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

March 1, 2019

The blood on brown hands is a legacy of all of history

Filed under: History,India,Islam,Pakistan,Postcolonialism,PremiumPost — Razib Khan @ 2:54 am

Yesterday I put up a tweet which went a bit viral (I won’t embed since it has a vulgarity). It was the result of my frustration with a very liberal Indian American who was using unfortunate tensions in the Indian subcontinent to attack “white supremacy.” My frustration was due to the reality that a major conflict between India and Pakistan would not just impact India and Pakistan, though that is dire enough. In a globalized world, a war involving the world’s fifth largest economy, situated athwart the southern flank of Asia, would impact many people outside of the subcontinent. In the midst of this, the fact that someone was using this to promote their own ideological hobbyhorse was offensive to me.

But the construct of “white supremacy” was presented specifically in the context of a particular history with the British. That is, British policies in the 19th and early 20th centuries laid the seedbeds of conflict between Hindus an Muslims, along with the tortured borders of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. This is a complicated issue. It is simply manifestly true that the British administered most of the Indian subcontinent from the beginning of the 19th century down to 1947, to various degrees. And, the British were at the center of defining and delineating the borders and divisions which frame the current tensions within the Indian subcontinent.

And yet, the reality is that I believe all these were contingent. That is, imagine an alternative history where the Sepoy Mutiny succeeded in winning independence for several states within the subcontinent, even if the British also retained their territories. Presumably, when the British receded, more independent states would emerge. Would the subcontinent be one of amity and low tension, with the much milder historical footprint of the British? In such a timeline the Amritsar Massacre may never have happened (I presume the British would be more likely to retrench to the coastal areas to the east, south, and southwest).

I don’t believe that that is so. Since I am not Pakistani I did not know what the “Two-Nation Theory” (TNT) was before I ran the Brown Pundits weblog. Basically, this is the idea that the Indian subcontinent has within it two religious nations, the Hindu and Muslim. This is not a theological assertion as much as an ethno-sectarian one. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was not a devout Muslim. His personal mores were more that of an upper-class Brit (he enjoyed his whiskey). But, his ethnocultural identity was clearly that of an upper-class Muslim. As a lawyer, he defended a man who killed a Hindu who the man believed had blasphemed against Islam. Jinnah’s defense was motivated by his communal loyalty. Even if he himself was not pious, the offense was against the Muslim nation, and he stood with the Muslim nation.

This highlights the fact that the 1947 partition was not driven by the all-powerful British, but also native Indian groups. Though the British, as imperial rulers, implemented the specifics, the underlying demand was from the Muslim League, with the tacit acceptance of many Hindus who were happy to remove a substantial proportion of the subcontinent’s non-Hindu population into another state (some extremely religious fundamentalist Muslims actually opposed partition, since their goal was to convert the whole subcontinent, for which a united India would have been more efficient!).

If you had asked me at a younger age my unconsidered opinion would have been that India should have stayed united to avert the bloodiness of the partition, whose death toll is estimated from the hundreds of thousands to millions. But upon further reflection and thought, I think the TNT captures the essential fact that the Muslim upper-class of Northern India would never be able to reconcile itself well with secondary status within the state, and, with ~25% of the population being Muslim, would always have a huge vote bank so that they could not be ignored. Perhaps a confessional state with a divided balance of power such as Lebanon could have been attempted, but I doubt the Lebanese solution would scale to a polity which covered the whole Indian subcontinent. A more feasible scenario might be a confederation.

The separation of East Pakistan, what became Bangladesh, within a generation of the partition, actually proves to me the point about the Muslim upper-class of Northern India and its general attitude toward power-sharing. Though the Muslim League was quite successful in East Bengal before the partition due to the salience of religious divisions in the region, with the emergence of a Pakistani state the party became the instrument of an elite whose cultural focus was on the northwest of the subcontinent. These were people who saw themselves, quite often genealogically in a valid sense, to be heirs to the Mughal tradition. They dreamed of the time when they had been part of the dominant ruling class (albeit, often subordinate to Turks and Persians).

