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Seven-Daughters There’s a new open access paper in AJHG, Tracing the Route of Modern Humans out of Africa by Using 225 Human Genome Sequences from Ethiopians and Egyptians, which is nice in that it uses state-of-the-art methods to analyze the genetics of a part of the world that warrants greater investigation. As the title of the paper implies the authors are focusing on a region which is likely the site of the exit of an ancient African population ~50-100,000 years ago which is responsible for over 90 percent of the ancestry of non-Africans. In short, they’re looking at the variation of modern populations across the region, and relating it to populations outside of the region, to infer historical relationships. This method has a long pedigree, at least by the standards of historical population genetics. About 15 years ago the Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes wrote Seven Daughters of Eve, where he traced ancient European migrations to the most common mtDNA haplogroups in the continent. Using these results Sykes asserted that most of the ancestry of modern Europeans derives from Paleolithic hunter-gatherers; not Middle Eastern farmers. More precisely, modern Europeans exhibit overwhelming continuity with the Pleistocene populations. It turns out that this is wrong.

We know this because of ancient DNA, which is coming to various novel conclusions and overturning older understandings. One of them is that the genetic variation you see in a locale today has limited time depth into the past. That is why I state that it is likely that Cro-Magnons may contribute to less than 1 percent of the ancestry of modern Europeans. There are regions, such as the New World, where over the past 10,000 years genetic turnover on the whole has been modest, to negligible (most of the Holocene turnover in the New World before the arrival of Europeans is in northern North America). But this seems the exception rather than the rule. In South Asia, Africa, Europe, Siberia, East Asia and Southeast Asia, there is no dispute that the Holocene witnessed enormous changes in the genetic and demographic makeup of the dominant population. The flip side is that very ancient “archaic” lineages in some regions of the Eurasia have modern descendants. That is why I say we need to update our priors; the ancient branches of our family were mostly, but not entirely pruned, while many of the recent branches were mostly or even entirely pruned.

This brings me to the main question: how plausible it is that the genetic patterns on evidence in the paper in AJHG tell us about human evolutionary history with time depths of ~50,000 years. Color me skeptical. There are some specific issues that I’m confused by, in addition to the bigger framework. Greg Cochran has already put them into focus rather trenchantly. First, this section of the paper:

Using ADMIXTURE and principal-component analysis (PCA)18 (Figure 1A), we estimated the average proportion of non-African ancestry in the Egyptians to be 80% and dated the midpoint of the admixture event by using ALDER to around 750 years ago (Table S2), consistent with the Islamic expansion and dates reported previously.

300px-Fayum-34 A plain reading implies that 750 years ago non-African ancestry admixed into the population of Egypt so that it’s now 80% of the ancestry. Obviously this is insane. Egypt has a long history, and all the evidence that is not genetic indicates that ancient Egyptians were predominantly a population with Near Eastern and North African, not Sub-Saharan, affinities. The Roman era Fayum portraits suggest a people who resemble by and large modern Egyptians. Some do seem to have aspects of appearance which strike one as Sub-Saharan, but the presence of Nubians, as well as likely an ancient admixture event that occurred when Middle Eastern farmers arrived in the Nile Valley, can explain that. But when ascertaining the “Out of Africa” event you need to focus on the oldest element of ancestry. So you would have to look the people who contributed indigenous African ancestry well before the emergence of Egypt as a distinct civilization.

Here is the confusing part which inverts expectations. This last component is most likely to be within the “Non-African” segments of the Egyptian genome. I say this because the latest period of a mass population movement into Egypt from the Near East is ~8,000 year ago. 8,000 years is a long time, so recombination every generation would break apart the association between tracts of ancestry traceable to the newcomers, and that traceable to indigenous hunter-gatherers. Over time a new synthetic populatoin with its own distinctive population profile emerges. This is the case with South Asians, who are genetic compound of two very distinctive groups with extremely diverged histories. The latest evidence suggests that the admixture occurred on the order of ~4,000 years ago. That’s half the time depth of what likely occurred in ancient Egypt.

61kCcH+1C9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ And about the African ancestry they did focus on, the 750 year time depth gives you a clue about where it came from: the rise of the Islamic empires and trans-Saharan trade enabled by camel triggered a massive influx of slaves from Africa into North Africa and the Near East (there was also an influx of slaves from the Caucasus and Central Asia, and for a time Europe, in large part because Islamic law banned the enslavement of believers). In the Maghreb these slaves were from West Africa. In the Persian Gulf the sources were diverse, but many were from East Africa. The natural source of Egyptian slaves is likely to be from the Sudan, what was ancient Nubia. Also, the Gumuz, who are used as a relatively unadmixed Ethiopian population (i.e., low Eurasian admixture fraction), are themselves of possible Sudanic origin and background!

I can agree that the Nubian/Sudanic ancestry exhibits a closer relationship to the population basal to non-Africans than West Africans. But, to me this paper does not make a strong case for a “northern” route through Egypt compared to the “southern” route, via the Bab-el-Mandeb. First, 50,000 years is a long time. My null assumption is that there has been enough population movement in Northeast Africa even before the Holocene to obscure the signal. Second, even without this consideration in mind, it strikes me that the African ancestry in Egyptians that they are focusing on is not a good geographic proxy in the first place, since it derives from Sudanic groups from further south. Finally, I do observe that this region of the world is relatively dry, making ancient DNA a possibility. So I have optimism that greater clarity will be achieved in the near future.

• Category: Science • Tags: Egypt, Out-of-Africa 
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As I’ve noted in this space before many of my “web friends” and readers are confused why I call myself “conservative.” This is actually an issue in “real life” as well, though I’m not going to get into that because I’m a believer in semi-separation of the worlds. I’ll be giving a full account of my political beliefs at the Moving Secularism Forward conference. A quick answer is that I’m very open to voting for Republicans, and have done so in the recent past. And, my lean toward Mitt Romney* in the current cycle is probably obvious to “close readers.” But I’m not a very “political person” in the final accounting when it comes to any given election. I didn’t have a very strong reaction to the “wave” elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010, except that I was hopeful but skeptical that Democrats would actually follow through on their anti-war rhetoric (I’m an isolationist on foreign policy).

