Wednesday, December 11, 2013


by Leslie Fish

First, let it be understood that "Arab" is not a race – no matter what clever propagandists may tell you.  Along with the usual Semitic/Mediterranen types, there are also tribes of Arabs who have creamy-pale skins, red or blond hair, and blue or green or hazel eyes.  There are also tribes of Arabs who are distinctly Black.

"Arab" is not a religion, either.  There are (or were until recently) Christian Arabs in Lebanon, Pagan Arabs in the Kurd provinces, And even Jewish Arabs near what used to be Babylon. 

"Arab" is not even a language, or language family.  Folk in the middle-east speak more than Arabic;  there's Urdu and Pashti, for example, not to mention the north African languages.

What "Arab" really means is a particular culture.  This culture spreads throughout the middle-east, westward across north Africa, and eastward as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Though it shares various features with its neighboring societies, it's readily recognizable and distinct from them. 

Chief among its distinct characteristics are its constant attitude of self-righteous victimhood, its eager religious fanaticism, its related disbelief in objective reality, and its particularly vicious sexism.  Most scholars blame these on Islam, but in fact they existed long before Islam was invented;  the culture shaped the religion more than the religion shaped the culture.  Note particularly how cultural icons like veiling women's heads, female circumcision, and execution of women for mere suspicion of "adultery", are not commanded anywhere in the Koran. 

So where did this peculiar cultural pattern come from? 

The answer stretches back over 4000 years, which explains the common assumption that Arabs have "always been like this".  It goes back before the beginnings of literacy itself, which is why the evidence has been dug up by the archeologists more than historians.  The earliest writings, though, include accounts of earlier myths -- which contain tantalizing hints of an earlier culture which was far different.

What we have managed to learn in the last century is that the first civilizations were matriarchal.  Before about 4000 years ago, humans didn't realize that it was sex that caused pregnancy;  people thought that women made babies by themselves, by magic.  Therefore, the only bloodline was the mother's;  all inheritance of property or rank went through the mother's line.  From a "great mother" ancestor of a tribe, to a divine Great Mother of all humanity, to a Great Mother Goddess of all life were easy steps.  Artistic images of Great Mother Goddesses have been found all the way from Britain to Mongolia, Scandinavia to Africa, dating as far back as 25,000 years. 

Between 4000 and 5000 years ago, it changed.  Humans learned, most likely from observing domesticated animals, that sex is necessary for breeding – therefore, males had a share in the next generation too.    

How people reacted to this knowledge varied widely.  Some cultures moved smoothly toward ambiarchy, steadily giving men – and male gods – more social standing.  Others insisted on turning their societies upside down, elevating males above females and reversing the previous moralities;  where the matriarchies had been largely peaceful, increasing their wealth and influence with trade, the new patriarchies became fiercely warlike and imperialistic.  Over the course of nearly 2000 years, the warlike patriarchies conquered their neighbors and enforced their New World Order on most of Europe, Asia and north Africa.  The history of this conquest was brilliantly revealed and detailed in Merlin Stone's classic book, "When God Was A Woman".

Until about 30 years ago, archeologists assumed that the cultures which chose warlike patriarchy all came from the Aryan tribes along the northern tier of Europe and Asia;  Dr. Marja Gumbatas even traced the pernicious attitude to the Kurgan culture of eastern Russia.  Further diggings since then, however – including the famous Grave of the Amazon Queen found in western Mongolia – show that this wasn't the case.  The northern Aryan cultures were ambiarchal down into historical times.  The warlike patriarchies which swept down into Greece, Crete and Mycenae were "northern" only in relation to the Mediterranean, having come the long way around the Black Sea.  The warlike Aryans who swept into India around 1700 BCE were likewise "northern" only in relationship to India.  The Hyksos who conquered Egypt came primarily from the east.

It turns out that the real epicenter of warlike patriarchy was a place called Eridu, just east of the juncture of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in present-day Iran.  However subsequent capitals of empires shifted, the center of the warlike patriarchal culture was in the heart of the middle-east.  There it has remained to this day.

This explains much about Arab culture ever since.  First gods dethroned goddesses, then eliminated them altogether – culminating in the institution of a single all-ruling god who demanded his worshipers conquer/convert the world for him.  Women were progressively stripped of all social rights, ending as chattels – even regarded as soulless animals, who could be slaughtered at will.  War was valued higher than trade, to the point were trade came to be regarded as only a subtle form of warfare.  The need to justify the almost-frantic sexism in the face of facts led to the assumption that the laws of nature are not fixed – the foundation of science – but only the whim of the ruling god, who can change his mind if bribed with enough prayer, piety, and human sacrifices.  Likewise, when the world, and the facts, refuses to go one's way for all one's piety, it must be somebody else's fault – and thus the sense of outraged victimhood, which in turn justifies any action against that perceived somebody else.  Historically, all these elements where already present in Arab culture before Mohammed was born;  the religion he invented only gave them all a unifying excuse.


windmills said...

Interesting take, Leslie. Seems over-simplified, though. I don't think it's a coincidence that the same culture you're talking about was also being forced into economic change at the same time. The Tigris and Euphrates river valleys were once a breadbasket to rival Iowa. A fertility goddess is a very logical and necessary deity for a nation of farmers. As they destroyed the soil and their crops failed, they began to make up the difference by raiding, stealing, and... selling you your own hat if you set it down. Obviously, a new religion is needed at that point, as a maternal figure would likely disapprove of such misbehavior. Guilt becomes anger easily, and if the goddess isn't available to take it out on, human women certainly are. The thing that turned the Arabs from starving raiders to conquerors was the successful domestication of the Camel. It gave them range and speed that the peaceful communities couldn't match, and let them travel through open desert that was impenetrable to the armies trying to chase them down. That didn't happen until (if I remember correctly) the early bronze age. Just my thoughts.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Windy. Bad farming and soil-erosion certainly had something to do with it, but couldn't have been the whole story either. Egypt's Nile-side fields remained fertile up until the construction of the Aswan Dam. North Africa was the grain-bowl of the Roman Empire, up until about 300 CE. Persia was famous for its fruit-orchards well into the middle ages.

Also, the Arab cultures had -- and still have -- the horse, the donkey, and several breeds of goat(some of them large enough to pull carts). So did their neighboring societies. The European crusaders who managed to beat the Arabs (at least at first) used big western draft-horses, which weren't as fast or enduring as the Arabian horse, but could assist their armored riders to hit with irresistible impact.

The problem for farmers is the difficulty of defending planted fields. There's simply no way to wall off and patrol even a 40 acre field, so crops still in the ground are hopelessly vulnerable. Their only hope is to keep a defending army between the fields and the raiders, and that requires the army knowing precisely when and where the raiders are coming from.

Large armies are not, by themselves, incompatible with a matriarchal or amibiarchal culture; the ancient world sported plenty of fierce warrior-goddesses -- mostly found in countries that bordered the Arab world. Interestingly enough, these goddesses were defenders rather than aggressive, and grew more fierce as patriarchy advanced -- right up to when they were banished permanently by the monotheistic patriarchal religions.

For an interesting example of a culture that became patriarchal without monotheistic religion, consider India -- where Kali is still a major member of the pantheon.