By Ron Jager
“Call me Ishmael.” This famous quote is the opening sentence of the novel Moby Dick, authored by Herman Melville. Ishmael, who is telling the story of Moby Dick, recounts that he is sailing to sea out of a sense of alienation and cultural inadequacy. Ishmael describes the behavior of Captain Ahab, who is so relentless in his obsession that he is willing to endanger the entire ship, all of his sailors, just to kill the great white whale. The name Ishmael, a son of the Patriarch Abraham (as found in the Bible as well as the Koran), symbolizes more than anything the sense of being rejected and being scorned by one’s peers and by one’s civilization.
Ever since the days of Napoleon’s landing upon the shores of Egypt at the very end of the 18th century and bringing with him the modern era to the Middle East, Islam has been unable to free itself from the shackles of inferiority and self-destructive primal rage that typifies the hatred of modern-day Islamic radicalism against Western civilization.
In recent years, despite Israel’s being at the focus of much of what has been termed the “war of civilizations” between the Western world and Islam, Europe has been undergoing a rapid demographic transition that will lead to a large Muslim population that harbors an unchanging, hostile attitude toward their national communities.
Nicolai Sennels, a Danish psychologist who has had extensive experience with treating Muslim youths, has identified four main differences that are important in understanding the behavior of Muslims and how they interact with Western influences. Without dismissing the intrinsic value of multiculturalism or the need to identify with one’s cultural roots, Sennels’s theory addresses anger, self-confidence, the so-called “locus of control,” and identity.
Westerners are brought up to think of anger as a sign of weakness, powerlessness, and lack of self-control. In Muslim culture, anger is seen as a sign of strength. To Muslims, being aggressive is a way of gaining respect. When we see pictures of bearded men hopping up and down and shooting in the air, we should take it for what it is: these are the true role models of acceptable behavior.
In Western culture, self-confidence is connected with the ability to meet criticism calmly and to respond rationally. We are raised to see people who easily get angry when criticized as insecure and immature. In Muslim culture it is the opposite; it is honorable to respond aggressively and to engage in a physical fight in order to scare or force critics to withdraw, even if this results in a prison sentence or even death. They see non-aggressive responses to such threats and violence as a sign of a vulnerability that is to be exploited. They do not interpret a peaceful response as an invitation to enter into a dialogue, diplomacy, intellectual debate, compromise, or peaceful coexistence, but the opposite.
“Locus of control” is a term used in psychology, and it relates to the way in which people feel that their lives are controlled. In Western culture, we are brought up to have an inner locus of control, meaning that we see our own inner emotions, reactions, decisions, and views as the main deciding factor in our lives. There may be outer circumstances that influence our situation, but in the end, it is our own perception of a situation and the way we handle it that decide our future and our state of mind. The inner locus of control leads to increased self-responsibility and motivates people to become able to solve their own problems.
Muslims are brought up to have an outer locus of control. Independent initiatives are often severely punished. This shapes their way of thinking, and means that when things go wrong, it is always the fault of others or the situation.
Finally, identity plays a big role when it comes to psychological differences between Muslims and Westerners. Westerners are taught to be open and tolerant toward other cultures, races, religions, etc. This makes us less critical, impairs our ability to discriminate, and makes our societies open to the influence of other cultural trends and values that may not always be constructive. Muslims, on the other hand, are taught again and again that they are superior, and that all others are so bad that Allah will throw them in hell when they die. Muslim culture’s self-glorification achieves the opposite with their culture and identity. In general, Westerners are taught to be kind, self-assured, self-responsible, and tolerant, while Muslims are taught to be aggressive, insecure, and intolerant.
The spreading and sprawling map of open Muslim violence against Americans and against America as the leader of the Western world in recent years was brought home with the assassination of America’s Ambassador to Libya. All this despite President Obama’s attempt to “reset” relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world and put Israel on “standby” mode. In effect, American foreign policy towards the Middle East since Obama came to power has been characterized by “public diplomacy,” a nebulous term meant to hide the true intention: soft power. The cornerstone of this policy was the statement: “America is not at war with Islam.”
In June 2009, newly elected President Obama went to Egypt and made a pronouncement that raised false expectations in the Arab world: “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” This stunning pronouncement flies in the face of the First Amendment; and, by committing to protect the image of a specific religion and political philosophy, Obama gave the Muslim world the false impression that he could control media content in America—like dictators control the media in the Arab-Islamic countries.
Unfortunately, Obama’s natural inclination to go overboard with a destructive need to self-blame and take responsibility when it is wholly unwarranted has resulted in the opposite result. This mix of a Western tendency to being overly forgiving in response to Muslim self-pity and blame is the psychological crowbar that has opened the West to escalating Muslim violence against us, as “the other.”
Newt Gingrich has stated that “the Islamists cannot reconcile with a secular system of laws.” They cannot tolerate a West that maintains a presence in the Persian Gulf or that would defend Israel’s right to survive as a country. They cannot tolerate freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or freedom for women. In short, their demands are irreconcilable with the modern world. While trying to understand the volatility of millions of Middle Easterners taught from birth to hate America and to despise Israel, we in the West should be asking one basic question: Why do we feel the need to pander and apologize to the most radical, violent, and intolerant extremes around the world? To let them set the tone—a tone designed to stifle all criticism of Islam, to declare as blasphemy any attempt to reform radical Islam? This more than anything else might explain why Arabs are so easily offended. v
Ron Jager is a 25-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a field mental-health officer and as commander of the central psychiatric military clinic for reserve soldiers at Tel-Hashomer. Since retiring from active duty in 2005, he has been providing consultancy services to NGOs, implementing psychological trauma treatment programs in Israel. Ron currently serves as a strategic advisor to the director of the Shomron Liaison Office. To contact him, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.