Rather, my conservatism, or perhaps more accurately anti-Left-liberal stance, plays out on a broader philosophical and historical canvas. I reject the very terms of much of Left-liberal discourse in the United States. I use the term “discourse” because for some reason the academic term has replaced the more informal “discussion” in non-scholarly forums. And that’s part of the problem. I am thinking of this because of a post by Nandalal Rasiah at Brown Pundits commenting on a piece over at Slate, Responding to Egregious Attack on Female Protester, Egyptian Women Fight Back. Whether conventional or counter-intuitive Slate is a good gauge of “smart” Left-liberal non-academic public thought. Nandalal highlights this section:


While it’s always dangerous to analyze the psychology of a different culture, I think it is safe to say that in this case, a kind of social contract has been irreparably broken. Based on the statements reported in the Times and in other media accounts, the women of all ages and political/religious orientations who took to the streets yesterday felt that the violation against this poor woman was a violation against them all. A repressive, virulently patriarchical society like the one the Egyptian military apparently wishes to foment in its country can only function with the tacit (whether coerced or freely given) consent of the women it oppresses. But when those same men who demand chastity, modesty, and all the rest prove themselves to be hypocrites by violently demeaning women in the streets, the silence is bound to be broken.

There are lots of implicit assumptions lurking in this one paragraph. Before, excuse the word, deconstructing it, I highly recommend D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t to get where I’m coming from. It has one of the most concise and well written critiques of the “Post Modern”** obfuscation which has crept into many disciplines purporting to describe, analyze, and comment upon the human condition. Slone’s short academic book is obviously about religion, from a cognitivist perspective, but his prefatory section is a survey of the diseases which ail cultural anthropology today (for a longer take see Dan Sperber’s Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach).

First, the very idea that the Egyptian military is fomenting patriarchy seems descriptively false. I thought perhaps I didn’t understand what foment connoted, so I looked it up. The reality is that Egyptian society was, and is, virulently patriarchal. I’ve talked about this in detail before. 54 percent of Egyptians support the enforcement of gender segregation in the workplace by law (there is no sex difference on this by the way). The Egyptian military may be a authoritarian force in the country which does foment religious conflict and patriarchy, but the key is to observe that this leverages the pre-existent tendencies of the society. Over its history the Egyptian military, and the political and economic elite, have been forces for Westernization, on the whole. This is obvious when you observe that in a democratic election Egyptians are giving 2/3 of their vote to Islamist parties, and 25 percent of the vote to Salafist parties who wish to impose a theocratic regime immediately!

Second, we need to reconsider whether it was, and is, the repeated sexual assaults upon women which are the necessary root of the anger. Sexual harassment of women on the street has long been common in Egypt. As 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women report it, it seems unlikely that this is a phenomenon of a small minority of men who are violating a social contract (on this specific issue anger at the military combined with the power of media are probably the necessary causes of the outrage to this action). Mona Eltahawy has spoken at length about her assault at the hands of the authorities, but in interviews she also occasionally mentions that prior to the central incident there were instances of sexual harassment which she experienced from fellow protesters! One reason that many women in the Muslim world give for supporting Islamist parties is that these parties promise to enforce protections of women against the predatory behavior of men in societies where female honor is simply a consumption good when that female is not a relative.

So the inferences made from the contemporary events in Egypt in this case are faulty. But they’re interesting because the problem is so common. Why? You can’t make sense of this unless you examine the broader theoretical framework that people are operating within to generate inferences. A nod is given to this when the author states that it is “always dangerous to analyze the psychology of a different culture.” I think this has a positive descriptive dimension, and a normative one. The positive descriptive dimension is that in scholarship one has to be careful to not allow one’s own subjective perspective to cloud objective judgments. Else, one may generate a false model of the world. This means setting aside one’s own values framework for the purpose of further analysis. Such a stance has not been the norm throughout human history. The didactic tone of Tacitus is much more typical than the cooler detachment of Thucydides. The use and abuse of scholarship for the aims of social and political ends are well known.

The problem occurs when these common sense guidelines in academics transform themselves into ever expanding relativistic bounds of discourse, incoherently in contrast with the strong normative orientations of the expositors of these same theoretical frameworks. In turning away from the bias of the past, there is now a bias which has inverted itself. There is a tendency to be careful about analyzing or criticizing other cultures, because that is “dangerous.” Why? Well, would you want to be an “Orientalist”? But you are also careful to demarcate other cultures in a way suitable to your preferences for the purposes of rooting out “injustice.” Would the author of the Slate piece be wary of critiquing the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? This endogamous sect is certainly apart from the rest of American culture. In fact, with its extreme patriarchy and polygamy it resembles the ideals of some non-Western societies. How about the culture of the American South? There’s no denying this is a distinctive region in folkways. Would one think it is dangerous to analyze or critique the distinctive attitudes toward relations between the races in his region, whose divergence from the North dates back to colonial times?

Some of this is clearly just a matter of race. Though people speak of “culture,” what they often act out is the idea that non-white races have different cultures by nature in an essential sense, and so must be critiqued with a softer touch, or greater sensitivity, than whites with a distinctive culture. Conservative white Southerners and Fundamentalist Mormons are clearly distinctive in culture from the typical Northern Left-liberal, but that does not shield them from a critique derived from a difference in perspective. The implicit idea lurking beneath the surface is that the white race is subject to a particular standard of cultural expectation, and criticism meted out serves to elevate dissenters to that higher standard, which diminishes “oppression” and “injustice” (quotes in this case because I feel that the terms are used many to further very narrow political projects, to the point where they’re heavily debased and almost without content as ends as opposed to means). In contrast, the situation is different with non-whites, who must be left to find their own direction, or more obliquely critiqued.

