27 May 2009

Americans and Arabs: Do We Hate Their Freedom?

Varieties of Muslim Experience: Encounters With Arab Political and Cultural Life is a modestly provocative book by Lawrence Rosen, a Princeton anthropologist with extensive experience in the Arab world, particularly in Morocco. It's his attempt to explain Arab (or Muslim) beliefs, practices and attitudes that often seen alienating or distressing to American observers. What has intrigued me so far is Rosen's persistent contrast between Arab and American political attitudes. He emphasizes that Arabs, based on his experience of them, don't necessarily feel unfree under a kind of government that Americans would see as a tyranny. According to Rosen, that's because freedom, for Arabs, consists of the ability to form "webs of dependence," each person defining his place in society by establishing dependent yet reciprocal relationships with others in what Rosen regularly calls "the game." If a dictator of king puts no impediments in the way of this process, Rosen implies, the typical Arab doesn't consider himself oppressed. Rather, Arabs may prefer dictatorship to any more chaotic condition that makes it difficult for them to network and establish themselves and their relationships.

Rosen contends that Arabs define themselves by their relationships, including their dependence on others, rather than idealize an autonomous self as Americans do. The archetypal America aspires to a state in which he depends on nobody and owes nothing to anyone. But to Arabs, if I understand Rosen right, the person who has complete freedom of action because he owes no one anything, or thinks that he doesn't, is the epitome of injustice because he denies any concept of reciprocity and thus denies others their proper standing in society.

Without meaning to, Rosen also suggests an answer to the great question of "what went wrong" with the Arab world while Europe and America forged ahead. Arab culture seems to have a problem with the concept of a "rule of law" to the extent that it treats people in the abstract as citizens with equal rights and obligations. By contrast, Rosen portrays Arabs as individualists (or "personalists") to a fault. Any political office, any position of responsibility, is inseparable from the specific person who holds it. Rosen's Arabs are skeptical toward claims of objectivity; they presume that officials make decisions based on their personal interests. "What appears to some as an Arab penchant for conspiracy theories may perhaps be better understood as a constant quest for causes that can be traced back to some person," Rosen writes (p.27). But that reads more like euphemism than clarification, since conspiracy theory is founded on the same sort of "who benefits" questioning and belief in will as the cause of all things that Rosen finds typical of Arabs. In any event, if you believe that the establishment of a "rule of law" favoring abstract rights over personal privileges is a prerequisite for socio-economic advancement, an Arab aversion to the idea, if real, may at least partly explain their apparent backwardness. At the same time, Rosen's account of Arab society might appeal to the more hyper-individualistic Americans for exactly the reasons that may have handicapped it.

I can't help wanting a second opinion about Arabs, but Rosen makes a plausible case against the neocon notion that all people everywhere on Earth aspire to "freedom" as it is understood in the United States. He shows that Arabs can scoff at or simply not comprehend the American ideal, yet still consider themselves free. They may not be free in the American sense of the word, but the more you read about the world, the more you realize that the American sense of that word is just that: one culture's attitude among many cultures. The American may look at other cultures and say they aren't free, but that has no more automatic validity than a Christian's assertion that other religions worship Satan. If we want a global definition of freedom, then we'll need a global culture to define it. Until then, books like Rosen's should knock some sense into people.

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