What role does emotion play in political violence in the Middle East? Why are discourses of humiliation so pervasive in the region? This article from the European Journal of International Relations explores why humiliation provides such a powerful motivation for political violence. Both militant Islamists and the United States, through its War on Terror, have exacerbated the sense of humiliation in the region. The principle of human dignity needs to be used to rethink the international approach to the Middle East.
Emotion is a rational measure of value. Although experienced individually, it is inherently social and relational. The emotion of humiliation takes place within a relationship where one party, who expects a higher status, is lowered in status and feels shame or loss of self-respect. The power of humiliation lies in public exposure: the acknowledgement by an audience that humiliation has taken place.
Islamist narratives of humiliation have provided a framework for giving meaning to a range of national, regional and international interactions in the Middle East, particularly since 1967. These have contributed to the emergence of Islam as the basis for a trans-national identity in the region.
- The dispossession of the Palestinian people has been the primary focus for expressions of humiliation and betrayal.
- The 1967 war with Israel was considered a humiliation for Arabs generally because it demonstrated the inability of the secular Arab state to protect its citizens.
- The consequent revival of Islamism brought with it a challenge to the Western concept of the nation-state.
- Militant Islamists claim that they can restore dignity to Muslims and the Middle East through the return of the Muslim Ummah, or community of Muslims, which is a non-territorial entity.
- In this context, Islam is providing a framework for reviving a historical memory of greatness and for articulating the possibility that dignity might be restored to the region.
It is essential that policy responses in the Middle East are sensitive to cultural meaning and the dynamics of emotions such as humiliation. The United States’ response to the September 11 attacks has reinforced the sense of humiliation in the region, bringing together the secular left and Islamists.
- If humiliation relates to a loss of value, then it follows that what needs to be restored is a sense of value, or dignity
- Historically, there has been a tendency in the Middle East to assume that dignity can be restored through violence
- However, in more moderate Islamic thought, dignity is understood as relating to self-restraint, patience and compassion
- The loss of dignity cannot be separated from material conditions that have impoverished populations and institutions that have brutalised them
- Restoring dignity thus means creating space for a legitimate political voice and economic agency.