This was quite separate from the Muslim Bengali identity, which existed more at an equipoise between an Islamic self-consciousness and a Bengali one, which connected them culturally in a deep sense to the Hindu Bengalis who resided across the border in India. The Muslim elite of West Pakistan saw the Bengalis of East Pakistan, even when Muslim as the majority were, to be a culturally and racially inferior group. Culturally inferior because of their embrace of a Bengali high culture which was originally pioneered by Hindus such as Rabindranath Tagore, and racially inferior because they were a smaller and darker-skinned people, who could clearly not make the pretensions toward non-Indian West Asian ancestry common among the post-Mughal Muslim elite.

Now, imagine this same elite having to deal with the Hindu elites of a united India!

What this shows is that the cleavages that exploded into violence in 1947 with the partition were long pregnant within India, before the British ever arrived. The reason I have no patience for the constant indictments of the British is that South Asian elites had their own agency, and their own history, long before the British became the major power in the subcontinent, and retained that agency after. First, one has to remember that the British domination of the subcontinent in a sense we’d recognize it probably dates to the defeat of the Marathas in the Second Anglo-Maratha War of the early 19th century. This puts British rule across much of the subcontinent at 150 years, and even then many of the Princely States administered themselves.

Obviously, India has a history before the British period and that history as preserved and maintained amongst its ruling elements continued down into the British Raj and reemerged after the independence of India and Pakistan. From the period after the emergence of the Delhi Sultanate in ~1200 to the decay of Mughal power in the early 18th century, Turkic conquest elites espousing the faith of Islam were the dominant ruling class of South Asia.

To be sure, not all of them were Turkic. Many were Iranian, Afghan, or Arab, and some were slaves from the Caucasus and Africa. But all of them were swept up in the invasion of the Indian subcontinent driven by Central Asian Turks. This is not exceptional to India, Turkic military elites were often the ruling class of Iran (e.g., the Safavids and Qajars) and many parts of the Arab Near East after 1000 AD. Once in India, the Turks transplanted their Central Asian civilization as best as they could on the very different soil of the subcontinent. A migration of Persians, and even some Arabs such as Ibn Battuta, occurred so as to allow the development of a fully-functioning Islamic civilization co-located within a landscape dominated by diverse Indian traditions that we would today call Hindu (which was at that time was just the generic term for Indian).

Ibn Battuta, in particular, illustrates the fact that within India a whole Muslim world had been transplanted which nevertheless remained not of India, as his own reflections are that of a Muslim moving through Muslim lands, not an Arab in a non-Muslim territory.

The imperialist nature of the conquest dynasties should not be underemphasized. Because of its size and population density, India was attractive to rent-seekers and fortune-hunters. Like the Mongol rule in China, the dominance of a Muslim military elite within India culturally and ideologically distant from the local Brahmin elite opened up an opportunity for West Asians to find favor at court. Ayatollah Khomeini’s paternal grandfather was born in the Indian city of Lucknow. His own ancestors had been invited by the rulers of the region, who were migrants from Nishapur in Iran. Khomeini’s grandfather’s Persian ancestors had left Nishapur and settled in India to receive the patronage and provide service to the rulers who were Shia Muslims of Persian origin such as themselves.

These enclaves of Muslims with recent foreign ancestry have given rise to the ashraf quasi-caste. In White Mughals the author asserts that just as a poor European noble might marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant, so ashraf of pure blood could elevate the lineage of prosperous native sock Indian Muslims.

This digression is to emphasize how the Islamic civilization of South Asia was to some extent a West and Central Asian society intercalated with indigenous elements. The court language of the Mughals, who were in their paternal lineage Timurid arrivistes from Central Asia, was Persian. The camp language was Turki. There were centuries of migration of West and Central Asians into Islamic courts and camps in South Asia that connected India with the Muslim regions to the west and northwest. The non-Indian pretentions of upper-class Muslims from the northwest of the subcontinent are not totally off base. To be sure, the reality is that the vast majority of the ancestry of modern-day South Asian Muslims, even those from the northwest, is indigenous.

