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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 
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  1. I recommend the following book which parallels and offers a plausible and thorough explanation of what you say, ‘The reality is that it is a feature of modernity, or at least a reaction to modernity.’ –

    http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft067n99v9&chunk.id=ch05

    http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft067n99v9&chunk.id=s1.8.2&toc.depth=1&toc.id=ch08&brand=eschol

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    i have read that book.
  2. ” The reality is that it is a feature of modernity, or at least a reaction to modernity.”

    Razib, i like this claim, and it seems easily verifiable, but “modernity” seems to be a nebulous concept. Can we zoom in on this and say that modern global islamism, stemming ultimately from Qutb and colonial and recently post-colonial times, seems to be a reaction to rapid Western technological advance vis-a-vis the islamic world? Most muslim countries are weak by any metric and the only way that islamists are able to get a foothold for their ideas and demands is by committing spectacular violence. They can’t face a modern army and are unable to create any capital to sustain prolonged campaigns.
    The only exception to this is Hezbollah and Iran, but those are two very different phenomena from what we see in South asian and african islamist movements.

    “And that is why I think the world of Islam is today by and large an inferior vessel for human possibility.”

    Did you see a post on twitter that Conrad Hackett, Pew’s demographer, made about the projections of the populations of various religions groups globally?

    Here’s a link to his tweet: https://twitter.com/conradhackett/status/584887085863014400

    And here’s a link to the report: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/274385034_The_Future_of_World_Religions_Population_Growth_Projections_2010-2050

    In short, muslims and christians will grow the most, with india becoming the country with most muslims in the world, and sub-saharan africa continuing to become more christian.

    It appears to me that islam in the middle east is crashing. Both demographically and economically there are going to be big collapses there in most places that are not Turkey, and although I doubt the prognoses of people like David P. Goldman (who writes for PJ media) I think we might continue seeing huge upheavals in the middle east.

    But Africa and India? Will we see “bloody borders” there?

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    Can we zoom in on this and say that modern global islamism, stemming ultimately from Qutb and colonial and recently post-colonial times, seems to be a reaction to rapid Western technological advance vis-a-vis the islamic world?

    i would suggest that it goes back earlier. in particular, the late phases of the "gunpowder empires", as muslim polities faced ascendant non-muslim states (including manchu china absorbing east turkestan). the wahhabi were just one facet, there were similar reformists in india as the mughal raj gave way to the british.

    i've seen hackett's projections. i respect him. but as you say, 35 years is a long time. a lot of the projections are projections from contemporary trends.
  3. @bruce
    I recommend the following book which parallels and offers a plausible and thorough explanation of what you say, 'The reality is that it is a feature of modernity, or at least a reaction to modernity.' -

    http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft067n99v9&chunk.id=ch05

    http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft067n99v9&chunk.id=s1.8.2&toc.depth=1&toc.id=ch08&brand=eschol

    i have read that book.

  4. @CredibleHulk
    " The reality is that it is a feature of modernity, or at least a reaction to modernity."

    Razib, i like this claim, and it seems easily verifiable, but "modernity" seems to be a nebulous concept. Can we zoom in on this and say that modern global islamism, stemming ultimately from Qutb and colonial and recently post-colonial times, seems to be a reaction to rapid Western technological advance vis-a-vis the islamic world? Most muslim countries are weak by any metric and the only way that islamists are able to get a foothold for their ideas and demands is by committing spectacular violence. They can't face a modern army and are unable to create any capital to sustain prolonged campaigns.
    The only exception to this is Hezbollah and Iran, but those are two very different phenomena from what we see in South asian and african islamist movements.

    "And that is why I think the world of Islam is today by and large an inferior vessel for human possibility."

    Did you see a post on twitter that Conrad Hackett, Pew's demographer, made about the projections of the populations of various religions groups globally?

    Here's a link to his tweet: https://twitter.com/conradhackett/status/584887085863014400

    And here's a link to the report: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/274385034_The_Future_of_World_Religions_Population_Growth_Projections_2010-2050

    In short, muslims and christians will grow the most, with india becoming the country with most muslims in the world, and sub-saharan africa continuing to become more christian.

    It appears to me that islam in the middle east is crashing. Both demographically and economically there are going to be big collapses there in most places that are not Turkey, and although I doubt the prognoses of people like David P. Goldman (who writes for PJ media) I think we might continue seeing huge upheavals in the middle east.

