By Hakim Khatib
There is no clash of civilisations, but there are similarities and dissimilarities among them. The culture in the Middle East, known as Islamic culture, is not an exception. Culture is very complex to understand. Culture in the Middle East is different from the European because of the features lying in the dimensions of each one of them. These dimensions help us understand other cultures and effectively interact with them. In this article only ascriptive vs. achievement dimension will be discussed.
A major contrast between the Arab culture and the European one is that the former is ascription-oriented while the latter is achievement-oriented. The difference is not hard to understand and is basically concerned in how different levels of status are accorded to different individuals.
Achievement-oriented cultures attribute status according to individual’s accomplishment. People are evaluated or judged based on what they have accomplished and on their record. Ascriptve cultures attribute status to individuals according to factors like age, birth, kinship, class, gender, personal connection, money or education. Therefore, ascriptive status indicates being while achieved status indicates doing.
In a Middle Eastern society, it is more likely that people ascribe a status to someone because of who they are, while in a western society people are more likely to ascribe a status to someone based on what they do.
In the Middle East and North Africa, people tend to make references of someone’s qualification for a job by focusing on where a person received his or her education and not what they exactly studied. The field of study might come in the second place. In a western society, this process is more likely to be the other way round.
The ascriptive feature of the Arab culture or the so-called Islamic culture in the Middle East and North Africa has a significant impact on how information is circulated and produced. The age of a person determines his or her authenticity, or the wealth of a person could determine the importance of his or her words. The person in this context is sufficient as a source of information despite a clear lack of proper knowledge. No evidence is required.
In a west and north European context, age or wealth of a person could play a minimum role in comparison to the importance of evidence. Therefore, a person is not enough as a source of information. A person needs to provide background information.
The acceptance of everything Ulama (Islamic clerics) say could be a good example from the culture of Middle East. While Ulama have a say in every possible issue, they sometimes do not have proper knowledge to rationalise their arguments, yet they might have huge numbers of followers, who believe them because they are who they are – Ulama. They do not need to provide background information. They are the source of information.
The example of space dynamics and how the solar system works could illustrate such an ascribed status. Several Ulama repeatedly claimed the sun rotates around Earth while Earth is stationary. Obviously it is a lack of science understanding, yet not many scientists or other Islamic scholars explicitly address this issue to correct the misunderstanding. This owes to the ascribed status to these Ulama. The class, education, gender, interpersonal connections or wealth are important.
In 1966 Abdulaziz Bin Baz, a leading Saudi Islamic theologian and former Mofti of Saudi Arabia, ruled that Earth is stationary and the sun orbits Earth. He repeated his fatwa in 1976 and several times in the 90s. Sheikh Muhammad Bin Uthaymeen, a prominent Sunni Islamic scholar from Saudi Arabia also confirmed what Bin Baz ruled out and concluded that the sun rotates around Earth and not vice versa and that explains “the existence of the day and night”. This was also confirmed inter alia by the prominent theologian Saleh Al-Fozan and the Syrian ‘scientist and theologian’ Mansour Al-Kayyali, and others such as Abdullah Bin Abdurahman Aljibreen, and Abu Bakr Al-Jazairi.
In 2014, Sheikh Bandar Al-Khaibari said: “Earth is stationary and doesn’t move” at a university speech in United Arab Emirates. To support his argument, Al-Khaibari cited Islamic clerics such as Abdulaziz Bin Baz and Saleh Al-Fozan.
Another example could be offering a seat to women or elderly individuals in public transport. In a Middle Eastern society, an old woman is more likely to expect someone to give her a seat. It is a code of conduct. In a western society an elder woman might not expect anyone to offer her a seat. Although, someone might help out of being nice. The age is important in ascriptive cultures.
Ascriptive cultures leave more space for corruption and embezzlement, and less for organisation. Certain people could reach everything because of their status and not because they compete to accomplish their goals. The son of a president, for instance, is more likely to become a president because of his ascribed status–The son of the president. No qualification is considered or needed for that job, but rather power and kinship.
Hafez Al-Assad prepared his son Basel, a civil engineer, to become a president of Syria. After Basel’s death in a car accident in 1994, Bashar, a training eye doctor in London, was called for duty. Bashar became a president of Syria in 2000 in a feign referendum after the death of his father.
Hosni Mubarak groomed his son Jamal, a businessman, to become his successor as a president of Egypt. Gaddafi also prepared his son, Saif Al-Islam, to be his heir. Ascriptive culture tends to recognise kinship more than achievement and it is widely accepted. In a western society, such a practice could be considered a scandal. While many members are needed to constitute a cultural norm, some might take advantage of some cultural aspects to consolidate their power and gain benefits.
There is no clear cut between ascription- and achievement-oriented cultures. Cultures might vary on that scale, where some might give more value to achievement than others. On the level of individuals, these concepts become much more complicated. Personal education, experience and preferences may strongly interfere in someone’s orientation. Therefore, not every person in the Middle East is ascription-oriented and not every person in Europe is achievement-oriented. It is rather different degrees and layers of tendency to be either ways.
Cultural differences owe to the richness of experiences of these cultures and civilisations. There are no static cultures. All cultures are in flux and they are evolving in a way or another. The change now is overwhelming and happening much faster than ever before.