Last night I overheard a conversation that probably every expat living in this part of the world has heard or been involved in. It's the idea that Arabs are "hypocritical" because of two perceived standards of behavior. Examples usually given are women who take off their abayas as soon as their airplane takes off for the West, men who drink alcohol in Bahrain or the UAE while never partaking of it at home, young people frequenting night clubs in London who don't even talk to members of the opposite sex back home, or political and religious leaders who say one thing in English when speaking to Westerners and something quite different to their own people on Al-Jazeera.
I also read an interesting sentence about young Saudi women yesterday in the Gulf Marketing Review. In an article entitled "Saudi Arabia's Eve-olution" author Sarah Abdullah wrote, "In addition there is a dichotomy between the personal and social life, espcially among women. The social dynamic in Saudi Arabia is such that women have to have two faces: a personal face, completely reserved for only their closest companions and the public face, far removed from her true self.
Without getting too philosophical or analytical, I think the "two faces" noted by Sarah has a much wider application than merely to young Saudi women. It's a duality that is at the heart of Arab thinking and that stretches back to the very roots of Islam. There is the Quran and the hadith, the Meccan suras and the Medinan suras (the two parts of the Quran with quite different emphases given when Muhammad lived in those two cities), the believer and the unbeliever, the House of Islam and the House of War, public behavior and private behavior, and Islam as a religion and as a social system.
I don't think we understand this very well in the West, but I think we need to put more effort into trying to. It's not that Arabs are hypocritical, but it is a different way of thinking.