Women-cameleers from Bedouin village
Women-cameleers from Bedouin villageצילום: iStock

Most criticism of Islam focuses on violence sanctioned and promoted by Islamic teachings and on rampant disrespect and oppression of women, and sexual and religious minorities.

These attitudes, as hateful as they are, are not the real reasons hindering progress (other than military efforts) in the Islamic world. After all, Wilhelmine Germany and Meiji Japan also held power and military strength in high regard, relegated women to a secondary role and denied sexual and religious minorities equal rights.

Yet both Wilhelmine Germany and Meiji Japan developed rapidly and contributed important scientific and intellectual discoveries to mankind.

None of this applies to the Islamic world which in almost 1,000 years has achieved little worthy of respect without enormous natural resources and the toil or exploitation of religious minorities. Thus, Islamic societies not blessed by natural wealth or laborious non-Muslim minorities are invariably cesspits of strife, underdevelopment, and despotism.

I am not an anthropologist, nevertheless my years in East Jerusalem, knowledge of Arabic and Islam, in addition to daily interactions with Muslim pupils from many cultures, allow me to surmise why Islamic ethics do not promote progress.

As a teacher in Germany I quickly noticed that the worst insult tossed by Muslim pupils is the epithet "ehrenlos“ (lacking in honor). As a naive Western, I assumed that the concept of "Ehre“ or "honor“ was akin to that I am familiar with thanks to a 20th-century childhood.

Alas, my repeated attempts to label lying, deception and dishonesty as lacking in honor, repeatedly elicited nonplussed reactions of astonishment and incomprehension. It then dawned on me that the concept of "honor“ we know in the Western world is different to the concept of honor known in the Ummah.

Whereas a dishonorable person in the West is a person who is untrustworthy and unreliable, in the Islamic world to be dishonorable just means to lose face. And the reasons a Muslim loses face are rarely related to dishonesty or unreliability. A Muslim is seen as losing face if he is weak, effeminate, or if his womenfolk are not chaste.

The whole of Muslim morality orbits around proving oneself stronger, more virile, and bonded to women with chaste mores. All residual virtues are more or less irrelevant.

Once this is understood, Muslim behavior that a Western may construe as hypocritical or incoherent suddenly becomes both clear and logical.

For example, if a Muslim academic invited to an academic conference in the Caribbean makes a big fuss about the fact that non-halal meats are served at an official banquet and yet, the same night, is sighted in a brothel, there is no inconsistency.

The halal banquet had nothing to do with religious piety. It was just a point of honor meant to demand official acknowledgement and respect for Islam. The same Muslim who at night slipped into a brothel would have never attended a striptease organized by the academic conference. The reason is that whereas patronizing prostitutes is a private affair, official involvement in Western debauchery would make him lose face as an ambassador of the Ummah.

Likewise, a Muslim employer will boast about how important Allah and Islam are to him and at the same time mistreat a Muslim employee in a way that would shame even a racist Westerner. The reason this is no problem is because naked displays of power and superiority are seen as enhancing a Muslim’s prestige and reputation.

A male Muslim pupil will openly speak about his right to have non-Muslim girlfriends and argue that the quality and sincerity of his faith is a matter that only Allah is able to judge. At the same time, a Muslim girl would never be allowed to advance the same argument. Not because sexual promiscuity is allowed to males and forbidden to females according to Islamic doctrines, but because a promiscuous Muslim woman dishonors her menfolk, making them lose face. And losing face is the greatest disgrace in the eyes of a Muslim.

A good example of how deeply Muslim ethics and behavior are shaped by social conformism is a mini-experiment I loved to perform as a graduate student in Jerusalem. I would often smile and blink to religious Jewish and Muslim teenagers sitting in buses while I stood outside.

Virtually all religious Jewish teenagers looked away when I smiled at them. On the other hand, it was not rare for religious Muslim students to smile even when I winked at them.

On their bus seat they were sure that their smiles would not be seen by any brothers or cousins and they openly flirted in a way that their society would never accept. This flirting is also not accepted by religious Jewish society, but whereas Jewish ethics place value on inner conviction as the cornerstone of ethical behavior, Muslim societies emphasize the dishonor or loss of face that unchaste, weak or effeminate behavior entails. In other words, unethical behavior that does not entail social sanction is no big deal even for nominally religious Muslims.