To a great extent this is a caricature, but the underlying dynamic is real. For example, a few years back a Harvard Muslim chaplain was caught contextualizing, and defending, laws enforcing the death penalty for apostasy from Islam. Upon further inspection from an intellectual perspective I can see where he was coming from. In scholarly or academic settings I think one can have a real discussion about this issue, even if one disagrees with the presuppositions. I say this as someone who is technically a Muslim apostate (my father is Muslim, by which definition some Muslims would define me as such). Here is the section which I found amusing though:

I would finally note that there is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand. The formal consideration of excuses for the accused and the absence of Muslim governmental authority in our case here in the North/West is for dealing with the issue practically.

This individual is a Harvard graduate, so of course he would understand what “hegemonic modern human rights discourse” is alluding to, and the use of therm “discourse” suggests his familiarity with the academic style dominant today, despite his defense of capital punishment of apostates from Islam under Islamic governments. Despite the trotting out of appropriate terminology, obviously the individual in question believes in a hegemonic discourse. He accepts that Islam is the way, the truth, and that under ad Islamic regime those who are Muslim who turn from the truth may be put to death by the authorities. If a conservative Protestant chaplain at Harvard was caught privately defending the death penalty for apostasy (which was enforced by Protestants in Scotland as late as 1700) there wouldn’t be a discussion or contextualization; they’d be universally condemned and fired (in large part because killing apostates from religion is no longer part of the wider Christian set of norms, as opposed to the world of Islam where the concept is widely accepted).

The problem with the bleeding over of academic “discourse” into the public forum is that it obfuscates real discussion, and often has had a chilling effect upon attempts at moral or ethical clarity. Unlike the individual above I am skeptical of moral or ethical truth in a deep ontological sense. But I have opinions on the proper order of things on a more human scale of existence. You don’t have to reject the wrongness of a thing if you reject the idea that that thing is wrong is some deep Platonic sense. I can, in some cases will, make the argument for why some form of the Western liberal democratic order is superior to most other forms of arranging human affairs, despite being a skeptic of what I perceive to be its egalitarian excesses. I can, and in some cases will, make the argument for why legal sexual equality is also the preferred state of human affairs. But to have this discussion I have to be forthright about my norms and presuppositions, and not apologize for them. They are what they are, and the views of those who disagree are what they are.

An academic discourse tends to totally muddy a clear and crisp discussion . The reality is that most Egyptians have barbaric attitudes on a whole host of questions (e.g., ~80 percent of Egyptians favor the death penalty for apostasy from Islam). It was not surprising at all that the majority of the Egyptian electorate supported parties with reactionary cultural political planks; because the classification of these views as “reactionary” only makes sense if you use as your point of reference the Westernized social and economic elite. The majority of Egyptians have never been part of this world, and for them upward mobility has been accompanied by a greater self-consciousness of their Islamic identity.

This reality is not comforting to many, and so there has been an evasion of this. If we accept, for example, the hegemonic superiority of sexual equality, should we not impose the right arrangement upon those who oppress women? This is a serious question, but the fear of engaging in “dangerous” analysis in the “discourse” allows us to sidestep this question. Rather, by minimizing the concrete realities of cultural difference and the depths of their origin, Egyptians are easily transformed into Czechs in 1989 with browner skins and a Muslim affiliation. This is a totally false equivalence. As Eastern Europeans go the Czech population is atypical in its secularism and historical commitment to liberal democracy (one could argue the weakness of the Catholic church goes as far back as the Hussite rebellion and the later suppression of Protestantism by the Habsburgs). While other post-World War I polities switched toward authoritarianism in the inter-war period, the Czechs retained a liberal democratic orientation until the Nazi German invasion. After the collapse of Communism they reverted back to this state. Notably, extreme nationalist parties with anti-democratic tendencies have come to the fore in most post-Communist states, but not so in the Czech Republic.

The irony here is that an academic position which espouses the deep incommensurability of different societies and cultures in terms of their values, rendering inter-cultural analysis or critique suspect, has resulted in the domain of practical discussion a tendency to recast inter-cultural differences of deep import into deviations or artificialities imposed from the outside. In this particular case that artificiality is the Egyptian military, but in most cases it is Western colonialism, which has an almost demonic power to reshape and disfigure postcolonial societies, which lack all internal agency or direction. This is simply not the true state of affairs. The paradoxical fact is that there is commensurability across very different cultures. You can understand, analyze, and critique other societies, if imperfectly. For example, I can understand, and even agree with, some of the criticisms of Western society by Salafist radicals for its materialism and excessive focus on proximate hedonism. The Salafists are not aliens, but rather one comprehensible expression of human cultural types. But that does not deny that I find their vision of human flourishing abhorrent. I understand it, therefore I reject it.

As I state above my views on foreign policy tend toward isolation. Despite the fact that I find the actions of many governments and value of many societies barbaric, and believe that the way of life expressed by Western liberal democratic societies furthers human flourishing more optimally, I do not believe it is practical or productive to force other societies to align their values with ours in most cases.*** In other words, I accept that the world is currently going to operate with a multicultural order. This does not mean that I accept multiculturalism, where all cultures have “equal value.” That idea is incoherent when it is not trivial. Such a framing is useful and coherent in a scholarly context, where Epoché is essential. A historian of Nazi Germany constantly consumed by their disgust and aversion to the regime which is the subject of their study would be a sub-optimal historian. Such disgust and aversion is right and proper, but for scholarship there must be a sense that one must movethat to the side for the purposes of analysis and description.

But most people are not scholars. They are not engaging in discourse, but having a discussion. Scholarly theories of modes of inquiry are often totally inappropriate for proximate political policy discussions. Normative biases and methodological commitments undergo peculiar transformations, and inevitably one has to confront the fact that much of what is meant or intended becomes opaque, embedded in abstruse phraseology and intelligible only to initiates in the esoteric knowledge. The hybrid of the Post Modern inflected scholar and public intellectual is ultimately a gnostic sophist of the highest order, transmuting plain if unpalatable truths about the world into a murky cultic potion.

