The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information

 TeasersGene Expression Blog
Middle East

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Thanks, LOL, or Troll with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used three times during any eight hour period.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter
🔊 Listen RSS

51OZQR9XHsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Aeon Magazine has published a 11,000 word essay by Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution. Atran is one of my favorite thinkers, and his book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, is one of the more influential in shaping my understanding of cultural phenomena (warning, the prose is dense, but worth it!). Over the last ten years Atran has focused on the phenomenon of radical Islamic terrorism, using his anthropological and evolutionary scholarly toolkits to decompose the problem. More recently he’s been doing “field work” on the front-lines of the battle against ISIS in Iraq. Literally the front lines!

The piece in Aeon is a necessary corrective to two vulgar and populist reactions to the rise of radical groups like ISIS. First, there is the materialist viewpoint, which holds that a lack of economic opportunities is the dominant causal factor driving the violence. The first order issue to address is the reality that many regions of the world (e.g., non-Muslim Sub-Saharan Africa) have larger portions of the population which are underemployed or unemployed than the Islamic world, and yet do they not serve as sources of violent politically or religiously motivated terrorism. In fact, the best ethnographic work indicates that a disproportionate number of the young men involved in violent religious and political terrorism are not from the bottom of society, but closer to the top. In particular those striving and moving up the socioeconomic ladder in cultures undergoing modernization. The rural peasantry and the established upper classes are relatively immune to radicalization, but those whose roots are in the country but attempting to situate themselves in the middle class or higher are subject to more social dislocation, despite lack of material want. Most of the 9/11 bombers were Saudi, a nation which has a cradle-to-grave system of benefits for citizens, and which has been shielded and enriched by an alliance with the United States. Certainly marginalization, social and economic, are necessary conditions for recruiting from the Islamic Diaspora in Europe, but even here they are not sufficient conditions. The Roma are more socially and economically deprived than Europe’s Muslims, but do not engage in organized terrorism of any sort.

A second extreme position is that Islamic terrorism is a natural necessary consequence of the character of the Koran. The problem with this viewpoint is that though most of those who participate in Islamic terrorism may identify as Muslims, on closer inspection they often lack even the patina of fluency in their own religion. This may be especially true of those who grew up in secular Diaspora environments, but the vast majority of the world’s Muslims have little to no familiarity with the details of the Koran or the Hadith (the latter of which is in any case more relevant for day to day practice). There’s a reason that they make recourse to the ulema as a de facto clerical caste. Additionally, Islamic terrorism in the Middle East is to a great extent the heir of radical nationalist terrorists of the 1970s, many of whom were Marxist, or were from Christian Arab backgrounds (in particular the PFLP). Even suicide bombing, a major calling card of Islamic terrorists today, was pioneered by the Left nationalist Tamil Tigers. But just as economic and social marginalization fuel disaffection among Europe’s Muslims, many elements of Islamic religious theory and practice are easily co-opted into justifying violent movements. Islam after all is a pacific religion historically only after it has dominion. Even if one rejects the proposition that Islam is the reason for violent terrorism by Muslims, one does not therefore accept that it is no part of the overall dynamic.

Finally, there is also the idea that Islamic terrorism is nihilistic. Certainly it can seem nihilistic…from our perspective. That is why it is essential to look at things from the perspective of others, and also periodically engage in Epoché and detach from individual subjectivity. Many conservative Muslims decry the Western lifestyle as without meaning, soulless and empty. Though there is some truth to this, most of us who live the Western lifestyle know that there is a fair amount of meaning, dignity, and value in our quotidian days. Some conservative Muslims who arrive in the West are surprised to observe that the sight of women walking about in shorts does not induce an orgy of mass rape. But that is because they simply do not consider any viewpoint not conditioned on their own prior assumptions. Similarly, we in the West need to consider the viewpoints of our antagonists, without it implying in any way that we accept the positions of our antagonists as necessarily meritorious.

51SrA4DFsEL Two works from the mid-2000s give us a window into Islamic terrorism as it was then, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism by Robert Pape, and Understanding Terror Networks by Marc Sageman. Pape utilized standard social science methods (e.g., regression) to show there was strong relationship between suicide bombing in the service of political ends in contexts where foreign powers with an asymmetrical advantage had historically intervened. In other words, Pape’s work suggests that rational choice frameworks are useful even for acts as individually irrational as suicide bombings. Second, Sagemen’s survey of the ethnography of the violent Salafi international punctures the perceptions of those who might suggest that global capitalism will ultimately abolish political violence in a bath of chemically flavored french fries. Many of the recruits in Salafi terror networks are from well off families like Osama bin Laden. 51QHx-ZmCHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ (1) Or, they are well educated like Ayman al-Zawahiri. There is the recurring thread of the over-representation of applied STEM backgrounds, in particular engineers. And, converts and those from relatively globalist/cosmopolitan backgrounds are also over-represented in terms of orders of magnitude in comparison to the worldwide Islamic population. In other words, it is those most familiar with the fruits of global capitalism who have turned away from its allure.

