Guilt Matters?

Culturalism as a grand narrative

Post-modernists pretend to be against all grand narratives. They have nevertheless raised one notion to the realm of a grand narrative: Culture.1 Let me call this Culturalism, an interpretation of life, social phenomena and the behavior of men according to immutable essences and sole identities usually grounded in religion and language. Its founding fathers in geopolitics, Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, attributed to communities and collectivities essential cultural attributes and singular identities, which always implied hierarchies, distinctions and inequalities—as in Samuel Huntington’s having proned the uniqueness of the West, the West and the Rest, and so on. The qualities that one culture possessed, others necessarily lacked.

In his book, The Geopolitics of Emotions,2 Dominique Moïsi explored how emotions define—and even embody—cultures. He provided an alternative theorization of what has previously been attributed to ideology. In his argument, China and India are recognized as cultures of hope, but “hope” is not the cause of what he identifies as the “extraordinary economic accomplishments” of both countries. It is rather their result. The Middle Eastern states are diagnosed as “culture[s] of humiliation”, which he explains is due to the region’s historical decline, its role as a subservient political conduit for the interests of the West, and the creation and expansion of the state of Israel. This culture of humiliation is represented as the crucible for terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

Assuming that humiliation is the emotional leitmotif in these societies, it is mystifying how it might so suddenly produce the tidal waves of anti-authoritarian popular democratic movements that we have most recently seen. Would Moïsi argue that the Arab insurgencies are the birth of another culture altogether, or might he come to reckon that culture should not be dealt with so lightly? With the impact of the September 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center, and the West’s fixation on terrorism, Moïsi attributes to Europe a “culture of fear”; a fear of the continent’s regression and loss of its role as superpower to the supremacy of America. His “theory” leaves the rest of the world unclassified in terms of “culture” or “emotion”, and the hard cases that do not fit his culturalist straightjacket are simply eluded: countries such as Iran, Israel, or Russia, to name a few.

Another strain of culturalism has quite a bit of currency, and is coupled with a neo-liberalist purview. It propones an “over-the-counter, take-out” version whereby dominant values, emotions and moods can be transmitted by means of education, training, and advocacy. The Arab world has been a great consumer of this packaged promise of “acculturation” offered over the past two decades. The curriculum of the transfer of knowledge is on its “menu”, in addition to questions of democracy, interpretations of its absence, and its relationship to Islam. Thankfully, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have simply turned almost all of its assumptions and presumptions upside down, in devastating, novel and imaginative ways.

To illustrate in more detail the programs of the packaged transfers of “culture” served to Arab consumers, a notable amount of workshops were conducted in cities across the region to teach Arab youth the “culture of optimism”, after a survey of 300 Egyptian youth (out of a population of 85 million) found that ninety percent confessed to being more pessimistic than optimistic. Another survey conducted in Jordan surfaced that Jordanian males had a strong proclivity to frowning, so workshops were held to inculcate “hope” and “joy”. There were also workshops on the “culture of leadership” to facilitate the attending youth’s joining the club of those who “made it”. Eventually, attendants adhered to an association called the “Young Arab Leaders”, in which the “leaders” were upwardly mobile businessmen in their thirties or forties. In Lebanon, a political movement enlisted the services of the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi to produce a campaign around the slogan “We Love Life”, to promote their creed, the “culture of life” in contrast with their political adversaries, who glorify the “culture of death”. The said adversaries in this context are Hizbollah and his allies, accused of glorifying a “culture of death”—a no less dubious notion that resonates with the Shiite tradition of martyrdom, but was implied by the party’s exclusive hold on “culture”, in their armed resistance against Israel.

Culture of Guilt and Culture of Shame

A third vein of culturalism confronts the West’s “culture of guilt” with the East’s “culture of shame”. The difference between the two is supposed to shape uneven temperaments and dynamics that privilege the West’s culture of guilt. Ronald Sharp expounds “the seduction of guilt” that leads to the acquisition of new knowledge and propels the “guilty” towards the future.3 Views on the cultural superiority of the “guilty” have led a Lebanese journalist to propose that Arabs ought to inject shame-shrouded Arab societies with some western civilizing guilt.4

This binary division is paradigmatically orientalist because it regards cultural superiority to the West as a given, and argues by essentializing, generalizing and stereotyping. It is also the product of a comparative gaze, cast from a modernizing and individualist West to a traditional East, enduring “transition”, harnessed by irremediable patriarchy and tribalism.

