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

February 15, 2019

Salman Rushdie and me, 20 years on

Filed under: Islam — Razib Khan @ 6:44 pm
Readers of this weblog know that I have a peculiar relationship to the Salman Rushdie controversy in the late 1980s. When I first heard the name “Salman Rushdie” and book called The Satanic Verses I was by chance not in the United States. I happened to be spending my winter vacation in Bangladesh and was […]

December 5, 2018

Criticizing Islam is turned into “hate speech” on Facebook

Filed under: Islam,Religion — David Hume @ 11:49 pm

Obviously, this isn’t happening to everyone who criticizes Islam. But someone like Abdullah Sameer is getting popular, and he’s a pretty attractive face for apostasy from Islam. He was until recently a rather conservative Muslim himself. He’s the person you need to shut up if you want to retain Muslims.

As he notes manipulating Facebook isn’t that hard for motivated individuals. And the platform has billions of people on it. Hundreds of millions at least are Muslim. For Muslims traditionally apostasy has been a serious crime, analogous to treason. Which is why the customary punishment (albeit often not enforced) is death.

Sameer speaking in a way that makes it obvious he’s not crazy is really the problem from this perspective. So they shut him down by any means necessary. From a Muslim perspective, he’s dragging people down to hell. And Facebook isn’t the public square, they’re a massive corporation that needs to make governments and diverse cultures happy. Though obviously, Facebook doesn’t necessarily support blasphemy laws, it’s probably not a high priority to clamp down on this sort of coordinated behavior. After all, who is going to complain?

People who are passionate ex-Muslims are a small and marginal group. Muslims are a huge group. As for progressives, it’s much more important to throw a shit-fit over something Richard Dawkins says (without any knowledge of what the call to prayer is actually saying), than put the spotlight on this sort of illiberal behavior and the culture from which it emerges. Such are the wages of “allyship.”

November 17, 2018

The creation of Islam in Late Antiquity

Filed under: Islam — Razib Khan @ 10:24 pm

Periodically people ask me my opinion of Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire. I don’t have an opinion because I haven’t read it. Many years ago I took an interest in the topic of Islamic revisionism, and from what I can tell the field hasn’t moved that much in terms of clarity. Rather, Holland’s project in the book has been to repackage it for lay audiences.

Basically, it seems Holland wants to do to Islam what has happened to Christianity over the past few centuries in the West: turn it into a natural phenomenon and not part of the numen of the cosmos. Though a fair number of traditionalist Christian believers exist, many people who say they are Christians are often quite aware of revisionist theories about their religion. It’s not taboo or shocking. It’s just the norm.

Consider Candida Moss’s book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. Moss is a Roman Catholic, who published The Myth of Persecution while a professor of the New Testament at Roman Catholic Notre Dame University. As the title indicates Moss challenges one of the foundational beliefs about the rise of early Christianity: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed  of the Church.” And yet she remains identified as a Christian, a professor of the New Testament.

Most educated Christians are probably vaguely aware that the four synoptic gospels were written between 70 AD and 100 AD. And, because of the Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code many people are aware that the development of early Christianity was to some extent a cumulative process (even though Brown’s description is totally off base).

Before the 19th century, most Christians did not even comprehend that their religion could be viewed in such a critical-rationalist manner. They were not necessarily “fundamentalists” as we would understand them. Some apologists for Catholicism arguing against early scripturalist Reformers even pointed out inconsistencies within the Bible to illustrate the futility of sola scriptura. But, Christians accepted their traditions and beliefs in a relatively innocent manner (though the debunking of the Donation of Constantine occurred rather early).

The vast majority of Muslims today are where Christians were several centuries ago. Even liberal Muslims, or atheists from a Muslim background, tend to accept the traditional view as the view which they reject piecemeal or in totality. As for as the origins and rise of Islam and the Arab empires, Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests lays out the traditional received model.

Kennedy’s book focuses on the Umayyads, the first hereditary dynasty of the Islamic world (an earlier book was on the Abbasids-When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World).  Kennedy does not write from the perspective of a Muslim historian, but a Western historian who takes the Muslim sources at face value (he acknowledges in the introduction that there is a revisionist view, though that is not his book).

The story is a simple one. Muhammad founds a new monotheistic religion in pagan Arabia, and after his death in 632 the tribes united in the faith explode out of their desolate peninsula. In 636 these forces defeat both the Romans and the Persians. Within a few decades the Muslims rule a vast swath of territory, and in 661 the Umayyad dynasty is inaugurated with the reign of Muawiya I, who reputation and fame would likely be greater if history had not been written by the enemies of his dynasty. One of the reasons that the Umayyads have a low reputation is that their interpretation of Islam was closely tied to their Arab tribal identity. Their religion was not quite the trans-ethnic one that would flourish under the Abbasids. Some Islamic scholars even called the Umayyads the “Arab Kingdom” (the title “king” is considered un-Islamic).

What is the revisionist story that Holland wants to tell?  The outline is simple: in the first two generations after the Arab conquest, the Arabs were not Muslims as we, or they, would understand it. Holland specifically seems to believe that Islam as a religious ideology that bounds together the Arab ruling class of the Umayyad domains crystallized during the reign of Abd al-Malik in the 680s AD. This is fifty years after the death of Muhammed, and nearly four decades after the conquest of the Near East and Persia.

There are is a lot more to what Holland believes went down. To get a good sense, watch his 2012 documentary on Youtube.

Do I believe it? Obviously, I don’t believe that Muhammad is a prophet of God, since I don’t believe in God. But, that doesn’t mean that Muhammad didn’t think he was a prophet of God and that his followers were insincere. The rise of Islam is a fundamentally material affair. There is no magic. That would come later with Sufi saints with miraculous powers.

One reason we can have this debate is that the sources are sparse and vague. This may sound strange to say, but as an example, we have very little written records that come down from pre-Islamic Persia. For our knowledge of the ancient and early medieval world we are faced with three major periods of massive literary production: in Baghdad in the 9th century, under Charlemagne in the 9th, in Constantinople in the 10th. The 7th century was a period of stress and deprivation in the East Roman Empire, as it lost massive territory to the Arabs. But one thing that seems clear is that these East Romans did not have a clear sense of the Arabs as practitioners of a new world religion that was not Christian. They were clear that they were ethnic Arabs, but not clear that they were anything but heretics or some sort.

The sparsity of “non-traditional” sources means that revisionists have to engage in deep philological analysis of the extant sources, an enterprise which is beyond the ken of non-specialists to evaluate. I have no strong opinions on whether Muhammad existed or not. Nor am I sure that Mecca and Medina as holy sites were later additions to the history of Islam (revisionists tend to believe that the Arabs emerged out of the Syrian desert, not from further south). I suspect in a lot of the details Holland is incorrect. But I do not think that the orthodox view is correct in the details either.

The Late Antique world was not as neatly sectarian as we might imagine. It was messily sectarian. The advance of Islam in the domains under the rule of the Arab Caliphates was uneven. Substantial regions of Iran proper remained under the rule of Zoroastrian kings as late as the 9th century, and Muslims were probably not a majority in Iran until the 10th century.

The Levant and Mesopotamia had a Christian majority for centuries under the rule of the Umayyads and Abbasids. In The Rise of Western Christendom Peter Brown claims that Islamicization in the Near East was associated with Arabicization. That is, once Christian populations switched to Arabic as their everyday language, conversion to Islam became much more feasible.

But knowing what we know about other religions it seems implausible to me that Islamic emerged out of the desert in the fully formed manner that Muslim tradition implies. The rise of Christianity is a clear case of debates, arguments, and gradual rough consensus over a period of decades and later centuries. When it comes to younger religions such as that of the Bahai or Mormonism, we can see in “real time” how religions can evolve after the death of their founders. The Bahai religion has its roots in Shia revivalism, but eventually, it transformed itself into a post-Muslim world religion. Though Mormons retain a Christian identity, their theology is extremely exotic in comparison to the Christian mainstream.

The Umayyad positive attitudes toward Late Antique Hellenism and their total co-option of the East Roman system is suggestive of a barbarian conquest elite, not an ideologically motivated one. The Rashidun period and the life of Muhammad may always be mysteries to us, but they almost certainly do point to unlikely events in the Arabian Peninsula (or its liminal zone) which resulted in the military mobilization of Arabs bent on conquest. Islam’s emergence in a form more recognizable to us in the late 7th century may have been an inevitable result of declining cohesion of the Arab conquest elite, and the necessity of an ideology to bind them together, along with notables from conquered populations.

And of course, we know that the 8th and 9th centuries saw the transformation of Islam in a deeper and more thoroughgoing manner, with the shift to the east of the Abbassids and the emergence of the ulema class and the marginalizations of philosophy. But that needed the ideology of empire, and that ideology did not emerge de novo from the desert. Islam did not create an empire, the empire necessitated the precipitation of Islam.

October 29, 2018

Muslims have always known how weird Saudi Arabia is

Filed under: Islam,Saudi Arabia — Razib Khan @ 9:40 am

I’m not a big fan of Hasan Minhaj’s “Millennial smug” style of comedy. What it really reminds me is Brad Stine’s “Christian comedy.” It’s aimed toward ingroups and comes off as tone-deaf and stupid to outgroups. So you know what you’re getting into.

That being said, as someone who is Muslim Minhaj has always “gotten” the issue with Saudi Arabia. Most Muslims I have known, from very conservative Salafi types to irreligious cultural varieties, have strange and strong attitudes toward Saudi Arabia. Even the most conservative often have mixed attitudes, because Saudi Arabia may sponsor Salafism worldwide, but no one can deny that the ruling family are hypocrites in their private practice.

Believing Muslims though have to admit that the Saudis are currently the guardians of Islam’s holy sites, and, the kingdom provides a great deal of money for various Muslim causes as well as Muslims more generally. And of course, Saudi Arabia has been a source of employment for many Muslims from outside the kingdom for many decades.

The fact that we are “having a discussion” about Saudi Arabia as if there is a discussion to have is a testament to the power of money in public discourse, and how one can buy elite complicity.

September 29, 2018

Muslims are not a People of the Book

Filed under: Cognitive Science,Islam,Religion — Razib Khan @ 1:29 pm

Recently I became a patron of the Secular Jihadists podcast. Ten years ago this wouldn’t be a big deal, but as a “grown-up” with three kids I’m much more careful to where I expend my discretionary income. So take that as a stronger endorsement than usual. I think Secular Jihadists is offering a nonsubstitutable good today. By which I mean a robust, but not cliched or hackneyed, critique of the religion of Islam. For various reasons the modern-day cultural Left has become operationally Islamophilic in public, while the political Right isn’t really too concerned with details of fact and nuance when they level critiques against Islam.

On this week’s episode, the hosts talked about the life of Muhammad, focusing some of the rather unpalatable aspects of his biographies as they’ve been passed down in tradition (in the Hadiths), or as can be found in the Koran. Armin Navabi points out that the prophet of Islam married Safiyya bint Huyeiy Ibn Akhtab on the day her father and husband were killed by his forces. Therefore Navabi’s interpretation, which is entirely in keeping with our modern values, is that Muhammad raped a woman on the day her father and husband were killed.

Of course, this behavior is not shocking in the pre-modern world. In the Illiad Hector’s widow, Andromache, eventually becomes the concubine of Neoptolemus. He is the son of Achilles, who killed Hector. And, in many traditions, Neoptolemus is the one who kills Andromache’s infant son by Hector, Astyanax. Eventually, the son of Neoptolemus by Andromache inherits his kingdom.

Obviously, the Illiad plays things up for drama, but I think it correctly reflects the values of a pre-modern tribal society. One of my favorite books is Jonathan Kirsch’s The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible. Like the Illiad, the Hebrew Bible has within in stories that reflect values of pre-modern societies very different from ours. Moses, like Muhammad, was a military and political leader as well as a religious prophet, and so it is entirely unsurprising that he was a participant in and director of what we would today term war crimes.

The question from the perspective of the hosts of the Secular Jihadists podcast is how Muslims will react to the fact that in the Koran itself, which most Muslims take to be the literal recitation of the words of God through Muhammad, documents the founder of the religion engaging in sex and war crimes. I think the truth though is that most Muslims won’t be very impacted by these revelations, because for most Muslims Islam is not reducible to the revelation within the Koran.

“Higher religions” tend to have scriptures and texts which serve as the scaffold for their intellectual superstructure. But most people who believe in these religions never read these texts. That’s because most people don’t read much, period. The organized institutional and multi-ethnic religions which have emerged over the last 3,000 years have a complex division of labor among the producers of religious “goods and services”, as well as among the consumers and identifiers. A minority are highly intellectualized, and these are the types who will record the history of the religion.

