Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

April 14, 2017

Modernity is not magic with Muslims

Filed under: Culture,Islam,Religion — Razib Khan @ 10:06 am

There are many reasons I have become very skeptical of the media over the years. Though I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory paradigms, it is obvious that the mainstream media often combines fidelity to precise narratives with a lack of detailed knowledge about the topics they are covering. In other words, they’re stenographers with an agenda. When you don’t know the topic they are expositing upon they can seem quite persuasive. But when you do know the topic they are addressing the emperor can be revealed to be naked. Naturally this warrants concern in most people who observe this, as if they are catching errors in the matrix.*

One area that this problem crops often for me is in regards to media coverage of Islam and and the Middle East. Most reporters don’t seem to really know much about their beat in a deep sense, so they are superficially taking in facts and putting them through coarse interpretative filters.

To name names, David Kirkpatrick covers the Middle East for The New York Times. I read his stuff, and he is not a bad journalist, but he clearly has no deep familiarity with the history of the Middle East to the details of Islam. His work is like a pop-tart; sweet, temporarily filling, but long on a sugar-rush and short on robustness substance. For example, he can talk about a contrast between peaceful Sufis and Islamist militants Libya, without knowing that Sufi orders were often militant organizations, and that Libyan independence after World War II was spearheaded by a militant Sufi order.

But readers of The New York Times “know” that Sufis are peaceful. So for prose contrast it makes sense that Kirkpatrick would bring that up. Never mind that this is so reductive to be useless in terms of getting people a better picture of reality.

In the interests of adding context, let me add something to the story about FGM in Michigan. A Dr. Jumana Nagarwala is accused of practicing FGM on young girls. Though it is not emphasized in the American media (because it wouldn’t mean much), it seems she is from the Dawoodi Bohra of Ismailis. In India the Bohra community is well known, as it is a very distinct group from the majority of Muslims, who are Sunni, and even most Shia. Its origins seem to be among the mercantile castes of the Gujarat coast.

I have some “book learning” about this sect under my belt because I read Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras about 15 years ago on the recommendation of my friend Aziz Poonawalla, who is a member of this community. Mullahs on the Mainframe was topical in the post-9/11 era because it seemed to depict a community which was both modern and religiously orthodox and observant, with fewer tensions being a minority in the West than other groups of Muslims. I don’t want to rehash that line of argument too much; descriptively it is correct that Daudi Bohras are a well behaved minority who attain success, combined with adherence to traditional beliefs and practices (Daudi Bohras, like many conservative Islamists, tend to “look” obviously Muslim because of matters of grooming and dress).

But another aspect of the Daudi Bohra community is that it is one of the few in South Asia that practices FGM. I don’t know or care about the prevalence, extent, or origin of the practice. When I saw the doctors name, which seemed South Asian, I immediately suspected she was from the community (the type of headscarf seemed familiar too).

The point of this post is not to demonize the Daudi Bohra community; the vast majority of the worlds Muslims who engage in FGM are not Daudi Bohra. The Shafi school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence is the big offender in terms of numbers. Indonesian Sunnis are Shafi, so that nation often praised for its tolerant version of Islam, has a very high proportion of FGM. Rather, it is to point out that the neat narrative frameworks we prefer are often not descriptively correct nor predictively useful. Since 9/11 rather than a more complex and nuanced view of Islam it seems that opinion leaders have been converging upon the idea that the religion is either with the angels or the devils, rather than a man-made thing which occupies the area in the middle.

The reliance on theories and heuristics which appeal to our sensibilities as right and true misleads in many ways. The arc of history bends toward justice, but the path is winding. The Protestant Reformation was rooted in large part on the more literate and well off classes, and aimed to rid corruption from the Christian church. In the process it unleashed horrible intolerance, cultural genocide, and conflicts which resulted in tens of millions of deaths. Not taking a view on the Reformation as a whole, it is clear that its consequences are not so simply integrated into the Whig version of history when taken in full.

Ultimately we need to rush less quickly toward our preferred conclusions, which align neatly with our prior models. Rather, we need to explore the sideways and what we think are certainly dead-ends, because sometimes those dead-ends will open up startling new landscapes (by the way, I think the “rationalist” community is much better at this than the general thinking public, though that’s not saying much).

* When I was in grad school an acquaintance mentioned this in relation to Jonah Lehrer before his exposure. Lehrer was persuasive whenever he was talking about a topic he wasn’t familiar with, but was clearly out of his depth whenever it approached something he was familiar with.

August 4, 2014

What is Europe’s anti-Semitism problem about?

Filed under: anti-Semitism,Islam,Religion — David Hume @ 3:08 pm

In SlateEurope Has a Serious Anti-Semitism Problem, and It’s Not All About Israel:

recent Anti-Defamation League survey found that 24 percent of the French population and 21 percent of the German population harbor some anti-Semitic attitudes. A recent study of anti-Semitic letters received by Germany’s main Jewish organization found that 60 percent of the hate mail came from well-educated Germans. So this isn’t just a problem with young, disaffected Muslim men.

