Gary Gregg:
"The Middle East - A Cultural Psychology" (2005)

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
The USA psychologist Gary Gregg has written a brilliant book that weaves together modern research in Psychology (particularly on self/identity and child development) and in Anthropology (particularly on "primitive" societies, and not only of the Middle East). THe book is worth having just for the wealth of references. Gregg masterfully picks the best research conducted in the West and in the Middle East and organizes them as he unveils his own theory. The book provides the foundations to understand how the mind of a Muslim shapes up while growing up in the Middle East. It does not go as far as to try and explain how, say, suicide hombers are created. But it certainly provides enough background to better understand movements and phenomena of those Islamic regions.

Roughly, the first part describes the traditional society of the Middle East and North Africa (and it is therefore more anthropological in nature), while the second part deals with development of the individual in today's societies (and it is therefore more psychological in nature). Islam is briefly introduced, but mostly relegated to a secondary role.

Gregg begins the book by surveying Western stereotypes of the Arabs in the old days of the colonial era. Interestingly, the Arabs had a reputation for being lazy and irrational, but also heroic and fascinating. Both in European books and Hollywood films the Arabs were often depicted as sensual, generous and courageous gentlemen. The Western stereotype of the Arabs clearly changed dramatically since World War II.

A stereotype that is widely repeated by anthropologists, economists and psychologists is that the "code of honor" is hindering progress in the Middle East. But Gregg correctly points out that a similar code of honor has not stopped Japan from becoming one of the technological leaders of the world.

Gregg believes that four attributes shaped those societies: Nomadism, Settled agriculture, Urban commerce, and, last but not least, Islam. Out of this fusion the psyche of the Arab is born.

Gregg spends very little time introducing Islam. He emphasizes the concept of "baraka", which is actually not so influential today, but does not get into the details of the Quran and the Hadith.

In the second (more technical) part of the book Gregg deals with periods of psychological development. Here he has to recall the theories of many predecessors, and the book becomes also a primer on psychological theories of personality development. One of the most interesting chapters is the one about identity, in which he reviews various theories of identity (although this has little to do with the Middle East).

Later, towards the end of the book, Gregg mentions the "cultures of terror" that have come to dominate most of the Middle East and North Africa, but it is too little too late.

Nonetheless the book is an invaluable introduction to the subject.

At the very beginning of his book, Gregg shows that the West used to have a completely different stereotype of Arabs and Muslims. It was a romantic stereotype that associated the bedouin, the sheikh and so forth with heroism and love. From European painting to Hollywood movies the Arab was portrayed throughout the West as a noble, wise and compassionate type.

Fast forward to the 2000s and the stereotype has changed dramatically. Muslims, particularly in the Arab world, are routinely portrayed as dictators, terrorists, racists, barbaric, illiterate, etc.

Gregg fails to truly explain how that happened. He blames colonialism (like Said before him) for the ancient stereotype (indirectly arguing that it was a bad stereotype) and then writes a lengthy analysis of Middle Eastern and North African societies to explain what the correct stereotype should be. And he may well be right on target in his analysis. But he still fails to explain why the Western perception of Arabs and Muslims has changed so dramatically.

What Gregg fails to point out is that the Middle East is one of the few places in the world where two antagonists have faced each other for decades and neither has managed to win conclusively, decidedly, absolutely. Whenever enemies face each other for a protracted time without a winner, violence tends to escalate and negative stereotypes tend to get more and more dramatic. History is cruel: long-lasting peace is usually achieved when one side wins decisively (whther it's the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire or the USA). A colossal bloodshed followed by a decisive victory of one of the two contenders leads to peace. A bloodshed (even if not colossal) that does not end with a clear winner leads to more hatred and eventually more wars.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, defended by the Western powers against the hostility of vastly more populous and (today) richer Arab states, has made the Middle East such a place. Israel is small enough and poor enough (in resources) that it should lose to the Arabs. But it is supported by the world's most powerful nations and therefore manages to withstand the continuous aggression of its neighbors. As long as this balance of power persists, there will be dictators and terrorists in the Arab world who will make the headlines in the West. No wonder that Western public has changed its view of the Arab citizen. Arabs used to be romantic models when the Arab world had been decisively conquered by the European powers. There were virtually no rebellions. The Arab nation, from Morocco to Syria, was quietly colonized. Thus the Western audiences only saw the peaceful side of the Arab lifestyle. After 60 years of continuous and escalating warfare, the Western public is justified in seeing Arabs as violent types.

