Middle Eastern and Western cultures dealing with criminals



The study of Middle East and Western cultures dealing with crime is a point of active scientific discussion. Review of issues connected with crime is based on the thesis that cultural aspects are important for understanding the nature of these differences and working out principles of cultural integration in this sphere. Comparison of Middle East and Western cultures in crime aspect showed that cultural differences, revealed through Hofstede dimensions are reflected in reference to crime. Islamic cultures show stronger adherence to religious principles, while Western cultures are more influenced by social and political factors.

Discussion of Middle East and Western cultures in aspect of penal law leads to research in viewing Muslim culture through the biased attitude of the American majority. Prejudiced attitude and even islamophobia are created by media that pictures Islamic or Arab people as aggressive terrorists. It especially concerns Islamic penal law. This can be partially explained by political reasons, but the main reasons are connected with misunderstanding Islamic culture. It can be evidenced by statistics of penal code applied in real legal practices. It shows the difference between real law in Muslim countries and religious statements.  The study provides the comparative analysis of Western and Middle Eastern judicial ethical systems by describing their key elements and addressing their drawbacks and advantages. This analysis indicates the main difference between these two models: the promotion of collectivistic ethics and morality by Islamic judicial ethics and the individualistic approach within the Western model. The study allows concluding that these models do not have an overwhelming advantage over the other. The paper suggests that the cultural exchange and enrichment would have a positive effect on both Western and Middle Eastern judicial ethics.


In modern societies crime has become a common phenomenon. Societies of the world deal with crime through the systems of detention and punishment. Different cultures have developed different ways of addressing crime. At the same time there is an international justice system that presupposes that there is a general basis of dealing with crime. In modern world communities are migrating, and there is no cultural isolation, but a strong need for cultural integration. Thus it is very important to understand what defines a certain community law system. Since different scientific approaches to the study of crime show that it is a multi-faceted phenomenon, it is evident that in modern multicultural world it is important to focus on cultural implications of crime. The study of cultural differences in law systems can reveal why Middle Eastern law is considered barbaric in modern society and help to integrate different cultural systems.

In modern world where there are a lot of conflicts at the regional and global levels, that is why it is necessary to understand to what extend cultural aspects determine appearance of societal norms and can lead to biased attitudes to outside groups in Middle East and Western societies. The situation with crime becomes the focus in scientific research of these cultural aspects. The examination of Middle East ideas about the nature of crime can often show that they seem barbaric, culturally unacceptable in comparison with Western values and ideas. Nevertheless, understanding the concepts and mechanism of this law system can lead to better understanding how both cultures deal with crime and how to achieve international view at crime.

Middle East Law System vs. Western Law System

The work of Pfeifer (2005) deals with the concept of crime in Islamic societies. Here the author indicates that the basic principles of Islamic law, especially those concerning the notion of crime are derived from the texts of Quran. These principles cover crimes that threaten Islam or society and correspond to Sharia’s penal code. They can be punished by death, in some cases shocking for Western society, for example, stoning in case of zena (adultery). In implementation of these principles there is desirable inclusion of “compassion and fair administration of justice” (Pfeifer, 2005, p. 508). Though these principles are general and govern relations between people and the Creator, they are very actively applied in real life practices. The author examines Saudi Arabia and Nigeria to discover that in practical implementation they often become modified, since they can become conflicting with government penal codes (Pfeifer, 2005). In the process of implementation some of the basic principles like the ascertainment of the truth, the determination of the responsibility of the accused, the remedy to the victim and the social remedy can be neglected or transformed (Pfeifer, 2005, p. 535). The consequence is harsh punishment in majority of cases and stronger manifestation of in-group favoritism.