After all, the two worst recent incidents of violence against Jews in Europe—the killing of three children and a teacher in a 2012 attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse and the shooting of three people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in May—took place during times when there wasn’t much news coming out of Israel. Continentwide statistics on anti-Semitic incidents leading up to the most recent uptick don’t show much of an overall trendin Britain, anti-Semitic violence is becoming less common while online abuse is becoming more frequent—or a correlation with events in Israel and Palestine.

antisemitismThe perpetrators of the two incidents in question? 29 year old Mehdi Nemmouche and 24 year old Mohammed Merah. That’s what I call chutzpah. Or, the author of the piece is flying under the radar of the implicit red-lines of what is permissible in Slate by inserting those links which actually support the idea that anti-Semitism is a problem of disaffected young Muslim men. Mind you, I grant that anti-Semitism has broad, but shallow, roots across much of Europe. The key is whether mild antipathy flips into politicized violence. Because of the Arab-Israeli conflict people of a Muslim background often have casually anti-Semitic views above and beyond what you might expect. Some individuals take the political dimensions very seriously, and the drum beat of vociferous coverage of the actions of the Israeli state bleeds into perceptions about Jews as a whole.*

Though the American media seems to be taking an antiseptic attidue toward the demographic composition of anti-Israeli rallies which have become anti-Semitic in a cartoonish sense, they haven’t censored the photographs. It’s rather obvious that young men of Middle Eastern heritage are prominent at these rallies. They aren’t a representative slice of the populations of France and Germany, to name two countries.

* To be even-handed, some Jews elide and erase the distinction between being Jewish and being Israeli.

November 29, 2012

Burma’s “Muslims” are kalar Bengali

Filed under: Arakan,Bengali,Islam,Rakhine — Razib Khan @ 8:58 pm

The American media often confuses the subtleties of international ethography. For example, there is a tendency to use the term “Uyghur” and “Chinese Muslim” interchangeably. This is misleading. The largest Muslim ethnic group in China are the Hui, who were rather culturally similar to the Han, except in the many areas where the Islamic religion results in their deviation from Han practice (e.g., they do not eat pork). Though Uyghur religious feelings are real, and their resentment at the government of China does derive from religious persecution, it is also an expression of nationalistic alientation. Uyghurs are ethnic Turks. In short, the Uyghurs are Muslims in the People’s Republic of China (the governmental entity which is the heir to the extra-Chinese territories of the Manchu dynasty; Xinjiang, Manchuaria, and Tibet). The Hui are Muslims of China.

“Burmese Muslims”

A similar nuance is surely important when considering the situation of “Burmese Muslims.” In the article itself the author is peculiarity cryptic about who these people are aside from their religious identity, and their putative foreign origins. Who these people are are Rohingyas. They are the Muslims inhabitants of Arakan state, which extends southeast of Bangladesh. And importantly Rohingyas are descended from and closely related to ethnic Bengalis. Their language is a sister to Sylheti, standard Bengali, and Chittagongian, with a particular affinity to the latter. Additionally, there are other Muslims in Burma who are not Rohingya! Some of these are ethnic Burmans, also called Bamars, who are the majority community with Burma/Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi herself reportedly has some Muslim ancestry from the civil servants and soldiers who were to be found around the courts of the kings of old.

There are two issues which need to be highlighted. First, it seems reasonable that the Rakhine people of Arakan worry that the Islamic demographic wave will inundate them. Though Bangladesh now has the same fertility as Burma, until recently Muslim demographic expansion has been a fact on the eastern marchlands of South Asia. The ratio of Rakhine to Rohingya seems to be on the order of 3 or 4 to 1, which is a majority, but not a comfortable one. But there is a clear racial element to the animus here, which would likely not be present if the Muslims were of one of the Sino-Tibetan or Mon people. Following attack, Muslims demonstrate in Rangoon:

“We should either kill all the Kalars in Burma or banish them, otherwise Buddhism will cease to exist,” said another user.

“Kalar” is used to describe perceived outsiders within the country, especially individuals with dark skin, but the term often carries a pejorative tone. In the Burmese edition of the New Light of Myanmar today, the victims of the sectarian attack were referred to as “Kalar” instead of Muslims.

Second, the Rohingya themselves deny strenuously their association with Bengal and Bengalis, because that would give credence to the Rakhine accusation that they are recent migrants into Arakan. As it happens I think in the main the Rakhine are probably right. Though some of the Rohingya date to the long-standing Muslim minority of Arakan which likely dates to the vassalage of the region to the Sultanate of Bengal in the late medieval period, most of the Rohingya probably are the descendants of peasants from Bengal, who were part of the great global migration which brought Tamils to Malaysia further south.

But, when the ancestors of most of the Rohingya were leaving Bengal a self-consciously Muslim and Bengali identity was inchoate at best. Elite culture in Bengal by the late Mughal period was the purview of Urdu speaking elites, and elite Bengali culture arose in the early 19th century with the Hindu bhadralok. The Rohingya detachment from a Bengali identity is to a great extent natural, insofar as their peasant ancestors were never part of the consciousness raising and nation-creation project of the 19th and early 20th centuries, whereby an elite nationalistic and Muslim Bengali identity emerged.


September 13, 2012

Breaking through the “red line”

Filed under: Islam — Razib Khan @ 9:03 pm

No One Murdered Because Of This Image:

Following the publication of the image above, in which the most cherished figures from multiple religious faiths were depicted engaging in a lascivious sex act of considerable depravity, no one was murdered, beaten, or had their lives threatened, sources reported Thursday. The image of the Hebrew prophet Moses high-fiving Jesus Christ as both are having their erect penises vigorously masturbated by Ganesha, all while the Hindu deity anally penetrates Buddha with his fist, reportedly went online at 6:45 p.m. EDT, after which not a single bomb threat was made against the organization responsible, nor did the person who created the cartoon go home fearing for his life in any way. Though some members of the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths were reportedly offended by the image, sources confirmed that upon seeing it, they simply shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and continued on with their day.

Click through to see the image. I’m offended: the Buddha was a brown dude, not an East Asian!.


August 21, 2012


Filed under: Islam,Rimsha — Razib Khan @ 8:05 pm

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 ...

