Not only do I find it fascinating to understand other cultures , but I also find it very necessary. In today’s social and political world, it is more important than ever before to understand everyone’s issues, beliefs, values, and attitudes which determine their outlook on life and explain their social behavior. Hopefully by coming to a better understanding of other groups of people and their cultures, stereotypes will be diminished and conflicts that arise from misunderstandings will be avoided. Please, bear in mind that these broad generalizations, comparing Arabs and Westerners, can never apply to all individuals.
To begin with, Westerners tend to believe in the power of the individual, equality in personal treatment and public law, the right of people to certain kinds of privacy, and human control over what occurs in the world. These beliefs have a strong influence on what Westerners think about the world and how they behave toward each other.
Arabs on the other hand tend to believe that many things in life are controlled by fate rather than by humans (that’s why most of the time you’ll hear them complaining rather than taking action),that the young must learn from their wise elders, and that men and women are vastly different in personalities and capabilities. These beliefs play a powerful role in their culture, and all Arabs share these basic beliefs and values throughout all their nations and classes. Attitudes have remained relatively the same throughout history because Arab society is conservative, and its members are demanded to conform. It’s also important to recognize that Arabs’ beliefs are influenced by Islam, even if they are not Muslims (many practices are cultural; some are even pre-Islamic). For example, the way Arabs raise their children is essentially the same, as is their focus on family honor and expectations. One thing is certain: Arabs have a high regard for tradition.
Foreigners (even myself, although I am half Arab) feel that sometimes Arabs are difficult to understand, and the way they act is illogical; however, their behavior is quite understandable – even predictable. It’s important, though, to distinguish between cultural patterns and individual traits. The following are lists of Arab values, religious attitudes, and self-perceptions that are common among all Arab cultures:
Basic Arab Values
- A person’s dignity, honor, and reputation are EVERYTHING and if lost (especially honor) will ruin him or her.
- It’s important to behave well and leave a good impression.
- Loyalty to family is greater than loyalty to one’s nation or self.
- Social class and family background will determine your status and treatment by society. One can improve one’s status through professional position and wealth, but the person’s origins will always be remembered.
- Family issues are not to be discussed outside of the family. If a person opens up to a non-relative about family issues, he or she will be frowned upon and criticized (again related to honor).
Basic Arab Religious Attitudes
- Everyone believes in God and has a religious affiliation.
- Humans are not in control of all events; some things depend on fate (This is why Arabs often say “Insha’Allah (if God wills)” )
- Religion should be a deciding factor in all parts of life, including government and education. For example, in Saudi Arabia, Islam is a mandatory class to be taught in all schools beginning in first grade. Government ruling is also based on interpretations of Islamic laws.
- Liberal interpretations of religion which seem threatening must be rejected.
Basic Arab Self-Perceptions
- Arabs are generous, polite, and loyal. (Regarding generosity, it’s true. I’ve never had an Arab be stingy with me.)
- Arabs have a rich cultural heritage. Just take a look at their contributions to religion, philosophy, literature, medicine, art, mathematics, and sciences (some of which were made by non-Arabs living within the Islamic Empire)
- Arabs are a clearly defined cultural group, and Arabs are members of the Arab Nation “Al-Umma Al-Arabiyya”. (often Arabs won’t state which country they’re from, and if asked, reply with “I’m a citizen of the Arab world.”)
- The Arab people have been victimized by the West. The obvious example: Israeli occupation of Palestine.
- To imitate Western culture will corrupt Arab society.
- Arabs are misunderstood by Westerners. Many people in the West are basically anti-Arab and anti-Muslim.
Arabs feel that they are often portrayed in the Western media as wealthy, irrational, and violent and that there is never any focus on ordinary people who live and work on a middle-class scale. Just the other day in class, my teacher and class-mates took the opportunity to jump into a cultural/political discussion of Arabs vs. Westerners because in the satirical essay A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, the term “American” meant “barbaric”. My teacher said, “See, even back then Americans were viewed as barbaric, just as they are today.” To be fair, I have to say she did give a balanced lecture of Arabs’ self-perception and how they don’t treat each other equally, often giving more rights to foreigners than to themselves. In these situations, I’ve learned not to get offended from people’s sometimes rude, culture-bashing comments, be it of the Western or Arab culture. Instead, I now take these “comments” as an opportunity to understand different points of view and as a chance to voice my opinion.
My conclusion always boils down to this: Arabs have created a stereotype of the West, just as the West has created a stereotype of Arabs. Both Westerners and Arabs feel criticized and misunderstood, and as a result get defensive of their culture and easily offended from even innocent comments. Therefore, problems arise, and people shut their eyes and ears to what they don’t want to see and hear. This cycle will never be broken, and the world will continue to head in a negative direction unless people begin to respect their differences and unite based on their similarities. THE END.