Nearly 2,000 years after his death we know a great deal about the life and times, and ideas, of the great Christian theologian Origen. We know far less about the life and times of the average believer. But I believe that the structure, organization, and folkways of the Christian church in the first half of the 3rd century were arguably far more instrumental in the religion’s success in the 4th century than the particular philosophical arguments which Origen so brilliantly expounded.

Of course from the perspective of many nonbelievers, this seems perverse. Islam, for one, makes a book the very foundation of the religion. And yet ultimately religion persists not because of specific books and beliefs, but general intuitions and cultural phenomena which are evoked by those intuitions. Many people have strong intuitions about “how the world works.” The beliefs of some indigenous tribes about the role of animistic forces may seem bizarre and strange in the particularity, but in the generality, they are totally comprehensible.

Within Islam, it is commonly asserted that Muhammad was the perfect human being. Ergo, a perfect model of how to behave. Additionally, most Muslims accept that the Koran is a literal and straightforward rendering of the facts of Muhammad’s life. The logical implication of this is that the perfect human being had no compunction making use of sex slaves.

But I think a focus on logic misses the mark in understanding most human cultural phenomena, which have cognitive roots. Our reasoning faculties are slow and faulty. Other aspects of our psychology, often habitual, rule our day to day lives. Of course this varies by person to person. Perhaps the greatest lesson we need to take from the last generation of cognitive science is that those who live by ratiocination more than reflex are a very small and peculiar minority, no matter how they unconsciously rewrite history (because they’re the ones doing the writing).

September 14, 2018

Between the saffron and scimitar

Filed under: India,Islam,Islamicate — Razib Khan @ 10:10 pm

On my other weblog I have a post, On The Instrumental Uses Of Arabic Science, which reflects on the role that the idea of science, the Islamic world, and cultural myopia, play in our deployment of particular historical facts and dynamics. That is, an idea, a concept, does not exist on an island but is embedded in a cultural environment. Several different contexts.

My father is a professional scientist, and a Muslim who lives in the West. In our house there was always a copy of The Bible, the Qu’ran and Science: The Holy Scriptures Examined in the Light of Modern Knowledge. To those not convinced about the beliefs of Islam, as I never was, it was not a convincing book. But it played a particular role in my father’s life of the mind as both a Muslim and a scientist. Its arguments were less important in their detail than that a French scientist had written a book showing that Islam and science were compatible and that in fact, the Koran had prefigured scientific truths.

The intellectual achievements of medieval Islam, particularly the phase focused around the House of Wisdom, are a real thing in and of themselves. But more often they exist as tools for the implicit or explicit agendas of particular peoples with ends which are separate and distinct from an understanding of the past on its own terms.

For many Muslims, this period defines what Islam could have been. Should have been. More traditionalist Muslims will have a relatively understated take, and perhaps attribute the passing of this period due to external forces (e.g., the collapse of central authority by the end of the 9th century). More progressive Muslims will make a bolder claim, that Islam, that Muslims, made the wrong decisions internally (al-Ghazali often emerges as a villain).

A modernist, perhaps Whiggish, take would be that the 9th century of Islam was a “false dawn.” Illustrative of the acidic power of rationality, but an instance when it receded in the face of faith (the Mutazilites often become heroes in these tales). A more multiculturalist and contemporary progressive Western take would likely emphasize that Islamic cultural production was just as ingenious as that of the West, and its diminishment was due to the suffocating effect of colonialism.

But there are even more exotic takes one could propose. The shift from the Umayyads in Damascus to the Abbasids in Baghdad was a shift of the Islamic world from the west to the east. The prominence of Iranian culture during the latter period was palpable. The Caliph al-Mamun was half Iranian, and almost moved the capital of the Abbasids to Merv in Khorasan. The Barmakid family were ethnically Iranian, but also originally hereditary Buddhists. The historian of Central Asia, Christopher Beckwith, has alluded to an “Indian period” of Islamic civilization when the influence from Dharmic religion and Indian culture was strong. For example, Beckwith and others have argued that the madrassa system derives from that of Central Asian viharas.

But ultimately this post and this blog is not about Classical Islamic civilization and history. Rather, I want to pivot to the discussion of Islam and India.

This blog now gets in the range of the same amount of traffic as my other weblog. But a major difference is the source of traffic. About two times as many visitors to this weblog come from the USA as India. So Americans are dominant. But, on my other weblog, 15 times as many visitors come from the USA as India. Additionally, since this is a group weblog, I’m pretty liberal about comments, and so this weblog receives between 10 to 100 times as many comments as my other weblog. Obviously, since most people in the world are stupid, many of the comments are stupid. I try to ignore that.

Rather, let me focus on the “hot-button” issue of Islam and India, and how it impacts people here. In the comments of this weblog. Let’s divide the comment(ers) into two stylized camps. Or actually, one person and another camp. The person is commenter Kabir, who has taken it upon himself to defend the honor of Indo-Islamic civilization. On the face of it, that’s not a major problem, but he tends to take extreme offense and demand linguistic and topical policing that’s frankly rather obnoxious (this tendency extends beyond Islam, as he is a living personification of Syme). He’s a bully without the whip. Kabir is somewhat annoying, but I can honestly I can always just delete his comments. He’s one person.

In contrast, there are those who Kabir calls “Hindu nationalists.” This is a broad slur on his part, as it basically seems to include any person from a Hindu background who disagrees with any particular social-religious take he has in relation to the Indian subcontinent or Islam. If someone who was a Chinese Catholic lesbian left a common where their identity wasn’t clear, and they disagreed with Kabir’s take, he would no doubt accuse them of being a “Hindu nationalist.”

If you have a hammer, everything is a nail!

But, there are genuine Hindu nationalists who read this weblog of various stripes. I have friends who personally lean toward this direction in their politics, though they are cosmopolitan in their private life. On the other hand, there are others who are more backward and probably as crazy as Kabir depicts them. Honestly, I’ve never met these people in real life…most “Indian” people I meet are either coconuts like me or cosmopolitan blockchain engineers.

At this point, I should step back and reintroduce myself. Unlike many people from an Islamic background who are now rather frankly irreligious, I did not have a traumatic relationship with Islam. Or religion. My parents mostly raised me as a nominal Muslim, so my atheism came about naturally and at a young age. And, unlike some atheists from a Muslim background, I did not grow up in a Muslim community. Neither did I grow up in an immigrant community. I grew up in Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton’s America as the token brown kid. I have only come to know other brown people of all religions and background as an adult. My stance is one of curiosity, and sometimes perplexment. I have a few memories of distaste when it came to attending masjid as a child because in hindsight it is clear I never believed in what they were saying and saw it as a massive waste of time and totally sterile.

But due to this perspective, I don’t have strong opinions on South Asian politics. I wish atheists and free-thinkers would get a little break in Bangladesh. Pakistan as a nation should go see a good therapist about its identity crisis. And in India, the saffron brigade should chill out on their paranoia on all things “foreign.” The British are gone. And the Muslims are a minority (also, I had a medium-rare hamburger with bacon today!).

Which brings me to the concerns of the Hindu nationalists, and their relationship to Islam. Their hatred of Islam. Their love of Islam. Their inability to quit Islam.

Imagine a beautiful bully. A bully with the social and interpersonal skills to hide their behavior. To get away with it. If Hindu nationalists were to personify the historical rage they feel, that seems to be their attitude toward Islam. What genetics is telling is that though South Asians are diverse, we’re a distinctive and recognizable branch of the human race that emerged out of particular social and historical dynamics that occurred between three and eight thousand year ago.

And yet Hindu nationalists see that one out of three South Asians now identifies as something distinct, part of an alienated (from South Asia) worldwide brotherhood. They used to be called Indians. What used to be called Hindus. But they are alienated from their own ancestral identity now. Their forenames are Ali or Pervez. Their surnames are Islam or Khan. Many of their sartorial choices and customs are dictated by the whims of a 7th century Arab and the norms of his community. Some even have the gall and conceit to claim to be scions of the Arab, Persian, or Turk, when their very faces give the lie to that claim.

As someone emotionally, personally, detached from the Indian subcontinent and its identities this is what I see. What I observe.

As a participant, even at the margins, my perspectives exist as well. Because the social norms in Islam outside of the West look dimly upon irtidāds, my general stance all things equal is to look where the Muslims stand, and take the opposite position. The mainstream view within Islam is that apostasy is punished due to its social and political implications. That is, it is treason. The punishment for treason is death.

Which brings me to reflect on attempting to understanding what Islam is, and why it is the way it is. Most atheists who have never been religious tend to have certain personalities. We’re not really intuitive people. We’re more analytic types. To understand a religion we believe that we should understand its doctrines.

This is easiest with Protestant Christianity, which in the United States of America is defined by a confessional individualistic orientation. That is, religious identity is fluid, and contingent on the freely given profession of faith in the doctrines of a particular sect. More liturgical forms of Christianity, such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, are somewhat different, but the overall emphasis on particularities of belief remains.

The landscape changes once one moves to Judaism and Islam, which are both orthopraxic religions. That is, traditional Judaism and Islam have highly developed tradition of religious law which apply to all believers, and not simply religious professionals. At least notionally. Though particular beliefs about the nature of God remain at the heart of customary Judaism and Islam, on the balance formulaic orthodoxy is not given as much overwhelming weight.

Whereas early Christians underwent conflicts over the precise nature of the Trinitarian doctrinal formula, early Muslims divided predominantly along lines of the nature of religious leadership.

When we move to the Dharmic traditions and Chinese and Japanese religion, the landscape alters again. I will forgo exploration of this topic since it is not germane to the post. Suffice to say I am well aware of the diversity and particularity across all these traditions.

Rather, let’s take a step back to Islam. The brutal bully whose life is charmed. The standard narrative is that Islam spread rapidly over a century, from the Indus to the shores of the Atlantic. It is a stupendous feat.

How did this happen? Naturally, Muslims will assert that it was the will of God himself. Islam succeeded in its audacity because it is true. Those of us who are not Muslim do not accept this viewpoint, because to us Islam is obviously not true.

So what explanation can we kaffirs give for this feat? A natural one adhered to by many is that Islam is by its doctrinal nature well suited to obtaining submission, and then in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome those who submit to conquest convert their own identity so they become partners in their own oppression and that of others. This model is one where the sons of pagans, Christians, and Hindus bow before Allah on High and smite the unbeliever in their own turn, in a devilish radius of conquest outward from the center.

And the blueprint is all there in the Koran and the Sunnah. All that one needs to do is to execute the plan was there in the beginning. All the snake had to do was uncoil.

To a great extent, this was my view 15 years ago. Because I was an atheist who had never been religious this made sense to me, because religion was about ideology, and the Islamic ideology was plainly one of submission. After all, Islam means “submission to God.”

Though I have never been a believer in a non-Muslim religion, my impression is that many non-Muslims find this also an easy way to understand Islam. Muslim majoritarianism has traditionally been brutal to non-Muslims, and it isn’t as if Muslims keep their doctrines and practices secret. Their contempt for kaffirs derives naturally from the nature of the religion, not some perverse heritable trait. Muslims are taught to have contempt for non-Muslims. They aren’t born with it.

Of course, there are those who disagree with this position for political and cultural reasons. These are the type of people who claim that Islam is a peaceful religion of tolerance. These people are either lying or deluded. Ultimately they don’t really care about Islam, they care about their own particular positions in culture wars fundamentally having nothing to do with Islam.

Over the years though I have come to revise my views about why Islam is the way it is and how it got to be the way it is. On the whole, I don’t really disagree with my earlier view that Muslims and Islamic societies tend to be characterized by intolerance and exclusion. These are not societies that I would ever want to be a member of. But, I have come to believe that this is less due to the fundamental nature of Islamic doctrine, and more due to historically contingent events. In other words, Islam and Muslim societies are the way they are for reasons that have nothing to do with the doctrines and scriptures of Islam.

This revision in my views has two broad sources. One is the cognitive anthropology of religion. This is a discipline which allows someone like me, who has never been religious, inside the minds of those who believe. Like many sciences, the findings of this field are confusing, startling, and often counter-intuitive. Glossing over the details, I will say though that they have convinced me that the logical consequences from doctrine given by the religious are almost always post facto rationalizations, and not a true inference via propositional logic. This applies to all religions. And it applies to Islam itself.

Consider that 2,000 years ago a poor and pacifistic Jewish preacher triggered a cultural revolution that led to the emergence of a world religion. That world religion eventually became the heart of a civilization that went on to commit the greatest quantity of acts of violent brutality on an aggregate basis in the history of our species. The line between the prince of peace and slaughtering heretics and enslaving Africans is peculiar indeed.

