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Book Review: Understanding Arabs: A Contemporary Guide to Arab Society (Margaret Nydell)

This is an awful book. It (the fifth edition, from 2012) contains a tiny bit of apparently useful information, which may or may not be true or generally applicable, combined with heaps of mendacious propaganda and annoying hectoring, padded out with material yanked from the likes of Wikipedia. If you’re relying on it to help you, say, understand Arabs, I doubt very much if it will do that. If you are looking for accurate historical information or informed commentary on Islam, a major focus of the book, you should run away as fast as you can.

I read this book because I was simultaneously reading Muhammad Asad’s The Road To Mecca, an outstanding conversion memoir/travelogue, and I hoped Nydell’s book might complement it. My hopes were grossly misplaced. The target audience for this book, according the back blurb, is “diplomats, scholars, business people, travelers and all those who wish to understand the complex events playing out on the world stage.” If you’re one of those people, you’d be better off reading nothing.

Nydell has two fundamental goals, as far as I can tell, in this book. The prime one is to defend Arab/Muslim culture against what she views as Western ignorance and slurs. Unfortunately, what she defends is not the rich and textured cultural and theological history of Islam; it is the worst aspects of revivalist traditional Islam, along with various pernicious religio-cultural practices of Arabs. Nydell’s second goal is to persuade the reader that Arab societies should be viewed optimistically, and therefore any (minor, in her view) defects overlooked. Somewhere after those goals is, perhaps, a minor goal to actually inform the reader about how to understand Arabs. But even there, Nydell’s goal, by her own admission, is not to help the reader understand all Arabs—merely a tiny slice of educated Arabs (“businessmen and women, bureaucrats, managers, scientists, professors, military officers, lawyers, banking officials and intellectuals”). Even if Nydell did help us understand this slice of Arabs, we’d be a long, long way from “understanding Arabs.”

Nydell begins the book with a long and tendentious “Message From The Author.” By the very second sentence, she gives her game away—“Since [I wrote the first edition], the world has been bombarded with conflicting images of Arab culture, from planes flying into the World Trade Center to Arabs crying in grief over the actions of their extremist counterparts . . . .” If there are lots of images of Arabs crying in grief over September 11, I and everyone else have somehow missed them, even though if there actually were a single one it would be played on a continuous loop by the media to provide balance and try to prevent “Islamophobia,” at the same time actual images of Americans dying on September 11 would continue to be suppressed, as they are, also to prevent “Islamophobia.”

One of Nydell’s failures is that despite constantly talking about Islam, she utterly fails to even lay the basic groundwork for understanding Islam, not explaining that the Qur’an is only a small part of theological guidance for Muslims, most of which is actually based on the voluminous Sunnah, the practices and sayings recorded about Muhammad and his companions. (She mentions hadith once or twice, without explanation of their role.) She instead pulls the mendacious Karen Armstrong trick of falsely analogizing the role of the Bible in Christianity to that of the Qur’an in Islam, and stating that if something isn’t in the Qur’an, it’s not Islamic but cultural, when in fact it’s the Sunnah that’s relevant and controlling of Muslim behavior. Nydell uses this trick to explain away the less pleasant parts of Islam, so it’s pretty clear that her failure to explain the basics of Islam is deliberate, not just another example of sloppy writing.

Nydell then spends several pages praising the so-called Arab Spring and events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. “The Arab Spring has been effective, as the people aspire to create more representative governments.” Unfortunately, of course, the time since Nydell wrote this has shown what a disaster the Arab Spring was for all the countries concerned, which strongly suggests that representative government is not something that has any role, now or ever, in the Arab world. And in the same paragraph, Nydell contradicts herself, admitting openly that what most Arabs want is not representative government, but Islamism—i.e.., a totalitarian Islamic theocracy. Which, of course, we are well on our way to getting everywhere but Egypt, preceded by the dogs of war, accompanied by the extermination of Jewish and Christian communities thousands of years old, and doubtless followed by new decades or centuries of darkness. Nydell, however, failed to see any of this, because her view is that Arabs are poor, misunderstood people Just Like Us Except Not (whom she doesn’t try very hard to help us understand).

