Thursday, June 08, 2006

Glubb Pasha on the Arabs

Glubb Pasha -- or, to give him his full title, Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb -- was one of a long string of Englishmen who got involved in the complicated affairs of the Middle East: Lawrence of Arabia was perhaps the most famous. Pasha, by the way, is simply an honorary title in the Arab world, one that is typically granted to high-ranking soldiers or governors, and it means, more or less, 'Sir'.

Born in 1897, Glubb was a career soldier, and his career culminated in his role as commander of the Arab legion, from 1939 to 1956.

After his retirement, Glubb wrote a considerable number of books, which I have not read, but I have just read My Years with the Arabs, which is the text of a lecture that he gave to the Institute for Cultural Research in 1971. It's still in print, and if you are trying to make sense of the current nonsense in Iraq you could do worse than take a look at it. (ISBN 0 9500029 6 8)

Glubb begins by trying to give a historical definition of the term Arab. He points out that, in the seventh century, a handful of troops from the Arabian peninsula (perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 men) conquered vast areas of the Middle East. These soldiers were inspired by the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Ultimately, the countries conquered by these troops adopted the Muslim religion and the Arabic language, but their populations were largely unchanged. The newly 'Arab' countries therefore retain marked differences in ethnic origin and customs, and they react very differently to the events and crises of life.

Having made that point, Glubb goes on to describe some common characteristics of those peoples who are today considered Arab. And we should note immediately that, writing in 1971, he was aware that the younger generation of Arabs were often being educated in western universities, and were bringing into their communities new ideas and new ways of doing things. However, Glubb seems to have held the view that most of the characteristics which he described were likely to remain at the core of Arab behaviour and thinking.

The first characteristic that he identifies is courtesy. He describes the elaborate politeness and formality with which even the poorest people greet friends and strangers.

His second trait is dignity, which he says is common to all Middle East cultures. In company, an Arab will not lounge about, yawn, or laugh uproariously with his mouth open. The behaviour of Europeans and Americans, says Glubb, often makes them seem like barbarians to the Arabs.

To the casual visitor, says Glubb, Arabs do not normally seem very pious. But whether or not they pray five times a day (as Muslims are supposed to), Glubb thinks it a safe generalisation to say that all but a handful of westernised Arabs believe in God. This, he feels, has a markedly stabilising effect on society. For example, there are no suicides among these people.

As for the common sneer that Arabs are fatalists, Glubb chooses to describe this rather as a calm acceptance of setbacks and defeats. It is their faith in God which enables Arabs to bear terrible misfortunes and hardships without nervous breakdowns and suicides.

Next, Glubb considers the Arab attitude to money. 'Most of the traditional Arabs among whom I lived presented a phenomenon entirely strange, perhaps incredible, to the modern Western mind -- they did not live for money.'

This has various consequences, one of which is that the poor do not envy the rich; the elderly are cared for in the family, and are not seen as a hindrance to the pursuit of money.

However, this is one area where, even in 1971, Glubb could see substantial changes. The western-educated young often returned with a very western enthusiasm for money. As a result, the old system of basing business transactions purely on trust was breaking down, and a wider gap was developing between rich and poor in the Arab world.

Under traditional Arab conditions, children naturally grew up as part of a family, and tended to continue in the family way of life. The sons of shepherds, farmers, and merchants became shepherds, farmers and merchants in turn. But by the time Glubb was writing, the introduction of western education methods had changed all that. A university degree is now considered the one essential to success; under the western influence, 'character, honesty, experience, courage are never enquired of, or even thought necessary.'

This development causes Glubb to consider the question of wisdom and knowledge. 'One of the most striking peculiarities of life in this country,' he says, 'which has impressed me since my return to Britain, is the loss of our appreciation of the difference between Wisdom and Knowledge.' These are, in Glubb's view, as different as chalk is from cheese.

Wisdom, according to Glubb, is the art of living and can only be acquired by experience; thus an old peasant may be wiser than the world's greatest scientist. 'I have known village headmen in Asia,' he declares, 'who were wiser than the president of the United States.'

No further comment is required on that.

Glubb considers politics in the Arab world. In politics, he says, we in the west are as narrow-minded as our ancestors were in terms of religion: i.e. convinced that our way is best. He gives an example drawn from two western comments on the state of Jordan in the 1940s. One western correspondent remarked to Glubb that the government of Jordan was 'entirely reactionary and feudalistic, and really an anachronism in the modern world.' A second correspondent, speaking separately from the first, remarked that 'This is the first country I have ever visited where everyone I have spoken to praises the government.'

Moral: we should not make the assumption that democracy is the most natural, or the 'best' form of government for every nation under the sun. Some might prefer a different arrangement.

The key to the traditional Arab form of government, Glubb says, was accessibility, at all levels. Everyone in the community had the opportunity to speak to the leader, without lawyers, legal fees or delay. Our own system, Glubb argues, has completely lost this vital asset. No single man is responsible for anything: individuals are concealed within committees, and the system is dehumanised and depersonalised. Glubb's conclusion is we are not justified in demanding that other nations should abandon their own traditions and adopt ours.