July 7, 2012

Still not understanding the nature of affairs

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Culture,History,Islam — Razib Khan @ 11:59 am

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 ...

June 25, 2012

Ummah, take care of your own shit!

Filed under: Geopolitics,Islam,Ummah — Razib Khan @ 10:16 pm

There’s a lot of nasty stuff going down in Syria. Toddlers are being killed in front of their parents. This is prompting liberal internationalists like Shadi Hamid to demand that the USA intervene in Syria. This is the same Shadi Hamid, liberal internationalist, who admits that democracy in the Muslim world is going to manifest an illiberal Islamist cast. Tough Copts, that’s how democracy rolls he explains us (no doubt he understands that American Muslims should be happy that we let them practice their religion, and shouldn’t make a big political fuss about their rights and dignity for the purposes of social comity).

Thank god most of the American public is totally exhausted from foreign wars. But here’s what’s been getting on my nerves: Muslims constantly complain that the USA is too involved in the Muslim world. They’re right about this in my opinion. But Muslims talk about it as if there is a “Muslim world.” Many Western Muslims follow the interpretation of their religion where they can’t take arms up against co-religionists. Muslim nations have their own international organization. And, this organization has been pushing its own distinctive form of Islamic human rights.

Here’s a suggestion for Muslims and Muslim nations who are used to thinking about a Muslim world and Muslim civilization: why don’t you take care of your own near abroad problems yourself for once, instead of appealing to the greatest kuffar power of them all? The reality is American intervention brings no great joys to the world, nor does it redound to our reputation. Combined with the Muslim world’s ostentatious assertion of cultural distinctiveness, it makes me wonder who really has the “responsibility to protect.” This is really a philosophy where America minds its own business when Muslims want it to mind its own business, but America better be the beacon of universal rights when Muslims wish to avail themselves of universal human rights, no?

Memo to the world: America is exhausted. We have to take our own trash out before we can clean up your disaster of a front-lawn. If Islam is the solution fucking prove it for once.

Addendum: Iraq’s Shia dominated government, underwritten by the American tax-payer, has tacitly been supporting the Assad regime.


May 6, 2012

Every tribune a Rick Santorum!

Filed under: Islam,Religion — Razib Khan @ 12:03 am

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 ...

April 9, 2012

Understanding across cultures

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Islam,Religion,Turkey — Razib Khan @ 10:37 pm

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

January 22, 2012

To be atheist is an offense

Filed under: Culture,Islam,Religion — Razib Khan @ 3:45 pm

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.

December 28, 2011

The poverty of multiculturalist discourse

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. 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 at 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. 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 or 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, in 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 with 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 moves that 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.

September 5, 2011

Being an atheist with a “Muslim name”

Filed under: atheism,Islam,Religion — Razib Khan @ 1:26 am

I was sent off to purchase some cheap white wine yesterday to further the production of a very tasty tuna pasta. So I quickly ran over to the neighborhood mini-mart. Actually, this was my first visitation to the mini-mart. The woman behind the counter was brown. Going by the numbers she was probably an Indian immigrant. Indians predominate in the American brown community, and most of the people who work in these sorts of jobs seem to have accents, and so are immigrants. I profiled her before I even interacted with her.

I quickly found myself a $3 bottle of wine, and raced up to the counter. Pasta was boiling. Ingredients were cooling. Because of my preternaturally young face I set my identification on the counter. Below is what transpired….

[brown-skinned female clerk, age 50 or so, scrutinizes the I.D., and looks me over. She smiles]

Clerk: So you guys are done with roza? [roza = fasting for Ramadan]

Me: [thought: what kind of Muslim starts to buy alcohol again after Ramandan?] Uh, I’m not Muslim.

Clerk: [confused expression, smiles nervously] But your name is Khan. I thought you were Muslim.

Me: Yeah, I’m an atheist.

Clerk: [confused expression]

Me: I don’t believe in that stuff. I don’t fast. But I think my parents’ said that fasting was over….

Clerk: [even more confused expression] Your parents? So they are Muslim? But you aren’t?

Me: [Walking out of the store] My parents are Muslim, but I’m not. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe that stuff.

I have no idea what the clerk’s religion was, or their attitude toward Islam. She was just being friendly, and naturally profiled me. Most brown-skinned males with the surname Khan are Muslim. Most well-educated Americans of all races assume I’m Muslim without knowing anything about me. Naturally, they also assume I’m a Pakistani Muslim. This is entirely warranted by the numbers. The problem is when I introduce new information into the equation.

That new information being that I’m of that small minority of people with brown skin and a conventionally Muslim surname who does not identify with Islam at all. Not only that, but I also don’t identify with any other barbaric superstition, such as Christianity or Hinduism, or vacuous spirituality in general. When I introduce this information into the equation some cosmopolitan white atheist Americans bluster and get confused. I suppose scientific materialism for me but not for thee? It’s even more funny when secular whites want commiserate with me about Islamophobia (when I express skepticism about Islam sometimes I get the weird accusation of false consciousness and inability to resist the brainwashing of Western thinking). But in general American sensitivities are such that the conversation moves to other topics quickly.

Not so always with Muslims and/or South Asians. In the former class a lot of the uncomfortable discussion or tension emerges from the plain fact that they’re naturally offended that I dismiss their primitive superstitions. The more civilized Westernized individuals naturally move the conversation to more productive domains, while the more barbaric individuals can become irritable, or even verbally belligerent (though to be fair, the last is very rare). The class of South Asians is more interesting. In particular those South Asians who are not Muslim. These individuals operate in a world where confessional and communal identities are relatively fixed, and incredibly important. Even those individuals within this culture who are liberal in their attitudes, and “secular,” give a nod to the realities of their barbaric culture, where men, women, and children, live or die depending on whichever idol they bow down to, Krishna, Allah, or Christ.