Atran’s research, like Sageman’s, has focused on detailed statistical ethnographies of those who are recruited into Islamic terrorism. What it shows that peer networks are essential to explaining how become recruited in these activities, and in particular kinship ties, both fictive and real. Humans are social creatures, and much of our cognition operates through a social sieve. Our beliefs and preferences are strongly shaped by a tendency to conform to our “in-group.” This is so strong that even if it is clearly irrational humans may still engage in behaviors to maintain conformity to group norms. The Xhosa cattle killing is a clear example of this principle of adherence to majority norms despite grave consequences, but so was the continued adherence of most Germans to the Nazi regime after defeat became inevitable, or Chinese enactment of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, which probably retarded the rise of that nation to prominence for a generation.

k10543Group solidarity around a compelling meta-narrative is the important “big picture” element of Islamic terrorism which is critical toward understanding its motivations, and which can be missed by descriptive ethnographies or econometric analyses. Palestinian nationalist terrorism of the 1970s, or Tamil Tiger suicide bombing of the 1980s, were fundamentally derivative or subordinate to a broader family of ideologies, post-colonial nationalism with a Leftist inflection (ETA and the IRA also fall into this category, even if situated in the West). In contrast, Islamic terrorism has the potential to become superordinate, and swallow up individual movements and grievances into a meta-narrative. E.g., the core actors in ISIS to this day seem to be a shadow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist officers. It is neat to presume these individuals are using Islamic ideology in an instrumental sense, as Saddam himself clearly did. But the Islamic meta-narrative is powerful, and has historical precedent. It is plausible that though the trigger for the precipitation of an Islamic movement in Iraq was the defenestration of the officer core of a notionally secular national regime, the ultimate crystallization and end state of the movement may be toward a sincere and genuine Islamic nationalism. One might make the analogy here to what has occurred in Pakistan. The founder of the state, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a religiously non-observant Shia Muslim (who had Hindus in his recent ancestry, and whose family was of the marginal Ismaili sect) who seems to have envisaged a secular state, albeit demographically dominated by Muslims. Today Pakistan is riven by Shia-Sunni sectarian conflicts, and adheres to a strong Islamic self-identification. Jinnah’s proximate motives in creating Pakistan could be understood in light of the nationalist sentiments of India’s Muslim ruling class, and their dispossession in the 19th century, and impending marginalization in a united India. But ultimately he set in motion a series of events which would hinge Pakistan to a de facto Sunni Islamic international, and allow it to be an incubator for violent religious radicalism which it can barely control. Pakistan was swallowed by a broader evolving meta-narrative.

518rHTN9d-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ What Atran highlights in his piece is that young men across the Islamic world are being inspired by a powerful ideal which transcends the material. That is, they are not being driven by dreams of material wealth and affluence. Nor are they driven by simple hatred of the West, or unthinking nihilism. As Shadi Hamid has noted it is an act of political cant to assert that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam. For the broad masses this sort of assertion will suffice. I recall, for example, a conversation with a friend of mine in 2002 who was a gay man who repeated to me the standard narrative that Islam is actually a religion of peace. As a straight male with a “Muslim name” I could probably get some peace out of Islam, but as it is constructed today in majority terms it is rather strange for a gay man to assert this, as there is little tolerance for gay orientation in the Muslim world (though that is changing). But this is human social conformity and social cognition kicking in again. For people interested in reality one has to move beyond the artifice of social cognition, and dig deeper. Islam is a meta-narrative which arose as a cultural adaptation 1,500 years ago. First it bound factious Arab tribes together. Second, it bound Arabs and non-Arabs together in a common meta-ethnic identity, and allowed for a period of Islamic cultural hegemony at the center of Eurasia.

communismstory1_1413028f The reality is that we’ve seen this before, and relatively recently. Atran, and others, have made the analogy between anarchism around 1900 and Islamic terrorism today. To outsiders both movements were frightening and nihilistic, but in hindsight anarchist violence arose as a side effect of the transition toward a liberal democratic order. Atran critically observes that the wave of anarchist violence abated when Marxist-Leninism emerged to capture a nation-empire, that of Russia. International communism in its Soviet dominated period proactively smothered anarchism (e.g., during the Spanish Civil War), and perhaps more importantly deprived it of oxygen, as idealistic youths who would have been attracted to anarchist terrorism as outlets for their rebellious energies were co-opted by the dream of a universal Communist commonwealth of states. And so with the transition from the age of al Qaeda to the age of ISIS.

