In our present day culture, we have been taught (usually at mother's knee) that “sticks and stones may break your bones but names can never harm you.” Annoying as it is to have people call you names, it does not warrant punching them in the face. But this is not so elsewhere, not did it used to be so in our own civilization's past. What we are talking about here is “the honor culture.”
Until the middle of the 19th century, gentlemen fought duels of honor. That by seriously wounding or killing an opponent who had either said something unpleasant about you or dishonored you (by seducing your wife), you were obliged to engage in a duel. That went out of style here-although one notorious duel was fought in our own history-that of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton died and Burr became an outlaw.
The Sicilian mafia, a holdover from a medieval past, has always been an honor society that punished disloyalty, above all sins, with death. A disloyal wife, along with disloyal colleagues, were so dispatched.
In today's world, the only “honor cultures” left are in the Muslim world. A man's honor, they tell us, rests in the women he “possesses,” wives, daughters, concubines, and even mothers. Should any of these women step out of line in their sexual behavior (even though falsely accused of this-or even as the victim of a male in the household), the men's honor is lost until the woman is murdered. In Muslim-majority countries, for the most part, the murderer of a woman for such purpose is lightly punished by the courts, if at all.
We only care about this when such an honor culture moves among us, such as the case of the outraged Muslim radio executive who decapitated his wife because she “dishonored him” by wanting a divorce, or the Texas taxi driver who murdered his college girl daughters whose “American ways” besmirched his “honor.” Europe has also been so awash in “honor killings” that they are finally starting to address.
So, how does the Muslim world feel about “sticks and stones?” We have seen the Afghan response to the stupid actions of an American pastor in Florida who held the Koran on trial, found it wanting, and “executed” it by burning it. A very stupid act, we would all agree, but one defended by our freedom of speech-even when obnoxious. He also said Islam is not a religion of peace, which outraged “peaceful” Muslims in Afghanistan. They proved him right. The Afghans considered this insult to their honor sufficient to go on a rampage of murder, slaughtering any UN officials they could find. To them, a book burning warrants human deaths.
One might also wonder how the honor of Pakistani fanatics was redeemed by blowing up a shrine of another Muslim sect, Sufis, and killing and wounding 50 people. Does worshipping Islam in a slightly different way demand a death sentence? Evidently so.
Israel, a modern state, regards sticks and stones in a different way. After enormous provocation by Hamas in Gaza hurling hundreds of rockets at them (sticks and stones), they went in the winter of 2008-9 to clean out the rocket factories and their perpetrators. Then the UN sent in a respected investigator, South African Judge Richard Goldstone, who urged both sides to investigate, but severely condemned Israel for deliberately targeting civilians. This report was devastating to Israel's reputation. Name calling can harm you.
After a new investigation, Goldstone acknowledged his report was mistaken. The Israelis had no government policy to target civilians. Hamas, however, not only plants their weapons among crowded civilian homes, but is happy to abuse civilians-theirs and Israel's. Goldstone has now condemned them for refusing to conduct the investigation he requested.
When it comes to “sticks and stones” and name calling that hurts, we must consider the source. Honor cultures do not think as we do, but we dishonor our own culture when we fear “offending” them.
By Laina Farhat-Holzman
Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of How Do You Know That? Contact her at Lfarhat102@a