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Several years ago there was a famous exchange between Ben Affleck and Bill Maher & Sam Harris on the nature of Islam. In response I published a post titled “ISIS’ Willing Executioners”. The overall point was that Affleck’s comments were not informed by the nature of Islam or Muslims, but broader political currents. As for his interlocutors, Bill Maher and Sam Harris, I think they were making a better faith effort to engage with the facts, though they too came up short. The primary reason that I give them more credit than Affleck is that I think to some extent their anti-Islamic talking points were counter-narrative toward their preferred ideology, which was on the Left-liberal end of the spectrum. Though a general contempt or disdain for religion is not necessarily a problem among American Left-liberals, for various reasons Muslims have become a “protected class” subject to prejudice from the ideological opponents of Maher and Harris’ normal fellow travelers.

41XeU3O2hiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ As an intellectual Bill Maher is not a serious thinker, so there isn’t much point in engaging more deeply with his ideas. His anti-Islamic stance seems to derive from relatively old-fashioned anti-religious sentiments, which are socially acceptable among American Left-liberals so long as their targets are white Christians (“punching up”) but more “problematic” and perhaps even “Islamophobic” when the invective is hurled at Muslim “people of color” (all Muslims here being tacitly racialized as nonwhite).

Sam Harris is a more earnest individual, who clearly isn’t just parlaying a schtick into profitable provocation. I respect Harris for expressing the courage of his genuine convictions so often, instead of sanitizing his conclusions because of broader ideological commitments. That is, many Left-liberals today consider themselves “allies” of Muslims, and so tend to avoid making comments which might seem “Islamophobic”. In Left-liberal parlance ally has specific connotations: it indicates a person who has privileges, but still supports social justice for others who may be marginalized. Terms like “social justice” and “marginalized” also have rather precise meanings in terms of the theory of what they are, and the instances concretely of who may be marginalized. Rather than recapitulating the lexical subtleties of the progressive avant-garde I simply will state that a quick bit of research will clear up any possible confusion. Muslims, as marginalized people, are now considered part of a broader coalition on the progressive Left. This can be made clear for example when illustrations of “women of color” will often include one woman in a hijab (e.g., this website devoted to queer and trans issues displays a picture with three women in a tough pose, and one of them is a hijabi).

Harris, taking logical inference a bit too seriously, would probably ask about the propriety of the message it sends to display a woman in a hijab as if they are doing something meritorious, as that might strike him as anti-feminist in a traditional Left-liberal framework. And I have met progressives who agree with Harris privately in relation to a skepticism of valorization of the folkways of Muslims, but because of the broader coalition in which they are participants, they hold their critique (more concretely, they don’t want to be accused of being racist and Islamophobic). But, I suspect most people are like Ben Affleck, and genuinely believe that there is not a problem with the perpetuation of a stable multicultural society which includes large numbers of mainstream Muslims (e.g., many hijabis), as well as “sex positive” radical feminists, and queer theorists.

Sam Harris would probably respond that these people don’t take Islam seriously on its own merits, and that Islam is fundamentally and constitutively at odds with tolerance of gay people and a liberal attitude toward the rights of women. Though I disagree in the firmness and definitiveness of Harris’ conclusions, I do agree that people like Ben Affleck, and frankly most Left-liberals who might fall back on the term Islamophobia, don’t actually take Islam, or religion generally, seriously. This explains the rapid and strident recourse toward a racial analogy for Islamic identity, as that is a framework that modern Left-liberals and progressives have internalized and mastered. The problem with this is that Islam is not a racial or ethnic identity, it is a set of beliefs and practices. Being a Muslim is not about being who you are in a passive sense, but it is a proactive expression of a set of ideas about the world and your behavior within the world. This category error renders much of Left-liberal and progressive analysis of Islam superficial, and likely wrong.

51qwSfB3NBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ But just because Sam Harris has the “right enemies” does not mean that he is right. Though I don’t believe Harris is engaging in sophistry or posturing toward some ideological ends, which is the case with many progressives as well as those on the social and political Right, I do think he is wrong in many details of his model of religion and Islam in particular. Unlike Ben Affleck and many progressives Sam Harris actually engages in ratiocination scaffolded by facts, rather than emotions derived from political commitments. But there are weaknesses to Harris’ methods, and his grasp of facts for his rationality engine to operate upon can sometimes be lacking (this is unfortunately a general problem with being a dilettante, which I would know, but it also doesn’t excuse people from taking Harris too seriously on topics where his command of the subject is outrun by his ambitions).

To get a genuine understanding of a topic as broad and boundless as Islam one needs to both set aside emotional considerations, as Ben Affleck clearly cannot, and dig deeply into the richer and more complex empirical texture, which Sam Harris has not. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World by Shadi Hamid is a genuine attempt to tackle a big issue with cold analysis and making recourse to a broader range of academic sources than Harris is wont. Hamid is a relatively well known figure, so his personal cards are on the table. A self-identified Muslim, and from what I can tell a Western liberal, he nevertheless arrives at a conclusion that Islam may be fundamentally and constitutively incompatible with the conventional Western liberal understanding of the relationship between the polity and faith.

18730593 One of the most obnoxious memes in my opinion during the Obama era has been the popularization of the maxim that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It is smug and self-assured in its presentation. Though in some sense over the long term I am broadly persuaded by it, too often it becomes an excuse for lazy thinking and shallow prognostication. Though there are broad trend lines in history, there are also cycles which oscillate around those lines. In those oscillations are consequences for human lives that can not be dismissed by asserting that the trend nevertheless remains. The cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer has a saying which basically states that a theory gives you information for free. Modern Western liberals have a particular idea of what a religion is, and so naturally know that Islam is in many ways just like United Methodism, except with a hijab and iconoclasm. But a Western liberalism that does not take cultural and religious difference seriously is not serious, and yet all too often it is what we have on offer. This transcends the political divide, as before the Obama era we were given to thinking that the invasion of Iraq would result in Jeffersonian democracy, because George W. Bush had a particular model of the nature of man and what he craves (“freedom” and “liberty”), and from that he drew conclusions.

On both the American Left and Right there is a tendency to not even attempt to understand Islam. Rather, stylized models are preferred which lead to conclusions which are already arrived at. Islamic Exceptionalism is worth paying attention to because he frankly admits the problems of this line of thinking. Or, more honestly, he admits that this is a problem in the first place! In a piece at The Atlantic (which is based on a passage from Islamic Exceptionalism) he states:

To say that Islam—as creed, theology, and practice—says something that other religions don’t quite say is admittedly a controversial, even troubling claim, especially in the context of rising anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and Europe. As a Muslim-American, it’s personal for me: Donald Trump’s dangerous comments on Islam and Muslims make me fear for my country. Yet “Islamic exceptionalism” is neither good nor bad. It just is.


This is a commendable viewpoint in our world, where too often “problematic” conclusions get swept under the rug or explained away. From what I can tell reading Islamic Exceptionalism many of the conclusions that he comes to are not his preferred conclusions as an American Muslim. But, they are is best guess as political scientist. This is how a scholar should behave, though too often this is not how scholars do behave.

In some ways the model of Islam and religion that Shadi Hamid believes is most informative for our world is rather like that of Sam Harris, despite wide differences in details and a general shift in emphasis. Out of all the religions in the world Harris believes that Islam is fundamentally exceptional. And Hamid agrees with him. I will state here that at the end of the day I disagree with both Harris and Hamid. But, we all begin with the same proximate empirical universe, where we an agree on some general facts. This is where we differ from someone like Ben Affleck, who probably finds reality rather “gross.” To get a sense of Affleck’s engagement with facts, consider his attempt to suppress the fact of his own slave-owning ancestors:

After an exhaustive search of my ancestry for “Finding Your Roots,” it was discovered that one of my distant relatives was an owner of slaves.

I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.


Not your typical Muslim

It’s fine to be embarrassed by reality. But you still need to face up to reality. Where Hamid, Harris, and I all start is the fact that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims do not hold views on social issues that are aligned with the Muslim friends of Hollywood actors. This is trivially obvious to anyone who digs (so obvious that even Bill Maher cites these data, they’re so easy to find). Before the Green Revolution I told people to expect there to be a Islamic revival, as 86 percent of Egyptians polled agree with the killing of apostates. This is not a comfortable fact for me, as I am technically an apostate.* But it is a fact. Progressives who exhibit a hopefulness about human nature, and confuse majoritarian democracy with liberalism and individual rights, often don’t want to confront these facts. Their polar opposites are convinced anti-Muslims who don’t need any survey data, because they know that Muslims have particular views a priori by virtue of them being Muslims. These people would miss out on the fact that 5 percent of Turks agreed with Egyptians on apostates.

There is a glass half-full/half-empty aspect to the Turkish data. 95 percent of Turks do not believe apostates should be killed. This is not surprising, I know many Turkish atheists personally. But, 5 percent is not a reassuring fraction as someone who is personally an apostate. The ideal, and frankly only acceptable, proportion is basically 0 percent. In the aughts the Turkish example was given as a case study in moderate Islamism. The regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was genuinely more liberal than other Islamists. During the Green Revolution he went to Tunisia and stated:

“Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state of law. As for secularism, a secular state has an equal distance to all religious groups, including Muslim, Christian, Jewish and atheist people,” Erdoğan said during a visit to Tunis, the place where the wave of pro-democracy revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa began late last year.

Obviously things have changed in the last few years, as Erdogan has taken a more authoritarian tack, and Islamism in more muscular form is ascendant. Nevertheless, the very idea of accepting atheists is taboo in most Arab countries, including Tunisia, which shows how far beyond them Turkey is in a classical Western reckoning (though there are conflicting reports, Ataturk himself, the founder of the modern Turkish state, may personally have been an atheist).

Harris would give a simple explanation for why Islam sanctions the death penalty for apostates. To be reductive and hyperbolic, his perspective seems to be that Islam is a totalitarian cult, and its views are quite explicit in the Quran and the Hadith. Harris is correct here, and the views of the majority of Muslims in Egypt (and many other Muslim nations) has support in Islamic law. The consensus historical tradition is that apostates are subject to the death penalty.

But Hamid adds some nuance to this picture. He seems to argue that attitude toward apostasy falls out of a broader program of Islamic civilization which goes back to the foundations of the religion. Engaging with scholarly works, such as Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective, Islamic Exceptionalism argues that the Muslim Weltanschauung has an integrated role for religion in the political order baked into its cake. To refer back to an old saying, Muhammad was his own Constantine. Islam arose and exploded with the rise of its empire. In contrast, Christianity developed slowly as a marginal sect, and later a religion among religions, in the Roman polity. Its eventually victory in the 4th century came to some extent at the sufferance of Roman elites who had their own traditions and customs which the Church had to make peace with. Render under Caesar what is Caesar’s.

614cyv0xnJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ There are several problems with this thesis. As a believing Muslim Hamid talks about how alive the Salafs of early Islam are to modern Muslims. These are the first few generations of Muslims who remembered Muhammad personally or well well acquainted with those who did. They were the people who lived in the world before Islam became embedded within a profane state, that of the Umayyads, who transformed the polity into a hereditary monarchy. Reviled by the Shia for their role in the murder of the family of Ali, and ignored at best by the Sunni who look more to the traditions crystallized under their Abbasid successors, the Umayyad are a sort of historical cordon sanitaire between the centuries when the streams of modern Islam matured and elaborated, and the age of the Salafs.

There is a small problem with this narrative: it may be wrong. The story of Christianity is rather well known, and well disputed, in the public arena. There is a large body of scholarship which contends that orthodox Christianity, rooted in the Athanasian creed, developed organically over the centuries after the life of Jesus. Though many Christians would disagree, many scholars argue that aspects of Christianity which Christians hold to be fundamental and constitutive of their religion would have seemed exotic and alien even to St. Paul. Similarly, there is a much smaller body of work which makes the same case for Islam.

51nf9+uTZwL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_ A précis of this line of thinking is that non-Muslim sources do not make it clear that there was in fact a coherent new religion which burst forth out of south-central Arabia in the 7th century. Rather, many aspects of Islam’s 7th century were myths which developed over time, initially during the Umayyad period, but which eventually crystallized and matured into orthodoxy under the Abbasids, over a century after the death of Muhammad. This model holds that the Arab conquests were actually Arab conquests, not Muslim ones, and that a predominantly nominally Syrian Christian group of Arab tribes eventually developed a new religion to justify their status within the empire which they built, and to maintain their roles within it. The mawali (convert) revolution under the Abbasids in the latter half of the 8th century transformed a fundamentally Arab ethnic sect, into a universal religion. Robert Hoylands’ In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire presents this viewpoint. In contrast, Hugh Kennedy’s Great Arab Conquests presents a traditionalist view, which accepts the conventional Islamic framework in its broadest outlines (I recommend both, though Kennedy is the better prose stylist).

I was struck that in Islamic Exceptionalism Hamid observes that because so little is known about Jesus’ life there is a live debate about the historical Jesus. I agree there is little known about the historical Jesus (with even Josephus being asserted to be later interpolation by some), but this is not what believing Christians would contend. I only bring this up because here the shoe is put on the other foot. The fact that Hamid can entertain these views, along with revisionist** works such as Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is a function of the history of Christianity and its relationship to the West, not something natural to Christianity itself. The debate about the historical Jesus only emerged when the public space was secularized enough so that such discussions would not elicit violent hostility from the populace or sanction form the authorities. T he fact is that the debate about the historical Muhammad is positively dangerous and thankless. That is not necessarily because there is that much more known about Muhammad than Jesus, it is because post-Christian society allows for an interrogation of Christian beliefs which Islamic society does not allow for in relation to Islam’s founding narratives.

The early portion of Islamic Exceptionalism that goes back to the first centuries of Christianity and Islam is to use an overused word highly “problematic.” It isn’t that Hamid makes incorrect inferences, it is simply that the chain of inference are so rapid fire, and proffered as fait accompli, that it is difficult to keep up with them and evaluate their likelihood. Assertions that seems plausible from one angle are highly disputable from another. For example, he suggests that because Jesus is divine he does present himself as a model in the same way as Muhammad, who was a man. The problem with this assertion is that the standard Christian thesis is that Jesus is both divine and human, and that it is his incarnation into the human flesh that allows him to be relatable. As an atheist I honestly don’t even know if any of this has any content, though I understand that religious people find these sorts of assertions substantive. My point is that most of the arguments in this portion of the book can be easily flipped on their heads by deeper or alternative analysis.

Hamid’s description of Christian soteriology is very superficial, in a way that I think misleads if you take this sort of analysis of religion seriously. I happen to believe that this sort of analysis doesn’t add much value, so I don’t hold it against Hamid. But a presupposition of Islamic Exceptionalism seems to be that there is a deep and fundamental essence to religions in their ideas and foundations, so one must critique his arguments on their own terms. Consider this passage:

If salvation is through Christ and Christ alone, then there is little need for the state to regulate private and public behavior beyond providing a conducive environment for individuals to cultivate virtue and become more faith to Christ. The punishment of sins is no longer a priority, since Jesus died for them. In start contrast, whereas theologians like Martin Luther fashioned a dialectic between faith and good works, these two things are inextricably tied together in Islam….

