There is an old Arab saying: “My brother and I against our cousin, but my cousin and I against a stranger.” That reveals a great deal about Arab culture. There are multiple layers and degrees of loyalties isolating Arabs from the outside world. What matters is blood relationships, ancestry, tribalism and nationalism. To Arab-Muslims, the rules on the inside differ from those on the outside, and what they tell themselves in private differs from what they tell the rest of the world. To them, this is not lying; it is simply the other face presented to the non-Muslim world.
The invisible wall protects dictatorships breeding fear in their citizens and abusing religion for political gain and power. Arab news organizations are the propaganda machines of the power-hungry leaders who work their people into a frenzy of anger, envy and paranoia against the West and Israel. Many of these leaders have more love for their Swiss bank accounts than for their people, who on every occasion have to express their adoration and loyalty to these dictators. Pictures of these dictators are everywhere and songs praising them on every radio station.
Inside the wall, the warrior mentality and the glory of battles are put on a pedestal, but in public they say theirs is a religion of peace. The result is a militant population ready to sacrifice their lives and that of their children to jihad. The militant factions and warlords could threaten the leadership from within – more than what Arab dictators ever bargained for. Thus, the people’s urge for war is redirected against the West and non-Muslims.
Truth, logic, fairness, appreciation of humanity as a whole and striving to find one’s own identity is not of value and practically non-existent. Loyalty to the clan is No. 1, and it does not matter how good or bad your clan is. If Saddam Hussein is head of your clan, you have no choice but to abide. If you disagree with and abandon the clan, no other one would take you in. Membership is strictly given through blood relations, and the fact that both clans are Muslim doesn’t help much. Dissention guarantees being ostracized.
When Arab-Muslims face the world arena, they find their internal views in conflict with international law and values, and have to put on a different face. Changing one’s religion from Islam to, say, Christianity, is punishable by death. In 1981, Muslim countries pressured the United Nations to water down a declaration on the elimination of religious discrimination, in order that the language used not embarrass them as violators of human-rights laws. The original language declaring the right “to adopt” or “change” one’s religion was removed, and only the right “to have” a religion was kept. The United Nations can be corrupted just like any government – food for thought for those who think one-world government is the solution.
When Arabs are questioned on the reality of the behavior of many Muslim terrorists trained in their country, they always answer by the idealism of Islam, saying, “These are not true Muslims; Islam is a religion of peace.” They confuse the reality of their culture with the idealism of their religion. The reality is that they are training, funding and providing shelter for these terrorists.
The wall separating the Mideast culture from the rest of the world of “infidels” exist at all levels of society and forces them to hide their true intentions and beliefs. The PBS documentary “Jihad in America” reported by Steven Emerson, showed how the heading on the stationery of an Islamic organization in New York could be misleading. On the English left side of the stationery, it said “Alkifah Refugee Center, Inc.” and on right side – in Arabic – it said “Office of Services to the Holy Warriors.” That tape is a must-see for every American.
Many Arabs are trapped in the traditional view that foreigners – especially non-Muslims – are suspect, unworthy and untrustworthy. Foreign women are suspected of being Israeli agents, and foreign men – especially Americans – CIA. The name “Khawaja,” meaning alien, is given to foreigners, who are often addressed by that name. Even Armenians and Greeks who were born in the Middle East and never saw their country of origin, are called Khawaja. I was once told by an Armenian who was born and lived all his life in Egypt that he was fed up with being called Khawaja, and finally immigrated to the United States.
A Middle Eastern man once told me that the landlord of his apartment building illegally evicted an 80-year-old woman after her son, who lived with her, died. He said he needed the apartment and she was the only non-Arab and non-Muslim in the building. She was from Cyprus and had been living in her apartment most of her life and never missed a rental payment. Since there were extreme shortages of apartments in that Arab capital, the lady was forced to live on the roof of the building until the day she was found dead there. When I asked that man if it would be fair for his wife to be treated like that, he answered: “We kept her on the roof and gave her food; she’s just a woman from Cyprus.”