At this point then we may have to stop talking about “Islamic terrorism,” and refer to the Islamic international, if the analogy with anarchism and communism hold. Atran also points to the example of the French Revolution, which began the process of organized political terror in the name of an ideal, and ultimately gave rise in a genealogical sense to most modern political movements which persisted into the 20th century (fascism being the arguable exception, though it was in many ways a reaction to the ideologies spawned by Revolution).



On the individual level what is appealing about the Islamic state is that it has a heroic narrative ready for those who wish to embrace it. From the perspective of most of the world, including the Muslim world, this is perverse, considering the barbarities committed by the Islamic State. But again, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that our enemies lack humanity; rather their assumptions are inverted and different. There are millions of Germans whose grandfathers were proud members of the SS, despite the fact that some of its killing units engaged in wholesale genocide, and specifically acts of murder against women and children. They thought they were heroes for their fatherland, doing dark deeds to forge a better world. Or as one SS commander stated boldly as he lifted up a child he was about to murder, “You must die so we may live.”

The liberal democratic “end of history” is not heroic or anti-heroic. It is banal, and heroism plays out only in the context of a job well done in the banality of existence and persistence. Being a good parent, friend, and a consummate professional. But not everyone is a parent, and not everyone has a rich network of friends, or a fulfilling profession. Ideologies like communism, and religious-political movements like Islamism, are egalitarian in offering up the possibilities of heroism for everyone by becoming part of a grand revolutionary story. Though John F. Kennedy’s administration has a glow and sheen today which would have been unfathomable to those who lived through it, his words about why America sought to go to the moon are remembered because they capture the essence of a heroic spirit. The reality of course is that we sought to go to the moon because America wanted to defeat the Soviet Union in the space race. But he asserted that the American nation sought to go to the moon because it was hard. And ultimately getting to the moon first brought America glory and renown. And that is what many young men crave, but few can attain in a stable liberal democratic consumer society.

51SKjCKQBrL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Islamic State has co-opted a meta-narrative which exists within Islamic history, and offers up a heroic vision to individuals who identify as Muslim across the world. Prior to its meteoric rise many people dismissed the Islamic State, or what was then simply al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, including president Barack Obama (and myself). After its conquest of Mosul there were many who asserted that the material structural parameters of the domains which the Islamic State ruled would make its period of rule ephemeral by necessity. In short, the Islamic State was poor and under-resourced. There was no way it could sustain itself more than six months.

Obviously those prognostications were wrong, and they were wrong because of an excessive fixation on material parameters of success or failure. In the generality Atran points out that there’s a fair amount of social science and historical scholarship which suggests that motivated minorities can capture and transform whole societies. The world religions are key examples. Most humans are conformist, so when faced with a powerful bloc which operates as a unit they often simply fall into line. This arguably occurred in Germany in the 1930s, in Russia in the 1920s, and in France in the 1790s. The transition to Protestantism in the Netherlands and England occurred despite initial apathy or resistance from the peasant majority (yet sometimes majorities remain steadfast; the Hohenzollerns did not transform their Lutheran domains to the Reformed faith, while later Saxon rulers who were Catholic were a minority in their own kingdom).

But, I am somewhat more sanguine than Atran about the impact of the Islamic State on the world in comparison to revolutionary France or Soviet Russia. He makes much of the fact that the French nation repelled massive invasions in the 1790s, and ultimately transformed the whole continent. But as documented in Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization the French victories probably had less to do with élan imparted to the armies of the Revolution than the reality that the new political arrangement in France allowed for total mobilization of the society. In short, the armies of the French were larger, though Napoleon’s genius did seem to allow for a initial strategic bonus. The final loss of Napoleon’s empire was due to the fact that other European powers began to follow France’s lead and mobilize their whole society toward war. Similarly, the Bolsheviks in 1917 captured a very powerful state, as did the Nazis in the 1930s. Modern conflict is by necessity an economic battle, and the weight of matériel will usually adjudicate as to who the ultimate victor will be. Atran notes that during World War II German soldiers were on a per individual basis more effective than the troops of the Soviets or the Western allies, but ultimately the military-industrial might of the United States and the sheer numbers of the Soviet forces overwhelmed the Nazi regime.

OIC_map The gross domestic product of the nations which constitute the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is about 7 trillion American dollars. The aggregate GDP of the European Union is 19 trillion dollars. The United States of America is 16 trillion dollars. China is 9 trillion dollars. In 1790 France was in the running for the number #1 economic power in Europe. In 1913 the Russian Empire was in the running for being the #1 economic power in Europe. Though France in 1790 was far more heterogeneous than it is today, and the Soviet Union was very heterogeneous, arguably they were far more cohesive polities than anything that one might congeal out of the OIC.

