October 25, 2005
Clarifications on Least Attractive Features like Class
Clarified some points on class, tribe and attractive features of MENA/Arab society in the comments on this entry.
But I reproduce the points here below as well. In haste, bullet points.
Got caught up in a big report, so no time to get back. So bullet points below. [changed to a numbered list, helps with commenting -E]
- I am not a cultural relativist, so I think some things are SUPERIOR in some cultures to others, and this is true even if more arrogant cultures and persons at times say so.
- Obnoxious = oppressive; Goodrich/Goodyear; purple/violet, all the same sense, not intended to have a subtle meaning.
- Examples of cultural superiority: in graciousness, care and respect for the elderly, and in family warmth (mostly), Arab society is SUPERIOR to American society. (Unlike The Lounsbury I have a sentimental taste for and belief in many of those things, and even religiosity.) Not merely different, superior.
- I actually sloppily jammed two or three separate subjects into one – the absence of Americans from Mena even in good times, the issue of class distinction, and the significance of that issue.
- My argument was actually tautological: I think the ending of class systems is the desired end of social progress, though not in the Marxist sense, but the liberal one. I also don’t believe it is our (USA) job to go around trying to impose such changes.
- American society, with the exception of race, really is less class conscious than a great many others, and far more so than many “underdeveloped” ones. This has something to do with the self-selection of a relatively recent capitalist settler-state. It is not very debatable if one has been around with open eyes. It may be hypocritical in practice but the sense of it – or rather the lack of it -- is quite pervasive in sentiment and habit.
- I think most societies advance – materially and socially and politically – in direct proportion to the loosening of rigid class systems.
- Yes, indeed, my main unspoken point is that the obnoxious tribal-family social system is the main means to the disturbing reality of class consciousness. What I notice in MENA is that one does not shed either the class system or the family system behind closed doors the way that prudery, sexism, and other social ills or characteristics can be shed. It survives all barriers, erected even by physical intimacy.
- An informal sample of American-reared persons I know who actually know and like the MENA region and its peoples (including Americans of Arab heritage) usually express gut revulsion over two experiences over there – the ill-treatment of the Palestinians in their daily lives by Israelis; and the class structure of Arab society and mores. Sexism is also griped about especially by women, but with less irritation than the class system.
- The obnoxious extended family system is not obnoxious IMO because of nature of family cohesiveness per se – unlike The Lounsbury, I simply think a kinder-gentler version would be good, perhaps even exemplary. But a system of class-family-failure relationship is best illustrated by the fact that Palestinians are still led by the same major families despite the physical and political destruction of their society. The tribal system is the real power structure for most Iraqis. Family loyalty detracts from social responsibility and a sense of empowered individualism; hint: individualism is a good thing. Literally the fact that many Arabs prefer to spend an inordinate amount of time with family rather than community is disempowering except for the elite families and reinforces the class system. And at least in al-Sharq, family interaction is almost ludicrous – family are the dominant single set of co-employees/business partners, socializing friends, MARRIAGE PARTNERS!! (enough said there alone), insurers, bankers, advisors, mentors, etc.
- I don’t use the word barbarism for class systems, I don’t think. Class systems while vile at their worst are very civilized. Honor killing is barbaric; but here in the West we have domestic violence and date rape to balance the barbarism (among other things)
- The class and family system are the main reason for the rise of Islamism as Islam is the only authentic cultural force which can challenge the vices of each (eg corruption/nepotism) with legitimacy and heartfelt moral passion.
- Part of what I wrote was actually looking sideways at the drooling buffoons and their stereotypes of the MENA region here in N America and to dismiss those stereotypes by introducing a different view while playing to their sense of American superiority, in an area where it might happen to be correct. It does bother me that the issues of excessive family focus in MENA (at least in Sharq) and of the rigid class hierarchism are almost totally avoided as areas of discussion (even and especially by informed persons who know better, not just the pontificating ignoramuses who know the region from movies), with a preference for endless discussions of religion and political structure and gender relations. These are important, and much more nuanced than stereotype, but they each to some extent secondary factors shaped according to the nature of the first two factors – tribalism and class.