This is just an unfortunate caricature of the majority of Christians’ views on salvation and works. Not to belabor the point, as an atheist who is skeptical of a lot of religious “analysis,” many of these distinctions that you see in probing these topics strikes me as similar to philosophizing about the number of angels on the head of a pin. But, if you believe these constructs have material consequences in this world, then you need to relay them correctly. A simple reading of this passage would suggest that all Christians are slouching toward antinomianism

Similarly, one could argue that Islam also slouches toward antinomianism
because predestination is the dominant view within the religion. Obviously this isn’t true. Neither Muslims nor Christians are antinomian in their behavior.

in-gods-we-trust-the-evolutionary-landscape-of-religion-evolution-and-cognition-scott-atran-complete-book-1-638 As I observed above, Hamid cites Michael Cook’s Ancient Religion, Modern Politics, to contend that ancient beliefs, forms, and models, echo down the generations and constrain the shape of the present. Having read Cook’s book I can say it’s interesting, but its argument for why textual constraint and ancient precedent matter are not particularly convincing. In fact, he comes close to asserting it as common sense.

I take a different view. When it comes to understanding religion you need to start with psychology. In particular, cognitive psychology. This feeds into the field of evolutionary anthropology in relation to the study of religion. Probably the best introduction to this field is Scott Atran’s dense In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Another representative work is Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. This area of scholarship purports to explain why religion is ubiquitous, and, why as a phenomenon it tends to exhibit a particular distribution of characteristics.

What cognitive psychology suggests is that there is a strong disjunction between the verbal scripts that people give in terms of what they say they believe, and the internal Gestalt mental models which seem to actually be operative in terms of informing how they truly conceptualize the world. In Theological Incorrectness the author draws upon his field work in Sri Lanka and narrative interviews with religious people which don’t elicit reflexive scripts to get a sense of the internal beliefs which might shape their behavior. Though Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, all agreed that they had very divergent views, what the author founds is that their mental model of gods(s) were very similar. The Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka may notionally reject the idea that Lord Buddha is a god, but he for all practical purposes fills in the role of a god. Similarly, Muslims may aver that their god is omniscient and omnipresent, but their narrative stories in response to life circumstances seem to imply that their believe god may not see or know all things at all moments.

The deep problem here is understood bt religious professionals: they’ve made their religion too complex for common people to understand without their intermediation. In fact, I would argue that theologians themselves don’t really understand what they’re talking about. To some extent this is a feature, not a bug. If the God of Abraham is transformed into an almost incomprehensible being, then religious professionals will have perpetual work as interpreters. Some religious groups, such as Mormons, even point out that their own idea of the godhead is more concrete and less philosophical, so actually makes more coherent sense.

Which brings me to the issue of the Quran and the Bible. There is extensive discussion in Islamic Exceptionalism about the fact that the Quran is the literal Word of God (the recitation by Muhammad), while the Bible is inspired by God, but by and large is not in the voice of God. The standard thesis being proffered is that this means there is less flexibility in Islam, because all Muslims are by nature in some ways fundamentalists.

First, for the vast majority of history most Muslims and Christians have been illiterate. They could not read their scriptures. Second, even today most Muslims can not read the Quran. Most Muslims do not speak Arabic. Second, from what I have been told the Classical Arabic in the Quran is impenetrable to most Arabs. The point isn’t to understand, the point is that they are the Word of God, in the abstract. When I memorized surah Fatiha I was told the meaning of what I was reciting almost as an afterthought (though some of the terms are rather transparent from other concepts). The power of the Quran is that the Word of God is presumably potent. Comprehension is secondary to the command.

Second, Hamid admits the importance of the reality that Islam, like Judaism, and unlike Christianity, is an extensively orthopraxic religion. Though there is much talk about theology in Islamic Exceptionalism, it is more as a general catchall term than technical theology, because this is a domain where Christians have devoted a lot more resources than Jews and Muslims, whose ideas of God are relatively shorn of Greek philosophical sophistication (the Ismaili sect has a sophisticated Neoplatonic cosmology, but they are the exception not the rule). In contrast, Christians have neglected elaboration of religiously informed laws, while Jews and Muslims have developed an enormous corpus.

Aside from some radical Protestant sects religious professionals in the Christian tradition engage in extensive sacramental and liturgical activities. In the pre-modern era the Christian church had a role in collective social salvation through these activities, which it performed for the whole community. In contrast, Judaism and Islam have a quasi-clerical professional class whose roles are often focused upon legal matters, public and personal. In Judaism these are the rabbis, while in Islam they are the ulama. Historically, and even in my own generation, my family has had individuals who are members of the ulama. From what I have seen and heard there is little discussion about the details of the nature of God. Rather, the workaday consists of instruction in memorization of the Quran and elaboration of proper behavior and ritual.

Hamid to some extent discounts the analogy with Judaism for Islam in terms of political insight because after the decline of the Herodians Jewish states were few and far between. Jews had to respect the law of the land in which they lived, to the point where this became a maxim. But I think this example is illustrative, because of the family similarities between Judaism and Islam when it comes to a focus on orthopraxy. Judaism has a deep and rich history of political action and engagement, from the prophets, judges, down to the kings. After the fall of the House of David Jewish monarchies rose several times, and the Herodians themselves were the products of a forced conversion by the Hasmoneans.

And yet after two failed rebellions in antiquity Judaism became relatively quiescent. Hamid asserts that the modern Jewish state of Israel is fundamentally secular in a way that Islamic states are not. I am not entirely convinced by this. First, the secular Ashkenazi elite are now a minority of the population, though at founding they were the overwhelming majority. The Haredi population is growing, and there is a large body of Sephardic Jews for whom Jewish religious identity is stronger than for the Ashkenazi. Finally, the “national religious” block of non-Haredi religious Jews have contributed many of the individuals engaged in religious-ethnic motivated political violence. Some radical Jews even term the Palestinians Amalekites.

This was pregnant within Judaism. It simply needed the proper social context.

In terms of the historical and religious narrative Islamic Exceptionalism naturally argues that Muslims are the exceptions. I take exception to this. Rather, I think the Western liberal model based on a creedal Protestant church is the exception. In The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, the author, a lawyer, argues that America’s regnant ideology of church-state separation only retains coherence if one posits religion qua religion is fundamentally similar to creedal Protestantism. The authors shows that recent emergence of liturgical and orthopraxic traditions has been causing more issues with accommodatio, as authorities have to pick and choose what they will, or won’t, accommodate. The history of American Roman Catholicism and American Judaism are to a great extent the Protestantization of these religious traditions enforced by a dominant and xenophobic Protestant ascendancy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now with the emergence of multiculturalism and the decline of normative Protestantism religious traditions which take a different view of the essence of what religion is are now beginning to flourish and multiply.

k10063 Historically all political units have exhibited a sacral dimension. Some cognitive anthropologists now argue that in fact powerful supernatural agents, active gods, were essential to the emergence of larger social and political units. King James may have asserted “no bishop, no king”, but perhaps it is more general and primal. “No god, no tribe” (or the inverse, “no tribe, no god”). The relationship in the detail between religion and polity differed in various civilizations. In ancient China by and large the elite tolerated pluralism so long as cults were not socially disruptive and political active. But the state was not secular. The emperor was the Son of Heaven, the axis mundi between Heaven and Earth. In India kings became the cakravartin, the universal ruler through whom the wheel of the dharma moves. The Christian East Roman emperors were the vice-reagents of God upon earth, while the last emperor to be deified was Anastasius, a century and a half into the period of Christian emperors! The rulers of Egypt were gods, while those of Mesopotamia began as priest-kings.

In Jay Winik’s Great Upheaval there is extensive discussion of the controversy after the independence of the colonies from Britain that the federal government did not have a state religion. The original settlers were by this point not a particularly churched people, and free thinking was common, from top to bottom. But never had there been a state in the history of the world which disavowed the need for favor from the gods. In The Godless Constitution the authors argue that the lack of a national religion was quite conscious, and a radical move on the part of a coterie of founders.

If we were to rewind history what would it look like? Is the arc of the moral universe always going in the same direction? I don’t know. Perhaps secular Western liberalism wouldn’t have developed the way it did. My overall argument in this section is that the prior for historical contingency is still very strong.

The reality is that most of Islamic Exceptionalism has nothing to do with all the details above. There are chapters devoted to Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, and ISIS, as case studies. The authors personal experience and history, as well as his academic background as a political scientist come to the foreground. There is extensive interlacing of journalistic narrative and reportage with citations of the scholarly literature on Islamism and democratization.

The theoretical scaffold here is not too surprising or novel, as the author himself admits, though it may be to Americans. In short, liberalism and individualism do not always go hand in hand with democracy. The examples from American history are legion. The rise of the Democratic party and universal white male suffrage resulted in a curtailment of the political rights of black Americans. In England when the elite wished to grant Roman Catholics more rights, the populace of London rioted. In 19th century Prussia the extension of suffrage out of the high bourgeoise to the rural population increased the base of conservatives, because the rural population looked more favorably toward their traditional aristocratic leaders and were more socially conservative. As the American political system has become more populist, expressions of religious piety and adherence among those in high office have increased.

In Islamic Exceptionalism Shadi Hamid presents Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists in a relatively sympathetic light. He observes that in some ways the secular population is more intolerant, because they fear the rise of illiberalism due to democratic will. Americans do not have the language today to process this, but what Hamid is alluding to is simply what in an earlier era would be the “mob.” Economic, social, and political, development expands suffrage and distributes power. This moves it outside of central elite control, and human nature is such that inter-group competition often emerges as old elites and arriviste proto-elites clash.

Hamid’s contention seems to be that if democracy is going to come to the Arab Middle East in the near future then it must make peace with the pious majority. He has no grand solutions, but definitely offers a diagnosis. Though liberalism has percolated through Western society, I would point out that the expansion of suffrage was almost always met with the diminishment of the liberal faction to becoming a “third force,” as a more populist party took its spot in opposition to the conservatives.

The final issue that I want to touch on is addressed somewhat in the book, but gingerly, and without great attention. The work is titled Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World. But the focus is on the core Middle East of Arab countries, and Turkey. About 25% of the world’s Muslims are Middle Eastern. About half the world’s population of Muslims live in South Asia and Indonesia (~700 million). There is some discussion of the nature of Islamic identity and piety in these nations, but no great depth of analysis. For example, there are some data which suggest that Indonesians want more mixing of religion with politics than people in the Middle East. Hamid suggests that this shows some underlying essence of the Islamic polity. But Indonesia is a very strange case, it is a nation where conversion from Islam to Hinduism or Christianity is not entirely uncommon. A large number of Muslims in East Java maintain a religious identity which is highly synthetic, and tacitly supported by their local ulema. In Bangladesh, you have a society where Islamic and non-Islamic identities are at rough parity. This is in strong contrast with nations like Egypt and Turkey, for whom the past 1,000 years are hard to discuss without addressing Islam directly and copiously.

This book posits explanations for the nature of Islamic polities, but the reality is that this only even applies to the core Islamic nations which were part of the Abbasid caliphate. Islam’s role in maritime Southeast Asia or South Asia was far different than in the core Islamic lands, as it was contested and its period of ascendancy curtailed.

To a great extent let me gloss over the majority of the book that is focused on political and social facts in the Islamic world today. The reason is that I don’t disagree with the facts. That is the best thing about Islamic Exceptionalism, it will put more facts in front of people who are fact-starved, and theory rich. That’s good.

But how those facts came about, and why, that is a different matter. The Islamic world is here. And it will be difficult to move it elsewhere. By making it seems as if being here is inevitable, Hamid seems to be arguing that moving it to a different equilibrium will be exceedingly difficult. But if you posit that modern conditions are historically contingent and labile, then the future is less predictable. I am come not to bring answers, but the cloud of confusion.

* I have never been a big believer in Islam, but since my father is a believing Muslim, by most sharia definitions I’m an apostate.

** Aslan’s views are not new, but derive from an older scholarly tradition of Jesus as a political radical, which today is generally out of favor.

• Category: History • Tags: Islam 
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51U-OkDelKL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_ The origins of Islam are fascinating, because the religion is critically important in the modern world, but its genesis within history is surprisingly vague for its first decades. Muslims have their own historiagraphy, and some Western historians, such as Hugh Kennedy transmit this narrative with high fidelity, albeit shorn of sectarian presuppositions and strongly leavened with Western positivist methodologies. His books The Great Arab Conquests and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty are rather good in my opinion.

An alternative view is presented by revisionist scholars, who in the process of revising Islamic history tear apart its basic foundations, at least from a Muslim perspective. Their views can be found in works such as The Hidden Origins of Islam. This school of scholars contends that much of Islam’s early history, basically before 700 A.D., is myth-making that dates from the Abbasid period (>750 AD). An analogy here might be made to Republican Rome. The city emerges prominently in history only in the 3rd century B.C., so much of centuries of Roman history which are referred to by later writers are difficult to corroborate. Presumably many of the figures of these earlier periods, such as Cincinnatus, may have been historical, but more often than not it is likely that details of their life served as moral exemplars for republican political leaders.

Similarly, a basic thrust of the revisionists in relation to Islam is that the idea of Muhammad is far more important than the details of who he really might have been. Even the milieu of Muhammad, a desert merchant, may have been manufactured to give him a particular aura. To reduce one line of scholarship to its essence Islam emerged as a national religion of Christian Arabs who had long been on the margins of the Roman and Persian worlds decades after the time of Muhammad. The construction of the Muhammad myth, and relocating sacred sites to a area far outside Roman control and influence (Mecca & Medina), may have been motivated by considerations of distancing from the Greco-Roman and Persian cultural traditions which they were attempting to absorb and supersede.

One aspect of the mythos of Muhammad is that he grew up as a primal monotheist in a pagan land. The revisionists reject this, and suggest that Muhammad was a Christian, in an Arabia where Christianity and Judaism were the dominant elite religions. No doubt there were other religious sects, and the influence of Zoroastrianism was also likely, but organized paganism as depicted in Mecca may have been a propaganda device. There are precedents for this line of thought, some scholars have argued the same for the late survival of paganism in Sweden (in comparison to Denmark and Norway), suggesting that in fact it was a scurrilous attempt by Western Christians to besmirch Eastern Orthodox believers, who were much more numerous in this region of Scandinavia.

I don’t personally take a strong position here. It seems likely that the revisionists go too far, but I do think that a quasi-state paganism in Arabia in the year 600 A.D. is implausible in light of what we know about other regions of the world on the Roman frontier. The dominant forms of religion in Muhammad’s world probably was Christianity, with roles for Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and various gnostic cults. Pagans still remained, but they were likely a marginal residual, not a threatening elite force as depicted in Islamic tradition.

