The West’s history is rich with traditions of honor, and equally rich with examples of its dangers and follies, among them the duel that killed the most brilliant of America’s Founders. Singularly, however, the West has backed away from honor. Under admonitions from Christianity to turn the other cheek and from the Enlightenment to favor reason over emotion, the West first channeled honor into the arcane rituals of chivalry, then folded it into a code of manly but magnanimous Victorian gentlemanliness — and then, in the 20th century, drove it into disrepute. World War I and the Vietnam War were seen as needless butcheries brought on by archaic obsessions with national honor; feminism and the therapeutic culture taught that a higher manly strength acknowledges weakness.
“Yet we are, in global terms, the odd ones out,” Bowman writes. Outside the West, traditional honor codes remain strong, and nowhere is that more true than in the Muslim world. In the modern Islamic world, few share the West’s view of honor as outdated and unnecessary. “The honor culture of the Islamic world predates its conversion to Islam in the seventh century,” writes Bowman.
Islam overlaid itself above honor and, unlike Christianity in the West, did not challenge it. Today’s militant jihadism takes the ethic of honor to extremes, fixating on manly ferocity and glorious vengeance.
Thus, Bowman writes, “America and its allies are engaged in a battle against an Islamist enemy that is the product of one of the world’s great unreconstructed and unreformed honor cultures.” Jihadism wages not only a religious war but a cultural one, aiming to redeem, through deeds of bravery and defiance, the honor of an Islam whose glory has shamefully faded. It aims, further, to uphold a masculine honor code that the West’s decadent, feminizing influence threatens to undermine.
He’s perfectly right. I’m not (as may have been noticed by readers) typically an admirer of Islamic culture, but there is a definitely admirable element in a culture which emphasizes honor over mere utility.
In a poem I particularly admire, Ahmad ibn al-Hussein al-Muttanabi (915-965) writes:
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The sword is truer in tidings than the books,
On its edge lies the border between gravity and sport.
Blades in their whiteness, not pages in their blackness,
Array to sweep away uncertainty and doubt.
Knowledge is in the fire of spears,
Shining between two hosts, not in the seven spheres.
Hat tip to Victor Davis Hanson.