41murHaheEL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ In the Aeon essay Scott Atran argues that the millenarian forces which ISIS is harnessing are here to stay. I agree with him. There are structural demographic and sociological forces which make Islamic movements, of which ISIS is the most extreme manifestation, nearly inevitable for the next generation or so. But, there are also structural demographic and economic forces which suggest that it will not be as nearly an existential threat to the liberal democratic political order as the movements of the 20th century. The West, Russia, China, and India, are all not particularly congenial to a long term alliance with Islamic powers. Electric cars and the shale oil revolution both threaten a major point of leverage that the Islamic international in the form of Saudi Arabia have over the rest of the world. Of course some might wonder at the Islamic demographic bomb. If current trends hold by 2050 30% of the world’s population will be Muslim. And as I noted above motivated minorities can capture whole cultures. But 30% of the world’s population at that time will also be Christian, with a larger proportion in areas where religious zeal remains strong. And, the orientation of Chinese culture is such that conversion to Islam is often seen as tantamount to leaving one’s Han identity in totality (one particular issue is that pork is central to Chinese cuisine, but it is taboo for Muslims). As documented by Philip Jenkins in God’s Continent and Eric Kaufmann in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Europe’s Christian identified population should be far larger than its Muslim identified population as far as 2100, even in pessimistic analyses (Pew suggests that 10% of the European Union’s population will be Muslim in 2050).

That is the optimistic angle on what awaits us. It’s not going to be as bad as Soviet communism or German fascism. I lived through the specter of the former, and many people alive still remember the latter. But the likelihood is that the core Islamic world, from Morocco to Pakistan, will be riven with conflict and tumult, and that will draw in Diaspora populations, and those from the demographically important margins (e.g., Indonesia). This conflict will spread back out to non-Muslim nations with Muslim minorities. As Atran notes all one needs are a small motivated number of young men to allow for their to be critical mass for violence. Some level of violence directed toward majority non-Muslim populations in nations with large Muslim minorities may be inevitable. For non-Muslims the fact that the vast majority of Muslims decry violence, both due to sincerity and self-interest, will be somewhat besides the point, as the violent minority are going to take center stage in national concerns. In the Muslim world the violence will be orders of magnitude worse, just as the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century inflicted most of their terror upon the populations whom they ruled. In an almost Newtonian fashion I expect that non-Muslim societies under attack from Islamic international will exhibit a more self-conscious cultural identity than before in reaction.

Over the long run the flames will die down as a cycle of inter-cultural conflict abates. The future beyond 2050 is difficult to predict. Technology will have changed a great deal, and technology effects change on culture. What it means to be human will shift. Perhaps humanity will again focus on space travel, channeling some of its heroic energies outward, though this will always be a small demographic slice due to the constraints of physics. The vast majority might turn inward, and disappear in a vacuous virtual reality realm. Far better than projecting violence outward. But, I do think it points us to the reality that Islamic violence is a horrible answer to a real question. What should we do? And why should we do it?

• Category: Foreign Policy, Ideology • Tags: ISIS, Middle East 
🔊 Listen RSS

Abdullah Öcalan

The Middle East is complex. I tried to get at that with my post The Islamic State Is Right About Some Things. Of late I have noticed the peculiar tendency toward soft-tinted reportage of the PKK-affiliated YPG and the nature of life in Rojava. Typical of what you see in the American media is this piece, On the Road in Syria, Struggle All Around (here is a more gritty take, Fried Chicken and Skulls of ISIS Fighters in The Daily Beast). Scott Atran, author of one of my favorite books, was actually in northern Iraq in Kurdish areas last year during an offensive against ISIS, and he reported (on his Facebook) first-hand the gratitude that the Yezidis in refugee camps felt toward the YPG militias, who saved them at great risk to their own lives when the Iraqi peshmerga fled and left them for dead. It’s not just propaganda, the YPG does care about Kurds and minorities to further their goals. They have Asabiyyah. So does ISIS. So does Hezbollah. The Alawites with their backs against the wall supporting the Assad regime probably have it as a matter of survival at this point. Most of our “allies” on the ground in Syria and Iraq, not so much.

Today we are reading that the coordinated push to retake the road supplying Mosul that goes through Sinjar seems to be a success, at least for now. But even this glowing report can’t suppress the reality that there are tensions between the various Kurdish factions. This will likely cause issues in the future, but it is also important to look back to the past. The PKK is basically an extension of the ideas of the imprisoned Kurdish nationalist, Abdullah Öcalan. In the context of the Middle East Öcalan is a genuinely heterodox figure. He began as a Marxist-Leninist, and to this day remains an atheist. But today his movement seems to promote some sort of Left-wing anarchism. The PKK has a long history in Turkey, and has been labelled as a terrorist group, not without some reason, though one can admit these designations are to a great extent political acts.

