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relig One of the first things I wrote on the internet related to Indonesian Islam, and what we could expect in the future. This was before Gene Expression, and I don’t have archives of that blog. There are many issues where my views have changed over the past fifteen years, but that is a piece of writing whose contents I think hold up rather well, if I recall it correctly! (when I go back and reread things I wrote 15 years ago I often wince at my naivete)

Yesterday I noticed that The Wall Street Journal had a piece up, Hard-Liners’ Show of Force Poses Thorny Challenge for Indonesia’s President, and an accompanying sidebar: Examples of Indonesia’s Turn to Conservative Islam. The details are not super important. Basically, the Christian and ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta has gotten himself into some blasphemy trouble. Some of this critics are probably sincere, while some of his critics are probably being opportunistic. The political elite of the country must make a pretense toward neutrality, and genuflect toward religious sensibilities, since Indonesia is famously a 90% Muslim nation. Most people on some level know it’s bullshit, but at minimum you have to go through the motions. Religion aside this is a great chance to make sure that an assertive ethnic Chinese and Christian politician doesn’t get too uppity.

More interesting than what is happening is why this is occurring now. Not only is “Indonesia” famously the world’s most populous Muslim “nation,” it is also “tolerant” and “syncretic”, though recently “conservative” religious movements have become prominent, changing the nature of “Indonesian” Islam. Normally the usage of quotation marks in this manner is asinine, but I was conscious in what I was trying to “problematize.”

Indonesia is not truly a nation. Or at most it is a nation like India, a nation which encompasses a civilization with several related nationalities. Second, the tolerance of illiterate peasant cultivators for religious heterodoxy is different from the tolerance which 51T9NDF7GPL emerged (for example) in England on matters of religious belief and practice in the 18th century. And the syncretism of Indonesians is not like the syncretism you see in the development of the Sikh religion, which is a genuinely novel positive religious vision from a Dharmic base engaging questions and presuppositions derived from Islam. And Indonesian Islam which is called conservative is not conservative if conservatism harks to the customary, traditional, and organically evolved religious folkways of the populace. Rather, the “hard-line” Islam comes up from the aspirant middle classes and is connected with a broader movement of world-wide Islamic reformism and revivalism across the Ummah, and is consciously marginalizing the traditional Islamic religious establishment of rural regions.

What I’m getting at here is a general phenomenon, not limited to Islam. Eric Kaufmann alludes to it in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth. Dianne Purkiss in The English Civil War points to it too. What is that phenomenon? The terminal state of postmaterialist modernity is not attained in a linear and unidirectional fashion. In fact, it may not be a terminal and stationary state at all!

When engaging many progressive friends and acquaintances who have little interest in international relations it is often asserted that material deprivation is the root of Islamic terrorism and Islamism writ large. This is demonstrably false empirically. Marc Sageman in Understanding Terror Networks did an extensive ethnography of the Salafist terror international of the 2000s, and there was an extreme overrepresentation of the highly educated, affluent, and technical professionals. Scott Atran has also done ethnographic research, and converged on the same result: it is not economic deprivation that fuels these violent explosions, because the participants and principles are not economically deprived.

51r6r4q8HiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Even a superficial analysis of Islamist movements, the necessary parent movement for violent terrorism, show that they are often driven by the middle class and prosperous, just as most radical movements are. This reminds me of a particular religious movement: Reform Protestantism. In the Anglo-American case this is most starkly illustrated by the Puritans, who were attempting to complete the Reformation within the English Church (purging all “Popish” rituals and institutions, as well as removing theological diversity, such as Arminianism). The Puritans were often from the industrious and prosperous classes of London and eastern England. The New England colonies were arguably the world’s first universal literacy societies.

I have stated before that whenever I read about the Reformation and English Civil War I undergo some cognitive dissonance. My consciousness as an American was formed in a region of upstate New York which was heavily Dutch, but later became demographically dominated by the great migration out of New England. Either way, a particular Anglo-Protestant, even Puritan, vision of history was what was taught to me. And yet the Protestants in the Reformation were often the heralds of intolerance, violence, and iconoclasm. Just as they were the heralds of toleration and liberality (in addition to the Netherlands, see Reform Transylvania and to some extent Poland). Protestantism unleashed many different tendencies sublimated within the Western Christian Church up until the 16th century (the exceptions of the Hussites and John Wycliff aside). And some of those forces and tendencies were not ones which postmaterialist liberals in the broad sense would have much sympathy with. It gave rise to both the pluralism of the Pennsylvania project and the tolerance of Rhode Island, as well as the demands toward public conformity and private uniformity which were the Puritan Congregationalist colonies.

In Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State Andrew Gelman points out that ideological polarization is maximized at the upper income brackets. Values are to some extent luxuries, consumption goods for those beyond the subsistence level. What Kaufmann analyzes this on a sociocultural level, Gelman does so on an individual scale. And it explains why so little international Islamic terrorism comes out of the poorest Muslim countries in relation to their populations. The battle between the Taliban and the government in Afghanistan is between an Islamist movement and elements which are more diverse, but ultimately it recapitulates divides between country and city, and Pashtun and non-Pashtun, which give it local valence. The international aspect of Islamic terror is Afghanistan, or Yemen, or Somalia, comes from forces and threads which are international. Osama bin Laden was of Yemeni ancestry, but raised wealthy in Saudi Arabia. The influence of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in poor Muslim countries has clear connections with migration from wealthier nations and Diasporas. Poverty may be fertile ground, but it is almost never the seed.

Going back to Indonesia, let’s bring together these strands and try and understand what’s going on. First, Indonesia is a collection of various nationalities with long histories of contact but distinction. The tolerant folk Islam that is often assumed to be the sine qua non of Indonesian Islam is really the culture of central and Borobudur_Templeeastern Java, that of the Javanese. At 40% of the Indonesian population the Javanese loom large, but they are not the totality of Indonesian culture and society. The people of Aceh came under Islamic influence centuries before Java, and they have traditionally had closer connection to the Middle East, and practice a more Middle East normative form of Islam. Second, many of the outlying islands have Muslim populations without the civilizational overhang of pre-Islamic greatness which characterizes Java. To this day a small minority of Javanese remain Hindus, while conversion to Hinduism from nominal Islam is not unheard of. This history though is truly the history of Java, and to a lesser extent the region around the Malacca strait. Hindu-Buddhist civilization’s impact on most of the Indonesian archipelago was much more diffuse and marginal (Sanksrit loan words as far as the Philippines and Madagascar are signs of this civilization’s contact with groups outside of Java and Sumatra). Outside of the areas of most intense Hindu-Buddhist domination history begins with Islam and the Dutch. They do not have much of a Hindu-Buddhist identity to synthesize with Islam in the first place.

Additionally, identity is not much of an issue in a village folk context. This is why syncretistic and tolerant Islam is common in many parts of the world characterized by subsistence farming. Individual lives are delimited by the custom and tradition of the village, which self-regulates. Rather than looking toward textual scripture, or religious professionals, long established folkways guide lives in a seamless fashion. Though these people may be tolerant when it comes to poorly understood or practiced religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy, they are also often very superstitious, and liable to murder the local “witch.” There are more tolerances than those of religious orthodoxy alone!

The major “problem” though occurs when you urbanize peasants. In an urban context village spirits are irrelevant, and the folk cultural currency which smoothes relationships no longer apply. If you are very wealthy this may not be relevant, as social networks of the elite have long had purchase in urban centers, and old connections can be leveraged at the commanding heights of industry and government. For the lower classes within slums the day to day may be a matter of survival and subsistence. A new identity is secondary to making to the next day. Where the need for identity likely comes to the fore is in the urban middle class. These the classes not connected to the levers of power in the social heights, but still have resources and leisure to ponder their place in the world, and how their nation should be ordered. In a village context these may have been prosperous farmers and gentry, already more closely connected to religious professionals than the more marginal peasant. Translated to the urban milieu their rural accumulated social capital accounts for little, with the inchoate Javanese mysticism and syncretism dissipating in the new environment for which it was never adapted in the first place.

This is where reformist and international Islam comes into play. This is a religion that is portable, and culturally neutral (ostensibly). Different local sub-elites transplanted into an urban milieu can meet and communicate with the lexicon of a religion which was defined from its beginning by urbanity. Not only does Islam allow for connections between people between different regions, but it also integrates oneself into an international network, previously only accessible to those with financial resources to travel extensively. Common belief in a transnational religion allows for immediate rapport with those from other nations, without the need for prior extensive personal interactions. Subscription to various forms of Islam allow for immediate inclusion into an international brotherhood.

The United States is perhaps the best example of what mobility and lack of solidity do to religious institutions. American religion is exceedingly confessional and decentralized. The Roman Catholic Churches attempt to create a corporate pillar on the model of the European society in the 19th century failed. Rather, operationally American Catholicism has become confessional at the level of the believers, if not the exterior institutions. Similarly, American Judaism took a very different trajectory from that of European Judaism. While European Reform Judaism was marginalized between the two poles of Orthodoxy and secularism, in the United States Reform Judaism was arguably the dominant form of Judaism for most of the nation’s history.

American religions are characterized by a wide range of levels of tension with the surrounding society, and are generally confessional, rather than communities of birth (though Judaism is arguably a hybrid, as Reform Judaism has again embraced the ethnic dimension of the religion). Some groups, which are often termed “conservative”, are at high tension with society. The reality is that they are not necessarily conservative, as much as they exhibit strong ingroup dynamics, and marginalize outgroups, and are marginalized by outgroups. Consider Mormonism, a religion which is conservative in its mores, but whose theology is highly exotic, and arguably radical. The key toward understanding Mormonism is its high internal cohesion. But this results in a side effect of tension with the surrounding society.

41cpg1ESArL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Indonesia is a nation of 250 million. The rise of “conservative” Islam is natural. As Indonesia urbanizes, its folk Islamic subculture s are dissolving. They evolved organically over thousands of years, and they are adapted to local conditions, utilizing local lexicon. Their strength was their deep local roots. They are not transplantable. It is natural that many urban dwellers would find that a culturally stripped down form of Islam based on textual sources, though extending from them, would be amenable to their needs. This form of Islam allows for strong ingroup ties that are not contingent on local histories or ethnic identities. But, it also throws up walls toward those who it considers outsiders and competitors. That is, non-Muslims. Other Indonesian urbanites are not becoming “conservative” Muslims. Rather, they are probably subscribing to what one might term “liberal international,” the transnational globalist class which is united by their affluence and postmaterialism, and a form of individualism well characterized by Jonathan Haidt.

Indonesian Muslims are arguably more “liberal” and more “conservative.” But this increased variation and solidity of large bloc social units is salient in a form which is more threatening. To readers of The Wall Street journal the transnational Muslims identifying with the Islamic Reformist international bloc are threatening, and a danger, due to their hostility toward outgroups. In contrast, the liberal globalists take a more relaxed attitude toward group identity, though they too have their own redlines and normative preferences.

The details may be local, but the dynamics are global.

• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Indonesia, Religion 

In the comments below it seems that most people don’t know about the existence of Eurostat, and the NUTS2 and NUTS3 maps which they generate. They’re really great, insofar as they give you a fine-grained picture of variation within Europe. Sometimes you see how national boundaries matter a great deal…and in other ways how they don’t.

Above you see a NUTS3 map of purchasing power in relation to the European median. A few things that are salient.