Addendum: Many people claim that the Roman or Ottoman Empires, to name a few, were multicultural. They were in a plain reading of the term, but not in a way that people who espouse multiculturalism would recognize. In both these polities there was a hegemonic social and political order, and difference was tolerated only on its terms. For example, the Romans destroyed the Druids in Gaul and Britain. Why? One reason given, which we would probably view favorably, was that the Druids were practicing human sacrifice, which the Romans found objectionable. But another more material reason is that the Druids were natural loci for political and cultural resistance against the Roman hegemony. Similarly, the Ottomans had an elaborate system of millets which organized the different religious groups of the polity, but there was never any doubt that all were subordinate to Ottoman Muslims. Those social-religious groups which were classed as outside the pale for various reason, such as the Druze, were persecuted and not tolerated. Those which were tolerated, such as the Orthodox Christians, needed to be respectful of their subordinate position in the system. These tendencies can be generalized to all multiculturalist polities, which inevitably had a herrenkultur.

* No, I don’t think Ron Paul has a chance even if he wins Iowa. Though I do think he’s affected the whole political landscape, and that’s probably what he was looking for in any case.

** The quotations because the term is more one of aspersion than a real pointer to a specific and discrete movement at this point.

*** I make a distinction between barbarism, which is a different way of being, and savagery, which is an unacceptable way of being. The modern world has accepted that slavery is savage, and not tolerable in any polity. In contrast, the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are effectively rendered property of their male relatives is barbaric, but not objectionable enough that it must be eliminated through force.

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I’ve been keeping track of events in the Arab world only from a distance. There’s been a lot of excitement on twitter and Facebook. Since I’m not an unalloyed enthusiast for democracy I’ve not joined in in the exultation. But I’m very concerned at what I perceive are unrealistic assumptions and false correspondences. This is a big issue because the public is very ignorant of world history and geography. For example, I was listening to a radio show where Roger Cohen was a guest. Cohen covers the Middle East, so he is familiar with many of the issues to a much greater depth than is feasible for the “Average Joe.” In response to a caller who was an ethnic Egyptian American and a Coptic Christian who was concerned about possible persecution of religious minorities Cohen pointed to Turkey, which is ruled by Islamists, and has “many” Christians. His tone was of dismissal and frustration. And that was that.

Let’s look more closely. About 5-10% of Egyptians are Christian, with most estimates being closer to 10 than 5. In contrast, the non-Muslim minority in Turkey numbers at most a few percent, with ~1% often given as a “round number.” This low fraction of non-Muslims in modern Turkey is a product of 20th century events. First, the genocide against Armenians cleared out eastern Anatolia. Second, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s resulted in each nation removing most of its religious minorities. Of the religious minorities which remain in Turkey, they have been subject to sporadic attacks from radicals (often Turkish nationalists, not Islamists). But from a cultural-historical perspective one of the most revealing issues has been the long-running strangulation of the institution of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church by the Turkish republic.

But that’s not the big issue. Rather, it may be that Turkey is a particularly tolerant society in the Muslim Middle East when it comes to religious freedom, and so not a good model for what might play out in Egypt (and has played out in Iraq). This matters because people regularly speak of “secular Egyptians,” “secular Turks,” “Turkish Islamists,” and “Egyptian Islamists,” as if there’s a common currency in the modifiers. That is, a secular Egyptian is equivalent to a secular Turk, and Islamists in Egypt are equivalent to Islamists in Turkey (who have been in power via democratic means for much of the past 10 years). Let’s look at the Pew Global Attitudes report, which I’ve referenced before. In particular, three questions which are clear and specific. Should adulterers be stoned? Should robbers be whipped, or their hands amputated? Should apostates from Islam be subject to the death penalty?

On the x-axis you see the proportion who accept that adulterers should be stoned. On the y-axis you see the responses to amputation and apostasy. The red points are the proportion who agree with the death penalty for apostates, and the navy points those who believe in whipping or amputation for robbers.

As you can see, there’s a strong correlation between attitudes on these questions. The correlation is 0.97, 0.97, and 0.92, on the national level. So these three questions seem to be tapping on a “are you willing to get medieval!” sentiment in these societies. Compare Turkey to Egypt. They’re in totally different regions of the scatter plot. There is simply no comparison between these societies on these issues, despite both being Muslim and Middle Eastern.

5% of Turks agree with the death plenty for leaving Islam (converting to another religion from Islam, or leaving it, is legal in Turkey, though there is still some social pressure against it). 84% of Egyptians accept the death penalty for apostates. About 30-40% of Turks has been voting for the Islamist party in Turkey over the past 10 years. If you allocate all 5% who agree with the death penalty for Muslim apostates to the Islamists, and take the low bound figure of 30% who are voting for Islamists, at most 1/6th of Turkish Islamists agree with the death penalty for leaving Islam.

Now let’s compare that to Egypt. What proportion of Egyptians consider themselves “secular”? Because of the lack of real elections we can only infer. 38% of Turks agree with the contention that Islam’s role in politics is positive according to Pew Global Attitudes. That’s pretty much in line with how much of the vote the AKP, the Turkish Islamists, win. In contrast, 85% of Egyptians view Islam’s role in politics as positive. Because the Muslim Brotherhood is the primary opposition channel in Egyptian society, de jure proscribed, but de facto tolerated, much of the 85% may not be Islamists as such. While the split in terms of favorable views of Hamas is straight down the middle in Egypt, in Turkey 10% favor Hamas, 70% oppose, and the balance have no opinion. Again, allocating all the pro-Hamas sentiment to Turkish Islamists, and taking the low bound 30% value (which I think is reasonable, as not everyone voting for the Islamist party is an Islamist in Turkey), a far lower proportion of Turkish Islamists have favorable views of Hamas than Egyptians as a whole.

