A major goal in many Middle Easterners’ lives is to accumulate honour and avoid its erosion by shame. A single shame experience threatens to expose and damage the self.
Rarely, in the relating of Christian missionaries to Muslims, and especially to believers from a Muslim background, is the seriousness of ‘saving face’ understood.
Honor symbolizes the virtue of the code; it functions to determine status, respect, and reputation for the individual, family and community and regulates every aspect of individual and group conduct. For Islamists honor is everything. Humiliation, shame and dishonor are to be avoided at all costs. “Honor is what makes life worthwhile: shame is a living death, not to be endured, requiring that it be avenged.” The Western concept of honor: integrity, sincerity, justice, dignity, and honesty does not equate to the Islamist concept. For Westerners peace means freedom; for Islamists peace means honor. The Arabic word for male honor is sharaf and for face is wajh. “The Western terms, “saving face,” and “loss of face,” describe concepts of honor and prestige that originated in the Eastern world.” Islamists’ concept of honor and face is specific to the Arab world and interestingly employs visual symbolism to describe these significant concepts. “The Arab either ‘whitens’ the face (saves face), or ‘blackens’ the face (loses face). Face is the outward appearance of honor, the ‘front’ of honor which a man will strive to preserve even if, in actuality, he has committed a dishonorable act. In the Arab world ‘honor’ and ‘face’ are so closely related that the words are almost interchangeable. This “face,” or “honor,” is such an integral part of the Arab mind that a person is considered perfectly justified in resorting to deceit and falseness in order to ‘whiten,’ or save, their own, someone else’s or the entire Arab world’s face. The Arab mind is in perpetual motion–working against ‘blackening’ the face (losing face), and thus sculptures its words accordingly.” Honor is what defines Islamists as men and is achieved by fulfilling traditional masculine virtues, from being a warrior to fathering children, sons above all Honor for men is signified by characteristics of courage, bravery, heroism, power, virility, and strength. Any sign of weakness in word or action relinquishes honor. Honor for women consists of modesty, faithfulness and bearing children. Immodesty or unfaithfulness forfeits a woman’s honor and shames the men in the family in whose keeping this honor is vested. Mujahideen, soldiers of god, achieve honor through warrior initiations, endurance rituals and ruthlessness in battle. Martyrdom in suicide attacks is a particularly high honor. The Western presence in the Persian Gulf, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the very existence of Israel are viewed as a shameful occupation of Islamist territory, a loss of face and a defilement of sacred land. This is an ongoing unbearable humiliation, a dishonor that must be avenged. It is a moral imperative for Islamist Jihadists to rid sacred land of infidel unbelievers and restore their honor through vengeance. Similarly, women who have allegedly dishonored their family must be killed to preserve the family honor. – Dawn Permutter
In Middle Easterner cultures, a person will offer to do something to save face, knowing that he cannot deliver the goods because he doesn’t have the connections to make the promised end. ‘Not worrying about the consequences’ in the future is less of an evil than the possibility of losing face should he not make the promise now.
Another common dynamic in Arab contexts is the expression of generosity by one person towards another while the very person making the expansive gestures is actually plotting against the other. HIgh at stake in those games – higher certainty than any superficial reading of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – is the matter of honour and shame.