Respect is given to members of society who support their clan, rightly or wrongly. Secrecy and deception to cover up sins committed behind closed doors are more tolerated than the sin of speaking out critically about one’s own people, family or nation. If a lie is exposed, deny it and accuse the enemy of doing it. Family honor is guarded with one’s life.
A neighbor of a friend of mine who lives in the Middle East caught her husband, the Haj (means he went to Mecca for cleansing his soul), having sex with the maid, who submits out of fear. The scandal was known all over the apartment building. However, when my friend talked to the wife later, she denied it ever happened! Maids are commonly abused, as well as raped, by family members – but scandals like that are swept under the rug. To criticize one’s family, culture or country is viewed as disgraceful, and to dare do it in the presence of foreigners – especially non-Muslims – is treasonous.
The Middle East culture is struggling and resisting the full honest cooperation with the International community. Arabs’ true intentions are concealed by a facade which makes it difficult for many in the West to understand. One face says, “We want peace with Israel,” and the other says, “Death to Israel!” They say America is the ally of Israel, but insist that America sponsor the peace talks.
The father of the Egyptian terrorist who crashed the plane into the World Trade Center until this day denies his son did it and accuses Israel of it. He has to protect his family as well as his country, so he plays that game. Arafat said he had no idea about the arms shipments to the PLO from Iran – another lie to protect the national pride when everyone knows he’s lying. By Western standards, there is no integrity in this kind of behavior – it is childish and shameful – but to Arabs, the layers of walls must be protected at any cost. That is why many in the Mideast cannot understand Western freedom of the press and wonder how come the U.S. government is run as smoothly as it is even though they seem to cut each other’s throats in the media.
President Bill Clinton was called the first “black” president by some. I find him to be more the first Arab president. The Clintons have that same wall of double life – the lies, fakeness, denials, demand of total loyalty from people around them, love of power and being adored by the masses. A typical Middle East ruler profile.
Communism had a physical wall between it and the West to keep its people from fleeing. The father of communism was Karl Marx, a human being who could be found wrong, however long it might take. In the Middle East, on the other hand, they claim that Allah gave them their beliefs and right to jihad and nothing can be negotiable – ever. That is how some Muslims interpret their religion. Their jihad is fueled by oil money and certain quotations from the Koran, which they interpret as giving them God’s blessings.
Supporting one’s culture is a normal and healthy reaction that citizens of all nations have. However, that is not what I am describing. This support is taken to an extreme among many Muslims who have an “us against them” mentality. Communists shot at people who tried to escape the Berlin Wall. In the Arab world, critics on the inside are coerced into complying without questions. If coercion does not work, they are put in jail or even killed. The wall has to hide a woman being shot in a soccer field, female circumcision and the killing of girls who have premarital sex, even in the case of rape. The wall has to hide Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical and biological weapons against his own people and Iran, and his murder of a teacher at age 11, an event described by an Iraqi defector.
Arab-American critics in the West – who dare to criticize the Mideast and the terrorist attack of 9-11 – are accused of attacking Islam the religion. Religion is used as an offensive weapon and a defensive shield to thwart any opposition. No serious dialogue or constructive criticism is tolerated. America with all its might, defending itself after 9-11, is accused of having a war against Islam. Osama bin Laden’s image, sadly, is extremely popular in the Muslim world despite the fact that he is the leader of a terrorist organization. In the tape that proved bin Laden’s guilt, the image we saw was different from the image he conveys to the world. The former is the face of a vindictive terrorist and the latter is that of the “I am holier than thou” religious leader with the aura staged around him.
It is clear why most U.S. officials on every occasion treat Arabs with kid gloves, constantly reassuring them that the U.S. is not at war with Islam. President Bush and others always praise Islam as a religion of peace and admire the greatness of Arab civilization. We are treating Muslim-Arab countries as we would handle a maniac in a hostage crisis. We drop food to people who want to destroy us, and what does the Arab media say? They say we are dropping poisoned food! Our defense of Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs, the Mujahadeen against the Soviet Union and even Kuwait against Iraq, gains us no credit in their eyes. It may have even added to their envy of our power and their feeling of dependency and inferiority to the Judeo-Christian West.