Though the YPG units are clearly on the side of justice, it is important to remind ourselves that the point of comparison here is ISIS. Even conservative Arab villagers with no sympathy toward Kurdish nationalism and suspicious of the aggressive secularism and gender-egalitarianism of the YPG units and seem to be welcoming them as liberators. For now. There is a history of Left-wing anarchist Utopian movements, and it does not terminate in an “end of history”, where all is sugar plums and good-fairies.

The Obama administration is catching a lot of flack for its handling of the crisis in the Middle East. There are liberal internationalists offering their critiques, and of course the whole American conservative establishment is chronicling every misstep. Some Europeans are even trying to point the finger at the American lack of intervention in the Syria war as the reason for their refugee crisis. Many of these criticisms have some validity. But they always seem to presuppose that their alternative solutions would be like magic fairy dust, and render the whole morass soluble. The fact is that this may be one of those scenarios where the world is going to muddle on for years, and there is no obvious solution. Fifteen years ago the George W. Bush administration decided to take an “all-in” approach, and go big. How did that exactly work out? I for one am not happy with the American policy in the Middle East. But I’m also terrified about the negative consequences for our nation, and the world, of too aggressive a stance which overplays our hand and explodes in our faces.

As a practical matter the Kurds in Syria and Iraq are our allies. The government of Turkey will never abide by that. I support Kurdish self-determination, but the idea that the YPG will enact a regime of of non-sectarian anarchistic amity when it is ascendant is a total fantasy. There are no good choices, and there are no angels. We are united by the devil before us, ISIS. That is all that is clear to me.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Middle East 
🔊 Listen RSS

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

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

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

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

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

• Category: History • Tags: Middle East, Minorities 
🔊 Listen RSS

A little editorializing by me….

We need to be careful about overfitting, but one of the major problems with the American relationship to the Middle East is the superficial understanding of its ethnographic framework. For example, I noticed this weekend that there was media mention of an attack upon the Shabak of northern Iraq. CNN describes them as Muslim, 2/3 Shia and 1/3 Sunni. Reuters, which The New York Times republished, states they are mostly Shia. UPI says they are an offshoot of Shia Islam. The AP states that they are Shia Muslims who are ethnic Turkmen (Turkic speakers). Wikipedia says they are a Kurdish people who adhere to a syncretistic religion. The Reuters piece alludes to the suspicion that Sunni Islamic militants are suspected to be involved in this attack, and that they consider Shiites infidels. The framework here is the typical Sunni-Shia conflict…but as the reference to a syncretistic background indicates it is a little more complicated and much more clear at the same time. I have read enough about the history of the Middle East and its ethnography to immediately recall that the Shabak have a religiously ambiguous identity, and this complicated ambiguity explains rather easily why Sunni militants would target them. From Syncretistic Religious Communities in the Near East:

So little is known with certain about the Shabak’s religious beliefs that I will abstrain from a detailed description…The Shabak with whom I spoke were reluctant to talk about their religion, and claimed to be “just Muslims”…The Shabak maintain good relationships with the Yezidis, and make pilgrimages to Yezidi shrines….

An association with the Yezidi is a clue to the affinities of the Shabak. Broadly speak in the Post-Ottoman Middle East you have a religious landscape where Sunni Islam is the normative standard. Set against this you have some clear and distinct pre-Islamic religious groups who are bracketed unequivocally under the term “People of the Book,” Christians, Zoroastrians (yes, I know there is some debate about this middle group) and Jews. But these are not the only two classes. There is an enormous grab-bag of what I will term ‘heterodox’ groups who are not Sunni Muslim or one of the People of the Book. Some of these are straightforward in their taxonomy. Twelver Shia Islam, the dominant strain of Shiism, is clearly heterodox from the Sunni perspective, but also clearly Muslim (unless you are an extreme Salafi). The Mandaeans have emerged from the same Late Antique religious cauldron as Muslims, and so their inclusion as a People of the Book seems to follow the spirit of the category. In contrast the now extinct Sabians of Haran were clearly a pagan Hellenistic sect that exploited the rather vague reference to “Sabians” in the Koran to continue to practice their unique religion in a Muslim dominated world. Today the Druze are a case study in a modern post-Muslim heterodox group. Their historical origin is one which derives from the Ismaili Shia tradition, but they have transcended the bounds of orthodoxy as defined by Sunnis. The Alawites share many resemblances with the Druze, but are closer to the Muslim mainstream in their self-identity, and recently have been espousing a more orthodox Shia self-conception.
One thing you have to understand is that the Islamic, and for the purposes of the core Middle East, Ottoman, order required all religious groups to fall into specific categories. If a religious group was outside of a sanctioned category it might be targeted for persecution and forced conversion. Because the Shia identity is more expansive and open ended than that of the Sunni many heterodox groups take refuge under the umbrella of Shiism even if their connection to the Twelve Shiism dominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, is tenuous at best. This is certainly a plausible explanation for the religious identity of groups like the Shabak who seem intent on maintaining a marginal Muslim identity. In contrast a group like the Yezidi has left Islamic identity for all practical purposes, and open themselves up therefore to justifiable persecution from the perspective of orthodox Sunni Muslims. The evasiveness of many heterodox groups in the Middle East, and their tendency toward esoterism, is a function of this long history of state sponsored policing of belief and practice, and the majority trend of enforcing hostility against heretical and apostate groups.