Screenshot 2016-05-15 00.01.48 So, with all this historical context in place, it has come to my attention that there are some peculiarities in the male paternal lineage of descendants of the clade L859+, the dominant haplotype among the Quraysh, Muhammad’s tribe. This lineage, L859+ is a clade within haplogroup J1, which includes the famous Cohen modal haplogroup. On the L859+ tree above you see that the Qurayshi’s are a brother clade to ZS22012. This is traditionally a Jewish lineage. None of this “proves” anything, but it’s interesting and suggestive. If the revisionist are right, and Muhammad grew up in a world dominated by Jews and Christians, it would not be implausible if he himself was of Jewish background in some fashion. Or, that Arab Jews and Arab Christians had a fluid and permeable cultural relationship, and both interacted with the large Jewish community of the Middle East of the period, where some Arab Christians descended from Jews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Points I want to note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Category: Foreign Policy, Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Islam 
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51xZEYkLMhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ A while back I purchased In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire on Tom Holland’s recommendation, as this work purports to be based on a spare, but historically contemporaneous, set of sources rooted in the non-Muslim societies which Islam ultimately superseded across the Middle East. The book was a quick read, I finished it on a cross-country plane ride. But for me it did not deliver on the original promise, as I had pretty much assumed or understood many of the novel insights that it outlines. And, I have to say that the narrative is not that different from what could be gleaned from Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, which covers roughly the same era, the 6th and 7th centuries. Unlike Robert Hoyland, the author of In God’s Path, Kennedy explicitly notes in the beginning of The Great Arab Conquests that he leans predominantly on the orthodox and Islamic sources in constructing his story (though he does not dismiss the revisionists out of hand, and seems to reject the traditional accounts of Muawiyah to the point of rehabilitating him).

51YzydVWNSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ What seems to have occurred here is that I’m not a typical reader, and so probably not the perfect target for the narrative. Obviously I’m not a scholar in this area, for whom this sort of work would be superfluous, as they’d be familiar with debates roiling around the set of topics and inferences presented. But, neither am I just a well educated lay person who has a passing interest in historical questions. I am very familiar with scholars such as Patricia Crone, to the point where I find her work outside of the origins of Islam actually more interesting (obviously there are more sources here and less speculation). With all that In God’s Path is a fast and densely informative jaunt through a field of scholarship whose broad outlines I’d already been well aware of. It’s worthwhile as a complement to the contributions of mainstream scholars such as Kennedy, who are more respectful and frankly less critical of Islamic historiography, and yet point in the same general big-picture direction.

41OxoLpuNyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ There are two levels of assessment here that need to occur. On the one level, scholars like Hoyland, Holland, and earlier Patricia Crone, are attempting to apply to Islam the premises which can be found in the historical criticism movement of the Bible in the 19th century. This, along with assorted other events and tendencies, led to the counter-reaction of Protestant fundamentalism. The problem is that Islamic civilization broadly construed has not arrived at the point where this is understood to be socially acceptable, though there were and are isolated Muslim scholars who have long engaged in the same sort of critical-rationalist scholarship. In addition to traditionalist anger at the criticism of the foundations of their religion, many Muslim intellectuals now bring the armamentarium of post-colonial theory to bear on attempts to evaluate Islam in a positivist frame.

k10064 In contrast, if you approach the history of the rise and crystallization of Islamic civilization as you approach the rise and crystallization of any civilization, then the conclusions of In God’s Path, and even more conventional works such as Hugh Kennedy’s duology, The Great Arab Conquests and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, in the generality are far less shocking. In short, Islam did not emerge fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, with Muhammad delivering the essence of the faith in toto in the early 7th century to desert Bedouins, who used it as a precise blueprint. Rather, Islam evolved organically from its historical and geographic matrix, and coalesced into the broad outlines that we perceive it today in the two centuries between 600 and 800 A.D. This is not a revolutionary idea, insofar as that seems how all religions emerge. There are differences in specific parameters, such as the interval across which a religion accrues its primary features organically. If one was to take the lowest values I think one could assert that Judaism and Hinduism both were defined by at least 1,000 year trajectories of development, between the seeds of religious identity, and the crystallization of a set of views and practices we’d recognize as Hindu or Jewish. Christianity’s development is clearer due to various church councils, with most of the core belief established between the 3rd and 6th centuries. But even practices as normative as clerical celibacy in the Western Christian Church took 1,000 years to establish as a universal custom.

514QTAjUcSL None of these assertions present a problem if you don’t believe that religion is revealed from on high, and so has some imprimatur of metaphysical or ontological truth at the deepest level. The pro-imperial and Roman-centric views of some Christians in the 4th to 6th centuries makes eminent sense if you believe that the religion is true, and was destined to be universal, and therefore a universal empire would be the perfect vehicle for its spread. Similarly, for Muslims who believe that Muhammad’s revelation was divine, the explosive rise of the Arab empires of the first century of the religion’s history is an inevitable consequence of its fundamental rightness. But to understand history I generally don’t put too much stock in the hand of God. I knew that Rodney Stark was transitioning to apologetics when reading One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism, where he contends that one shouldn’t dismiss out of hand speculations from evangelical Christians who take divine revelation and purpose seriously as empirical matters which shape history (Stark completes the transformation in his book Discovering God). These sorts of interpretative frameworks are not illegitimate in my view, but, they will always have a relatively narrow audience of those who are already believers in the particular specific revelation. Similarly, the reaction of many Muslims to revisionists who challenge the orthodox Islamic historiography should be met with dismissal, not considerate respect. In the domain of general scholarship, as opposed to sectarian interpretation, blasphemy is not just permissible, it is meritorious.*

51IQSePVDRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ What all the works I cite above and reference seem to point to is the fact that the development of Islam as we recognize it today was a two step process. The first step was the explosion of a group of Arab monotheists in the early 7th century, and the subsequent fall of Persia, and cannibalization of much of the Byzantine domain. This should not be inexplicable. Around 500 A.D. the Western Roman Empire was divided between various German tribes, the majority of whom were Arian Christian sectarians. The Goths and many of their German confederates received Christianity from the Roman Empire during a period when Arian theology was ascendant. By the second half of the 4th century this viewpoint rapidly disappeared from the Christian landscape of the Roman lands. But beyond the empire the reach of orthodox Nicene Christianity was weaker, and the Arian sect was incubated among the barbarians, and by the 5th century had become a de facto folk religion among many German groups who blasted past the frontiers and set themselves up within the empire. The consequence of this was that these were societies where a military German elite were set apart from the Roman masses by their ethnicity and religion. In the 6th century most of the Arian German kingdoms fell, or, the elites were converted to Nicene Christianity (the Lombards, who were latecomers, were the last to convert in the 7th century, though there were religious peculiarities with this group down to the period when the Franks finally conquered them).

There is a clear analogy between Arab monotheism in the 7th century and German Arianism in the 5th. Traditionalists and revisionists both emphasize the importance of ethnicity, as opposed to religion, in the early decades of the Islamic imperium. Some of the former have referred to the Umayyad dynasty as the “Arab Kingdom,” with the important aspect here that the connotation of the term king in Islam is as negative as it was for the Romans. During the early phases of the conquest Arabs who were not Muslim (usually Christian) could often avail themselves of more rights than those who were non-Arab, but converted to the sect of the conquerors (these non-Arabs were often Persians). Both Kennedy and Hoyland assert that Arab tribes which were non-Muslim participated in the “Islamic” conquests of the first few decades. I am not particularly invested in the thesis of the revisionists that the Muslim armies drew in large part on north Arabian tribes, in contrast to the traditionalist narrative which privileges Mecca and Medina, far to the south. It seems plausible, but to me it is of academic interest. Rather, the key is that the Muslim armies were a mix of various groups, adherents of a new religious dispensation, somewhat inchoate at the time, as well as Arabs who had converted earlier to the mainstream traditions of Judaism and Christianity. A major factor though may have been the presence of pastoralists as a backbone of these mobile forces, as the cross-cultural evidence is rather robust that these groups are incredibly effective at overturning the the social and political orders of civilized states, assuming that conditions are right. Often these expansions take on a life of their own, as the original core element accrues confederates and allies of very diverse natures which join to gain the spoils of victory. The Hun confederacy, the dual Vandal and Alan monarchy, or the nature of the Mongol armies after the death of Genghis Khan, all illustrate this.

51f8lDGSbJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ But the Arab kingdom became something very different from the Pax Mongolica or the Arian German commonwealth which flourished during the reign of Theodoric. Assuming that the Arab Muslims were monotheist sectarians, why did they not go the way of the various heterodox Christian groups which eventually became associated with particular ethnic elements in the Near East? This is where Hoyland’s book actually made something crystal clear for me: the near total conquest of Persia, and the rapid co-option of that civilization into the Arab domains presented particular challenges distinct from those of Byzantium or Persia. Islam may have developed its divergent identity by necessity to establish a relatively neutral and acceptable ideology for the sub-elites across the empire, which spanned Roman and Persian spheres of influence. Hugh Kennedy’s history of the Abbasids who succeeded the Umayyads, When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, and S. Frederick Star’s Lost Enlightenment, both emphasize the incredible impact the conquest of Persia and Central Asia had on the development of Muslim civilization. While what became Byzantium remained a Christian bulwark to the west, the pluralistic Persianate world was swallowed whole by the Arab armies, and became the motors for the Abbasid revolution against the Umayyads. In the vein of “you are what you eat,” the western focus of the Umayyads of Damascus, and perhaps the influence of Arab Christians in the 7th century, likely gave way to an identity more distinct from a religion which was identified now with the state that was the successor of late antique Rome. Some of this obviously predates the Abbasids, as aspects of Islamic orthodoxy (e.g., Umayyad patronage of Hellenistic styles of depiction of human and animal form give way to iconoclasm) begin to show up in the archaeological record in the late 7th century under the Umayyads. But the transformation of the proto-Islamic sectarianism of the 7th century Arabs into a cosmopolitan universal religion in the second half the 8th century almost certainly has to do with the eastern influence on the Abbasids and the central role that Khorsan and Turan had in that state and society.

k8882 In some ways this is just recapitulating history. As most people know the transformation of Hebrews into Jews occurred during a period when the demographic center of world Jewry was in Mesopotamia, under the aegis of the rulers of Persia. It was during this exile that many ideas which became central to Jewish and Christian conceptions of their religion percolated in from the Zoroastrian milieu. One thousand years later the Babylonian Talmud were compiled again under Zoroastrian monarchs and a Persian polity. And yet the self-conception of many Jews is that their religion developed in situ in Palestine (I grant here that most educated and modernist Jews would freely admit the influence of Persian ideas on their religion). Similarly, Christianity perceives itself as the heir of ancient Judaism, and does not highlight its heritage from Persia through that source (again, this does not apply to many modernists). And so it is with Islam. Muslims perceive themselves to be heirs of Abraham, with Muhammad’s revelation simply reinvigorating the primal religious tradition of the human race. More proximately Islam is clearly a religion which believers see as having emerged in the deserts of Arabia, in a Christian, Jewish, and pagan, milieu. But the evidence tells a more complex story. In particular, many aspects of the religion which we perceive as fundamentally Islamic post-date the genesis of the sectarian movement among the Arabs by a century or more (e.g., Starr and Hoyland both clearly argue that science of hadith can not be understood without reference to the traditions of Central Asia on the eve of the Umayyad conquest of the early 8th century).

Why does this matter? Well, to those of us who are interested in history it’s fascinating to see the recurrence of particular dynamics over and over in history. Obviously there are those who have sectarian axes to grind. From evangelical Christians to Muslim modernists. I’m not particularly interested in those issues personally, though obviously they’re important pieces of the puzzle. Islam in the youngest of the world religions which transcends ethnicity and has demographic heft. Arguably, it is the youngest civilization on this planet. Therefore its dynamics are particularly clear to us. Unlike the fog that pervades the slow congealing together of Indian society and Hindu thought, or the antique and distant character of Chinese genesis during the later Zhou period 2,500 years ago, Muslims emerge during a period relatively recent in history. Islam did not arise in situ in a jahiliyyah. Rather, it erupted into a world thick with proto-civilizational identities, what Peter Turchin would term “meta-ethnic” identities. By cannibalizing the Roman Christian East, and swallowing in totality the nascent meta-ethnic polities of Persian Christianity and Zoroastrianism, as well as Central Asian Buddhism, in a few centuries Islamic civilization emerged as a relatively fully-fleshed system of thought and way of life, by synthesizing elements which had already been in place previously. Rather than a sui generis revelation given to an illiterate Arab, the origins of Islam stretch out over centuries, and around the interstices of civilizations which had existed for a millennia.

* Note here that the sort of skepticism which many fundamentalist Christians flinch from in relation to their own religion, they apply to that of others, in particular Islam, which they perceive, rightly, to be a set of institutions and beliefs which emerge not through divine providence, but human intuition and rationality.

Addendum: One of the major historical myths that persist is that Christian groups that dissented from what was being promoted as orthodoxy in Constantinople in the early 7th century welcomed the liberation of Muslims because of religious and national divides. In God’s Path reiterates through the sources that actually the attitude was one of resignation and ambivalence, at best, with the germ of the idea of welcome and liberation arising later on in a period of Islamic-Byzantine hostilities when the Christian majorities of the old Byzantine provinces would want to distinguish themselves from the enemy of their rulers. The context of the period is that these populations had already suffered through a Persian occupation, which had come and gone, so no doubt saw the arrival of Arab rulers as another of God’s various tests. The idea that rather these Arabs would spearhead a revolution in identity across the Near East would probably have struck the first generations of Christians, who continued to run their societies and polities as much as they had earlier due to the light hand of the Arab Muslims, would probably have struck them as preposterous. And though religion and ethnic identity have a long association in this region today, to some extent this is an artifact of the past 1,500 years. Many of the theologians who inveighed against orthodoxy imposed from the Greek-speaking center upon non-Greek majority provinces were themselves Greeks by language and culture.