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Some comments, since you've touched on a number of interesting things (with some provocative phrasing)
1. Re the use of "superiority", my guess is that you mean "social traits/behaviours that lead to improved standard of living for everyone" or something similar. Without a precise definition, it's pretty easy to get trapped in emotive arguments.
3. See #1 and precise definitions. I would agree that a tight-knit family and a sense of obligation/duty to relatives offers many advantages that have been lost in Western countries. State failures in areas such as child welfare might not be so dramatic if families in the West were more cohesive.
6. You're probably correct that the US is less classist in the European sense, but it's also true that many Americans believe US society is more classless than it actually is. Myth of the American Dream and all that. NYT had a good series on class some months back.
7. Probably. There is likely less tension and less grinding poverty at the lower levels if wealth isn't concentrated within a tiny elite group. As well, it's a useful counterweight to the "state" if there are groups that derive wealth from something other than gov't patronage.
10. In part the emphasis on family/tribal ties may be due to the utter failure of state institutions to provide for citizens (or perhaps one could view this as a cause of state failure). Certainly in Mandate Iraq, the British weakened their own institutions by going through intermediaries (sheikhs, tribal heads, etc). Individualism is a good thing until it becomes selfishness, until a person believes that nothing is more important than their own individual happiness (including family cohesion, for example).
11. It occurs to me that much of the world still operates under some form of stratification (colour, income, "class", caste). Probably easier to switch from tribal/colour/caste classes to income class, rather than remove classist behaviour altogether.
12. I would say that Islam both entrenches and acts against these structures. Even in the earliest histories of Islam there are examples of the Prophet attempting to balance tribalism with the overarching umma concept. An entry on its own, I think.
Posted by: eerie at October 25, 2005 11:33 AM
Interesting. Of course I am quite soulless and feel deeply put upon having to attend idiotic Iftaars.
Would have more comment but many pages of analysis to plunge through.
Posted by: lounsbury at October 25, 2005 12:53 PM
Big booboo --
"I think most societies advance – materially and socially and politically – in inverse proportion to the loosening of rigid class systems."
I meant that society advances in DIRECT proportion as class systems loosen.
Posted by: matthew hogan at October 25, 2005 04:48 PM
I assumed as much, will edit.
Posted by: eerie at October 25, 2005 04:55 PM
Thanks for this second article (actually, how about a whole series on these topics?) - I now see that I completely misunderstood your reference to family in the first post. You were talking about the families that govern the countries. I was talking about the overall communal nature of the society at all levels. And when I think about the family oriented nature of Arab society I think about the things you listed as being pluses in the Arab system - the care of the elderly, the greater concern for family members, etc.
If it comes to families keeping control of states, not only I, a non-Arab, but most Arabs who are not members of those families, would agree with you (such as Saadeddine and others who came up with the Arabic make believe word combining the word republic with the word monarchy when Bashar al Asad took over after the death of his father).
I also see a lot of my cultural values as superior (as defined by Eerie as being values that contribute to raise the standards of living) over other ones - but given that they are *my* values, I can't do this and call it an objective view. (I guess on re-reading your article, you are not saying that you are being objective, as obviously it would be impossible in the case of cultural values. No one can speak from an outside perspective, as we all belong to cultures and share sets of values.)
I am not really a cultural relativist either (and in fact I have never met a real one- it sounds like a nice idea to people who have not really thought about some really deep cultural differences, but if they actually stop to think about it, they are not relativists at all).
