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Taliban targets descendants of Alexander the Great.* In this case, we’re talking about the Kalash of Pakistan, a non-Muslim cultural relict in the mountains of northwest Pakistan. The Kalash are like the Mari of Russia, a relatively isolated group who managed to maintain their explicit pagan religious traditions down to the modern era, at which point a legal framework allowed for them to practice their customs in the face of hostility from the world religion which had come to dominate their region. In the case of the Kalash, that authority and legal framework was that of the British. On the other side of the border in Afghanistan the more numerous cultural kin of the Kafir Kalash were forcibly converted to Islam in 1896

Though there are plenty of supply-side theories of religion which posit individual (“rational”) choice as the driver of change, historically this has not been so useful. I’ve noted before that in Reformation Europe Protestantism was initially very successful in converting much of the population across broad swaths of Austria, Bohemia and into Poland. Not only that, but Protestantism’s initial strength was almost always in what might be termed the “upper middle classes” (literate urbanites) and the lower nobility. But if the Protestants failed to secure political power, which usually meant the monarchy, generally there was a swing back toward Roman Catholicism. Both the Huguenots and Dutch Protestants started out as a small, motivated, and well organized minority (today around 20-30% of the population of the Netherlands is Roman Catholic, but I’ve read that during the height of the Protestant revolt against Spanish Catholic rule in fact only 10% of the population was Protestant, but these included much of the elite as well as very motivated refugees from Antwerp). But the Dutch Protestants managed to take control of the political machinery of the Netherlands and achieve independence from the distant Catholic rulers; the Huguenots did not.

A more explicit analogy with the Kafir Kalash is what occurred with the population of ancient Haran. In the 6th century Justinian the Great was getting around to imposing religious uniformity on on the East Roman Empire. The Empire had been Christian for a long time, but there were still large minorities of pagans, Jews, Samaritans, etc. Missionaries were sent to Anatolia to convert rustic populations who remained pagan, and persecutions of Jews & Samaritans triggered revolts in Palestine. A force was sent to Baalbek to stamp out the pagan enclave there, the Academy in Athens, a redoubt of Neoplatonism, was scattered, and the last active center of ancient Egyptian paganism at Philae was shuttered. But Haran was spared from conversion because of an accident of geopolitics; it was too close to the Sassanid Empire, and Khosrau I fancied himself a patron of culture, which including the dispersed members of the Athenian Academy. Some members of the Academy reputedly settled in Haran, with its pagan population, and Khosrau secured religious freedom for this area under a treaty with the Byzantines. The proximity of the Persian forces meant that it was reasonable for the Byzantines to grant this concession. Haran’s peculiar religious mix persisted down into the Islamic era, when they became the Sabians, and were instrumental in the translation of Greek works into Arabic under the Abbasids.

As for the Kalash, their persistence is only due to a combination of historical accidents (the Durand Line), their isolation, as well as their backwardness. The importance of the last fact is that they have been underdeveloped enough to maintain very high fertility rate, compensating somewhat for the high rate of conversion to Islam. As I have noted before, paganism tends to cede before higher religions at a particular level of social complexity. With modern communication and transportation the ability of the Kalash to be protected by isolation is diminished. One way that the Kalash could preserve their identity would be to align with another higher religion. This is a common occurrence in Southeast Asia, where ethnic minorities resist converting to the majority religion because it connotes assimilation to the majority ethnicity. Instead, many minorities in Burma, Thailand, etc., convert to Christianity, acquiring the ideological and institutional armamentarium which might serve as a check on conversion. In Indonesia pagan groups often redefine themselves as Hindu, and so enter into a relationship with the institutional structures of Balinese Hinduism.

This is not feasible in Pakistan. Religious minorities are under extreme pressure. The Kalash have no cultural future, extinction is their lot. It is a matter of 10 years or 30 years. No more. After that point they’ll be photographs in National Geographic. This is frankly the lot of non-Muslims in many Muslim nations (the best option is to escape abroad, as a substantial minority of Mandaens have, and the Church of the East did in the 20th century. Or, remain segregated and isolated and numerous enough in your own geographic enclaves, such as the Yazidis).**

* They’re a genetic isolate, probably not derived from Alexander’s sojourn in the east.

** The main exceptions to the grim record of religious minorities under Islamic majorities is in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In both these regions conversion to Christianity from Islam is known and accepted. In Nigeria Islam has barely increased as a proportion of the population, while Christianity has nearly doubled to parity. In Indonesia there has been a marginal decrease in the proportion of Muslims since the 1960s, probably because of the conversion of nominal Javanese Muslims to Christianity and Hinduism (Hinduism is considered by many Javanese to be their ancestral religion, and there remain Hindu Javanese minorities).

