07 May 2011

National Character Studies and the "Arab Mind"

The national character study began as a sort of wartime anthropology. During wartime, it became difficult for American anthropologists to conduct fieldwork abroad, so many sought alternatives. The initial instances of national character research were sponsored by the U.S. government, and among the anthropologists who sought to work in this way were Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Ruth Benedict. These early studies were typically written about the enemies of America: Japan, Germany and Russia. The studies which appeared are often perceived today as attempts at applied anthropology, and the scholars who participated in them were convinced that they were contributing to the war effort.

The methodology of the national character studies was decidedly diffuse, and the approach was known as "configurationalist." This meant that culture was perceived as an integrated and uniform gestalt, or pattern of meaning, coupled with a set of world views, values and temperaments. Ruth Benedict (1934) summarized the approach by stating that "culture is personality writ large," and this became the rationale for studying and generalizing about entire nations. Another important aspect of the national character studies was the concept of volkgeist, which was rooted in the 19th century writings of Nietzsche, Spengler and Dilthy.

Benedict and Margaret Mead led the national character study movement, and Mead developed the concept of "culture at a distance." The character studies were not based on fieldwork per se, but rather on interviews with various captive groups, such as those in concentration camps, relocation centers and internment centers, or with recent emigres. As a result, anthropologists were increasingly drawn into politicized research for the U.S. government and eventually supported American policies, wittingly or unwittingly. Erich Fromm, a neo-Freudian psychoanalyst, wrote Escape From Freedom (1942, also known as The Fear of Freedom), which was conceived as an authoritative national character study of the Germans. Fromm attempted to broadly describe the essential qualities of the German character, and he discussed at length the psychology of Nazism and the character of democracy. The work received mixed reviews. Ruth Benedict (1942, p. 112), for example, was "thoroughly skeptical about [Fromm's] thesis that preliterate man was dominated by 'primal ties' which have only been recently outgrown as a result of the emergence of the person."

In addition to being diffuse, the methodology of the national character studies was psychiatrically reductionist. Objectivity was difficult to achieve and ethnocentrism was rife. Some of the studies later became somewhat embarrassing for their authors. For example, wartime ethnocentrism contributed to patriotic xenophobia against the Japanese in Weston La Barre's attempt at explaining their "character structure" (La Barre 1945). Like many researchers of the period, he had also worked with detainees. The main body of his research was conducted at the Central Utah Project War Relocation Authority in 1943. Among his assertions, for example, was that the Japanese would have to completely abandon the "Emperor-mythos" so as to not repeat history, a statement that later condemned La Barre as a fool of time.

A more even-handed national character study of the Japanese was done by Ruth Benedict. In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, she tries hard to avoid reducing the characteristics of adult Japanese to their early childhood experiences. Following Franz Boas, who himself had an axe to grind in purging anthropology of the nature/race/genetic tendencies left over from 19th century social Darwinism, Benedict subsequently attempted to avoid these approaches as much as possible and she chose to focus instead on the concept of "cultural conditioning." However, her work is not completely devoid of Freudian reductionism. For example, she concluded her discussion of Japanese toilet training by asserting that "what the baby learns from the implacable training prepares him to accept in adulthood the subtler compulsions of Japanese culture" (Benedict 1946, p. 249).

A character study of the Russians, which sought to describe America's new post-war enemy, essentially blew the lid off the volkgeist premise. The study was done by Geoffrey Gorer, who was a student of Margaret Mead, and it was co-authored with the analyst John Rickman. They called it The People of Great Russia, and in it they selectively used Freudian theory, with a great deal of speculation, oversimplification and distortion that amounted to a U.S. government sponsored fear of foreigners. It is possible to explain this phenomena as post-traumatic, post-war reactionism that eventually culminated in McCarthyism and the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, and which in turn fueled the continual American obsession with Communism that has only recently been abandoned.

Gorer focused on "swaddling" as the key to Russian national characteristics, and he stretches the neo-Freudian theories of Abram Kardiner to the limits. Swaddling, which is the practice of tightly wrapping babies in strips of cloth after birth and periodically loosening the straps, was claimed by Gorer and Rickman to cause manic depressive behaviour in later life. There was a distinct bipolarity of affect, which led Gorer to say that the Soviets were by nature passive and therefore ripe for totalitarianism. Mead (1954) defended Gorer, having contributed a work of her own entitled The Soviet Attitude Toward Authority (1951) that also broadly generalized the Russian national character.

