Immorality… or Honor?

In a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor, Alan Dershowitz takes aim at Hamas for “its unlawful and immoral policy of using its own civilians as human shields, behind whom they fire rockets at Israeli civilians.” While I share Dershowitz’s repugnance at the Hamas tactics, the good professor really should be careful in using the terms “unlawful” and “immoral,” especially since he is both a lawyer and a law professor.


Because both terms are culture-centric. Laws are enacted by societies, and societies can enact laws based on very differing values, reflecting different “morals” and resulting in codification and sanctioned behaviors that would be illegal and immoral in other societies… or in other times. Less than a century and a half ago, slavery was legal and considered moral in half the United States, and depriving women of most legal rights was the practice in most western nations. Little more than a half-century ago, the German Reich legally removed civil rights from Jews and other “undesirables” as part of a declared public policy to return ethnic purity and “morality” to Germany.

In fact, Dershowitz’s words highlight exactly the problem the industriocratic western nations face in dealing with other cultures, particularly alien cultures. Make no mistake about it. Regardless of historical background, the vast majority of Islamic cultures and subcultures are in fact alien to the west, particularly to “liberal” Anglo-Americans.

Because such Islamic cultures in effect enshrine what might loosely be called male honor, other values become secondary, or even non-existent. Regardless of rhetoric or “explanations,” in reality, women exist largely as possessions to serve and service men. Children, except the males, and only the eldest, are largely expendable or valued only so far as they earn some form of upkeep. Any act, particularly by women, that can be seen to tarnish or diminish male honor must be punished. Since land ownership is a reflection of such honor, any nation or individual who takes land is an enemy of not only the individual, but of the culture, and no sacrifice — including the deaths of innocent women and children — is too great to make in the name of reclaiming that honor.

Needless to say, most westerners find these values disturbing, if they even acknowledge the presence and predominance of such values, and all too many scramble to find a common ground that does not exist. I obviously believe that current western law and accepted morality, even with all its considerable shortcomings, are superior to what I see in Islamic cultures, both in practice and in terms of their effects on those who are powerless or who have less power. By the same token, however, it’s very clear that the Islamic fundamentalists earnestly believe that their laws and morals are superior, and that they are acting in accord with what they believe.

Although we’re seeing a similar polarization on “moral” issues in the United States, on such issues as abortion, gay rights, gun control, etc., the differences between our factions are not nearly so great as between the “west” and “Islam.” Under these circumstances, arguing who is “right” is not only useless, but senseless, because the true believers, especially the Islamic ones, are not going to change their beliefs. They’d rather die first — or have others die first — and they’re doing both. And that means the only way to end the conflict, like it or not, is by destroying one culture or the other. They understand this; we apparently still have a hard time grasping it.

Destruction, I might add, does not necessarily require massive military might alone. It can be accomplished in a number of ways, but all, whether economic, political, educational, military, or some combination of all four, require the application of force. The Israelis understand this, but they’re hampered by a lack of resources and by the lack of understanding on the part of most Western cultures.

And claiming that what Hamas does is immoral and unlawful is almost beside the point. The real issue is how high a price a culture is allowed to put on male honor… and how long the rest of the world is willing to pay for it.