Today’s militant jihadism takes the ethic of honor to extremes, fixating on manly ferocity and glorious vengeance. In a recently published and bracingly original book called Honor: A History, James 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.
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. [Smooth: Excellent point].
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?
Most wars are waged between combatants who share similar honor codes or at least comprehend each other’s honor codes. This time, there is no communication across the battlefield. To Americans, it is patently clear that the attacks of September 11 were acts of unprovoked aggression; in a traditional honor culture, however, violence to protect one’s honor is just as self-defensive as violence to protect one’s person.
To Hamas and Hizballah militants and their supporters, Israel’s continued existence is a standing humiliation, and the debt to honor must be paid, never mind the cost.
Nor can militant Islamists settle with the West. When the post-honor West says, “Come, now, give up this foolishness, join our club, be free and rich,” they hear something more like, “Be our poodle, sit at our feet, enjoy the fruits of capitulation.” Admonitions that bellicosity accomplishes nothing miss the point, which is that the very act of fighting (“resistance”) redeems honor and therefore accomplishes what matters most. [Smooth: All of which translates to the fact that there is no reformation in Islam, and there will never be any in the future.]