The guilt / shame binary has arisen from two interpretive starting points. The first is religious, while the second is historical. Consider, for instance, the frequent references to the story of Adam and Eve and the original sin as foundational myths of guilt. Indeed, Adam and Eve may have felt guilty because they ate the forbidden fruit, but the story of their fall is also a story of shame, because their nudity was exposed. On the one hand, that story is not exclusive to Judeo-Christian writ; it is very much present in Islam. On the other hand, Islam has its own remarkable lot of traditions of guilt.

Another important element of the West’s culture of guilt is the Holocaust. A number of revisionist historians and scholars have been arguing that the legacy of the Holocaust is shame rather than guilt. In her book From Guilt to Shame, Ruth Leys, as Giorgio Agamben,5 proposes an interpretation of the Adam and Eve story using the code of shame rather than guilt. The shame of being human, shame of the camp, shame of the fact that what should not have happened did happen, and the shame “we” endure because of our basic nudity.6

Role Reversal: David and Goliath

Despite the fact that the story of David and Goliath appears in the Qur’an, the biblical story (jaloutin Arabic) has not marked traditional Arabo-Islamic narratives and has yet to enjoy the multiple brilliant variations and interpretations that the story of Joseph has for instance, both in Arabic and Persian classical literature.


Arabs have nonetheless experienced another version of that myth in their “contemporary” quotidian, because it is one of the founding myths and enduring propagandist representations of the state of Israel. Since its emergence as an independent state, Israel has represented itself as the defenseless David facing the demographically overwhelming and militarily overpowering Arab Goliath—an everlasting threat to the very existence of Israel.

The contemporary refashioning of the myth hardly matches reality. According to a CIA report from July 1948, the forces of the Israeli-David totaled more than double the numbers of troops of the eight Arab-Goliath armies combined (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia in addition to the Arab irregulars of the Salvation Army). In numbers, some 110 600 Jewish Zionist men were pitted against 46 800 Arab men. It should be added that the Zionist leadership, as well as its American overlords, had no doubt about the outcome of the war and the victory of the Zionist armies.7

Sometimes, however, myths play strange tricks on their progenitors; in the case of the modern-day Middle Eastern restaging of David and Goliath, a vexing role reversal has taken place over time, undermining the very code of identification. With the First Intifada, it became increasingly difficult to convince the world of an Israeli David fighting a legitimate war against the formidable Palestinian Goliath in the West Bank and Gaza. Most recently, another illustration of the role reversal was glaring with the Israeli David bravely slaying the Freedom Flotilla/Goliath that attempted to shore in Gaza.

The role reversal was best embodied during the Palestinian Intifadas where the sling of David passed to the grips of stone-throwing Palestinian boys. It caused serious concern in Israel, for instance, when during a meeting in Sydney, Australia, Michelle Rojas-Tai from the Israel education organization StandWithUs asked: “How do you challenge the image of a small (Palestinian) boy throwing a stone at an (Israeli) tank?”8

The reference to David and Goliath is intended to emphasize the question, how do we turn the Israeli Merkava tank around into a David and the sling-carrying Palestinian boy into a Goliath? Education is about turning things around, it would seem. Not a simple task, and which became even more difficult when Israel-David was incapable of defeating Goliath in the July 2006 war against Lebanon. Nevertheless, with additional effort and shots of western guilt culture, the educational “turning around” operation might work. It is working.

Caravaggio, David and Goliath, 1610 © Galleria Borghese, Rome
When Picasso meets Caravaggio

In Caravaggio’s paintings of David and Goliath, the relationship between the paintings and the painter’s life is not given from the beginning. In the 1599 version, the young David was modeled after the young painter himself. In the 1607 version, there were no changes, even though the painting was done after the painter had committed homicide. In the third and final version in 1610, David was still modeled after young Caravaggio, but he lifts the severed head of a Goliath who bears a striking resemblance to the older Caravaggio.

The 1610 version can be regarded to contain an admission of guilt and a plea for redemption, but the guilty is visibly punished with by a death sentence. The irony is that the younger Caravaggio has beheaded the older Caravaggio. Here, the reversal of roles and responsibilities proposes a totally different interpretation than the mere use of the biblical story as a pretext for a painting; the painter represents himself interchangeably perpetrator and victim. This perpetrator/victim “double”, as René Girard coined it, lead me to Pablo Picasso and the Lebanese civil war.

