Arab Values and Attitudes

6 03 2010

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.




10 responses

7 03 2010

Coexistence.. beautiful concept …
I sometimes wonder why it’s so hard for some to grasp the idea that each culture has its own set of values, or that being different is actually nice.

In general I agree with you, but I couldn’t help myself from commenting on our usage of the word “Western/ westerner”. Is it an accurate label ? Does a western world exist?
I find this to be a very vague concept because people in the US are different from Europeans . Even more so, south America is completely different from the North Europe. Yet to us, we have combined three continents and X amount of counties into one single world . What about Australia ? where does it fit into oversimplified world territories?

I have come to the conclusion that by using general terms such as “western”, “Arab”, “Asian” … we are dividing people, sticking labels on their foreheads and dressing them in stereotypes…

Keep up the good work…

7 03 2010
Arianna A.

Welcome to my blog! What you mentioned is so true! We automatically label different people, cultures, and religions with stereotypical terms. Although, I do use the terms Arab and Western a lot in my blog, they’re only meant as overall generalizations. Mentioning each culture and comparing it with 20 or more Arab countries would be too detailed, so I choose to use these terms as a way to group people by common similarities; however, just because a person is Arab or Western doesn’t specifically mean he or she is identical to the society he or she lives in. The fact is Arabs have their roots in the Middle East and usually follow a stricter culture, while Westerners (although Western isn’t geographically correct all the time) come from Europe, Australia, USA, Canada, South Africa, etc…and usually are known for their more liberal way of life and thoughts. (No stereotype intended)
I hope my blog clarifies issues and helps to shed some light on people and life behind the stereotypes that current events and media have created.
Thanks for your comment, and I hope you continue to enjoy my blog!

14 10 2010
Ahmed Alsalihi

wow .. great article .. and its deeply true !

20 04 2011
Micky K.

Thank you for this very interesting article about the Arab culture. Your comparison is a very clear one that allows one a better understanding between the people. As a teacher of Intercultural Communication and Management at a Business school in Paris, France, I’m always searching for articles with a short analysis of cultural issues. I’m sure my students will be happy to read your article. They know the stereotypes but not always the values and attitudes beyond the culture.

21 04 2011
Arianna A.

Welcome to my blog, Micky! It’s always nice to know readers continue to enjoy my previous posts, especially for educational purposes. Thank you for your comment.

25 12 2012
Cms Web Design

What a information of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious experience regarding
unexpected emotions.

11 02 2013
pezzi di ricambio

Greetings! This is my first visit to your blog!
We are a collection of volunteers and starting a
new initiative in a community in the same niche.
Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done a marvellous job!

14 04 2013

Have you ever thought about publishing an ebook or guest authoring on other
websites? I have a blog based on the same information you discuss and would
love to have you share some stories/information. I know my subscribers would value your work.
If you are even remotely interested, feel free
to send me an email.

13 05 2013

Hi! I’ve been following your blog for a long time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from New Caney Tx! Just wanted to mention keep up the fantastic job!

17 01 2014
Sayyed Musawi


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