Though South Asia remained an overwhelmingly non-Muslim domain, rather early on Islam took on something of the patina of an imperial religion due to the dominance of Muslim military elites. To give an example, in the early 1400s a certain Raja Ganesha, a Hindu, usurped rule in Bengal (which had been under a Turkic dynasty). One concession that mollified Muslim elites toward this usurpation was that he agreed that his son would become a Muslim. And so he did so that Raja Ganesha’s son and grandson ruled Bengal as Muslims. To me, this is reminiscent of the selection of Eugenius as a puppet of the pagan general Arbogast in the West Roman Empire in the late 4th century. Though Eugenius was tolerant toward pagans, he was a Christian. The norm of a Christian ruler of the Roman Empire had already been established by the 390s, even though Christians were only a minority of the population at this time. The Emperor was a Christian ruler of a pagan Empire.

The existence of Islam as an imperial religion resulted in the emergence of an “Islamicate” civilization. Though Rajputs and Pandits remained devout Hindus, they emulated aspects of the elite culture of the Muslims whom they served as vassals or courtiers. Eventually, Muslims of a more native Indian background also came to the fore. Though the powerful ruler of 18th century Mysore, Tipu Sultan, claimed distant West Asian ancestry, the realistic depictions of his features indicate he is clearly an Indian and the descendant of converts to Islam. The Mughal Emperor Akbar exhibits his Turco-Mongol and Persian heritage in his features, while his grandson Shah Jahan looks like the Rajput Indian that three of his four grandparents were. And yet Shah Jahan was a Muslim Mughal prince in culture, and a proud Timurid who wed the daughter of Persian migrants, even if three of his four grandparents were Hindu.

Though any objective analysis shows that the Muslims of South Asia are overwhelming of indigenous ancestry, the cultural and historical imprint of West Asia is indelible upon them, in particular among certain elements of the elite of the northern cities. Their appearance, food, and language, tie them to South Asia. But their religious commitments and romantic attachment to a greater Islamic civilization pull them west.

But of course, there were other people in South Asia. Today we call them Hindus, but that used to be the term for an inhabitant of the Indian subcontinent more generally. Hinduism encompasses a wide range of traditions, from local folk religion to the elite philosophical schools. Perhaps the two things that define Indians, and Hindus, to outsiders are karma and caste. As in Iran the conquest of India did result in some synthesis between the intrusive element, and the native substrate. In the Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier the author argues that the rule of the region by Turkic and Afghan Muslims without investment in Sanskrit allowed for the emergence of a native Bengali linguistic tradition. Meanwhile, in Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia, the author argues that before the assertion of orthodoxy during the Mughal period, many ethno-religious groups in South Asia were liminal to both Islam and Hinduism. The Meo community may be a relic which reflects some of the sub-elite and peasant practices which have vanished.

What drove this distinction between the two broad communities, where there had been a multiplicity and points of synthesis? Some might say it was the British. This is entirely false. S. A. M. Adshead in Central Asia and World History discusses the emergence of a Naqshbandi International during the late medieval and early modern period. Founded in Bukhara, the Naqshbandi is a Sunni Sufi order whose reach extended out from Central Asia all across Eurasia. One of the major impacts of the Naqshbandi in places like India and China was to restrain and rollback incipient syncretisms of Islam with omnipresent local cultural traditions.

Additionally, the intellectual and moral pressure of the Naqshbandi seems associated with the persecution of heterodox Muslim groups in the Indian subcontinent, such as the Ismailis, under the Mughals. Within the Indian subcontinent, the emergence of Islamic culture under the influence of Naqshbandi did not necessarily impinge upon Hindus as such, but it reinforced the barriers and separation between Indian Muslims and Indian non-Muslims. And the reality is that syncretism and heterodoxy were a threat. Though Akbar is a famous case, one of the early saints of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in Bengal was born and raised a Muslim.