Cultural aspects are revealed also in the study of Islamic wars. Thus Toft (2007) states that the governments and states identifying with Islam take part in much greater number of conflicts than those that identify with other religions. Nevertheless, the reason for this is not simplistically an adherence to Islam as a religion, but a combination of historical, geographical and structural factors.  The main mechanism is the way that political elites “work to reframe issues of contention as religious issues, especially attempting to outbid each other in an effort to establish religious credibility and thus attach domestic and external support” (Duffy, 2007, p. 97-98).

The phenomenon of outbidding involves among other aspects, a strong cultural one. Primarily it is connected with those ideas that were historically formed under the influence of Islam. The author shows that the notion of death is viewed from a different angle in Middle East cultures; there is religious understanding of unimportance of death in comparison with eternal reward that a religious person receives after death (Duffy, 2007). Thus there is a different view at one’s own life, which becomes less valuable in comparison with religious reward. Besides, active participation in Islamic wars is connected with the notion of Jihad, when the members of the world Islamic communities consider it to be their duty to participate in the war. The author stresses that religious outbidding can lead to strengthening the notion of jihad as elites compete for internal and external support (Duffy, 2007). Killing in such wars is considered not a crime, but an act of honor, thus the notions of crime in Middle Eastern and Western understanding differ. These views are supported by statistics and analyses of Sudanese wars. The main conclusion concerning cultural aspect of the problem is that Islamic countries show greater readiness for fusing state and church (Duffy, 2007).

Western culture government approach to dealing with crime demonstrates more temperance and preference of incarceration rather than capital punishment. This can be explained by inclination to Christian values of forgiveness and compassion. Grimsrud and Zehr (2002) state that “Western culture has explicitly theological roots dating back to the “Christianizing”…  the view of God … which shaped punitive practices of criminal justice and which continue to be foundational in present-day practices” (Putting Restorative Justice into Practice section).

Nevertheless it would be misleading to consider Western cultures driven purely by these values or considering anti-crime measures mild. Thus Schmidt, Warner and Gupta (2010) present statistics of growing incarceration rates that present the evidence of tough measures taken by police in dealing with non-violent offenders. The authors write that it cannot assist in reducing crime, moreover, “analysts are nearly unanimous in their conclusion that continued growth in incarceration will prevent considerably fewer, if any, crimes than past increases did and will cost taxpayers substantially more to achieve” (Schmidt, Warner & Gupta, 2010, p. 9).

The study of opinion opposite to government measures by Soss, Langbein and Metelko shows that there is a substantial support of capital punishment by white Americans. The authors state that “the symbolic link between race and crime partly reflects the high rate of violence in poor black neighborhoods”, which makes crime issues in the USA highly racialized. Thus the attitude to death penalty is governed by complex local factors, rather than by religious issues (Soss, Langbein & Metelko, 2003, p. 400). The evidence of religion irrelevance is given also by Campbell and Putnam (2012), who prove that religious issues become less important in the United States, where “a general electorate… increasingly finds the mixture of religion and politics distasteful” (p. 34). The matters of religion become highly politicized, and “religion” means “Republican,” “intolerant,” and “homophobic.” (Campbell and Putnam, 2012, p. 42).

Looking at this side in view of Hofstede cultural dimensions it is evident that religion determines specific aspects of culture in Islamic countries. This is greater power distance, greater collectivism and more uncertainty avoidance than in Western cultures. These characteristics lead to such structural organization of Islamic society that brings to harsher punishment for crime and increases the risk of war conflicts. Though interstate and regional wars can be treated with economic measures, the issue of biased societal norms in Islamic cultures remains a source of possible violent actions against different behavioral codes, deviant opinions, and disbelief in absolute Truth.

One more dimension is added in the study of Qurfali (2015), who stresses that the difference between Middle East and Western cultures can lie in the field of involvement (perception of life pleasures). Involvement is strongly manifested in Western cultures, not in Middle Eastern ones.  It often becomes the source of misunderstanding between two countries in questions of crime, for instance in dealing with adultery and marriage. Thus, in understanding the nature of the system dealing with crime it is important to see cultural implications and understand the role of culture and religion.