Second, contingent history matters. It will not here recapitulate revisionist scholarship about Islam, but I do not think it unreasonable to contend that much of what we know about Islam developed in the century after the conquest. In other words, the Arabs did not conquer as Muslims, the conquerors became Muslims. The shape of Islam then was defined by the reality that emerged within the context of being an imperial religion, just as the nature of Jews after the failure of the second rebellion against the Romans until the founding of the state of Israel was one of being a pacific and supine religion.

Many Indian commenters on this weblog promote a view of Islam, and the Abrahamic religions to a lesser extent, that is in line with my views from 15 years ago. It’s there right to hold these views, but I will object when individuals assume that these views are self-evidently true. Descriptively I tend to agree with Hindu nationalists that many Muslims of Hindu descent exhibit some level of Stockholm Syndrome, reveling in the brutal conquest of their black ancestors by Muslim Turks. But when it comes to the cause of the symptoms…that is a more complex thing than they are willing to credit in my opinion.

The ideological and missionary impulse of Islam is clearly a real doctrinal thing. And that makes it different from most streams of Hinduism. But there are far more contingent sequences of events than I think we often acknowledge.

Which brings me to the reality that contingent history that has happened cannot be unhappened. The history of Islam within India is a fact. 1,000 years of domination is a fact. Centuries of domination across much of the subcontinent by alien Muslim elites is a fact. It is a fact that the most glamorous ruling dynasty of the last 1,000 years in the Indian subcontinent was that of the Mughals. Though to some extent culturally and genetically assimilated, this ruling dynasty was of Turco-Mongol provenance, and always bowed down to a religion for which India was not holy.

Over the past few centuries, Indians have by and large shucked off Muslim domination. Those areas which are Muslim dominated are no longer India, being distinct nation-states. But the weight of history still hangs over the subcontinent. One could attempt to make the case that the 1,000 years when Muslim ghazis ran roughshod over the subcontinent was an aberration, a fever dream. But the very act of purifying languages of their Arabic and Persian words points to the reality that the serum of the aliens was injected into the veins of Indian civilization.

Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and many Indian Muslims, especially those of the northern states, have their own deep identity crises. Many of them are raised with a deep and abiding contempt for the traditions and folkways of the non-Muslim peoples of the subcontinent, but on some level most must understand that these non-Muslims are the same people as their own were before the great change. Whereas the vast majority of Persians converted to Islam, and bent the knee to the Arabs for whom they had and still have so much contempt, the majority of South Asians remain non-Muslim. Witness to the cultural identity which Muslims in the subcontinent have turned their backs upon.

And yet many Hindus, envious of the vigor of the Muslims, noticing their international connections, and confused by the bizarre Islamophilic tendencies of the progressive West, may have to admit that the history of Islam is now also part of their history. The Sufi orders which were so instrumental to the spread of Islam served to buttress the great Indo-Islamic polities with their institutional heft, may themselves have been transmuted from Buddhist religious communities early Muslims encountered in eastern Iran and in Turan. If Islam is the snake, then part of the root of the serpent is ultimately Hindu, that is, Indian. It could be no other way, as Islam is the youngest of the great world religions. Constructed from preexistent modules perfected in other traditions. It was a computer assembled at home from commodity parts.

But even aside from older traditions’ roles in shaping Muslim thought, practice, and institutions, the educated Hindu of 1800 AD surely was influenced and impacted by the arrival and domination by Muslims in comparison to their precursor in 800 AD. Today in the West there are neopagans and other assorted post-Christian types who wish to recapture ancestral pre-Christian spirituality. The problem they always run up against is that that spirituality is passed down only due to the efforts of Christians, often clerics, who in the act of selection and modification likely reframed the old ways in more Christian terms. And, the lived pagan tradition was broken long ago, distributed and diffused through rural folk customs among unlettered peasants who transformed rapidly into modern urban Europeans just as the Romantic pagan awakening was beginning.

Obviously, Hinduism does not have such a great rupture. The tradition of Adi Shankara lives on. Religious reformers and innovators such a Chaitanya Mahaprabhu flourished even under Muslim Afghan rule. There is no need to reconstruct and resurrect Hinduism because it is a lived tradition. But Hinduism, Indian culture, Indian nationality, as it was before the Muslims arrived in large numbers is gone, transmuted and transformed into something new. But even if we can’t move backward, there is no shame in moving forward to better things.

Addendum: Muslim scholars, such as Shadi Hamid (and I believe our own Omar Ali), do sometimes claim that Islam is sui generis. That it may be ideologically, constitutively, resistant to secularism and the normal process of pacification of religion. This is not a crazy position and can be well argued, and to be frank, I am quite open to being convinced again of my old views.

September 12, 2018

On the instrumental uses of Arabic science

Filed under: Arabic science,History of Science,Ibn Sina,Islam,Muslim Science — Razib Khan @ 8:41 pm

A new piece in Aeon, Forging Islamic science: Fake miniatures depicting Islamic science have found their way into the most august of libraries and history books. How? is quite rich food for thought. The nuts & bolts of the story are interesting enough, but perhaps the bigger picture is the emergence of (to borrow a phrase) “the idea of Islamic science.”

On the most general level, the spread of these obvious fakes is a matter of the epidemiology of ideas. Basically, the ubiquity of these fakes is like the spread of chain letters or viruses which hack our cognitive biases. By analogy, consider the fondness for Qing China exhibited by some early modern European thinkers, such as Leibniz and Voltaire. With hindsight, it is clear that their affection for Chinese civilization was a reflection more upon their critique and aspiration of their own civilization. For Leibniz, bureaucratic rationalism, and Voltaire, secular humanism.

Centuries on their Sinophilia is of academic interest as a fragment of cultural history which brings into salience particular currents which bubbled up during the period of both European modernization and development vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and the last contact that European civilization made with a powerful and self-assured alien civilization, that of China under the Kangxi Emperor, Yongzheng Emperor, and Qianlong Emperor. If you want to understand China during this period, its culture and politics, then these early modern thinkers are not the ones to consult. Their opinions and views on China shed more light on currents in their own culture than the reality in China.

A similar thing happened to Islam and Islamic civilization after the 18th century.  As Western civilization was secularizing some intellectuals pointed to the world of Islam as evidence that some tolerance of pluralism would be sustainable and preferable. What is being alluded to here is the system of formalized tolerance of the “People of the Book”, dhimmis, within Islam from its earliest period. But the highlighting of the Muslim alternative was less about Muslims and more about the reality of a post-Reformation early modern Europe riven by sectarian pluralism, as well as incipient secularization of a substantial numbers of intellectuals who began to perceive themselves as dissenters from the regnant orthodoxy as a class.

There is a scholarly study that engages in the exploration of the development and crystallization of the Muslim system of tolerance of religious minorities. That scholarship plumbs into the depths of the early formalization of Islam as a distinctive confession and civilization, and its roots (including the tolerance of dhimmis) in Byzantine and Sassanian practice. But when most people speak of the tolerance of early Islam in the West, they are speaking about and engaging issues related to the West, not Islam, which is simply a tool or instrument in an argument particular to factions within the West.

Going back to this specific issue, the fabrication of the depiction of “Islamic science,” there is a particular social and cultural context in the West that needs to be highlighted (as opposed to the Muslim world, which is a somewhat different dynamic, and analogous to the rise of Vedic science). Early modern secular intellectuals who contrasted the intolerance of Christian civilization to the relative tolerance of Islamic civilization were working implicitly within a modernist framework where objective truth would eventually pave the way for a universal civilization which would evolve out of the post-Christian West. This attitude is exemplified by the liberal French nobleman, Stanislas Marie Adélaïde, comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, who when arguing for removing various restrictions on Jews declared “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.”

These modernist conceits of clear and distinct universal truths and moralities leading to a common human ethos have fallen by the wayside. Rather, today many who espouse multiculturalist viewpoints are careful not to aver that one culture is superior or more advanced than another. This assumption means that today many reject a progressive and Whiggish view of history which implicitly highlights Western exceptionalism between 1700 and the current age.

These people may not be comfortable with the assertion that the form of intellectual inquiry that emerged out of Renaissance natural philosophy that we today call science is sui generis. A particular expression of the genius of Western civilization. Rather, what it is appealing toward many with a multiculturalist viewpoint, where all cultures have notionally similar ethical values, is that all cultures produce their own form of science, just as valuable, exceptional, and illustrative of universal human genius.

With Islam and science anyone with superficial interest in the topic can be easily convinced of the genius of individuals such as Ibn Sina. If the the great Bukharan polymath had been born today it would not be surprising if perhaps he became a scholar of some renown. But the reality is that most of the people who will tell you that Islam once had great scientists could not name a single scientist of pre-modern Islam. Just as with Voltaire and the Chinese, modern Western intellectuals who have moved beyond Whiggishness and naive modernism see in other cultures something that serves to critique and comment on their own. The legend of Islamic science is an instrument, a tool, in a particular deconstruction of the “myth” of Western science.

A curious aspect of this viewpoint, which is in some ways highly relativistic in relation to epistemology (“other ways of knowing”), is that it is also highly universalistic in ethics. Other cultures are shoehorned into frameworks and paradigms of Western making, particular mirrors through which all are seen darkly.

This is the same observation that could be made of early modern Whiggishness, where all cultures are seen as ascending slowly up a ladder of complexity and progress, with Northwest Europe in particular leading the way. Whigs viewed history in a linear fashion, and all societies could be placed along the sequence.

So what’s the multiculturalist/progressive/post-modern analog? It is common today in progressive Western circles to strive toward radical gender, sexual, and ethnoreligious egalitarianism. Justice. Many a time I have seen that patriarchy or sexual traditionalism are presumed to be colonial (white, Western) impositions on other societies. Western Muslims of a progressive bent may even assert that Islam is fundamentally and originally feminist and egalitarian. Hindu progressives likewise may highlight the depictions of sex acts Khajuraho temple complex as indicative of a liberal and tolerant attitude toward these matters before the arrival of the British, who introduced conservative bourgeois morals (note that often the terminology itself points to the operation of these individuals in a very Western tradition).

Nearly two hundred years ago the British Whigh politician Thomas Macaulay declared:

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

Today progressive Westerners would never say such a thing. In part, because they would never assert that the West, and its culture, was in any way superior to that of the non-West. On the contrary, the tacit assumption might be that it was the West which manufactured and perfected the modes of oppression which spread across the world and caused human misery. With decolonization and the recession of Western imperialism, one would then see a diminishment of oppression and presumably human misery.

The difference between a 19th century liberal such as Thomas Macaulay is that whereas he perceived that the Indians would have to change their morals and develop their intellects to ever be equal to the English, today his progressive counterpart fundamentally assumes that the natural state of humanity was one of moral and intellectual equivalence. That is, oppression, the subjugation of women and minorities, the “marginalized”, was invented by Western Europeans, and imposed on non-Europeans. It is Western colonialists who brought the sin of oppression into the garden. They were responsible for the fall from ethical perfection, the stage of original grace.

Non-Europeans do differ from Europeans, but only in matters of detail, outward dress, food, and architecture. Accidents. But in matters of essence, there is no difference at all.

This conceit leads to all sorts of confusions.

After purchasing his papers, John Maynard Keynes declared Isaac Newton “was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians.” One can not deny that Isaac Newton was a genius, invariant of the age. Nor can one deny his scientific contributions, which modern undergraduates doing any scientific course of study must master to some extent. But the world of Isaac Newton was a different world, where witches were still burned, and men and women the British Isles could still be executed for atheism. People did science, but not quite in the modern way. People were religious, but not quite in the modern way. There is a gap between 1700 and 2000.

Similarly, the ancient Greeks did science. But it was different from modern science, which is contingent on a sequence of events which are rooted in the latter Rennaissance. Did the Muslims of the “Islamic Golden Age” do science? I would say so. But like the Greeks, it was different from what came later (one could say the same of the “Aristotelian Renaissance”).

One must take the history of different cultures on their own terms, and understand them in the broad scope of human history. Theories are useful, but only in concert with a genuine engagement of the empirical record. Whigs and Marxists had theories, which grasped at essential fragments of reality but often obscured critical detail. There is a particular type of fashionable intellectual today who claims to eschew theory and focus on “thick description,” who nevertheless sneaks a particular theory of history through the back door, a variant of the “Noble Savage.”

In particular relation to “Islamic science,” there is some interesting detail in the texture of reality that is exposed when we attempt to understand it on its own terms. One thing which jumps out at you is that since most people are not particularly interested in the details, the terminology you use matters a great deal. Usually, we are focusing on the period between 750 A.D. and sometime around 1000 A.D. Now, when you use the term “Islamic Golden Age” or “Islamic science,” you obscure the reality that many prominent intellectuals during this period were not Muslim.