Why does any of this matter? In the comments a few months ago a someone suggested that rather than following a ideological position, like isolationism, we should engage in pragmatic case by case decision making when it comes to foreign affairs. My argument is that very few people actually know enough to engage in informed pragmatism. I’m 99.9% sure for example that I know more about the history and ethnography of the Middle East than the patronizing commenter in question. This ubiquity of unselfconscious ignorance to me explains why the commenter thought that informed pragmatic international intervention was so obviously possible. If everyone around you is rather ignorant you don’t seem that bad. On Twitter I regularly have interlocutors who attempt to argue with me or comment on the Middle East in response to a short Tweet pointing to my clear anti-interventionist sympathies, but it’s often quite obvious that their knowledge is as superficial as the “First Books” designed to prime seven year old children on a particular topic. To give an explicit example someone on Twitter just tried to lecture me on Syria’s long history of pluralism. If someone says this to you you should immediately respond that Millet system is not the sort of pluralism we should be relying upon as surety for a liberal order in the wake of Baathist despotism. My interlocutor did not engage my volley, and I suspect they were not even aware of what the Millet system was.

When it comes to foreign policy people seem to think that the superficial pap they read in The New York Times can be the basis of informed comment. We’ve been through this before during the lead up to the Iraq War. Back then when I was blogging I deferred to people making strong and bold claims under the assumption they knew something I didn’t. They didn’t, and most of the people offering me their worthless opinions today do not. People know just enough to engage in sophistry so as to confuse and convince the choir, and bluster among the ignorant. Since most people are ignorant and are going to remain so, this blustering normally yields dividends. But don’t try to pull that on me please. (I immediately ban commenters who do so here, and generally block people on Twitter that attempt to do so)

An informed response is not going to work against war-hawks like Eliot Cohen, because I’m rather sure they aren’t promoting their cheerleading for war based on information in the first place. Similarly, many liberal internationalists are no more well informed about the details on the ground. Rather, they have normative frameworks of global law and human rights in mind (neocons focus on American exceptionalism and unipolarity). As a rule of thumb arguments predicated on factual information always strike me as arrogant posturing meant to intimidate, rather than sincere attempts to model a situation. It may be that a genuine model of these sorts of complex dynamics is impossible. And therefore we fallback on normative grounded heuristics.

Where does this leave us? Shrill accusations. Billions and perhaps trillions of dollars are on the line. Thousands to hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance. It is natural then that people will resort to extreme rhetoric. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Isolationists are to a great extent naive. The world is a brutal place. But I also believe at this point that the hawks are ultimately a danger to the republic, and have confused their globalist interests and overclass egos with the interests of the people, both American and non-American.

• Category: Science • Tags: International Affairs, Middle East 
🔊 Listen RSS

popehughHugh Pope is the author of Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East, Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World, and Turkey Unveiled. He was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for 25 years, most recently with The Wall Street Journal, and has a degree in Oriental Studies from Oxford. He currently works for the International Crisis Group, focusing on issues of Turkey and Cyprus. Despite similarities of physiognomy and Oxford educations Hugh Pope is not Hugh Grant.

Below are 10 questions.

1 – In Sons of the Conquerors I recall you being able to communicate with people from all over the Turkic world in Turkish. My impression from that is that from Xinjiang to Anatolia the differences between Turkic languages are relatively marginal. Am I misremembering something here? Can you give an analogy as to the distance between Turkic languages in terms of intelligibility? (e.g., Spanish:Italian::Turkish:Uzbek)

Turkic languages are in three main groups: roughly the more westerly group of Turkish, Azeri, Balkan Turkish and Turkmen; a central group including Uzbek and Uygur; and an eastern group that includes Kazakh and Kyrgyz. The westerly is the most developed, and you could say share the same inter-intelligibility of Spanish, French and Italian. A Kazakh and a Turk will however take longer to learn each other’s languages. However, since the structure is similar, and there is quite a good overlap of words (although they can be pronounced very differently), they learn them much quicker than learning a tongue in another language group. Because Japanese shares many grammatical similarities with the group, many Turks and Japanese can also learn their languages much quicker than others.