For example, I think the American ideal (not reality) of an individual, merit-based, non-class-based system is, of course, wonderful and superior. The fact that it is not really existing right now (and in fact the dichotomies between rich and poor have exacerbated over the past years with the rich 1% owning much more of the percentage of wealth of the country than they did years ago) notwithstanding, it is a beautiful ideal and I would definitely say it is superior to the ideal of family loyalty over everything else. (Can someone explain the American meritocracy to the Bush clan? Or to the American voters for that matter? But I digress.)
I think eerie touched on what I am trying to say (and I don't tend to express myself really well on issues that are so abstract) - but I believe you are referring to class as it is expressed socially while I am referring to class as it exists economically whether people have the bad taste to be snobby about it or not.
I would tend to agree that society would advance if class systems would loosen. I also think that having a vibrant and large middle class tends to be a good thing and that the Middle East suffers from a lack of a middle. But again I am talking economics here, not social strata. Also, I would like to point out that the Middle East has undergone a lot of change in this structure over the past decades, at least in the poorer countries (Egypt, Jordan e.g.) where people emigrated to the Gulf to get money and then returned with some, causing the traditional elites no end of heartache as they lament the nouveau riche's lack of taste, complain that their favorite vacation spots are now crowded with oafs, and the like.
Posted by: Anna in Cairo at October 26, 2005 05:17 AM
10- Not only is the emphasis on family/tribal ties due partly to the utter failure of state institutions to provide for citizens but also the failure of post colonial states to develop adequately and subplant traditional social/power structures. This somehow links in to Anna's point re lack of emergence of a middle class. There are signs of embryonic professional classes particulalry in Egypt where the middle class and working class are more clearly identifiable than in most other MENA countries but this scale has not emerged as an alternative classification, This is not helpful when marrying from the right family outranks getting the right job. Whether this failure is due to the weakness of post independence states and an indictment of the poor planning and unpreparedncess of these states or an affirmation of the deep rooted power of traditional structures is an entirely different posting.
11- It is rather complicated in some parts of MENA as all of the classifications overlap dovetail and even contradict. In Sudan for example, newly rich individuals of a 'lower' ethnic classification are still looked down upon by ones that rank higher and are less economically fortunate and these prejudices stil flare up when it comes to issues of marriage for example. In Saudi Arabia, people of Hijazi origin still regard themselves as superior stock as they are generally fairer in colour and pigmentation than their more wealthy but darker Riyadh couterparts. Hence I think that a simple switch to income class would not only be desirable but also quite Utopian!
12- Islam acts against these structures because of their oppressive nature and it is the only axe that can get at the root of the tree as opposed to slower emergencies of gentler class structures. However, these structures maintain and facilitate the way for so much that the Islamic backlash may only be one resulting from much more worldly frustrations such as limitation of social mobility etc as opposed to a more ideaistic desire to belong to an umma and/or eradicate corruption or nepotism with moral passion.
Posted by: Meph at October 26, 2005 08:37 AM
"I now see that I completely misunderstood your reference to family in the first post. You were talking about the families that govern the countries. I was talking about the overall communal nature of the society at all levels."
My haste, sorry. Actually I DID mean to criticize the whole communal nature of family focusedness at all levels, but I also do not mean destroying it or condemning family warmth and togetherness or even loyalty, I think it is a good counterbalance to the power of the state and the solitude of the individual. Again, reformed it is or would be BETTER (again, people can judge cultures) than what we have over on this side of the Atlantic.
On the other hand, I speak of, and this may be more in the Crescent than elsewhere, the tendence to center one's entire existence around the family, to the point of the fact that it becomes the center of all social and economic relations (including the preferred or expected place from which one chooses spouses); and really detracts, on ALL levels of society, from a sense of public spiritedness, andon the other level, from the sense of individual purpose and fulfillment.