For example, Thabit ibn Qurra was a Sabian, which referred to the pre-Islamic and pre-Christian inhabitants of the city of Harran. The natives of Harran seem to have preserved religious traditions from Mesopotamian antiquity, in particular, astral cults. Additionally, they were also preservers and connoisseurs of Greek philosophical thought.

Though Sabians were exotic, Christians were dominant features of the scene during the early years of Islam and were instrumental in translation and preservation. In the Aeon piece, the author suggests that it should be called “Arab science” as opposed to “Islamic science.” But among the Muslims, most of the great thinkers were Iranians. That is Persians, or from related peoples. It is true that they wrote in Arabic, but Arabs were only a minority of the subjects of the Arab Caliphates before 1000 A.D. One reason Al-Kindi is exceptional is he was an Arab of the Arabs. A scion of an Arab tribe, with a lineage rooted in that ethnicity before Islam.

Matthew Cobb, an evolutionary biologist, uses the term “Arabic science” in his work to avoid these confusions. This reflects the fact that Arabic was the medium of communication between these scholars, irrespective of religion and ethnicity. In this way, it’s analogous to “Latin science,” which is probably a good term for the intellectual tradition which flourished in Western European during the Aristotelian Renaissance, and later on into the early modern period.

The universal moral of the story is that understanding history, and intellectual history, in particular, is hard. One must balance between commensurable universality and startlingly different local particularity. What is easy is co-opting and hijacking the shape of reality for one’s own ideological preferences. Humans are natural system-builders, theoretical thinkers. The reason being that systems allow one to come to conclusions without doing much research. Logical inference from presuppositions takes more mental effort than an intuitive reflex. But, it takes far less effort that researching the abyss of data from which one can make robust and genuine inferences, and test one’s theoretical reflexes.

But that journey is rewarding. Because it leads to understanding other peoples as ends unto themselves, rather than instruments.

September 10, 2018

The Muslim intrusion into India was probably inevitable

Filed under: India,Islam — Razib Khan @ 10:08 pm

Taking after Edward Gibbon it is often stated in some histories that the Islamicization of Europe was probably prevented by the defeat of the Muslim armies coming up from Spain by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours.

This is probably wrong for several reasons. First, with hindsight, it seems clear that people like to anchor on salient contingent events which seem plausible bifurcations in our timeline. This is a cognitive bias. The fact is that sally north of the Pyrenees into Francia was probably simply a probing raid, not the precursor to a full-scale invasion. At least that is the impression given by the Muslim textual records, which barely mention this battle (in contrast to the second Siege of Constantinople, which had occurred a few decades earlier). A raid is not a campaign.

Additionally, Muslim armies and corsairs operated north of the Pyrenees and in what became southern France for several centuries after 732. The defeat at the Battle of Tours was simply another battle in the gradual rollback of Islamic depredations in the Western Mediterranean. Perhaps more important was the shift of the world-wide Islamic polity eastward with the emergence of the Abbasids in 750, and the detachment of western Muslim domains from Abbasid authority (a renegade Umayyad even reigned in Spain!).

Finally, limits of supply-lines and ecological constraints probably meant that a protracted campaign in Europe would have met difficulties that were less relevant for North Africa and Spain. The conquest of North Africa and Spain occurred in less than a generation (the conquest of the Maghreb was an opportunity opened during a period of tumult in Byzantium in the late 7th century) and were still recent when the Battle of Tours occurred. Additionally, ecologically North Africa and much of Spain were familiar to the Arabs, and in the latter case Berbers. This is not the case with Francia and much of Northern Europe. It is not well known, but Arab armies sallied north of the Caucasus into the territory of the Khazars for several centuries, but ultimately failed in permanent conquests, probably in part due to lack of preparation and experience with harsh cold (the lack of fitness of Arab armies for the harsh winters is noted in the texts).

Remember that the conquest of much of the more frigid regions of peripheral Europe occurred under the Ottoman Turks, who were culturally an Inner Asian people from Siberia.

Which brings us to India and the beginning of widescale Muslim intrusions under Mahmud of Ghazni. I immediately pointed out below that the true conquest, as opposed to raiding, did not occur until the late 12th century. But, to be honest, I think this is a minor detail, and the fact is that Muslim incursions were inevitable, and probably like to succeed to some extent, no matter the outcome of a particular battle.

The key here is less about Islam, and more about the period between 500 AD and 1500 AD, and what you see across Eurasia in terms of the balance of power between mobile people from Inner Asia, and the agricultural civilizations. In books as distinct as War! What Is It Good For? and Strange Parallels the authors observe that in the period after 500 AD, until the rise of “gunpowder empires”, pastoralists from the Inner Asian steppe were dominant, destructive, and overwhelming military forces (the Mongol conquests were the apotheosis, but not exceptional).

In Strange Parallels, the author reminds us that only a few societies among the Eurasian oikoumene polities avoided major shocks from pastoralists. Mainland Southeast Asia, Japan, and the far west of Europe were insulated from their depredations by and large.* The reason for this was almost certainly geography: Japan was separated by a sea from the mainland, while Southeast Asia and Western Europe were ecologically difficult for pastoralists to penetrate as well as distant. In “mainland Europe” the settlement of the Hungarian basin by repeated groups of steppe pastoralists, beginning with the Scythians and ending with the Magyars, is partly a function of the fact that its broad flat expanses were the westernmost suitable pastorage for large herds of horses typical on the Eurasian steppe.

In the centuries after 500 AD, most of the major civilizations of Eurasia were impacted by migrations of nomads seeking greener pastures. In China, the northern half of the country was occupied by various groups of Turkic origin between the Han and Sui-Tang. The southern half the country maintained local rule, in part because of the difficulty of penetration by pastoralists of the Yangzi basin. In the Near East, Persia was buffeted by both Inner Asians from the north, and Arabs from the southwest. The Arabs conquered Persia and severely diminished Byzantium. Like China, the persistence of part of Byzantium is probably due to geography: Constantinople occupied a strong position on the other side of Bosporus and could be provisioned by sea when encircled. The Persian heartland was much more exposed to the Arab advance (in contrast, the conquest of Turan took many centuries).

Which brings us to India. The pastoralist eruptions that impacted Persia also affected India. But, the initial impacts were of more political than cultural relevance. Groups like the Huna were absorbed into the South Asian cultural matrix.

The arrival of the Turks and Afghans after 1000 AD was different. These people, now Muslims, were not absorbed into the South Asian cultural matrix. The reason is obvious: with Islam, they had their own high culture, one which was assimilative insofar as native converts could be somewhat integrated into the ruling class, and unassimilable from the perspective of native elites due to its ideological and ritual predictions.

There is here a contrast to the Mongols who conquered China in the 13th century, and the Manchus who conquered it in the 17th century.

First, the raw numbers of Mongols and Manchus in comparison to Chinese was probably far less than the potential mobile Muslim populations which might have settled in India. In fact, Mongols who migrated west were eventually all assimilated into the Turkic or Persian cultural context due to the force of numbers (though they often retained genealogical awareness of part Mongol origins, as the Hazara and Timurids both did despite a Persian and Turkic cultural background).

Second, neither the Mongols or Manchus brought a hegemonic and oppositional high culture. The Mongols were predominantly shamanists, though a minority were Eastern Christians (Kubilai Khan’s mother was a member of the Church of the East, as was the norm among her tribe of Turks), and some were Muslims (the mass conversion of the Mongols to Buddhism occurred in the 16th century, prior to which they dabbled in Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, as well as their dominant shamanism). The Manchus generally favored shamanism, or, as was the norm among northern border peoples in China, a form of Buddhism. Neither of these prevented assimilation to the Chinese substrate, a major problem for the Manchus over the centuries (like Mongol ancestry, in today’s China “Manchu” national origin is more a matter of genealogy than culture, as the Manchu language is now moribund, only a few thousand out of millions of Manchu speak it).

In regard to India I want to pinpoint a few key issues:

  1. Starting around 1000 AD the whole zone of pastoralist western Inner Asia began to adopt Islam as its standard religious ideology. To a great extent, West Asian Muslim societies were captured by Inner Asians, and they served Inner Asian aims and goals. Societies such as Egypt were ruled for a thousand years by Inner Asians, who created a Mamluk system which depended upon continuous migration and recruitment from Inner Asia.
  2. India was arguably more “exposed” to this culture than China due to geography. While Inner Asians adjacent to Muslim West Asia adopted Islam, those nearest to China tended to be shamanist or Buddhist (Magyars and Bulgars adopted Western and Eastern Christianity respectively).
  3. Mobile Inner Asians, of any religion, were “natural” soldiers (though to be fair, it seems a consistent pattern that Inner Asians, such as Mongols, who were shamanist were less “civilized” and often better soldiers than those who converted to “higher religions”). In the period between 500 AD and 1500 AD mobile mounted warriors had major advantages in continuous warfare against settled peoples. The main way that settled societies held the pastoralists in check was through bribery or co-option, or both. The Byzantines and Chinese deployed both, elevating frontier peoples with mobile fighting skill to their ruling castes, as well as paying nomadic groups tribute. By and large West Asian Muslim societies co-opted and were conquered by Turks (or their Caucasian federates).
  4. India was subject to the same dynamic as West Asian societies: pastoralists from Inner Asia continuously migrated into the subcontinent for opportunities of exploitation and domination down the early colonial period. Each wave of migrants was more “raw,” and brought alien and alienated sensibilities, to the subcontinent.

In discussions with individuals of South Asian origin, there is some exploration of the possibility that Indians, Hindus, were naturally a less vigorous and martial people than Muslims. That Islam was a muscular and masculine ideology, while Hinduism was feminine and passive (Hindu nationalism then emerging through some dialectical process as a superior synthesis; muscular, masculine, and Hindu).

I believe that this analysis suffers mostly from the issue of confounds. In the period after 1000 AD with the exception of the Mongols under Genghis Khan, the Inner Asian intruders were all Muslim because they were drawn from the broad zone of Inner Asia where Islam was the dominant high culture. The reality is that after 1000 AD Iranian speaking peoples also were dominated by numerically smaller groups of Inner Asians. Reza Shah in the 20th century was the first major ethnic Iranian founder of a dynasty to much of Iran since the Buyids and Samanids.

The difference between Iran and India is that the former eventually became majority Muslim, while the latter remained majority non-Muslim. Iran’s relative pliability can even be seen in sect, as the Turco-Kurdish Safavids forcibly converted the Persians from their predominant practice of Sunni Islam to Twelver Shia Islam in the 16th century. But of course, demographics is an important variable here. There were probably always an order of magnitude more Indians than Iranians. In Turan Turkic languages became dominant, and in Iran proper, they remain a substantial minority. In India, Turkic languages never took hold, presumably because the numbers were never sufficient. An analogy here might be made with Egypt, where the Mamluk caste drawn from non-Arabs eventually Arabicized in language and identity.

As a follow-up to my post, India as a hydra against Islam, I will suggest then a two things:

  1. India is not comparable to West Asia because it is a more robust civilization with more demographic heft. Like parts of Europe it “absorbed” the Islamic demographic impact without being totally captured. The difference here is not qualitative, but quantitative. There were so many more Indians than Iranians that erosion of indigenous culture took much longer and was never complete.
  2. Unlike parts of Europe which absorbed the Inner Asian shock, such as Russia, India never managed to reorganize and turn the tide. To some extent, the Russians adopted Inner Asian tactics with their Cossack bridges (some of the Cossacks were assimilated Muslim Tatars).

But, the emergence of the Maratha in the 18th century and the Sikh Empire in the 19th century, illustrate that a South Asian counter-reaction was occurring eventually. The reality is that this period saw the decline of Inner Asian military superiority because of mass mobilization of infantry with shock weapons (guns, artillery), which were finally decentering mounted warriors after nearly 1,500 years of supremacy. Though the later Mughals relied on cadres of Inner Asians, they were fundamentally a “gunpowder empire”, and the logic of mass mobilization means that it is unlikely that in the long term a culturally alienated elite could have persisted. The French republican armies’ defeats of rival powers showed European nation-states the power and necessity of mass mobilization.

Several years ago an Indian American friend of Hindu nationalist sympathies expressed to me the opinion that if it weren’t for the arrival of the British, the Marthas might have spearheaded the emergence of a new Indo-centric polity. At the time I was skeptical because Indians lacked access to horses, which gave Inner Asians an advantage. But now seeing the logic of massed infantry with guns, it does seem that the Inner Asian, and therefore Muslim, the advantage would eventually have given away to the force of numbers.

Of course, we’ll never get to see how history would have turned out. The British had different plans.

Note: This post was inspired by my reading of Imperial China 900-1800.

Addendum: I won’t tolerate stupid comments on this post in the beginning. Please understand that if I delete I think your comment was stupid. Perhaps you are smart, so try harder!