Finally, Glubb points out that the western code of chivalry has its origins in the Arab world. Before the preaching of Islam in the seventh century, the Arabs carried on endless wars; but these wars were governed by strict rules of honour. The object of war was not to conquer or subdue another tribe; it was to provide a means whereby men could win honour, rather than wealth or power.

It was these same warlike nomads who formed the spearhead of the Arab conquests, and in Spain and France they established their ideas of war for honour, and a chivalrous attitude toward women. (The Arabs, by the way, remained in Spain for nearly 800 years.) Glubb concludes his lecture by echoing the words of the great French scholar, Dr Levi-Provencal: 'Arabs taught Europe respect and courtesy to women.'

Should you wish to read Glubb Pasha's lecture, you can obtain it from the Institute for Cultural Research, along with much else.


Pop said...

Seems some strange contradictions here. No suicide and suicide bombers? Respect towards women? Under Islam? Does that really look as though it’s happening?

Iain said...

I'd like to comment at greater length on this issue, but, in case I never get round to it, here's a quick response to Pop's contribution. (And I should point out that I speak as a westerner who has spent many years in the Arab Islamic world.)

Yes, recent experience seems to tell the West that Islam is positively addicted to suicide, and, far from respecting women, in fact despises them. But our perspective betrays us: we are looking in from the outside (while they are looking out from the inside) and we're getting it all wrong.

Leave out of account the weasel words of our politicians, who constantly assure us that the vast majority of Muslims are as repelled as we are by suicide bombings -- because the truth is that many 'law-abiding' Muslims (trust me, just trust me) are at least secretly sympathetic to the extremists. Look instead at reality.

To a Muslim suicide bomber, he (sorry, can't face explaining why it's very seldom she) is not committing suicide. On the contrary, he is carrying out a martyrdom operation, which will send him straight to Paradise. This, you see, is the fate of all Muslims who die fighting for the faith.

Suicide is forbidden in Islam, and, because social support systems have historically been so strong, Muslims have never seriously considered it an option. When a Muslim says that what we call a suicide bombing is in reality a martyrdom operation, he is not merely playing with words.

So much for suicide. What about women? Well, it is perfectly true that the most radical Islamists despise western women. It's not very nice to hear one Arab telling another (when he reckons nobody else will understand) that a western woman with whom he seems to be on friendly terms is a whore (sharmota), but I'm afraid it happens.

The problem here is that Islamic women are expected to be home-makers and child-bearers, and earn respect by their successful performance of these functions. When westerners think that this attitude shows contempt for women, they betray their implicit assumption of the superiority of their own culture.

So there you have it. I look down from a great height, and show others the error of their ways . . .

No, it won't do. It's only fair that I should declare my own position. As an atheist, I reject the claims of Islam (as I do those of Christianity) and must therefore consider it as a moral code. In this context, it is clear that what was appropriate to the Arabian peninsula fourteen hundred years ago is not at all appropiate to any part of the world today.

Ultimately, Islam (like Christianity) will go the way of all religions. Socrates was put to death for blasphemy against a creed now known as Greek mythology. It's quite difficult (I know because I've tried) to persuade people that it was once Greek religion.

[er . . . I began by saying that this would be brief, and I might comment at greater length later. Well er . . . I just got a bit carried away, that's all.]

Francis Ellen said...

Well pop, maybe once we get through murdering the lot of them they'll come around to our way of thinking?

They are bugs. When Al Whatever The Fuck His Name is was 'taken out' recently, we never even got to hear how many other bugs happened to get killed. (Those 500 pound bombs are precision weapons as long as you don't mind killing brown babies and a few women who'd be better off dead than suffering Islam's version of respect.)

Now we have the Bush chimp authorising the kidnapping of three people, keeping them in prison without charge or access to a lawyer for four years then, when they commit suicide, it's called 'an act of war'.

How come anything weird about Islam means all muslims are bonkers but christians get to exist as individuals?

I too have lived in the Middle East and Colonel Clot is not all that far off the mark. Not only do we not understand other cultures, we believe them all to be inferior.

That's OK, I suppose, as long as we don't spend 100 billion dollars trying to wipe out the lot of them.

Tony, George, Donald and many others must stand trial.

If these monsters stood trial, we could indeed stand proud as a race. (Human, that is.)

It won't happen. Never mind, we can shoot as many darkies as we like as long as it protects us.

Let's face it, what if I didn't kill you and then you turned out to be a baddie?

Kill em all.

Anonymous said...

pasha glubb converted to islam while he worked there for the brits when he returned to england he became a christian again,the whole trip was for british american oil to protect arabia,the jordanians came from arabia and had a legal claim to it which the giving of jordon settled this situation,the residents of the mandate resented to claim of the so called jordanian king. thats why its sir. glubb

Anonymous said...

You are all a bunch of racist bigots. It would do you some good to learn about other people and maybe look at our (the English) role in history to understand why the world is the way it is today!

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