But Hindus were no doubt impacted by this resurgence in centrally imposed orthodoxy. If Crossing the Threshold is correct, many syncretistic communities which had integrated aspects of Islam, in particular, esoteric Ismaili precepts, may have pulled back and shifted toward a more explicitly and clearly non-Muslim self-identity so as to avoid accusations of heresy. As in the early Christian Roman Empire, the eye of the inquisitor was not upon those who were outside of the faith, but those who were deviationists. Heretics, not pagans.

And this is not to say that Hindus were entirely passive. For various reasons, Muslims in the Indian subcontinent have much more work which can be the basis of historiography. It is fashionable to say in some quarters than Hinduism and Hindus did not truly exist until the past few centuries when the contrast with Islam and Christianity produced the idea of a native Indian confession and communal identity. I believe this is far too strong a statement. In fact, I believe it is wrong.

As far back as Al-Biruni in the 10th century, it is clear that outsiders saw a distinct cluster of characteristics as diagnostic for Indian religious traditions. An Indian civilizational self-conception as a range of people who resided within the borders of the modern Indian subcontinent, and who promoted a wide range of beliefs that one might call “Dharmic”, clearly dates to centuries before the birth of Christ. Perhaps “Hindu religion” in its elite form can be more thought of as analogous to “Abrahamic religion,” with a set of diverse beliefs united by common presumptions and modalities. In fact, in China Muslims and Jews were regularly confused due to their aversion to pork, while Christianity was initially conflated with Pure Land Buddhism in the 16th century (the earlier forms of Christianity having died off).

The very reality that over six centuries of overwhelming elite dominance in the Indian subcontinent a large number of local non-Muslim elites persisted is indicative of something robust in what we call the Hindu tradition. After the middle of the 9th century in Iran, Zoroastrian elites faded away, and Iranian society became Muslim. Though substantial Zoroastrian minorities persisted in some regions for many centuries, just as with Christianity in the Roman Empire in the year 400, so Islam had captured the commanding heights of Iranian culture. It is in this period that self-consciously Iranian dynasties reemerge, now that the connection between Islam and the Persian ethnicity was irrefutable.

The contrast with India is striking. Like the people of India Iranians have a strong self-consciousness as a civilization with an ancient history, but unlike the Indians, Iranians did not retain their ancestral Zoroastrian religion (there were Zoroastrian kingdoms in northern Iran for centuries after the Arab conquest, but they clung on the fringes). Despite Iranian contempt for Arabs, their names are often Arabic, and their writing system is now derived from Arabic.

Due to its geographic depth, Hindu kingdoms persisted in South India and in the hill country of Nepal even during the apex of Muslim rule. Far to the east the Tai invaders of the valley of the middle Brahmaputra, the Ahom, eventually converted to the Hindu religion and repulsed Mughal attempts to bring them under their rule. And even under Muslim rule Hindu religious revivals and innovation occurred, as alluded to above with the emergence of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in Bengal in the 15th century. Far to the west, the first of the Sikh gurus was preaching at the same time.

By the early 18th century the Mughal hegemony was brittle. Unlike other parts of the Muslim world, in India, militarized elites of non-Muslims existed across many regions of the subcontinent, and these elites continued to patronize brahmins and gurus. A whole non-Muslim counter-culture, bracketed later under “Hindu”, persisted and flourished.

With the collapse of Mughal rule, a diverse array of local militias scrambled for power, and one of them was a set of militarized Hindu peasants from what is today Maharashtra in the Deccan. These came together to form the Maratha Empire, which in the middle of the 18th century was the dominant power on the Indian subcontinent.

There are many debates about whether one can conceive of this as a Hindu-Muslim conflict, with Hindu Maratha patriots revolting against foreign Muslim oppressors. It is often given that Muslim leaders had Hindu soldiers, and Hindu leaders had Muslim soldiers. This refutes simplistic treatments, but it does not negate that communal and civilizational identities existed. At the Second Battle of Vienna Lithuanian Tatars fought under the banner of a Polish Catholic king, while Hungarian Protestants marched with the Turks. These complexities do not negate the divisions which were visible and accepted by all. The Tatars and Protestants had their pragmatic reasons, just as the port city of Amalfi often countenanced the predations of Muslim pirates upon their rivals. This did not change their confessional identity and affinity.