The elite families and the fellah families in this regard reflect the same culture and those flaws -- limited space for public and individual spheres of life are a large part of the socio-political repression and powerlessness, at least in al-Sharq. LIterally, public activism and even private enterprise is limited because people are too busy having endless (and socially expected) dinners with second cousins and uncles and aunts. Literally at times (no, that's not the MAIN reason but it is an illustrative one). Not to mention giving jobs and benefits to relatives that are non-productive (this happens in every society but I am speaking of relative frequency; and no pun on relative). And this may be less so in urban areas; I got the impression of less of this in Damascus for example, or Cairo.
A good illustration is the fact that in the Arab world to my knowledge are the only countries NAMED after families. (Hashemite Jordan and Saudi Arabia; and I did see small Syria al-Assadi signs in Damascus airport.)
But that family structure and sense throughout society, with a proper less dominating and less fatalistic sense of itself, is a potentially great thing. I am somewhat a social conservative, if political libertarian, and some things do have merit.
Other issues: Income classes probably would exist less the more a truly free enterprise system was established in any society but that's another debate. The more goverrnments are involved in economic life (including nice thngs like social protection and welfare), the more class and elite systems are perpetuated.
Posted by: matthew hogan at October 26, 2005 10:08 AM
But an overall point I want to steer towards is that he difficulties one sees in Arab society and gets talked about by both friend and foe -- gender, religion, political repression -- are secondary phenomena of the cultural core dynamics of class and tribe. Those are the issues that need airing.
Posted by: matthew hogan at October 26, 2005 10:11 AM
And, not to sound Marxist (most definitely not), the class and tribe issues are affected by and deeply affect, core economic questions of who can produce wealth and who will keep it.
Posted by: matthew hogan at October 26, 2005 10:12 AM
'The elite families and the fellah families in this regard reflect the same culture and those flaws -- limited space for public and individual spheres of life are a large part of the socio-political repression and powerlessness, at least in al-Sharq. LIterally, public activism and even private enterprise is limited because people are too busy having endless (and socially expected) dinners with second cousins and uncles and aunts.'
Interesting and rather chicken and egg. Are family dynamics so predominant that they encroach upon public life or is public space so limited and usurped by socio-political repression that the family is rendered the only outlet? I somewhat lean towards the tyranny of the family and am therefore less optimistic.
Posted by: Meph at October 26, 2005 10:35 AM
Meph said: "Islam acts against these structures ..." Well, 'Islam' is not an actor, it's a religion. And hence 'Islam's' ability to act against (or for) means in reality the ability (& willingness) of Muslims to act for or against something. And, quite frankly, as long as the vast majority of Muslim clerics tend to be men whose outlook on "life, the universe, and everything" is set within a patriarchic worldview (and as long as the vast majority of female Muslims are - at the minimum - going along with it) ... I really don't see how 'Islam' can be a counterforce to dominance of family & patriarchy outside a few very interesting, but utterly marginal books and pamphlets.
Posted by: raf* at October 26, 2005 11:00 AM
I believe that it is assumed that when I say Islam (and if you scroll up I think you will find that it was eerie's statement) or indeed when anyone says it in the context of this discussion one means the religion and its vanguard. The fact that it is a potential actor against entrenched structures is indeed exposed within your own assertion that the partiarchal world view is one held by 'clerics' who are part and parcel of the structure and not by those students, disenfranchised youths and activists who indeed oppose those clerics as representatives of the stagnant corrupt status quo
Posted by: Meph at October 26, 2005 12:12 PM
fine, so you BOTH treated "Islam" as an actor...
But, your take "The fact that it is a potential actor against entrenched structures is indeed exposed within your own assertion that the partiarchal world view is one held by 'clerics' who are part and parcel of the structure and not by those students, disenfranchised youths and activists who indeed oppose those clerics as representatives of the stagnant corrupt status quo." is still off the mark. the "students, disenfranchised youths and activists ..." might be opposing the clerics on all sorts of topics, but NOT on the question of patriarchy, role of women, family & all that.
there are very few people WITHIN the muslim framework who are truly looking "outside the box" - they are either getting killed (m. mahmud taha) or otherwise marginalized (saad ed-din ibrahim).
none of the "revolutionary" islamic/islamist movements were truly interested in a change in the traditional value system.
