Tuesday, March 6, 2012
By Barry Rubin
What do you tell soldiers who are risking their lives on Middle East battlefields about the people they are fighting for and against simultaneously? That’s a tough task. And now we have a fascinating picture of how it’s done.
“Arab Cultural Awareness” is a 73-page text by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence. It’s easy to make fun of some things in it. Yet how can one briefly explain a complex, different society riddled with exceptions to soldiers who have other concerns, little knowledge, and no experience with it?
Remember, we’re talking about a text whose first section is, “Where is the Arab World?” followed by “What is an Arab?” I think they did a conscientious and honorable job, avoiding prejudice without generally creating a fantasy image, and doing a reasonable job of explaining Islam and social customs.
But here’s what makes this text especially interesting to me: It was published in January 2006, after September 11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan made this information vital but before hard-core “Political Correctness” set in to freeze American brains. I’m certain this book couldn’t be written today because it is too honest.
The section, “Commom (sic) Misconceptions about Arabs” has to contend with lots of difficulties.
“Stereotypes of Arab males:
“--All are “oil-rich Sheiks”. As in the West, there are economically diverse segments of the population.
“--Mad dictators. Various types of political systems in Arab world.
“--Terrorists. Overwhelming majority are law abiding citizens with families and a wide variety
of occupations.” This is the only time a word deriving from “terror” appears. The words “Islamism” and “Arab nationalism” never appear at all, though it could be argued this text is about culture and not politics.
·”Stereotypes of Arab women:
“--All are oppressed by men. Not true.
“--All are veiled. According to Islam women are supposed to wear veils. In some countries, like Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, it is no imposed upon them and women are free to choose whether to wear veils. However, in other places, all women, even non-Muslims, wear veils out of fear of mistreatment by fanatics or those who pretend to be guardians of Islam.”
A book could be written about those two brief sections which hop through minefields of controversy. Consider the contradiction between saying Islam tells women they must wear veils with suggesting many do so only due to intimidation. Most, if not “all” women are oppressed. And in much of Syria and Egypt women are not free to choose in practice. Could the “mistreatment by fanatics” sentence be used by the Obama-era army? I doubt it.