All of this is the background to my assertion that the idea that the British divided Indians into distinct and striking religious self-conceptions, and sowed discord, is true in only the most trivial of senses. Indian history predates the British, and the logic of Muslim-Hindu communalism was preexistent, and the trajectory was clearly one toward sharper differentiation. If the Turkic conquers had managed to convert most of the elites of the subcontinent within a few centuries, then I believe Indian Islam and Islamicate society would have indigenized faster in its self-conception. If there were large numbers of Muslim Rajput warriors who could serve as retainers for Turkic rulers, there would have been less need for adventurers from Ferghana. If the Brahmins had converted to Islam and entered into the service of Muslim kings, there would have been no need for an immigrant class of Persian officials. As in much of the Near East presumably, some communities would remain Hindu, and suffered existence as a subordinate class. Some areas, such as Nepal, and perhaps Assam, would remain under Hindu kings and retain the entire organic social structure of pre-Islamic India. Marginal witnesses to a faded tradition.

But that is not what happened. Islam barely touched Orissa in the east, the south was long under the rule of Hindu kings, while powerful Rajput nobles in their arid fastness cultivated indigenous traditions and customs. Indian cultural traditions were powerful enough to exhibit some assimilative tendencies. Though Babur hated India and longed for Central Asia, his descendants fell in love with the subcontinent. His grandson, Akbar, married Hindus, uplifted them from second-class status and attempted to forge a syncretistic elite cult. But each subsequent Mughal became more orthodox in their Sunni religiosity, whether due to piety or expediency, culminating in Aurangzeb, who was a convinced Sunni Muslim who persecuted heretics, such as Ismailis, and cultivated the conversion of notable Hindus.

One aspect of early modernity is the rationalization of earlier systems of thought, as well as a movement of ideology from the elite to the masses. When the Prussian House of Hohenzollern converted to Reformed Christianity from Lutheranism, their subjects balked and remained true to their religion. When the Elector of Saxony converted to Catholicism, his subjects almost revolted, and none converted. And of course, when James II converted to Catholicism and began to push toleration of his religion in a resolutely Protestant England, he was overthrown.

It is reasonable to assert that the mass of Indian peasants did not have such a self-conception. Western Europe in 1700 was already a wealthier region on a per capita basis than South Asia, and a combination of the printing press and Protestantism had resulted in relatively high literacy rates in many regions. South Asian peasant societies were arguably more unequal, and local identity at the level of the village was likely far more delimited in Bengal than in Britain. But the same was not so with elites. A Shia ulema whose ancestry was entirely Persian was clear as to who he was no matter where he was in the subcontinent. A Kashmiri Pandit might relocate to Dehli but remain aware of their distinct identity. The expansion of the Maratha Empire across much of the subcontinent brought Hindus of various stripes together, and despite all their differences, Brahmins from Kashmir, the Konkan coast, and Iyers from the Tamil country shared a certain set of religio-philosophical premises (even though in their dietary habits a Kashmiri Pandit might resemble a Kashmiri Muslim more than a Tamil Iyer!).

Of course, peasant farmers did not have such crisp identities. Much of the historical-ethnographic literature alludes to syncretistic and pluralistic practices of nominally Hindu and Muslim cultivators, who shared many beliefs and folkways. The thesis then can be introduced that British policies of divide and rule hardened religious identities and induced separation. I reject this and believe that confessionalization in some sense is part of the process of modernity and development, along with the expansion of the literate class. Urbanization was always going to collapse the operational rural paganism that was ubiquitous across much of Eurasia which was nominally dominated by ethical religious systems at the elite level. The unification of the Indian subcontinent by the East India Company furthered this, the dynamic’s roots were older, and could certainly be seen by the Mughal period, as halting attempts at syncretism of the Indianizing Muslim elite were reversed by an international Sunni ulema.

