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Book Review! The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs

August 5, 2010

The Closed Circle by David Pryce-JonesDavid Pryce-Jones has written the best book on the Arabs I have read. Though it was written some years ago (1989) no book has been written yet to take its place. First, a disclaimer: we can understand that there are exceptions that do not fit the Arab profile that David Pryce-Jones describes so well. But whether in the Middle East or here in the West, Arabs can be understood and, dare I say it, future behavior can be predicted by understanding the fundamentals. The Closed Circle refers to this predictability; the reader will understand the honor-shame axis on which the Arab world turns. There can be no thought of progress, no value in truth telling, when the one prize that matters most is honor. Pryce-Jones writes, “Honor is what makes life worthwhile: shame is a living death, not to be endured, requiring that it be avenged.” Honor, by which is meant public reputation, family respect, and tribal pride, is a force more powerful than self-preservation. The gaining of honor, and its opposite, the avoidance of shame, disgrace, and humiliation, are keys to Middle Eastern motivation and behavior, and can serve us to predict future patterns of conduct as well.

In The Closed Circle, we meet the influential writer from the mid 20th century, Michel Aflaq, arguably the founder of Arab nationalism. Aflaq hoped his birth handicap—he was an Arab Christian and therefore sentenced to dhimmi humiliation status by the Islamic doctrine of sharia—would be welcomed as full partners in the nationalism he called “Baath” (renaissance). His language was syrupy, even romantic to the point of absurdity: “Nationalism is Love before Everything Else.” And “Socialism is the religion of life, and of its victory over death.” But how this perfumed turn of a phrase would be made into policy was not spelled out. Aflaq’s hope to find “common ground” and equal footing was doomed, and the circle closed again: Arab Muslims, though fighting one another, closed ranks against the Christians and Jews, and other non-Muslim peoples. Upon Aflaq’s death, Saddam’s Baath government fabricated a story that he had become a Muslim and built a tomb for Aflaq in a Muslim cemetery in Baghdad, over the protests of his family.

Tribal loyalty is the most important way that an Arab gets a job and great honor is heaped on the tribal person who has the power to give a government position to another tribal member. In other words tribal members get government jobs because family members have the power to give jobs to blood relatives. Everyone knows his rung on a great ladder, and one is constantly guarding his position while cooperating with other tribal members to advance to a higher, more honored position. Pryce-Jones calls this “careerism”, and at the top is a feared man who holds extraordinary power. The Arab countries are the most stable in the world, because the power holder applies extreme force against any suspected agitators and their innocent family members. “Any power holder orders torture or massacre, or declares war without reference to his subjects, and without a qualm. Far from being some kind of bloodstained beast, he is only a supreme careerist and would feel himself ashamed or lacking in manly or warrior-like qualities if he were to treat his challengers on the merits of their case.”
These essential values explain Arab behavior, even to the degree of predicting future events. Everyone knows that in Arab culture shame must be avenged; that tribal loyalty trumps truth telling; that power holding requires the total concentration on the part of the one who has power; he has not time or interest in anything but power holding. In the Arab world political concepts which have meaning in the West—elections, democracy, socialism, freedom of religion, and the rest—are swept into a trash compactor: they signify nothing. Pryce-Jones says of the Arabs, “They acted differently because they had differing notions on how it was important to act.” If one reads this book once each year for three years he will know what Arabs know. And that will make one wise, and the most important thing is to “get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7).

All citations are from: Pryce-Jones, David. The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

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