The Russian studies, particularly Gorer's, drew attention to the many shortcomings of national character studies. Can we really assume uniformity among all citizens of a nation? The plausibility of a national character study clearly decreases as the size of the study moves from small scale to large scale. "Great Russia" encompassed some 200 or more subcultures, and it is not only impossible but downright absurd to generalize across these distinctions. The studies also generally ignore other important aspects of most nations and cultures, especially social class and regional differences. Still another problem with national character studies arises from their lack of recognizing or acknowledging scope and continuity in national behaviour. These serious flaws led many scholars to question the value of Gorer's work, and of national character studies in general. The studies fell into disfavor by the 1960's, but despite the concept being discredited some scholars continued to produce national character studies.

Looking for the "Arab Mind"
Raphael Patai attempted a national character study of the Arabs with The Arab Mind (1983; originally published in 1973). He begins by defining who he considers the Arab to be (pp. 12-15), and then proceeds to outline his concept of "group mind" (pp. 16-24). He acknowledges a debt to Linton and Kardiner, and adopts their concept of "basic personality types" (p. 17). Patai's study is based on selective use of written Arabic sources, liberal use of writings by Western Orientalists, and his own personal observations. In the preface to the 1976 edition (p. xvi), he ventures to sum up his findings and describes the typical Arab male as:
A patient, good natured, but also volatile and excitable, naive and yet shrewd villager of about twenty five years of age, married with several children, supported by a deep trust in Allah, possessed of a strong sexuality, illiterate and yet having an exquisite mastery of the Arabic language and the treasures of its oral folklore, devoted to kith and kin and yet prone to conflict, torn between the traditions of the past with their code of honor and the increasingly intruding demands of the future, proud of being an Arab, yearning for a life of leisure but resigned to spend his relatively short span on earth working the land with the sweat of his brow.
With this description in mind, we can look at Patai's concluding remarks to his postcript chapter of the 1983 revised edition (p. 356), in which he states:
The challenge facing the Arab world in the 1980's is to digest the overwhelming influx of Western things, techniques, skills, and knowledge invited by the Arabs in the past decade, and to integrate it into the context of Arab culture. This is an immense task whose magnitude is now only beginning to dawn upon the Arab intellectual leaders. Its successful accomplishment will require total dedication and concentration, which will be possible only if the Arabs can rid themselves of their obsession with and hatred of Zionism, Israel and American imperialism; can overcome or at least curb, their paralyzing conflict proneness; and can devote their best talents not to fighting windmills, but to constructing the new Arab man.
To arrive at these hearty conclusions and recommendations, Patai delves into such matters as child rearing practices, the effect of language, personality, ethos and value structure, sexuality, emotions and religion. But before we look at specific points in his book, it might be helpful to look at Patai himself.

Raphael Patai: Apologist or Antagonist?
Patai's findings and recommendations can be more clearly viewed against his background. He was born and educated in Hungary, after which he lived and studied in Jerusalem for 15 years, leaving for America in 1948. His father was a well known leader in the European Zionist movement, and Patai has been involved with Zionism for his entire life. For example, he spent the years 1957 to 1971 as the director of research at the Herzl Institute (named after Theodur Herzl, the 19th century founding father of Zionism), where he built the largest Zionist research center in America (Sanua 1983, pp. 11-12, 17). He has published numerous articles and books on Zionsim and Jewish culture, and, to a much lesser degree, on Arabs and Islam.

The majority of his primary contact with Arabs has been with Palestinians, though the only time he really uses the word "Palestinian" is when he refers to them as "guerrillas" (pp. 221, 237, 336, 343). It is also important to realize that Patai originally wrote The Arab Mind in the early 1970's, when racism against Arabs was not only rife but perfectly acceptable, and when few people dared to speak out against it. Only in the late 1970's and early 1980's did a small group of scholars emerge who took issue with the decidely anti-Arab bias in America, most notably Noam Chomsky (1983) and Edward Said (1979, 1980, 1981). How does Patai respond to these criticisms of his work? In the preface to the 1983 edition (p. x), he writes them off en toto by stating that "the very few negative reviews that came to my attention were penned by writers uncritically committed to the radical-leftist point of view of the Palestine Liberation Organization and similar groups, and were more in the nature of personal attacks than dispassionate evaluations of my findings." Without pushing these points too far, we must simply consider if it is possible for someone with Patai's background, working when, where and with whom he did, and if he is really capable himself of being "dispassionate."