The Problem of Integrating Different Cultural Systems

In the multicultural world the only alternative to conflicts is integration. The study of different cases when integration is in process or successful can reveal the drawbacks in the systems of dealing with crime and suggest not only the ways of integration, but also the ways of improving these systems. The study of court cases in Michigan where there is a high proportion of Muslim population shows that there is constant overlapping of Sharia laws and American state laws (Alkhatib, 2013). The examined issues concern mostly family law cases. They showed that there is, on the one hand, prevalence of Sharia principles in common life: Americans, identifying themselves as Islam followers refer to Sharia principles in marriage, family life and divorce. On the other hand, there is imposition of federal laws even in cases of divorce, which shows “the judges have been injecting the court system into matters of religion to achieve what they see as a fair and equitable result” (Alkhatib, 2013, 105). Thus cultural integration can be difficult and lead to biased attitude towards Muslim minorities in a non-Muslim country.

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Positive experience of cultural integration is offered by Ourfali (2015), who examines expatriates’ work in Middle East countries. He notes that their experience of dealing with Western values can benefit them in dealing with questions of cross-cultural difficulties. It helps them to adjust to situations when different cultural principles are overlapping and there is a notion of various societal norms. They can shift their behavior easier, acting both as in-group members and outsiders. Cross-cultural experience helps them to modify Hofstede dimensions to exact situations (Ourfali, 2015).

Another approach to achieve cultural integration is connected with the spread of media (Internet, TV, radio), through which Western values can approach Middle East cultures. The fear that Islamic culture can lose its identity is not grounded as it is compensated by appearance of specific forms of media communication aimed at protecting the values of Islamic world and creating an authentic Islamic world in Western context (Palmer& Gallab).

The study of moral issues in dealing with crime problems leads some scientists to finding common ground that can hopefully become the basis of smooth cultural integration. The study of Grimsrud and Zehr (2002) shows that reverting from the principle of retribution to the principle of restoration can improve the crime system addressing the victim, the criminal, the families and the community. Such transition is possible only in case the named parties all participate in restoration process (Grimsrud & Zehr, 2002). Though the study is based on considering moral values of Christianity, it can outline perspective for integrated international justice system.

Diversity: Middle Eastern Law in Western Understanding

Defining crime and punishment in Middle Eastern and Western law is radically different and causes a lot of disputes and misunderstanding between two cultures. Moreover, Middle Eastern Law receives a very negative treatment in Western media, it is considered barbaric and inhumane. In disagreement between two visions it is clear that two ethnonational groups are competing on the arena in religious, government and military aspects. In this competition there is a clear in-group favoritism and outside-group bias, manifested in establishing superiority of social norms and ignoring the knowledge of what the other group’s religion entails. It is clear that the reason of this biased attitude is in misinterpreting norms of the other culture, which ranges from partial distortion of facts to complete ignorance of some aspects. This can be exemplified by negative Western attitude towards Middle Eastern Law, which is inspired, for example, by fear of Islam after terrorist attacks of 9/11 in America (Brooklier, 2015).

Media and scholarly research give numerous examples of how prejudice of the in-group is directed against the outside group. Krayem and Farache write that “the use of the term sharia conjures up images of a brutal, harsh and inhumane legal system, characterized by amputations, beheadings, and stoning to death” (2008). To many Americans, Islamic faith equals terrorism. The root of social media negativism towards the Muslim community is inaccuracy of fact presentation concerning Eastern Law.

Misunderstanding Islamic penal code is revealed by statistics. Thus the study of torture practices in Islamic countries by Resa (2007) shows that it is different from the stereotype of Islamic aggressiveness. Giving statistics Resa states that the majority of the countries considering themselves Islamic states or declaring Islam to be the state religion have joined the 1984 Torture Convention (2007, p.34). Denying that cruel punishments and torture are “widespread,” “routine,” “frequent,” in these countries, Human Rights Watch data suggests there is no strict correlation between commitment to Islam and torture practices. Rather it is influenced by the absence of democratic traditions (Reza, 2007, p. 40).