    But Africa and India? Will we see "bloody borders" there?

    Can we zoom in on this and say that modern global islamism, stemming ultimately from Qutb and colonial and recently post-colonial times, seems to be a reaction to rapid Western technological advance vis-a-vis the islamic world?

    i would suggest that it goes back earlier. in particular, the late phases of the “gunpowder empires”, as muslim polities faced ascendant non-muslim states (including manchu china absorbing east turkestan). the wahhabi were just one facet, there were similar reformists in india as the mughal raj gave way to the british.

    i’ve seen hackett’s projections. i respect him. but as you say, 35 years is a long time. a lot of the projections are projections from contemporary trends.

  5. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Could it be that Islam has problems processing weakness for theological and historical reasons?

    Christianity had a few centuries of minority religion with periodical persecutions before becoming strong, when Christianity lost its power, Christians could think “perhaps we werent meant to have so much power, perhaps it was a deviation, perhaps we should have been more like in the early centuries, perhaps the Pope didnt have to rule a State, perhaps we shouldnt burn heretics and just try to convert people through street level preaching and apologetics, after all only a minority of Christians will avoid hell, we dont need to rule the world”.
    Basically, they could retreat to early church mode.

    But Islam has nowhere to retreat to because it was born a strong religion, Mohammed was a conqueror who unified the Arabian tribes, and his successors conquered everything from Spain to India.

    Does it make theological sense for faithful muslims to be weaker than the infidels? Or they think that if Allah doesnt let them prevail it is because they arent being faithful enough?

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    the period when they had to take refuge in ethiopia. in any case, i don't put much stock in theology and historical memory. most people don't remember anything they don't want to remember, and make up what they want to remember.
  6. I do not get this. The man who was killed was Hindu. Why do they care Avijit who was American was atheist or nor? If you do not believe in God and not a Muslim, are you still subject to islam’s penalty?

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    in islam the issue with atheism (and apostasy) is less about individual infraction, and the destabilization it causes to the body politic. in practice the same is really true in xtianity too, even if there is more emphasis on correct belief. so even though he was not from a muslim background his offenses were impacting muslims. this is why apostasy is analogized to treason.
  7. Bangladesh does not compel an Australian’s attention as often or as weightily as at least eight other Asian countries but I couldn’t help noting that it may now have adopted the secular religion of cricket with much the same fervour as other subcontinental countries. And the fact -amusing to an Aussie – that the totally unfancied Bangladesh got into the World Cup quarter finals being played in February and March in Australia and New Zealand at the expense of England must surely have some appreciable impact on the national psyche and the weight of collective (or widely shared) emotions. While I have never had much time for pop sociology or the sociology of popular culture I toss in for your consideration in this ever more digitally connected world the question of sport’s moderating or other influence. Even English and Scottish soccer hooligans may be some kind of buffer against religiously motivated violence…?

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    i have one cousin in the tableegh, and another who is obsessed with cricket. the rules of both are opaque to me....
  8. It was me in 2010. But its a pretty obvious comparison. A little unfair from an agreeableness perspective, but otherwise how many fictional atheist crusading westernized Bangladeshis with an interest in genetics are there?

    “Inevitable liberalism”!

    Maybe you are a little bit of a whig?

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    trendline sort of fits.
    , @Razib Khan
    also, i think conrad beat you to it. though i think that might have been on IM or something in the mid/early 2000s.
  9. @Anonymous
    Could it be that Islam has problems processing weakness for theological and historical reasons?

    Christianity had a few centuries of minority religion with periodical persecutions before becoming strong, when Christianity lost its power, Christians could think "perhaps we werent meant to have so much power, perhaps it was a deviation, perhaps we should have been more like in the early centuries, perhaps the Pope didnt have to rule a State, perhaps we shouldnt burn heretics and just try to convert people through street level preaching and apologetics, after all only a minority of Christians will avoid hell, we dont need to rule the world".
    Basically, they could retreat to early church mode.

    But Islam has nowhere to retreat to because it was born a strong religion, Mohammed was a conqueror who unified the Arabian tribes, and his successors conquered everything from Spain to India.

    Does it make theological sense for faithful muslims to be weaker than the infidels? Or they think that if Allah doesnt let them prevail it is because they arent being faithful enough?

    the period when they had to take refuge in ethiopia. in any case, i don’t put much stock in theology and historical memory. most people don’t remember anything they don’t want to remember, and make up what they want to remember.