2 – One of the first nations in the Middle East in which you lived was Syria. As you observe in Dining with al-Qaeda Syria preserves a great deal of religious diversity, a variety draining out of many of the other nations in the region. In particular, I am curious as to your assessment of the attitudes of Alawis to the Muslim world as a whole. From my reading I am to understand that they have been “mainstreaming” their identity over the past few generations so that they are now a sect of Twelver Shia Muslims, whereas in the early 20th century their own self-perception was much grayer, with an identity more distinct from Islam as a whole like the Druze or Yezidis.

Interestingly, Alawis in Syria are different from the Alevis in Turkey, but both have hesitated to describe themselves completely outside mainstream Islam. Clearly they come from rural groups who share a common point of a different, Shia-style tradition, distinct from the main (Ottoman) Sunni power of the Middle Ages. In Turkey, many Alevi communities appear to have been converted by missionaries from Safavid/Shia Iran, and because there was so little communication between different parts of the empire, it gave rise to many different Alevi traditions. The picture in the two main post-Ottoman countries with Alevis/Alawis, Syria and Turkey, has diverged somewhat since then. The minority Alawism of the Assad family, in power since the 1970s, has had more impact on their efforts to keep Syria ‘secular’ rather than promoting any Alawi orthodoxy. In Turkey, where Western style rights and freedoms have been spreading, various Alevi factions compete to be known as mainstream or even official. There are some Turkish Alevis, apparently a minority, who want to be considered as a distinct religion. One feature shared with Syria is a love of secularism — some Turkish Alevis even treat republican founder Kemal Ataturk as a kind of saint, probably because his secularism defended them from oppression by the Sunni majority. A difference with Syria is that even though the Alevis in Turkey can’t agree on a common dogma, Alevism is now very much established as an alternative to Sunni Islam.

3 – I’ve never been to the Middle East so what I know is mostly from books, papers, and various data sources. The World Values Survey in 2005-2008 had he following results for selected nations in regards to those who were convinced atheists:

Great Britain – 10.4%, 105 out of 1041
USA – 3.6%, 42 out of 1249
Turkey – 0.5% 7 out of 1346
Egypt – 0% 0 out of 3051
Iran – 0.1% 3 out of 2156
Jordan – 0.1% 1 out of 1106

I’ve provided percentages and counts. As someone more intimately familiar with Middle Eastern people, do these numbers tell us anything real? (I know in the USA the percentage who don’t believe in God is higher than those who say they’re atheists, because the label atheist has some stigma)

It’s true that religion, and respect for religion, is very deep-rooted in Middle Eastern societies. I think it is partly because they have had a very rough time in the past couple of centuries, making people distrustful of human efforts and outside powers. You should also take into account the very vivid and influential stigma attached by the Koran and Muslim societies to anyone leaving the faith or not believing in God.

4 – The term nation has a relatively broad meaning in English today, and informally denotes a particular land mass enclosed by political boundaries. But a narrower older meaning is that a nation consists of a particular people with an identity as a nation on a particular territory. The nation-state if you will. By the second definition it seems that Turks and Iranians (despite the ethnic and religious diversity in both these nation-states) have a sense of nationality. Most Americans at this point would probably agree with the assertion that Iraqis do not have such a viewpoint, while it seems that many of the Persian Gulf monarchies are more coalitions of clans brought together by personal rule. Of the Arab nations Egypt in particular seems to stand out to me as analogous to Turkey or Iran. What would say of this assertion?

I think your assertion is broadly correct, and I’d also note that the sense of Iraqi nationality may be in eclipse but that it is still there. Most Iraqi Kurds might dream of an independent Kurdistan, but I’m not sure they really want to merge their advanced society of three million people with, say, the 12-15 million poorer, less educated Kurds of Turkey. Turkey, Iran and Egypt all have long and well-established state traditions, which also tends to nurture a sense of nationhood. Arab states, many of which were previously part of the Ottoman Empire, have a much harder time making their statehood seem like nationhood. Saudi Arabia may come the closest to this – the Saudi family has been running things in that part of the world off and on for 300 years – but Saudi Arabia is a rather unusual place so hard to make generalisations about it!

5 – Let’s play at “alternate history.” What if the world’s largest concentration of oil reserves were not in the Arab Middle East and Iran. Would these Middle Eastern nations be more well off, like Turkey, or would they be ignored and destitute like much of Africa and Afghanistan?

With all the caveats of alternative history, I suspect that a country like Iraq, with a state tradition and a long history would have done better, and that it would have been very hard without oil to make something of the Persian Gulf states. I agree however with the underlying idea behind your question, that lack of oil has forced a country like Turkey to work harder and have a more tolerant and pluralist culture.