The overall point I’m trying to make here is that it is very misleading for commentators to make an analogy between Turkish Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. The two may both be Islamists, but that is just a term, whose utility and connotations are strongly locally contingent. Barack Obama and Pat Robertson are both Christians, but that means very different things. Additionally, I would suggest that to be secular in Egypt may correlate with greater illiberalism toward deviance from the putative religious orthodoxy than to be an Islamist in Turkey! This article in The New York Times points to the complexity, In One Slice of a New Egypt, Few Are Focusing on Religion:

Egypt is deeply devout, and imposing labels often does more to confuse than illuminate. Amal Salih, who joined the protests against her parents’ wishes, dons an orange scarf over her head but calls herself secular. “Egypt is religious, regrettably,” she said. Mr. Mitwalli wears a beard but calls himself liberal, “within the confines of religion.” A driver, Osama Ramadan, despises the Muslim Brotherhood but has jury-rigged his car to blare a prayer when he turns on the ignition.

We can dig deeper to ascertain exactly how religious Egyptians say they are.

The figure to the left is from the World Values Survey. It was asked in the mid-to-late 2000s. I have shown you both percentages and counts. No one in the Egyptian sample admitted to being an atheist (this is not uncommon in Muslim countries). If you’re curious, over 10% of the Egyptian sample had a university degree, and they had the same proportion who identified as a “religious person” as those without any formal education. In contrast, the 10% of Turks who had a university degree in the sample were far less religious than those without a formal education, 60% vs. 96%.

What is the point of these comparisons? There’s a lot of stress and worry about the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States. Some of this is because of their specific historical associations with Hamas, as well as the history of Islamist radicalism in Egypt (Al-Qaeda is in large part an institutional outgrowth of Egyptian radical movements). But the fixation on the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood misses the bigger picture that secular and Islamist mean very different things in different Muslim nations. The narrative seems to be that political religious movements are problematic because they introduce the cancer of illiberalism into a pristine social environment. But that is just not so. Rather, the nature of religious political movements is to a large extent reflective of trends in the broader society, and is subject to restraints imposed by ostensibly secular citizens. The Turkish Islamists have marketed themselves as Muslim versions of European Christian Democrats. Though this is somewhat of a stretch (the Islamists have introduced illiberal laws here and there), that is because of the greater illiberalism and conservatism of Turkish society vis-a-vis European nations. Consider Turkish attitudes toward evolution:

– 7% agree that evolution is certainly true
– 15% agree that it is probably true
– 7% agree that it is probably false
– 54% agree that it could not be possibly true
– 25% have never though of the issue before

There’s no necessary connection between liberal social attitudes and acceptance of evolution, but the correlation seems rather robust within and across societies. Turks are much more accepting of evolution than any Muslim nation without a history of Communism, but, they are more Creationist than any Western nation (including the USA).

Where does this leave us? Democratic nations have different characteristics. For much of Japan’s modern history it has been dominated by one political party. It has been a de facto one party state. In contrast, Italy has been subject to fractious shifts between multitudinous coalitions. After the fall of Communism the Czech Republic has transformed itself into a conventional liberal democracy, as it was before World War II, while Russia has morphed into a hybrid authoritarian-democratic state (similar to Iran or Venezuela). We can expect a democratic Egypt to be different from a democratic Tunisia, at least over the short term, because of broad socio-cultural differences. And the gap between Turkey, a non-Arab Muslim nation with a foot in Europe, and Egypt, is even greater. Because of the general ignorance of the American public commentators have been leaning on analogies to communicate the potential arc of possibilities. I believe that many of the analogies are misleading, and entail a deeper understanding of the terms and relations embedded within those analogies than actually exists. Additionally, I also believe that some commentators have been caught up in the democratic fever, and consciously have skewed their analogies in a particular direction. I can not believe that Roger Cohen is not aware of the difficult situation of religious minorities in Turkey. But the American audience caught between a bipolar perception of secular liberal democrats and the totalitarian Taliban may not be able to comprehend the nuance within the Turkish case, and so Cohen elided essential features.

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TNR has a post up, Egypt and Indonesia. In it, the author argues that:

At times of unexpected but momentous political change in distant countries, we grasp onto political analogies to help get our bearings. Even if we know they are imperfect, we can’t resist their tempting suggestiveness. But, if we cannot resist them, we can at least choose them thoughtfully. Invoking Iran after the Shah is scary indeed, but dangerously misleading. A different analogy that provides more useful grist for our unsettled analytic mill concerning Egypt is Indonesia and Suharto in the late 1990s.

We can gauge the force of this analogy by looking at a Pew Gobal Attitudes report on Muslim public opinion from December 2010. Egypt and Indonesia are in their set of countries surveyed. Below are a selection of results, with Turkey and Pakistan included in for comparisons. I ignored most of the stuff on Muslim radical movements. Additionally, one has to be cautious about interpreting survey data, as people will interpret questions in relation to their local situation. For example, below you will see that 89 and 46 percent of Indonesians and Pakistanis think that the role of religion in politics is “large.” I think empirically we have to conclude that Indonesians and Pakistanis are using the terms somewhat differently, as Indonesia is a much more robustly pluralist regime at this point than Pakistan is. Indonesia is not an officially Islamic state. Pakistan is. Indonesia forthrightly acknowledges its pre-Islamic heritage, and continues to have prominent symbolic roles for non-Muslim cultural forms. The Hindu epics are still popular on the most populous island of Java.

