Politics in the Middle East are often difficult for the Western mind to grasp. It seems that most of the time everyone is behaving irrationally, with riots breaking out over what seem to us the most straightforward of issues. The latest conflagration making headlines revolves around the Israeli Government’s desire to increase security measures on the Temple Mount following the killing of two police officers last week. With Palestinian tempers flaring high and the situation seemingly about to spiral out of control, many observers struggle to understand why the placing of metal detectors and cameras — security measures in place at most other holy sites — seem destined to ignite a Third Intifada. The key barrier to understanding the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics is understanding the honour/shame dynamic.
In the West, the concept of honour seems a distant relic, akin to dueling in the streets over a perceived insult between squabbling parties. By examining the issue of the Temple Mount through the lens of the honour/shame dynamic though, one can begin to understand the current situation.
Israel’s victory during the 1967 Six Day War was perhaps the single biggest blow to Arab honour in recent history and was viewed as a great source of collective shame and humiliation across the Middle East. Not only had the mighty Arab armies of Egypt and Syria been totally and utterly defeated, the fact that it was the Jews who inflicted this dishonour only added further insult to injury. Following the war, Israel allowed a Jordanian Islamic religious trust known as the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf to continue managing Muslim holy sites including the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, both of which sit upon the Temple Mount in the Old City. By allowing the Waqf to maintain tacit control of the site, Arab leaders were able to bury memory of the shameful fact that Israel firmly controls Islam’s (supposed) third-holiest site.
By acting unilaterally to close down the Temple Mount to place cameras and metal detectors, the Israeli Government unintentionally exposed the Arab’s self-created farce of authority and control, reopening old wounds left in their collective psyche and forcing the shame of numerous military defeats at the hands of the Israelis to the fore once again.
The issue now at hand is that this dishonour cannot simply be erased. This is why the fact that Israel has removed the new security measures and more or less restored the original status quo to the site is meaningless and may only serve to further reinforce the notion that the Israelis do with the site as they will.
Shame culture demands that Muslim and Arab leaders, chief among them Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, fight to restore honour by whatever means necessary. Under the rubric of the honour/shame dynamic, Mahmoud Abbas’ only course of action in the face of this intense shame is to continue to ramp up his rhetoric and incitement against Israel, lest he be seen a weak leader and face the very real threat of a coup. This is why the Palestinian Authority has reacted by freezing all contact with Israel and calling for mass protests, all in the name of defending Al-Aqsa and restoring honour to the Arab world.
Those of us who would like to see an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict must refuse to accept false narratives. We can no longer accept that rational actions — such as Israel demanding basic security protocols to prevent further attacks — are the cause of shame in the Arab world. A new dialogue must emerge if we are to escape the archaic rubric of the honour/shame dynamic. All we need is for Western leaders to condemn the truly shameful acts of manufactured-outrage and barbarism.