* The Mongol directed invasions of Japan, Burma, and Java, were arguably less a function of steppe pastoralism, than the militaristic Yuan co-opting and projecting the force capabilities of the Chinese state system.

September 7, 2018

Perhaps India is not special in resisting Islamicization

Filed under: China,Islam — Razib Khan @ 12:29 am

I have posted my thoughts as to why India, unlike Iran or Central Asia, resisted total Islamicization, before. It seems to be a phenomenon that demands an explanation.

And yet does it?

As I read F. W. Motte’s Imperial China 900-1800 I am struck by Han civilization’s resilience and absorptive capacity. What does that remind us of?

With some hindsight, perhaps I was asking the question because I constrained my dataset to West and South Asian societies, where India, in particular, seemed exceptional. But if you add China to the mix, then India’s robustness seems less incredible.

Timur died en route to China because he was keen on invading it. Many Muslims believe that Timur’s death prevented the Islamicization of the Han. After reading Imperial China I believe that this is false. Even if Timur conquered China, the Chinese would be resistant to Islam, and likely throw off the conqueror’s successors in short order.

Those conquest dynasties, such as the Manchus, who were successful in China underwent total assimilation. Those, such as the Mongols, who ultimately refused to kowtow to the verities of the Chinese, were expelled.

Taking this comparative perspective it is less surprising that so many South Asians became Muslim. Indians, “Hindus”, were ethnoculturally diverse and distinctive from each other in a way that Han Chinese never were. Muslim conversion of some elites and the targeting of oppressed castes was possible because Indian society was fractured in a way that the Han never were.

Of course, the Persians become Muslim in toto. But the Persians never had an identity to match the Han.

September 2, 2018

The Quran as a collective human enterprise

Filed under: Islam,Quran — Razib Khan @ 5:21 pm

When people ask about my religion I usually just say I’m an atheist and I have no religion. If they continue, I usually give them what they want, and state my parents are Muslim, or I am from a Muslim background (most of the time the people asking for what it’s worth are themselves Muslims, or from a Muslim background, or, not American). I never say that I used to be a Muslim because that’s really not true.

This is a major way I’m very different from those who come from a similar background. Not only did I not believe in religion, unlike many people from a Muslim background, I never grew up in a Muslim milieu. Though my parents are moderately observant Muslims (e.g., though they don’t drink alcohol or eat pork, my mother does not wear a headscarf nor has my father ever grown a beard), they were never involved in the “Muslim community.” We went to the mosque on special holidays, and that was the extent of our participation in “organized religion.” Any religious instruction I had was from my father, who mostly did this when he felt guilty because a mutual acquaintance would comment on the religious ignorance of his children.

Both my parents come from rather religious families in a traditional sense. As my paternal grandfather was an ulem, so all of his children, including my father, received extremely thorough religious educations. My mother has a brother who is an ulem, and her maternal grandfather was a very prominent ulem, whose lineage was involved in the Islamicization* of the peasantry in parts of Comilla and Noakhali in the 19th century.

When I say that my parents come from religious families in a “traditional sense,” I mean that neither of them come from families where people have to be “born again” to practice Islam. Rather, they were part of the tradition of middle and upper class Sunni Muslims who adhered to and espoused a form of religious orthodoxy which was geographically broad, the Hanafi traditions which included the Turkic world and much of South Asia, and date back many centuries.

This personal history is relevant because unlike some people I have not taken a deep interest in the origin and development of Islam in the same way I have taken a deep interest in the origin and development of Christianity. How and why Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire is an interesting question for academic reasons. How and why Western Christianity fractured in the 16th century is an interesting question for reasons of understanding the geopolitics and history of modern European nation-states. I never believed in the Muslim religion, and matured into adulthood in a totally non-Muslim milieu.

In contrast, there is far less scholarship in English on the development of the Sunni-Shia schism, or conversion of Iran to Shia Islam in the 16th century. And of course, there is very little scholarship on development of the religion which became Islam from a critical lens, aside from a small band of “revisionists.”

Some of this is due to fear. To be frank, many Muslims guard the sanctity of the orthodoxies which promulgate with veiled and not so veiled threats of violence. Even if this is a minority of Muslims, it is sufficient to convince scholars who might take an interest in the topic that there is little personal profit in the enterprise.

This has curious knock-on consequences: many educated Muslims take certain orthodoxies of their religion for granted as unchallenged truths in a manner which is equivalent to the sort of insulation one only finds in ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity. To give an explicit example, when I was younger, and knew people from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, they would patiently explain to me that in actuality science had long disproved the basic tenets of evolutionary biology. They were speaking out of a certain ignorance, because of subcultural norms.

To a great extent Muslims are the same. Educated and relatively secular Western Muslims take the historicity of Muhammad and the literal truth of the Quran for granted in a way that educated and more Christians do not. That is due to the fact that Christianity has been subject to robust criticism in scholarship and in the public space since the 19th century.

Because of risk-aversion in academia, I think that the revolution and consciousness-raising in Muslim circles will happen from a more bottom-up approach. The latest Secular Jihadists podcast is titled, The Quran: Questioning Infallibility, Shattering Taboos. The discussion is wide-ranging, including Aisha’s requirement that her male allies breast-feed from her older sisters (there is a serious context to this practice).

Basically, the upshot is that the standard educated Muslim narrative about the nature of the Quran is trivially easy to knock down. It does not require deep scholarly knowledge, simply an awareness of facts that for obvious reasons Islamic scholars have not put in front of the mass of believers.

An interesting aspect of the discussion is that it is not highly revisionist. That is, it takes the historicity of the standard Muslim narrative of the rise of Islam under Muhammad, and its expansion under his successors, for granted. But even accepting the “standard model”, a set of simple critiques can refute the consensus of educated Muslims on topics such as the nature of the origin of the Quran.

What will the consequence of this be? I doubt it will be a great apostasy. Just as with Christianity a modernist critique will give rise to a sophisticated subculture that insulates and debunks the critique. But a large number of Muslims will engage in conscious and subconscious revisionism of what it means to be Muslim, and what Islam is, in a more “root & branch” manner than has currently been the case.

* Islamicization here is probably indicative of reform of the practices and customs of nominally Muslim peasants.

August 19, 2018

The Muslim world stands upon the shoulders of the Ummah

Filed under: History,Islam,Muslim World — Razib Khan @ 12:48 pm

The two plots above are from a new working paper, On Roman roads and the sources of persistence and non-persistence in development. The basic argument is that good Roman infrastructure correlates with modern patterns of prosperity. An ingenious way the authors tested the predictive power is to contrast Europe, where carts and therefore roads, remained critical, and the Middle East and North Africa, where the rise of domestic camels rendered roads less important in the post-Roman period.

We should take these sorts of models with a grain of salt. Too often in economic history, there seems to be a tendency to search around for striking correlations, and then exclaim that this explains it all! Basically, I think some of the issues that plagued psychology and particular social psychology, are relevant here. Of course, most economists are statistically well trained, but there are limitations of data (look at how few data points they have above).

But the bigger takeaway is that historians are able to suggest deep structural reasons for the patterns we see around us today. This doesn’t mean that we should take any particular explanation as “proven” or at face value. Rather, they are interesting models and explanations in a constellation of explanations. To borrow and modify a phrase from evolutionary biology: both the proximate and the non-proximate matter.

This has been on my mind after finishing The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. I’ve written a few posts on this book before, The “Clash Of Civilizations” Is A Thing, Just Not The Only Thing, and The “Islamic World” Was Not Invented By Europeans. The reason that I’ve given some thought to the book’s thesis, and decided to read it after the essay in Aeon, What is the Muslim world?, is that I thought the thesis reflects something in our current Zeitgeist, and, it was audacious.

The audacity is the tacit assertion that the idea of the Muslim world is something very recent, and emerges out of the engagement with the colonial experience. After all, how can you deny the idea that the “Muslim world” was imagined as a thing by people such has Ibn Battuta?

Let me quote in full a few portions of the last chapter:

Simplistic and ahistorical frameworks of European empires vesus non-European subaltern colonized masses must be scrapped and replaced with the history of the world as it actuall existed….

…Critically they [Muslims] talked to each other, all over the world, and to non-Muslim Asians and Africans, about solidarity against imperial domination, racism, patriarchy, and economic exploitation….

…By decolonizing (and perhaps deconstructing) our categories and conceptions of religion, civilization, and the world order, we can better confront the rising anti-Muslim racism in Europe and the United States and work in solidarity to tackkle the ongoing crsis of the unjust global order.

After having read the book I was a bit surprised that the author wants us to move beyond the simplistic dichotomy between European and non-European, because to a great extent the book operates within that framework. Since this work seems in the tradition of postcolonialism, that makes sense. The argument that I see at the heart of the book is that the “imagined Muslim world” (a phrase the author uses repeatedly) emerged as a response to the intrusion of European imperialism and that Islamic solidarity precipitated out of the context of a rising ideology of white supremacy which racialized Muslims as colored people.

There’s obviously some truth to this. The Idea of the Muslim World benefits from outlining the argument and then supporting it with facts. Lots of facts. Perhaps the most surprising assertion made by the author (to me) is the preeminence of South Asian Muslims in international discourse in the period between 1850 and 1950. The author argues that this was due to demographic and economic heft, as well as the fact that South Asian Muslims were embedded within a powerful British Empire. Though they were a subordinate people, the monarchy had to take into account Muslim concerns, and the overrepresentation of Muslims in the Indian army was also something that was relevant when it came to force-projection.

I don’t know enough about the details of Indian Islam in relation to West Asian Islam during this period to judge this as a valid assertion or not. But, there are other aspects of the work which left me confused and unconvinced. For example, the author asserts that sectarian divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims were generally minimal, leaving us with the perception that conflict along sectarian lines is a feature of very late modernity (that is, the late 20th century). But during the 17th century and 18th century both Iran and India saw massive forced conversions on sectarian lines. In Iran, it was the transformation of what had been a predominantly Sunni region to a uniformly Shia one. In India, the Mughals, in particular, Aurangzeb, targeted “heretical” Muslim groups, in particular, Ismaili Shia. In Crossing the Threshold and Mullahs on the Mainframe the authors both argue that substantial numbers of Ismaili Muslims were forcibly converted to Sunni Islam (or in some cases, the more acceptable Twelver Shia sect, which is dominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, as well as some parts of South Asia).

The point I’m making is that Islamic sectarianism has had multiple phases of salience and relevance, before abating. Though I agree with the author of  The Idea of the Muslim World that “Islamic fundamentalism” is actually a very modern development, it is also important to understand that these modern ideological movements draw upon much older thinking and precedents. For example, the popularity of Ibn Taymiyyah among many Sunni radicals is important to understand and entirely unsurprising, especially in light of the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah lived during a time when the Muslim world as he understood it was under threat from non-Muslims.

Fundamentally, the author’s observations that Muslims repeatedly sided with non-Muslims against other Muslims due to their own self-interest does not negate the power and depth of the Islamic world. The reality is that these “meta-ethnic” universal loyalties are always at tension with situational interests. History is filled with Hindus in Muslim armies, Protestants marching with Turks against Catholics, and Muslim bodyguards of Catholic monarchs (Frederick II). But Muslim and Christian are not arbitrary and imaginary constructs. These identities have important predictive power over the long run.

The final chapter was at some tension with the rest of the book, because it foregrounded values and views which were clear within the subtext of the book, but which were not prominent. That is, the author has a particular view on current geopolitics and justice, and seems to be suggesting that his scholarship might help in forwarding this project. I bolded the part about “patriarchy” in the quote because I don’t think modernist Muslim intellectuals in the earl 20th century had problems with patriarchy in a way we’d understand it today. True, many favored the education of women and even equal political rights for women, but I don’t think that that’s the way “patriarchy” is defined today in “social justice” circles in 2018.

An attempt to take historical facts, and leverage them for current social and political concerns, often results in these sorts of anachronisms. For example, I have heard people who support gay rights speak as if anti-homosexual legislation derived from the colonial period invented and created prejudice against homosexuality in non-European societies, when the reality is that that prejudice was already there, albeit with modifications and variations. Consider, that Pashtun tolerance of pederasty does not imply that Pashtun society is not homophobic.

The Idea of the Muslim World is a decent book in light of its intellectual tradition, which I disagree with. That is, the author marshals evidence in support of his thesis, rather than engaging in argumentative bluster. But I do have to say that it seems that in the 40 years since Edward Said’s Orientalism was published the field of postcolonial studies hasn’t really made any big conceptual breakthroughs. Rather, scholars seem to be using the same tools on different topics and coming to similar general conclusions.

In the end, it’s all about goblin-kind.