• Category: History • Tags: Islam, Persia 
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Many people have read Graeme Wood’s cover story in The Atlantic, What ISIS Really Wants, by now. I have, and I recommend you do so as well. You’ll learn a lot. And there’s much within it that I can assent to without hesitation. It overlaps in key ways with my post from last August, The Islamic State Is Right About Some Things. It does not trade in trite but satisfying demonology (politically correct liberal, or jingoistic conservative) or vulgar Marxist analysis. Rather than fitting ISIS into a fashionable Western ideology or filtering it through an emotional reaction, Wood attempts to sketch the movement out as a phenomenon informed by its own self conception. Before you can grapple with this new beast of our age, you have to take ISIS seriously in regards to the sincerity of its beliefs, and attempt to understand them. Wood does just this. Because of the dangers of going to ISIS territory he interviews those living in Western countries sympathetic to the movement, as well as engaging with scholars who specialize in topics which might shed light upon it. In particular, I think Wood conveys the “camelpunk” aspect of ISIS, a violent version of what you can see across the Gulf monarchies. Like 9780195169263steampunk camelpunk is a mash-up of mores, aesthetics, and technologies, across disparate eras. Anyone who reads science fiction won’t be entirely surprised by the juxtapositions of social media and slavery. Many less creative and historically conscious people live under the delusion that the world that is is the only world that could have been, or that it is the only world that will ever be. ISIS’ vision and reality offer up a window into a startlingly different, and radically objectionable, alternative world.

religionexplained As a descriptive matter the piece in The Atlantic is a tour de force. But there is one aspect where I think it is misleading. Wood seems to imply that ISIS is profoundly anti-modern and neo-medieval. This is certainly their own self image, and superficially their fixations on conquest and slaving seem more fit for the 7th century than the 21st. But like fascism, another ostensibly anti-modern movement, it does not strike me that ISIS actually can be understood except as a reaction against modernity, engaging, assimilating, and co-opting. In a similar vein the attempts of the Amish and some Hasidic Jews to stop time and battle back modern innovation is a deep acknowledgment of the seductive power of modernity. Elements of the program of ISIS may seem medieval and traditional, but as a whole it is a radical movement, which is tearing a fabric in the organic development of modern Islamic tradition across its meany streams, which issue out of the evolution of the thousand year old madhhabs.

But that’s a secondary issue. The main point where I believe Wood’s a exhibits a weakness is in privileging reflection über alles. By this, I mean that as a whole humans are prone to accepting the primary causal role of reflective cognition, of beliefs avowed and rationales offered. We are confident in our conscious self control, despite a robust body of cognitive psychology which implies that much of our cognition is not under the control or constraint of rational faculties. This problem is particularly extreme among intellectuals, the very class which also attempts to understand human phenomena. Through the simple process of introspection and extrapolation intellectuals tend to reduce human action to the outcome of ratiocination, inference from eternal axioms. This is wholly inadequate to a phenomenon as complex as religion. Lutheranism is reduced to theses, Islam to Koran and the Hadith, and Judaism to the Torah. And so forth. Long time readers will know my shtick at this point. Let me highlight the particular sentence which encapsulates the disagreement I have with Wood:

The ideological purity of the Islamic State has one compensating virtue: it allows us to predict some of the group’s actions

3551889 In mathematics truths entail necessary inferences. This is generally not the case with truths in a religious sense. A simple set of distinct beliefs can imply a shockingly wide range of inferences through clever rationalizations, totally unpersuasive to outgroups, and totally persuasive to ingroups. To get a sense of what I’m talking about, observe that denominations still descend from the Millerites. That the Jews responded to their national dispossession in antiquity by blaming themselves, and not the god who had clearly abandoned them. Or consider that in Matthew 24:34 Jesus seems to make a prophecy which was falsified. Of course a little Googling will show that many “literalist” Christians have a ready explanation of what “generation” actually means. Religion is not infinitely pliable, but its adroit flexibility can be marvelous to behold. I recall years ago making the case to an Orthodox acquaintance that Jewish custom of matrilineal descent is clearly a Roman era innovation, as the sons of Joseph by an Egyptian woman were recognized as legitimate. She responded without hesitation that her rabbis had explained that in the “oral law” it was recalled that Joseph’s wife was actually adopted, and her biological mother was a Hebrew. My own supposition is that this tradition is a fiction quickly conceived to give an ancient patina to a novel practice in Roman antiquity. But, it illustrates the ease with which even the most punctilious of religious traditions in terms of text can turn the plain reading of the scripture on its head through interpretation or supplementary traditions and glosses. And that is just the clever elites. The self serving lack of ideological clarity is clear among the foot soldiers. Here’s a story from December in The New York Times of how a young boy joined, and left, ISIS:

Soon, though, he said, “I noticed things I saw that were different from Islam.”

Back home he saw the group inflict severe punishments on men who were caught smoking cigarettes, yet in the camp, he said, he saw fighters smoking. He said he saw men having sex with other men behind the tents in the desert night. And, he said, he was increasingly put off by “the way they are killing innocent people.”

41V-vYSuQrL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The men having sex with men no doubt have a rationalization for their behavior. The details aren’t relevant, the point is that this sort of deviation from expectation is pretty common. If it is so among the foot soldiers, the same sort of hypocrisy and lack of consistency can apply to the elite. Wood argues that ISIS is hobbled strategically by its own millenarian ideology. That its very premises ensure its refutation. True. For now. It may come to pass that there is a parting of the ways at some point within the organization, and almost certainly the suicidal faction is less likely to outlast the pragmatist wing. ISIS is composed of individuals, who exhibit variation in belief and interpretation, even if on the whole they seem rather unhinged.

So where does that leave us? In terms of policy prescriptions I’m not far from Graeme Wood. But, I’m far more open to the possibility that ISIS will mutate, evolve, and adapt. Its ideology is not set in stone, but simply the blueprint for the current era. Like all religions Islam evolves and changes with the times, in unpredictable ways, because it is the aggregate of human actions. If you think we have a good science which would allow to us to predict the future of human actions, I’ve got a bridge to sell you….

• Category: Ideology • Tags: ISIS, Islam 
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These are stories from a different age, but they’re not, For Muslim apostates, giving up their faith can be terrifying, alienating and dangerous:

Halima is an 18-year-old biology student from a strict Muslim family in Ontario.

“They think I’m a bad Muslim,” she says of her family, “but I doubt if they’d ever think I’m an ex-Muslim.”

She remembers one incident in particular.

“There was a tear in a page and my father assumed I’d ripped it,” she says. “He got my hand — and put it on the stove.”

After a teacher noticed the burn, the Children’s Aid Society interviewed her parents, who said it was an accident. CAS didn’t pursue the matter, but this did little to placate her father, who castigated her for bringing “kaffirs” (unbelievers) into the house.

Islam and Christianity in the West are different. Only the most extreme fundamentalist Christians engage in such ham-handed coercion. Unfortunately it’s much easier for me to imagine immigrants to the West from Islamic countries behaving in such a fashion. In the societies from which they come often apostasy is not an option. One may be a “bad Muslim,” but one can not be an ex-Muslim. It is perhaps important to note than in dominant traditions in customary Islamic law (shariah) there is the death penalty for apostasy, to varying degrees (the treatment differs by sex, for example). But to my knowledge the issue is less about blasphemy, that is, incorrect belief, and more about apostasy as being a violation of of public norms and order. That is, it is treason against the nation. This I think puts into better frame the sort of reactions from extended kinship networks that these people fear. Though apostasy was against the law, and is, it was not usually enforced because it only became an issue if one was public about it. And even in this cases in pre-modern Islamic civilization the elites shielded often intellectuals from the letter of this law (e.g., the medieval poet Al-Ma’arri would be termed a militant atheist today).

Technically I fall under the category of ex-Muslim. I say technically because I come from a Muslim family. My paternal grandfather was an ulam. My maternal grandmother was the daughter of a man from a lineage of pirs. Though I had an inchoate Muslim identity before adolescence, I was never too interested in or reflective of religious beliefs, and around the age of eight realized I was what is called an atheist. This has been somewhat stressful for my family, but they’ve adjusted fine enough. Curiously I have cousins in Bangladesh who see that I’ve listed “atheist” as my religion on Facebook, and though that surprises them a bit, they don’t seem exceedingly perturbed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Islam, Religion 
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Much of the mythology of the pre-Islamic Persia involves the tension and conflict between Iran and Turan. In modern parlance “Turan” has become synonymous with Central Asia and the Turk, but in its original meaning it involved two groups of Iranian peoples who were distinctly geographically situated. The eruption of the Turkic tribes can be dated to approximately the middle of the first millennium A.D., so they post-date the mythological era of the Iranian peoples, though they coincide with the arrival of Islam to Central Asia. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane is really the chronicle of the last 500 years of the cultural efflorescence of classical Turan, the ancestors of the people we today term Tajik, as well as nearly extinct groups such as the Sodgians. Though there are numerous ‘call-backs’ to the pre-Islamic era, as well as the requisite scene setting chapters, the heart of the matter occurs during Islam’s Golden Age, in particular of the Abbasid Caliphate. The last few centuries, from the rise of more self-consciously Turkic political actors to the period of Timur, get’s short shrift, and the story is tidied up rather quickly.

k10064Lost Enlightenment is also unapologetically a history of intellectuals. Social, cultural, and diplomatic events serve as background furniture. They’re noted in passing and alluded to, but ultimately they are not the center of the story. They’re for intellectuals to be situated within. The key fact which serves as the cause for a book like this is many are not aware that an enormous disproportionate number of the intellectuals of the Golden Age of Islam were ethnically Iranian and from Central Asia. I say ethnically Iranian, because it is not quite accurate to state they were Persian, because the Iranian languages and ethnic groups differ considerably. Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī was a native of Khwarezm, the Iranian language of which was close to Sogdian, and therefore closer to modern Ossetian. The author observes that because intellectuals from Islam’s Golden Age habitually wrote in Arabic most moderns assume they must be Arabs (perhaps more accurately, the names “look Arabic”, unless they are unrecognizable transliterations). But this is an error of the same class as presuming that because Western scholars utilized Latin as a lingua franca until recently they must have been Latins. A quick perusal of Wikipedia’s entry on the philosophy and science of the Islamic Golden Age will disabuse you of this notion. Though the central focus of Lost Enlightenment is on Iranians from Turan, it is important to remember that many individuals of note don’t quite fall into this exact category but exhibit affinities which might surprise. Though the figure behind the most widespread school of Islamic law, abu Hanifa, is well known to have had his ancestry among the Persians of what is today Afghanistan, ibn Hanbal, founder of the austere Hanbali school (arguably the ancestor of the Wahhabi and Salafi movements) was descended from Khorasani Arabs. In other words, even many of the Arabs had eastern affinities.

41OxoLpuNyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ To understand why, you need to realize that to a rough approximation the shift between the Umayyad Caliphate to the Abbasid involved a orientation of the Islamic world away from the Mediterranean world and toward Central Asia, Turan. This is summarized by the reality that the capital shifted from Damascus in Syria to Baghdad in Iraq, but this small distance does not do justice to the shift in mentality. The Abbasids were brought to power by armies and social movements with roots in Khorasan and further north and east. It was in a sense a revenge of the mawalis, non-Arab converts to Islam who were marginalized as second class citizens under the Umayyads. Traditional Muslims sometimes refer to the Umayyads as the “Arab Kingdom” because of the ethnic nature of their polity (evidenced by the fact that there were instances where Arab Christians were privileged over non-Arab Muslim converts). Though the Abbasids were an Arab Caliphate, their ruling culture was much more ethno-linguistically cosmopolitan. Over time the dynasty began to rely more and more upon Turks from Central Asia to man their armies, while the domain of culture and politics was heavily inflected by Iranians and Arabicized Iranians. For a period the caliph al-Ma’mun relocated the locus of the Caliphate to Merv, in modern day Turkmenistan. It is not surprise that al-Ma’mun’s mother was a Persian from Khorasan.

download The culturally Turanian color of the Abbasid world is critical because I think it is plausible to argue that Islam as we understand it emerged during the Abbasid period. On the face of it this sounds strange. Islam as a religion obviously dates to the time of Muhammad, in the early 7th century. Salafi purists would purge all that came after the mid-7th century, the period of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” (i.e., the pre-dynastic period). But to say Islam was formed in this period is like saying Buddhism dates to the time of the Buddha, in the middle of the first millennium B.C., or that Christianity dates to the time of Jesus down to the writing of the Synoptic Gospels a few decades later. No matter what religionists may aver religions evolve organically through time, and some of their most seminal aspects develop considerably later. Among Christians this is acknowledged by the repeated attempts to recreate “Primitive Christianity,” that is, the Church before it became co-opted by Roman Imperial culture. But even before the conversion of Constantine Christianity had transformed into a gentile religion with Jewish roots, rather than a Jewish sect. The institutional superstructure of the Christian Church and its theological basis were totally transformed by the immersion of sectarian Judaism in the Greek and Roman world (one could say that this is true of both Christianity and modern Judaism!).

In modern Sunni Islam (~90 percent of Muslims) in comparison to Christianity theology plays a relatively minor role in relation to law, shariah. One of the primary bases of shariah are the hadith, the sayings of the prophet. It so happens that the two most respected collections of these sayings for Sunni Muslims were authored by Persians from Khorasan. The author of Lost Enlightenment chalks up the prominence of Turan in the compilation of hadith to the pre-Islamic cultural and religious norms, in particular on the prominent Buddhist tradition of translation and collection. Though never explicit the argument seems to be that this region so essential in the development of Islam as we know it remained religiously plural, with Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Christians, and pagans prominent for centuries, and this cultural background could not but help shape the beliefs and practices of local Muslims, many of them converts. But the connections are often not made concrete, but are more suggestive. For example the connection between Buddhist viharas and the later madrasas. Because the Buddhists of Turan have no modern day cultural descendants it can be quite difficult to comprehend just how prominent this religion was during this period, but it is well known that under the early Abbasids the influential Barmakid family were relativley recently converted Buddhist functionaries. Rather than the specifics though I think the fixation in Lost Enlightenment on the non-Muslim milieu that persisted in Turan down to ~1000 A.D. is to emphasize that during Sunni Islam’s formative period the religious culture looked east as much as it did to the west, that is, the world of India. The connections between the Near East, Central Asia, and India, are ancient, going back to records of Indian merchant communities settled in Sumeria. It does not take a leap of imagination to wonder if Sufi mysticism may have been influenced by Indian practices and beliefs (some early Sufi mystics do report Indian, or perhaps more accurately Turanian Buddhist, mentors). And there are curious currents in the other direction, “Greek medicine” as transmitted by Central Asians is still practiced in India.

Islamic civilization beginning with Muhammad is at its foundation “West” facing. Muhammad engaged the ideas and thoughts of Christians and Jews, and his foreign travels took him to the margins of Syria. The details of prayer positions among contemporary Muslims reportedly derive from the practice of Syrian monks. The eastern fringe of the Islamic world at its founding was that of the magians, the Zoroastrians, who were also clear influences. But if you accept the proposition that much, most, of Islamic civilization dates to the Abbasids, then your understanding of West and East must shift. Here the West is the world of Persia-verging-upon-Mesopotamia, Iran, and the East is India, and to a lesser extent China. The center is Turan. This is a somewhat tendentious position, but I do think it is defensible, should make us reconsider the genealogy of Islamic culture and civilization.

