On January 27, 2017, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order titled, “Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States.” The stated goal of the order is “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.”
While the effectiveness of the order in reducing American vulnerability to threats by militant Islamists is hotly debated, one thing is certain: President Trump’s Executive Order has managed to anger and humiliate many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, including the vast majority who do not support militant Islam but now feel vulnerable and humiliated.
President Trump prides himself as a master negotiator and dealmaker. To increase its chances for success, his administration may want to consider a few essential elements of Muslim and Arab conflict management practices.
The first order of business when working with Muslims and Arabs is to avoid outright and public threats and humiliation. From a Muslim perspective, such actions cause immediate and community-wide loss of honor, because they demonstrate, publically and in the most denigrating manner, a lack of respect for one and many, a desire to dictate by brute force what should be negotiated and agreed upon, a move that almost inevitably leads to a challenging, contrarian response.
In the West, honor has been relegated to an emotive, folkloristic place in disputes and their resolution, to be replaced in many cases by perceived interests. However, for Muslims and Arabs, honor is a vitally important core existential concept. In much of the Muslim world, honor (and damage to it) is the place around which conflicts start, continue, are managed and get resolved. A crucial element in understanding Muslims’ perspective on conflict is the recognition that the need for honor, in a conflict context, often surpasses core Western needs, such as physical survival, health and safety. Furthermore, honor in the Muslim conflict context is not a ritualistic artifact but a tangible, utilitarian and deeply embedded aspect of life. In simple words: damage to honor is in many cases the cause for the eruption of conflicts, and without restoration of lost or damaged honor, there is little chance for movement toward dealing with substantive issues and the resolution of a conflict.
To measure how ineffective dishonoring threats and ultimatums can be, we only need to look back to the belligerent exchanges between President George H. W. Bush and the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein before the first Gulf War in 1990, and then again when President George W. Bush attempted to coerce Hussein to abide by the UN’s Security Council resolutions in 2003. Threats and ultimatums flowed from Washington in rapid succession. They achieved nothing; U.S. policymakers were baffled by what they perceived to be Hussein’s inability to understand what was about to happen. The fact is that he understood very well what was coming, but he was not given any path of responding without losing even more honor, and without increasing the humiliation of his country and himself. He took the only acceptable path as a Muslim – to the detriment of himself, his people, thousands of Americans, and the entire world.
The rapid deterioration of relations between the United States and Iran, and the implied and at times explicit threats of harm on both sides, demonstrate how fast situations like this can lead to bloodshed. Is this what America and Americans want? Is this what America and Americans need? Who exactly will benefit from another armed conflict anywhere in the world, and in the Middle East in particular? How will the security of Israel and the world be enhanced with an escalation of hostilities between the United States and Iran? How exactly will another bloody conflict improve the economic well-being of the millions of people who voted for Trump in the last election? Moving forward toward a conflict without answering these questions is utterly unacceptable.
Understanding the centrality of honor for Muslims and Arabs, and their deep need to uphold and restore it, is just the tip of the knowledge iceberg. Absent this knowledge, the new American administration is operating with a partial toolbox, including only the instruments of conflict-making, and none of those required for conflict management and (hopefully) resolution.