(Republished from GNXP.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: History, Science • Tags: History, Islam, Religion 
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  1. “In Indonesia pagan groups often redefine themselves as Hindu, and so enter into a relationship with the institutional structures of Balinese Hinduism.” 
     
    Yes, but another way of looking at is the central government requires people to belong to one of the six recognised religions and ‘animism’ and god forbid ‘paganism’ aren’t one of them. In Central Borneo there is a bit of agitation on the part of some Dayaks for example to have their beliefs properly recognised, which is a way of them saying they don’t want to declare as Hindu I guess.

  2. patung, i know. but this is just changing the magnitude of the vector. pancasila accelerates and forces a change that would have happened anyway. the only way a complex society can preserve an indigenous paganism is by engaging in complementation, as is the case with shinto in japan(complemented in its role with buddhism). it isn’t as if the the dayak of sarawak remain staunchly pagan, right?

  3. Right there are muslim pagan dayaks and christian pagan dayaks and then some who try to reject the ‘outside’ elements entirely and i agree in indonesia animism is done for, pancasila yes, and the liquidation of the communist party and the terrorising of the animist and pseudo muslim javanese peasantry, switching it to java (there’s a ‘great’ anecdote about this – a javanese guy about to get his head hacked off for being a ‘communist’ says to his would be killer who was probably his neighbour or someone – “make sure my son learns to read the quran”) 
     
    Back to the Hindus, new book out called “A Shadow Falls” by a british anthropologist, you might like, on the eastern tip of Java which was a century ago or more still Hindu in places – it sure as hell isn’t now. Hinduism itself is done for in Indonesia longer term, the Balinese have low fertility and they’re lazy shits so there’s always migration there looking for work, and there are other reasons, the pulverising, withering muslim religiosity of popular culture especially tv. 
     
    Also around in east Java the last Hindu holdouts on Mt Bromo are gradually losing out, did a post there – Bromo Tengger Converts to Islam, although people I talk to tell me some of them are going over to christianity, particularly to Bethany which is an evangelical church which in surabaya i associate with rich or very aspirational chinese, evidently my impression is not entirely accurate.

  4. tx for the book rec. didn’t know that conversion attempts around tengger were working.

  5. Didn’t see this before sorry 
    In Indonesia there has been a marginal decrease in the proportion of Muslims since the 1960s, probably because of the conversion of nominal Javanese Muslims to Christianity and Hinduism (Hinduism is considered by many Javanese to be their ancestral religion, and there remain Hindu Javanese minorities). 
     
    Most nominal javanese muslims converted to Islam, don’t mean to be rude but duh, yes some converted to christianity and some to hinduism but most to Islam. Like I said I think hinduism is done for, happy to be wrong though.

  6. A when someone asked a Prominent Kalash, “Are you Greek?” He responded “The Greek Government gives us money to say we are Greek. So, we are Greek!” 
     
    The Kalash Pantheon resembles the Hindu more so than the ancient Greek but their attitude towards female sexuality would make some blush and earns them the contempt of their Muslim neighbors.

  7. Are these the same pagans as in “The Man Who Would Be King?”

  8. steve, basically. though those were probably the people of nuristan right across the border, who were forced to convert. these are very closely related groups just on the other side of the border.

  9. Kalash are a very interesting subject. I’ve seen many pictures of the Kalash over the years. Many of them are of a very pink complexion, othrs with fair hair and eyes of striking color. But, all in all, I’ve personally found the Kalash to physically resemble Pakhtuns and Tadzhik very much. 
     
    I’m curious — being an isolate, just how close are the Kalash genetically to the Pakhtun/Pashtun, Ghaljis and Tadzhik?

  10. I’m curious — being an isolate, just how close are the Kalash genetically to the Pakhtun/Pashtun, Ghaljis and Tadzhik? 
     
    not very. not what you’d expect from the physical similarities at least. i think the issue is just that they’re a small isolate which has “random walked” into a new direction, and done so without equilibration occurring via gene flow from the more numerous pathans. a good contrast are the brahui, who are muslims who live among the baloch, but speak a dravidian language. but genetically they’re similar to the baloch, because the two groups have intermarried for a long time. i think an analogy with iceland is appropriate; icleanders have gone in their own direction somewhat because they’re isolated. i suspect that the kalash were even more isolated than icelanders, i presume that random scandinavians moved to iceland on rare occasions since the founding. in the case of the kalash i find it implausible that muslims would have married into them, in part because kalash hostility to muslims was one reason they persevered. OTOH, if you are a muslim fugitive going to live among, and become kalash, would probably be a way to get outside of networks which could bring you to justice.

