This week’s Muslim rioting in France was touched off when a policeman in the town of Trappes gave a ticket to a Muslim woman who was wearing a face veil, in violation of French law. Her husband, enraged at this affront to the family honor, attacked the cop and began trying to strangle him. His arrest in turn enraged his fellow Muslims, and now the rioting is entering its fourth day and has spread to nearby Elancourt, with so far twenty cars torched and Muslims shooting at police.
According to CBS News, France prescribes “small fines or citizenship classes for women wearing veils.” Thus this veiled woman’s offense is roughly the equivalent of getting a parking ticket. Nonetheless, for her husband the ticket was an offense warranting strangulation.
A Western husband might not think that the proper response to his wife’s getting a ticket would be to try to strangle the policeman, but that is precisely what the strangler and the rioters would consider to be a central failing of the West: that it lacks a sense of honor. As the social anthropologist Raphael Patai observed in his monumental The Arab Mind, in Arab culture, “cost what it may, one must defend one’s public image. Any injury done to a man’s honor must be revenged, or else he becomes permanently dishonored.”
Even though most Muslims today are not Arabs, Arab culture has a strong influence upon and large area of overlap with Muslim culture, for Muslims generally bear Arabic names, and are required to pray and read the Qur’an in Arabic, making for a strong Arabic coloring to Islamic religious observance in general. With regard to honor, the devout husband in France may have assumed that if he had not attacked the police officer, he would have stood dishonored for failing to respond to an affront to his family and his religion. Thus once the ticket was issued, the attack on the officer was virtually inevitable.
What’s more, once the policeman had dishonored the Muslim woman who was wearing a veil by giving her a ticket, and once her husband had been arrested for trying to strangle the police officer, the riots were also essentially inevitable. They, too, were a matter of honor. As Patai notes, “there is a strong correlation between honor and group survival. Honorable behavior is that which is conducive to group cohesion and group survival.” Intriguingly, Patai points out that “although Muhammad condemned `asabiyya [family or tribal spirit] as contrary to the spirit of Islam, this could not eliminate it from the consciousness of the Arabs. Ibn Khaldun, the great fourteenth-century theoretician of Arab history, even went so far as to uphold “`asabiyya as the fundamental bond of human society and the basic motivating force in history.”