August 4, 2018

The “clash of civilizations” is a thing, just not the only thing

Filed under: Islam,Post-Colonialism — Razib Khan @ 10:20 pm

A few days ago I put up a post, The “Islamic World” Was Not Invented By Europeans. Since then, I have been reading the author’s book, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History.

It’s an interesting work with a lot of facts. Though so far no facts have been surprising to me, and, many facts were known to me. For example, the author talks about the reality that Muslims were subjects of the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. I happen to have read a book about the topic. Specifically, how the ulema in the Russian Empire adjusted to rule under an Orthodox Christian monarch. The author mentions that Protestants fought with the Ottomans at Vienna, and exhibited a cool attitude toward Indian Muslim nationalism against the British. Both of these facts, I knew.

The basic thesis seems to be similar to what I had inferred earlier: that the idea of a unitary Muslim world is a reaction to the European colonial experience, and not deeply rooted. The problem is that a lot of these assertions hinge on semantic interpretations. What does “unitary Muslim world” mean for example? The author, Cemil Ayden, seems to also suggest that both the “West” and the “Muslim world” are modern constructions. And they are. That does not mean these modern constructions don’t build upon and extend pre-modern self-conceptualizations which are very important. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Reading Ayden reminds me of encountering Bryan Catlos’ work on Muslim Spain years ago. Catlos’ publicity people at the university press tried to make it as if he was arguing that the line between Muslim and Christian was incredibly fluid and that his work refuted the “clash of civilizations.” But anyone, which includes me, who is aware of the large numbers of conversions of Christians to Islam and then back to Christianity, not to mention the Jews, knows that the categories are a bit more complex than the modern cartoon. Nevertheless, nothing in Catlos’ scholarship refutes the reality that religious identity was a critical, and perhaps the most important, building block of self-conceptualization in medieval Iberia.

One way to avoid the baggage around the word civilization is to rename it a “meta-ethnic” identity, as Peter Turchin does. A meta-ethnic identity allows people from different tribes and ethnicities to unite around something greater. Often, though not always, it is religion. The initial decades of the rise of Islam are complicated by the possibility that the religion wasn’t a meta-ethnic identity, but rather a tribal cult specific to a group of Arabs. This was not sustainable if Muslims were to maintain a multi-ethnic polity. Like the Mongols, they would have been absorbed by those whom they conquered. The rise of the Abbasids around 750 is often characterized as the revenge of the convert peoples, with Iranians in especially prominent in the early years of the dynasty.

Something similar happened with Christianity, which in its early centuries was fundamentally a Roman religion in Western Europe. Eventually, the expansion of the commonwealth of European kingdoms in the early medieval period occurred through the expansion of the Roman religion, and its transformation into something that was post-ethnic (during the medieval period in parts of pagan Eastern Europe Christianity was considered a “German” religion!).

There is certainly something commendable in Ayden’s work in situating current geopolitical tensions and alignments with their early modern precursors. But to the naive these arguments often erase the real deep roots of these configurations and their durability across the millennia. For example, I have stated, justifiably I think, that modern Iran was fundamentally and essentially shaped by the Safavid transformation of the region in the 16th century. That is, unifying the various Iranian and Turkic peoples in present-day Iran under the banner of Twelver Shia religion. But this is not to deny the reality that elements of Persian national self-conception predate the Safavids by thousands of years!

To bring it back to conflict, Christian cities such as Amalfi in southern Italy, often aligned themselves with Muslim pirates and corsairs in the first few centuries Islam. This does not mean that Amalfi was not Christian. Or that the distinction between Christianity and Islam meant nothing. Amalfi came under sharp criticism from Christian polities for its pragmatic alliances with Muslims. Similarly, France’s traditional friendly relations with the Turks due to the common Habsburg enemy came under criticism during the second Ottoman siege of Vienna.

Because of profit or in the exigencies of the moment, strange bedfellows often emerge. The Hungarian Protestants that marched with the Ottomans against the Habsburgs were marching for their cultural survival. The Habsburgs were suppressing and slowly extinguishing the Reformed movement in Hungary and had been doing so for decades. Hungarian Protestantism persisted only under Ottoman protection. This does not mean that Hungarian Protestants are not aligned with Christianity. But before their civilizational commitment could come into play, they had to safeguard their existence, which forced them into making a decision to march with the armies they had and not the ones they would have wished (Viktor Orban is a Hungarian Protestant).

What quantitative scholars like Turchin, and Azar Gat in War in Human Civilization, have shown is that conflicts across meta-ethnic or civilizational boundaries tend to be particularly brutal and characterized by the dehumanization of the enemy. On average. The fact that most Christian states in the pre-modern world bordered on Christian states means that most conflicts would occur between Christian states. But the conflicts at the civilizational boundary would be characterized by more extreme levels of brutality, coercion, and a lack of chivalry.

One might see in most conflicts that they occur within meta-ethnic groups, or that in a large number of cases the alliances cross meta-ethnic identities. For example, Pakistan today is under the grip of Sinophilia, despite China’s objective reality that it is an anti-Islamic state which oppresses Muslims, and Pakistan’s objective Islamic extremism. The fact on the ground currently though is that Pakistan as a nation-state benefits much more from being pro-China in its rivalry with India then rejecting Chinese entreaties on principle due to meta-ethnic solidarity with China’s Muslims. The pragmatic aspect of this alliance does not negate the reality that Pakistanis are sincere Muslims who have strong commitments to a trans-national Islamic identity, as evidenced by the fact that Pakistanis are often represented in trans-national Muslim movements.

Anyone who has read my thoughts knows I reject the idea that religions have fundamental clear and distinct essences. Religions are what people believe they are. What people practice. But people with particular confessions exhibit more solidity in their understanding of group identity than most post-colonial treatments seem to allow. Islam and Islamic identity do not exist only in contrast with Western Christians. In the east Islam interfaces with Indian traditions, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. Across all these interactions Muslims have a certain sense of self as distinct and can grade differences between various out-groups (e.g., Christians are not clearly idolaters, Jews are clearly monotheists, and Buddhists are idolaters).

It is simply a fact that post-colonial peoples had a pre-colonial history, and that pre-colonial history is just as important in their self-understanding as the post-colonial one.

July 18, 2018

On the semiotics of secularism and nakedness of village atheism in the culture war

Filed under: American secularism,Ex-Muslims,Islam,Religion — David Hume @ 6:32 am

One of the great celebrity “village atheists” of our day, Richard Dawkins, has “stepped in it” again by eliciting a fury over his attitudes toward Islamic culture, and his love for certain aspects of English Christian culture. Neither of these positions is novel or surprising from Richard Dawkins. For many years Richard Dawkins has expressed his love of Christmas as a cultural tradition freighted with memories which he recalls fondly. In contrast, Dawkins has long expressed a negative view of Islamic culture.

Of course, a single tweet like the above is loaded with cultural signifiers, meanings, and implications. Many are accusing Richard Dawkins of being a bigot. Here is one dictionary definition of a bigot:

…a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.

This seems to fit Richard Dawkins very well in a broad sense. Dawkins is quite intolerant of many religious groups. In 2006, during the peak of Richard Dawkins’ fame as a celebrity village atheist in the 2000s, when he was promoting books such as The God Delusion and filming documentaries such as The Root of all Evil, he made little effort to hide his contempt and disdain for religion and the religious. Consider this exchange with Colorado pastor Ted Haggard:

As an atheist from an English background, Dawkins is disdainful and contemptuous of American evangelical Protestant Christianity. Haggard becomes offended during the course of the above interview with Dawkins, today we would say “triggered”, because of Dawkins’ acidic brandishing of his infidel views with no apology or grace. He even analogizes Haggards’ megachurch worship service to the Nazi Nuremberg Rally!

At the time Dawkins’ role as a controversialist was clearly something he relished. His views were close to his heart. I doubt he was engaging in this behavior and espousing these beliefs for the sake of fame or wealth. He was already famous and wealthy because of his scientific writings. Books such as The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene are modern masterpieces of scientific exposition. When it comes to promoting to the interested public a general understanding of the logic of evolutionary biology, Dawkins is unquestionably one of the modern masters, with both talent and inclination.

His turn as an anti-religious polemicist was clearly driven by a personal passion about religion and an animus toward it. This was long evident in public pronouncements, but they reflected vigorous private views. The only time I have been in a small room with Dawkins he spoke mostly about science. But he also got a few gratuitous jabs in at the Roman Catholic Church. Many have suggested that Dawkins’ views on religion are colored by his background as a middle-class Englishmen, and it is hard to imagine that he did not absorb a bit of “anti-Popish” sentiment from his Anglo-Protestant milieu.

I have very mixed feelings about what used to be called the New Atheism. But one of its most unfortunate ticks for me is that in rhetoric it often presumes that religion is a matter of ratiocination when the truth is we all know that religion is a socially embedded phenomenon which has deep emotional resonances. The New Atheists themselves reflect the reality of the latter in their passion. Dawkins is an example of this as well in his affection for certain cultural expressions of Christianity which to him recollect memories of his upbringing and broader social milieu. His clear distaste for evangelical Protestant Christianity of the American variety is almost certainly wrapped up in a particular set of reflexive aversions shared by many middle-class secular intellectuals of the Anglosphere towards that subculture, which is perceived to be down-market, crass, and quite a bit ridiculous.

But where he gets in trouble is that Dawkins’ tweets often reflect a visceral distaste for Islamic culture. His reactions indicate an emotional aversion which transcends rationality, though that aversion is rooted in some realities and not just his imagination.

The importance of emotion and its importance as against objective rationality can be illustrated again by Christmas. As a child from a Muslim background who had little affinity with religion, I generally had warm experiences with secularized American Christmases. As an adult atheist raising my children as atheists (if that makes sense), Christmas is culturally important for a variety of reasons. But your mileage may vary. There are atheists from Jewish backgrounds who eschew Christmas because of its cultural and historical valences, and their dissenting from mainstream norms is one of the ways that they express their identity as Jews.

One can give more explicit examples. I was acquainted with a woman from a Bosnian Muslim background many years ago. Though not exceedingly religious, she had a strong aversion to the cultural expression of Christmas. Her reasons were personal and understandable: she had fled the Balkan conflict as a child and had been traumatized by religious persecution. For her even secularized manifestations of the Christmas tradition had associated memories which were highly negative. Her experiences were her experiences, and my experiences are my experiences. There isn’t one “objective” response to Christmas, there are different “subjective” reactions framed by one’s personal history and cultural affinities.

But there are wheels-within-wheels, subjectivities-within-subjectivities, and truths-within-truths.

Many in the ex-Muslim community are fiercely protective of Richard Dawkins. Why? Because Richard Dawkins stands unflinchingly with them, “in solidarity” as they say in 2018. To get the “ex-Muslim” perspective, it is probably best to read Ali Rizvi’s The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason. Unlike myself, Rizvi and his fellow travelers were at some point confessing and believing Muslims. Something I can never say personally. My cultural background means that I can recite surah fatiha to this day, and I have performed the call to prayer, but I was not really raised culturally within Islam. This means I have neither extremely strong or negative feelings associated with Islamic culture, though I take a dim view of Islam the religion and Muslim societies. But, like many Americans, they are still somewhat exotic and alien to me. Matters of reflection rather than reaction.

The reason ex-Muslims defend Richard Dawkins and revere the New Atheists (e.g, Sam Harris) is that the cultural winds in the West over the past generation have shifted, and the Left has been engaging in “allyship” with Islam, or more specifically Muslim minorities in the West. The vast majority of atheists are on the Left, and the Left is the camp notionally more amenable to secularism. But when it comes to Islam it is now the fashion on the cultural Left to express affinity and sympathy for Islam, and more concretely Muslims.

Richard Dawkins and the other New Atheists are distinctive in being conservative in the literal sense on the issue of Islam, and not temporizing and moderating. Their stance has not changed over the decade as Islam has become almost trendy on the Left where most of them are at home. And for this, they are cherished by activists and dissenters from within the Muslim community who are pushing for a full-throated atheism. Consider the case of a Canadian woman of Egyptian ethnicity, Yasmine Mohammed, who has written a memoir, “From Al Qaeda to Atheism.” The title should give you a flavor of her personal experiences, and why she has a visceral aversion to the Islamophilia which is de rigueur on the cultural Left.

The ex-Muslim community is a minority-within-a-minority. Many ex-Muslims are in an uncomfortable position because their critique of Islam as a regressive and authoritarian religion is consonant with talking points on the Right, but most of them identify on the Left (and, they perceive the Right as the camp of regression and authority!). In The Atheist Muslim Rizvi recounts the experiences of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. When she arrived in the United States about ten years ago she took a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institution (AEI). Broadly on the Right, this affiliation drew some raised eyebrows and critiques from commentators on the Left. Her extreme anti-Islamic views had already caused difficulties, but for many liberals an affiliation with AEI was the last straw. At the time I suspected that she was going to war with the army she had, not the army that she necessarily would have preferred. Rizvi, who brought more detailed information to the table, confirms this in The Atheist Muslim: Ali took the fellowship from the American Enterprise Institute after being rejected by other think tanks. They were, rightly, worried about the controversy around her due to her rather strident secularism in relation to Islam (a stance she has moderated over the years).

