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Bad Guys, Good Lies?

Jeff d. Patterson
Middle East Specialist

The issue of right versus wrong doesn't matter; whether the act is honorable or dishonorable does.

When black-and-white must turn to grey.

Bashar al-Assad

Bashar Hafez al-Assad, born September 11, 1965, is the President of Syria and Regional Secretary of the Syrian-led branch of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party. | Bashar Al-assad, Syria, President, Ba'ath,

When black-and-white must turn to grey.

Jeff d. Patterson
Middle East Specialist



[Comments] As I think about the continued indecisiveness fueling the schoolyard-style debate in Washington with regards to the United States directly arming Syrian opposition forces, I am left a bit perplexed. Actually, I'm entirely perplexed. I'm perplexed because in this case it takes less than an iota of common sense to know the answer to the main bickering points they seem to continue to bring up: whether or not we can properly vet the different opposition groups in order to make sure we direct the weapons into the hands of the real good guys; and if we can keep these weapons out of the hands of Islamic extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and foreign jihadists who are making their way into Syria to fight.

The answer to both is NO WE CAN'T!

Yet in seeking to understand how on earth it is that those taking part in the Syrian debate do not seem capable of getting this, I have come to the conclusion that they must be quite ignorant regarding Arab culture. They are missing what is considered to be one of the basic building blocks of Eastern (Arab and Asian) societies, and the foundation upon which the Eastern culture and worldview has been built: honor and shame.

There are certain basic fundamental beliefs that have laid the foundations upon which nations are built and operate, and from which the fabric of their society is formed. For most Americans and Westerners, this basic foundation is our belief in right versus wrong; hence the fact that sociologists have termed western nations (North America, Western Europe, Australia) as being guilt-based cultures. This understanding is so deeply ingrained within us that we analyze nearly everything from this perspective, rarely, if ever, questioning its validity. We often cannot even begin to imagine a world where "right versus wrong" isn't the accepted basic underlying principle through which life is lived, because for us almost every major decision involves an aspect of analyzing whether it is right or wrong. Nearly everything in western culture is plotted on a guilt/righteousness line, where the pulls and demands of these two opposing forces dictate most of western human behavior.

This means that for most Americans, a lie is a lie and is wrong, stealing is stealing and is wrong, murder is murder and is wrong. This fixation with right and wrong often translates to being so black-and-white in one's worldview that the thought of entire societies operating in shades-of-grey is unfathomable.

Yet the issue of right versus wrong, guilt versus innocence, doesn't matter nearly as much to those living in shame-based cultures as whether the act is honorable or dishonorable. For Arabs, nearly each and every single decision and action is to some extent made based on the effect it will have not simply on one's own personal honor or potential for gain, but on the entire network of relationships.

An example to point out this difference between guilt-based (Western) and shame-based (Eastern) cultures would be the issue of telling the truth versus telling a lie. For most westerners, telling the truth is right, and telling a lie is wrong. But for Arabs, because the issue of right versus wrong isn't nearly as important as the issue of whether it was honorable or dishonorable, the lie is viewed as being shameful (wrong) if it is told for personal gain and selfish reasons, but it is not necessarily viewed as being wrong if it is told for altruistic purposes.

With this cultural awareness, it should be simple to understand that of course the Syrian opposition will tell lies to the United States in order to acquire what they believe they need to turn the tide, win, and end the war. And for many of them, they will wholly believe that telling these so-called lies is the RIGHT thing to do!

Who wouldn't believe doing something that may help to end a war in which more than 100,000 innocent people have already been killed, with the number of people who have been displaced rapidly approaching 2 million, is not the RIGHT thing to do?
However, it also worth pointing out that an inability to hear what is actually being said, and see things as they actually are, is quite commonplace in many American minds. All too often we only hear, see, hope for, and believe what we want to hear, see, hope for, and believe. And these are not good lenses to look through for those engaged in and influencing foreign-policy decisions!

And so while the many Washington bureaucrats continue to delusionally hope they will decide ' and agree upon ' which opposition groups are the good guys who aren't telling lies, more innocent Syrians are being blown away into eternity, more innocent children are being stripped of their innocence, the influence of Iran and Hizb'allah grows, and the destruction of Syria and her people continues.

The reality is that in arming the Syrian opposition we will give some weapons to the wrong people, and some weapons will end up in the hands of Islamic fundamentalist groups. That is not up for debate. It is inevitable.

But does that necessarily mean we should not do so?

Jeff d. Patterson

Jeff d. Patterson, Middle East Specialist: While the ashes were beginning to settle in New York City with the setting of the sun on 9/11, Jeff D. Patterson was unpacking his bags far, far away from American shores; far, far away from his family and friends; far, far away from his homeland. He was starting a new phase of life in a region of the world he would call ‘home’ for most of the next decade. Jeff was taking his first breaths of Middle Eastern air, thinking of the world becoming a better place… In contrast to most... (more...)