But one of aspects of Lost Enlightenment that I found irritating is prefigured by the title, and that is the Whiggish attempt to shoehorn Turanian civilization into the stream of ascending scientific and mechanical complexity of the West. I do think it is interesting that Turanians contributed overwhelmingly in the domains of medicine an the natural sciences, and far less to what we might term the humanities. The author argues rather aggressively that this is due to the fact that the environment of Central Asia requires city-scale hydraulic civilization, putting a premium upon the mechanical sciences. I am moderately skeptical of environmentally deterministic arguments, but they are reasonable. What is harder to excuse is harping upon the same thesis so often, as well as showing your own philosophical preferences so clearly. The author, like myself, is biased toward those scholars with a peripatetic method in regards to the natural sciences. Though making the case for Turan’s role in the formation of Islamic orthodoxy, he is not positively inclined toward the anti-scientific legalist orientation ascendant after ~1000 A.D. Neither am I, nor are most Western readers of this work. If al-Biruni is the hero, then al-Ghazali, a Persian from Khorasan, is the villain. This sort of normative typology is not befitting a scholarly work of this level.

Finally, we have to address the fact that today Turan is not what it once was. The prominence in intellectual endeavors indicates a demographic robustness which is hard to see in modern day Central Asia. The short answer seems to be the Mongols. The author argues that the Mongols were particularly destructive in Central Asia, both in the areas of straightforward genocide and destruction of the material basis of Turanian urban society in the form of hydraulic engineering. It seems clear that this period also saw the shift from a mostly Iranian speaking populace, to a Turkic one, as the Turks, long recently dominant politically, became handmaids to the Mongols. Though Lost Enlightenment gives some space to early Turkic attempts at ethnic assertion (apparently they were segregated in Baghdad in the early years), it is a very secondary aspect. But it may be that ultimately Turanian civilization always had a sell-by date, because the geographic parameters for dense civilization in Central Asia are fragile and marginal. Situated at the center of Eurasia, and forcing its populace to engage in ingenious engineering to simply survive, Turan was bound to be a creative force. But its explosion may inevitably have been ephemeral.

• Category: History • Tags: Islam 
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Yezidi Peacock Angel

Yezidi Peacock Angel

I’ve talked about the Yezidis many times over the years. The main reason is that I find the obscure marginal sects of the Middle East interesting. This is a part of the world where religious pluralism existed under very precise and strict conditions, and these groups deviated from those conditions and lived to tell the tale. The Muslim rulers, and more specifically in historical memory the Ottomans, tolerated a specific set of enumerated dhimmi, generally traditional Christian and Jewish groups. Though subject to persecution and oppression, in principle these groups had rights to exist within the Islamic framework. Heretics and pagans on the other hand were not tolerated. For example, I have read the account from the 17th century of an Ottoman official who was making a progress from Baghdad to Istanbul, which turns out to be an excellent piece of ethnography. His entourage stopped in an isolated mountain valley in what is today Kurdistan. The local population were not Muslims, and when the official inquired as to their religion they told of how they worshiped the sun. Whatever the details of their origin this group obviously would be classed as pagans, and so the official was faced with what to do with these people. The choices were conversion to Islam or death, the implementation of which would have been difficult at that moment. As a solution the local Jacobite Orthodox Christian bishop agreed to accept them as his own, with nominal baptism. Presumably these people eventually became Christians in fact as well as name. But it goes to show that in the pre-modern world of the Middle East religious diversity persisted in the isolated places.

Groups such as the Druze offend Sunni Muslims because they are clearly derived from Islam itself, and Islam is the capstone religion in its own conception. Alawites seem to have emerged from the same milieu as the Druze, but they have retained a tenuous Muslim identity, which has accelerated under the Assad family. The Sunni Muslim stance toward these groups is that they are viewed as illegitimate heresies, not protected religions. The extent of Salafi* influence in one’s orientation also conditions how Sunnis view Shia (and there is variation within the Shia group, the Ismailis in particular viewed as heretical because their practice and theology differs more in obvious ways from Sunni orthodoxy; the Zaydi Shia are at the opposite extreme, being very similar to Sunni norms).

All this leads up to why the Islamic State, and Muslims generally to a lesser extent, tend to be extremely harsh in their attitude toward the Yezidi sect. The details of the Yezidi belief system are somewhat obscure, like that of the Druze, but they are clearly not Muslim. The media reports that the Yezidi are an ancient religion, with some relationship to Zoroastrianism. Many Kurds will also agree with this statement, assuming that something like Yezidism was the primal faith of their ethnic group. This may or may not be true. The origins of the Yezidi may actually be more like the Druze, if somewhat more ancient and obscure. Part of the lack of clarity I think goes back to the fact that there is some opaqueness overall in the first century or so of Islam. The social-religious world of the Middle East was a product of those years, but it is very different from them. For example Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrian-influenced syncretistic Muslim sects were powerful anti-establishment forces across the Iranian cultural zone down to the 9th century. Quite a few extremist Shia sects (ghulat) seem to have made the transition to post-Islam, often imbibing Zoroastrianism of a Mazdakite flavor. Such a transition though was usually a cultural death sentence. Survival depended upon attaching oneself to a Shia identity, however tenuous (the Alawite strategy), or, fleeing to a geographically isolated region (in some cases these sectarians fled to the Byzantine Empire, and converted to Orthodox Christianity rather than revert to normative Islam!). Flight from the world is what the Druze and Yezidi have done in their fastness.

Yezidi children killed by ISIS in Syria

Yezidi children killed by ISIS in Syria

The current capture of Sinjar has been a humanitarian catastrophe for the Yezidi because it has been one of their traditional redoubts. The kidnapping of women, and the summary beheading or crucifixion of men, can be comprehensible in light of the Salafi Muslim vision of groups such as the Yezidi, which literally should not exist. Their obliteration would bring balance back into the Salafi world. While Christians and Jews may persist with the barest of sufferance, the existence of the Yezidi is an abomination to Salafi Muslims. What is occurring is a ethnic cleansing and genocide in straightforward terms. In fact Salafi Muslims would probably agree with the appellation cleansing, because the Yezidi to them are an offence to Being itself. Their existence is a matter of ritual purity in a metaphysical sense. I am wary of ever making analogies to Nazi Germany and the way it viewed the Jews, but this one clearly is a close fit. There is no path toward accommodation of Yezidi existence for the Islamic State, it is now down to an animal battle of survival for them, as they flee into the mountains as they have done so many times in the past.

nationsbook The relationship of Kurdish Muslims to the Yezidi has often been fraught, but there has been a modus vivendi of late. The Yezidi looked to the Peshmerga to protect them, though in this case the Peshmerga failed. The Kurdish reaction overall seems to confirm much of the argument in Azar Gat’s Nations. It is not civic virtue which is drawing out their outrage, or adherence to the state, but ethnic-national honor as a whole, irrespective of boundary. Their identity as Kurds is motivating them to fight the Islamic State first and foremost (whether the Yezidi are Kurds is under debate, but they are of the same general group of Iranian speaking mountain people). See in The New York Times, Iraq Agrees to Help Kurds Battle Sunni Extremists:

On Monday, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant Kurdish separatist group in Turkey that for decades has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state, in a statement called for its fighters to go to Sinjar, one of three Iraqi towns where the Kurds were pushed out on Sunday.

“The treacherous ISIS attacks have been humiliating for the Kurds,” the statement said. “Until the Kurds develop a strong resistance, they will not be able to take back their honor.”

The soldiers of the Islamic State certainly seem to behave in a manner which we find ghoulish. But ghoulish behavior is not a monopoly of religious fundamentalists; Assad’s Syrian regime has sent militias to rape and murder children in front of their parents to sow fear into the opposition. The moderate Free Syrian Army has also committed war crimes. But the Islamic State is fighting for principles, a vision, with atrocity as the end and not the means. For the Assad regime atrocity is a tool to instill terror. For the Free Syrian Army atrocity is a reflex against the brutality of the Assad regime. An eye for an eye. In contrast, the vision of the Islamic State necessitates atrocity as the ends of their existence. In theory Yezidis could be given the option to convert to Islam, but the current pattern of killings indicates that pure elimination seems just as likely an end. From my perspective, and most people’s, it is an evil vision. But it is giving its fighters something to fight for. This vision has prompted four upper middle class Indian men to join them, to the shock of the Indian security establishment. The article waxes on about the privileged background of these men, but transnational jihadists have long had a more “up market” demographic. The Islamic State is fundamentally an abstraction, and so appeals to those who deal in abstractions. It is utopian in its fundamentals, just as the Khmer Rouge was utopian. They are attempting to go back to the “year zero” of Islam.

But even error sometimes speaks truth. The Islamic State is right that the Sykes-Pico Agreement is a shambles and ended. The delusion of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Iraq and Syria has collapsed. What replaces it we do not know. Currently the American government continues to support policies which strengthen the unitary Iraqi state. The major weak point in this strategy is that even the superficial appearance of a unitary Iraqi state seems out of reach. That game is lost. We don’t want to admit it, but it is over. We don’t know what gambits with follow, but the local actors will be ultimate deciders.

Roman_Eagle_by_Wittman80What can be done? The Iraq invasion and occupation has made Americans wary of direct intervention. And rightly so. Unless we wish to take upon the mantle of a New Rome, sending our sons (and now daughters) to impose order and justice, and implicitly the American Way, in foreign lands we are better off not getting deeply involved. On the other hand there is no point in pretending that we are neutral in the clash between antinomian barbarians and ethno-religious autocrats. The latter are imperfect, but they have a vision of life which we recognize as life.** We must stand in some way with imperfect humans when they are battling against organic automata, motivated by an ideology which bears false witness to any traditional social order. People can disagree on the details, but there is a moderate position between total detachment and taking upon the burdens of the world upon one’s shoulders.

I do think that the rise of the Islamic State, and the past 10 years of chaos and violence, suggest that this is the end of the persistence of ethno-religious sects such as the Yezidi across most of the Fertile Crescent. The Jacobites Christians, Assyrians, and Yezidi, lack powerful patrons and protectors. Though most Sunni and Shia would not countenance genocide, they are focused more on the exigencies of their own internecine conflicts. Many minorities already have large Diaspora populations Europe. Tens of thousands of Yezidi live in Germany, and tens of thousands of Assyrians live in Sweden. The most practical short-term solution would be to extend refugee status selectively to ethno-religious minorities to prevent them from being eliminated by genocide. Certainly the dominant Muslim groups of the Fertile Crescent are dying in large numbers in the conflicts, but at the end of the day when peace comes the Syrian and Iraqi state(s) are going to be their making, their dominion. They will have something to build up from. In the long term it seems implausible that the Sunni majority can be excluded from the leading role in governance in Syria. When majoritarianism does come I doubt it will look keenly upon the rights of the minorities after the litany of horrors afflicted upon the Sunni populace by the Assad regime and its Alawite militias.

Of course a final irony is that the migration of the ancient Middle Eastern minorities to the West will likely result in their diminishing over the generations. The corporatist straight-jacket of the Middle Eastern milieu was constricting, but it allowed for a communal identity to maintain itself. In the individualist West these small communities are unlikely to be able to self-segregate in large enough ghettos where their cultural norms are dominant. This means that identity will become a choice, and over time intermarriage will likely result in a decrease in numbers. Though the Yezidi are rightly objects of sympathy, their cultural norms are quite retrograde in many ways. These folkways were adaptive in the circumstances of Kurdistan, a persecuted minority which had to maintain a high level of group cohesion. But in the West they are often impediments to full flourishing, and produce inter-generational conflicts.

Dancing-in-the-Glory-of-Monsters-Stearns-Jason-9781586489298 Finally, currently the world is paying attention to the dire humanitarian situation in northern Iraq because that is where the media spotlight is. And rightly so. But let us remember that these sorts of events have an old pedigree. Consider the Assyrian Genocide of the early 20th century. Many thousands died then, and many thousands are dying now. And what about the three-year-old children shot in front of their parents by the militia loyal to the Assad regime? The events in Gaza are quite raw and fresh, but read Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War in Africa, and you gain perspective as to what atrocity truly is. It reminds me of the apocryphal quote attributed to Stalin, the “Death of one man is a tragedy. Death of a million is a statistic.” Right now infants are dying of thirst in northern Iraq. Horrible. But the Central African Republic still teeters on the edge of genocide. I am not saying that because we cannot do all things we should not do anything, but we should keep in mind that for all the positive trends in the world there is a vale of tears we must confront. The soldiers of the Islamic State fight under the banner of demons, but their enemies are no angels.

Assyrian demon Pazuzu

Assyrian demon Pazuzu

But not all distinctions can be erased. When enumerating the horrors meted out by the Assad regime, or noting the ubiquity of rape in the Congo, I can not help but think that these are the products of human venality. The thugs who murder children for Assad, or the soldiers who rape women in the Congo, may have their ad hoc justifications for what they do. But they do what they do not in a spirit of purpose, but on the orders of their paymasters or in a fit of amorality coming to the fore. Atrocity, even on a grand scale, can still be the marshaling of individual human weakness. The power of the Islamic State derives in part from the fact that it inverts the moral order of the world. Some of its soldiers are clear psychopaths, as the most violent and brutal of international jihadis have been drawn to the Islamic State (as opposed to Al Qaeda, which is more pragmatic!). But a substantial number believe in its utopian vision of an Islamic society constructed upon narrow lines. A positive vision of a few evil goals, rather than a grand quantity of small evil pleasures. The Islamic State ushers in an evil new order, it does not unleash unbridled chaos. Though its self-conception that it is resurrecting the first decades of Islam is self-delusion in my opinion, it is still a vision which can entice some in the Islamic international.

I do not think that the Islamic State is here to stay. I believe it will be gone within the next five years, torn apart by its own contradictions and its rebellion against normal human conventions, traditions, and instincts. But that does not mean it is not going to cause misery for many on its way down. The irony is that the iconoclastic Islamic State may as well be worshiping the idols conjured in the most fervid of Christian evangelical apocalyptic literature, because they shall tear the land end to end and leave it in a thousand pieces, a material sacrifice to their god. They live under the illusion that they are building utopia, but they are coming to destroy an imperfect world and leave hell in its wake.

* The modern Salafis are just the latest in a particular extreme of Sunni belief, which goes back to individuals such as Ibn Taymiyyah.

** My distinction here has some similarities to the typology outlined in the Kirkpatrick Doctrine.

• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: ISIS, Islam, Yezidis 
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9780306817281_p0_v1_s260x420 The jihadi movement in northern Iraq and Syria which is now in the news is wont to put up a black flag. This is a common feature of jihadi movements since at least the year 2000. It’s a phenomenon which has me wondering, because the black flag was the banner of the Abbasids, the second dynasty of caliphs, while most of the jihadi movements take as their inspiration an earlier epoch of pre-dynastic rulers. On the surface this seems a curiosity, but if you read Hugh Kennedy’s When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World you also know that the rise of the Abbasids was driven in part by a deep rage against the earlier Ummayads by the Shia. Some of the Abbasid rulers were in fact relatively sympathetic to the Shia cause, though ultimately the Abbasid period was when what we now think of as Sunni Islam began to crystallize in a coherent positive fashion as something distinct from the sectarian minorities within Islam. All this matters because short term raison d’etre of the Islamic State, and what distinguishes it from Al Qaeda, is that it has put the Shia-Sunni conflict front and center, and the black flag has been associated with Shia movements for over a thousand years now.