Ali’s conundrum ten years ago is more broadly symptomatic of an issue that characterizes the cultural Left in 2018 due to coalitional politics: a strident secularism that takes an anti-Islamic tone is so out of fashion among many liberals that the ex-Muslim activists are out of fashion among many liberals. They are an inconvenient minority-within-a-minority.

The rights of women in Western Muslim communities are still a concern with Leftists. But, these issues need to be approached sensitively and carefully, because the politics of coalition and the instinct toward allyship means that it is important to not demonize Western Muslims or even Islam! (this explains why many secular white liberals feel comfortable explaining to me the “real Islam” if I am overly critical of the religion for their taste) The last part is where ex-Muslims dissent fiercely because most argue that Islam, as it is constructed today, is fundamentally and structurally oppressive and reactionary. The paradox for ex-Muslims is that the Left normally has instincts to stand with those who oppose oppression and reaction, but in this case, they are muted.

The exception being people like Richard Dawkins. Like the child shouting out, “the emperor has no clothes!”, the likes of Dawkins and Harris give voice to a primal aversion to the demon-haunted reactionary ideological edifice that is Islam. Though in public very few Left-liberals who are aware of the norms of their community will say negative things about Islam qua Islam, and even less about Muslims, in private many are quite clear-eyed about Islam as a religion and uncomfortable with the practices of Muslims. Solidary is for the public. Reality is for private. Or as a friend once explained “Of course it’s a fucked up religion. But I don’t want to get my head chopped off or be accused of being racist.”

There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. 24% if the world’s population. Their numbers are growing rapidly because of Islam’s concentration in the high fertility areas of the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Though Muslims are likely to be a minority religion in the West for decades to come, they are a majority in some regions of Europe already (mostly urban ghettos). As such they naturally impose their cultural values as the dominant ones in public spaces where they are numerically preponderant. Many of those values are quite conservative and restrictive of individual liberty. That conservatism reflects the cultural values that Muslim immigrants bring to the West, but also the historical importance of Islamic law, shariah, which dates back over 1,000 years, and as such preserves in chrysalis view of a highly archaic nature in some ways.

From the perspective of ex-Muslims, who grew up within Muslim communities in the West, and for whom the demographic and cultural heft of the nearly 2 billion strong Ummah is a lived reality, the mainstream Left view of Muslims and Islam as marginal and oppressed is highly myopic, not factually true, and extremely conditioned by the relatively insulated worlds which most middle-class secular liberals live. To be entirely frank, for a particular set of cosmopolitan Westerner, the Islamic world, the Islamic culture, is one which they view through the lens of consumption, as a life-stage. Though they may experience the diversity of a Muslim neighborhood as a tourist dining out, and taking in the smells, or by living as a young adult in a heavily Muslim area of a European city. But they will retire in the fullness of time to a life of bourgeois contentment in a secular white community with Christmas trees. Islam is an abstraction. For those for whom Islam is more concrete, there’s a bit more skin the game.

Note: Below is a speech given by my friend Sarah Haider in 2015. I think the situation has gotten “worse” in relation to the issues she cares about.

May 10, 2018

India as the hydra against Islam

Filed under: History,Islam,Islamicization — Razib Khan @ 9:19 pm

In some versions of the legend of the Hydra, every time you cut off one of the heads of the monster two more grow in its place.

I have been thinking about why and how India remained predominantly non-Muslim despite most of the subcontinent being under Muslim ruling for 500 years (dating from 1250 to 1750 approximately). The contrast here would be most stark with Iran and Turan. While the zone of the Islamic Empire between Mesopotamia and the Maghreb was dominated by a Christian populace which spoke an Afro-Asiatic language, Iran and Turan retained their language and their cultural distinctiveness, as evidenced in the nationalism clear in the Shahnameh.

There was a comment on this weblog that implied India was unique because of violent resistance to Islamicization. This is patently false. To give a concrete example, the region of Tabaristan in northern Iran was dominated by warlords and dynasties which adhered to the Zoroastrian region until the 9th century, 200 years after the Arab defeat of the Sassanians. Despite the inroads of Islam in the 9th century, after more thorough integration into the Abbassid Caliphate, Tabaristan was still throwing up Zoroastrian anti-Muslim warlords into the 10th century.

But most attempts to infer the religious demographics of Iran, which are to a great extent guesswork, suggest that it was in the 10th century the region became majority Muslim. One indication of this that this is so is that this period correlates with a more muscular and resurgent Iranian high culture and reemergence of political non-Arab political power. As Zoroastrianism was no longer seen as a threat to Islam, Persian cultural identity could reassert itself without a non-Islamic connotation (there is in the 10th century a shift away from ostentatiously Arab names by Persian Muslim elites).

Basically, it seems that it took about 300 years for Iran to become majority Muslim. I’ve seen similar numbers for Egypt and the Maghreb, though in the latter region indigenous Christianity became extinct by the medieval period.

There are two related issues that I want to suggest for South Asia: scale and complexity. Though the Indian subcontinent is geographically smaller than the Arab Caliphates as their height on paper, the reality is much of the Near  East and North Africa are empty of people. Islamic rule really consisted of a string of cities and fortifications interlaced over broad swaths of the territory occupied by pastoralists, as well as a few regions of dense cultivation.

Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world consist of between 400 and 500 million people. The Indian subcontinent has 1.7 billion people. The population in the past may have been different, but I think it gives one a rough sense of the differences in magnitude over the long-term.

Second, the social complexity of South Asia is astounding. I say this as a geneticist: the differences between different castes in the same region are hard to believe. Though there is a great deal of ethno-religious diversity in the Middle East, they are not surprising. Arabs engage in a great deal of consanguinity. Ethno-religious minorities such as Copts or Assyrians have less cosmopolitan ancestry than their Muslim neighbors. This is all to be expected.

In contrast, any analysis of ethnic “Telugus” has to take into account local structure because it is so extreme. Dalits are different from middle castes are different from Brahmins. Some of this is due to genetic drift, but much of it is due to continental-scale differences in genetic admixture.

The genetic differences are something us deep about the nature of South Asian social relations. Defection to Islam occurred on the individual scale, but generally, quantity could only be had by mass conversions. Even when groups of people of the same community are of different religions it was probably through mass conversion of particular subsegments.

Which brings me to Bengalis. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier was written many years ago, and I read it long before I ever knew much about the genetics of South Asians. In it the author explains that the dominance of Islam on the eastern march of Bengal was due to the fact that it was a frontier society that emerged during the period of Islamic rule. Meanwhile, western Bengal was a culture which was in a stationary state.

The ability of Islam to penetrate into the Bengali-speaking peasantry was due to its fluid and unordered character. In contrast in western Bengal, a more traditional South Asia society with well-delineated caste boundaries had already crystallized by the time of the Muslim conquest.

So here’s the thing that genetics adds: the topology of genetic variation of Bangladeshis is totally different than what you see in other South Asians. There’s very little structure. Basically aside from a few half-Brahmins and a small community of Dalits, the 1000 Genomes sample from Bangladesh shows none of the genetic variation partitioned by the community you see in most Indian samples. Or, that you see in the Indian Telugus, Gujuratis and Pakistani Punjabis (the Tamils from Sri Lanka are somewhat less structured, but still have more than the Bangladeshis).

To me, this confirms the thesis of The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier. As a frontier society, eastern Bengal was mixed in a way where the structure socially and genetically that was the norm in most of South Asia by the time the Muslims arrived. Without the powerful collective substructure, Islam was able to swallow up the rural society in toto. Perhaps the best analogy might be to Indian communities in Trinidad, where caste has mostly disappeared, and Christianity has made extensive inroads.

Note: I moderate comments, please don’t stupid spam me.

November 30, 2017

Crescent over the North Sea

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

Pew has a nice new report up, Europe’s Growing Muslim Population. Though it is important to read the whole thing, including the methods.

I laugh when people take projections of the year 2100 seriously. That’s because we don’t have a good sense of what might occur over 70+ years (read social and demographic projections from the 1940s and you’ll understand what I mean). Thirty years though is different. In the year 2050 children born today, such as my youngest son, will be entering the peak of their powers.

First, one has to note that these statistics include a lot of people who are what some would term “Muslimish”. That is, they are not religious believers, but have some identification with Muslim culture. That’s explicitly noted in the methods.

The problem with this is that there is a wide range of religious commitment and identification across Europe’s Muslim communities. On the whole, they are more religiously observant than non-Muslims in their nations of residence,  but, for example, British Muslims are consistently more religious than French Muslims on surveys (or express views constant with greater religious conservatism).

Here are the results of a 2006 survey:

  France Britain Germany
Yes, Westerners are respectful of women 77 49 73
Yes, there is a conflict between being devout Muslim and living in modern society 28 47 36
Yes, sometimes violence against civilian targets in order to defend Islam can be justified 16 15 7
Did Arabs carry out 9/11? (yes) 48 17 35
People in Western countries are selfish (yes) 51 67 57
People in Western countries are arrogant (yes) 45 64 48
People in Western countries are violent (yes) 29 52 34
Do you consider yourself Muslim first? (yes) 46 81 66
In my country Muslims are perceived to adopt customs of nation 78 41 30

Numbers such as those above indicate even if France and the United Kingdom both have Muslim minorities on the order of 17% of the population, the nature of those populations differs to such an extent that that similarity in value may mislead.

In God’s Continent Philip Jenkins observes that public statistics of Christians often work to exclude cultural Christians, but those of Muslims include cultural Muslims. What many estimates of “Muslims” in the European context do is give a sense of the proportion of the population which is of Muslim background. This is especially true in a nation like France where religious survey data is not collected by government agencies.

Overall I think this data is important to consider, but there’s nothing really new in a qualitative sense. And, it is important to keep in mind the details. It is highly probable that the idea of a European superstate will have faltered by 2050, and each nation will its own Muslim minority, and engage with them differently depending on local values and context. Though Muslims, broadly construed, will form about the same proportion of the French and British general population, I suspect that in Britain the distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim will be much more obvious and strict than in France.

November 24, 2017

The question should be “Who Are Salafi Muslims and Why Are Many So Extreme?”

Filed under: Islam,Islamic State,Salafism — Razib Khan @ 7:45 pm

Because of the horrible massacre at a mosque with Sufi tendencies in Egypt, there are a lot of “explainers” out there about sectarian divisions in Islam. The one in The New York Times, Who Are Sufi Muslims and Why Do Some Extremists Hate Them? could be worse. This portion especially gets at the major issue:

For a time, beginning in the 12th century, Sufism was a mainstay of the social order for Islamic civilization, and since that time it has spread throughout the Muslim world, and to China, West Africa and the United States. As Sufism spread, it adapted elements of local culture and belief, making it a popular practice.

Alexander D. Knysh, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Michigan and expert in modern Sufism, describes it as a “very wide, amorphous movement” practiced within both the Sunni and Shiite traditions.

Specific claims about Sufism beyond the most general fail because vast swaths of Islamic history and Muslim peoples and practice are Sufi. In the modern western media, there is an unfortunate tendency to dichotomize Islam into a harsh and fundamentalist form and a moderate and mystical Sufi variety. Though a small minority of Sufis have drifted toward very heterodox beliefs, the vast majority are orthodox Muslims who also adhere to a school of Islamic law.

And Sufis are not all pacific saints. In the 19th century Libya the Sensussi Sufi movement was critical in the continuation of the trans-Saharan slave trade, and later served as a major focal point for violent resistance against the Italian colonial project. The great anti-philosopher of the medieval period, Al-Ghazali, who is generally agreed to have ushered in the decline of philosophical thinking within orthodox Sunni Islam, was a Sufi.

The question should not be about Sufis. Sufis are not moderate or mystical Muslims, they are simply Muslims. That is, they’re the mainstream. Rather, the crux of the issue is that violent radicals have emerged from the soil of Salafism. Not all Salafis are violent. But violent Salafis are the ones who regularly target other Muslims and their holiest of sites.

Salafism is a modern movement of the past few centuries. Like Protestant Fundamentalism, it is a product of the engagement of traditional religion with the modern world. Self-consciously Salafist Muslims have never known a world where the West was not dominant. Therefore it is no surprise that they look to the accrued tradition of Islamic civilization and see in it failure and decay.