Where is the "Arab World"?
Patai accepts, with a few clarifications, the generally agreed-upon definition of the Arab as someone who speaks Arabic and the "Arab world" as being the lands populated by Arabs. To adequately define who and where the Arabs are beyond these distinctions would move us well outside the scope of the present paper, but a few comments are definitely in order.  We constantly see scholars and journalists alike refer to a realm of the "exotic other" somewhere out there in the "Arab World." Where is it? Who populates it? What seems on the surface to be a simple matter, that we've always taken for granted, really turns out to be quite complex when we stop to give it some thought.

For certain purposes it may suffice to use the phrase "Arab World," or worse yet the Freudian reductionist terms "Arab Mind" or "Arab Psyche," but many times when these collective generalizations are used they are coupled with negative connotations. Western perceptions of Arabs have deep roots in 19th century Orientalist literature, as Edward Said (1979) has shown, and these perceptions have usually put forth a distinct sense of Western superiority over the Arabs. We have to carefully ask ourselves how far someone like Patai has really come beyond the 19th century evolutionist/colonialist image of the "white man's burden."

The current crisis in the Persian Gulf provides a case in point. Among many Americans there is a vague notion of these fanatical peoples riding camels out in the desert on top of "our oil," who are threatening "our way of life." Arabs have often been collectively referred to as "terrorists," "towel heads" and "camel jockeys." Despite the fact that Americans are allied with some members of the "Arab World" in the current crisis, one does not have to look far for blatant racism against Arabs. For example, in the Fall of 1989 there was a Halloween costume that was called the "Instant Arab" and which was being marketed alongside the "Instant Pirate" and the "Instant Executioner." The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee launched a campaign to remove the item, which was the only ethnic costume being marketed, from the stores. The New York based company, Fun World Division, apparently ignored the appeal and marketed the costume again in 1990, at the very height of the Persian Gulf crisis (as reported in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 7, December 1990, p. 61). What does this tell us? Would a costume marketed as the "Instant Negro" or the "Instant Jew" be tolerated at all? We must ask ourselves why the Arabs are still considered fair game for racism and carefully consider if writings like those of Patai are contributing to this.

As we have already seen, one of the drawbacks of national character studies is their tendency to overgeneralize. Patai's work is no exception. One need only look at the diversity in the so-called Arab world. Is it really feasible to think that Patai's conclusions are valid across all class and regional distinctions? If one answers "yes," then this means that Patai's findings pertain equally to the Saudi prince and the Tunisian fisherman, the Libyan Bedouin and the Kuwaiti commodities broker, the Egyptian soldier and the Moroccan mufti (religious leader), the wealthy Palestinian businessman in Qatar and the impoverished Palestinian migrant worker from the Gaza strip in Israel, the child who grows up in the north of Syria and the child who grows up in coastal Yemen, the Marxist in Aden and the Christian in Beirut, the muezzin in Marrakesh and the musician in Musqat, the woman who farms her fields in northern Iraq and the woman who is an executive director of the Cairo museum. While this is not the place to get into related stereotypes of women in the Arab World, it is worth noting (according to a personal communication with a colleague who recently spent two years in Cairo and Istanbul working with ancient manuscripts) that without exception, all the executive directors of the major museums he worked in were women, including the Topkapi in Istanbul and the Cairo National Museum. In the major museums of American, like the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the executive positions are invariably held by men.

The shortcomings of generalizing about a large, diverse and widely spread out group of people are painfully apparent. This big problem is by no means the only problem with Patai's work. It is beyond the scope of this paper to delve deeply into the myriad other problems with his work, such as those that stem from selective use and misuse of sources, perpetuating misconceptions instead of addressing them, making comparisons between a Jews and Arabs that confuse distinctions between ethnic, racial and religious groups and between Arabs and Muslims (Arabs only comprise one tenth of all Muslims worldwide), partial or complete misunderstanding of the verbal structure of the Arabic language (the latter point as noted by William R. Polk's review in Book Forum, No. 2, Winter 1976, p. 117), and a host of others. But among the most glaring of its many shortcomings are those centered around Patai's characterizations of Islam.