Source: Pew Global Attitudes
Role of Islam in politics is….
Large Small
Indonesia 89 10
Turkey 69 19
Egypt 48 49
Pakistan 46 36
Islam’s influence in politics is….
Negative Positive
Indonesia 6 91
Turkey 31 38
Egypt 2 85
Pakistan 6 69
In struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists….
Identify with… (of those who see struggle)
See struggle Modernizers Fundamentalists
Indonesia 42 54 33
Turkey 52 74 11
Egypt 31 27 59
Pakistan 44 61 28
Make gender segregation in workplace the law….
Oppose Favor
Indonesia 59 38
Turkey 84 13
Egypt 44 54
Pakistan 11 85
Support for harsh punishments (affirm action)
Stone adulterers Whip & amputate hands of robbers Death penalty for apostates
Indonesia 42 36 30
Turkey 16 13 5
Egypt 82 77 84
Pakistan 82 82 76
Agree that democracy is always preferable to any other kind of government
Indonesia 65
Turkey 76
Egypt 59
Pakistan 42
• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Egypt, Indonesia 
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With all the geopolitical tumult and news I was a bit curious to see what The World Values Survey could tell us about public opinion in Egypt and Tunisia. Unfortunately, Tunisia hasn’t been in any of their surveys, though Egypt has. So I thought it might be interesting to compare the USA, Sweden, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq, for wave 5, which occurred in the mid-2000s. The main thing I took away from the exercise is to reflect that Americans are a more equivocal people than I had expected. Many of the questions have a 1 to 10 scale, and I’m providing the most extreme answers. So the low fractions for Americans for some questions point to a relative moderation on some topics…which is kind of weird when you are asking whether “People choosing their leaders is an essential characteristic of democracy.” Since that’s the definition of democracy broadly construed anything below a 10 out of 10 seems strange to me.

(Control + should increase font-size if it is too small)

USA Sweden Turkey Egypt Iraq
Religion “very important” 47 9 75 95 96
Politics “very important” 11 16 13 9 37
Family life “very important” 95 92 99 98 96
Most people can be trusted 39 68 5 19 41
Satisfied with life (10 out of 10) 7 12 21 11 3
Great deal of control of life (10 out of 10) 17 16 24 14 9
Men have more right to job than women 7 2 53 89 84
Trust family completely 73 94 95 96
Approve of woman as single parent 52 49 9 2
University more important for boy than girl 1 0 7 26 25
Government ownership of business should be increased (10 out of 10) 1 2 12 25 22
Hard work brings better life (10 out of 10) 19 8 21 52
Great deal of confidence in armed forces 35 4 67 34
Great deal of confidence in police 17 13 36
Great deal of confidence in government 5 3 28 31
Very good for political system to have strong leader 7 4 23 8 11
Very good to have democratic system 45 76 57 79 55
Complete agree, too much science, not enough faith 12 4 20 14
Religious authorities interpreting laws is an essential characteristic of democracy 2 0 11 48 19
People choosing their leaders is an essential characteristic of democracy 56 79 48 79 58
Protecting civil liberties is an essential characteristic of democracy 44 66 44 57 47
Women having sames rights as men is an essential characteristic of democracy 57 84 57 51 27
Cheating on taxes always justifiable 2 1 0 1
Accepting bribe always justifiable 1 0 0 0 1
Homosexuality always justifiable 15 61 1
Abortion always justifiable 7 37 2 1
Divorce always justifiable 12 47 5 9 1
Don’t trust at all people of other religion 5 3 30 22
Don’t trust at all people of other nationality 5 2 29 40
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brotherhood One of the structural difficulties with any systematic study of civilizations is that the sample size of the category is rather small, as is clear in the few attempts to examine their progression (see Arnold Toynbee). Additionally, there’s always the problem with how one generates a typology for something as fluid as civilization. Where does antiquity end, and the medieval period begin? One can get a rough sense of the discontinuities impressionistically. Consider the appearance of the Column of Phocas, erected in 608 AD. It may be correct that chronologically the Byzantine state and society on the eve of the expansion of Islam in the early 7th century was closer to the era of Charlemagne than Constantine, but many would argue that it was basically a Late Antique society more than an Early Medieval one. Certainly the Byzantines of that age would have agreed with that assessment (though one has to be careful about taking people at their word, the last Byzantines before the Ottoman conquest in 1453 famously still referred to themselves as Romans).

But such typologies remain a matter of art, and are subject to great dispute. Any inferences one generates or generalities one perceives will be subject to the reality that the individuals engaging in the act have a strong impact on the size and distribution of the sample (this is obviously true in ecology or empirical social sciences, but the methods here are generally more explicit and easy to critique). With all that said I think at the boundary condition we can agree upon some civilizational distinctions if such typologies have any meaning or utility. The world of the ancient Near East was on a deep level culturally alien to our own, and the period between 1200 and 800 spans a extremely sharp rupture between what came before, and what came after.

448px-Mesopotamia_male_worshiper_2750-2600_B.CIts alien aspect is one reason that I am fascinated by the ancient Near East. Egypt as a civilization and society exhibited intelligible continuity within itself for nearly 2,000 years between the Old Kingdom and the first centuries of the first millennium before Christ, up to the conquest by the Assyrians (I suspect intelligible continuity precedes the Old Kingdom, but written sources become rather sparse before that). Obviously aspects of ancient Egypt persisted for centuries after its operational demise, as made clear by artifacts such as the Rosetta Stone which date to the kingdom of the Ptolemies. The pagan Egyptian temple of Philae was active down to the 6th century A.D., but with its closing by Justinian the last deep cultural connection to the world of the Pharaohs was lost (the Coptic language is derived from ancient Egyptian, but the Copts were unable to tell Europeans how to read the hieroglyphs because they did not know). The world of the ancient Fertile Crescent is in many ways even more distant in memory from ours than that of Egypt. Egypt in its declining phase was a stronger active influence on the Greeks. Rather, it is through the Hebrew Bible that we can glean fragments of the shape of the ancient Bronze Age societies of Mesopotamia and Syria, in particular in Genesis. And just as a shadow of Egypt persisted down to the Roman conquest and beyond, so the civilization of Babylon and Assyria was absorbed in part by their Persian conquerors. But note that the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has within it a variant of the famous Biblical flood story, was not rediscovered until the 19th century, despite its enduring fame over the 2,000 years of Mesopotamian civilization between Sumer and the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Without the translation efforts of modern archaeologists and philologists Mesopotamian culture would be an empire of artifacts, rather one which illuminates our minds with the imaginings of the past.