1) France and the United Kingdom exhibit a great deal of wealth concentration around their capital cities.

2) The geographically fragmented and culturally diverse zone from the Low Countries down to Italy’s Po River Valley is seems to be characterized by a large number of economically vibrant cities/regions. The only common variable that I’ve ever been able to point to for this area is that they were under Habsburg hegemony for a very long time.

3) There are zones of poorer nations, such as Spain, which are wealthier than most regions of wealthier regions (e.g., Catalonia is more prosperous than the north of England or rural France across the border).

4) A few of the cities of Eastern Europe seem to be diverging from their host nations.

Below are screenshots of maps I generated from Eurostat, submitted for your comment (remember, don’t be stupid).

Screenshot 2016-05-17 22.41.22

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• Category: Economics, Foreign Policy • Tags: Geography 

One of the major distinctions pundits made between Al Qaeda and ISIS until recently is that the latter was not as fixated on the “far enemy” (the West) as the former. That seems born out by the evidence of their behavior, focusing on conquests in the Levant and Iraq, as well as ideological arguments (e.g., What ISIS Really Wants). The New York Times now seems to be making the case that that was all wrong, How ISIS Built the Machinery of Terror Under Europe’s Gaze:

For much of 2012 and 2013, the jihadist group that eventually became the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was putting down roots in Syria. Even as the group began aggressively recruiting foreigners, especially Europeans, policy makers in the United States and Europe continued to see it as a lower-profile branch of Al Qaeda that was mostly interested in gaining and governing territory.

“All of the signals were there,” said Michael S. Smith II, a counterterrorism analyst whose firm, Kronos Advisory, began briefing the United States government in 2013 on ISIS’ aspirations to strike Europe. “For anyone paying attention, these signals became deafening by mid-2014.”

In June of 2015 The New York Times wrote about the decapitation:

… Mr. Cazeneuve emphasized that while Mr. Salhi was known to have links to Salafists, he was not believed to have links with terrorist groups.

There was no indication that Mr. Salhi was aligned with the Islamic State….

Basically the media became a telegraph service for craven politicians who didn’t want to face the crisis. I observed that The New York Times recently referred to Molenbeek as a “fifth column.” That sort of language is something that politicians and the media try to avoid, both for prudential and ideological reasons. When these “isolated” attacks occurred a few years ago the conservative press ridiculed the characterizations of the politicians and the media. It turns out that they were right, and The New York Times is admitting it. This should give us even more pause in accepting the “analysis” of the established outlets. When the evidence is confronting them this starkly they’ve had to fess up that they weren’t scratching below the surface, and perhaps even had become a cat’s-paw in the toolkit of the political class. Though I will credit The New York Times that there has been a change of direction internally when you allow Muslim communities in the West to be characterized as a possible “fifth column.” Unfortunately in Molenbeek’s case that seems operationally correct, and the evidence was too strong to obfuscate for reasons of political and ideological expedience.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS 

51OZQR9XHsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Aeon Magazine has published a 11,000 word essay by Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution. Atran is one of my favorite thinkers, and his book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, is one of the more influential in shaping my understanding of cultural phenomena (warning, the prose is dense, but worth it!). Over the last ten years Atran has focused on the phenomenon of radical Islamic terrorism, using his anthropological and evolutionary scholarly toolkits to decompose the problem. More recently he’s been doing “field work” on the front-lines of the battle against ISIS in Iraq. Literally the front lines!

The piece in Aeon is a necessary corrective to two vulgar and populist reactions to the rise of radical groups like ISIS. First, there is the materialist viewpoint, which holds that a lack of economic opportunities is the dominant causal factor driving the violence. The first order issue to address is the reality that many regions of the world (e.g., non-Muslim Sub-Saharan Africa) have larger portions of the population which are underemployed or unemployed than the Islamic world, and yet do they not serve as sources of violent politically or religiously motivated terrorism. In fact, the best ethnographic work indicates that a disproportionate number of the young men involved in violent religious and political terrorism are not from the bottom of society, but closer to the top. In particular those striving and moving up the socioeconomic ladder in cultures undergoing modernization. The rural peasantry and the established upper classes are relatively immune to radicalization, but those whose roots are in the country but attempting to situate themselves in the middle class or higher are subject to more social dislocation, despite lack of material want. Most of the 9/11 bombers were Saudi, a nation which has a cradle-to-grave system of benefits for citizens, and which has been shielded and enriched by an alliance with the United States. Certainly marginalization, social and economic, are necessary conditions for recruiting from the Islamic Diaspora in Europe, but even here they are not sufficient conditions. The Roma are more socially and economically deprived than Europe’s Muslims, but do not engage in organized terrorism of any sort.

A second extreme position is that Islamic terrorism is a natural necessary consequence of the character of the Koran. The problem with this viewpoint is that though most of those who participate in Islamic terrorism may identify as Muslims, on closer inspection they often lack even the patina of fluency in their own religion. This may be especially true of those who grew up in secular Diaspora environments, but the vast majority of the world’s Muslims have little to no familiarity with the details of the Koran or the Hadith (the latter of which is in any case more relevant for day to day practice). There’s a reason that they make recourse to the ulema as a de facto clerical caste. Additionally, Islamic terrorism in the Middle East is to a great extent the heir of radical nationalist terrorists of the 1970s, many of whom were Marxist, or were from Christian Arab backgrounds (in particular the PFLP). Even suicide bombing, a major calling card of Islamic terrorists today, was pioneered by the Left nationalist Tamil Tigers. But just as economic and social marginalization fuel disaffection among Europe’s Muslims, many elements of Islamic religious theory and practice are easily co-opted into justifying violent movements. Islam after all is a pacific religion historically only after it has dominion. Even if one rejects the proposition that Islam is the reason for violent terrorism by Muslims, one does not therefore accept that it is no part of the overall dynamic.

Finally, there is also the idea that Islamic terrorism is nihilistic. Certainly it can seem nihilistic…from our perspective. That is why it is essential to look at things from the perspective of others, and also periodically engage in Epoché and detach from individual subjectivity. Many conservative Muslims decry the Western lifestyle as without meaning, soulless and empty. Though there is some truth to this, most of us who live the Western lifestyle know that there is a fair amount of meaning, dignity, and value in our quotidian days. Some conservative Muslims who arrive in the West are surprised to observe that the sight of women walking about in shorts does not induce an orgy of mass rape. But that is because they simply do not consider any viewpoint not conditioned on their own prior assumptions. Similarly, we in the West need to consider the viewpoints of our antagonists, without it implying in any way that we accept the positions of our antagonists as necessarily meritorious.

51SrA4DFsEL Two works from the mid-2000s give us a window into Islamic terrorism as it was then, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism by Robert Pape, and Understanding Terror Networks by Marc Sageman. Pape utilized standard social science methods (e.g., regression) to show there was strong relationship between suicide bombing in the service of political ends in contexts where foreign powers with an asymmetrical advantage had historically intervened. In other words, Pape’s work suggests that rational choice frameworks are useful even for acts as individually irrational as suicide bombings. Second, Sagemen’s survey of the ethnography of the violent Salafi international punctures the perceptions of those who might suggest that global capitalism will ultimately abolish political violence in a bath of chemically flavored french fries. Many of the recruits in Salafi terror networks are from well off families like Osama bin Laden. 51QHx-ZmCHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ (1) Or, they are well educated like Ayman al-Zawahiri. There is the recurring thread of the over-representation of applied STEM backgrounds, in particular engineers. And, converts and those from relatively globalist/cosmopolitan backgrounds are also over-represented in terms of orders of magnitude in comparison to the worldwide Islamic population. In other words, it is those most familiar with the fruits of global capitalism who have turned away from its allure.

Atran’s research, like Sageman’s, has focused on detailed statistical ethnographies of those who are recruited into Islamic terrorism. What it shows that peer networks are essential to explaining how become recruited in these activities, and in particular kinship ties, both fictive and real. Humans are social creatures, and much of our cognition operates through a social sieve. Our beliefs and preferences are strongly shaped by a tendency to conform to our “in-group.” This is so strong that even if it is clearly irrational humans may still engage in behaviors to maintain conformity to group norms. The Xhosa cattle killing is a clear example of this principle of adherence to majority norms despite grave consequences, but so was the continued adherence of most Germans to the Nazi regime after defeat became inevitable, or Chinese enactment of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, which probably retarded the rise of that nation to prominence for a generation.

k10543Group solidarity around a compelling meta-narrative is the important “big picture” element of Islamic terrorism which is critical toward understanding its motivations, and which can be missed by descriptive ethnographies or econometric analyses. Palestinian nationalist terrorism of the 1970s, or Tamil Tiger suicide bombing of the 1980s, were fundamentally derivative or subordinate to a broader family of ideologies, post-colonial nationalism with a Leftist inflection (ETA and the IRA also fall into this category, even if situated in the West). In contrast, Islamic terrorism has the potential to become superordinate, and swallow up individual movements and grievances into a meta-narrative. E.g., the core actors in ISIS to this day seem to be a shadow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist officers. It is neat to presume these individuals are using Islamic ideology in an instrumental sense, as Saddam himself clearly did. But the Islamic meta-narrative is powerful, and has historical precedent. It is plausible that though the trigger for the precipitation of an Islamic movement in Iraq was the defenestration of the officer core of a notionally secular national regime, the ultimate crystallization and end state of the movement may be toward a sincere and genuine Islamic nationalism. One might make the analogy here to what has occurred in Pakistan. The founder of the state, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a religiously non-observant Shia Muslim (who had Hindus in his recent ancestry, and whose family was of the marginal Ismaili sect) who seems to have envisaged a secular state, albeit demographically dominated by Muslims. Today Pakistan is riven by Shia-Sunni sectarian conflicts, and adheres to a strong Islamic self-identification. Jinnah’s proximate motives in creating Pakistan could be understood in light of the nationalist sentiments of India’s Muslim ruling class, and their dispossession in the 19th century, and impending marginalization in a united India. But ultimately he set in motion a series of events which would hinge Pakistan to a de facto Sunni Islamic international, and allow it to be an incubator for violent religious radicalism which it can barely control. Pakistan was swallowed by a broader evolving meta-narrative.

518rHTN9d-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ What Atran highlights in his piece is that young men across the Islamic world are being inspired by a powerful ideal which transcends the material. That is, they are not being driven by dreams of material wealth and affluence. Nor are they driven by simple hatred of the West, or unthinking nihilism. As Shadi Hamid has noted it is an act of political cant to assert that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam. For the broad masses this sort of assertion will suffice. I recall, for example, a conversation with a friend of mine in 2002 who was a gay man who repeated to me the standard narrative that Islam is actually a religion of peace. As a straight male with a “Muslim name” I could probably get some peace out of Islam, but as it is constructed today in majority terms it is rather strange for a gay man to assert this, as there is little tolerance for gay orientation in the Muslim world (though that is changing). But this is human social conformity and social cognition kicking in again. For people interested in reality one has to move beyond the artifice of social cognition, and dig deeper. Islam is a meta-narrative which arose as a cultural adaptation 1,500 years ago. First it bound factious Arab tribes together. Second, it bound Arabs and non-Arabs together in a common meta-ethnic identity, and allowed for a period of Islamic cultural hegemony at the center of Eurasia.

communismstory1_1413028f The reality is that we’ve seen this before, and relatively recently. Atran, and others, have made the analogy between anarchism around 1900 and Islamic terrorism today. To outsiders both movements were frightening and nihilistic, but in hindsight anarchist violence arose as a side effect of the transition toward a liberal democratic order. Atran critically observes that the wave of anarchist violence abated when Marxist-Leninism emerged to capture a nation-empire, that of Russia. International communism in its Soviet dominated period proactively smothered anarchism (e.g., during the Spanish Civil War), and perhaps more importantly deprived it of oxygen, as idealistic youths who would have been attracted to anarchist terrorism as outlets for their rebellious energies were co-opted by the dream of a universal Communist commonwealth of states. And so with the transition from the age of al Qaeda to the age of ISIS.