At the family level, the wall hides family secrets. The lifestyle of many Arabs outside their country is hypocritical and anything but respectful of Islamic law. A large number use alcohol, prostitution, gambling, homosexuality and illegal drugs without hesitation. Some of them preach Islam at the same time! That is why many Arabs marvel at the honesty, simplicity and openness of Americans and sometimes call Americans na?ve.
A non-Muslim once told me a story about his Muslim co-workers:
These guys drink and chase women almost every night – even during Ramadan. Several of them are married, but their wives are either in Lebanon, Jordan or the West Bank. They all go after white women – and they all hate white men. While they sleep around with any white woman they can find, they peddle and live in drugs and alcohol while committing crimes.
I guess one of them has a wife in Ramallah who must be happy to receive thousands of dollars thinking her husband had hit the American dream so quickly after arriving to the U.S.A!
They all dislike me in unison for one reason, I am a free thinker and not a Muslim. To their surprise I never smoked a single cigarette and never tasted a single drop of alcoholic beverage. I don’t play around with women either, because I have given my word to one fine and beautiful lady that she is the only one for me for the rest of my life. These guys insist that I am a perfect candidate to be a Muslim and don’t give up in preaching to me about the virtues of Islam. Nice salesmen for Islam they are!
That story does not imply that all Muslims are like that, however, it is an illustration of the two worlds some Arabs live in.
Many Arabs who live and thrive in the U.S. still play by the rules of the old culture. Even after 9-11, they are still scared of criticizing the behavior of Islamic terrorists and adhere to the tacit cultural obligation of never criticizing one’s own people. Too many terrorists infiltrated the U.S. and would not hesitate to hurt those who would speak out. Many moderate Arab Americans simply say “none of my business.” But, unfortunately, it is our business and duty to the country we chose to call home. Our culture of origin brought terrorism to our beloved America, and we should condemn it.
We Americans of Middle East origin should stand up against and expose the so-called fundamentalists who advocate hate, jihad and terrorism. It will take guts, but there is strength in numbers. Mr. Ted Turner, in a speech at Brown University, called the terrorists who attacked on 9-11 “brave.” Oh, how wrong he is! It is difficult enough for moderate Arab-Americans to speak out without Mr. Turner running around emboldening the terrorists with his encouraging compliments. These terrorists are motivated by hate of life – and promises of the afterlife – and they just want to die and kill the world with them. People who mass murder before committing suicide are not “brave.” People who enter a collapsing building to save others are brave.
A Muslim activist student from Northern California was on the radio condemning our war against terrorism in Afghanistan and praising the glory days of Arabs in Spain. Both he and another liberal American complained about non-Muslims who criticize Islam. I said to myself, how about non-Muslims who criticize Christianity and Judaism every day? Is this kid living in America? He said he wishes to accomplish a “true Muslim state.” To him, Saudi Arabia, Iran or the Taliban were not. Nothing was Muslim enough for him. This was the unachievable utopia of communism. This fool is already living in the best system humanity has to offer! Enjoy it and be grateful!
The layers of walls around the Middle East culture will come down one day, but until then, I wonder how many terrorist attacks such as 9-11 could happen. The wall is getting increasingly difficult to maintain in an age of instantaneous global communications. Muslims have to understand that any religion is judged by how the people who practice it live and conduct their lives. Non-Muslims will not read the Koran to understand Islam – they will judge Islam by the behavior of Muslims. Islam will suffer if terrorist acts are committed in the name of Allah. Muslims should not use the Koran as an excuse for evil and should decide if they want international respect or international fear of Islam.
I am an American of Middle Eastern descent, recovering after jumping the fence of the psychological Arab “Berlin Wall.” I am looking at the Middle East from the outside in. This wall is truly ugly from the outside. The few of us who leave the confines of that wall will sometimes feel alienated from our cultural background. However, what a wonderful feeling it is to enjoy our God-given freedom to think for ourselves.
Arabs, tear down this wall!
‘Jihad in America’ video is here! PBS documentary exposes domestic terror threat.
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Ms. Darwish, an American of Arab origin, is a writer, former editor and translator.