Nothing, absolutely nothing, is as important in Arab society as pride and honor, and for the outsider, increasing one’s comprehension of this worldview is the single most important step one can take towards understanding the Arab way of life.
I began understanding the importance of pride and honor when I was in my early twenties, living with seven other single Egyptian guys in a lower-income Cairene neighborhood filled with mechanics, factory workers, manual laborers, and the like. In other words, tough, weathered, hardworking men. One evening, our nightly ritual of smoking sheesha and drinking tea was shattered by an explosion of yells and shouts coming from the street below. Immediately, we jumped up and rushed to the window to see Ahmad, another twenty-something guy who lived with his family in the apartment directly below ours on the street in front of our building beating a guy with more rage, aggression and violence than I had ever seen come from a human being in my entire life. I was completely frozen as I watched Ahmad beat this other man into an unrecognizable, blood-covered pulp with his bare fists, elbows, knees, and feet. And then when I could not have imagined someone going any further, Ahmad produced a metal pipe and began striking the barely-conscious man over and over and over again. He would not stop, and by the time others finally pulled him away, I was certain the man lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood was dead. The man’s offense? He had “whistled” at Ahmad’s younger sister earlier that day as she walked by him and his friends while they were hanging out on the street. In other words, he had dishonored — shamed — Ahmad’s younger sister, and to restore the honor and pride of her and their family, Ahmad went to kill the man. He did not go to verbally confront him. He did not go to merely physically confront him. He went with a single-minded focus and intention: to kill the man for whistling at his younger sister.
This way of life, this worldview, is why the April 2018 US-led missile strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities actually emboldened Bashar al-Assad and his sick and twisted flock of followers to continue their indiscriminate killing and slaughter of the Syrian people. From the Arab perspective, if President Trump were a strong leader, he would have finished the job. He would have hit harder, and he would not have stopped until Bashar al-Assad and each and every single one of his military commanders, intelligence officers, and security apparatus personnel were entirely out of the picture. To the Arab, that would be when one would declare “victory.” However, when the United States, the country with the best and most powerful military in the entire world, came in quickly, fired roughly 100 missiles into some factories from 30,000 feet in the air, then immediately disengaged and withdrew, Bashar al-Assad, and Arabs in general, laughed at and viewed this act as a sign of weakness and timidity. While we may rightly claim that each and every single cruise missile was spot on and hit their intended targets with incredible accuracy, to those from the Middle East, where absolutely nothing is more important than the concepts of pride and honor, a claim of victory is perplexing at the very least.
This way of life, this worldview, is why in the eyes of Arabs all across the Middle East , President Trump’s decision to immediately withdraw all US forces from Syria is being viewed as incredibly weak. From the Arab perspective, if President Trump were a strong leader, he would finish the job entirely before retreating. He claimed the primary role of the US military in Syria was to fully destroy ISIS, but as of now, ISIS is most definitely not defeated in Syria. They have been degraded, but not defeated, and there is a very big difference. We should remember that before ISIS there was al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which President Obama degraded, but stopped short of defeating. He then prematurely ordered the withdrawal of troops from Iraq before entirely wiping out AQI, which in turn metamorphosed into the nightmare that has become ISIS.
Furthermore, this decision will certainly embolden Bashar al-Assad and his sick and twisted flock of followers to continue their indiscriminate killing and slaughter of the Syrian people and all but guarantee his survival; will embolden Iran to continue their expansionist takeover campaign of the Middle East and allow them to continue building a direct, overland route to Israel; and will result in the loss of one of our best allies in the Middle East, the Kurds, who have worked with and trusted us on multiple fronts, have courageously battled ISIS, and undoubtedly are a group of people America should not abandon. The decision to withdraw all US troops from Syria at this moment in time is premature and will undeniably have far-reaching consequences.
I am 100% in favor of a complete withdrawal of the US military from the battlefields of the Middle East, but not before finishing the job. If winning this war is the objective, we must remember that to do so requires that in some ways we become like our enemy, in order to defeat them.
Arabs don’t do half-assed. It’s all or nothing. They fight to win, they fight to the death. And when in their house, so must we do the same.