Statistics of apostasy followed by death verdict confirmed that in Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen it was officially accepted but in reality was applied only in two cases: one in Iran in 1994 and another in Sudan in 2014 (“Laws Criminalizing Apostasy”, 2014).  Consequently, statistics of penal practices also confirms the fact of politicizing and misinterpreting ideas of Islam penal code.

The root of misunderstanding is in treating Muslim Law as primarily a political law, as well as understanding Islam as a religion focused on political goals. Thus, Kabbani reviews Islamic scholars’ discussion of Sharia (“Understanding Islamic Law,” n.d.). They underline that Sharia originated in religion and was primarily understood as a moral issue. Kabbani states that appearance of penal law at a later stage of was a political step (“Understanding Islamic Law” n.d.). Extreme polarization of moral issues stated in Quran can create an autocratic state system of a dictatorship or even fascistic kind, but it is not a common kind of Islamic state (“Understanding Islamic Law,” n.d.).

The idea that Islamic law is misunderstood is supported by March and Modirzadeh (2013). They argue that the image of Islam as an aggressive religion of jihad is a great misinterpretation, since Islam offers “a choice between a defensive and an aggressive jihad doctrine” (March & Modirzadeh, 2013, 367). Moreover, some Islamic scholars can even interpret the notion of jihad as “inapplicable to an Islamic context since those categories derive from thinking about wars between nations or states” (March and Modirzadeh, 2013, p.372). Since some state authorities initiate an aggressive concept in their politics, it causes perception of Islamic culture as an aggressive one.

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In detailed study of jihad concept in scholarly discussion March and Modirzadeh consider Islamic law to be greatly influenced by political issues, which does not allow to conduct a substantial research of this rich, historically determined field of law. They observe that many scholars are compelled to defend Islam or Islamic law from simplistic and prejudiced attacks (March & Modirzadeh, 2013, p.389). They give a range of interpretations for this Law in Muslim studies, which confirms the opinion of political determination in interpreting the Law. As for its widely presented opposition to international law, there is evidence of both Laws coexisting. For example, Hamas and Hezbollah both acknowledge international law and claim to apply it in their ranks (March & Modirzadeh 2013, p.389). Understanding Islam properly is important, for it gives an opportunity to create diversity within international law. A different approach to understanding Islam can help to translate and transmit international legal norms and coexist with international law (March & Modirzadeh, 2013, p.389).

Another reason for negative attitude to Muslim culture and law is misunderstanding gender differences: being a man versus being a woman in the Muslim world and Western culture. In Western cultures women are pictured as emancipated and free society members. They take an active part in society life and even compete with men. Women in Muslim cultures are pictured as secondary to men and dependent. The first vision comes from modern media images, while the second one refers to religious understanding. Krayem and Farache write that mass media presents distorted images of Muslim women, in which “Muslim culture is presented as oppressively patriarchal” (“Grim Picture of Sharia Hides its Useful Aspects”, 2008). Such media images are outdated; they have a ground in prejudiced attitude to Muslims, who are considered strict conservative followers of Islam even in gender aspects. Krayem and Farache consider the fact an exaggeration (“Grim Picture of Sharia Hides Its Useful Aspects”, 2008). Though Muslim feminism appeared quite recently, nevertheless it is a power along with nationalist movement of the first part of the twentieth century.

Feminism achievements in Europe and North America are often used as justifications for attacking native Muslim societies, while appearance of feminism in the latter is often ignored. Mir-Hosseini states that though many Muslim women in Islamic states or Muslim diasporas in Western liberal states still follow patriarchal beliefs and laws there is a feminist minority challenging these beliefs and laws (2006, p. 645). Consequently, the picture of Islamic woman in media is not accurate.

