AN INTRODUCTION TO ARAB CULTURE: A Brief Synopsis for US Soldiers

By Segelhorst, Ken | Infantry, January/February 2009 | Go to article overview

AN INTRODUCTION TO ARAB CULTURE: A Brief Synopsis for US Soldiers


Segelhorst, Ken, Infantry


Fbr centuries our nation's military leaders have studied the ways of our adversaries. Professional Soldiers understand that knowledge of one's adversary is essential to success on the battlefield. For conventional conflicts this may consist of studying the enemy's tactics, doctrine, and equipment capabilities. In a counterinsurgency, however, the populace is the key terrain; servicemen must study the people and their culture to succeed. According to William D. Wunderle in his book Through the Lens of Cultural Awareness: A Primer for U.S. Armed Forces Deploying to Arab and Middle Eastern Cultures, an in-depth understanding of a people's culture improves a unit's ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations by providing servicemen insight into the intent of individuals and groups in their area.

Although the United States has been fighting in Iraq for over six years, the average serviceman still lacks the appropriate level of cultural awareness necessary for conducting counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East. This lack of cultural understanding by U.S. servicemen often leads to animosity and hostility among Arabs and contributes to a negative image of the American military. This low level of understanding can often be attributed to inadequate training prior to deployment. Often servicemen are lectured on the "do's and don'ts." "Shake hands with your right hand." "Don't use the left hand for contact with others." "Don't point with a finger." "Don't debate religious issues." These basic behavioral guidelines lack the appropriate context for cultural understanding.

Wunderle wrote that in order to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to understand how Arab culture might influence an operation, a serviceman must have a firm understanding of Arabs' thought processes, motivating factors, and other issues. There are literally volumes of books dedicated to this subject, and leaders should read as many as possible prior to deployment. As T.E. Lawrence wrote in his 27 Articles, "The beginning and ending of the secret of handling Arabs is unremitting study of them." Not all servicemen have the time or motivation to conduct such a thorough study, however. This article is designed for them. While nothing can substitute a dedicated study of Arab culture, this article will attempt to bridge the gap between simple graphic training aid (GTA) cards with lists of "do's and don'ts" and the volumes of books dedicated to the study of Arabs.

The Islamic Faith

While it is neither true that all Arabs are Muslims nor are all Muslims devout, there is no greater influencing factor on the Arab way of life than that of Islam. In Arab countries, there is no separation between church and state. As a result, Islam plays a critical role in nearly every aspect of daily life in the Middle East. Because Islam plays such a significant role within Arab society, it is important that U.S. servicemen have a basic understanding of the faith and the beliefs behind it.

Islam originated during the early seventh century BC in the city of Mecca, in modern day Saudi Arabia. It derives from the teachings of the final prophet Mohammad. While an ordinary man, Mohammad was believed to be a witness to the word of God, or "Allah." He taught his followers to submit themselves to the will of God; thus people that practice this faith are known as Muslims, or "one who submits to God." Today, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. If it continues to grow at its current rate, it will be the most widely practiced religion in the world by the year 2020.

The text of the Islamic faith is known as the Qur'an (sometimes printed Koran). The Qur'an is considered to be a selfauthenticating and closed text, meaning nothing may be added or taken away. It is divided into 114 units known as "suras," which are similar to the chapters of the Bible. Suras are not organized chronologically; instead they are organized according to length with the longest first. …

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AN INTRODUCTION TO ARAB CULTURE: A Brief Synopsis for US Soldiers
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