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The America Vs. Arabia Battle?

What are possible reasons for the divide between the U.S. and the Arab world?

June 10, 2004

What are possible reasons for the divide between the U.S. and the Arab world?

An anthropologist used to working on social customs can see that the Anglo-Saxon and Arab systems have been pushed to opposite extremes.

The American family is nuclear, individualist and reserves a high place for women as wives and mothers.

The Arab family is extended, patrilinear and places women in a situation of maximum dependence. Marriage between first cousins is particularly taboo in the Anglo-Saxon world — but preferred in the Arab world.

In the United States, feminism has become increasingly dogmatic and aggressive over the years — and genuine tolerance for the real diversity in the world is forever waning.

Thus, it was in a sense destined to come into conflict with the Arab world and the rest of the Muslim world where family structures resemble those in the Arab world.

This would include Pakistan, Iran and part of Turkey, but not Indonesia, Malaysia or the Islamic peoples of Africa along the Indian Ocean where the status of women is high.

The conflict between America and the Arab-Muslim world has the unpleasant appearance of a deep-seated anthropological divide — an unarguable confrontation between opposing sets of first principles.

There is something worrisome about seeing this kind of difference become a defining force in international relations. Since September 11, this cultural conflict has taken on a buffoonish quality that could be characterized as global street theater.

On one side, America — the country of "castrating women" — where the former president had to prove to authorities that he did not have sexual relations with a White House intern.

On the other side is Bin Laden, a polygamous terrorist with countless half-brothers and half-sisters. Taken together, we have a caricature of a world that is fast disappearing.
The Muslim world does not need America's advice when it comes to improving its social customs. The fall in birth rates in most of the Muslim countries itself implies an improving situation for women.

First, because it means at the same time higher literacy rates. And second, it means that a country such as Iran — where a rate of two births per woman has been attained — must necessarily contain a large number of families who have given up on having one or more sons and who have thus broken with the patrilineal tradition.

In the case of Egypt, one of the few countries for which regular statistics about marriage between cousins is available, there has been a decrease from 25% in 1992 to 22% in 2000.
During the war in Afghanistan, there emerged a parallel discourse of cultural war demanding an improved status for Afghan women.

This discourse was moderate in Europe but conducted at very high volume in the Anglo-Saxon world. We were practically being told that U.S. planes were bombing Islamic anti-feminism. This kind of Western demand is ridiculous.

Customs do evolve, but it is a slow process that a modern war pursued blindly can only slow down.

When the feminist leaning Western civilization gets associated with unarguable military ferocity, by contrast, it gives an absurd nobility to the hypermasculinist ethic of the Afghan warlords.

The conflict between the Anglo-Saxon world and the Arab Muslim world runs deep.

Beyond all apparent American motives — indignation over the status of Arab women or the importance of oil — the choice of the Muslim world as the target and privileged pretext of America's theatrical militarism, whose real object is to illustrate at low-cost the strategic omnipotence of the United States, follows quite simply from the overall weakness of the Arab world.

It is by its nature the sacrificial lamb. It is true that in the Arab-Muslim sphere there is no powerful state in terms of population, industry and military capacity.

Neither Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq or Iran has the material and human resources to mount a true resistance. Israel, moreover, has demonstrated on several occasions the present-day military ineffectiveness of the Arab countries.

Their current levels of social development and state organization seem for now incompatible with the deployment of an effective military.

The region is thus an ideal staging ground for the United States, since it can rack up "victories" with all the ease of an experienced video game user.

"Universalism" does not guarantee tolerance. The French, for example, are perfectly capable of being hostile toward Maghreb immigrants because the status of the Arab woman contradicts their social customs.

But the reaction is instinctive and includes no ideological formalization, no overall judgment about the Arab anthropological system. Universalism is a priori blind to difference and cannot lead to the condemnation of this or that system.

The "war on terrorism," on the other hand, has given rise to all kinds of definitive categorical judgments about the Afghan or Arab systems that are incompatible with an egalitarian predisposition.

My point is that these pronouncements are not just random anecdotes but the symptoms of the decline of universalism in the Anglo-Saxon world.

This decline prevents the United States from having an uncorrupted vision of international relations and in particular from being able to deal decently and strategically well with the Muslim world.

This is an excerpt of material from "After the Empire," by Emmanuel Todd, Copyright © 2002 Editions Gallimard. Translation Copyright © 2003 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press and Editions Gallimard. All rights reserved.