Even transplanted to the United States, or even born in the United States, individuals with this orientation have difficulty understanding those of us who defect, deny, and repudiate, this barbaric cartel of organized superstitions. From the expression on the clerk’s face it was as if I was a black man who asserted that I was white, and denied that I was black. The analogy might seem very amusing, but it’s informative. In places like Brazil, from the perspective of a citizen of the United States there are indeed black men (i.e., those of mixed race) who assert that they are white, and deny that they are black! From a Brazilian perspective there are those of mixed race who perversely assert that they are black (e.g., Barack Hussein Obama).

Sometimes these confusions are serious. But most of the time I find them amusing. I hope you do too.

June 16, 2011

Why are Muslims so eloquently barbaric?

Filed under: Civilisation,Islam — Razib Khan @ 12:44 am

I want to follow up Eurasian Sensation’s post on female false-consciousness. If you look in the World Values Survey you’ll see that plenty of non-Muslim societies are very reactionary and barbaric, even savage. The anti-gay hysteria in Uganda is representative of the non-Muslim face of barbarism. China, Japan, and Korea, are very secular societies, where organized religion is a minority force. But when it comes to gender relations they have a very different model and expectations from the West. So it’s not Islam, and it’s not religion.

But nevertheless Muslims do seem to be very explicit and eloquent in their barbaric arguments. Why? I think there are two primary reasons:

1) First, more generally gods are powerful, and allow people to be more confident in the ontological solidity of their assertions. Conservatism of habit, custom, and tradition, are inchoate and frankly somewhat difficult to defend on rational grounds. I know this very well, because I am personally disposed to just this sort of conservatism. In contrast, Muslims have an entire theory predicated on their primitive deity. Even if you don’t believe in the supernatural you have a hard time denying the internal consistency between their barbarism and their superstition. But the same goes for Ugandan Christians, so why do Muslims seem more prominent in arguments against “universal human rights,” which are admittedly most well developed in the West?

2) Islam differs from other religions insofar as the cultural elites of Islam, Arabs, and in particular Gulf Arabs who feed the modern “Islamic international” money, are a particular regressive and barbaric bunch. By barbaric, I’m not saying they’re savages. Gulf Arabs have a well elucidated and coherent world view. It’s just totally alien to the trajectory of much of the West. Muslims like those in Turkey are pulled between these two extremes, all the while attempting to forge their own vision of how to flourish.

In contrast, barbaric African Christians rely on money from liberal civilized Western Christians, who work at counter-purposes to their regression. The Anglicans of Africa hold to very conservative and “traditionalist” views, but they come for the begging bowl to the gay-friendly, and sometimes gay, clerics of the wealthy West. This is in sharp contrast to the world of Islam, where Muslims from poor marginal nations are arguably more latitidinarian in inclination than the Islamic heartland.

At the end of the day this structural-demographic problem is why I think the project of “Western Islam” which tears itself away from the cultural presuppositions of the “Islamic world” has major issues. The reality is that the vast majority of the world’s 1 billion+ Muslims have a very alien Weltanschauung from that of the West. I don’t believe there’s anything logically contradictory in being a liberal pro-gay Muslim, to given one example, but such Muslims must confront the reality that the vast majority of their co-religionists would find such viewpoints not only noxious but totally incompatible with the fundamentals of the faith. As an atheist I think such objections are “not even wrong,” I don’t think religion has any fundamentals aside from what man imposes upon it. But if you actually bow down before made up idols and call them living gods in a sincere manner you can’t dismiss the vast majority of your co-religionists so flippantly. So if you’re a pro-gay Muslim trying to preach to your fellow believers of the justice of your position, I think it’s somewhat like convincing a bunch of people with Down Syndrome of the reality of simultaneity. They don’t have basic raw materials at this point to even understand where you’re coming from, it seems so incomprehensible and obscene. If this seems unbelievable, consider that in 1950 a pro-gay argument would probably fall on deaf ears in the West too.

Addendum: Multiculturalism as it is presently constructed tends to given religious viewpoints special consideration, because it rightly acknowledges that perspectives informed by faith are genuinely sincere and heartfelt. Unfortunately I think this allows for the persistence of illiberal and culturally out of sync values among Muslims in places like Europe.

May 20, 2011

The kulturkampf against Western Islam

Filed under: Culture,Islam — Razib Khan @ 11:23 am

Aziz points me to a liberal (non-Muslim) blogger who opposes “Draw Mohammed Day”. Here’s an interesting section:

I am certainly not opposed to mocking, satirizing or criticizing religions, and I do not, in general, hold back from doing so because of any fear of causing offence to their adherents. But there is an important distinction to be drawn here. Mockery, satire and rhetorical attack serve a valuable social end when they are directed against a hegemony.They remind us that the people and institutions which shape and control our lives are not sacrosanct or above criticism. It is thus worthwhile to mock, satirize and criticize political leaders, corporations and élites, to our hearts’ content. It is worthwhile to direct rhetorical barbs at those religious sects which wield substantial temporal power and influence in our society.

But mockery and deliberate offence directed against an already-disadvantaged group serve a negative social end, not a positive one. They serve to further entrench existing oppression, to reinforce the boundaries between “us” and “them”. In itself, this isn’t a controversial proposition. Few of us today would be willing to laugh at racist caricatures from the blackface-minstrel era, for example; or at jokes made at the expense of gypsies, or the disabled, or Jews, or gay people. Few people would argue with the observation that this kind of humour perpetuates bigotry.

