Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

On The World’s Most Toxic Value System

Posted in History, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on January 12, 2008

A good friend of mine from the USA sent me a link to a page titled The World’s Most Toxic Value System. The author has an interesting background, and the stories he has from the Arab world sound plausible to me and are great to read about as people usually only talk about them in private.

But the article is full of historical statements and interpretations that I disagree with, and they betray misunderstandings that I find common in the USA. All of which make me bristle against the author’s suggestion of introducing the word thar into the English language.

Let me start by saying that I agree with the author, and Ralph Peters that he quotes, that the following values are bad, that my own countrymen should get rid of them, and that I find these values more prevalent in the Arab world than I do in the West:

  1. Restrictions on the free flow of information.
  2. The subjugation of women.
  3. Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
  4. The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
  5. Domination by a restrictive religion.
  6. A low valuation of education.
  7. Low prestige assigned to work.

But for the rest of this I wanted to focus on correct usage of the Arabic language properly. Here is a short glossary of, and rant about, misuses, starting with:

Thar, which the article suggests as the new name for the toxic value system for revenge that is only so virulent in Arabic and Islamic societies. First of all, it should be tha’r, not thar. The apostrophe should be pronounced like the u is in “unbelievable”. Otherwise, “thar” is closer to the word for the past participle of the verb to get angry.

Second, tha’r in Arabic means revenge, it does not mean “the most toxic revenge system in the world”. So let us not use an Arabic word to associate a concept in the English language with with a race or culture, which this article seems to want to.

Finally, the article itself reminds me of a charming book I am now reading, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” by Charles Mackay. In particular, the chapter on dueling. The author of the article is a fan of chivalry, but to be honest one man’s chivalry is another man’s sexual jealousy. I had known that dueling was a problem that afflicted the leadership of Western countries for many years, costing them dearly in manpower. The Burr-Hamilton duel killed off Alexander Hamilton, my favourite founding father, and opponents of Andrew “Jacksonian Democracy” Jackson tried several times to kill him by insulting his wife to force him into duels. What is so interesting in the dueling chapter of the book is how he describes the evolution of this custom as a way of wresting power from the clergy, who have given us such judicial innovations as trial by water: if you drown you were innocent, if not, you are guilty, so must be executed.

Madrasa, which is assumed to mean nursery school for terrorists. It actually means school, which is why my parents named their school Al-Madrasa for Arts. What the Arab world needs is more madrasas, enough to teach all our children about arts and sciences, and how to speak English, as my parents learned in their own madrasas (i.e. schools) when they were young. A small minority of madrasas use a curiculum that is Qur’an-focused, which is bad, and a tiny minority are focused on misteaching from the Qur’an that the West should be attacked, which is very bad. But the solution is more funding for better madrasas.

Incidentally, education has a high value in Islam, even if many Muslims today are undereducated and poor. The first word that came to the Prophet Muhammad in the Qu’ran was “Read”, an order that all Muslims should learn how to read. The Prophet also introduced the custom of releasing a prisoner of war if the prisoner taught ten Muslims how to read – the customs of the times had been to release in exchange for money or prisoners from your own side. Most of the texts that Europeans read during their Renaissance were actually in Arabic, even the ones that were translations of ancient European texts, because Muslims had been busy translating the teachings of all other civilizations so that they could read and learn from them as good Muslims. And Al Azhar is the world’s first university, with studies beginning in 960 A.D.

Fatwa, which is assumed to mean a death sentenced from a Muslim leader. It actually means a religious ruling, a regular and common occurrence on by different leaders on many difference regular and common aspects of modern living.

Incidentally, I say different leaders because Islam has a long tradition of many leaders as opposed to the Pope in Christianity. Long before Martin Luther came up with the revolutionary idea that ordinary men should be able to read the Bible, and that they should make independent interpretations of its meaning, Islam asked of its followers that they learn to read Arabic, so that they can read the Qur’an. And making an independent interpretation of the Qur’an is called ijtihad, which brings me to…

Jihad, which is assumed to mean an attack on the West, Infidels, and Freedom. It actually comes from the verb “to expend effort” or to struggle. Think of it as you do the US War on Drugs, War on Cancer and War on Poverty. As far as Arabs and Muslim are concerned, the word for religious attack on a civilization by religious zealots is cusade, not jihad. The chapter on this topic in the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” is also well worth reading.

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