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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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The New York Times has a long piece, For Turkey, Lure of Tie to Europe Is Fading, which outlines the falling out of love of Turkey with the idea of joining the E.U. I believe this is a good thing. Right now the E.U. is being riven by the fact that northern Europeans, in particular the Germans, feel a lack of solidarity with southern Europeans. This is hampering coordination of economic policies. How exactly would the admission of a nation as distinctive and populous as Turkey help the situation? It is arguable that the E.U. needs to be smaller, not larger.

All that being said, it remains the reality that Turks are on average far poorer than the typical European. So where’s the condescension coming from? I wonder if it has to do with the fact that Turks compare themselves to Rumelia, the regions of the Balkans that were under Ottoman control. This zone of the E.U., excluding the strange qualified exception of Greece (it’s face value GDP per capita is obviously inflated), is actually less well off that Turkey!

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Turkey 
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Since most international migration is apparently between “developing nations”, I thought the Iran-Iraq-Turkey-Syria border would be interesting to look at in terms of differences in economic and social indices.

• Category: Science • Tags: Comparisons, Data Analysis, Geography, Iraq, Syria, Turkey 
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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.

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"