At this point then we may have to stop talking about “Islamic terrorism,” and refer to the Islamic international, if the analogy with anarchism and communism hold. Atran also points to the example of the French Revolution, which began the process of organized political terror in the name of an ideal, and ultimately gave rise in a genealogical sense to most modern political movements which persisted into the 20th century (fascism being the arguable exception, though it was in many ways a reaction to the ideologies spawned by Revolution).



On the individual level what is appealing about the Islamic state is that it has a heroic narrative ready for those who wish to embrace it. From the perspective of most of the world, including the Muslim world, this is perverse, considering the barbarities committed by the Islamic State. But again, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that our enemies lack humanity; rather their assumptions are inverted and different. There are millions of Germans whose grandfathers were proud members of the SS, despite the fact that some of its killing units engaged in wholesale genocide, and specifically acts of murder against women and children. They thought they were heroes for their fatherland, doing dark deeds to forge a better world. Or as one SS commander stated boldly as he lifted up a child he was about to murder, “You must die so we may live.”

The liberal democratic “end of history” is not heroic or anti-heroic. It is banal, and heroism plays out only in the context of a job well done in the banality of existence and persistence. Being a good parent, friend, and a consummate professional. But not everyone is a parent, and not everyone has a rich network of friends, or a fulfilling profession. Ideologies like communism, and religious-political movements like Islamism, are egalitarian in offering up the possibilities of heroism for everyone by becoming part of a grand revolutionary story. Though John F. Kennedy’s administration has a glow and sheen today which would have been unfathomable to those who lived through it, his words about why America sought to go to the moon are remembered because they capture the essence of a heroic spirit. The reality of course is that we sought to go to the moon because America wanted to defeat the Soviet Union in the space race. But he asserted that the American nation sought to go to the moon because it was hard. And ultimately getting to the moon first brought America glory and renown. And that is what many young men crave, but few can attain in a stable liberal democratic consumer society.

51SKjCKQBrL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Islamic State has co-opted a meta-narrative which exists within Islamic history, and offers up a heroic vision to individuals who identify as Muslim across the world. Prior to its meteoric rise many people dismissed the Islamic State, or what was then simply al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, including president Barack Obama (and myself). After its conquest of Mosul there were many who asserted that the material structural parameters of the domains which the Islamic State ruled would make its period of rule ephemeral by necessity. In short, the Islamic State was poor and under-resourced. There was no way it could sustain itself more than six months.

Obviously those prognostications were wrong, and they were wrong because of an excessive fixation on material parameters of success or failure. In the generality Atran points out that there’s a fair amount of social science and historical scholarship which suggests that motivated minorities can capture and transform whole societies. The world religions are key examples. Most humans are conformist, so when faced with a powerful bloc which operates as a unit they often simply fall into line. This arguably occurred in Germany in the 1930s, in Russia in the 1920s, and in France in the 1790s. The transition to Protestantism in the Netherlands and England occurred despite initial apathy or resistance from the peasant majority (yet sometimes majorities remain steadfast; the Hohenzollerns did not transform their Lutheran domains to the Reformed faith, while later Saxon rulers who were Catholic were a minority in their own kingdom).

But, I am somewhat more sanguine than Atran about the impact of the Islamic State on the world in comparison to revolutionary France or Soviet Russia. He makes much of the fact that the French nation repelled massive invasions in the 1790s, and ultimately transformed the whole continent. But as documented in Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization the French victories probably had less to do with élan imparted to the armies of the Revolution than the reality that the new political arrangement in France allowed for total mobilization of the society. In short, the armies of the French were larger, though Napoleon’s genius did seem to allow for a initial strategic bonus. The final loss of Napoleon’s empire was due to the fact that other European powers began to follow France’s lead and mobilize their whole society toward war. Similarly, the Bolsheviks in 1917 captured a very powerful state, as did the Nazis in the 1930s. Modern conflict is by necessity an economic battle, and the weight of matériel will usually adjudicate as to who the ultimate victor will be. Atran notes that during World War II German soldiers were on a per individual basis more effective than the troops of the Soviets or the Western allies, but ultimately the military-industrial might of the United States and the sheer numbers of the Soviet forces overwhelmed the Nazi regime.

OIC_map The gross domestic product of the nations which constitute the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is about 7 trillion American dollars. The aggregate GDP of the European Union is 19 trillion dollars. The United States of America is 16 trillion dollars. China is 9 trillion dollars. In 1790 France was in the running for the number #1 economic power in Europe. In 1913 the Russian Empire was in the running for being the #1 economic power in Europe. Though France in 1790 was far more heterogeneous than it is today, and the Soviet Union was very heterogeneous, arguably they were far more cohesive polities than anything that one might congeal out of the OIC.

41murHaheEL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ In the Aeon essay Scott Atran argues that the millenarian forces which ISIS is harnessing are here to stay. I agree with him. There are structural demographic and sociological forces which make Islamic movements, of which ISIS is the most extreme manifestation, nearly inevitable for the next generation or so. But, there are also structural demographic and economic forces which suggest that it will not be as nearly an existential threat to the liberal democratic political order as the movements of the 20th century. The West, Russia, China, and India, are all not particularly congenial to a long term alliance with Islamic powers. Electric cars and the shale oil revolution both threaten a major point of leverage that the Islamic international in the form of Saudi Arabia have over the rest of the world. Of course some might wonder at the Islamic demographic bomb. If current trends hold by 2050 30% of the world’s population will be Muslim. And as I noted above motivated minorities can capture whole cultures. But 30% of the world’s population at that time will also be Christian, with a larger proportion in areas where religious zeal remains strong. And, the orientation of Chinese culture is such that conversion to Islam is often seen as tantamount to leaving one’s Han identity in totality (one particular issue is that pork is central to Chinese cuisine, but it is taboo for Muslims). As documented by Philip Jenkins in God’s Continent and Eric Kaufmann in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Europe’s Christian identified population should be far larger than its Muslim identified population as far as 2100, even in pessimistic analyses (Pew suggests that 10% of the European Union’s population will be Muslim in 2050).

That is the optimistic angle on what awaits us. It’s not going to be as bad as Soviet communism or German fascism. I lived through the specter of the former, and many people alive still remember the latter. But the likelihood is that the core Islamic world, from Morocco to Pakistan, will be riven with conflict and tumult, and that will draw in Diaspora populations, and those from the demographically important margins (e.g., Indonesia). This conflict will spread back out to non-Muslim nations with Muslim minorities. As Atran notes all one needs are a small motivated number of young men to allow for their to be critical mass for violence. Some level of violence directed toward majority non-Muslim populations in nations with large Muslim minorities may be inevitable. For non-Muslims the fact that the vast majority of Muslims decry violence, both due to sincerity and self-interest, will be somewhat besides the point, as the violent minority are going to take center stage in national concerns. In the Muslim world the violence will be orders of magnitude worse, just as the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century inflicted most of their terror upon the populations whom they ruled. In an almost Newtonian fashion I expect that non-Muslim societies under attack from Islamic international will exhibit a more self-conscious cultural identity than before in reaction.

Over the long run the flames will die down as a cycle of inter-cultural conflict abates. The future beyond 2050 is difficult to predict. Technology will have changed a great deal, and technology effects change on culture. What it means to be human will shift. Perhaps humanity will again focus on space travel, channeling some of its heroic energies outward, though this will always be a small demographic slice due to the constraints of physics. The vast majority might turn inward, and disappear in a vacuous virtual reality realm. Far better than projecting violence outward. But, I do think it points us to the reality that Islamic violence is a horrible answer to a real question. What should we do? And why should we do it?

• Category: Foreign Policy, Ideology • Tags: ISIS, Middle East 

151300203I haven’t talked much about the refugee crisis because at this point I’m in a “wait & see” mode. It seems almost fantastical that relatively small northern European countries should allow themselves to be demographically overwhelmed in less than a generation, but that isn’t a totally crazy proposition. But we should be cautious about extrapolations. Cultural norms can change rather fast, because most people are conformists (e.g., Sweden combines a very politically correct mainstream culture with a robust verging-on-volkisch minority party which is far outside of the bounds of anything you would see in the United States)

But an article in The New York Times, Emirates Secretly Sends Colombian Mercenaries to Fight in Yemen, does put into stark relief the sort of choices we’re facing in the modern world. On the one hand technology is advancing apace, but our social structures seem to recycle the same forms. The Gulf petro-state system is in some ways straight out of Dystopian science fiction, combining a modern capitalist economy with the a sort of commoditized attitude toward human life with a neo-feudal tincture. But it also reminds me of another model, that of the ancient Greek city-states. Dubai, Qatar, etc., are basically societies where the majority of individuals engage in production for the capital class, which also subsidizes the citizenry (“liturgies”), which is a minority. Though they are not democracies like Athens, this relationship between a notionally co-equal minority and a majority whose economic productivity allows for the life of the society to flourish isn’t particularly novel.

One thing that set the ancient Roman system apart from the Greek polities was that it was expansive, assimilating local elites. It is well known that many of the emperors were not made in Rome, but some of the patrician clans, such as the Claudii, were themselves of Etruscan or Sabine origin. Roman cosmopolitanism fused with an acknowledgment of the primacy of a core culture was a robust system that persisted for nearly 1,000 years, allowing for political scale. Additionally, it is a notable trend in history that when you reduce other humans purely to commodities, basically units of economic production, they have no loyalty to their contracts beyond self-interest. They’ll often try and take over through violence.

Another system is the Western democratic liberal one. This system presupposes citizens who are co-equal, without large groups of disenfranchised people. Even in the American case with slavery in most of the territory non-free males were a small minority. There is also often a rough cultural homogeneity which is presumed for a nation-state. Ergo, the carving up of the Austro-Hungarian polity after World War I followed ethno-linguistic lines. But these sorts of implicit understandings seem to be falling by the wayside. Not to be conspiratorial, but I think part of what’s happening is that cosmopolitan Western economic elites, the top 0.1% or so, have no real loyalty to the nation-state, and find them impediments to the free flow of their labor and their capital. Though few would explicitly admit this, I think that the Dubai model is quite appealing because it dispenses with the non-economic niceties. The main caution I would offer to this is that the Dubai model is probably a “high reward/high risk” play.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Economics 

Abdullah Öcalan

The Middle East is complex. I tried to get at that with my post The Islamic State Is Right About Some Things. Of late I have noticed the peculiar tendency toward soft-tinted reportage of the PKK-affiliated YPG and the nature of life in Rojava. Typical of what you see in the American media is this piece, On the Road in Syria, Struggle All Around (here is a more gritty take, Fried Chicken and Skulls of ISIS Fighters in The Daily Beast). Scott Atran, author of one of my favorite books, was actually in northern Iraq in Kurdish areas last year during an offensive against ISIS, and he reported (on his Facebook) first-hand the gratitude that the Yezidis in refugee camps felt toward the YPG militias, who saved them at great risk to their own lives when the Iraqi peshmerga fled and left them for dead. It’s not just propaganda, the YPG does care about Kurds and minorities to further their goals. They have Asabiyyah. So does ISIS. So does Hezbollah. The Alawites with their backs against the wall supporting the Assad regime probably have it as a matter of survival at this point. Most of our “allies” on the ground in Syria and Iraq, not so much.