Knossos_fresco_womenThe ancient Near Eastern cultural complex extended beyond Egypt and the Fertile Crescent. It encompassed Anatolia, and even the Aegean, into what we today call Greece. But I contend that despite the differences of language a modern person might have more in common with a citizen of 4th century Athens, than a citizen of 4th century Athens would have with a subject of the wanax of 12th century Athens. Some of this is a function of the reality that the modern mentality is to a large extent an outgrowth of that of the Ionian Greeks and their intellectuals heirs. Similarly, the Chinese civilization also took its present shape during this period. Hindu civilization in a non-mythic dimension goes back no further than the first millennium. In the Greek and Indian cases there is a great deal of archaeological evidence for complex literate societies during the Bronze Age. In the Aegean case the script of the last of the successive societies, the Mycenaean, has been deciphered. They spoke Greek and worshiped the same gods as the Classical Greeks. Much of the background material in the Iliad and the Odyssey clearly references the Mycenaean period (though the narrative core is perhaps reflective of the Dark Ages before the rise of Classical Greece). But Classical Greece was built anew, on a different cultural foundation from that the Mycenaeans. The kings of Bronze Age Greece were part of the “brotherhood of kings.” The city-states of Classical Greece were distinct from the despotisms of Asia. The Classical Greeks had forgotten their history aside from legends. The Bronze Age walls of cities such as Tyrins were presumed to have been constructed by giants (“cyclopean”)!

I have alluded to the fact that the enormous proportion of ancient Classical works we have today can be attributed to intense phases of translation and transcription during the Carolingian Renaissance, the Abbassid House of Wisdom, and the efforts of Byzantine men of letters such as Constantine Porphyrogennetos. The reason for these efforts was that in part these ancient literary works were the products of natural predecessor civilizations, to whom the medieval West, Byzantium, and Islam, owed a great deal. The memory of Plato and Aristotle, Caesar and Darius, persisted down to their day. The classical education of early modern Europeans built upon the toil of the medieval period. The Renaissance would not have been able to revive anything if no works of the ancients were copied down and transmitted down to future generations.

In sharp contrast the details of our knowledge of the Bronze Age world are due to the work of modern archaeologists and philologists. Aside from a few references in the Bible to an offshoot kingdom, the Hittite Empire had been totally forgotten! Dead cuneiform, once deciphered, brought back a world which had lain dormant for thousands of years. There are many elements of these lost civilizations which we comprehend only in spare fragments. For example in the fourth millennium BC it seems from the archaeological record that Mesopotamian merchants had colonies which replicated their culture in toto in Anatolia, while Mesopotamian influences through diffusion are indisputable in pre-Dynastic Egypt. In the 3rd millennium this cultural hegemony waned, and Egypt seems to have sealed itself off from outside influence until the 2nd millennium, while the Mesopotamian stamp on Anatolian society diminishes. But without full-blown writing we can only conjecture as to the dynamics of this period of the expansion of Mesopotamian civilization. By the time the light of text illuminates the world Mesopotamian culture had retreated in its complete form to Sumer and Akkad.

But there is still much we know now. The robusticity of baked cuneiform means that the destruction of ancient palace complexes is a boon to modern archaeologists and historians. Though Egyptians used papyrus, they also stamped their monuments with hieroglyphs, and critically the correspondence with foreign nations was generally done in Akkadian cuneiform. This last is critical for the narrative in Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East. From the introduction:

The diplomatic system developed in the ancient Near East was forgotten for millennia; there’s no collection of marble busts of ancient kings in the entrance hall to the United Nations in honor of their contribution to the history of humanking, no requirement that children study the ancient peace treaties as founding documents, the way they might study the Magna Carta or the United States Constitution. There’s a good reason for this: We can find no direct link between the ancient practice of diplomacy and that used today.

But it is edifying, even inspiring, to know that right from the earliest centuries of civilization, ancient kings and statesmen of distinct and different lands were oftne willing, even eager, to find alternatives to war and see one another as brothers rather than enemies.

Economists might term this a separate “natural experiment,” distinct from the Westphalian model. More colloquially one might consider the Near Eastern diplomatic system as a “first draft.” Because of the sharp differences between that world, and our epoch, similarities are particularly telling as to the deep cognitive biases which drive our cultural forms. In Brotherhood of Kings the author traces the evolution of the art of ancient diplomacy from the cities of third millennium Mesopotamia and Syria, down to the climax of the tradition during period of the Amarna letters, in the 14th century BC.

First, kinship matters. This is almost a trivial assertion, but the ubiquity of kin terminology in political orders despite the lack of blood ties reinforces the importance of abstracting the genealogical relationship to a grander scale. The Chinese Emperor was the Son of Heaven, and the father to his people. Similarly, the President of the United States of America was the “Great White Father” to Native tribes in the 19th century. Sometimes the kinship was not fictive, but literal. In the 19th century continental Europe was generally at peace, at least in relation to previous eras. Some attribute this to the fact that European states were generally monarchies, and the monarchs were all members of an extended family. Similarly, by the 14th century relations between Egypt, Mitanni (Syria and northern Mesopotamia) and Babylonia were generally peaceful, and cemented by exchanges of royal women as brides in the polygynous households of the monarchs. The existence of a Minoan palace in northern Egypt is evidence in the author’s eye to princesses from the island of Crete in the household of the Pharaoh. A wedding was a marker of a cultural exchange.

Sometimes the analogies to later epochs are striking. After the famous king Tutankhamen died, his young wife wrote a letter to the king of the Hittites:

“My husband has died and I have no son. They say about you that you have many sons. You might give me one of your sons to become my husband. I would not wish to take one of my subjects as a husband… I am afraid.”

The king, a powerful warlord by the name of Suppiluliuma, eventually sent his son Zannanza, who seems to have died. There is a strong suspicion by the nature of Suppiluliuma’s angry subsequent correspondence that foul play was involved, and that Zannanza was undone by a reaction in the court of Egypt to the arrival of a foreign prince. The outcome of this personal and political tragedy was war, as Suppiluliuma used this event as a casus belli for an invasion which rolled back Egypt’s dominion in the Levant and expanded the Hittite Empire. The connection between the personal and political, and the necessity for noble women to seek outside aid, reminds me greatly of the period before the Gothic Wars, with Tutankhamen’s wife being in a similar position as Amalasuntha.