This reminds me of the earlier discussion of the Western liberal heuristic of “siding with the weak.” In other words, who has power? Who is the hegemon? Who is the oppressed? Despite my general lack of enthusiasm for full-throated economic libertarianism (mostly after 2008) and vanilla social liberalism on “hot button” issues this sort of framework is probably why I don’t identify as a cultural liberal. There are two issues.

1) There’s the specific issue that who is a “hegemon” and “oppressed” can be easily problematized when it comes to identity politics, and most liberals simply don’t bother to do that unless they get caught up in an internecine opressed-vs-oppressed bidding war. This was far less an issue when the focus was class,* because income and wealth are relatively clear and distinct. The remediation in terms of the control of means of production or redistribution are relatively straightforward, despite the problem which public choice theory highlights.

2) But there’s a broader point in that this sort of mentality often shunts into the background the real hegemonic values which liberals themselves take for granted. In other words, some hegemony is good, and some is bad. It is not hegemony vs. oppression, as much as good vs. bad. There is no “value free” world, and the discourse focused on power dynamics ignores that these dynamics are embedded in implicit assumptions of good and bad ends of power. Some groups, like Fundamentalist Mormons or white nationalists, who are the target of opprobrium and social ostracism are not defended because they suffer from hegemony. That’s because they lack the proper values to engage in the sympathy of liberals.


A major issue with “Muslims” is that as an oppressed minority group Muslims present a parallel and plausible value system as an alternative to that which has developed among Western liberal societies over the past two centuries. This is much more true in parts of Europe than the USA. To some extent so do Mormons in the USA (as did Irish Catholics in the 19th century USA). The racialization of the identity of Muslims is real, but it has limits. My critics who accuse me of aiding and abetting prejudice point out that “I look Muslim.” To which I respond that I’m much more often assumed to be Hindu (ergo, I get down with my Hindu brethren and their oppression at the hands of Muslims in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Buddhists in Sri Lanka?). Second, I haven’t experienced much racism or discrimination. Therefore anti-Muslim discrimination must be a non-issue, since I “look Muslim.” Right?

I don’t think that’s true. A blond blue-eyed man who grows his beard long and dresses in a “Muslim” manner is probably going to be the target of a lot more discrimination and prejudice than I am. Some of this might be the freak-show aspect, because he is obviously not brown, but as Muslim converts have noted donning Muslim garb and becoming a Muslim implicitly turns them colored. So Islamic identity is racialized, but analogizing this to genuine racial minorities is wrong. If a white man who wears dreads and Afrocentric clothing he is usually an object of amusement and fun. No one presumes he is black. He is more likely to be mocked as a freak, not attacked as a black man.

This explains the particular focus I believe of European nationalists on Muslim communities. Plenty of non-Muslim colored people face racism and bigotry constantly in Europe (some of my friends). Europeans may not be more racist than white Americans (actually, I think from what I’ve heard and seen southern and eastern Europeans are more racist explicitly, while Germans are more racist implicitly), but they’re way less sensitized. But black Britons or Dutch, and Hindu and Sikh Britons, or Christian Africans in France, all these groups do not present an organized system of a challenge to Western society in an explicit manner. Some Muslims clearly do. They believe they have the answer, and the the West lives a lie (and frankly, in a deep level I believe unless we’re autistic this is a natural human reflex, often sublimated, but there nonetheless).

There are other complications, such as the proximity of Muslim nations as well as post-colonial legacies, but really I think the main issue is that European Muslims engage in collective action in some forms which are a challenge to the hegemony of Western liberalism. In the 1970s there was a short window where even liberal whites accepted the plausibility of a black nation within the United States, but the reality is that black American identity is not a challenge to American identity as an alternative. Despite all the separation between blacks and whites, there is little explicit organized racial communal identity pushing this separation. Often it shakes out as a byproduct of class, of personal preference of cultural comfort. In contrast the stuff that comes out of the Tower Hamlets is much more redolent of 1970s black American nationalism, a separate nation within a nation.

This is not a new issue in the West. In the 1800s Jews were emancipated all across Europe. This resulted in the dissolution of the power of the corporate entities which had governed the Jewish communities until then, what today we term the Orthodox Jewish rabbinate. The majority of the European Jewry integrated, and lost their distinctiveness. This was not without tension within the community, to the point where Reform Jews were physically attacked or even poisoned in some regions of Austria-Hungary. Additionally, the liberal integrationist gentile elite engaged in all sorts of anti-Jewish propaganda, basically bigotry against the practices and folkways of the Eastern European Jewry (as did the assimilationist Jews as well!). The language is very reminiscent of the phraseology used by European nationalists today. But recall that genuine anti-Semites who feared Jewish blood contagion had no particular problem with the old folkways of the Eastern European Jewry, because that maintained the separation between the two kinds (recall that the Nazi propaganda always attempted to transform European Jews back into shtetl dwellers who presented the image of a Hasid).

In the 19th century the liberal nationalist elites engaged in what we would term “Culture Wars” against the Roman Catholic Church and the European Jewry. Both institutions have now aligned themselves with the European consensus, in which a particular sensibility derived from the tumult of the French Revolution and its aftermath reigns supreme. The circumstances today are different. But some of the same tensions are undergirding the conflicts between European Muslims and their milieu. Fundamentally the idea of a unitary multicultural nation is an illusion. Without common values the only thing possible is sort of millet or corporate system.

