(W)Archives: CIA and the “Arab Mind”
From the Iranian revolution to the Arab Spring, the United States has consistently been accused of misunderstanding the politics and culture of the Middle East. The Intelligence Community has come under especially strong fire for its Western-centric mindset in its analysis of players as diverse as al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Amongst a long list of analytical misdemeanors, the problem of “mirror imaging” (using one’s own rationale to interpret the actions or intentions of one’s opponent) is undoubtedly the most common.
It was, for example, regarded as common sense that Saddam Hussein would deny possessing WMD if Iraq was not in fact procuring such controversial weaponry. The possibility that Saddam was being intentionally elusive about Iraq’s capabilities in order to maintain “face” against its regional rival, Iran, went entirely unconsidered. It was a classic failure to enter the psyche of one’s adversary. Endless commentaries plastered across newspapers and blogs chastise the CIA for failing to learn languages and familiarize itself with other cultures, power structures, customs and mentalities.
What few people realize, however, is that the CIA recognized and sought to remedy this pitfall exactly half a century ago. A once-classified article from its in-house journal Studies in Intelligence written in 1964 and now available at the Agency’s Freedom of Information Act website reveals an early, and remarkably frank attempt to pin down the significance of “Arab culture.” The author, Peter Naffsinger, surely never anticipated that the document would one day be made available for public scrutiny. It is a predictably controversial read.
In 1964 the Arab World was still a relatively new and unfamiliar battleground in the Cold War. Soviet penetration of the Middle East began with the signing of an arms deal between Czechoslovakia and President Nasser of Egypt in 1955, forcing the United States to engage its analytical prowess in territories where it had little prior experience. The now declassified article, entitled “’Face’ among the Arabs,” reflects the challenges analysts perceived themselves to face and their prescriptions for dealing with Arab “otherness.”
As the title suggests, the overall message of the intelligence assessment was that “face,” or honor, was the predominant cultural imperative in the region, a value to which all other values were subordinated. The introduction to the piece immediately evokes the patronizing Orientalism that Edward Said famously brought to our attention in his groundbreaking book some 40 years ago. Naffsinger’s assessment begins:
George Washington, American children are told, having cut down his father’s favourite cherry tree, showed his sterling character by confessing to the deed. An Arab hearing this story not only fails to see the moral beauty of such behaviour but wonders why anyone would ever compromise his integrity by admitting thus his guilt.
The stereotyping is obviously crude. While the American demonstrated “an uncompromising willing to face objective truth and fact,” the Arab was obliged to adhere to the “social veneer of non-guilt” in a society “which has no place or respect for one whose faults or errors come to public knowledge.” There is no denying Said’s assertion that an objective, superior Western “self” is clearly elevated above a subjective, inferior Arab “other” in this passage.
Naffsinger looked at the Arab World and saw a political culture apparently devoid of moral courage. He attributed this to an all-encompassing Islam. “All of Muslim theology conveys the feeling that God is so all pervading and at the same time so far above and removed from the individual that all human actions and their consequences are but the sequels of God’s doing.” He noted that attempts to chastise Arab trainees were more often than not met with noncommittal responses. The Arab “dismisses both blame and censure with a casual ‘min allah’ – ‘It is from God.’ To the remonstrance that it had better not happen again he answers ‘inshallah,’ ‘If God wills it,’ with exasperating nonchalance.”
But a more detailed look at the piece also reveals some important nuggets beyond merely a denigrating Orientalism. For instance, Naffsinger tells the story of an “Arab who caught another man in bed with his wife and levelled a gun at them, but instead of shooting he offered to let the man off if he would keep the affair secret.” He writes that “the double murder that might have been the outcome in Western cultures would have made newspaper headlines, a result diametrically opposed to the Arab’s priority considerations.” Whilst much of the document underlines the inferior nature of Arab political and social behavior, this example looks much more like a critique of the West’s destructive individualism.
More importantly, Naffsinger highlights the importance of cultural relativism, making the case that other cultures can only be understood according to their own contexts and value systems. This theoretical recognition of “otherness” as “different but equal” likely reflected broader intellectual currents at the time such as the civil rights movement and the dramatic expansion of the UN to incorporate new, decolonized states.
Entertaining delusions of grandeur, claiming to be persecuted, magnifying faults in others than one wants to hide in oneself, calling constantly for resurgence of past greatness – all this is behavior typical of paranoia, but it is manifested in every Arabic political newspaper and among individuals in day to day intercourse. It cannot be considered abnormal in the Arab cultural setting.…The Westerner who, recognizing in the Arab the personality traits which in Western culture signify paranoia or inferiority complex, is pleased with himself for being able to ‘see through the Arab’s attempts at deceit and trickery and his lies’ shows his lack of appreciation of the face concept in the Arab culture. [Emphasis added]
Naffsinger’s admission of relative definitions of “normal” is clear. He also warns that imposing Western cultural frameworks on Arab behavior will lead to “frustrations and impasses.” Indeed though written half a century ago, it is striking how resonant some of these ideas about “Arab culture” continue to be. In the early days of the Syrian conflict one of the most popular suggestions by seasoned observers such as Patrick Seale was that Assad be given an “honorable” exit strategy.
So what can we learn from the CIA’s early and admittedly clumsy attempts to conceptualize Arab culture? To this day there remains an overwhelming tendency to see culture as a self-evident fact: an amorphous combination of history, geography and politics that ultimately shapes, if not determines, how people will act.
What the CIA (unsurprisingly) failed to recognize is that culture is a remarkably malleable concept. Recent scholarship has shown the complex ways in which expressions of culture interact with power and human agency, reshaping that very culture in the process. Notably Patrick Porter’s definition of culture as “an ambiguous repertoire of competing ideas that can be selected, instrumentalized, and manipulated” is an excellent antidote to essentialist, static conceptualizations of otherness in any form. His book is a powerful reminder that culture is nebulous, fluid and contested — a tool frequently deployed in the service of ever-changing political goals.
It is striking, for instance, that today the most blatant examples of contemporary Orientalism stem from within the Middle East itself: the notion that the people of the region are “not ready for democracy” has been loudly propagated by Arab elites invested in the status quo, not least during the tumultuous transitions of the so-called “Arab Spring.”
Where, therefore, does the balance lie between blind universalism and stereotypical determinism? If ideas about culture are always in some way politicized constructions, is the quest for cultural understanding ultimately a waste of time? However unsophisticated the CIA’s early attempts to make sense of Arab culture appear to us today, we can be sure of one thing. It is only by bringing our assumptions about “otherness” to the surface, and articulating them explicitly that they can be subject to debate and challenge. To our politically correct ears, this document invokes the intellectual reverberations of fingernails scraping on a chalkboard. But there is surely a more worrying prospect: that implicit, unspoken assumptions about either sameness or otherness achieve the dangerous status of “common sense” in the minds of policy makers and publics alike.
Dr. Dina Rezk completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2013 and is now a Teaching Fellow in Intelligence and Security at the University of Warwick. Her forthcoming book, “Western Intelligence and the Arab World: Analysing the Middle East,” will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2015.