Today we are reading that the coordinated push to retake the road supplying Mosul that goes through Sinjar seems to be a success, at least for now. But even this glowing report can’t suppress the reality that there are tensions between the various Kurdish factions. This will likely cause issues in the future, but it is also important to look back to the past. The PKK is basically an extension of the ideas of the imprisoned Kurdish nationalist, Abdullah Öcalan. In the context of the Middle East Öcalan is a genuinely heterodox figure. He began as a Marxist-Leninist, and to this day remains an atheist. But today his movement seems to promote some sort of Left-wing anarchism. The PKK has a long history in Turkey, and has been labelled as a terrorist group, not without some reason, though one can admit these designations are to a great extent political acts.

Though the YPG units are clearly on the side of justice, it is important to remind ourselves that the point of comparison here is ISIS. Even conservative Arab villagers with no sympathy toward Kurdish nationalism and suspicious of the aggressive secularism and gender-egalitarianism of the YPG units and seem to be welcoming them as liberators. For now. There is a history of Left-wing anarchist Utopian movements, and it does not terminate in an “end of history”, where all is sugar plums and good-fairies.

The Obama administration is catching a lot of flack for its handling of the crisis in the Middle East. There are liberal internationalists offering their critiques, and of course the whole American conservative establishment is chronicling every misstep. Some Europeans are even trying to point the finger at the American lack of intervention in the Syria war as the reason for their refugee crisis. Many of these criticisms have some validity. But they always seem to presuppose that their alternative solutions would be like magic fairy dust, and render the whole morass soluble. The fact is that this may be one of those scenarios where the world is going to muddle on for years, and there is no obvious solution. Fifteen years ago the George W. Bush administration decided to take an “all-in” approach, and go big. How did that exactly work out? I for one am not happy with the American policy in the Middle East. But I’m also terrified about the negative consequences for our nation, and the world, of too aggressive a stance which overplays our hand and explodes in our faces.

As a practical matter the Kurds in Syria and Iraq are our allies. The government of Turkey will never abide by that. I support Kurdish self-determination, but the idea that the YPG will enact a regime of of non-sectarian anarchistic amity when it is ascendant is a total fantasy. There are no good choices, and there are no angels. We are united by the devil before us, ISIS. That is all that is clear to me.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Middle East 
Sharia should be law of land Muslims who believe sharia should be law who accept death penalty for apostasy % of Muslims who accept death penalty for apostasy
Afghanistan 99% 79% 78%
Pakistan 84% 76% 64%
Egypt 74% 86% 64%
Palestinian territories 89% 66% “59%
Jordan 71% 82% 58%
Malaysia 86% 62% 53%
Iraq 91% 42% 38%
Bangladesh 82% 44% 36%
Tunisia 56% 29% 16%
Lebanon 29% 46% 13%
Indonesia 72% 18% 13%
Tajikstan 27% 22% 6%
Kyrgyzstan 35% 14% 5%
Bosnia 15% 15% 2%
Kosovo 20% 11% 2%
Turkey 12% 17% 2%
Albania 12% 8% 1%
Kazakhstan 10% 4% 0%

41nsHqj5QIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The above data is from Pew. Questions were asked only of Muslims. In some nations, such as Turkey, “Muslims” include basically the whole population, at least nominally. In others, such as Malaysia it is somewhat over half the population. The first response column is the proportion of Muslims who wish to enact sharia as the law of the land in a given nation. The second set of responses are those Muslims who agree with the first question, and also agree with the traditional death penalty for apostates in Islam. Multiplying the two out, and you get the total proportion of Muslims in a given country who assent to the traditional death penalty for apostates in Islam. This is probably a floor, in that a minority of those Muslims who don’t want sharia enacted may agree with the death penalty for leaving Islam for a variety of reasons (Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was neither personally religious or observant, nevertheless defended the killer of a “blasphemer” during the British period on the grounds of communal honor).

What you see above are a range of attitudes, and interesting conflicts with public practice. In Indonesia it is not illegal to convert from Islam to another religion, and this is done. But about ten percent of the population still accepts the death penalty for apostasy, at least nominally. In Malaysia it is very difficult for an ethnic Malay to convert to another religion, as the connection between that identity and Islam is quite close, though there is often more latitude for non-Malays. About half of Muslims accept the death penalty for leaving Islam. The difference between Indonesia and Malaysia probably is a reflection of divergent social norms which arose in different historical contexts (in Indonesia, the conflicts were as much between Muslim groups of various sects and ethnicities, while in Malaysia the cleavage was more between the non-Muslim Chinese and the Muslim Malay). Just because a given percentage agree with the death penalty for apostasy does not entail that they’d automatically kill an apostate personally, but it probably indicates a level of tolerance and acceptance of intimidation and violence directed toward the act of apostasy.

51+cUvOGl1L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ It is instructive to compare Bangladesh and Pakistan. About ~1/3 of Bangladesh’s Muslims (~90% of the population) agree with the death penalty for apostasy, while ~2/3 of Pakistan’s Muslims (>90% of the population) do so. The reason that there is no campaign against secular bloggers in Pakistan is that secular bloggers in Pakistan would be insane to be as public and vocal as their equivalents in Bangladesh. With the majority of the population accepting the legitimacy of capital violence against those who are more extreme in their defiance of religious orthodoxy, the equilibrium state is for that dissent to exist in an underground fashion. Bangladesh is somewhat different because of its peculiar history. As a multi-ethnic nation which was to serve as the state for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent Pakistan’s attachment to religious identity is nearly necessary. In contrast, Bangladesh’s origins occurred through a rebellion by a left-wing nationalist movement grounded in the ethnic rights of Bengalis within the then Pakistan (and an Indian intervention!), and predicated on a common linguistic heritage. The national anthem of Bangladesh was written by the Hindu Bengali Tagore (compare the lyrics of the Bangladesh anthem with Pakistan’s).

There is a culture-war within Bangladesh, and it is conditioned on an understanding of the nation’s identity in religious terms. This is clear when you notice the official name of the nation: the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, a nod to the dominant party’s affinity with 20th century socialism. But, in 1988 Islam was also added as the “state religion,” a move that was rumored at the time to be motivated by potential aid largesse from Middle Eastern petrostates. In contrast, Pakistan is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

This is the context of the literal war within Bangladesh between those aligned with Islamism of various sorts and their critics, who range from non-Islamist Muslims to intellectuals from a Hindu background and outright atheists. Over the weekend there was another attack, prompting protests. Here are some relevant aspects:

Hundreds of people, including writers, publishers and bookshop owners, took to the streets of the capital, Dhaka, on Monday to protest against what they said was government inaction over a string of attacks, including the murder on Saturday of a publisher of secular books.

Rallies were also held in other cities and towns to demand more protection for publishers, bloggers and writers, some of whom have fled the country or gone into hiding.

The people who have so far fallen victim to the attacks are thinking people, those who believe in freedom of expression, and those who believe in secular values. A series of killings have taken place but now the focus is on publishers … I feel absolutely traumatised,” said Mohiuddin Ahmed, a publisher in Dhaka.

Fears of Islamic extremist violence have been rising in mainly moderate Muslim-majority Bangladesh after four atheist bloggers were murdered by machete-wielding attackers this year.

Two foreigners – an Italian aid worker and a Japanese farmer – have also been killed, while Dhaka’s main shrine for the small local Shia Muslim minority was bombed last month, killing two people and wounding dozens.

While it was believed to be the first attack on Shia Muslims in Bangladesh, in the past two years banned Islamic militant groups have killed more than a dozen Sufi Muslims and attacked Hindus and Christians.

The killing of foreigners has worried the country’s expatriate community and threatened its fragile economy, which is heavily reliant on foreign aid and a $25bn (£16bn) garment industry making clothing for international brands.

Points I want to note:

* Dhaka is a city of ~15 million, but “hundreds” of people show up at a protest. Lots of people are sitting this out, because they are scared. But, the terror is not such that some people won’t bravely stand up for freedom of expression, even for a group which is uniformly reviled within Muslim societies as traitors.

* Rallies outside of Dhaka suggest that the cultural division here is national, and not a function of metropolitan cosmopolitanism (it plays out a bit in my family, which divided down the middle between more religious and less religious).

* The attacks on intellectuals have a dark resonance for many Bangladeshis. During the war against Pakistan many creative intellectuals were killed in a targeted manner by the army because of their utility to the independence movement. And, it is known that some of the Islamist groups have roots which go back to pro-Pakistan elements during the 1971 war.

* The attacks on Shias indicates that these activists are adopting the norms of international Sunni Islamists, who target Shia. The attacks on foreigners also suggests that they want to move the needle on the climate in Bangladesh in terms of openness, trade, and general tolerance.

* Over the years Bangladesh, despite its corruption and political paralysis, has kept its head down in terms of international entanglements and domestic Islamic violence. This has allowed for the development of a non-aid based economy, and a flourishing NGO sector. The sort of institutional stability needed for this sort of development to proceed could easily be suborned by sectarian violence.

It strikes me that we’re at a precipice. The last time I went to Bangladesh was in 2004. If these killings continue, then I may not go back for decades. The government has a problem, in that it’s not very effective, and, there is probably some popular sympathy for this sort of violence, which the rival center-right Bangladesh National Party will want to tap into.

There are many people whose feelings on this issue are rather confused and inchoate. Here’s something from reddit (in response to someone posting one of my posts):

I feel like its one of those new ‘modern’ trends to declare oneself atheist in Bangladesh. Atheist muslims have always existed and will always continue to exist, its nothing new. As long as you arent shoving your views down other people’s throats or hating on other people’s beliefs (or lack of beliefs), there’s nothing wrong with it at all. Even in Islam, the only time capital punishment is applied to an atheist is when the atheist is going around giving hate speeches against the religion. Religious hate speech is punishable by law under Islam. But as far as your belief goes, how would anyone even know what’s in your heart?? Belief is a very personal thing, and no one can be certain of what’s in someone’s heart but the person and God himself.

I am very religious and very spiritual, but I was born and raised in Canada so I have friends of various faiths. We all share our beliefs and try to see things from each others’ points of views, but we never disrespect each other or put down each others’ beliefs even if something doesn’t make sense to us. The problem with these “modern” attention-seeking atheists is that they try to declare their views (atheism) by insulting the views of others (theism). Just because you have a difficult time comprehending the possibility of a universe outside our material universe, it doesn’t mean that other people can’t grasp this concept. Personally, I really dislike closed-minded, one-sided, ignorant people. Whether that’s an atheist or a theist is irrelevant. The ‘modern’ atheists in BD are all just closed-minded, arrogant, one-sided, ignorant attention-seekers. There’s nothing ‘educated’ or ‘enlightened’ about them at all.

To which one commenter responded: “Sure, but should they be chopped up with machetes in public?”

