The Arab Mind (Raphael Patai)

Looking at other reviews of “The Arab Mind,” it appears readers divide into two camps. The first group, for whom ideology matters more than reality, hate this book. The second group, largely military, for whom their lives depend on an accurate perception of reality, love this book. This divergence alone suggests the book is worth reading.

“The Arab Mind” was once an obscure book by an obscure man. Its rise to semi-prominence began in 2004, when during the Iraq War the American military, desperately short of soldiers who knew anything about Arab culture, but desperately needing to insert thousands of soldiers into that culture, began (informally) distributing the book to officers. To all accounts, the book was extremely useful to those officers.

However, the book also came in for a great deal of criticism, led by agitprop artist Seymour Hersh, because it is not politically correct. It dispassionately analyzes Arab culture, and offers a clear roadmap for interacting with that culture. But it also recognizes that Arab culture is very different from American and Western culture, and in some ways inferior. This dispassionate analysis does not serve the ends of the social justice warrior crowd, so they cry racism.

The irony of all this is that Patai actually is very sympathetic to Arabs. He likes Arabs and Arab culture. He lived for decades in Jerusalem (pre-Israel). And, in fact, his conclusions about Arab culture (he last updated the book in 1983, shortly before he died, though it was first published in 1976) are generally quite optimistic about the future of Arabs and Arab culture. If you actually read his book, you see that Patai is far from anti-Arab. But you have to read the book.

There’s the rub. It’s entirely obvious that most or all of those who criticize the book haven’t read it. The critics never have any specifics—they object to the very idea that Arab culture could be perceived as anything but wonderful in all regards. These critics are the people who are slaves to the multicultural ideal, which in brief is that no culture is better in any way than any other, except that all cultures are superior to evil Western/Christian culture. Closely tied to this “ideal” is oppression theory—that cultures and peoples deemed to be oppressed by the West are necessarily particularly virtuous. Because any objective observer can easily discern a range of problems and defects in Arab culture, cognitive dissonance results—given that Arabs are presumed to be and have been oppressed by Western colonialism/imperialism/racism, how can they be anything but perfect and wonderfully virtuous? Because the answer is “they can’t be,” therefore scholars like Patai must be liars. No need to read any books or address any arguments! More time to join the latest howling low-information Twitter mob!

The major criticism of Patai is always variants of “there is no such thing as ‘the Arab mind’—that’s racist and ignores that people are different.” The reality is that Patai is extremely careful to repeatedly note that he is merely drawing a picture of the Arab “modal personality.” (“Modal” is a much better chosen word than “average” would have been.) He emphasize that this involves generalizations of qualities that contain many variations among individuals. Patai exhaustively demonstrates that Arabs themselves have always held that there is a common Arab approach to some things (as any culture has), for example: “As can be seen from these quotes from Maqrizi, educated Arabs in the fourteenth and fifteenth century were well aware, not only of the existence of an Arab national character, but also of the character differences between the Arab peoples inhabiting different countries.” One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how Patai uses historical Arab sources to buttress his own conclusions, from Ibn Khaldun on forward.

So the criticisms are misplaced. In fact, what’s apparent is that other authors on this topic who actually spend any time with Arabs, even those who loathe Patai, agree with Patai. You can see that Patai is largely or totally correct in his general conclusions about Arabs by comparing his analysis to the bizarrely awful book “Understanding Arabs,” by Margaret Nydell. That book, which is pushed as an alternative to Patai’s for soldiers and diplomats, says the exact same things about Arabs that Patai does. The difference is that Nydell’s entire book is an attempt to excuse that behavior and to excoriate America and Americans. Patai (writing in 1976) was merely interested in objectivity; Nydell in propaganda. But the facts they offer the reader are close to identical.

For example, Nydell 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.” This is exactly the same thing Patai says, though in different words. When Nydell leaves off her propaganda and gets around to actually talking about “Arab values,” friendship, emotion, male/female relationships, social structure and formalities, and so forth, she in essence says the same things as Patai, though in less detail. Patai and Nydell also address improvidence, predestination, the tendency to substitute words for action, violence of words, control of temper, etc. (Later sections of Patai’s book address more technical subjects that Nydell doesn’t, such as the Arab approach to decorative arts, literature, and music. Patai also addresses what to Westerners are obscure points like what is apparently a very large and very important cultural difference between Arabs from the north and south of the Arabian peninsula, so-called dual descent, either Qays or Yaman.)

Another important point to make when reading and analyzing Patai is that he focuses relatively little on Islam. Nowadays, Islam gets all the ink in the West, for obvious reasons. But in Patai’s analysis, Islam is important, but largely subordinate in the formation of the Arab mind to Bedouin culture and the idolization of Bedouin culture. Patai also carefully distinguishes “Arab” from “Muslim,” and criticizes other authors who don’t (including many Arabs and Muslims). “Bravery and manliness, hospitality and generosity, and the honor syndrome, all pre-Islamic concepts of Bedouin origin, are the dominant concerns. Yet, with one exception, none of them is part of the ethical system of the Koran; and conversely (again with the same exception), none of the ethical teachings of the Koran have developed into a dominant feature in the actual Arab ethics of virtue.” Patai further addresses sexual behavior and how Bedouin values play into sexual shame, particularly familial shame, in way that leads to behavior like honor killings of female relatives perceived as lacking sexual virtue. (He is not remotely obsessed with Arab sexual behavior, contrary to occasional criticisms, but he does discuss it, as he should.)

Occasionally the book shows its age, though generally its analysis is timeless. For example, Patai states “The days of religious wars between Christians and Muslims (although not between Muslims and Hindus) are gone.” He was wrong about that, and Samuel Huntington was right about Islam’s bloody borders. But then, Patai, as I say, was very positive about the Arab future, in a way that has not been borne out in the past three decades. For example, he extensively addresses, positively, the question of Arab unity and its implication for the Arab future, primarily through a theoretical discussion buttressed by behaviors during Arab/Israeli conflicts during the 1960s and 1970s. Contrary to his hopes, though, Arab unity has declined greatly, with the fragmentation of nation-states brought by the Arab Spring, and the rise of crypto-Kharijites like ISIS.

One point about the Kindle version—it literally makes the frequent Arabic phrases that Patai uses unreadable. Weird symbols like apples are substituted for Arabic characters. It’s not critical unless you speak Arabic, I suppose (which I certainly don’t), but it does sharply detract from reading the book on the Kindle.

If you’re interested in the Middle East, reading clear-eyed analyses like Patai is important. We, and our government officials, soldiers, businesspeople and diplomats, do ourselves no favors by deliberately blinding ourselves to reality, both its ugly and its pretty faces. Ignoring reality is the luxury of an opulent society. A short-lived luxury, usually, if history is any guide.


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