Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Clash of Culture Redux

It seems like a long time ago and far, far away when I said that TeamBush had no clue (or didn't care to seek one) how to deal with Middle East culture on their terms. My basic point is that their culture is truly rooted in history - thousands of years of it - whereas ours has, for the most part evolved over the past 100 years. Prior to WWI, U.S. culture was still pretty much a mirror of Olde European culture.

Folks in America have been taken aback by the staged murder of Nick Berg. Separating a persons head from their body is just not considered good form in the U.S. We associate this type of execution with serial killers such as Jeff Dahmer. The preferred method of state-sanctioned dispatching of human beings is lethal injection. Strap a person on a gurney in an operating room-type environment, alcohol swap the vein (what's the purpose in that?), and start the IV drip. Clean, sterile, and medically approved.

The Arab world is a bit different. They've been beheading people for thousands of years, and are still quite prolific in the art of state-sanctioned beheading:

Saudi Arabia uses public beheading as the punishment for murder, rape, drug trafficking, sodomy and armed robbery, apostasy and certain other offences. 45 men and 2 women were beheaded in 2002 and a further 52 men and 1 woman in 2003.

The condemned of both sexes are given tranquilizers and then taken by police van to a public square or a car park after midday prayers. Their eyes are covered and they are blindfolded. The police clear the square of traffic and a sheet of blue plastic sheet about 16 feet square is laid out on the ground.

Dressed in their own clothes, barefoot, with shackled feet and hands cuffed behind their back, the prisoner is led by a police officer to the centre of the sheet where they are made to kneel facing Mecca. An Interior Ministry official reads out the prisoner's name and crime to the crowd of witnesses.

A policeman hands the sword to the executioner who raises the gleaming scimitar and often swings it two or three times before approaches the prisoner from behind and jabbing him in the back with the tip of the sword causing the person to raise their head...

I'll spare you the more graphic details. Click on the above link if you want the full story -- from an intellectual standpoint, it's actually quite interesting.

As Westerners, our revulsion to Nick Berg's manner of death is primarily cultural. We just don't do that kind of thing on this side of the pond. From a Middle Eastern tribal perspective, it's simply business as usual. I don't see anyone (with maybe the lone exception of Amnesty International) bitching about Bush's buddies in the House of Saud swinging a sword toward someone's neck at an average of once a week.

There will never be a way to resolve the cultural differences between Western and Middle Eastern cultures. It just won't happen, no matter how hard we try. I'm not saying that we embrace the cultural divide so graphically illustrated by the execution of Nick Berg, but that we at least acknowledge the differences that exist and that fundamental societal culture can not be imposed. Culture is ingrained over the course of a people's history, not at the barrel of a gun (or over a barrel of oil).