Patai "Covers" Islam
The usage of the word "cover" here is a pun that was employed by Edward Said in Covering Islam (1981) and which can be taken in two senses: to "cover" in the sense of a journalist covering a news event and to "cover" in the sense of covering up or hiding something. In his discussion of the Islamic component of the Arab personality, Patai acknowledges (and perhaps even overstates) the importance of Islam in the lives of Arabs, but he misleads the reader in several places regarding some important Islamic beliefs. For example, he states that the Qur'an is "the only sacred book of Islam" (p. 46). In fact, Muslims regard the Torah (Old Testament) and the Injil (New Testament) as sacred books along with the Qur'an. Muslims accept all three books as containing revelations of the word of God and all three are accorded great respect (despite Muslims generally considering that the Torah and Injil have been tampered with and variously translated throughout their early histories, while the Qur'an has been preserved intact in the original language in which it was revealed). More importantly, Islam is part of the same Abrahamic line of monotheistic religions that Judaism and Christianity belong to.

A more serious case of misinformation lies in Patai's definition of the Islamic concept of jihad. He perpetuates the common Western notion of jihad as "a holy war waged by Muslims against non-Muslims (p. 215)... which consists of military action for the purpose of defending or expanding the House of Islam" (p. 335). Although jihad is an important Islamic concept, it is consistently and selectively misrepresented by self-serving scholars and journalists alike. What is actually meant by a "holy war?" Though the phrase is constantly used, can anyone really define it? Most who regularly use the term cannot, yet they readily accept this term as valid, and it usually brings to mind images of mad Arab mobs burning American flags and effigies. But what is jihad? Patai clearly misleads readers in his definition of jihad, and the matter is worthy of our attention.

The concept of jihad has a depth of meaning that cannot be translated with something as nebulous, and political charged, as "holy war." We can perhaps aid our understanding by looking at some descriptions of the term that give it depth and context. For example, jihad has been defined by Ashruf (1990, p. 28) as
striving to the best of one's abilities to forbid evil and promote good (which is the way of God), even at the expense of one's life. For one who declares him or herself to be a Muslim, jihad entails, at a personal level, curbing one's animal instincts to carry out the fundamental duties which Islam imposes on a Muslim to become a better person. At the other end of the spectrum, on a collective level, jihad encompasses deterrence of aggression, eradication of oppression, and defense of the practice of Deen (way of life) if it is threatened. This sometimes becomes an armed struggle, offensive of defensive. It is the basic duty of every Muslim to establish justice and peace and to eradicate oppression.
In this definition, the concept of jihad as both a personal and collective action is stressed. This is extremely important, as the usage and interpretation of the word depends on the context in which it is applied. The well respected and often-cited Muslim clergyman Morteza Mutahhari, a key figure in Iran in the 1970s and a martyr of the Islamic revolution, summarizes one of his lectures about jihad by stating that it must be seen "not as a war of aggression, of superiority, or of domination, but of resistance to aggression" (cited in Abedi and Legenhausen 1986, who include a lengthy discussion of the topic on pp. 81-124).

In the 1960's in Egypt, jihad was the topic of lengthy discussions by Sayyed Qutb, who was one of the most influential modern Muslim thinkers, and whose works are available in English and Arabic. In his writings, he elaborated upon the theme of jihad as a struggle against oppression (Qutb 1981, pp. 107-42). He spent many years in Egyptian jails and was eventually executed in 1965 by Gamal Abdel Nasser, although his ideas and writings gained respect from Muslims the world over. Despite the fact that this important Muslim scholar was well known at the time when Patai wrote The Arab Mind, he ignores the importance Qutb's work, which along with other sources could have given more depth and nuance to his discussion of jihad.

This is but one example of Patai's selective and self-serving usage of sources in The Arab Mind. He chose to represent Islam in ways that only perpetuate misconceptions, and he contributed little to the understanding of the religion of 90 percent of Arabs and over one billion people worldwide. In fact, Patai's comments about Arabs and Islam led one widely read publication to state that, "Arab females still account for nothing" (The New Yorker, Vol. 49, 10 September 1973, pp. 133-34). Patai bolsters his assertions about oppressed Arab Muslim women by quoting the Egyptian secular feminist Nawal El-Saadawi, while at the same time ignoring the opposing viewpoints of other Egyptian women scholars, such as Safinaz Kazem, or the more complex analysis of Leila Ahmed (1982), who discusses feminism and gender in the context of Orientalism.

Another common misconception perpetuated by Patai is the notion of Islam as being a religion of "conquest and conversion" (p. 46)... which required all Muslims to spread [it] by force of arms (p. 145)... for the purpose of expanding the House of Islam" (p. 335). This is simple-minded and short-sighted. Can people really be forced to adhere to a religion that they do not want? Have the current number of over one billion Muslims worldwide all been converted by force? In fact, Islam does not advocate forced conversion, as it is explicitly stated in the Qur'an (Chapter 2, verse 256) la ikraha fi din, or "there is no compulsion in religion" (the Arabic word ikraha can be translated as "compulsion, coercion, constraint, force, or use of force, according to Hans Wehr's standard Arabic English Dictionary, p. 823). The aforementioned are but a small sampling of the problems one encounters in Patai's characterization of the Islamic factor in the Arab personality.