As it is often the case with unfinished conflicts, the level of violence keeps escalating. It went from limited wars between Arabs and Israel to hijacking planes to suicide bombers to Osama Bin Laden's international hyperterrorism. My prediction is that it will keep escalating until one side wins decisively and imposes its will on the other side. Peace is hard to achieve between human beings.

There are certainly other factors at play. In the age of feminism and sexual liberation, the Islamic lifestyle does look like pure stone-age. In the age of animal rights and vegetarianism, the Islamic world does look a bit brutal. But none of these are unique to the Muslims. It is the continuous warfare against Israel (and, indirectly, the West) that is responsible for changing the Western view of the Arabs.

Gregg also attacks the stereotypes of why so many Muslims become terrorists. he starts out by pointing out that suicide bombers are not a Muslim exclusive; the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka (who are Hindu-educated and mostly secular) specialize in suicide bombings too. If Islam is not the reason, then we have no reason. Gregg does not come up with a valid replacement. Gregg downplays or ignores the importance of the "brainwashing" that is carried out on children by a) their parents, b) the madrasas, c) the mosques and d) the media at different stages of development. The parents begin the process by educating their children to the values of martyrdom for the cause of Islam. The madrasas teach them the letter of the Quran, which has certainly plenty of violent incitement (despite the denial of millions of Muslims). Then the mosques and the media continuously present the Islamic youth with the paradigm of a) the infidels are mean and b) the Muslims are powerless, which obviously leads to the logical conclusion that one can only use his body as a weapon. Throughout this cycle of development there is virtually nobody who tells the child: "the solution to the problems of the Islamic world is education" (which, incidentally, is very much what Jews and Christians and Buddhists and Hindus tell their children). The emphasis is on physical resistance to the hypothetic aggression of the infidels, not on mental progress to compete with the infidels. The terrorists of September 11 were not desperate Palestinians from refugee camps: they came from the Arab middle-class. It is not desperation that drives terrorism (although desperation certainly helps): it is the continuous brainwashing. Some Arab children never hear anything else than the need for Muslims to rise up against the infidels. No wonder that there is a virtually infinite supply of suicide bombers in places like Iraq.

Gregg particularly downplays the influence of Al Jazeera and similar media. They are the ones that create the intellectual and emotional justification for terrorists. They are the ones that depict all evils of the Islamic world as caused by the infidels, and all infidels as evil. They are the ones who blame the Western democracies and not the Arab dictators for the problems of Arab societies. They are the ones who depict every action by the Western powers as a crime, while actions by the Arab dictators are rarely criticized. The mosques also act as a powerful medium, like a gigantic machine to spread propaganda. Islam is the only religion that enjoys so many active young male believers. Mosques are used by many Islamic priests as propaganda tools to spread the same belief that Al Jazeera spreads, but now wrapped into missionary/messianic overtones.

The "culture of martyrdom" is more than just a few Palestinian kids throwing stones at Israeli tanks. The "culture of martyrdom" begins in elementary school, fed by books written by Hamas ideologues that talk about the beauty of becoming martyrs. The "culture of martyrdom" originates from history books that totally distort the historical record, depicting the Muslims as the original people of North Africa, the Middle East and central Asia, when in fact they invaded lands that belonged to other religious groups. The "culture of martyrdom" is fueled by Al Jazeera's twisted reportage and by the friday sermons in the mosques. The "culture of martyrdom" also serves the purpose of the Arab dictators, who'd rather have their subjects focus on blowing up Jews and Christians rather than their own government.

Gregg downplays or ignores the terrible record of the Arab regimes (and, in general, of most regimes), and the fact that those regimes are still in power largely because the people never did much to remove them from power. It may be true that the logic of the Cold War prompet the USA and the USSR to support all sorts of crazy dictators around the world. But it is also true that, once the Cold War was over, Latin America, the Far East, Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa progressed rapidly towards freedom and democracy. Only one region of the world has been left behind: the Islamic world.