On August 29 in Tehran, a reporter rose during a press conference with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asked to recite a poem. "Recite just two lines," said the president. "Don't make it too long. We don't have time. Just the best part."
"But it's all good," the reporter replied.
"So, read the middle." Whereupon the journalist declaimed as follows:
For the sake of defending our homeland, we will give up even our heads
We will attack any enemy like lions
We are known all over the world for our fearlessness and manliness
For the sake of God, we will turn our chests to shields
"Well done," Ahmadinejad said. "You were supposed to recite only two lines."
A U.S. president in Ahmadinejad's place would not say, "Well done, but too long." He would say something like, "You need medical help." By historical standards, however, it is the American reaction, not the Iranian one, that is odd.
The journalist-poet was speaking the language of traditional honor, a tongue that modern Westerners have largely forgotten—to their peril, if James Bowman is right. In a recently published and bracingly original book called Honor: A History, Bowman—a cultural critic and historian affiliated with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington—argues that honor remains a potent force in world affairs, perhaps more potent today than in many years, because it is central to the liberal West's confrontation with militant Islam. If he is right, the terror war is really an honor war, but only one side knows it.
Boiling Bowman's richly nuanced 327 pages down to four paragraphs does the book a cruel disservice, but this is journalism, so here goes. Honor, for Bowman's purposes, means "the good opinion of people who matter to us." The basic honor code requires men to maintain a reputation for bravery, women a reputation for chastity. If a man is insulted, injured, or disrespected, he must avenge the offense and prove that anyone who messes with him (or "his" women) will be sorry.
The West's history is rich with traditions of honor, and equally rich with examples of its dangers and follies, among them the duel that killed the most brilliant of America's Founders. Singularly, however, the West has backed away from honor. Under admonitions from Christianity to turn the other cheek and from the Enlightenment to favor reason over emotion, the West first channeled honor into the arcane rituals of chivalry, then folded it into a code of manly but magnanimous Victorian gentlemanliness—and then, in the 20th century, drove it into disrepute. World War I and the Vietnam War were seen as needless butcheries brought on by archaic obsessions with national honor; feminism and the therapeutic culture taught that a higher manly strength acknowledges weakness.
"Yet we are, in global terms, the odd ones out," Bowman writes. Outside the West, traditional honor codes remain strong, and nowhere is that more true than in the Muslim world. In the modern Islamic world, few share the West's view of honor as outdated and unnecessary. "The honor culture of the Islamic world predates its conversion to Islam in the seventh century," writes Bowman.
Islam overlaid itself above honor and, unlike Christianity in the West, did not challenge it. Today's militant jihadism takes the ethic of honor to extremes, fixating on manly ferocity and glorious vengeance.
Thus, Bowman writes, "America and its allies are engaged in a battle against an Islamist enemy that is the product of one of the world's great unreconstructed and unreformed honor cultures." Jihadism wages not only a religious war but a cultural one, aiming to redeem, through deeds of bravery and defiance, the honor of an Islam whose glory has shamefully faded. It aims, further, to uphold a masculine honor code that the West's decadent, feminizing influence threatens to undermine.
Whether or not Bowman has the whole story right, the prism of honor brings puzzling elements of the current conflict into sharper focus. Americans are baffled that Western appeals to freedom and prosperity get so little traction in the Arab and Muslim worlds. America's example as the "shining city on a hill" inspired liberalizing movements from Eastern Europe to Tiananmen Square; why should the Middle East be different? One answer is that traditional honor cultures value vindication over freedom and wealth. Militant Islamism and Baathist-style national socialism offer narratives of restored greatness and heroic resistance. Ballot boxes and shopping malls offer neither. If freedom brings humiliation, what good is it?
Most wars are waged between combatants who share similar honor codes or at least comprehend each other's honor codes. This time, there is no communication across the battlefield. To Americans, it is patently clear that the attacks of September 11 were acts of unprovoked aggression; in a traditional honor culture, however, violence to protect one's honor is just as self-defensive as violence to protect one's person.
Westerners are both revolted and puzzled by jihadists' willingness to kill non-Muslim civilians. In the post-honor West, the first rule of honorable combat is not to target noncombatants. From biblical times on down, by contrast, many traditional honor cultures have made a practice of killing and enslaving civilians, whom they regarded as enemies and spoils. In a primitive honor culture, the combatant-civilian distinction is less important than the boundary between one's own honor circle—one's self, clan, tribe, or religious co-believers—and outsiders, whose fate is largely a matter of indifference. Modern jihadism appears to have embraced this atavistic ethic.
Traditional honor, Bowman emphasizes, is about the reputation for bravery, not necessarily bravery itself. Maintaining reputation implies saving face by never admitting weakness. When Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf, Iraq's information minister during the U.S. invasion in 2003, insisted ludicrously that Iraq was winning the war, "he was simply saying what it was incumbent on a man of honor to say if he was not to lose face by admitting a shameful defeat," according to Bowman.
More consequentially, Americans assumed, in 2002 and 2003, that Saddam Hussein would not pretend to hide weapons of mass destruction that he didn't actually possess. Why would he lie to bring about his own downfall? What seemed inexplicable to a post-honor culture would seem, in a traditional honor culture, too obvious to need explaining: Saddam was more concerned about saving face—preserving his reputation for being fierce and formidable—than about his office or even his life. Indeed, he could not feel otherwise and still count himself a man.
In the modern West, interest trumps honor (or subsumes it). We don't shoot ourselves in the foot to prove we're tough and fierce. Or, if we do, we expect to be ridiculed, not admired. If interest trumps honor, a country will swallow its pride in the face of a defeat or setback and make the best of its lot. For Germany after World War II (and for Japan, which was quick to adopt Western ways), getting rich was the best revenge.
In a traditional honor culture, that sort of pride-swallowing compromise may not be possible. Honor trumps interest (or subsumes it). The well-educated and talented Arabs of the Levant might today be enjoying the same prosperity and security as Spain or South Korea if years ago they had accepted Israel as a fact of life, made peace, and moved on. To Hamas and Hezbollah militants and their supporters, however, Israel's continued existence is a standing humiliation, and the debt to honor must be paid, never mind the cost.
Nor can militant Islamists settle with the West. When the post-honor West says, "Come, now, give up this foolishness, join our club, be free and rich," they hear something more like, "Be our poodle, sit at our feet, enjoy the fruits of capitulation." Admonitions that bellicosity accomplishes nothing miss the point, which is that the very act of fighting ("resistance") redeems honor and therefore accomplishes what matters most.
The West thus finds itself an unwilling, and in many respects unwitting, participant in an honor feud. Clashes of interest can end in compromise, but honor feuds proffer no logical end of destruction, as Shakespeare's Montagues and Capulets and Mark Twain's Grangerfords and Shepherdsons could attest. "There's no, to use a fashionable term, exit strategy," Bowman said in an interview.
Americans are naive if we assume that honor cultures yearn for freedom on our terms, and remiss if we underestimate their capacity for self-defeating belligerence. Although they are not strictly rational by modern Western lights, neither are they crazy. They are something else altogether: honor-bound.
© Copyright 2006 National Journal
Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.