A Cautionary Conclusion
In the scope of a short paper such as this, it is impossible to fully address the details of Raphael Patai's work. Suffice to say that enough has been shown here to warrant further study of The Arab Mind and his other works that deal with the Arabs. In particular, we ought to also examine Patai's book The Seed of Abraham (1986), in which he seeks to perpetuate many myths about the Palestinians and about the Arabs in general. For example, in that work like many of his others he takes a rejectionist stance on the question of Palestine and expounds upon the propagandistic notions of "a land without people for a people without land" insisting that "the desert bloomed" only after the arrival of Zionist settlers to Palestine. To support his case, he cites the highly disreputable work of Joan Peters in From Time Immemorial, the flaws of which have been critically analyzed by Norman Finkelstein (1988). However, Patai is still seen by many as an academic authority, with over 600 publications to his credit, many of them in influential journals, and he has been a speaker at various academic conferences, including a talk on "The Arab Psyche" at the 1989 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Hopefully, someone will undertake a book-length critical analysis of his writings, especially in light of the selected discoveries presented here. It would take at least a book length study to systematically address the numerous misconceptions he perpetuates about the Arabs. At the very least, these findings may hammer another nail into the coffin of  "national character" and "group mind" studies. We can only hope that people will continue to be aware of this problem, and that responsible scholars will take the time to seriously question the brand of "scholarship" that Raphael Patai's book represents.

Ahmed, Leila. 1982. "Western Ethnocentrism and Perceptions of the Harem." Feminist Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3, 521-533.

Abedi, Mehdi and Legenhausen, Gary (Editors). 1986. Jihad and Shahadat: Struggle and Martydom in Islam. Houston: The Institute for Research and Islamic Studies.

Ashruf, Syed Habeeb. 1990. "Islamic Forum." Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 7, December 1990.

Benedict, Ruth. 1942. "Escape From Freedom: A Synoptic Series of Reviews." Psychiatry, Vol. 5, pp. 109-134.

Benedict, Ruth. 1946. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Chomsky, Noam. 1983. The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians. Boston: South End Press.

Finkelstein, Norman. 1988. "Disinformation and the Palestine Question", in Blaming the Victims edited by Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens. London and New York: Verso, pp. 33-70.

Gorer, Geoffrey and Rickman, John. 1962. The People of Great Russia. New York: W.W. Norton.

La Barre, Weston. 1945. "Some Observations on Character Structure in the Orient." Psychiatry, Vol. 8, pp. 319-342.

Mead, Margaret. 1951. The Soviet Attitude Toward Authority: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Soviet Character. New York: The RAND Corporation and McGraw Hill.

Mead, Margaret. 1954. "The Swaddling Hypothesis." American Anthropologist, Vol. 56, pp. 395-409.

Patai, Raphael. 1983. The Arab Mind. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Qutb, Sayyed. 1981. Milestones. Karachi: International Islamic Publishers.

Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Said, Edward. 1980. The Question of Palestine. New York: Vintage Books.

Said, Edward. 1981. Covering Islam. New York: Pantheon Books.

Sanua, Victor D. (Editor). 1983. Fields of Offerings: Studies in Honor of Raphael Patai. Rutherford, Madison, Teaneck: Herzl Press.

[This was originally written as a cultural anthropology course paper in December 1990 when I was a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City during the heated buildup to the 1990-91 American war against Iraq. The course professor was somewhat of an enthusiast of the national character studies and he helped me grasp the discourse as well as some of its criticisms, and also provided useful feedback that was incorporated into the version presented here. Sections of this paper were later published in the Crescent International news magazine (parts of which still circulate on the Internet) and I also included and updated some of this material in my book Encountering Islam: The Politics of Knowledge and Scholarship (Penang, Malaysia: Citizens International, 2008). The story of Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind is well known today, but when I first wrote this piece over twenty years ago, The Arab Mind had not yet achieved the notoriety that it has today after the journalist Seymour Hersh linked it, in an article published in The New Yorker, to the American military's Iraqi prisoner abuse and torture scandal in Abu Ghraib. Hopefully that high profile case has firmly and finally nailed the proverbial coffin shut on the notion of national character studies.]

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