As for modernity of countries involved, it presupposes public opinion of crime. Public opinion even in modernized Islamic countries is likely to be stricter in questions of morality (modesty in male-female relations, sexual morality, and drug and alcohol codes (Serajzadeh, 2001-2002, p.  127). To sum up, it’s not simply religious dogmas, but moral ideas and public opinion that contribute to low criminality, thus depicting uncertainty avoidance in Muslim cultures also contributes to misunderstanding the nature of Islamic law.

Ethical Perspective

The striking differences between the Middle Eastern society and Western society are extremely conspicuous in the globalized world. It may seem that these two civilizations are completely different. Judicial ethics is not an exception: Middle Eastern society, which can be considered as a religious and traditionalistic community, has a completely different view on the basic values of judicial system than the West. Islam plays a central role within the life of the Middle Eastern communities, defining the ethical principles of the judicial system. Basically, it is possible to equalize the terms ‘Islamic society’ and ‘Middle Eastern society’ in perspective of further research. In its turn, secularization and modernization define the judicial ethics on the West.

Ethical specifics

Firstly, it is necessary to describe the basic ethical system of the Middle Eastern judicial system. As it was mentioned, Islam plays a decisive tool in defining of the community. Consequently, religious beliefs shape the ethical aspect of justice.  As the result, sharia law (Islamic jurisprudence) is the main form of judicial system in the Middle East. The ethical aspect of sharia fully corresponds to Islamic ethics, applying the moral principles of Islam to the regulation of public and private life of the society and the individual. One of the basic principles of Islamic judicial ethics is the importance of religious community because sharia can be understood as ‘God’s plan that contains the rules for good order and human behavior that should guide his religious community’ (Otto, 2010, p. 25). It means that sharia court provides equal judgment to all Muslims within the community. Such an approach excludes ethnocentrism (favorable attitude to the certain ethnos) and in-group favoritism (preferable attitude to the certain members of the group).

Consequently, the importance of community and mutual aid are the basic values of judicial ethics in Islam. However, such a concentration on the unity of the community does not mean that Islamic ethical code disregards the rights and responsibilities of the individual. Instead, Islamic morality promotes self-discipline along with the constant development of the character (Darsh, 1992). For example, it protects the right to life: ‘The Qur’an mandates that that everyone has a right to life unless a court of law demands to kill: “Nor take life – which Allah has made sacred – except for just cause.’ (Peiffer, 2005, p. 508). In this perspective, the Middle Eastern judicial ethics can be characterized by the decisive influence of Islamic morality, which promotes the importance of the religious community along with the individual rights and responsibilities of a person.

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The characteristic features of the Western judicial ethics also have to be taken into consideration. Contrary to the Middle Eastern (Islamic) model, the Western judicial system is secular, which means that it does not experience the direct influence of religious morality (Alkhatib, 2013). Judicial ethics on the West derive from the Constitution, the basic document of any national judicial system that describes the rights and responsibilities of the governments, social groups, and the individuals. Such an approach disregards any cultural or religious identities: the Western court considers individual to be the basic moral value. Personal rights and freedoms play a decisive role in terms of the ethical judicial code of a significant part of Western World (Soss, 2003).

The other characteristic element of the judiciary ethics in the West is its proclaimed independence and objectivity: Western courts have a moral obligation to remain unbiased. By taking this into consideration, the secular Western society had elaborated such ethical passages, as the independence and objectivity of courts, as well as the focus on the individual rights and responsibilities.

Drawbacks and advantages

It is necessary to conduct the comparative analysis of the cross-cultural differences and describe the advantages of each ethical judicial model. Firstly, it would be incorrect to say that one model has a significant advantage over the other. If to compare Middle Eastern and Western judicial ethics, it becomes obvious they imply completely different approaches: Middle Eastern (Islamic) model emphasizes the importance of the community and religious identity, while the Western model is secularistic and focuses on the individual, disregarding any identities except citizenship. In terms of cross-cultural differences, the explanation of these patterns may be the fact that Eastern civilization is characterized by collectivism, while Western civilization promotes individualism. Accordingly, the judicial ethics of these two civilizations have certain advantages. By promoting the ‘moral ethics of the community’ Islamic judicial model emphasizes the importance of mutual aid and the equality of the members of the community (Otto, 2010).