6 – I’m curious about your interactions with the Yezidi’s. Did you discuss the details of their religion at all with them? If so, were you simply stonewalled, or did they give you consistent or inconsistent descriptions of their beliefs?

I did discuss aspects of their religion with some Yezidis, and they seemed to have as coherent a world view as any other in terms of theology (try explaining the Trinity to an outsider). In terms of religious culture, however, they had almost nothing to talk about since they have been so marginalized and oppressed. Certainly they feel a lot freer in U.S.-backed Iraq than they did under Saddam Hussein, but the attacks on them by extremists show that things could go badly for them too.

7 – I have an Iranian American friend. He is an ethnic Persian, and I inquired of him as to the existence of an independent Azeri Iranian community, and he did not know if such a group existed. Of course he knew that many Iranians were Azeris, but the distinction seemed of minimal interest to him. More a matter of curiosity than any importance. I’m curious as to ethnic relations in Iran, which seem relatively amicable. One model I have proposed for why Azeris and other Turks are so well integrated into the Iranian state is that to a great extent modern Iran as a Shia nation is a product of the Turkic Safavids and their successors. What do you think of this thesis?

That’s possible, but I’m not sure the Safavids took their ‘Turkicness’ very seriously (the Ottomans, their big rivals, didn’t make a big deal of it either). Iranian Azeris are well-integrated because they share Shia faith, they fought side by side with the others in the Iran-Iraq war, and because there is no limit to how high they can rise in Iranian society (despite all the Iranian snobbery against Turks and the Turkish language, and the occasional ethnic frictions there are in Persian/Azeri border towns). Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei comes from an Azeri family, as does Hossein Mousavi. The merchants of the Tehran bazaar are mostly Azeris.

8 – In Dining with al-Qaeda I was struck by the fact that Iranians you questioned about their militant rhetoric dismissed those who took their slogans literally. There seems to have been a gap in how people perceived language from culture to culture (this is true even within the United States). Perhaps a specialist in semiotics would have been handy. Your task as a journalist was to transmit information to the Western public, and so serve as an intermediary. And yet sometimes you encountered difficulties because your editors were less than familiar with the different way language is used in other cultures. Are the diplomats and politicians who deal with Middle Eastern issues versed in these nuances? After the Iraq War debacle I am not so sure that complacent confidence in the “commanding heights” of American civil service and politics should be a default.

The American civil service was well-versed in the nuances of Iraq before the war, but the political power chose to disregard their wisdom almost completely. (Same goes for the UK). American civil servants could not be expected to rebel against an unwise policy – in fact, only a handful resigned – but applied their can-do optimism to what (to me) seems like a completely impossible proposition. In Dining with al-Qaeda I was trying to tell people that they should trust no one with complacent confidence, especially not the media, and that they should develop a sceptical approach to information.

9 – A personal question. Your “divided loyalties,” so to speak, are highlighted in Dining with al-Qaeda. You’re British by national origin, have lived in the Middle East for much of your life, and worked for American journalistic outfits. If someone asks you “where are you from?, what do you answer? Is it very important who is asking the question?

I find this a very difficult question to answer. I was born in South Africa and raised there until I was nine, by English parents; I went to school in Britain; my university studies were of the Arab and Iranian worlds; I lived nearly half of my life in Turkey; I first married a Swiss national and now a Dutch national; my children have been educated in French and German schools. Generally I say, “I’m from Istanbul”, but even that seems less part of my loyalties now, since my favorite place to live is my house in the mountains in the south of Turkey.

10 – There exists the category “Middle East,” which includes the Arab nations (or perhaps the Arab nations of the Mashriq + Egypt + Arabia), Turkey and Iran. And yet there is also quite a bit of prejudice between Arabs, Turks, and Persians (as a South Asian I have experienced members of each group taking pains to distinguish itself from the others). But walking through Istanbul, Tehran, and an Arab city such as Damascus or Cairo, are the cultural differences that stark? Can the casual observer tell simply from styles of architecture what is Turk and Persian and Arab? Is it simply narcissism of small differences?

There are real differences between Turks, Persians, Arabs, Kurds and Jews, who are all main Middle Eastern peoples. But each national category has many sub-categories, some of which seem closer to the other main categories than they are to each other! It’s the same with Islam – people keep claiming it’s ‘one’, but in fact, Turkish, Persian and Saudi Islam, despite their shared theological reference points, could be entirely different religious cultures. The important thing in the Middle East is to recognize these differences, but also to see where they overlap, along with equally important overlaps with Western culture and commerce.

Image Credit: Thomas Foley

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Islam, Middle East 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"