I can agree that many atheists are obnoxious, including myself on occasion. I find many religious people obnoxious too, but they should be free to practice and preach. Growing up in a Muslim milieu I can tell you that many Muslims were offensive and obnoxious when it came to generalizations about other religions, in particular Hindus. That’s their liberty in the United States of America, we don’t live in India where “hurt feelings” rule the day with an iron grip.

To me it is interesting that many liberals I see on the internet with whom I am on good terms otherwise with seem more focused on policing “Islamophobia” than in the genuine illiberalism which is so common among today’s 1.5 billion Muslims. So in response to the killings I put up a tweet which was self-consciously inflammatory:

The_God_Delusion_UK But, this is the United States, and you can say harsh things about religion. In particular, this religion has been sanctioning death to those who criticize it for a while now, so I take my American liberty to criticize when I can. Nevertheless, some were more curious about the jibe against Islam than the fact that people in Bangladesh are getting killed for criticizing Islam.

The data are what they are. I’ve pasted some of this at the top of the post to show how deep the animus goes against dissenters in Islam. And by Islam, I mean Muslims. Yes, Kosovo is tolerant. But there are fewer than 2 million people who live there. In contrast, Pakistan has nearly 180 million Muslims!

Several years ago the financial journalist Heidi Moore decided to “whitesplain” Islam to me. Her contention was that Richard Dawkins was racist and should not generalize about Islam. Similar barbs have been thrown at Sam Harris. As a point of fact I believe many of the things that Dawkins and Harris have said are not grounded in an empirical basis, nor are their analytic frameworks to my liking. But, I also think it is ludicrous to assume that their attitude toward Islam is rooted in racism, as opposed to a generalized distaste for monotheism, as well as a concern for the intolerance against atheists which is so common within the world of Islam and among Muslims.

The reality is that many liberals who are deeply worried about Islamophobia know as much about Islam as Ben Carson does. That’s a fact. I say this as someone who knows a fair amount about the religion, despite my obvious distaste for it. The arguments that American liberals and conservatives have about Islam are not about Islam, but about each other’s self-perceptions, and their cartoon of what Islam is.

That’s “problematic”, as they would say. There are 1.5 billion Muslims, and many of them are on the move. They’re going to be in your neighborhoods, assuming you aren’t part of the socioeconomic elite, which will no doubt insulate itself from the diversity that it welcomes rhetorically. We had better actually deal with reality of the world out there, rather than our own imaginings.

• Category: Foreign Policy, Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Islam 

Japan orange, Taiwan navy South Korea green, China light blue

Update: On Twitter it came to my attention that some think that this post is about growth Actually, my point is that the Communist period, and Mao’s period of domination, with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, probably are huge decrements to utility over the 20th century which the Chinese are now just compensating for. I think a KMT China, even if it unified less quickly and thoroughly than China, would probably have resulted in a far more prosperous China far earlier than in our “timeline.” Perhaps not as prosperous as South Korea, and definitely not Japan, but still quite prosperous over the past three generations in comparison to Communist China when state socialism was the dominant motor of the economy. Ergo, look not at the growth itself as opposed to the “area under the curve” from 1950 on.

The_Black_Book_of_Communism_(front_cover) Organized international Communism was responsible for on the order of tens of millions of deaths in a direct and concerted fashion, conservatively estimated. It also resulted in decades of repression for those who lived under it, but did not die under it. It fell with the Soviet Union, and today post-Communist (e.g., Russia) and quasi-Communist (e.g., China) nations are trying to move on beyond what was by and large a failed experiment in social engineering, with the failure resulting in massive levels of mortality and reduced life satisfaction on the part of those who lived under Communist regimes.

But can we move on? I have noted before that over the past generation in the aggregate Chinese economic development has resulted in the greatest reduction in poverty in the history of the world. With the economic crisis which is starting to afflict China, in all likelihood a deceleration from the very rapid growth phase induced by increased labor and capital inputs is upon us, and people are wondering about the long term trajectory of the nation. The problem is that China may grow old before it grows rich. The Chinese total labor force already peaked a few years ago. Over the next few decades its dependency ratio will shift in a direction similar to Japan’s. I am hopeful that the Chinese can meet their demographic challenges, and there are those who are optimistic. But we really don’t know.

And yet it has been brought to my attention that one could argue the Communist period in China is the cause of our current predicament. Compare the wealth trajectories of South Korea and Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. It may be that for various reasons (e.g., Japanese investments in Korea and Taiwan, as well as differences between China’s Han population and the Fujianese preponderant in Taiwan) China under a non-communist regime would never have been as wealthy as South Korea or Taiwan are today. But does anyone doubt that China would be wealthier far earlier without the convulsions of the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, and grinding poverty of the 1970s? A billion people experienced deprivation due to the miscalculations of elite intellectuals in the mid-20th century, when Communism fused with nationalism was on the march. That’s behind us. But the late economic start for China is something we continue to live with today. We might have avoided this problem of China growing old before it grows rich, if it had a 30 year head start toward entrance into the modern economy. The world might have been a very different place…. (in fact, a best case scenario is that a dynamic China would have prodded India’s Permit Raj to liberalize earlier than the 1990s).

• Category: Economics, Foreign Policy • Tags: Economics 

The full documentary from which this clip is extracted is at the Frontline website. I wasn’t really excited about watching this, but I made myself do it. The topic is very disturbing. Most of the film is about the modern day “underground railroad” out of ISIS territory of Yezidi women and children escaping slavery. The scene above is of what looks like a three year old girl who was captured by ISIS along with her mother and one year old brother describing beheadings, which she obviously witnessed. Apparently in disputes with her brother she threatens to cut his head off. The mother of the children tells of her time in one of the slave houses filled with women, and attempting to intervene when one of their ISIS guards started raping a nine year old. Apparently the guard declared that “this was allowed” by his religion. The narrator did not elaborate that the dominant accepted Hadith tradition is that the Prophet Muhammed consumated the marriage to his favorite wife Aisha when she was nine years old.*

Later on in the documentary there is a scene with teenage foreign fighters kicking back and just shooting the shit. The general implication is that they were all raised in Europe. They’re basically horsing around and joking like young men are wont to do. First, they amusedly describe mass killings of Yezidi men. Then later they start making lurid humorous references to Yezidi slave girls.

The truly disturbing aspect is that the body language and the overall mien are so startlingly familiar, but the topics are depraved. I think this goes to the heart of the fact that though we like to dismiss ISIS fighters as sociopaths, they really aren’t. Rather they are motivated by existential and ideological factors. An analogy to Nazi-dominated Germany is probably warranted. Most Germans did not start out as Nazis, but during the early conquest years most seem to have conformed to the new dispensation. There are documented instances, for example, of nurses who were known to toss Jewish children out of the upper stories of hospitals as a way to kill them quickly and free bed up beds for non-Jews, who after World War II went right back to their old profession.

The-Black-Book-of-Communism ISIS seems nihilistic because its aims and means are so alien to the norms of modern civilization, broadly construed. But the same could have been said of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, or the the Nazi dominion in World War II. And, unlike these two groups international Commmunism for decades managed to appeal to Western intellectuals who believed in its ultimate goals, even if they blanched at the methods of Lenin and then Stalin. They had a dream, and what’s a hundred million broken eggs to make that beautiful omelette?

* No matter if this is true or not, the problem for us in the year 2015 is that many ISIS fighters take this hadith at face value to justify the rape of nine-year-old girls.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS 

By now you are aware that another blogger who happened to be an atheist was killed. The modus operandi is pretty familiar. It looks like there are now “hits” going up against these individuals as a way for Islamic radicals to target an easy to scapegoat minority in Bangladesh. Atheists are now caught in a crossfire between religious nationalists and secularists, a divide which goes back to the Pakistan days. How vulnerable are the atheists? Well:

“The culture of impunity that has spread over the last few years clearly has very damning results,” Arifur Rahman told IHEU after Washiqur Rahman was killed. “… The word ‘Nastik’ (atheist) has been vilified in Bangladesh (and the rest of the Muslim world); they are seen as sub-human, it is OK to kill them.”

All cultures are not the same. In most of the Islamic world sufferance would be enough for many minorities. While craven Leftists wring their hands over insults to Islamic minorities in their midst, Islamic civilization is wrecking havoc upon the liberties of millions. That being said, there is a continuum. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, and Azerbaijan are not interchangeable. There are some analogies being made to Pakistan right now (like being analogized to Mississippi in the United States this is never good). That’s apposite at this particular moment because 45 Ismaili Muslims have been gunned down in Karachi. It strikes me that Pakistani sectarianism is now proceeding down a Bonhoefferian Niemöllerian gangplank, first dehumanizing non-Muslims, and then progressively narrowing the set acceptable. The nation is on the way to being a literal circular firing squad.

Bangladesh is a different case. I won’t rehash it. I will point out though that when I posted about my own identity, as an atheist of Bangladeshi origin, that when put that on reddit the response by one individual was “Who cares”? Obviously there are many things in Bangladesh that warrant attention, but, targeted killing of a reviled minority is apparently not worth notice by some. Fair enough, I suppose.

But I’m not here to emote and reflect. Rather, what does the data say? The World Values Survey has data from Bangaldesh for 1999 to 2004. One of the questions asks: Politicians who don’t believe in God unfit for public office. It seems a rough gauge for attitudes toward atheists. The results are below.


As you can see Bangladesh is roughly in the middle of the list. Observe the contrast with Pakistan. Hostility toward atheism is the majority position in all likelihood, but protests of people in the face of Islamist terror, as well as the persistence of atheists in Bangladeshi culture, indicates that there is a sufficient groundswell of liberal religious civil society that there’s a shot. In contrast in Pakistan you have a society which is now at total conformity when it comes to toleration for free thought.