Like some Radical Protestants, the Salafists imagine that they are creating a community of Muslims who are true to the path of the religion in its earliest years before it became tainted with monarchy. Basically, Salafists wish to transform Islam from a religion of history to one of pure axiomatic abstractions.

Why do Salafi radicals attack Sufis? Their tendency to engage in takfir against other Muslims goes back to the proto-Salafi Wahhabists. And Sufi Islam, with a venerable history going back more than 1,000 years, is naturally going to be the target of Salafi rage because it was the Islam that failed to stem the tide of Western ascendancy, the Islam that witnessed the slow and gradual decline from the greatness of the 8th and 9th centuries. The children shall eat their own parents.

September 13, 2017

The rise of “orthodox” Sunni Islam in Indonesia is inevitable

Filed under: Indonesia,Islam — Razib Khan @ 7:07 pm

Curfews, Obligatory Prayers, Whippings: Hard-Line Islam Emerges in Indonesia:

In the Indonesian market town of Cianjur, new rules require government workers to clock in with their thumb prints at a downtown mosque to confirm attendance at morning prayers. That’s on the order of district chief Irvan Rivano Muchtar, who also wants a 10 p.m. curfew for the town and is sending police to stop teenage girls and boys hanging out without parental supervision.

One one of the first things I wrote on the internet in 2002 was about Indonesian Islam (on a blog platform which is now gone). The reason for me writing on that topic was that the media representations of Southeast Asian Islam in the wake of 9/11 seemed excessively simple and reductive. For the West Indonesian Islam is often asserted to be moderate, and a counterpoint to the intolerance and exclusion which is the norm in the Middle East. In other words, Indonesia as the world’s most populous Muslim majority name plays a specific role in a broader narrative. A bit part in the grand narrative of moderation and radicalism. In the process, the textured uniqueness of Indonesia itself often gets lost.

First, let’s take a step back and frame the history of maritime Southeast Asia, what eventually became Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It is often stated that in Indonesia Islam spread peacefully through trade. This is supposedly in contrast to what occurred in the Middle East or South Asia, where military force was the dominant theme of Islamization. Superficially this is true.

But the reality is that forced conversion was likely a marginal phenomenon at any given time, and especially during the early centuries of Islam. The prominence of men such as Timothy, Patriarch of the Church of the East, under the Abbasids attests to the power of the non-Muslim majority (there was a similar eminence for the Zoroastrian community). But the conversion of Malays around Malacca in the early 15th century after the conversion of the king is not quite as different from what occurred in Persia after the Arabs arrived as one might think. The rapid shift of the Iranian nobility to Islam in provinces under Arab control seems to have triggered a gradual change among the masses (those regions, such as Tabaristan, where local elites maintained the old religion resisted Islamization until they were conquered and converted). It was not a matter of the sword or conversion.

Of course, religious wars were a necessary part of the expansion of Islam in the Middle East and South Asia, even if they did not effect much of the religious change which occurred later. But this is not a qualitative contrast with the Middle East and South Asia in comparison to Indonesia, though it is a quantitative one. Some polities, such as Malacca and Aceh, came to Islam through their integration into the maritime mercantile network of Muslims from Arabia to China. Centuries later the collapse of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, whose earlier hegemony served as some of the basis of broader Javanese-Indonesian claims to the whole archipelago, occurred due to attacks from Muslim sultanates who organized in part on the basis of religion. Majapahit fell because of jihad. It was not converted peacefully.

In sum, the history of what became Indonesia and its relationship to Islam is different from that of South Asia, or the Middle East, but that difference is one of degree, not kind. Second, one must also distinguish between Java and the rest of the archipelago. In the article above there is an reference to Aceh, a province where the practice of Islam aligns very strongly with that found in the Middle East. But Aceh is also culturally and historically very different from Java, Islam came to Aceh a the dominant religion at least two centuries before it did in Java, and probably earlier. On the map above Aceh is also geographically rather distant from the central islands, at the far northwest tip of Sumatra.

To a first approximation, orthodox Islam is a much more salient and central aspect of the identities of people from outlying islands than it is to Javanese. The complex indigenous-Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic synthesis which is said to characterize traditional Indonesian Islamic culture is actually a feature most evidently of Javanese culture. Parts of far western Indonesia came to Islam earlier, and integrated into the Muslim cultures of the Indian Ocean more thoroughly, so that earlier Buddhist affinities faded over time (Aceh at one point was aided by the Ottomans in fighting the Portuguese). In contrast, parts of eastern Indonesia, such as Sulawesi, were Islamicized after the fall of Majapahit, but the impact of Indic culture had been relatively superficial (though not trivial, as Indic influence is evidence as far east and north as the islands which became the Philippines).

At nearly 40% of the population of all of Indonesia the Javanese loom large in the identity of the nation-state. Most of the presidents of Indonesia have been Javanese (B. J. Habibie was raised in Sulawesi, where his father was from, but his mother was Javanese; Sukarno’s mother was Balinese, while his daughter’s mother was Sumatran, though both seem to have identified culturally as Javanese). Many of the things people say about Indonesian Islam are really about Javanese Islam, with the model implicitly derived clearly from Clifford Geertz’s tripartite division between santri, anbangan and priyayi.

The santri are basically what we define as world normative orthodox Muslims. The priyayi are the Javanese aristocracy, who self-consciously explored mystical concepts and practices with an extra-Islamic origin. But the vast majority of Javanese are the anbangan, rural peasants who practice an Islam which emphasizes custom and tradition as much as sharia. Because custom and tradition have deep organic roots within Java they naturally include many elements which are ‘pre-Islamic.’ In Java both the Mahabharata and Ramayana are still part of the living culture, for example.

It strikes me that the attitude of the Javanese may have analogs with that of the Persians in relation to their cultural history. By and large like the Persians the Javanese are Muslims without apology.* But like the Persians the Javanese take pride in a history before Islam, in particular Majapahit, whose writ tentatively spanned most of contemporary Indonesia. And Majapahit can not be separated from a Hindu-Buddhist synthesis which left massive cultural artifacts such as the Borbobudur temple complex (and the modern Balinese also serve as continuous cultural links with the Hinduism of Majapahit).

But the economic and social development of Java will naturally lead to a waxing in the santri tendency. Orthodox Muslims among the Javanese have not been part of the underclass, but rather outward facing portions of the traditional mercantile class or middle class urbanites. Santri Islam is portable, and commensurable with international Islam. Anbangan Islam is rooted in the rural landscape of Java, and urbanization will inevitably erode its hold on future generations. Meanwhile, priyayi practices are structurally limited to a narrow class of elites.

Overall then the rise of ‘conservative Islam’ in Indonesia is a complex story with two primary threads. One is regionalism. The regulations introduced in the story above are in Cianjur, in western Java. This area is more Islamic than central or eastern Java, and the native people are not Javanese, but Sundanese.

As local identities were given more freedom of play after the New Order in the late 1990s it was reasonable to expect that more strikingly Islamic practices would become more public, as they were dampened earlier by the dominant Javanese orientation of the Suharto regime. Second, modernization within Javanese culture itself will likely lead to the emergence of a more numerous group of sharia compliant and world Islam oriented group of Muslims, as they can not rely upon community and adat in an urban landscape remote from their backgrounds of origin.

This is not to say that the standard chestnuts about Saudi funding are not important. But it is important to note that portions of Indonesian Islam have long been deeply connected to the Muslims of the Arabian Sea; this is not a function simply of the rise of petro-states, though their wealth has certainly allowed them to put their thumbs on the scale. Maritime Southeast Asia is the eastern segment of what is operationally a Shafi international of Sunni Muslims who ring much of the Indian Ocean. As Indonesia becomes globalized, it will gravitate to other nodes within the international network which it already has long-standing connections. This is probably inevitable in some ways, and the working out of the reality of contemporary Indonesian pluralism has to face the inevitable tensions that modernization will bring. A more universal and non-local Islam will probably also be more exclusive and culturally muscular.

* A minority are Christian or Hindu. A Hindu Javanese kingdom persisted in the east of the island until the 18th century.

September 4, 2017

On the Rohingya issue

Filed under: Islam,Politics,Rohingya — Razib Khan @ 6:53 am

I have a post over at my primary blog, Rohingya Unmasking Complexity In A World We Want Simple. Because the Rohingya issue is going to be in the media spotlight for a bit in the near future we need to be clear about the deep historical facts, which frankly the press is going to not be concerned about in their reporting.

August 24, 2017

Arab Islamic science was not Arab Islamic

Filed under: Islam — Razib Khan @ 6:43 am

Someone stupid who follows me on Twitter said “It seems @razibkhan forgot the Arabs gave us algebra and many other scientific/mathematical advances.” The history of algebra is actually somewhat more antique than the Arabs, as outlined in Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra. But the origin of the word is Arabic. From Wikipedia:

The word algebra comes from the Arabic الجبر (al-jabr lit. “the reunion of broken parts”) from the title of the book Ilm al-jabr wa’l-muḳābala by Persian mathematician and astronomer al-Khwarizmi.

Though Wikipedia says that al-Khwarizmi is Persian, it is more accurate to say he was Iranian, because as his name attests his origins were in Khwarezm, which is in Central Asia. It is accurate to say that Arab Islamic civilization was intellectually productive in the centuries before 1000 A.D., but it is not accurate to say that Muslim Arab scholars were responsible for this.

A huge number of these scholars were not ethnic Arabs. In the early years a substantial number were not Muslim. Though it is often said that many were Persian, as recounted in Lost Enlightenment many of the “Persians” were not from Persia proper, but from Iranian regions of Central Asia which over the centuries have now become Turkified.

Why is this important? The multicultural nature of early Muslim (and later Ottoman) polities might inform us as to the future of this sort of diverse society. Second, it’s preferable that you don’t seem like an idiot if you want me to listen to anything you say.

June 20, 2017

Democracy leads to Islamism

Filed under: Illiberalism,International Affairs,Islam — Razib Khan @ 12:36 am

The New York Times has a piece up on the rise in Islamic extremism in the Maldives, Maldives, Tourist Haven,
Casts Wary Eye on Growing Islamic Radicalism
. I want to highlight one section:

It was governed as a moderate Islamic nation for three decades under the autocratic rule of the former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. But after the country made a transition to democracy in 2008, space opened up for greater religious expression, and conservative ideologies like Salafism cropped up.

Years ago in graduate school I told a friend that democracy and even economic prosperity did not monotonically lead to greater liberalism. In the long run perhaps, but in the short run it doesn’t necessarily do that at all.

Today we generally focus on the Islamic world, but there are plenty of examples in the past and in other places which suggest to us democratic populist passions can be quite illiberal. The Gordon Riots in England in the 18th century are a case where a pragmatic shift toward liberalism in regards to religious freedom for Roman Catholics triggered a Protestant populist riot. In the United States the emergence of universal white man’s suffrage during the Age of Jackson signaled the rise of a much more muscular and exclusive white supremacy in this country. In Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 you see the arc of democratization tethering itself to conservative rural vote-banks which reinforce aristocratic privilege. Finally, democratic developments in Burma have seen an associated increase in Buddhist radicalism.

Eric Kauffman argues in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? that modernization, economic development, and the expansion of political representation, integrates conservative rural populations and uplifts them all the while transforming the norms of urban areas. In other words, the rural bazar melds with the urban shopping mall, and both are changed. The 1979 revolution in Iran and its aftermath has been argued to be a victory of the bazar over the Western oriented gentry. In India the rise of Hindu nationalism is an assertion of the self-confidence of sub-elites from the “cow belt” who arose to challenge the Western oriented ruling class that had dominated since the early 20th century.

When the Arab Spring was in full swing in 2011 I wrote An Illiberal People:

In newly democratic nations which are pushed toward universal suffrage and the full panoply of democratic institutions the organic process of developing some safeguards for minorities and liberal norms has never evolved, because there was no evolution. Rather, these democracies are being created out of a box. Instead of a gradual shift toward more cultural conservatism with broader franchise, in these contexts it is a foundational aspect of the democratic system. I suspect this may have long term repercussions, as in other contexts liberal elites often institutionalized or established norms which served to check majoritarian populist impulses as they ceded much of their power over time.

The modern Left has a very anodyne view of Islam. It denies that there is something structurally within many Islamic societies which enables their illiberalism, the religion of Islam. In Islamic Exceptionalism Shadi Hamid argues that the religion itself may in some fundamental manner be inimical to the sort of secular liberal democratic society we perceive to be the terminal state of all cultures. I disagree with this view. Rather, I see in contemporary Islam the torture that Reformation era Christianity experienced attempting to navigate between an ideal of a universal church and the nascent emergence of nation-states. But in the short term both Shadi and I have the same prediction: greater democracy may lead to greater illiberalism and more repression of minorities. This an inconvenient truth for many Americans. But it may be true nonetheless.

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