After all this exposition, a specter haunts this discussion. And that is the specter of post-colonialism. Wikipedia says that “postcolonial studies is the academic study of the cultural legacy of colonialism and imperialism, focusing on the human consequences of the control and exploitation of colonized people and their lands.” There is clearly a legacy of British colonialism and imperialism on the Indian subcontinent. English, the government, much of the legal system, and cricket. Without the British the Indian subcontinent as we understand it would not be comprehensible. But, the key is not to limit the causal variables of modern conditions and dynamics to only the British.

Without the Mughals the Indian subcontinent as we understand it would not be comprehensible. Without the caste system the Indian subcontinent as we understand it would not be comprehensible (genetics confirms that the caste system is ~2,000 years old). The problem with postcolonialism as it is operationalized is that it transforms European colonialism into the main effect of all occurrences. The more than 2,000 years of continuous Indian history and the 1,000 years of deep interaction with West Asia are all marginalized when compared to 150 years of European hegemony. Even though Indians did not convert to Christianity en masse, retain distinctive marriage customs, foods, and native languages, the European cultural imprint is seen to be distinct, overpowering, and determinative. Implicitly this framework removes all agency from Indians and transforms them into entities upon which Europeans operate as culture-formers. Europeans are the creators, and non-Europeans are the receivers.

Often the postcolonial framework makes European culture into a Christ-like entity. Europeans take upon themselves all the sins of mankind. The violence, brutality, and communalism that tears South Asia apart are attributed to the legacy of European divide and rule tactics. The sins of South Asians are ultimately the sins of Europeans. The origins of evil are to be found in the colonialists, the imperialists. The Mughals, with their proud Timurid lineages, and flowing Persian poetry, and Turkic retainers are recast as indubitably Indian when contrasted with British imperialists. Nevermind that the British when they arrived as a marginal power noted that the keys to the kingdom of India were held by whites like them, Muslims of Turkic or Persian provenance, who ruled over blacks, of both religions (both the British and the foreign Muslim used the term ‘white’ and ‘black’ to contrast West Asians and South Asians).

The great leap and chasm is always when Europeans arrived, when sin is introduced into Eden.

This is not to say that the past and the present were the same, despite continuities. Whereas the postcolonialists may see nothing of comment and impact before the Battle of Plassey, it is likely ridiculous to imagine that Shivaji was a figure analogous to Ho Chi Minh, a nationalist freedom fighter. The idea of India even today makes sense as a nation-state as much as Europe makes sense as a nation-state. The scale and diversity are analogous. The warriors of the 18th century were not moderns, with our own preoccupations and preconceptions. But neither were they total aliens, with whom we can not have a discourse. They are not incommensurable in their values. Their motives and feelings.

The conflicts between India and Pakistan are due to lines drawn by the British, by states which emerge in the mold of Westphalia. But ruling elite of Pakistan dreams of the Taj Mahal and Shah Jahan. It is born out of the decades when the implausible dream of syncretism and a new religion of Akbar faded out of memory, and the pull of world-normative Islam became so strong that Muslim elites of the subcontinent could not look away and turn their backs. It is also born out of the complex and richly textured traditions of India, which were robust and flexible enough to withstand the shocks of generations of ghazis who came to plunder and then rule. Shocks which had swept aside the earlier religions of Persia and Turan before.

The simplest solution to the communal problem on the religious level is for Hindus to convert to Islam. Or for Muslims to convert to Hinduism. But neither will happen nor is it happening. Additionally, the number of Muslims in the subcontinent is substantial. In nations where Muslims are 10% or less of the population, such a minority is manageable as a minority. But if Muslims were 30% or more of the populace, than the greater “balance” opens up natural opportunities for intensive inter-group competition (e.g., alliance of Muslims with “lower castes” in a united India). The numbers are optimized for rivalry and tension when two groups with sharply delineated views come into focus. In addition, Muslims in the subcontinent have been impacted by currents outside of the subcontinent for centuries. In Kerala ulema from Yemen reformed the dress-codes and practices of Muslims in that region in keeping with more Arab understandings of propriety. This naturally introduces greater distance between the Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors.