Raw data:

Question: “Politicians who don´t believe in God unfit for public office”

Country Agree strongly Agree Neither agree or disagree Disagree Strongly disagree No answer Don’t know
Sweden 1.7 2.3 11.4 36.8 47.3 0 0.4
Spain 1.8 8.7 17 40.2 23.7 0 8.7
South Korea 2.6 6.7 27.3 37.5 15.4 0 10.5
Vietnam 4.5 11.9 16.9 47.4 5.8 0 13.5
Bosnia 5.1 10 30.2 25.5 22.2 0 7
Serbia 8.7 16.2 14 34.7 17.2 0 9.2
Canada 6.6 12 21.8 35.9 21.2 0 2.5
India 14.5 18.2 11.3 26.6 8.1 0 21.3
Chile 14 18.3 10 20.6 31.4 0 5.6
Japan 2.2 5.4 49.6 25.5 14.9 0 2.5
Mexico 14.9 21.5 9.2 27.3 16.2 0 10.9
Macedonia 17.7 14.7 16.8 27.5 16.6 0 6.8
Argentina 13.7 20.5 17 31.1 12.3 0 5.4
Kyrgyzstan 10.5 25 19.1 35.2 9.6 0 0.6
Moldova 11.7 28.9 21 24.1 5 0 9.2
Albania 16.1 24.8 24.7 19.2 7.2 0 8
United States 17.6 20.3 25.8 27.1 8.4 0 0.8
Zimbabwe 14.9 36.4 8.3 31.8 3.6 0 5.1
South Africa 22.9 24.6 19 19.9 7.1 0 6.5
Turkey 28.7 28.2 11.5 16.9 9.1 0.1 5.6
Venezuela 35.5 15.8 15.1 18.8 12.7 0 2.2
Uganda 25.2 36.2 14.3 17 4.3 0 3
Bangladesh 30.2 37 5.2 20 2.3 0 5.3
Puerto Rico 36.5 26.9 11.7 19.3 3.6 0.4 1.5
Tanzania 53.4 11.2 11 13.9 8.1 1 1.4
Philippines 26.8 44.4 14.7 11.9 1.9 0 0.2
Algeria 51.7 20.7 8 8.7 3.3 0 7.6
Jordan 66.6 11.1 2.1 6.8 9.3 0 4.1
Iraq 66.1 15.1 0 5.5 6.9 2.2 4.2
Nigeria 56.8 24.2 7.6 6.8 3.6 0 1
Indonesia 59.4 27.9 1.9 7.2 2 0 1.6
Morocco 72.4 14.2 2.7 4.3 1.2 0 5.1
Egypt 70.1 17.6 2.4 4.9 4.9 0 0
Pakistan 82.4 12.5 4 0.9 0.2 0 0
• Category: Foreign Policy, Ideology • Tags: Bangladesh, Religion 

razib Years ago I recall a reader (perhaps Ikram or Conrad Barwa?) quip that I was basically Magid Iqbal from the novel White Teeth. Probably the biggest similarities are the fact that Magid is an atheist with a pro-Western outlook, and, he’s a geneticist. But a major difference is that the Magid depicted in White Teeth strikes me as a prig. And, there are obvious biographical discrepancies. Despite my parents threatening to send me back to Bangladesh periodically for impudence, they never did. I grew up in the United States, and have the citizenship of that country, as well as Bangladesh. And I’m quite glad to be an American right now, because of articles such as this: Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left. The sad conclusion:

This weekend I arrived in Bangladesh with the naïve hope of writing about wide-eyed idealists fighting the fight no matter what, fuelled with the zeal of Je Suis Charlie. The reality on the ground is much harsher: atheists are being hunted down for both religious retribution and political gain. Washiqur Rahman was right: words cannot be killed. But a struggling movement can only take so much battering, and Bangladeshi atheism is fighting to survive.

I’m not much interested in a “movement” of atheists. Bangladesh has other problems, and in some ways it is making progress. As I may have mentioned my mother was impressed and confused by the rapid economic development she saw across the country when visiting a few months ago (my parents left Bangladesh when the nation was only about a decade old). But these recent developments sadden me greatly, because when basic liberty of thought is an offense, then we see a society regressing. Mind you, I am not much the Whig, so this does not surprise me, nor does it strike me as unnatural. I think organized Islamism is atavistic in only a rhetorical sense. The reality is that it is a feature of modernity, or at least a reaction to modernity.

Words are cheap. And “solidarity” across the oceans is pretty much worthless. But I think it is something to at least say that there, but for the grace of God go I, ironically in this particular case. To me a measure of the worth of a society is its ability to tolerate heretics. That is why I sympathize with the ancient Hellenists, and not the waxing homogeneity of Christendom über alles. And that is why I think the world of Islam is today by and large an inferior vessel for human possibility. Not to sound too much a Spenglerian, but I do hope that this flare-up of Islamic violence is simply a reaction to the inevitable liberalism which is being ushered in by the demographic transition and economic growth evident across Bangladeshi society.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Bangladesh 

Screenshot from 2015-04-05 13:27:53

Also, Mexico has a population on the order of 50% of the United States. Saudi Arabia and Yemen have about the same population.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Saudi Arabia, Yemen 

200px-IbnWarraqwhyIAmNotMuslim There’s an old joke that people in Alabama can be rest assured that when scholars tote up social statistics there’s always Mississippi to make sure that their state isn’t the last one listed. Sometimes I feel that way when thinking about comparing Bangladesh to Pakistan. Right now it is big news that an atheist blogger has been killed in Bangladesh, presumably by Islamic militants or sympathizers thereof. Naturally people are bringing this to my attention because 1) I was born in Bangladesh 2) I’m an atheist 3) I’m a blogger. But there are some important differences. From what I am to gather this blogger was focused on issues relating to atheism and secularism, and, his core audience was Bangladeshi. I write to a mostly American audience, and religion as a political issue is not a primary focus of mine (as opposed to a scholarly interest). Honestly I am more frightened of dying of a disease than being hacked to death by Islamist radicals if I were to visit Bangladesh, because I’m not that prominent.* Though this is certainly another argument for why I might want to avoid that country. In How The Scots Invented the Modern World the author points out that the last person killed on account of their atheism in the British Isles lived around 1700. Though the killing of Avijit Roy is not quite analogous, because it was a vigilante action, it illustrates the social sentiment broadly in society that blasphemy may be a capital crime in some parts of the world, hundreds of years after this sort of fanaticism abated in the West.

gsi2-chp1-9 Of more interest to me is that there is an atheist movement in public in Bangladesh at all. This is after all a very underdeveloped nation (Pakistan is still more economically developed) which is highly religious. It is also a nation where religious minorities occupy a somewhat precarious position. Nevertheless, against the standard and trajectory of Pakistan Bangladesh is relatively liberal and advanced when it comes to religious liberty from a Western perspective. The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh is a Hindu. Unlike Pakistan the Ahmadis receive some official protection. One of the two major political parties, and the one currently in power, has maintained a stronger commitment to secularism in the face of pressure from the religious elements than its socialist analog in Pakistan (though it too has caved to aspects of Islamicization of society since the 1970s).**

The reasons for this difference are multifaceted. It could be as simple as the historical contingency that the United States buttressed the Islamic autocracy of Zia ul-Huq in the 1980s. Though today Pakistan is a byword for Islamic extremism, I tend to be of the opinion that its origins can be understood more as an instance of ‘religious nationalism,’ akin to Revisionist Zionism. The founder of Pakistan had a religious background which would be unacceptable to many Pakistanis today, and his personal piety was minimal. Pakistan initially served as a redoubt in the Indian subcontinent against Hindu numerical dominance, not the catspaw in Sunni radical millenarianism. It was a place where the traditional Muslim elites could take their rightful role as the political leaders, rather than being marginalized as would have been the case in a democratic India. Over time this national identity, of which religion was a part, though never a totality, has become more and more tied in with currents in international Sunni Islamic radicalism (to the obvious detriment of the non-Sunni minorities, including Shia such as the founder of the nation himself).

But this isn’t just a matter of sentiments on high. Rather, the reserves of secularism and tolerance for heterodoxy run deeper in modern Bangladesh than they do in Pakistan. Though >80 percent of both Pakistani and Bangaldeshi Muslims agree that Sharia should be the law of the land, less than half of Bangaldeshis who agree with this proposition believe that those who leave Islam should be subject to the death penalty according to Pew. It is notable that there are people willing to speak the record on video defending the right to Roy expressing his atheism. An English language newspaper in Bangladesh reflects this sentiment. Looking around the web about Pakistani atheism, it seems quite closeted, and columnists who write about it seem to parse their words carefully so as to avoid vigilante attention.

Writing about the modest protests The Guardian notes:

The attacks starkly underline an increasing gulf between secular bloggers and conservative Islamic groups, often covertly connected with Islamist parties. Secularists have urged authorities to ban religion-based politics, while Islamists have pressed for blasphemy laws to prevent criticism of their faith.

It is important to note that despite the groundswell of anger from the usual suspects among Muslims, there is still a strong enough secular liberal intelligentsia in Bangladesh which can speak in favor of someone as religiously marginal as an atheist from a Hindu background. The murder is a tragedy, but the reaction is to some extent heartening, and I hope heralds a future where social conflict can give way to the driving of religion into the private sphere (I think banning religious parties is usually counterproductive, for the record. I’d also oppose banning them on principle even if it was productive).

* Though I checked, and it is interesting that I have more Twitter followers from Bangladesh than Germany, probably on account of my name.

** The Awami League and the People’s Party respectively.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Bangladesh, Religion 

524202 The Ben Affleck vs. Bill Maher and Sam Harris debate about Islam is all over the interwebs, and seems like something of a Rorschach test. On my Twitter some people seem awfully impressed by Ben, while others (including me) think that it’s a pretty good illustration of the shallowness of contemporary Left liberalism when it comes to religion. One response is that “you can’t generalize about 1.5 billion people.” No, I don’t mean Catholics, I mean Muslims. When it comes to Christianity, or white males, Left liberals seem comfortable generalizing about a pattern of patriarchy or oppression, no matter that some white Christian males were at the forefront of movements such as abolitionism. Words like “problematic” or “complex” and “nuanced” don’t come up when people begin to hold forth upon the “white male Christian patriarchy.” It’s a vast monolith. Imagine if someone stated there was a problem with child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and the response was that “you can’t generalize, most Catholic priests are not child abusers!” True. But enough are that it’s a problem. Affleck’s immediate response is that Maher and 0226056767 Harris’ assertions were “Gross and Racist.” This emotive explosion is really at the heart of it, criticism of Islam triggered a disgust and aversion response, not a rational reaction. Not that we should expect Ben Affleck to engage in deep analysis, just as Maher and Harris are not deep thinkers on religion either. One strange thing I note about Ben Affleck’s angry reaction is that he challenged Maher and Harris on their lack of deep scholarly credentials in Islam. Now, if a Muslim had demanded this it would kind of make sense, but I don’t understand why a secular liberal would talk as if only the ulema could speak authoritatively about Islam. This is somewhat similar to the Yale Humanist association objecting to Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking about Islam, and demanding that someone with academic credentials be invited as well. Shall we impose the same criterion when it comes to Christianity? Only pastors and priests need apply?

No_god_but_God_(Reza_Aslan_book)_US_cover Over at The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog there is a post up, Ben Affleck and Bill Maher are both wrong about Islamic fundamentalism. First, this idea that there is a “moderate Islam” and a “fundamentalist Islam” is only useful to some extent. A genuinely textured argument needs to introduce more multitudes, from the philosphically esoteric Ismaili sect, which in its most numerous Nizari form tends toward what one might call a liberal form of modern Islam, to various traditionalist Sunnis who reject the Salafi/Deobani views but still express very conservative perspectives. The assassin of Salman Tarseer was from the Barelvi download (1) movement, which is the “moderate” traditionalist alternative to the various Salafi and Deobandi “conservative” currents which have been roiling Pakistan over the past few generations. I put the quotes because the Salafi and Deobandi movements are reformist, and to a great extent the products of the past few hundred years and strongly shaped by a modernist viewpoint, even if their modus operandi strikes us as reactionary. The fact is that traditional Islam has accepted as a majority consensus that apostasy from Islam should result in the death penalty. But there was also a lot of latitude in this area, and in pre-modern times political entities were not totalitarian. These sorts of edicts may not have been enforced much at all (analogy, Theodosius’ banning of public paganism in the late 4th century probably was not enforced across much of the Empire, though it did allow for interventions in some cases, such as the destruction of the Serapeum). Additionally, the reality is that for particular classes and individuals there was a wide tolerance toward free thought. The great physician al-Razi clearly would be considered a free thinker, while the poet al-Ma’arri was a caustic atheist (no surprise that ISIS beheaded one of his statues).