In 1987 I published a book titled Guernica-Beirut, A Picasso Mural / An Arab City in War in Arabic. Three themes were interlaced throughout the book. For my Lebanese readers I recounted the story of another civil war between a republican camp and a fascist camp backed by a foreign military intervention. That scheme was not dissimilar from the war Lebanon had been enduring since 1975. It had started as a duel between a camp seeking social and political reforms and the other defending the status quo, but both protagonists drew the Palestine Liberation Organization, Syria and Israel into the conflict. The bulk of Guernica-Beirut, however, is a multi-disciplinary and multi-layered analysis of Picasso’s masterpiece, read in the context of the Spanish master’s artistic production from the declaration of the Spanish Republic to the end of the Second World War. The third theme, a variation on how life imitates art, juxtaposes details from Picasso’s Guernica with scenes from the Lebanese wars, with a focus on the Israeli invasion and siege of Beirut in 1982.

I looked at Picasso’s masterpiece with eyes that have experienced a civil war. The fact that the different stages in the conceptualization and execution of the painting have been preserved allows viewers to track how the painter started from representing the tragic destruction of a Basque town by German warplanes, moved on to glorifying the resistance against fascism and ended with a vivid denunciation of the horrors of war. The mural stages a tragedy and depicts carnage, but the enemy/ perpetrator is not formally represented. In Picasso’s familiar use of condensation, it is found “condensed” in the bodies of its victims: the wounded collapsed horse, the mother carrying her dead child, the broken and dispersed gait of the fighter’s body. On the right side of the painting, consider the falling woman whose body fuses with a burning beam: their figure suggests the sketch of an airplane, the very weapon that has caused the tragedy. On the far left end of the painting, consider the wounded bird that seems to have been slain by an instrument that resembles its wing. The main hero of this tragedy is the bull. Usually symbolizing the enemy to be fought and killed in the bullfight, it figures here as the symbol of everlasting Spain, to which all the characters of the tragedy appeal in search of help, strength and salvation.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937 © Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid

What Use Is Guilt in Civil Wars?

In post-war Lebanon, a number of direct confessions by militiamen who killed during the different wars—meaning not only fought—have been collected. One striking question repeated in those interviews was whether they would do it again, given the same circumstances? Most of the militiamen’s testimonies repeatedly answered in the affirmative.

Most interesting were confessions of Asaad Shaftary, who was chief of security in the strongest Lebanese militia, the (Christian) Lebanese Forces (LF). Before the war ended in 1989, Shaftary left for Switzerland. Shortly thereafter, he dispatched a short mea culpa to the media, where he asked his compatriots who suffered from his acts to pardon him. An openly repentant Catholic, Shaftary eventually returned to Lebanon, created his own NGO dedicated to justice and reconciliation. Most of what he has to say about his experience is published in an interview in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat. Among the many acts of torture, kidnapping, assassinations and car bombs he confessed to having committed, was a plot he considered with the complicity of Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the LF at the time. It primarily included poisoning the water conduits that ran from the predominantly Christian eastern flank of Beirut to its predominantly Muslim western flank with the objective of “reducing the number of Muslims in the country”.

Astoundingly, Shaftary’s confessions hardly provoked reaction or comment. I propose two possible interpretations for the absence of reaction; the first is prevailing amnesia and the second is the chilling horror of the confession itself, which in Lebanon can only be interpreted in sectarian terms.

In this post-trauma situation, guilt is integral to the larger issue of memory. There are three mental processes related to trauma: amnesia as a failure of memory and/or a form of repression of memory that follows the same logic of substitution and displacement as in the individual psyche: less important events and narrative replaces the more important ones; secondary causes take the place of primary ones; memory; forgetting.

A simplistic juxtaposition between memory and forgetting pits one against the other. In his stimulating essay, Les Formes de l’oubli, Marc Augé argues the opposite: oblivion is but “a component of memory itself”.9 One does not remember everything and one does not forget everything. That means that one is always forgetting. More importantly, Augé maintains that repression of memory—i.e. amnesia—does not apply to the event, to the remembrance, or to the isolated trace in our brainper se; amnesia severs the connections between memories or traces. Here is where the question of amnesia and causality meet.