* There are problems with race-based remediation a disproportionate amount of the benefit to black Americans goes to middle and upper classes, some of whom are not “as black.” There’s a robust amount of social iscience that more dark skinned and African looking black Americans experience more racism than lighter skinned less African looking individuals. Addressing this issue is taboo among non-blacks in the USA from what I can tell, but it is mooted among blacks.

April 3, 2011

The fiction and fact of nationality

Filed under: Civilisation,Culture,Hinduism,India,Islam,Pakistan,Two Nation Theory — Razib Khan @ 10:19 pm

In the comments below I quipped that the “Two-Nation Theory” is obviously “made up.” By this I was pointing more to the importance of construction of identity and founding myths more than anything else. For example, in the United States of America I grew up with a founding myth of a righteous revolution against the British monarchy, predicated on taxation without representation. By “I grew up with,” I mean that in elementary school the myth was both explicit and implicit in the instructional materials. As I matured, and began exploring history with more texture and depth, I  came to conclusion that this is a myth in the most literal sense. There were many shades of gray. The revolutionaries, who never formed more than one out of three Americans even during the height of the rebellion, were operating more out of particularities of self-interest (though there was clearly a strain of idealism, as evidenced by Thomas Paine). It seems likely that much of their rationale was either false or fictional.

Nevertheless, I am proud of America and Americans. History is what it is, and whatever the justice of the founding myth (or lack thereof), on the balance the American republic has been a success. Even the child of rape can attain greatness.


Similarly, I think the idea of a Muslim Indian nation is clearly fictional in terms of a legacy from the past. Similarly, a Hindu nation is also a fiction which does not accurately represent the past. A maximalist argument would suggest that there was near total disjunction between the Turco-Iranian Muslim elites of India’s Islamic period and the large communities of artisans and peasants who shifted their nominal religious identity from India’s indigenous traditions to that of the rulers. Similarly, many would argue that a coherent Hindu identity is an recent artifact of the collision with confessional universal faiths such as Islam and Christianity. That the penumbra of religio-philosophies which we would term “Hindu” had almost no contact with the lived experiences of the vast majority of India’s peasantry. A cold materialist reading might argue that the old ashraf Muslim elite duped the Muslim masses into a communal identity which was congenial to their classic game of extracting rents. Similarly, the high culture Hindus synthesized a common Hindu identity from old and new ideas which bound South Asians together, also to further their own material interests by allowing for the formation of a macro-state which allowed for grand economies of scale and power projection.

I think there’s some reality to this cynical reading, but I think the idea that a Hindu and Muslim identity arose circa 1850 is too cute and ideological. It too is a fiction, often promoted by those with post-colonial leanings to whom white Europeans are the only Creators, of all that is good and bad in the world. A more neutral telling might argue that the nation as a concept was birthed by the French Revolution, and confessional identities gained coherency with only the Radical Reformation. I do not accept this.

We need to turn our backs to black and white certitudes. A certitude which my flip language below implied, but which I do not hold to. Clearly the Muslims of India, initially intrusive aliens, had an identity which made them distinct from the native religious practices. But unlike the magi of the Iranian world the Indian religious traditions did not whither in the face of these powerful superior Others; rather, Indian religion entered into a phase of involution, co-option, adaptation, and eventually reflexive counter-action. But this was only a phase in a long history. Islam did not create Hinduism. Many elements of Indian religion clearly have deep roots which go back to the initial conflicts between Brahmanism and Sramanism. One should be cautious of imputing to Hinduism a purely reflexive and responsive dynamic. Some have suggested that the Bhakti devotional stream in Indian religion was shaped by the interaction with Islam. To me this seems tenuous not only on chronological grounds, but the analogs to Bhakti are also clearly evident early in some strains of Buddhism during its late Indian phase (e.g., see the origins of Pure Land). This does not entail that the religious traditions of different faiths did not influence each other. But, it removes from any given faith a particular genius from which others had to borrow.

April 2, 2011

Empires of the mind

Filed under: Culture,Islam — Razib Khan @ 11:14 am

Balinese women

Below Zach Latif mooted the idea of the “Ummah” and some sort of Islamic world confederation. Omar responds with incredulity. My own position is probably somewhere in the middle. Omar asks rhetorically “Why, for example, should there be a Muslim worldwide confedration but not a Christian or Buddhist one?” The fact that the Organization for Islamic Conference exists is a mild rebuke to this line of thinking. Islam is not Christianity or Buddhism. The fictive devils have a much stronger hold on the minds of the superstitious Muslim than they do on the superstitious Buddhist. I say devils because what but demons could motivate people of a faith to murder others in a fit of outrage over beliefs? Islam is a powerful force in and of itself when it comes to mobilizing collective action. As the Lord God once opined of Ishmael and his spawn, “And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren…He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” And so it is.

But there’s another reality. An idea of Muslim brotherhood has power, but the practical organization of a world semi-state like the European Union is the stuff of Dungeons & Dragons fantasy. The European Union emerged at a particular time and place after World War II out of the elite consensus in two of the largest nations of Europe, France and Germany, that condominium of some sort was the only long term resolution to the specter of conflict. Europe evolved organically over time from the core of France, Germany and the Low Countries. There is no great racial distinction among the European peoples, at least in a world wide context. And, there is no hegemonic European identity. A Frenchmen is no more or no less European than a Pole or an Italian. We all know that Arabs, and to a lesser extent Turks and Iranians, believe themselves more prototypically Muslim.

At the height of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s Egypt and Syria could not maintain their unity, despite the explicit ideology of the ruling parties toward such unity. Even artificial nation-states have their own internal logic (in this case, Syria; Egypt is real). Pakistan broke apart because of the racism, bigotry, and demand for pride of place, by the ruling caste of West Pakistan. Does one imagine that the elite of Pakistan will happily accept the leadership of their racial superiors with more “clean” Islamic credentials to their west, anymore than the Bengalis accepted the open-ended domination by West Pakistanis?