Nydell’s book is filled with unintentionally hilarious howlers, all designed to defend not actual, demonstrable Muslim contributions to global culture and theology, of which there are plenty, but instead to pretend Muslims are more virtuous than Westerners (i.e., Americans). “Muslims have no historical grievance against Jews and did not engage in periodic persecutions as happened repeatedly in Europe.” Apparently Nydell has missed most of Muslim history, such as Muhammad slaughtering the captured-in-battle Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in 627 and the Muslim extermination of the Jewish kingdoms of the Yemen, along with continuous Ottoman and Mamluk pogroms, and is not aware of the many proscriptions against Jews in the Qur’an and the Sunnah. “I have never heard an Arab or a Muslim say anything negative about the Jewish faith, or Jews as a people, except in the context of Israel and its policies.” This seems highly unlikely, unless Nydell spends all her time in Arab countries in a Four Seasons. “Both [Christianity and Islam] have a concept of Holy War—Crusade and Jihad.” This is just a dumb lie to confuse the ignorant—jihad, in the form of warfare against enemies of Islam (sometimes confined to self-defense, defined extremely broadly) is an absolutely central part of Islam; the Crusades were a brief efflorescence of warfare for 100 years, highly controversial among Christians even at the time, and having nothing to do with Christian doctrine at all. The howlers go on and on.

Nydell, of course, refuses to ever consider that any Arab behavior she identifies might be bad (although, of course, she is not shy about identifying many non-Arab behaviors as bad). So, she says, “Arabs consciously reserve the right to look at the world in a subjective way, particularly if a more objective assessment of a situation would bring to mind a too-painful truth.” Another way of saying this would be “Arabs are fabulists, who create and repeat lies so they can ignore reality.” If that’s the way your culture is, that’s the way your culture is, but let’s not pretend that’s anything but a bad way to live, and a way that’s likely to ensure your culture remains undeveloped and ignorant.

Or, “Arabs like to talk politics with Westerners, and they will readily bring up controversial topics like the Palestine issue, the Iraq wars, and the legacies of colonialism and imperialism. Yet they are not prepared for frank statements of disagreement with their positions on these questions or even inadvertent comments that sound negative toward their point of view or supportive of the opposing side of the argument.” In other words, Arabs don’t like to talk politics at all with Westerners—they like to hector Westerners (read: Americans) with their (illogical, irrational and fabulist) political views, and the Westerner BETTER NOT dare to say anything at all that any person, no matter how irrational, could EVER interpret as anything but TOTAL AGREEMENT. Sure, this is one way to live. But it’s a stupid way to live.

This is such a target rich environment I’m going to have to cut myself off. But one last example. Nydell claims there is a groundswell in the Arab world in favor of “modern concepts on issues such as slavery and women’s rights,” and that there is no support in the Qur’an for slavery and denial of rights to women. She simultaneously contradicts herself by defensively (and heretically, to a Muslim) claiming that the Qur’an “is a product of its times” and “obscure and unclear” (although the Qur’an and Sunnah are actually very clear that slavery is just fine and always will be, and the women’s rights are severely limited and immutable). Nydell than claims that things are changing because “There is a project to retranslate the Qur’an in light of modern academic scholarship, which is yielding interpretations in keeping with ‘the ethics of the modern age’ and fighting against culture practices that are justified as religious.” (She does not explain the contradiction of how it can be that if the practices are changed by a retranslation of the Qur’an, they could be merely cultural, rather than religious, in foundation.) Her evidence is a cite to a 2007 New York Times article profiling the decision by Laleh Bakhtiar, in her translation of the Qur’an, to translate Qur’an 4:34, the verse authorizing beating of wives by their husbands, universally translated to mean beat or strike, as “make go away.” As they say, wishing doesn’t make it so, and there is exactly zero evidence of any real “projects to retranslate the Qur’an.” In fact, what little critical exegesis and historical analysis of the Qur’an is done has to be done under psuedonyms, because death is a real risk for anyone daring to approach the Qur’an as the Bible has been approached since the 19th century. Plenty of people (including Muhammad Asad) have made tentative steps toward modernizing Islam, which is difficult to do for structural reasons. But none of these have made any relevant headway, and Nydell is merely claiming they have to make Americans like Arabs more.