Honesty is also not a strong suit of Islamic ethics. It is true that there are plenty of Hadith that praise the Muslim who is truthful and trustworthy. Nevertheless, truthfulness and honesty are seen as supererogatory virtues that rank relatively low in the scale of Muslim virtues.

Islam fully accepts and respects half-truths and fibs that advance the interests of Islam above those of non-Muslims. When one reads the 1001 Nights and similar lore the most striking aspect is that the heroes are not those who reveal the dishonesty and underhandedness of evil characters, but those whose dishonesty and underhandedness surpasses that of the evil characters. In other words, dishonesty and deceit are not inherently evil. They are only evil when they don’t advance the interests of Islam and Muslims.

Consciousness of heaven and hell plays a huge role in the worldview of Muslims. Despite this consciousness being stronger than among pious Christians, the end result does not appear to be a higher level of Muslim integrity and ethics. The reason may well be that for Muslims hell is just a temporary punishment. Any Muslim who dies professing faith in Allah and Mohammad will eventually enter heaven regardless of rotten earthly behavior. In other words, the believing Muslim has no real reason not to sin and follow the injunctions of his religion. Eventually, just by virtue of his doctrinal orthodoxy, he is rewarded with eternal bliss.

In the end, the only tangible effect of Islamic doctrines on the afterlife is to breed a redoubtable sense of superiority over non-Muslims who, regardless of their moral virtues and ethical behavior are condemned to perpetual hellfire according to islam. As the Indian Muslim leader Mohamed Ali candidly remarked, Mahatma Gandhi "is lower than the most wretched Muslim."

The sum of disregard for honesty, disdain for non-Muslims, and a sense of honor mainly concerned with not appearing weak, unmanly or related to unchaste women, renders Muslim societies inherently corrupt, oppressive and patriarchal. As a result, Muslim societies do not just breed violence and poverty, but also a dogmatic sense of superiority grounded on nothing but wishful thinking.

Nevertheless, it would be unwise to ignore the virtues that Islam does foster and that play a major role in safeguarding the good name and reputation of Muslims, as individuals and collectively.

After residing almost 15 years in Berlin, I can confidently state that the primary factor restraining any outbreak of anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred of Islam, is the fact that almost all interactions with Muslims are more pleasant than analogous ones with ethnic Germans.

Whereas pregnant women or elderly men can otherwise only rely on legal rights, whenever they are on a bus or the subway the first passenger to cede them a seat is often Muslim. Elderly customers normally expected to retrieve every single cent needed to pay a bill, can usually count on Arab and Turkish shopkeepers to waive these small debts. German parents will feel plenty of joy after the small gifts of such shopkeepers make their young children smile.

These gestures, added to external warmth and friendliness, generate a goodwill toward Muslims not warranted by official statistics and the disproportionate share of social and security problems created by Muslim immigrant communities.

Muslim hospitality and courtesy are also crucial instruments of Arab hasbara. After working two years in an NGO active in the 'West Bank', I can assert that ideological blinders and political bias may well be secondary factors predisposing foreign journalists to be critical of Israel. The real reason is that as long as one is not seen as a Zionist, one is very unlikely to experience unpleasant encounters with Arabs in East Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria.

I recall visiting the Palestinian Arab legation in Berlin to present a peace plan I had been involved in crafting. The ambassador was exquisitely gracious and went as far as personally serving me coffee.

Let me contrast this experience with one involving a senior hasbara activist in Jerusalem. Despite knowing me for years and deeply appreciating my work and efforts on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people, he started using dental floss in the middle of a video conference call!

Anyone who wishes to witness the power and wisdom of gracious interpersonal skills can do so by posing as a sympathetic Christian tourist in the Old City. Given my personal experience, it is likely that Arab shopkeepers will invite you to drink coffee and ask about the well-being of your children and grandchildren. In the Jewish Quarter, on the other hand, a lecture about how the nations hate Jews ever since G-d chose the Jewish people is no remote possibility, and although understandable, not the way to make friends and influence people.

In other words, it is important for Israelis and Zionists not to underestimate the value and importance of the above-named Islamic virtues in advancing the interests of Israel’s enemies. (They are, as elucidated above, on another plane, unconnected to truth and honesty or Arab savagery in attacking enemies.)

Although there is a broad and justified consensus that overall Israeli and Jewish values lie at the antipodes of Arab and Muslim values, this reality should not deter us from learning and emulating the ones serving Arabs and Muslims so well.

Rafael Castrograduated from Yale and Hebrew University. A Noahide by choice, Rafael can be reached at [email protected]