To some extent this is trivial. But, it shows the sorts of patterns and connections you can draw upon if you have at your disposal a few seemingly disparate facts. Which brings me the point of this post, a friend asked me via email yesterday what books he should read to understand Islam, and Muslims, a bit more. After 9/11 many Americans went and read the Koran to understand Islam. It’s a relatively short book compared to the Bible, so that’s doable. But it also makes as much sense as reading the New Testament to understand Christianity. If that does make sense to you, and some evangelical Protestants would say that it does, then by all means. But many would argue that you don’t really understand how Christianity as a phenomena manifests itself in the world by just reading the New Testament. But a more appropriate analogy would be reading the Hebrew Bible to understand Judaism. That is because like Judaism, Islam is a religion where much of the intellectual work has gone into defining and extending the body of religious law which regulates life. Judaism as it exists today makes no sense without the Talmud,* which is a far greater body of work in volume than the Bible, and pertains much more precisely to behavior in a day to day sense. Similarly, Islam is much more defined by the Hadith than the Koran in relation to how Muslims live and practice.

Obviously I’m not going to recommend that every non-Muslim read the Hadiths. For practical introductions to Islam John L. Esposito’s oeuvre is probably at the top of the list. Anti-Islamic critics have charged Esposito with being too respectful of his subject of study, but I don’t think that’s a problem as long as you know that going in. After reading Esposito, I would suggest Hugh Kennedy’s two works which introduce Islam’s first two ruling houses, The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty. Like Esposito, Kennedy tends to not directly challenge the standard Islamic narrative, despite not being a Muslim himself. But, one of the central planks of the narrative which has been percolating into the public discourse in the West, and which Kennedy’s works tend to undermine, is the conception that the Sunni-Shia conflict as we understand it today is primal and goes back to the days after the death of Muhammad in the 7th century. Though it may have roots in that period it is quite clear from what I have read that a more precise picture must integrate the centuries of dialogue, debate, and conflict, up until the 10th century, when the Sunni faction as we’d recognize it had emerged. To cap off a survey of traditionalist scholars with a counterpoint, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World,** is probably a must. Much of this work is likely wrong, but it is wrong in a very provocative way which makes you reconsider your assumptions. I do think one reality you can take away from this though is that the first century of Islam is an area where we have far less clarity than you might think before exploring the topic. I suspect much of this is due to the fact that our understanding of antiquity is tied to three particular instances of literary reproduction between 800 and 1000, one in the Abbasid House of Wisdom, another during the Carolingian Renaissance, and finally the efforts sponsored by the Byzantine ruler Constantine VII. These translation and copying efforts did have particular agendas, and just the Carolingian scholars would give you a biased picture of post-Roman barbarian states and rulers which preceded the Pippinids, so the Abbasids were not going to commission a view of Islamic history not to their liking.

what-i-believe Finally, to understand mainstream Islamic scholarship which nevertheless attempts to be relevant to Western non-Muslims, you probably need to read Tariq Ramadan. He has the virtues of being an orthodox Sunni who operates with the standard currency of Islam, but still exhibits fluency in the Western conceptual architecture which we take for granted. Additionally he will make up any deficit in metaphysics that one might perceive in the above list of works. Personally I don’t think that religious metaphysics really explain much of interest to those outside a given religious tradition (e.g., Muslims get nothing from understanding Trinitarian theology, and an atheist gains nothing from two hundred ways of defining tawhid), but others disagree.

* Jews who do not root their Judaism in the Talmud, such as Reform Jews, act in opposition and rejection of this tradition, not independent of it.

** If you don’t have access to a college library, there are other revisionist books which are affordable that you can find.

• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Islam 
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Over the past few weeks Pussy Riot has been quite in the news. But there’s been one reaction which surprised me: I actually appreciate that Russia is not quite as illiberal as Westerners may sometimes portray it. After all, there was a trial, and to my knowledge the members of Pussy Riot were not assaulted or physically attacked. Imagine that a feminist punk band had tried to pull off what Pussy Riot did in the Muslim world (commit an act performance protest in a house of worship). There’s a good chance they’d be dead before the authorities could even get a hold of them.

With that in mind, I want to observe another instance of the mass insanity and barbarism which seems to be taking hold in Pakistan. Down Syndrome girl Rimsha accused of blasphemy in Pakistan:

Police arrested Rimsha, who is recognised by a single name, on Thursday after she was reported holding in public burnt pages which had Islamic text and Koranic verses on them, a police official said.

A conviction for blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan.

The official said that the girl, who he described as being in her teens, was taken to a police station in the capital Islamabad, where she has been detained since.

Angry Muslim protesters held rallies demanding she be punished, said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

“We had to register the case fairly quickly to prevent any unpleasant situation,” he added, referring to the demonstrations.

Rimsha was produced before a court on Friday and remanded in custody for 14 days, another police official said. She is expected to go before the court again by end of this month.

First, most of these blasphemy cases turn out to be unjust accusations. One needs to keep in mind that most of the Christians of Pakistan are socially marginalized, having been converted from the lower caste Hindu population. Their status as a religious minority is just another angle which can be used in both inter-personal and inter-class conflict.

Second, this is clearly the case of an irrational and insane collective herd. If you took one of the individuals who are braying for the blood of this mentally disabled girl, and explained the situation and the ludicrousness of it all one on one I think common sense could prevail. Even granting the charges, which as I said are unlikely to really have any genuine basis, holding a teenager with such low mental abilities responsible simply boggles the mind.* And yet the reality is that these sorts of mass movements toward victimizing minorities and the marginalized are pretty typical over human history. The modern era is exceptional insofar as rule of law and respect for the rights of individual are such that even the collective will can be resisted.

In the early to mid 2000s there was a vogue for analogizing Al Qaeda to the Ku Klux Klan. But the reality is that I think Sunni Muslims as a whole in Pakistan really resemble the second Ku Klux Klan. Religious minorities, and to a lesser extent the Shia, in this model take up the roles of blacks, Catholics and immigrants, who are fundamentally not of the nation. And those who are brave enough to stand up for the rights of the marginalized minorities are few indeed.

* Some are claiming that the girl is not even a teenager, but 11 or 12.

• Category: Science • Tags: Islam 
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I’m primarily science blogger, with an amateur interest in history. But I’m still disturbed that over 10 years after 9/11 elite media still can’t be bothered to be precise and accurate about the affairs of the Muslim world. As a neo-Isolationist when it comes to military adventures I wish that ignorance were tolerable, but the reality is that a substantial minority of the populace and the majority of the elite seems intent on flexing American muscle abroad, come hell or national bankruptcy. Instead of imparting to the populace a genuine structure of facts and concepts which adds value in terms of comprehending things as they are, the media seems to just repackage its preconceptions in more sophisticated garb.

For example, The Washington Post:

Timbuktu now endures the destruction of many of the city’s ancient monuments and religious sites. The devastation is reminiscent of the Taliban’s 2001 attacks on the towering Buddha statues of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Four of Timbuktu’s landmarks are included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, but history and heritage mean nothing to the leadership of Ansar Dine, which has destroyed at least six above-ground mausoleums of religious figures regarded as saints and, on Monday, the door of one of the city’s most sacred mosques.

Timbuktu, a center of Sufi mysticism, apparently represents a broad-minded world view at odds with Ansar Dine’s radical conservatism. When asked this week whether the destruction of these cultural artifacts will continue, a spokesman for the sect told the New York Times: “Of course. What doesn’t correspond to Islam, we are going to correct.”

There are many points to dispute in this editorial, but I want to put the focus on the idea of “radical conservatism.” Though one can strictly be radically conservative, one has to be careful when someone uses such a term. After all, conservatism in a deep sense is at cross-purposes with radicalism. In the 1990s many American conservatives were angered that the media kept referring to unreconstructed Communists in the former Eastern Bloc as “conservatives,” but in a strict sense that was defensible (though I do think that the terminology ultimately reflected media bias in part).

Not so in this case. Groups like Ansar Dine, inspired by the infantile iconoclasm which seems to crop up in Islam, makes it part of its program to destroy very ancient monuments. In other words, Ansar Dine is attacking the organically developed traditional customs and folkways of Islam in the region, going first at the material manifestations of the local culture. This is fundamentally anti-conservative. Rather than conserving, these radicals resemble the Khmer Rouge or the Red Guards, who wished to create a cultural blank slate and start over. This is the delusion of strain of the Islam which we term Salafi (and its related siblings, such as the more radical Deobandis).

Salfism is predicated on a radical delusion, that modern Muslims have access to the arrangement of life of the first generations of Muslims, and can recreate that way of life. The analogy here to radical Protestant sects which attempted to emulate “primitive Christianity” is strong. To recreate the Islam of the first decades of the religion the Salafists and their fellow travelers construct a society to their own tastes. It is fundamentally a utopian project. Because of their reliance on their own rational faculties of analysis and reconstruction the Salafists feel no need to give due deference to the organically evolved history of Sunni Islam from 8th century down to the present (or, what was to become Sunni Islam). This is why they are engaging in acts of egregious iconoclasm against the past: they believe that the past is untrustworthy a idolatrous, as opposed to their own idealized blueprint. To get a better sense, here is a Wikipedia entry, Destruction of early Islamic heritage sites:

The destruction of sites associated with early Islam is an on-going phenomenon that has occurred mainly in the Hejaz region of western Saudi Arabia, particularly around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The demolition has focused on Mosques, burial sites, homes and historical locations associated with the Islamic prophet, Muhammad and many of the founding personalities of early Islamic history. In Saudi Arabia, many of the demolitions have officially been part of the continued expansion of the Masjid Al-Haram at Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and their auxiliary service facilities in order to accommodate the ever-increasing number of Hajj pilgrims. Detractors of the demolitions and expansion programs have argued that this phenomenon is part of the implementation of state-endorsed Wahhabi religious policy that emphasizes the Oneness of God (Tawhid) and entirely rejects the worship of divine proxies to God or even the practices and habits which might lead to idolatry and polytheistic association (Shirk).

For example, “The House of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid in Makkah was demolished and paved over and several public protests were heard at the building of a public toilet on the same site. The house where Muhammad was born was converted into a library and was slated for demolition as part of an expansion project.” Khadijah is Muhammad’s first wife.

Why does any of this matter? Because of the media characterization of radical Islamists as neo-feudalist reactionaries misleads the public as to the basic nature of the danger the world faces. Radical Islamism is not the resurrection of an old world, it is the accelerated destruction of elements of the old world, an almost nihilistic response to modernity. The project of development and modernization may inevitably lead to a minority of Muslims in any nation to embrace a position analogous to that of the Salafis. All the education and economic development won’t change that. Instead of expressing shock and horror we need to figure out mitigating strategies. These sorts of infantile pseudo-traditionalist radical may be like a fever which will eventually pass as cultures stumble to modernity.

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Anthropology, Culture, Islam 
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After the power of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt made itself felt, and current domination of Iraq by Shia political parties, and the likely strength of Islamists in Libya, the media finally has become more cautious about pushing any narrative which makes them look as prescient as Paul Wolfowitz about the nature of the Arab body politic. So, for example, this article surveying the Islamist strands within the anti-Assad coalition in Syria. The problem for the Islamists is that Syria is “only” on the order of 75 percent Sunni, and they do not want to project the image of chauvinist exclusivity which has come to the fore in Egypt, lest the religious minorities dig in in their strongholds (e.g., along the coast). But I think it needs to be pointed out here that in Iraq the Shia Arabs are only somewhat more than 60 percent of the population. In other words, there is no question that a democratic order will result in the regression of minority rights in Syria if the Islamic Brotherhood wishes this to the the nature of things.

Why are we even talking about this in the 21st century? Because of a particular tendency toward religious nationalism which seems to be part & parcel of Arab identity in our time (and more generally, of Middle Eastern identity, as the same strain is evident in Turkey and Iran). The nature of this religious nationalism is hard for many Westerners to grok. The constitution of Iraq states that no law must must contradict Islam. The provisional constitution of Egypt states that sharia is the source of legislation. As a practical matter these dictates can’t be followed literally. But they’re used to justify oppression of minorities and deviants from the orthodoxy.

And yet I do wonder if what is occurring in the Arab world today gives us an insight into a counterfactual scenario: what if democratization came to the West before secularization? Recall that by the late 18th century most of the European elite had put aside sectarian differences. The push for religious liberty in fact came from elites and sub-elites, with the populace at large often resisting (e.g., the Gordon Riots). In contrast, democracy evolved in these societies in the second half of the 19th century, and sometimes only in the 20th century. The acceptance of democracy by the Roman Catholic Church did lead to the rise of “Christian Democratic” parties, but these have only been factions on a larger landscape. What if democracy had come to Europe in 1700? I think the argument could be made that if that was the case you would see exactly what is happening in the Arab world today, religious nationalism would serve as the focus for mass mobilization. I suspect that a democratic, as opposed to oligarchic, parliament would have revoked the Act of Toleration 1689.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore

• Category: Science • Tags: Islam, Religion 
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One of the non-science aspects of this weblog which I’ve been addressing over the past 10 years is attempting to get a grip upon cultural variation. There are two major dimensions in terms of the problem. One is positive, in that people don’t really have a good sense of cultural variation. This is simply a function of stupidity, or ignorance. In the latter case the primary problem is that the media and public intellectuals aren’t very good at concisely transmitting information (I don’t expect normally curious people to pick up ethnographic or historical monographs). For example, “elite” publications like Slate routinely flub facts which could be confirmed via The World Book Encyclopedia, such as whether Iran is an Arab country. Sometimes the confusions are more obscure, but nonetheless misleading. In 2004 I slammed an Iranian American writing for Slate (this publication deserves to be picked on because of its quasi-New Yorker superiority; it’s a “smart” webzine which doesn’t live up to its own billing too often in substance if not style) for asserting that Iran’s Islamic history has been predominantly a Shia one. Going back to that 2004 post, I realized now that it was written by Reza Aslan:

…On the contrary, Iran has been a continuous entity for nearly 2,500 years. Half of that time has been as an empire founded upon the ancient Zoroastrian ideal of the “just ruler”—the divinely sanctioned shah, or king, whose omnipotent rule reflects the authority of the gods. The other half has been as an Islamic, and distinctly Shiite, community anchored in the principle of the “righteous martyr,” who willingly sacrifices himself in the fight against oppression and tyranny….

Whether Iran has been a continuous entity for 2,500 years is debatable (as I’ve said before, I think modern Iran really owes its origin to the Safavids; the Iran of the Achaemenids has only marginally more connection with modern Iran than the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar II does with Iraq). But the idea that Iran has been distinctly Shiite for most of is Muslim history is indubitably false. Though Shia movements have long been active within Iran it was only in the years between 1500 and 1700 that Iran as we know it became a Shia domain. Before that the Shia had been a minority amongst a Sunni majority. This not a hard fact to stumble upon, but one that is rarely circulated. Unfortunately this results in “truisms” about Iran’s distinctive non-Arab and non-Sunni nature, as if it is has persisted since the Islamic conquest. Intriguingly, Reza Aslan just six months after this entry in Slate published No god but God, which lays out in detail exactly how the Safavid monarchy created a Shia state to serve its ends in the 16th century. From this I have to wonder if Aslan simply did not believe that the readers of Slate would be able to handle a nuanced and factually correct take, and rather decided to simply go with the standard motif of an eternally dissident Shia Iran.

