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51Odj8gZIeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a somewhat uneven work with a surprisingly broad thematic coverage. The subhead is “Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.” But one of the groups covered, the pagan Kalash, are not Middle Eastern. A group like the Mandaeans, who have disappeared from the region due to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, are not in any way comparable to the Coptic Christians of Egypt, who number in the millions.

Rather, the bigger issue that is being put into focus is how religious minorities are faring in the Islamic world. The short answer is not very well. The recent events on Mount Sinjar, where the Yezidi were targeted for what seems a classical case of genocide by the Islamic State, illustrates that. The issue though is less that the Islamic State is eliminationist in its intent, but that the Muslim majorities are quite apathetic or uninterested in how religious minorities fair. Russell relates how non-Muslim Kalash children were converted to Islam by teachers who made them recite the shahada, after which they were barred from identifying as non-Muslim due to the punishments enforced upon apostates. In this way a whole generation of Kalash were extracted from their broader family networks and cultural heritage individual by individual. This is in complement to the mass expulsion of peoples in the aftermath of the late lamented Iraq invasion, which sent ripples throughout the region. It is ironic that George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian, was instrumental in the eventual disappearance of Christian traditions which are nearly 2,000 years old from their ancestral homelands.

download A more interesting, and less depressing, aspect of Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, is the historical speculation by the author that many heterodox groups such as the Druze, Yezidi, Alawites, and Mandeans, preserve elements of Middle Eastern religious thought derived from antiquity. In particular, the influence of the Sabians of Harran looms large. This was a clearly pagan group which persisted down through the early Muslim centuries by asserting that they were the Sabians mentioned in the Koran, ergo, deserving of protection as People of the Book. The true religious identity of the Sabian seems to have been a synthesis of the ancient traditions of the Fertile Crescent, as well as Hellenistic Neo-Platonism. Sabians such as Thābit ibn Qurra were instrumental in the dissemination of Greek philosophy in the Baghdad created by Harun al-Rashid. Russell documents how threads of these beliefs have persisted among groups as disparate as the Yezidi, Alawites, Druze, and Mandaeans.

But these may be the last generations of these religious sects, who are grappling with the consequences and implications of modernity. The collective/corporate identities which insulated them in the past are fading, and dislocation and migration to the individualistic societies of the West are rendering them vulnerable to deracination. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is then perhaps useful as it records a world which will fade into memory before this generation shall expires.

Addendum: One of the more fascinating aspects in the narrative are references to a book with the title The Nabataean Agriculture. The aim of the work is mostly utilitarian. But, in an offhand manner the author, who lived in the first few centuries of Islam, recounts ethnographic detail which is strongly suggestive of the likelihood that in many rural areas of unmodified rural paganism dating to antiquity persisted in the Fertile Crescent. This, in contrast to the organized and “high culture” paganism of Harran. This is not entirely surprising, and is perhaps analogous to the survival of the Kalash into modern times. The “high religions” were dominant in urban areas among elites, but often took a laissez faire attitude toward the peasantry.

• Category: History • Tags: Middle East, Minorities 
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Prompted by Andrea Mitchell’s complaint that Iowa is not representative of America in racial terms the Audacious Epigone probed an American state’s typicality in terms of racial demographics, using the overall American population as a measure. One of the major issues with judging the typicality of a given state is that there is a great deal of residential segregation in even “diverse” regions. This comes up in our personal choices too. In 2008 ~10 percent of non-Hispanic whites married someone who was not a non-Hispanic white. Obviously more than ~10 percent of the population, particularly in the prime marrying demographic, are non-Hispanic whites, so you’re seeing a fair amount of homogamy. In some ways the homogamy is even more striking for minorities. ~31 percent of Asian Americans in this period married a non-Asian American. But, one has to keep in mind that using the American population as representative over 90 percent of the potential marriage partners are not Asian American!