The violence and contempt direct laborers from other Muslim nations, often from other Arab nations, shows how deep rooted national fissures are. Islamic unity takes power from organizing against the unclean infidels. Amongst themselves Muslims bicker as strangers, not brothers. This is the real world, not the world of fantasy. The Pakistanis in Bahrain might tell you of the nature of Islamic brotherhood.

Image credit

March 22, 2011

The people in the media are ignorant

Filed under: History,Islam,Jinnah,Pakistan — Razib Khan @ 3:13 pm

At Discover I pointed out that a reporter at The New York Times who wrote an analytic piece on Libya which Überblogger Matt Yglesias deemed “excellent” doesn’t know what Sufism is. Not a big deal if he was simply reporting basic facts, but the point of the analytic piece was to provide “perspective” for the ignorant readership. The blind leading the blind?

Here’s another funny example, Mullah in Debate of Tradition vs. Modern Schooling:

Many members of the Taliban call themselves Deobandis, even though the Indian leaders of Darul Uloom have strongly condemned them, rejected extremism and organized meetings of Islamic teachers to denounce terrorism. During India’s independence movement, Deobandis supported Gandhi and later rejected joining a partitioned Pakistan.

Without context the Deobandi rejection of partition makes them seem like religious pluralists who believe in coexistence to the average American. But Zach alludes to one major assumed reason, the conservative Muslims of British India rejected the de facto secular nationalism of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s movement, and held out the hope for an Islamicization of the whole Indian subcontinent. If the author knew that I think he should have omitted the point about partition, and if he didn’t, he’s ignorant.

March 21, 2011

The New York Times flubs basic facts about Islam

Filed under: Culture,Islam,Religion — Razib Khan @ 8:46 pm

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 ...

March 10, 2011

Rational Islamophobia

Filed under: Culture,Islam — Razib Khan @ 11:51 pm

One of the problems that you have in negotiating this world as an individual is that your own specific views are always too nuanced to “fit into any box.” But though you may not believe in a box, the boxes believe in you! Consider two people.

Person #1 believes that our “special relationship” with Israel does not serve our national interests. Rather, we should have a more normal relationship with the Jewish state, and treat it more as the Levantine society which it is rapidly becoming (due to demographic factors). #1 also does not view Islamic terrorism as an existential threat. In fact, this individual believes that international Islamic terror is the policy equivalent of “shark attacks,” extremely salient and emotionally arousing, but far less important than we currently perceive it to be (we in this case refers to citizens of the USA). Person #1 also does not believe that the Muslim religion is inherently, congenitally, or fundamentally violent or illiberal. In other words, it is not logically impossible to be pro-gray, and a devout, sincere, Muslim.

Now, lets’ move to person #2. This individual believes that the average Muslim has illiberal, and frankly barbaric, beliefs. That immigration of Muslims to Western societies is altering those societies toward a unfavorable equilibrium in light of #2′s core values. Person #2 believes that the current multicultural dispensation is not stable, and that in the long term it will have to give way to a Millet system. Or real substantive assimilation and integration will be necessary.

Could you comprehend that #1 and #2 are the same person? Let me blow your mind and submit that I am that person, one in the same. Over at Secular Right I put up a post musing on the double standard which I perceive in many American liberals when it comes to varieties of religious conservatism. Socially conservative beliefs among white Christians are regressive and redolent of the “American Taliban,” while those same beliefs among American Muslims go relatively unexamined. Now, many American conservatives are guilty of double standards as well, insofar as when it comes to Islam they become rather strident in their defense of feminism and skeptical of theocratic inclinations.

But since my social circle is overwhelmingly liberal I see the blind spots and hypocrisy of the Left far more often in my own life. For example, liberals decry “stereotypes,” but routinely engage in them when it comes to Republicans, Tea Party members, etc. The majority of Muslim Americans happen to be against promotion of homosexuality, but the reality is that a minority are strongly pro-gay. We shouldn’t stereotype. The majority of Tea Party activists have implicit white nationalist sympathies, but the reality is that a minority are strongly anti-racist. We shouldn’t stereotype. How you perceive the credibility of these two assertions is probably conditional on your personal politics.

In any case, a liberal reader at Secular Right engaged in a little stereotyping, to comedic effect. Since I use the webonym “David Hume,” he did not know my name was “Razib Khan.” Ensues the hilarity:

A “rational” phobic response? Are you nuts? Seriously: go visit a Middle Eastern country. Or actually talk to a Muslim. It’s clear you have no real personal experience in the matter. Just because religion is at its base a lie doesn’t mean that all religions are equally awful. I found much to admire in the Muslim focus on charity, caring for the sick, and many other laudable things. I also found much to despise., as I have in all religions, and other “isms” for that matter.

I think you seriously underestimate the extent to which American Muslims feel targeted by our government, and by just one side in our political discourse. (Yes, of course some Dems are just as bad.) Again, introduce yourself to a Muslim. Ask them what they see. You clearly haven’t.

I responded that of course I talk to Muslims every week. My parents.

The reality is that I can understand where the commenter is coming from. Many anti-Muslims are stupid. My main issue with my liberal friends is that they are fighting stupid with stupid. Or, if they’re not stupid, they’re fighting stupid with lawyerly argumentation. Individual rights are sacrosanct and fundamental. This is why I hope all Americans applaud that the Westboro Baptist Church continues to be able to exercise their rights, despite how despicable the specific exercise of those rights are. The fact that Muslim, or Fundamentalist Mormons, Americans have rights which should be defended does not mean that we need to whitewash who and what they are.