The second issue is normative. By this, I mean that people have a preference that other cultures fit into preconceived expectations and paradigms. Unlike some cultural anthropologists I do not believe that intercultural communication and comprehension is impossible due to incommensurability. But, I do believe that on occasion people purposely or subconsciously misunderstand for reasons of their own cognitive ease. For example, a particular strain of moderate to liberal Christianity attempts to reach a common ground with Islam predicated on the mutual understanding that both traditions understand the other to be an emanation from a common divine source. But from the perspective of moderate to liberal Christians there is clearly a purposeful misunderstanding, for only the most radically liberal Muslims reciprocate in kind in regards to a universalist soteriology. Rather, a more proper analogy to how Muslims view other People of the Book is how some Christians view Judaism: a true revelation which has been superseded (it can be argued that the Christian perspective is somewhat more respectful, insofar as many Muslims argue that non-Muslim revelations have been distorted). When I emphasize some, I must add that before the past few generations all Christians viewed Judaism as an imperfect prologue to their own religion, which was the more perfect fulfillment of divine revelation.

Conversely, there are a set of American anti-Muslim thinkers whose opposition to Islam, and overall hostility toward the religion and culture, clouds their own clear thinking and perception. Some of this misunderstanding is due to the fact that some of these thinkers believe that Islam is a genuinely demonic religion. There can’t be much reasoning with this element. But many are not so superstitious in orientation. Rather, they reduce Islam into a coarse caricature of the natural cultural phenomenon that it is. They invert the purposeful misunderstanding of some liberal Christians, who transform Islam into an exotic species of their own conception of spirituality, by transforming Islam into a qualitatively different expression of religiosity from Christianity. They may or may not be correct in supposing that Islam is a qualitatively different species, but that is a different proposition from taking that position as an axiom from which one can confidently deduce. If the axiom is not correct, then all deductions are for naught.

All this is a preamble to some cursory discussion of a piece which has emerged in The Wall Street Journal, Turkey’s Shiites Fear Contagion. The title itself may surprise some. Is not Turkey a Sunni nation? The CIA Factbook cryptically notes that Turkey is 99% Muslim, “mostly Sunni.” That qualification is due to the fact that 10-20 percent (depending on which source you trust) of the population of Turkey, inclusive of ethnic Turks and Kurds, are Alevis. Notionally a Shia sect, like the Alawites of Syria, the true religious beliefs of the Alevis are a matter of some dispute. This state of affairs is itself a product of centuries of persecution at the hands of Sunni hegemony; Alevis, like most heterodox Muslim sects, practiced dissimulation to survive the oppression which they were subject to. Like religious minorities in the West the Alevis has been aligned with Left and secular forces in modern Turkey. In Europe many of the Leftists and assimilationists within the Turkish communities are Alevis, and so are perceived to “not count” in the eyes of the Turkish Diaspora majority. The Alevis may be exotic, but like their Alawite cousins they seem to have gravitated toward a secular nationalism as the best safeguard of their communal rights against a suspicious religious majority.

As the names suggest Alevis and Alawites likely share a common genealogical origin out of a synthesis of late antique paganism, gnosticism, Christianity, and Shia Islam. Their current identity as Shia Muslims is a matter of necessity in terms of survival and social acceptance in the Middle East today. It does not necessarily capture the totality of their religious system, and therefore does not get at at the root as to the source of the antipathy toward them from orthodox Sunnis.

Theology and history aside the crux of the matter today is that there is a perception that the Alevi and Alawite together form the western wedge of the “Shia Crescent”. With Arab nationalism on the wane and majoritarianism ascendant sectarian alignments are now coming to the fore. The Wall Street article notes multiple instances where it does seem that the Shia minority of Turkey is less hostile to the Assad regime than the Sunnis of Turkey. Here is the section which jumped out at me:

Last month, sectarian barbs appeared to infect Turkey’s domestic debate on Syria. In a speech,Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Sunni, accused the leader of the country’s opposition, an Alevi, of being in sympathy with Syria’s president. “Don’t forget that a person’s religion is the religion of his friend,” the prime minister said of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, who like many of his sect, is a member of Turkey’s secular Republican People’s party.

Erdogan and his Islamist movement have made claims at being moderates. And Turkey is a very moderate country when it comes to religion in comparison to its Arab neighbors. But the comment above is a pointer to the real state of affairs in terms of how different Turkey still remains from Western nations. Can one imagine Angela Merkel, a German Protestant, badgering a Roman Catholic political opponent of their possible connection with Catholic Austria? As a matter of fact the loyalty of staunchly Catholic Bavarian units under Prussian Protestant officers in the Franco-Prussian war against a notionally Catholic France reiterated how far in the past religious concerns had faded when set against the nation-state even in the 1800s. The proportion of Sunnis in Turkey today is considerably higher than the proportion of Protestants in the newly unified Germany of the 1870s. This means that Erdogan could have forgone cheap and emotionally satisfying appeals to sectarianism in favor of presenting at a minimum a facade of national cohesion. After all, the Sunni character of Turkish society can not be in doubt, and there is no threat of an Alevi take over.

Turkey and the leadership class of Turkey are obviously “not quite there,” where ever “there” is. Of course it would be ridiculous to assert that 21st century Turkey is like a 19th century European nation-state, only a few decades from its early 20th century ripening and maturation. It is not. Conditions are radically different. The early 20th century and its lesson have passed us by. But we can in small areas make useful analogies. Kemal Ataturk attempted to transform the Turkic core of the Ottoman Empire into the nation-state of Turkey. Though he did not succeed in totality (e.g., the Neo-Ottoman nostalgia), it did establish some basis upon which to move forward. The Islamist faction may be dominant in modern Turkey (in contrast, self-consciously Christian American culture is a minority amongst a majority which is outwardly secularized despite dominant Christian affiliation), but it does not swallow up the whole society for all practical purposes as it does in most Middle Eastern nations.

And that is where we must end. Instead of simple and easy to digest answer, Turkey is European, or Turkey is Islamic, we need accept each particular detail and construct the whole from those, rather than imposing a structure from on high driven by our hypothesis. Hypothesis-driven science is powerful, but data-exploration is also necessary. In the realm of human affairs the latter yields much more than the former in many cases, in particular in areas where our knowledge is thin.

• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Islam, Religion, Turkey 
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I have seen references to this around the web, and don’t really know if I can believe this, because the details are so disturbing to consider. So I’ll pass it on, You can expect threats if you discuss Sharia:

My One Law for All Co-Spokesperson Anne Marie Waters was to speak at a meeting on Sharia Law and Human Rights at the University of London last night.

It was cancelled by the Queen Mary Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society organisers after police had to be called in due to Islamist threats. One Islamist filmed everyone at the meeting and announced he would hunt down those who said anything negative about Islam’s prophet. Outside the hall, he threatened to kill anyone who defamed the prophet. Reference was made to the Jesus and Mo cartoon saga at UCL.

The University’s security guard – a real gem –arrived first only to blame the speaker and organisers rather than those issuing death threats. He said: ‘If you will have these discussions, what do you expect?’ Err, to speak without being threatened with death maybe?

A crazy British Muslim threatening to kill someone for defaming the prophet isn’t too surprising. ~3 percent of British Muslim university students think apostates should be killed. What is disturbing is that the establishment institutions are accepting this sort of disproportionate response as normal behavior. As in centuries past it is now the atheists who are by their nature offensive, and disturbing public order.

In the Netherlands the Dutch Muslim Party is going to contest for parliament. It already has some purchase in major cities with large Muslim minorities. Naturally one of its planks is to prosecute those who give offense to religion and religious people. Just jump to article 2.2. Welcome to multiculturalism!

In other news, an atheist has been charged with blasphemy in the world’s largest Muslim nation, where Islam is a moderate religion of peace. Dismay After Indonesian Atheist Charged With Blasphemy:

Police on Friday confirmed that they had charged a man with blasphemy after he was reported by the Indonesia Council of Ulema.

Dharmasraya Police Chief Sr. Comr. Chairul Aziz told the Jakarta Globe on Friday that the district branch of the council, known as MUI, and other Islamic organizations believed Alexander, 31, had defiled Islam by using passages from the Koran to denounce the existence of God.

Alexander, a civil servant, is facing five years in jail for writing “God does not exist” on a Facebook page he moderated called “Ateis Minang” (“Minang Atheists”).

Chairul said the issue was that Alexander had used the Koran to highlight his atheist views.

“So it meets the criteria of tainting religion, in this case Islam.”

Blasphemy, which carries a five-year sentence, is defined under the Criminal Code as publicly expressing feelings or doing something that spreads hatred, abuse or taints certain religions in Indonesia in a way that could cause someone to disbelieve religion.”

A member of a 600-strong atheist organization in Jakarta, meanwhile, said the case was a clear breach of human rights.

He would not be identified because of fears for his safety.

“If MUI thinks that there’s an imaginary friend up there, it doesn’t mean people should believe it,” he said. “Why is it that we cannot criticize religion? This is against freedom of expression and human rights.”

He was, naturally, attacked by a mob on his way to work.

Finally, 72 percent of the seats in Egypt’s parliament went to Islamists. The Salafists nabbed 25 percent. This is absolutely not surprising to me.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Islam, Religion 
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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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Since 9/11, and even earlier back to the Iranian Revolution, Western journalists have served as oracles for the mass public, decrypting the ethnographic confusions of the Islamic world. There are many subtle shadings which no doubt can’t make into finite copy. But I get really exasperated when extremely basic factual misinformation makes it into the pages of The New York Times. I know, I shouldn’t, but it is the “paper of record.” It is made all the worse when the piece is an analysis which attempts to do more than report the straight facts, but rather place events in a broader context. A Libyan Fight for Democracy, or a Civil War?:

Even one religious leader associated with Sufism — a traditionally pacifist sect something like the Islamic equivalent of the Quakers — lamented his own tribe’s lack of guns for the fight.

Exactly what Sufi Islam is is a matter for doctoral theses. But I can assert with 100% surety that one could agree that in terms of how Sufi Islam is practiced in the real world it does not resemble a “pacifist sect” like the Quakers at all (there are similarities in terms of language used to describe Quaker and Sufi religious experience, but that sort of mysticism is very general, and not specific to just these two traditions). This is blatant misinformation, the kind of stuff you might hear in Sedona, but could be debunked with a very superficial understanding of the history of the Muslim world.

For example, the Safavid dynasty of Persia, which made Shia Islam synonymous with the Iranian nation in the 16th century, began as a militant Sufi order. King Idris of Libya was head of a an Islamic order which has been characterized as Sufi and engaged in violent rebellion against Italian colonialism. And here’s an article which explicitly addresses the question of Sufi Islam’s purported pacifism:

Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed killer of Salmaan Taseer, is said to be associated with the Dawat-e-Islami, a non-violent, non-political, Sufi-inspired group of the Barelvi school of thought. The Barelvis are mainly pacifists, having little or no militant tendencies, while most jihadists and militant groups, with few exceptions, believe in a more puritanical version of Islam where veneration of Sufi saints and rituals and devotional music and dances at their shrines, are considered apostasy.

In 1240, Baba Ilyas-i-Khorasani and Baba Ishaq, two popular Sufi sheikhs, mobilised nomadic Turkmen against the Seljuk rule in what is modern-day Turkey, demanding a revival of ‘pure’ Islam. And in the 15th and 16th centuries, several Sufi masters led armed uprisings in the Ottoman Empire against the ‘lax’ official Islam.

In modern times, most rebellions, led by Sufi masters, were targeted against the British, French and Italian colonialists. The Sanusiyya — a Sufi order widespread in Libya, Egypt, Sudan and the Sahara — fought against the Italian colonialists. And the Muridiyya order, founded by Amadu Baba, fought the French in Senegal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sufis from Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya orders fought jihad against ‘godless’ Russian tsars and the Soviets.

In the region now called Pakistan, Sufis, dervishes and mullahs pioneered several millenarian and revivalist movements directed against British colonialists. Mirza Ali Khan, better known as the ‘Faqir from Ipi,’ a hermit from the Waziristan region, led his disciples in a successful rebellion against the British. And the Hur movement of the late 19th century in Sindh was also mobilised by a saintly figure, Sibghtullah Shah Badshah.

Religious orders which have a militant side are pretty common across history, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. The Buddhist warrior monks of Japan and the Christian military orders are examples outside of Islam. Since 9/11 there has been a quest in the Western media to break Islam apart into “good” and “bad” dichotomies. So, Sufism = good. Salafism = bad. “Moderate Muslims” = good. “Fundamentalist Muslims” = bad. The necessity of this for the reading audience is obvious, but the reality is all too often all that occurs is that terms get invented, distorted, and reality bent out of shape to fit a particular narrative.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Islam, Religion 
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I’ve been rather busy this week, so few posts. But, I did a with Milford Wolpoff. We talk Out of Africa, Multiregionalism, and such. Second, The New York Times profiled Secular Right, where I’m a contributor. The quotes were accurate, though I do find it amusing that the reporter refers to me as an apostate, but not John Derbyshire (who until ~5 years ago was a confessing Christian). I suspect that in this day and age the term “apostate” only has strong valence in relation to Islam. For the record, several ex-Muslims have disputed my apostasy, since I barely ever believed in the Islamic religion.

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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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abayaRecently I was having a twitter conversation with Kevin Zelnio and Eric Michael Johnson about the fact that I define myself as “right-wing.” Kevin kind of implied that I was poseur in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. I don’t wear my political beliefs on my sleeve too much in this space because 1) I find talking about politics kind of boring (though data analysis less so) 2) My own views are somewhat idiosyncratic, as I am socially liberal on many “hot button” issues 3) Science is more interesting than politics, and we can have a real conversation about it. If I started offering my stupid uninformed opinions on politics I’d have to open up the floor to my liberal readers to offer their stupid uninformed opinions on politics. There’s a lot of that on the web, so I don’t see where that’s in anyone’s interest.

But I am sincere. I don’t consider myself liberal, and that has to do with particular socially conservative tendencies which I have. Robin Hanson might call me a “farmer,” and I’m also accurately described as having a bourgeois sensibility. More concretely I have little sympathy with liberal diversity talk, and oppose multiculturalism. I’m not a neoconservative or liberal internationalist who believers in eternal war and imperialism to homogenize the values of all humans, but, I do believe in nation-states with distinctive cultural values which unify them.