  11. I wonder how often this has happened across Asia. Could this have been the fate of the Tocharians?

  12. I wonder how often this has happened across Asia. Could this have been the fate of the Tocharians? 
     
    what do you mean?

  13. I could be wrong, but I believe that the Tocharians were a Caucasoid group that spread across Asia and spoke the Indo-European language Tocharian and some have associated them with the Tarim mummies and with the early spread of Buddhism out of India. They’re gone now, I figured through mixture of Turkic groups (like the recent Uigurs), but I wonder if the Tocharian culture and language drifted away in this manner. 
     
    Actually, perhaps the Kashars (as they aren’t really Greek) are descended from the same group.

  14. They’re gone now, I figured through mixture of Turkic groups (like the recent Uigurs), but I wonder if the Tocharian culture and language drifted away in this manner. 
     
    they’re almost certainly the “west eurasian” component of the uyghur ancestry, which is on the order of 50-60%. the cities of the tarim basin were not nearly as isolated, on the contrary, they were transit points along the silk road. 
     
    Actually, perhaps the Kashars (as they aren’t really Greek) are descended from the same group. 
     
    the kalash speak a language which is dardic. this group is somewhat closer to indo-aryan than it is to iranian last i checked. so linguistically they are surely not (tocharian’s relationship is confused, but it is almost certainly not very closely related to indo-iranian, period). ancient peoples can survive in isolated enclaves. e.g., sogdian -> yaghnobi.

  15. very interesting, thanks

  16. In 1895, the british allowed the Afghan sultan to forcibly convert the nuristani kafirs ( related to kalaksh kafirs ) to islam 
     
    Razib’s observations lead to the grim conclusion, 
    that all non-muslims be evacuated pronto from darul-islam 
     
    The non-PC question needs to be asked 
    – how about reciprocal treatment for followers of islam in kafir countries as a preventative measure

  17. Another group that found a refuge in Xinjiang was the Manicheans. When they came to C. Asia from Persia (driven out by Islam) they had a Old Persian liturgy. Later the liturgy became Sogdian, and later still, Turkish. As I remember, there was no big population shift, migration, invasion, etc. Persian was a foreign language and was gradually replaced by the local language, and as time passed the local bilingualism shifted from Sogdian dominant to Turkish dominant.  
     
    A nineteenth-century survival that people still need to extirpate is the idea of one gene pool (race) / one language / one nation (culture) / one state / one homeland. These mappins don’t usually coincide and the wish that they would has led to murderous politics. .

  18. When they came to C. Asia from Persia (driven out by Islam) they had a Old Persian liturgy. Later the liturgy became Sogdian, and later still, Turkish. As I remember, there was no big population shift, migration, invasion, etc. Persian was a foreign language and was gradually replaced by the local language, and as time passed the local bilingualism shifted from Sogdian dominant to Turkish dominant.  
     
    1) i thought the manichaeans were persecuted by the zoroastrian priesthood under the sassanids (i just read a history of the sassanid empire and that is what it says). 
     
    2) i have read that manichaeanism seems to have survived in china itself (after the collapse of the uyghur empire, and the conversion of the peoples of the tarim basin to islam, and to a lesser extent buddhism in the east) into the mongol and perhaps early ming period.

  19. how about reciprocal treatment for followers of islam in kafir countries as a preventative measure 
     
    Yeah, more than any other religion Islam is a disaster for mankind, however falling for schismogenesis usually makes things worse.

  20. Razib, what was the name of that history of the sassanid empire? Also, can you suggest any good histories of the old Persian empires?

  21. sasanian iran: portrait of a late antique empire, touraj daryaee. as for the 2nd ?, no. does anyone else?

  22. I believe that thje big Manicheean flight was in Muslim times, but now I’m not sure. 
     
    Manicheean religion did survive in China until Marco Polo’s time, at least, and a few local temples have some recognizably Manicheean ritual and iconography even today. 
     
    The theologies and practices of Buddhism and Manicheeanism had things in common, and both religions allowed flexibility in adaptation to ambient beliefs, so a lot of Manicheeans probably just merged with Buddhism. But IIRC in the Mongol era they affiliated more with Christianity.

  23. ElamBend 
     
    I don’t know of a specific history book but if you have an iphone there is a free app for Cyrus the Great by Mohammed Komeili. It is a quick read (warning: sometimes he goes over the the in his praise) but I highly recommend it. Also the end of Plutarch’s Alexander deals with Darius’ Persia.

  24. Ausgustinian Catholicism IS Manicheanism. The latter won the battle: that bearded old fraud ejaculated his lifeless spasm into the falling acorn cup of the west. It won by Trojan ways. The Cathar heretics were its shadowy clone.

  25. Cyrus the Great? There’s an app for that. 
     
    sorry, I just find that hilarious and wonderful at the same time.

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