The Secret Weapon Muslims Must Use Against Extremism

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rob Asghar Member, Pacific Council on International Policy

Let's take a moment to appreciate fully the response of Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab's family to his drift into extremism. Let's not gloss over how excruciating it must have been for his father to violate the bonds of family solidarity to make others aware of the risk his own son posed.

It's not a lot, but it's a start. The actions of the father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, may not have made a tangible difference in the Christmas Day attack. But he served notice that a family such as his sees extremism as a dishonor of their own proud name -- an even greater dishonor than having their family's problems come to public attention. Let's not underestimate the power of this action. It redefines shame in a powerful and effective way.

Many Muslim parents over the centuries have kicked out children who disgraced them by choosing to follow other religions. Not long after 9/11, I began to argue that such Muslim parents should be slower to kick out kids who are insufficiently pious and quicker to kick out children who are overly extreme.

Shame is an exotic, foreign concept for most Americans. That's because we are a society based on the interests of the individual, not on the interests of the group. And shame is the glue for societies that are based on group and community interests, from the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent to East Asia.

Parents from shame-based cultures are constantly groaning about how they've been disgraced or even destroyed by the life choices of their rotten kids. It usually nips rebellion in the bud. A first-born male returns from foreign lands and distant romances to be close to his shaming parents. Children become doctors instead of poets even though prefer playing with words than playing with cadavers. Some will marry the opposite sex instead of the same sex and resign themselves to lives of quiet desperation. They pretend to be religious when they are not. And so on.

Shaming also explains how some Japanese and Koreans can find the suicide of a disgraced man somehow ennobling, and how Japanese fighters could fly suicide missions in World War II without the promise of 40 pristine virgins or even, say, ten Delta Gammas. It explains how, when a young woman is raped in some tribal areas of South Asia, her brothers decide that the honorable thing is to kill her.

Yes, shame- and honor-based cultures can do odd things. But shame has generally been used over the centuries to exhort individuals to do the right thing. The perceptive American comedian and social critic Adam Carolla has frequently contended that American society is too free of shame, resulting in so much, well, shameful behavior in the age of TMZ and Facebook.

You cannot underestimate the useful power of shame in the war on terror (or whatever you choose to call it). Smart-alecks and cynics will say, "Yeah, Osama bin Laden sure repented when his family ostracized him." Okay, a true nut won't be swayed by mom's nagging. But American neocons and war hawks haven't been claiming that we're fighting a few nuts, they've claimed that we're fighting a dangerous theology with one billion adherents. If they believe that theology can tilt a person toward extremism, they should certainly be able to swallow that culture can work to nudge a person away from destructive pursuits.

Having spent years immersed in Muslim, Christian and secular cultures, I've found that culture drives behavior far more than beliefs or doctrines do. And shame is a cultural tool of astonishing power, a Weapon of Mass Conformity that Muslims around the world must now deploy.

You might even wonder if the U.S. military and media could become experts in shaming. It's been noted that Mutallab will go down in history as "the underwear bomber," without even the benefit of being a martyr. That's got to have a chilling effect on jihadists, who confuse violence with potency. We shouldn't torture captured members of this alpha-male crew, but maybe we can put them in dresses, especially those scandalously revealing sundresses. Just shameful. But I suspect this is an argument for another day.

Granted, shame can lead to societies becoming angry and unglued in the face of real and perceived humiliations, as you see in the Middle East. It can lead to a culture of victimization. It can lead people in those societies to lie and bluff, a lesson learned by many humiliated Western diplomats and businesspersons.

But shame will not go away overnight. And while it's present at the heart of the greater Middle East, Muslims there need to begin putting it to better use.

Perhaps Mutallab's family might someday be seen as minor pioneers in this way. The family may serve as what Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point called "permission-givers" -- those who give others the courage to do what they want to do yet fear to do. And this may represent devout Muslims' best immediate hope to advance the argument that their faith represents an honorable way of life.