Finally, it seems that people think just because you oppose the values of Islamic civilization as they are realized today means that you must think Muslims are evil amoral trolls. Not at all. I oppose my parents’ values in many deep ways. Though not exceedingly religious they reflect the mores and expectations of 1970s Bangladesh to this day, despite having made practical compromises with the United States. They are considerate people who try to do the right thing. But what they think is right may not be what you think is right, and what they think is right may be what you think is profoundly wrong. Cultural differences matter. The problem I have with Islam is not so much with Muslim Americans, who are numerically marginal, and not politically well mobilized, but the fact that there exists an Islamic world, an organization of Islamic states, whose core values are at some variance with those of the West. This is clear in the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which is anodyne in many parts, but objectionable to Westerners in some very important details.

At the end of the day I’m not interesting in the mucky and dirty practice of proximate politics. I wish to reflect upon the values which distinguish civilizations, and also unite civilizations. There are certain truths, certain atomic units of human belief and practice, which we accept as enabling human flourishing. On the cultural margins there are differences between societies, and these differences may be irreconcilable. At least in the same territorial unit. The Ottoman Millet system only persisted as long as it did because a hierarchy of subordination of non-Muslims to Muslims was explicitly acknowledged. The irrational Islamophobia of the American Right seems to devolve into unthinking hysterics, losing all sense of proportion and analytical distance. Muslims are turned into almost inhuman animals, lacking all basic fundamental human properties. In contrast, the anti-Islamophobic American Left papers over the reality that many American Muslims, perhaps a majority, have deep sympathies with a broader civilization which implicitly is offering up “another way” to that of the liberal West.* The dichotomization into “good” “moderate Muslims” and “bad” “Islamists” elides over the subtle texture of the disputes within this broader civilization.

But just as the Muslim world needs to be rationally fearful of the acidic effect of Western cultural imperialism, so the Western world needs to be cognizant and fearful of the model of the Islamic world. In many profound ways, such as the relationship to religion and politics, and between the sexes, it is the Muslim world which is more typical of human societies, and may approach closer to the “lowest energetic state” of social orders. Though the Western way of flourishing may be one which we value, it may not be such a stable confluence of parameters. What we feel to be most precious, may be the most fragile. Ergo, the rationality of fear of the Other which may destabilize what we value to the core.

* China is the other instance of this which seems clear, but Chinese civilization is not international in scope, though it is numerically very prominent.

February 26, 2011

Tolerance in Dar-ul-Islam

Filed under: Culture,Islam — Razib Khan @ 1:11 am

I’ll throw this out there as an open question. Which nation in the Dar-ul-Islam is the most tolerant toward non-Muslim faiths? Bonus points for a combination of a substantial non-Muslim minority (so it’s not a moot point) and a devout populace. For example, Albania, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, and probably Bosnia if you could disentangle ethno-nationalism from the equation, would probably come out on top. But these are nations which have experienced secularization, and have a substantial proportion of nominal Muslims among the confessing believers. I think to combine both religious sensibility and tolerance you’d probably have to look to Africa. I nominate Senegal, because it is a relatively stable and democratic Sub-Saharan African nation, which is 90% Muslim, whose first president was a Christian. That’s a large enough non-Muslim minority to make minority rights a live point, but the Islamic dominance in terms of numbers is assured.

Ancient Iraqi Christian monastery used as a latrine by the Republican Guard

This issue crossed my mind when listening to the journalist behind the new Frontline documentary, Revolution in Cairo. He was being asked about the role of Islam in the new Egyptian state, and he stated plainly that even today the Egyptian constitution gives particular prominence to the role of Islam in determining the laws of the land, and that special intermingling of religion and state would no doubt continue, and perhaps even wax. And, he asserted that the Copts of Egypt would accept, understand, and have to deal with this fact. This is all absolutely correct as a descriptive matter. But I sat back and reflected that at ~10% of the of the population the Copts form a much larger proportion of Egyptians than Muslims do within the European union. Not only that, but no one doubts that the Copts are authentically Egyptian, with deep cultural roots in the region. And yet they have to accept their role as dhimmi, as they always have. The world dhimmi has negative connotations, but the consistent special place that Muslim majority religions give to the majority religion in their constitutions the world over (even in explicitly secular nations like Bangladesh, which has a Leftist political foundation, not an Islamic one) is simply accepted in a way that would contested be elsewhere. The European Union for example famously omitted mention of the continent’s Christian heritage.

A connection between church and state need not necessarily be frightening. There is intermingling of Buddhism and state in Thailand, and it is relatively anodyne. Similarly, England and Denmark have established or national churches. Perfect neutrality is impossible in any case. Additionally, as Omar likes to note, the “Islamic” nature of states which are explicitly Islamic or give a nod to Islam in their central documents is almost always a substantive illusion. That is, their legal codes and such are generally imitative of those of the West, only modified in particular sections by Islam (often family law). No, the dominance and prominence of Islam has more impact as a identity-group ideology to oppress and culturally cleanse religious minorities. Naive and stupid Westerners are wont to assert that the Islam needs a “Reformation.” What these naive and stupid individuals don’t seem to comprehend is that the Reformation triggered the Wars of Religion and decades of massive sectarian expulsions and migrations of conscience.

I believe that in our age we are seeing the de-Christianization of the Middle East, the extinction of Oriental Orthodoxy. The Coptic Church in Egypt is the most substantial bulwark against the total completion of the process, because 8 million is just too large a number for the rest of the world to accept comfortably. We’ll see what happens in the future.

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