Why remember a civil war? The “simple” answer is: To avoid another one. For the answer not to be as simplistic, one has to define what to remember and what to forget: events or causes, fragments and traces or links and relations.

In the case of Lebanon, two elements are at play: officially-coerced amnesia and amnesty. Officially-coerced amnesia is a process that exploits a general tendency among survivors of wars to repress memory to the benefit of vested interests in power and money. The alliance of businessmen and warlords that took power after the war was especially keen to block any discussion of the question of whether war could have been averted. Presenting the war as an obvious fatal predicament, with all the allusions to “conspiracies”, was how they chose to repress the question.

There is another reason for orchestrated amnesia. The need to rebuild the country’s economic, social, and political system on the same bases as before the war—namely a sectarian sharing of power and unbridled free trade economy based on finance and trade. The mechanisms commonly operated either by imposing taboos or severing links between events and time periods. The civil war was represented as the “war of others” or “war for others” on the Lebanese territory, in order to break any causal link between the pre-war period and the war itself. Both formulations absolve the Lebanese at large from any guilt, responsibility or accountability for the war. “Others” bear the blame; “others” can be any protagonist as the scapegoat. This is where the motif of “shame” creeps in. War tarnishes the reputation of Lebanon and the Lebanese in the world. By absolving themselves of any responsibility in their civil wars, a new “virginity” can be concocted for their business reputation.

The 1989 amnesty law took care of accountability and punishment concerning warlords. They in fact became the country’s new rulers, and signed the judicial stamp on the innocence of the Lebanese in their wars. All criminal acts perpetrated between April 1975 and December 1989 were granted amnesty. Moreover, the law included an additional aberration, as if to further humiliate the hundred thousand victims of the war—to not speak of the wounded, handicapped and thousands of disappeared. It namely considered exceptional the death of a dozen politicians and religious dignitaries killed during that period. Identified as “crimes against the security of the State”, they were still liable to prosecution. In other words, a few hundred innocent civilians killed in a massacre did not warrant prosecution, but the killing, or attempted killing, of a politician or a religious dignitary, did.

The above situation can only result in the obligation of memory and the need for forgetfulness.

Presently, the process of remembrance is focused mainly on war as violence, guilt included. That has been the main activity of most of the NGOs concerned with memory and violence. What is suggested, in contrast, is the reconstitution of the memory of causes, or a memory that remembers causes and seeks to recreate those links and relations between events, causes and effects and periods of time that amnesia had shattered. Once there is enough distance from the trauma, the civil war can be narrated as a past, rather than perpetually re-enacted in the present, and on an individual and collective scale.

Here is precisely the role of forgetting, for which we owe Ernest Renan an interesting proposal: a nation is built on shared memories as well as on shared oblivions. In the case of Lebanon the horrors of the civil war, the killings, the vendettas, massacres, the various forms of violence (physical, ritual or symbolic), “had better been forgotten”, to use Renan’s words concerning the massacre of Saint-Barthélemy, of Protestants, in the French Midi, in the thirteenth century.10

We can only forget what we can remember. Mahmoud Darwish’s memoir of the Israeli siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982 is titled Memory of Forgetfulness, in which he argues that of all that concerns us, one can willfully forget only what one remembers; namely, the parts recuperated from oblivion and amnesia. One can also choose to forgive, if people are to continue living together. An Arab adage claims that man is called “insan because he is “nasin”, or oblivious. Forgetting can be constructive; even human.

  • 1.  Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). 
  • 2.  Dominique Moïsi, The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World (New York: Doubleday, 2009). 
  • 3.  Ronald Sharp, “Guilt Vision and the Seduction of Knowledge”, Guilt conference I, Kate Hamburger Kolleg, Bonn, November 2010. 
  • 4.  Hazem Saghieh, Al-Hayat, 2010. 
  • 5.  Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz. The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 1999). 
  • 6.  Ruth Leys, From Guilt to Shame—Auschwitz and After (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007) 171–173. 
  • 7.  Irene Gendzier, "Palestine: 'A Thing Apart’ 1947–1949” (Unpublished paper, 2009) 41. 
  • 8.  Elly Shalev, “David and Goliath—Israel and the Media”, J-Wire (20 August 2010). 
  • 9.  Marc Augé, Oblivion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004) 20–25. 
  • 10.  Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (Paris: IEP, 1992) 41–42.