strong "us versus them" component. Westerners who are Moslems have a much easier time getting along, but will eventually encounter that Arab attitude that there are Arab Moslems, and then all manner of inferior non-Arab Moslems.

Arabs are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories, and weird stuff in general. Many Arabs really believe that the September 11, 2001 terror attacks were all an Israel or CIA plot, and that Arabs had nothing to do with. This despite the fact that Osama bin Laden has publicly taken credit for the attacks. Just go take a look at the English language versions of some Arab newspapers for some examples. Note that the Arab language versions are even more out there. Arabs who learn English also tend to learn that the world is not as wild and fantastical as they were raised to believe, and results in the English versions of Arab media being rather more sedate.

Islam tends to discourage Western "two points of view" type thinking. Many religions think of themselves as the "one true faith," but Islam is rather more insistent about that point. This is why so much terrorism these days is carried out by Islamic radicals. While only a minority of Arabs are that fanatical, the majority believe Arabs are right, and the rest of the world is not. And there's no room for discussing this matter. This attitude makes compromise difficult.

Arabs are well aware of the fact that the rest of the world, especially their ancient enemy, the Christian West, but also the rather more alien Far East, have surpassed the Arab world economically, and in many other ways as well. The popular Arab response is that it's all a foreign conspiracy to destroy Islamic civilization. This sort of thing is alien thinking to most Americans, who take if for granted that Arabs could fix all their problems if they just united and got down to work. But the divisions of tribe and clan, plus "inshallah", makes that very difficult. For many Arabs, it's "them or us," not "them and us." Arabs, more than Westerners, see the current wave of Islamic terrorism as a battle of civilizations. This attitude is slowly changing in the Arab world, but the majority of Arabs still see themselves as blameless victims of Western oppression.


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