In fact, things are generally heading the other way with Islam. Nydell repeatedly notes the that Arabs over past decades have moved rapidly to adopt more traditional forms of Islam, away from any attempt at modernity. She never attempts to explain this move, or how it squares with her other claims of modernizing.

Nydell repeatedly celebrates the supposed Arab contrast with the West, in that Arabs supposedly are not obsessed with “getting ahead” like Westerners (by which she means, again, Americans), but instead are traditional, family focused, and fatalistic. This may be a superior way to live and plenty of Westerners have mourned the loss of community in the West and our many, many pathologies, some of which the Arab world has so far successfully avoided. But Nydell pretends you can have it both ways—have an advanced Western economy, but not adopt Western habits of striving. It’s a commonplace that most Arab countries, except those with oil, are underdeveloped and on the wrong side of the “Great Divergence” among rich and poor countries. What Nydell ignores is that within living memory, all Arabs lived in abject poverty. Oil/gas, combined with huge handouts from the United State to countries like Egypt with little oil, are the only reason there’s been any economic advancement at all. This suggests the traditional culture is not amenable to advancement.

The middle third of the book is (finally) devoted to the specifics of Arab culture, with an eye to understanding. This covers general topics in extremely short chapters such as “Arab values,” friendship, emotion, male/female relationships, social structure and formalities, and so forth. Most of this will come as no surprise to all to anyone who is reasonably well read in newspapers and books, and there is little depth, but it’s nice to have collected in one place (although, of course, by the author’s own admission much of this applies only to a tiny slice of Arabs). And, of course, even this section is shot through with apologetics for bad behavior and customs that Westerners generally find abhorrent, while the author simultaneously finds frequent occasion to criticize non-Arabs.

Even Nydell’s explanations of Arab customs which may be helpful to a Western visitor are bowdlerized. For example, she notes in several places the custom of eating with the right hand, the left hand being considered unclean in Arab societies. This is well known, but Nydell never notes why this is (it is because the left hand is frequently used instead of toilet paper, and more generally Islam tends to view the left hand as the one to be used for any “less honorable” activity). Presumably Nydell doesn’t note this because most Americans would find it unpleasant and therefore find it confirms their prejudices, and Nydell is desperate to prevent any confirmation of prejudice, even if wholly justified by the facts. Similarly, Nydell whitewashes that in the Arab world divorce of women by men is common and socially unexceptional, and in fact frequently men serially marry wives and divorce them, and that women essentially cannot divorce men, both in Islam and because of cultural rules. She simply pretends that really women are essentially equal to men in the matter of divorce.

There are many lesser problems with the book. Nydell is addicted to constantly using italics, which quickly gets very irritating. And so on—but enough piling on.

Having quickly disposed of the task of skimming actual Arab culture, Nydell proceeds to hector us some more with long sections on “Anti-Americanism,” by which she means how Arabs aren’t anti-American, except when they are, and then it’s our fault, and by the way Americans are terrible bigots who need to be educated by those nice Arabs. Then a set of chapters on “Muslims in the West,” wherein Western bigotry is again excoriated and Muslims are claimed to be model citizens in Europe (never mind the sky-high crime rates, with more than half of the criminals in jail in France being Muslim, and the hundreds of thousands of girls subjected to genital mutilation, none of which, or anything else that might take away from Nydell’s vision of happy Arab multiculturalism opposed by Western bigots, is mentioned).

Nydell finally ends her offenses to the reader by padding out the rest of the book, having the final third of the book be a country-by-country description of each of 18 Arab countries, with basic factually information, liberally cribbed from Wikipedia (which is repeatedly cited), Encarta and various blog and newspaper articles. And, finally, Nydell concludes with an injunction that for Westerners, “All that is necessary is to be nonjudgmental and to avoid any actions that are insulting or shocking,” (because, apparently, Arabs don’t have to be nonjudgmental), and that Westerners must not be “open and upfront with beliefs and feelings,” because this “needs to be tempered when operating in the tradition-bound culture of the Middle East.” In other words, stupid American, keep your mouth shut and your mind closed to the possibility that retrograde behavior is retrograde, and the Arabs won’t hurt you.

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