The nation-states of the West have Western values, which are a contingent product of their particular histories. I believe in the perpetuation of those values. The geometric aspect of Florence’s Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore make it a relatively conceivable mosque at some point in the future, but I don’t want the Duomo of Florence to become a mosque. It’s an aesthetic preference, and culturally biased, but I’m at peace with this. It is a fundamentally illiberal attitude, and I am not particularly shy about it, even with family members who are nominally affiliated with “Team Islam.” It isn’t as if Islamic architecture is under threat, there are 57 nations which are members of an organization of states affiliated with that religion.

Since I’m not a neocon I obviously don’t have much truck with the “War on Terror,” and am moderately skeptical of our close relations with Israel (and honestly, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as well). But, I also do not share the reflexive defense which Western Left-liberals exhibit toward the large Muslim minorities which now reside in Europe. Consider the real evidence of discrimination against Muslims which Ed Yong reported a few weeks back. I grant the reality of this, but one of the dimensions that is important to note is that blacks who are not Muslim are viewed more favorably. I believe that Islam-critics, from the unhinged neocon Right to the ultra-secularist New Atheist fringe are correct in many of their critiques of the nature of the Muslim subcultures of the West, and the barbarism of Islamic culture more generally. The word “barbaric” makes many people wince, and it’s not really acceptable in “polite” company (the company which I generally keep), but I don’t have a good word handy. I don’t believe that we should invade Saudi Arabia so that women can drive and not need to wear the abaya. I find it barbaric, and personally objectionable, but it does not rise to the level of something like slavery or genocide.

Among many liberals these sorts of assertions are ludicrous on their face. You can’t generalize about a whole religion like that. I think this is hypocrisy, as American Left-liberals regularly generalize about white Protestants (or quasi-Protestants, like Mormons). Not only that, they express snobbish disdain for the genuine kernels of truth which lay the seed for the paranoia on the xenophobic Right. Reality is complex, but when there are truths to be faced which are not congenial to the narrative of White Male Oppressor, the truth becomes very simple and stark.

Generalizations which shed a negative light on White European civilization are acceptable (if debatable) in polite Left-liberal society. For example, it is common to assert that Western civilization in the years before 1000 A.D. was barbarous, boorish, and primitive. This is a fashionable assertion as an inversion of the narrative of superiority which once reigned supreme. Of course, it ignores the real exceptions such as the Carolingian Renaissance, or Ireland before the Vikings. It invariably pretends as if the Byzantines did not exist.

But let’s look at the views of Muslims in Western Europe toward homosexuals:

As you can see, Western European Muslims are much more conservative than the general population. Or, more accurately they’re much more reactionary and culturally alien. The reality is that the status quo in Western Europe is toward acceptance of homosexuality without the sort of debates we have in the United States. Interestingly you can’t even calculate a real ratio for British Muslims to the general public, not one British Muslim surveyed would admit to homosexuality being morally acceptable. When it comes to white European attitudes toward Muslims some of it clearly boils down toward racism, but the fact is that most Turks are no more colored than many Southern Europeans, and Britain’s Punjabi Sikh population of working class origin is the source of less tension than Britain’s Punjabi Pakistani Muslim population. There are complex feedback loops at work. Muslim immigrants bring a lot of geopolitical baggage because of the nature of the Muslim world. But, we can’t pretend as if the Islamic world also doesn’t have its own particular suite of values which makes it distinctive.

European Muslims are generally much more liberal, all things equal, than the majority of the world’s Muslims. Consider what’s happening in Pakistan right now, Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi ‘has price on her head’:

Though he is guilty of nothing, this Pakistani labourer is on the run – with his five children.

His wife, Asia Bibi, has been sentenced to death for blaspheming against Islam. That is enough to make the entire family a target.

They stay hidden by day, so we met them after dark.

Mr Masih told us they move constantly, trying to stay one step ahead of the anonymous callers who have been menacing them.

“I ask who they are, but they refuse to tell me,” he said.

In the village they tried to put a noose around my neck, so that they could kill me”

“They say ‘we’ll deal with you if we get our hands on you’. Now everyone knows about us, so I am hiding my kids here and there. I don’t allow them to go out. Anyone can harm them,” he added.

Ashiq Masih says his daughters still cry for their mother and ask if she will be home in time for Christmas.

He insists that Asia Bibi is innocent and will be freed, but he worries about what will happen next.

“When she comes out, how she can live safely?” he asks.

“No one will let her live. The mullahs are saying they will kill her when she comes out.”

Asia Bibi, an illiterate farm worker from rural Punjab, is the first woman sentenced to hang under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.

The background to this is one of class and caste. Pakistan’s Christians tend to be lower caste converts who are economically subservient to Muslim landowners, and held in contempt by Muslims of similar socioeconomic station because naturally they’re the lowest of the low, being poor and non-Muslim. Accusations of blasphemy generally seem to bubble up out of interpersonal disputes, and are used as leverage by the accusatory party. Christians are not the only target of persecution. The Sunni majority and Shia minority have been engaging in a low-grade civil war for a while now. Sikhs in some parts of Pakistan are given the choice between forced conversion and expulsion. Basically, pogroms. A dead young Hindu had his coffin labelled ‘kafir’.

Not all Muslim nations are Pakistan. It is in some ways an extreme case, but, it is also not inconsequential. ~10% of the world’s Muslim lives in Pakistan, and the Pakistani British community is large and robust. Earlier in the decade I had some expectations that Western Muslims in the Diaspora could shape the culture of Muslim majority nation-states, but the West has little cultural credibility in the first place, and if there’s influence I’d suspect it goes the other way now.

ladenHow about Muslim nations like Indonesia? It has a robust moderate majority, and Muslims can, and do, convert to other religions in Indonesia. Most Indonesian Muslims do not have recognizable Arab or Turco-Persian names. But a new report Pew Global Attitude Project really shocked me. True, the majority of Indonesians do not have a favorable view of Osama bin Laden, but 23% do! This is a glass 3/4 full, 1/4 empty, case I suppose. But 1/4 empty is way too empty for my taste.

But I am aware and admit that American imperialism and our reflexive support for Israel leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many Muslims. So being in “favor” of bin Laden may be like asserting that Barack Obama is Muslim, more an expression of identity, suspicion, or solidarity, than a well thought out attitude. On a positive note, the direction of opinions about bin Laden seem heartening from an American perspective:

islam7But there are some more negative notes. The vast majority of Muslims in various populous nations believe that their religion’s involvement in politics is a positive development. To some extent the separation between religion and culture and politics is artificial. But, there are differences of degree. The Anglican Church is the established religion of England, but it clearly has a less powerful impact on the choices of individuals in England than Sunni Islam does in Egypt. Despite recent religious conflicts it is notable that Indonesia does have a relatively dominant moderate-to-liberal Muslim tradition among the core Javanese ethnicity (though not among some ethic groups on the nation’s periphery), so perhaps these Muslims do not have theocratic ambitions. But Egypt, Nigeria, and Pakistan, have all been riven by the politicization of religion. And yet the public still supports the positive role of Islam in politics. Interestingly Lebanon and Turkey have large minorities who dissent, though clearly for different historical reasons.

mus8When we go into the real heart of the barbaric craziness we start to see some relieving variance. Pakistan’s Muslims reinforce the perception that that nation has become an expression of something out of a neconservative’s fever dream. To be clear, here’s the question: do people favor or oppose making segregation of men and women in the workplace the law. This isn’t voluntary, or company by-company. These are people who support enforcement of segregation between the sexes in the workplace through state fiat. And thank God we have Turkey and Lebanon! Only 10% support gender segregation by law there. Interestingly Indonesia isn’t that illiberal on this issue either. I think this supports my contention that their perception that Islam has a positive role in politics and the minority support for bin Laden both reflect something different than the same opinions in Pakistan would.

Now let’s explore the stereotype that Muslims are bloodthirsty when it comes to punishment, to the point that they’d make a Texan white with shock:


Thank God for Turkey and Lebanon! Again, one should be careful about taking some of these statistics too literally. 30 percent of Indonesians accept the death penalty for apostasy, but these are likely in overwhelmingly conservative Muslim groups like the Achenese. In Java since the 1960s hundreds of thousands of nominal Muslims have freely converted to Christianity and Balinese Hinduism. To me the difference between Jordan and Lebanon is particularly striking, as these are two Levantine Arab nations (the surveys by the way were asked of Muslims only). Before we conclude Turkey is a paragon of liberalism, do recall that Christian clerics are still being murdered by vigilantes even in that nation, so objectionable do some Muslims find their activity in a society which has very few non-Muslim minorities.

And predictably, Diasporic communities are considerably more liberal. Only 36 percent of British Muslims age 16-24 believe that apostates should be killed! So the crazy that is Pakistan can be nicely moderated with some civilized influence.

I want to contribute data myself. So I looked in the WVS. There’s a question which asks if religion is important. Very. Some. Not so much. Not at all. And then a question which asks if an atheist politician is fit for office. Again, four rankings. I recoded them as 3, 2, 1, and 0, and weighted by percentage. Below is the scatterplot I generated.


The correspondence is pretty close. 75% of the variance in Y can be explained by X, though I wouldn’t take it too seriously, as I recoded a categorical variable. But I’m more interested in the trends, and deviations from the trend. Note that the Polish and Mexicans are 1) more religious than Ukrainians and Serbians, 2) more tolerant of atheist politicians. In Poland you had Aleksander Kwaśniewski, who was president and an atheist from 1995 on. In Mexico you have a long tradition of anti-clericalism going back to the 19th century, and being enacted as the national norm by the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century (at one point priests were disenfranchised). That norm is only relaxing on the past few decades, with the rise to power of the Center-Right National Action Party.

Many of the ex-Communist nations, such as Romania and Serbia, seem to have started to exhibit a lot of religious-nationalism. In contrast, the Czech Republic has not. It goes to show that the pre-existent culture persisted through the Communist generations, and resurfaced. Though to be fair it does not seem that concrete religious customs and traditions necessarily were maintained with great rigor. Rather, the idea that to be an ethnic Romanian was to be an Orthodox Christian, and to be Serbian was to be an Orthodox Christian, immediately took hold after the collapse of atheistic Communism.

Going back to my discussion with Kevin and Eric, I reject multiculturalism and diversity-talk. In a positive sense I embrace Eurocentrism. I do not have an internationalist utopian Leftist vision whereby I believe my values should be enforced in all places at all times. There are minimal levels of human rights which I believe are necessary in the international order. Slavery should be unacceptable to the international community. But there are a wide range of practices which I find abhorrent, distasteful, and shocking, which are organic features of many societies and cultures. To be fair, many non-Westerners view Westerners in the same manner. More trivially, Americans may view the French as bizarre dirty perverts, while French may perceive Americans to be fat self-aggrandizing cowboys. There are grains of truth in these stereotypes.

Generalizations about cultures can be useful. For example, it seems likely that Britain will continue to have many more problems with their Muslim population than any other European nation. This is because nearly half of British Muslims are Pakistani, while the substantial number of the remainder are Bangladeshi, and so culturally similar if not as extreme. This is simply amongst the least assimilable segment of Muslims to liberal Western values. In contrast French Muslims are disproportionately from Algeria, which is amongst the more secular of Muslim nations (and France is historically more aggressive about integration than Britain). Sweden has a much larger Muslim population than Norway, but Norway has a larger contingent of Pakistanis. Swedish Iranians for example, who often fled from the Shah, tend to be very secular.

In polite society such generalizations can not be mooted. You have to leave it to neoconservatives and right-wingers. Right-wingers like me! I do not want to live in a society with too many Muslims. I was born in a Muslim nation, and am happy I am a citizen of a Western nation. As someone who was technically born a Muslim and am a rather transparent in my atheism I am moderately concerned about the crazy adherence to barbaric apostasy laws within Islam, which even Harvard Muslim chaplains may not necessarily repudiate.

Here’s Robert Wright, a conventional liberal, Islamophobia and Homophobia:

So could bridging work with Islamophobia? Could getting to know Muslims have the healing effect that knowing gay people has had?

The good news is that bridging does seem to work across religious divides. Putnam and Campbell did surveys with the same pool of people over consecutive years and found, for example, that gaining evangelical friends leads to a warmer assessment of evangelicals (by seven degrees on a “feeling thermometer” per friend gained, if you must know).

And what about Muslims? Did Christians warm to Islam as they got to know Muslims — and did Muslims return the favor?

That’s the bad news. The population of Muslims is so small, and so concentrated in distinct regions, that there weren’t enough such encounters to yield statistically significant data. And, as Putnam and Campbell note, this is a recipe for prejudice. Being a small and geographically concentrated group makes it hard for many people to know you, so not much bridging naturally happens. That would explain why Buddhists and Mormons, along with Muslims, get low feeling-thermometer ratings in America.

So could getting to know more Muslims heal your negative attitudes toward them? Well, it depends on the kind of Muslim. Some Muslims are normal people who happen to believe a few different supernatural tenets, abstain from beer, etc. Other Muslims are different from you and I. They’re embedded in a different culture with radically different values and outlooks. The data on the number of Muslims and attitudes toward them are mixed. Some European nations with many Muslims (Germany) are much more negative than the United States, while some with fewer than the United States (Poland) are more negative as well. Britain is around the same negativity, but has proportionally a much larger Muslim community. France, with a Muslim community that is both the largest, and arguably the most integrated, in all of Europe, is somewhere between Germany and Britain.

Also, gayness is a relatively demarcated identity rooted in a fact of private behavior. Aside from better fashion sense gay men tend to share similar values to straight men. Many Muslims are conventional assimilated people, but others are not. The larger a Muslim community becomes I would argue the greater the possibility for involution and the emergence of a coherent and separate subculture.

I have hierarchies and personal values, and am not entirely open. With all the preceding I think it is clear that I do not esteem Islamic civilization as it has come to develop. There are aspects of East Asian civilization which I find to be alien and not worthy of emulation, but in general I am more positively disposed toward it. I generally put Hindu Indians between between Muslims and East Asians, primarily because one has to wonder about a society which could produce organized religiously motivated killings on such a grand scale in this day and age (Hindu apologists I’ve talked to argue that they learned this from the Muslims). Such judgments are not “objective” as such. They’re personal reflections of my values. They indicate a certain lack of openness.

There are other examples I could give. I am not a libertarian, but I am much more sympathetic to the role of prices and markets in efficiently allocating resources than a typical Left-liberal. My attitudes toward gender roles is relatively conservative (I support legal equality, but accept sex differences is real on a range of traits). I obviously have little sympathy for identity politics.

Of course my friend John Emerson might point out that I’m describing a particular social sort of Left-liberal. Not social democrats who might focus more on economic issues. But it does seem that in Europe social democratic and Left-liberal parties have the same stance on accommodation with other cultures that American Left-liberals do. Labor and Socialist parties draw upon the immigrant vote, while the right-wing parties defend the native culture.

So that’s that. Most of you already knew I’m no liberal. Those of you who are shocked should get over it. Back to science and other stuff…..

Image credit: Justin Hall

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Islam, Politics 
Razib Khan
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