The modern age is arguably one of more conformity due to the ease of communication & travel, and the homogenizing power of the force of the state and mass media. In any case, Wonkblog assertions:

Overall, the picture that emerges of fundamentalism among the world’s Muslims is considerably more complicated than either Affleck or Maher seem to realize. There’s no doubt that, particularly among some Middle Eastern Muslims, support for intolerant practices runs high. It’s quite easy to criticize these practices when a repressive regime is inflicting them upon an unwilling population. But things get much more difficult when such practices reflect the will of the people, as they seem to do in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt.

On the other hand, majorities of Muslims in many countries — particularly Western countries — find these practices abhorrent. Maher tries to speak in broad brushstrokes of a “global Islam,” but Pew’s data show that such a thing doesn’t really exist.

2120250 How to be polite about it? This is stupid. First, repressive regimes fall back on Islamic populism when they are weak. The Baathist autocracies were Arab nationalist and secular. What they are doing when putting Islam front and center is pandering to public sentiment, which is becoming more and more conservative over the generations. And things don’t get more difficult when barbarism reflects the will of the people. When the people are tyrannical their will is irrelevant. That’s presumably why you have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is not surprising that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam endorsed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference did not vouchsafe that one could change religions. Second, numbers are of the essence. Western Muslims are important to Western people, because they live among us, but they are numerically trivial. Wonkblog provides the fraction of selected Muslim nations (or Muslims in selected nations) where proportions agree that apostates from Islam should be executed (which is truly the historical traditionalist view, even if there are details of implementation which make it difficult, and there are some dissenting views which are becoming louder). Pew also helpfully provides the number of Muslims in each nation estimated for 2010.

Nation % death penalty for apostates Muslim Population Muslim Population death penalty for apostates
Kazakhstan 0 8887000 0
Albania 1 2601000 26010
Turkey 2 74660000 1493200
Kosovo 2 2104000 42080
Bosnia 2 1564000 31280
Kyrgyzstan 5 4927000 246350
Tajikistan 6 7006000 420360
Russia 6 16379000 982740
Indonesia 13 204847000 26630110
Lebanon 13 2542000 330460
Tunisia 16 10937521 1750003
Thailand 21 3952000 829920
Bangladesh 36 148607000 53498520
Iraq 38 31108000 11821040
Malaysia 53 17139000 9083670
Jordan 58 6397000 3710260
Palestine 59 4298000 2535820
Egypt 64 80024000 51215360
Pakistan 64 178097000 113982080
Afghanistan 78 29047000 22656660
835123521 301285923

200px-IbnWarraqwhyIAmNotMuslim The nations surveyed represent about half of the world’s Muslims (>800 million of ~1.5 billion). These data indicate that 36 percent of the these Muslims favor the death penalty for apostates. Much of the balance in terms of population is going to be in Africa and other Middle Eastern nations (e.g., Iran) and India. I don’t know how things will shake out, though Nigerian Muslims are not particularly liberal, and I am curious if Indian Muslims would be any more liberal than Bangladeshi Muslims. In any case, we are faced with a glass half empty and half full situation. The majority of Muslims certainly do reject the death penalty for apostates today. But the minority who accept it as normative represent hundreds of millions of individuals. I tend to see the half empty aspect because I really don’t care what peaceful Muslims who focus on their mystical inner life do. They’re free to practice their superstition in the privacy of their homes, or in public spaces which they own, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. The problem is that the hundreds of millions who have what I might say are “problematic” viewpoints, if I was a pretentious liberal who enjoyed equivocating, would quite likely break my leg. This is not an academic concern, I agree with Shadi Hamid that democracy and liberalism have not made their peace in much of the Arab world. To some extent the masses will always be suspicious of liberalism, because they are a dull and uncreative sort. The American populace supports banning flag burning, and often curtailment of various kinds of speech. Elites, whether on the Left or Right step in to block these sentiments through the courts. Elites in Muslim nations need to grow some balls in this area, though the pattern of assassination of those who speak against the barbarians in their midst from Tunisia to Pakistan illustrates how deadly serious these issues are.

Finally, U.N. Report Details ISIS Abuse of Women and Children:

According to witnesses cited in the report, Islamic State fighters dumped more than 60 Turkmen and Yazidi children in an orphanage in Mosul after they had witnessed the killing of their parents by the fighters. “It appears some of the older children may have been physically and sexually assaulted,” the report notes. “Later, ISIL fighters returned to the orphanage and made the children pose with ISIL flags so they could take photos of them.

In a barbaric pre-modern age the children would have been killed. So perhaps ISIS is not quite as 7th century as they like to proclaim. But the intersection of modernity, taking the photos, and barbarity on display here is reminiscent of Rwanda more than anything else. But this is more worrisome to me:

The report said the Yazidi girl who was abducted by Islamic State fighters when they attacked her village on Aug. 3 was raped several times by different men before she was sold in a market.

“Women and girls are brought with price tags for the buyers to choose and negotiate the sale,” the report said. “The buyers were said to be mostly youth from the local communities. Apparently ISIL was ‘selling’ these Yazidi women to the youth as a means of inducing them to join their ranks.”

51ys5CPEhdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria do have rational self-interested reasons to align with ISIS, at least temporarily. The barbaric behavior meted out to Shia and non-Muslims is generally not something they have to worry about themselves, and some have even collaborated for material gains. Though there are impositions on their personal freedom, from the perspective of a Sunni Arab the erstwhile Maliki regime and that of Assad’s may not have been better bets. But no one forces you go to a slave market and buy slaves. Civilization seems to rest lightly upon the shoulders of some. That is gross. You may not want to generalize about the religion of 1.5 billion, but if I was a Christian or Yezidi in the Fertile Crescent and I saw Sunni Arabs I know what I would do. Run. Don’t ask if they are moderate or fundamentalist. Just run.

Addendum: It is here that my friend Omar Ali may ask if I am perhaps giving succor to the average Fox-News-watching imbecile . In other words, being frank and honest about the warts and all of international Islam might cause problems for Western Muslims. I don’t have suggestions for my Middle Eastern friends, but for South Asians there’s an easy recourse: bow down before the idols of your ancestors. Arabs, Turks, and Persians think you’re black Hindus anyway, so why not go whole-hog? (so to speak) You’re just replacing a thousand little idols for one black stone you otherwise worship. A simple name change will suffice. Of course the idiots will think you’re Muslim anyway, but eat a ham sandwich and prove them wrong.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Islam, Religion 

U.N. Report Details ISIS Abuse of Women and Children
According to witnesses cited in the report, Islamic State fighters dumped more than 60 Turkmen and Yazidi children in an orphanage in Mosul after they had witnessed the killing of their parents by the fighters. “It appears some of the older children may have been physically and sexually assaulted,” the report notes. “Later, ISIL fighters returned to the orphanage and made the children pose with ISIL flags so they could take photos of them.

In a barbaric pre-modern age the children would have been killed. So perhaps ISIS is not quite as 7th century as they like to proclaim. But the intersection of modernity, taking the photos, and barbarity on display here reminiscent of Rwanda more than anything else. But this is more worrisome to me:

The report said the Yazidi girl who was abducted by Islamic State fighters when they attacked her village on Aug. 3 was raped several times by different men before she was sold in a market.

“Women and girls are brought with price tags for the buyers to choose and negotiate the sale,” the report said. “The buyers were said to be mostly youth from the local communities. Apparently ISIL was ‘selling’ these Yazidi women to the youth as a means of inducing them to join their ranks.”

Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria do have rational self-interested reasons to align with ISIS, at least temporarily. The barbaric behavior meted out to Shia and non-Muslims is generally not something they have to worry about. Though there are impositions on their personal freedom, from the perspective of a Sunni Arab the erstwhile Maliki regime and that of Assad’s may not have been better bets. But not one forces you go to a slave market and buy slaves.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS 

k10064 Last week the American armed forces attacked a Syrian branch of al Qaeda which went by the name Khorasan. If you read around the web you’ll be informed that the term, a geographic one referring to the lands of Islam’s east, along the fringes of Persia, Central Asia, and western South Asia, is freighted with historical resonance for jihadis whose ideology is strongly inflected by a romantic vision of Islam’s past. By coincidence over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Lost Enlightenment, a book which chronicles Central Asia’s contribution to early Islamic civilization, and therefore a story in which Khorasan looms very large. Of course you don’t need a book length treatment on an obscure historical topic (though I would argue Central Asian shouldn’t be obscure, it is) to understand why Khorasan is important in the imaginations of jihadis. 41OxoLpuNyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ To keep it succinct, though Salafis and their fellow travelers idealize the period of the Rashidun caliphs which ended ~660 A.D., the real historical basis of their movement in terms of an idealized period which is not mythological is that of the early Abbasids, after 750 A.D., and especially 800 A.D. And it is under the Abbasids that the motor engine of Islamic civilization shifted to the east, to Khorasan, the source of the armies which fueled their initial victories, and later of the soldiers and intellectuals who solidified their regime. Though Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, the tendrils of influence and power always led back to the east so long as the polity was vigorous.

These extremist Islamic sects and movements always seem to deal in mythology and the legends of their own past. Though much of the fabric of their reality is fiction, there is often a thin scaffold of historical basis which serves as a skeleton around the narrative. I am not sure how critical it is to understand this scaffold, but it probably wouldn’t hurt. To some extent these radicals seem to speak in an inadvertent code, in that Western audiences as totally lacking in the historical consciousness that is necessary to properly interpret and comprehend considered and conscious semantic choices.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: History 

"Chop-chop square" in Riyadh

“Chop-chop square” in Riyadh

Like Joe Young, the Mormon missionary who becomes involved in the porn industry in the late 90s film Orgazmo, our involvement in the Mid-East is probably going to result in the violation of our purity (yes, that’s only in our self-conception as a nation; we’re mostly definitely only born-again virgins, not the real deal). It’s hard to read anything about the Free Syrian Army which portrays it as anything but hapless, disorganized, if often well meaning and milquetoast (well, when they’re not allying with the Nusra Front and being nasty to Alawites and Christians who support the regime which has been nasty to them). And of course this edition of the coalition of the willing involves our stalwart Western-leaning allies, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Yes, Bahrain, the sectarian regime dominated by a religious minority which suppresses the majority with foreign forces. Qatar, the Islamists’ number one ally in the Muslim world. The UAE, which is home to the dystopian techno-oligarchy that is Dubai, a glittering vision of the apotheosis of slavery coexistent with post-modernity. And of course there is Saudi Arabia, the only nation in the world which regularly decapitates individuals for capital crimes. Well, except of course the Islamic State if you count that as a state!

I won’t belabor the point. Let’s remember that the Saudi monarchy is quite notably medieval in its practices and institutional arrangement (it abolished slavery in the 1962). Our enemies, Iran, and the Syrian regime, are actually much closer to modernity as we’d understand it using the Saudis as the extreme case. As it is we have to ignore this because the Saudis are our bastards, neo-feudal creeps though they may be. And we’re trusting them to help train the Free Syrian Army? Of the 19 9/11 hijackers 15 were Saudi (a further two were from the UAE, our ally). This is not going to end well. We can’t admit that we’re helping the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Yes, he’s a murdering bastard, but he’s not our bastard.