The quest for a state that “looks like America” is understandable, but the reality of lived life is more complex. And not just in racial terms (e.g., the division in politics between the white suburbs of Maryland vs. Virginia on either side of D.C.). But keeping race in mind, one consistent finding in social science is that Americans actually tend to overestimate the number of minorities. Iowa is actually more typical than we think, despite the fact that it is not typical. In the year 2000 the General Social Survey asked respondents to estimate the number of various groups in the USA. The finding of a tendency to overestimate minorities, and underestimate non-Hispanic whites, was confirmed. But, I decided to break this down by demographic. The results are below in a table.

The first row are real counts from the 2000 Census. All the following rows are average estimates of a set of respondents in the year 2000.

Results White Black Hispanic Asian Jews Δ whites Δ minorities
Real Value 2000 Census 69.1 12.3 12.5 3.6 3.0
Total Sample 59.0 31.3 24.6 17.7 17.7 -10.1 15.1
Whites 59.2 29.8 22.8 16.0 16.5 -9.9 13.4
Black 57.4 38.8 27.4 21.7 23.3 -11.7 19.8
Hispanic 58.2 35.3 38.2 27.5 21.8 -10.9 24.2
Liberal 58.6 30.4 24.7 17.7 17.3 -10.5 14.8
Moderate 58.3 32.9 25.1 18.6 18.3 -10.8 16.1
Conservative 60.2 29.3 23.5 16.5 16.8 -8.9 13.6
Under 35 56.8 32.5 25.0 18.3 16.6 -12.3 15.8
35 to 64 59.7 30.5 24.3 17.1 17.8 -9.4 14.5
Over 65 61.9 31.2 24.3 18.3 20.1 -7.2 15.1
Northeast 58.5 31.3 25.0 18.9 20.4 -10.6 15.6
Midwest 58.2 31.4 23.5 17.5 17.4 -10.9 14.7
South 58.4 33.0 23.3 15.6 16.4 -10.7 14.5
West 61.3 28.7 27.1 20.1 17.6 -7.8 15.8
Men 59.2 27.3 19.5 13.3 13.9 -9.9 10.6
Women 58.8 34.7 28.8 21.5 21.0 -10.3 18.9
No College 58.4 33.4 25.9 19.1 19.1 -10.7 16.7
College 61.5 24.3 20.2 13.2 13.4 -7.6 9.8
Protestant 58.0 32.6 23.1 17.5 17.9 -11.1 14.9
Catholic 60.4 30.8 27.4 19.4 19.6 -8.7 16.4
Jewish 62.5 25.2 23.4 16.1 10.1 -6.6 12.1
No Religion 59.0 29.4 24.4 16.1 16.1 -10.1 13.8
Favor ban interracial marriage 59.3 37.7 27.7 21.0 20.7 -9.8 19.3
Against ban interracial marriage 58.6 30.3 24.4 17.8 17.5 -10.5 14.7

As you can see when you add up the elements on the row margins you get more than 100 percent. Why? Because I’m averaging the responses of individuals, and they aren’t talking to each other and figuring that you can’t get more than 100 percent as a collective whole. Across the demographics there is an average underestimate in absolute values of non-Hispanic whites by 10 percentage points, and an overestimate of minorities (excluding Jews here) of about 15 percentage points. The differences from the real value though were consistent with the relationships of the real values. The correlations were almost around around 0.98, which means that rarely did you come out with a scenario where a demographic estimated 5 percent for blacks, and 25 percent for Hispanics. Rather, there was a consistent overestimate of minorities, and underestimate of whites.

Taking into account both over and under estimations it looks like those with at least college educations do the best (the number of Jews in the sample was rather small, so take it with a grain of salt). But even here there is a skew in numbers. Why does this exist? My own initial hunch is that the national media is very unrepresentative of America. Set in New York or Los Angeles they reflect the demographics of those regions. Or do they? I haven’t watched much TV in a while, but I do recall the amusing reality that Seinfeld and Friends were set in New York, but minorities were very much token characters in the majority-minority city where the protagonists were resident. But, to be fair I think that may be a real reflection of lives lived, where different races and ethnic groups simply socialize with their “own” (in Manhattan the Upper East Side is ~85 percent non-Hispanic white, on an island that is ~50 percent non-Hispanic white, in a city that is ~33 percent non-Hispanic white).

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Data Analysis, Demographics, Minorities 
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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"