But this episode was peculiar in another way: the Pharaohs of Egypt never gave their daughters out to foreign powers, rather, they received the daughters of the other kings. This is explained in Brotherhood of Kings in two ways. The more prosaic one is that while the non-Egyptian kings generally viewed the potentate receiving the daughter as inferior, because now he would be the son-in-law (extending the kinship analogy), the Pharaohs perceived that they were superior because they were receiving gifts from non-Egyptian kings. This is a classic “win-win” scenario. Even if the monarchs in question understood the cultural disjunction, these movement of women from the Fertile Crescent to Egypt was in part motivated by signalling status to their own circle of nobles, who may not have been as conscious of these cross-cultural distinctions.

More importantly I suspect, Egypt was richer and more powerful than any of the other kingdoms during this period. It is indicative to me that the instance where the Egyptian widow seeks a foreign prince it is from the Hittites, as this nation was waxing, and was arguably as resource rich as Egypt in many ways, not to mention militarily successful. The correspondence in the Egyptian archives show that the kings of Mitanni and Babylonia persistently bleat for gold, gold, gold. Egypt was rich in gold, and they were not. These kings frankly state that so long as they receive gold they will return to Egypt whatever the Pharaoh would like to maintain the balance of payments. The supply of gold was inelastic to the demand because of its scarcity. In contrast the monarchs of Mitanni or Babylonia could increase the production or procurement of textiles and other fine manufactures and imports. One of the most bizarre facts about the reign of Akhenaten is that he apparently promised the king of the Mitanni a set of gold statues, which he never delivered. Nearly every piece of correspondence from the Mitanni king during Akhenaten’s two decades of power includes a reference to the missing gold statues!

It seems clear that one of the goals of the ancient diplomatic system was to substitute gift giving for war. Plunder and piracy were a major revenue source for elites, especially in an age where commerce and trade did not exhibit the efficiencies we take for granted later (recall that there was no standard coinage). But this was risky, and entailed expending resources and time. Part of the rationale for conquest was clearly to secure resources which were scarce or nonexistent in one’s own domains. The giving of gifts between monarchs, whether equals (“Great Kings”) or between a hegemon and his vassals, was a way in which scarce goods could flow between territories. If gold and other luxury goods were to travel between states there would obviously be a necessary premium on security. Certain fixed costs would be entailed, and one would probably want a reasonable economy of scale to maximize efficiency. The despots of this ancient world were in the best position to provide these services. The luxury goods would eventually “trickle down” to the sub-elites after the initial exchange in subsequent gift giving.

But these abstractions, the aggregate flow of goods and services (in the latter case, specialists such as doctors and diviners), had to be made concrete in the concepts that these people understood. Contracts and treaties were witnessed by the gods, and the gods served as guarantors of the fidelity of the parties involved to their oaths. Oath-breaking was serious enough that Suppiluliuma’s own son attributed some of his father’s misfortunes to oath-breaking early in his tenure during his usurpation of the throne. These gods were classical polytheistic entities, but the various nations operated in the same supernatural framework, as these were henotheistic societies. Religious concepts had not become so elaborated or philosophical that the oaths would have encountered difficulty because of incommensurability of terminology. And these contracts and treaties were made between fictive, and sometimes real, kin. On occasion the blood ties mattered, as when an Assyrian monarch intervened to kill the usurper who had killed his own grandson, the king of Babylon. Just as these blood bonds could motivate violence and intervention, so no doubt they engendered more amity than would otherwise have been the case. The royal women who moved between capitals served as the critical glue, and it seems that they brought entourages on the order of hundreds. Young princes of mixed parentage would then have grown up in a relatively cosmopolitan world, and been less conditioned to view outsiders as aliens.

488px-Map_of_fertile_cresentSo there is much that is familiar in this ancient world, even down to a transnational elite which may share more in common in values and culture with each other than with the populations which they rule. But there are differences. I alluded above to an analogy with 19th century Europe. Despite the differences in national history and religion, the Christian kings of Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars forged a common sense of purpose and mutual understanding. This was made concrete by an acceleration of the pattern of intermarriage, or the placement of branches of the European ruling caste as heads of state of new nations (e.g., Greece). This stability was shattered with the maturity of mass populist nationalism in the 19th century, and basically killed during World War I. But it was constrained to Europe and European descended societies. The Ottoman state and the Empire of Japan were on the fringes, in large part because of deep civilizational differences. In enlightened circles works such as Clash of Civilizations are in bad odor. Though most would balk at accepting an argument with the punch of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, a milder variant was common in the 1990s.

As we enter the teens of the 21st century I think the idea of a world civilization, with a common cultural currency which might serve as a means of exchange for deep diplomatic understandings, is fading somewhat. The world of the ancient Near East did not include Shang China, and during its more antique phase it did not include the society of the Indus Valley (which was integrated in terms of trade and commerce, but not politics, with Mesopotamia). It was a small world where ties bound through fictive kinship made sense, as kinship terms in their atoms are human universals. The rhetoric of universal brotherhood persists down to this day, glossed up with a scientific patina through reflexive references to Lewontin’s Fallacy. But the rise of China and Russia should give us pause in assuming a deep common cultural foundation which can serve as a universal glue. Russia is a petro-state in demographic decline, so it is less interesting. Rather, China is reasserting its traditional position as the preeminent civilization in the world, and it is doing so without being Westernized in a way we would recognize. The political liberalization of the world’s most dynamic capitalist Communist state is always over the horizon. Just as the roots of the modern West go back to the eastern Mediterranean in the early first millennium BC, so China’s cultural roots extend back to the same period. China is obviously a synthesis of its own indigenous traditions, and modern Western culture, in particular science & technology. But I am not convinced that there is a true “brotherhood” between the president of China, and Western powers, and that is not a cheery prospect.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Culture, Diplomacy, Egypt 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

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