Cultures collide in a symbolic divide

When interpreting the same words and images, the Western and Arab worlds often fail to find common ground.

May 23, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Within days of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush learned his first lesson about the difficulties of cross-cultural communication when he referred to the fight against terrorism as a "crusade."

That word went virtually unnoticed in America and Europe but enraged people in the Islamic world where it is forever associated with bloody, racist wars as medieval Christians sought time and again to wrest the Holy Land from Muslim control. Was Christendom on the warpath again?

Bush's press secretary issued an apology, and the word "crusade" has not cropped up again.

But that was only one of the early setbacks in the continuing fight on the battleground of symbols, potent weapons in the war on terrorism and in Iraq. It is a fight made all the more complex by the fact that Bush and his administration must play to two audiences that can interpret the same words and images differently -- one in Iraq where the soldiers are and one in America where the voters are.

"Cross-cultural communication is always beset by presuppositions and preconceptions of people on both sides about the other," says Louis J. Cantori, an expert on the Middle East at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "This whole syndrome of what is going on in Iraq is no exception. The major point is the enormity of the social and political consequences of any missteps."

William Beeman of Brown University says, "The president is inept in talking to the Arab world."

Beeman, an anthropologist who has written extensively on Shia Islamic culture, says that Bush's apology for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison is an example.

"He goes on Arab TV to apologize and says things like, 'Arabs must understand,' " Beeman says, explaining that verb choice showed a lack of appropriate humility.

"That's just dumb," he says. "You don't talk to people in the Arab world that way. People take that idiom as an order, which is not acceptable, absolutely not, when you are supposed to be apologizing."

Cantori says that the emphasis in American culture on individual responsibility and feelings does not translate well to the Arab milieu. Bush's first public comments on the pictures from Abu Ghraib, Cantori notes, were about his personal repugnance of what they showed. This carries power with a Western audience -- which sees individual feelings as paramount and thus a personal apology as the most sincere -- but not with Iraqis.

"It was extremely inadequate for the enormity of the situation," he says. "What Bush should have used is the pronoun 'we.' He should have talked about the American society, and he should have recognized that this was an assault on the Arab culture and the Islamic religion."

Cantori and others contend what was needed was some demonstration of that entire society apologizing, which is why many say that a high-level resignation was necessary.

"Very simply, it was Bush the individual against the Arab family. You can slip into stereotypes -- and I do not want to do that, because I have spent my career fighting against stereotypes -- but you have to understand that Arabs think of issues like this one with the prison abuse basically in terms of family," Cantori says. "It ultimately plays out in terms of honor, which is located in the institution of the family. Bush was just simply on the wrong foot."

Cantori says that one reason many Americans cannot understand the impact that the prison abuse photographs had in Iraq is because they do not understand that, to Iraqis, the men in the pictures were seen not just as individuals but as the male heads of families. Because the family and the clan form the bases of political structures, humiliating these men in this way, he says, was the equivalent of taking the mayor of an American town and parading him naked through the streets.

Beeman says that even if Bush does not understand the symbolic potency of the prison photographs in the Arab world, the prison guards had some understanding of it.

"They knew enough to know that for Arab men to appear nude, in public, before women who are not their wives, is completely shameful," he says. "Arab men do not appear nude in front of each other. These pictures become a very effective blackmail tool, to coerce them into giving up something."

Such cultural knowledge removes the acts of prison guards from the fraternity-hijinks-gone-overboard interpretation often given in the United States.

Cultural interpretations also apply to apologies, and Bush's was heard not only by Arabs but also by Americans who judge it on their cultural terms.

"Apologies by presidents are often seen as a form of weakness, to acknowledge any wrongdoing," says Shawn Parry-Giles, who studies presidential rhetoric in the department of communication at the University of Maryland, College Park. The photographs of the prisoner abuse, she says, changed that in this case.

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