    • Replies: @Twinkie

    i don’t put much stock in theology and historical memory. most people don’t remember anything they don’t want to remember, and make up what they want to remember.
     
    I think you under-appreciate the power of religious rituals and how they keep historical and communal memory alive through hundreds of years and even through millennia.
  10. @Wizard of Oz
    Bangladesh does not compel an Australian's attention as often or as weightily as at least eight other Asian countries but I couldn't help noting that it may now have adopted the secular religion of cricket with much the same fervour as other subcontinental countries. And the fact -amusing to an Aussie - that the totally unfancied Bangladesh got into the World Cup quarter finals being played in February and March in Australia and New Zealand at the expense of England must surely have some appreciable impact on the national psyche and the weight of collective (or widely shared) emotions. While I have never had much time for pop sociology or the sociology of popular culture I toss in for your consideration in this ever more digitally connected world the question of sport's moderating or other influence. Even English and Scottish soccer hooligans may be some kind of buffer against religiously motivated violence...?

    i have one cousin in the tableegh, and another who is obsessed with cricket. the rules of both are opaque to me….

  11. @ikram
    It was me in 2010. But its a pretty obvious comparison. A little unfair from an agreeableness perspective, but otherwise how many fictional atheist crusading westernized Bangladeshis with an interest in genetics are there?

    "Inevitable liberalism"!

    Maybe you are a little bit of a whig?

    trendline sort of fits.

  12. @vijay
    I do not get this. The man who was killed was Hindu. Why do they care Avijit who was American was atheist or nor? If you do not believe in God and not a Muslim, are you still subject to islam's penalty?

    in islam the issue with atheism (and apostasy) is less about individual infraction, and the destabilization it causes to the body politic. in practice the same is really true in xtianity too, even if there is more emphasis on correct belief. so even though he was not from a muslim background his offenses were impacting muslims. this is why apostasy is analogized to treason.

  13. @ikram
    It was me in 2010. But its a pretty obvious comparison. A little unfair from an agreeableness perspective, but otherwise how many fictional atheist crusading westernized Bangladeshis with an interest in genetics are there?

    "Inevitable liberalism"!

    Maybe you are a little bit of a whig?

    also, i think conrad beat you to it. though i think that might have been on IM or something in the mid/early 2000s.

  14. Atheists are rare enough in Bangladesh (just as they are in the U.S.), but fear of doing something that might brand one as an atheist could have a profound chilling effect on a much broader swath of the entire society. Almost everyone involved in STEM or real history, for example, is at risk.

  15. @Razib Khan
    the period when they had to take refuge in ethiopia. in any case, i don't put much stock in theology and historical memory. most people don't remember anything they don't want to remember, and make up what they want to remember.

    i don’t put much stock in theology and historical memory. most people don’t remember anything they don’t want to remember, and make up what they want to remember.

    I think you under-appreciate the power of religious rituals and how they keep historical and communal memory alive through hundreds of years and even through millennia.

    • Replies: @dcite
    Yes. There has been virtually no people anywhere that did not have some kind of belief system in the "creator" or some force vaster and smarter than anything on earth. The basic themes of the god-stories are actually pretty well remembered down through the generations. Atheists also persecute when in power and in status quo. Their victims not gotten as much coverage in popular culture of the 20th/21st centuries as some groups.
    Power corrupts. It's just bloody human nature when possessed by ego.
    Generally, no one worries too much about the occassional Village Atheist. Omar Khayyam was one centuries ago.
  16. @Twinkie

    i don’t put much stock in theology and historical memory. most people don’t remember anything they don’t want to remember, and make up what they want to remember.
     
    I think you under-appreciate the power of religious rituals and how they keep historical and communal memory alive through hundreds of years and even through millennia.

    Yes. There has been virtually no people anywhere that did not have some kind of belief system in the “creator” or some force vaster and smarter than anything on earth. The basic themes of the god-stories are actually pretty well remembered down through the generations. Atheists also persecute when in power and in status quo. Their victims not gotten as much coverage in popular culture of the 20th/21st centuries as some groups.
    Power corrupts. It’s just bloody human nature when possessed by ego.
    Generally, no one worries too much about the occassional Village Atheist. Omar Khayyam was one centuries ago.

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