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Social Studies October 2006

The Terror War Is an Honor War

A book by James Bowman makes a convincing case that the concept of honor is central to the liberal West's confrontation with militant Islam.

On August 29 in Tehran, a reporter rose during a press conference with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asked to recite a poem. "Recite just two lines," said the president. "Don't make it too long. We don't have time. Just the best part."

"But it's all good," the reporter replied.

"So, read the middle." Whereupon the journalist declaimed as follows:

For the sake of defending our homeland, we will give up even our heads

We will attack any enemy like lions

We are known all over the world for our fearlessness and manliness

For the sake of God, we will turn our chests to shields

"Well done," Ahmadinejad said. "You were supposed to recite only two lines."

A U.S. president in Ahmadinejad's place would not say, "Well done, but too long." He would say something like, "You need medical help." By historical standards, however, it is the American reaction, not the Iranian one, that is odd.

The journalist-poet was speaking the language of traditional honor, a tongue that modern Westerners have largely forgotten—to their peril, if James Bowman is right. In a recently published and bracingly original book called Honor: A History, Bowman—a cultural critic and historian affiliated with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington—argues that honor remains a potent force in world affairs, perhaps more potent today than in many years, because it is central to the liberal West's confrontation with militant Islam. If he is right, the terror war is really an honor war, but only one side knows it.

Boiling Bowman's richly nuanced 327 pages down to four paragraphs does the book a cruel disservice, but this is journalism, so here goes. Honor, for Bowman's purposes, means "the good opinion of people who matter to us." The basic honor code requires men to maintain a reputation for bravery, women a reputation for chastity. If a man is insulted, injured, or disrespected, he must avenge the offense and prove that anyone who messes with him (or "his" women) will be sorry.

The West's history is rich with traditions of honor, and equally rich with examples of its dangers and follies, among them the duel that killed the most brilliant of America's Founders. Singularly, however, the West has backed away from honor. Under admonitions from Christianity to turn the other cheek and from the Enlightenment to favor reason over emotion, the West first channeled honor into the arcane rituals of chivalry, then folded it into a code of manly but magnanimous Victorian gentlemanliness—and then, in the 20th century, drove it into disrepute. World War I and the Vietnam War were seen as needless butcheries brought on by archaic obsessions with national honor; feminism and the therapeutic culture taught that a higher manly strength acknowledges weakness.

"Yet we are, in global terms, the odd ones out," Bowman writes. Outside the West, traditional honor codes remain strong, and nowhere is that more true than in the Muslim world. In the modern Islamic world, few share the West's view of honor as outdated and unnecessary. "The honor culture of the Islamic world predates its conversion to Islam in the seventh century," writes Bowman.

Islam overlaid itself above honor and, unlike Christianity in the West, did not challenge it. Today's militant jihadism takes the ethic of honor to extremes, fixating on manly ferocity and glorious vengeance.

Thus, Bowman writes, "America and its allies are engaged in a battle against an Islamist enemy that is the product of one of the world's great unreconstructed and unreformed honor cultures." Jihadism wages not only a religious war but a cultural one, aiming to redeem, through deeds of bravery and defiance, the honor of an Islam whose glory has shamefully faded. It aims, further, to uphold a masculine honor code that the West's decadent, feminizing influence threatens to undermine.

Whether or not Bowman has the whole story right, the prism of honor brings puzzling elements of the current conflict into sharper focus. Americans are baffled that Western appeals to freedom and prosperity get so little traction in the Arab and Muslim worlds. America's example as the "shining city on a hill" inspired liberalizing movements from Eastern Europe to Tiananmen Square; why should the Middle East be different? One answer is that traditional honor cultures value vindication over freedom and wealth. Militant Islamism and Baathist-style national socialism offer narratives of restored greatness and heroic resistance. Ballot boxes and shopping malls offer neither. If freedom brings humiliation, what good is it?

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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