TRADITIONS AND POLITICS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
In trying to understand conducts of governments and practices of political
authorities in the Arab World, most analysts resort to religious tracts and
history books in search for the roots of political behavior, rarely thinking
of examining local culture, assuming that politics is too lofty a craft to
be contaminated by folk believes and practices, which is, according to the
elitist, literate mode of thinking, the domain of lower, impoverished,
If an analyst were ever to think of looking for a connecting thread between
culture and politics, most likely he would go to high, literary culture,
never thinking of turning to oral culture, which, for him, does not even
deserve the name “culture”, whether you spell it with capital C or lower
case c. Until quite recently, the great majority of the masses in the Arab
World were illiterate, having very little contact with written books and
written literature, and it was an indirect contact for that, through public
readings in mosques and cafes. Furthermore, most of such written material
was mostly theoretical and imaginary with very little bearing on the daily
life and actual practices of the people. Despite that, researchers still
insist on writing the socio-political history of the Arabs depending solely
on the written heritage.
I do not mean to underestimate the importance of official written history,
religion and literature in tracing the development and workings of political
institutions in the Arab World. I am only trying to point to another
direction for research in this area, a fertile field of study which has not
yet been explored. I want to give some examples to show to what extent
political legitimacy and political behavior are colored by traditional
values and customs.
Take, for example, the relationship between ruler and ruled. This
relationship is not governed by a social contract with clearly stated and
mutually binding legal codes and constitutional precepts so much as by vague
mutual obligations couched in familial and paternal expressions. The ruler
is like a patriarch and the people are his children. This is aptly expressed
by one of the princess when the three Saudi reformists were released from
jail at the inauguration of king Abdullah. The prince justified their
release by saying that they were children who erred against their father and
their father forgives them. This is a relic from an earlier stage of
political development, the tribal, pre-state stage when members of the whole
tribe were conceived to be, according to tribal ideology, all related to
each other as descendants from an ancient common ancestor.
As a matter of fact, the whole nation is seen as one big family with all its
citizens as brothers and sisters to one another. The legal aspects of their
relationships and obligations to each other are submerged in familial terms
and tinged with familial coloring. For example, as members of one family,
citizens should ideally strive to settle their disputes peacefully and
discretely through moderators and mediation and not through legal courts,
which could lead to public exposure and embarrassment.
Arab culture dreads public exposure because it could lead to embarrassment
and bring shame and also because it could reveal one’s vices and weaknesses
to one’s enemies. Of course, it is very important that you should not commit
vices or do wrong, but what is even more important is that if you must do so
you should do it discretely without being discovered and exposed because any
blemish to your character would reflect on other members of your family and
group, just like a good deed by one member of the group would augment the
good reputation of the whole group. There are still traces of the idea
expressed by Emile Durkhiem that in traditional societies, organized
according to the principle of mechanical solidarity, committing a crime is
not viewed as a breach of a legal code but as an offense against collective
consciousness and public sentiment.
Just like you should not reveal your moral weakness and vices, also you
should not reveal your physical and material weaknesses. You should always
appear to the outside world as a person of substantial means and strength.
That is why you should walk in the streets wearing expensive clothes, even
if you have to do it on an empty stomach, because people could see what you
are wearing but not what you have eaten.
The concept of as-sitir is an important concept in traditional Arab
culture which is hard to translate into English. When you pray to Allah to
grant you as-sitir, you are hoping that you live your life honorably
and decently without ever being exposed to public shame or embarrassment.
The wearing of hijaab and modest attire by women, especially young
and unmarried girls, is related to the concept of as-sitir, because
it protects them from seduction and illicit sexual encounters which could
bring great shame and ruin the family reputation. This is also the reason
people in the Gulf countries build around their houses high thick fences, so
no one can see or hear what goes inside. Building codes prohibit the
construction of a window through which one can see the inside of the
Until recently, families in Gulf countries, especially in Saudi Arabia,
avoided public exposures and shunned public places. For example, Riyadh is a
very modern capital in many respects, yet there is a dearth of public parks
or movie houses. It is only within the last few years that families there
started to venture to go dine in restaurants and hotels.
So far, we have been talking about social customs and traditional values.
But such customs and values have their impact on political conduct as well.
This impact is revealed by the discourse of political authorities when they
talk to their people and address the issue of the relation between ruler and
ruled. It is also reflected in the perception of the public media by Arab
governments. For them, the media should always be laudatory, never critical.
Any criticism could convey the wrong message to the outside world, a message
that the house is divided and, by implication, weak. Any complaint or
objection to the performance of the government should be communicated to the
ruler in his majlis or submitted in a written letter addressed
discretely to the proper channels without broadcasting such objection or
complaint to the outside world. The oft-repeated cliché is that we should
not expose our laundry to outsiders. A nation, like a family, should appear
strong and united with its people showing due respect and obedience to their
ruler, like members of a family to a patriarch.
Strictly speaking, a good citizen, just like a well-behaved member of a
family, is obligated to obey his ruler. But he has no real legal rights in
turn. It is out of the goodness of a benevolent patriarch that he is
protected and taken care of. Any outward criticism of ruler or government on
the part of a citizen is conceived as parallel to showing disobedience and
disrespect to a family authority figure. Criticism is viewed as a challenge
to the legitimacy and authority of the government.
This fudging of the political and merging it with the social relieves the
government from elaborating viable and efficient political institutions with
clearly defined responsibilities and legally accountable apparatus. But this
leaves the citizen perplexed. He is a citizen of a modern state, living in
an impersonal crowded urban setting, yet he is supposed to operate and run
his daily business according to rural, traditional, small community,
face-to-face principles. To deal with such challenges, which are compounded
by institutional inefficiency, he is forced to reduce all legal and
administrative problems he faces to the level of personal issues. He
attaches himself as the clientele of an influential figure with wide network
and good connections who would be his patron, or waastah, to look
after him, further his interests and help him get what actually should be
his right as a citizen.
To the few educated elite, appeal to such traditional values may seem as
outmoded and unacceptable ways to run a modern state, but governments appeal
to them knowing that they sell very well with the great majority of the
general public and semi-literate masses, not to mention the fact that many
policy makers and people in the government are themselves people with
traditional thinking and little education who sincerely believe in the
efficacy and merits of such methods.
In conclusion, I should remind the reader of my original purpose in writing
this article, which is to show the extent to which traditional customs and
values color and influence political behavior. Although, traditions are
certainly not the sole motivating force shaping or directing political
action, yet, I feel it is important to recognize and gauge the extent of
their influence, especially by policy makers and people in the government.
Such awareness, I feel, would help the ruling elite to transcend this
archaic discourse and outmoded ways of thinking and acting and transform
them or replace them with more efficient and up to date methods.