The Islamic State is a nasty piece of work. Unlike Saddam Hussein’s late lamented dictatorship it also has the ability and ambitions to spread its tentacles of nastiness across the region right now. I won’t shed any tears over the pounding Raqqa is receiving from American cruise missiles. But let’s be clear that almost certainly this is going to benefit our Iranian enemies, as well as Hezbollah. Additionally, the Saudis and their Gulf allies will probably attempt to reshape the Sunni insurgency in their own image, which is not one which we in the West would term “moderate,” let alone free. Let’s go into this with eyes open, and acknowledge that it’s a choice between a bad option, and a worse option.

Shorter: America is on the side of the less evil guys. Go America! Also see this cri du coeur, The Barbarians Within Our Gates.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Islamic State, Saudi Arabia 

One of my pet peeves is that it is ridiculous to compare nation-states when they are not comparable. For example, China and Switzerland are both nation-states. But China has a continent scale population, but, less ethnic diversity than Switzerland.* Similarly, you can’t compare some European nations to the United States. Rather, the better point of comparison is to some American states.

A similar problem crops up when you compare India to Pakistan. Though Pakistan has some within nation diversity, India is arguably much more diverse. And some of the “states” within India are enormous in size and population. The North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh actually has a larger population than Pakistan by 20 million! But there’s another aspect of the variation that I’ve always found of note: the social statistics of BIMARU, the core North Indian Hindi-speaking states, resemble Pakistan more than they resemble other Indian states.

Below I’ve plotted the total fertility rate at three time points for various states and nations. What is striking is that not only do Bihar and Uttar Pradesh resemble Pakistan in total fertility rate, but they follow the same trajectory. In contrast the state of Punjab, which is ethnically similar to Pakistan, and sits geographically between BIMARU and Pakistan, has sub-replacement fertility, like Tamil Nadu in the deep south of India.


* China has more minorities, but there is far less balance. It is 90-95 percent Han Chinese.

• Category: Foreign Policy 

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_cover My post The Islamic State Is Right About Some Things was a “success” as far these things go. It was noted in a column in The New York Times, and highlighted issues which you can see being emphasized in pieces in Slate and The Spectator. But obviously in a single post there is a lot of nuance which I had to elide for reasons of space. Though I may be a population genomicist by day, I do think that in certain domains outside of my bread & butter I bring insights which you can’t find elsewhere, so I try to inject it into the broader discussion. But I’m limited in what I can do in a single post. One of the things I noticed as my post was circulating is that many people asserted that I was suggesting you can understand the actions of the Islamic State by the nature of its theology. Long time readers (I’ve been writing for 12 years on these sorts of issues) might be surprised by this, as was I, because actually I think that is one of the major problems that people have when attempting to understand the nature of religious phenomena. Theology is an abstruse field which is the purview of religious professionals of a particular sort. The vast majority of humans today are marginally literate at best, and for most of human history have been illiterate. To put it succinctly and semi-accurately I think our interpretations of theology are actually effects of prior beliefs, which are due to non-theological parameters. For example, I suspect most Christians would assert that their theology is such that slavery is anathema to their moral system with a proper understanding of God (i.e., theology). Obviously this was not so for the whole of Christian history up until 1800. One conclusion I derive from these sorts of facts is that theology derives its content from the subjective preferences of its practitioners. It is not like mathematics, an objective sequence of inferences and derivations from axioms. Nor is it like the natural sciences, extending itself step by step along a scaffold defined by the world around us. Rather, it starts from a presupposition, that God, with particular semantically distinct characteristics, exists, and then proceeds to enter into complex and subtle interpretations of that fact.

0195149300 I have come to this state of affairs over time through reading. Though I was raised in a religious (Muslim) environment, it was not exceedingly devout or observant, and my personal beliefs were rather devoid of much interest or consideration of supernatural entities. For some people God is an intuitive and intoxicating concept, which draws them in a magnetic fashion. For me a lack of belief is, and was, the natural state. Atheism bubbled up naturally, unbidden, at the age of eight when I decided to look within. When I considered God’s existence seriously, I couldn’t help but reject it. This meant that my understanding of religion has always been as an outsider, and I tended to take religious people at their word when it came to what they believed and how they believed. Religious people of the sort I interacted with explained that their faith was revealed in a set of scriptures, and from those scriptures one could derive the nature of religion. Even religions, such as Roman Catholicism, where scripture is not emphasized generally accept that the foundational texts are necessary and essential in truly comprehending the faith in a deep way with mind (as opposed to just receiving sacraments through liturgy). This was congenial to my mind, as it rationalized religion, turning into a system of propositions from a set of axioms. My scientific bent meant that I naturally understood this sort of mentality.

Therefore, to understand something like Islamic violence, one only need to look at the foundational texts. But though this seems like a fruitful way to go I no longer believe it describes the structure of reality because on an individual level religious belief and practice does not seem rooted at all in texts. Though one can make broad correspondences and draw arrows of causality, with an understanding at a lower and more fine-grained scale this model has as much validity as Galenic medicine. It captures fragments of reality and presents it before us in a persuasive fashion, but at a deeper level of inspection it fails to explain the basic mechanics of religious belief. To understand how I came to this position one has to know that I have long been interested in evolutionary psychology, and therefore cognitive science. After 9/11 I decided to read books on religion besides the basic scriptures, and I stumbled upon the field of evolutionary cognitive anthropology, and in particular the scientific study of religion in the naturalistic paradigm. Two of the primary sources in this domain are Scott Atran’s In God’s We Trust and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. In these dense works they illustrate the cognitive foundations of religious belief and practice, and exposed me to the reality that despite what many religious believers might tell you religious scripture is actually a sideshow to the richness of the phenomenon. Like the coffee table book that one proudly displays, the value of scriptures is that is a visible marker and a common point of reference, as opposed to an instruction manual. In Theological Incorrectness the author explores the reality that religious people don’t even seem to believe what they say they believe on a deep level. For example, monotheists and polytheists seem to have the same internal model of the supernatural world, despite their explicit verbal scripts being very different. To put this in another context, many people who espouse views which deny the existence of the supernatural still get “spooked” in a dark cemetery. Why? They are sincere in their belief that there are no ghosts and demons in the dark, but in the deep recesses of their minds reflexive intuitions honed over evolutionary time remain at the ready, alert for any sign of danger in the darkness. Similarly, most religious people may believe sincerely in a glorious afterlife, but when there is a gun to their head they may soil themselves nonetheless.

Belief matters, but it seems likely that it matters at the margins. For whatever reason we humans tend to believe that we have explicit control over our beliefs and actions, and our decisions are due to conscious reflection. This is just often not so, and it has been scientifically validated to my satisfaction. On a personal level I think it is possible that in a different social milieu I would have “rediscovered” my faith in God at some point because of constant feedback from my peers. Though the United States is often depicted, correctly, as a particularly pious developed nation, it is not difficult to seal oneself in a secular bubble. Very few of my friends are religious, despite most Americans being religious. So my atheism is nicely insulated from countervailing pressures. My beliefs, my understanding of reality, is the outcome of a complex interaction between my dispositions and my social-cultural environment. So it is for us all.

But I don’t want to imply from this that if you understand the cognitive science of religion you understand religion. Rather, it is the basic general chemistry of the understanding of the religious phenomenon. In Darwin’s Cathedral David Sloan Wilson outlines a theory of religion which explains the patterns around us in functional terms; i.e., religions as forms of cultural adaptations. Though I’m sceptical of religious models predicated on rational choice theory, that also has its utility in particular contexts. Religion in a socially corporate context such as India is far different from that in the United States, where religion is understood in more individual terms (e.g., defection from a mainstream religion to another mainstream religion does not necessarily entail a massive rupture in your social ties to friends and family in the United States, so churn is common).

So where does this leave us in relation to the Islamic State? Does genocide history and scriptures of Islamic explain its atavistic savagery? I think not. Unlike most Muslim spokespersons I don’t think the behaviour of the Islamic State is “un-Islamic.” Religion is to my mind a made-up affair, and people can remake it in its own image however they want. And, as a point of fact the early Wahabbi movement in the 18th century exhibited many of the same ticks as the Islamic State, down to genocide treatment of those who avowed wrong belief. What I found particularly interesting in a detached manner about the Islamic State is how well versed many of its proponents are in a particular streak of the history of Islam. Watching the Vice documentary of the Islamic State I can pick up terms and concepts from my rudimentary religious education, as well as references to “the Romans,” which in that case refers to the Byzantines under the Heraclian dynasty. Rather than theology I suspect history is a better guide as to what’s going on, and why, from the violent exclusive strain of Islam which periodically emerges from the Kharijites down to the Wahabbis, to early modern period and post-colonial conflicts, as well as the ethnography of political radicalism among small motivated groups such as the anarchists. Most proximately the Islamic State clearly draws energy and strength from Sunni resentment toward Alawite hegemony in Syria and Shia dominance in Iraq. Over time this may evolve into something else, as a generation grows up under the influence of the message of the Islamic State and its broader Weltanschauung. It is essential to keep in mind both the generalities (e.g., it is a Sunni movement) and particularities (e.g., it is global in its imagination and aspiration, at least notionally) when attempting to gauge the possible arcs of the future.

Addendum: And in the interest of frankness, I will also admit that though comments can be highly informative, I don’t listen closely when someone decides to lecture me on the nature of religion because it is rare than I encounter anyone with as much breadth of knowledge as me in this domain (i.e., I have read economic, sociobiological, cognitive, and historical models of religion). If I seem to dismiss your opinion, that’s probably because I don’t think much of your ideas because you likely know far less than I do.

• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Religion 

Woman_in_niqab,_Aleppo_(2010)USA Today is blasting a headline, More British Muslims fight for Islamic State than Britain, based on the fact that a conservative estimate suggests that 800 fighters for the Islamic State hold British Passports. It turns out that 600 Muslims serve in the British armed forces, which number 200,000. A separate article in The New York Times gives ballpark figures of 10 to 20 thousand as the number of fighters for the Islamic State overall. That means that 5 to 10 percent of the forces of the Islamic State are British.

There are about 2.7 million Muslims in the United Kingdom. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. That means 0.17% of the world’s Muslims are British. About 1 out of 600. Let’s say that 5% of the fighters for the Islamic State are British. 1 out of 20. British Muslims are represented at a 30-fold greater rate in the Islamic State than their world-wide representation among Muslims. Overall about 2,000 Europeans are believed to be serving in the forces of the Islamic State. About 20 to 45 million Muslims live in Europe (this is dependent on whether you’re talking about the European Union only, or include Russia). So at most 3% of the world’s Muslims are European nationals. But they make up 10 to 20 percent of the fighting forces of the Islamic State, depending on how you gauge the figures.

I review these numbers because I believe they are a place where we can start to grapple with the facts that confront us. It is easy to say “Islam is the problem,” but that is as informative as saying that all phenomena can be reduced to physics. That is true on some level, but it is useless in a practical sense. The gross over-representation of European Muslims is of interest, because if it was simply Islam then there wouldn’t be an over-representation. On flip side it seems hard to deny that Left multiculturalism which presupposes that accommodation and acceptance will serve as a balm against all separatist inclinations among Muslims simply is hard to support. Britain arguably is the most accommodating of European nations to Islam and the Muslim community, but it is contributing far greater than its quota to the forces of the Islamic State. These issues are complex, but they need to be confronted without qualms. The chickens are going to come home to roost soon.

Addendum: “European Muslims” includes a diverse array of individuals and populations. There are European ethnic groups which are historically majority Muslim, such as Albanians and Bosnians. Then there are the immigrant communities. And finally there are the converts.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Islamic State 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"

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