The social status or the cultural identity cannot be the basis for the discrimination within Muslim society. At the same time, the emphasis on the individual rights in the West protects the person from the tyranny of the government or other institutions. In its turn, the independence of the court as the core ethical principle of the judicial system guarantees a fair trial for all members of the society. Considering this, the comparative analysis shows that advantages of Middle Eastern and Western ethical models are the promotion of mutual aid and protection of individual rights accordingly.

Judicial ethics of these regions also have certain drawbacks. Similarly, to their advantages, they also derive from the collectivistic and individualistic cultural elements. As the result of the lack of strong cultural or religious identity, an ethical judicial model of the West is exposed to the influence of influential groups that may affect the trial process. For example, the Middle Eastern regimes that tried to imply Western judicial ethics had to encounter ‘routine torture, arbitrary detentions, and unfair trials before military and state security courts’ within own judicial systems (Otto, 2010, p. 80). At the same time, Middle Eastern (Islamic) models frequently abuse human rights during the judicial practice (Otto, 2010), sacrificing personal freedoms in the interests of the Muslim community. By taking this into consideration, the main drawback judicial ethics of Middle East is the possibility of violating the individual rights, while the Western model is exposed to corruption and interference in the trial.


Review of scientific discussion, devoted to comparing Middle East and Western cultures in their attitude to crime showed the importance of cultural aspect in dealing with the issue. Nevertheless, cultural aspects are never examined in isolation but rather in combination with historical, geographical and structural factors. The examination reveals not only specificity of Islamic culture, but also peculiarities of dealing with crime in Western cultures. In both cases there is a reference to religious principles, determining the choice of law practices, but this reference is stronger in case of Islamic countries. In both cases there are transformations of religious principles. In Islamic cultures it is manifested in violating some Quran principles, in Western cultures it is seen in neglect of religion and strong prevalence of other factors, for example, racial and political. The study of the problem in question is not limited by analyses, but leads to search of possible cultural integration. In terms of Hofstede dimensions both cultures are different, but there are examples of integration that can lead to finding common ground.

The view at Middle East and Western cultures in aspects of in-group favoritism and outside group bias shows that in countries with a particular national majority there is an imposition of the majority values. It helps to establish the notion of superiority. It is revealed in the depiction of Islamic culture in Western media. Modern history and terrorism inspires fear of Islamic culture that is reflected in negative attitude to Islamic law. It is a result of misunderstanding and misinterpreting many aspects of Islamic culture. Overestimated are its adherence to religion, oppression of women and uncertainty avoidance. Real picture of Islamic culture is far from patriarchal stereotypes and demonstrated many common features with Christian culture. Though there are no working solutions of this misunderstanding, since it is based on religious preferences, the study of two cultures includes the recognition of resolution process.

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It is difficult to claim that Middle Eastern or Western judicial ethics is more efficient than the others. Such basic principles of Sharia law as mutual aid and unity of the community and Western values of individualism are definitely able to enrich each other. The analysis of the perspectives of the further research indicates that these ethical systems would have to coexist. Possibly, borrowing certain elements from each other would result in a more efficient judicial model for both Middle East and West. Despite the possible conflict of collectivistic and individualistic ethics, both approaches inevitably have own drawbacks and advantages Therefore, the comparative analysis of Middle Eastern and Western judicial ethics clearly indicates that the Islamic judicial system promotes such values as the unity of the community, mutual aid, and religious morality, while Western judicial ethics is secular and protects the individual rights and freedoms.

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