Posted by: raf* at October 27, 2005 07:47 AM
Alternative models for Islam as a "potential actor against entrenched structures" besides the hyper-patriarchal / hyper-literalist and traditionalist/conservative models are indeed happening, but not in the Middle East. I recommend to anyone truly interested in this issue the writings of South African theologian Farid Esack or the American (of Egyptian origin) professor, Khaled Abo El Fadl. Dr. Abo el Fadl has a new book out, incidentally.
I don't know if the "tyranny of the family" really is more of a root issue than gender attitudes (as Matt Hogan has stated). To me this is very hard to resolve - it is a classic chicken-and-egg. A lot of the worst aspects of the family fixation, to me, stem from the rigid gender roles, not the other way around, but I can see that it is possible to argue either way. However, I think that as women's roles move outside the home the extended family does indeed lose a bit of its power over the nuclear one (I see this happening a bit in my husband's extended family). Again, though, it is hard to derive a real cause/effect relationship between two such interrelated cultural factors.
Posted by: Anna in Cairo at October 27, 2005 08:16 AM
"Alternative models for Islam as a "potential actor against entrenched structures" besides the hyper-patriarchal / hyper-literalist and traditionalist/conservative models are indeed happening, but not in the Middle East"
How about Turkey and Tunisia?
"Islam acts against these structures because of their oppressive nature"
To the risk of repeating what Raf said, do those students, disenfranchised youths and activists oppose any oppressive structure (are they liberal?) or do they oppose oppressive structures that don't serve their ends to the extent they wish them to be served?
To take an actual example, let's look at Iran. Students, disenfranchised youths and activists opposed structures they considered oppressive, corrupt and stagnant and replaced them with their own oppressive structures.
Posted by: Baal Shem Ra at October 27, 2005 10:51 AM
Sorry about the double post, just saw a possible misunderstanding:
Anna, I understood "entrenched structures" to mean "importance of the rule of a few elite families and the tribal/extended family system".
Posted by: Baal Shem Ra at October 27, 2005 10:55 AM
What pedantic badinage..
raf- "students, disenfranchised youths and activists ..." might be opposing the clerics on all sorts of topics, but NOT on the question of patriarchy, role of women, family & all that."
Whatever the nature of the opposition (on all sorts of topic which you failed to specify) it is still directed against the extablishment. Indeed, it may be fundamentalist opposition and totally 'within the box' as movements to return to the days of the Prophet where tribal structures were challenged by Islamic principles (see eerie point number 12). The assertion that Islam can act against these structures was not one that implied that this pressure was positive, negative, idealistic or pragmatic merely that it has the power to do so.
Baal- I hope this answers your question as well which was indeed repetitive if more succint. You will find that in the original posting Mathew Hogan maintained that Islam would challenge these structures with legitimacy and moral passion which I questioned to be the case universally (QED your point re Iranian students)
Raf and Baal please revisit - However, these structures maintain and facilitate the way for so much that the Islamic backlash may only be one resulting from much more worldly frustrations such as limitation of social mobility etc as opposed to a more idealistic desire to belong to an umma and/or eradicate corruption or nepotism with moral passion.
Posted by: Meph at October 27, 2005 11:53 AM
I would not consider Tunisia and Turkey elements of the sort of thing I happened to be talking about. I am talking about a sort of Islamic renaissance in which there is important theological work going on with reinterpretation and different readings of the text and stuff like that using as a basis the work done in the past. Salafism is in many ways the antithesis of this because it breaks with the medieval work in a radical way. Tunisia and Turkey impose secular forms of government on a religious population, a system that requires a great deal of repression. This is doing nothing to revitalize religious traditions at all. IT is merely a top-down imposed government model.
Posted by: Anna in Cairo at October 31, 2005 12:57 AM