One might wonder after all this the point of such a long post in the wake of a short tweet. The point is that history is complicated and deep, and there are many details to grapple. Postcolonialism gives you a big theory to explain so much, but the reality is when you scratch beneath the surface is it empty, and only feeds your delusion of understanding.

Though in the details this post is about India and Hindu-Muslim relations (or lack thereof), it’s really a general post. I could write something similar about the Middle East, or China, where everything is reconstructed as a simple reaction to the modern West and colonialism. And certainly, that reaction is real. Muhammad Ali’s attempts to reform Egypt or the May 4th Movement cannot be understood without the broader context of European imperialism. But many threads of Egyptian and Chinese society and culture are far deeper than the European shock and will persist down into the future long after the experience with Europe fades. Similarly, it has been explained to me by queer theorists that Indian society, Muslim and Hindu, was introduced to the gender binary by British colonialists, and that the existence of hijras is a remnant of a more diverse, tolerant, and pluralistic idea of gender identity which was prevalent before colonialism. To be entirely frank, my own judgment is that these sorts of assertions are fantasy projections, which insult non-Western societies by refashioning them as fictitious bit players in a drama that is fundamentally Western. These assertions suggest that non-Western societies are simply instruments in rhetorical games for Westerners. That is quite insulting to whole civilizations.

Theories of history and understandings of progress are common. Some frameworks are linear, such as the Christian or Muslim end of history with the coming of the Messiah. Others are cyclical, as is the Hindu. It seems that a common paradigm among many young educated Westerners is one defined by a shattering in the centuries before the year 1900 when Western imperialism transformed the world into its own image and corrupted what was once an Eden. The rise of the West is one of the great stories of the past few thousand years. A transformative one. But it is not the only story.

October 1, 2018

Postcolonial imperialism

Filed under: History,Postcolonialism — Razib Khan @ 7:03 pm

Rereading Edward Said’s Orientalism I am struck by the fact that he’s a very good writer compared to his heirs in postcolonial studies. As someone who cites Foucault, it is natural that there is a fair amount of vapid but lexically textured passages in Orientalism (you can open up any page and stumble upon a polished by inscrutable passage). But the general thesis and the review of the literary works seems moderately coherent actually. Far less of a screen than the more recent distillations. Who says evolution ascends upward in complexity?

As someone who isn’t well versed in literature I can’t really comment on the validity of the interpretations, but, there is one thing that I noticed in Said’s argument which prefigures modern postcolonialism: it abstracts and generalizes from a particular instance in human history, European interactions with non-Europeans in the early modern and modern period, and projects them across all of history. Like tachyons going back in time the manipulations and predations of early modern Europeans echo back through time and forward into infinite.

Here is a representative sample of what I’m talking about. The first section is a quote from Aeschylus:

Now all Asia’s land
Moans in emptiness.
Xerxes led forth, oh oh!
Xerxes destroyed, woe woe!
Xerxes’ plans have all miscarried
In ships of the sea.
Why did Darius then
Bring no harm to his men
When he led them into battle,
That beloved leader of men from Susa?

What matters here is that Asia speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted as victorious over Asia, that hostile “other” world beyond the seas….

Said is quoting here someone who lived in the 5th century BC. What Aeschylus meant by “Asia” had a much different connotation than what we think of today. In part, the idea of a decadent civilization and the decline from more vigorous ages is a common theme in the ancient oriented, and the Romans in their turn depicted the Greeks as the Greeks had depicted the Persians.

And, of course, the context here is that some people of Hellas were resisting the domination and expansion of the world’s greatest empire of the time, that of the Persians, which was based in Asia. Aeschylus was a bard of the subaltern in this context! The whole passage when exposed is actually an inversion of the larger thesis.

The author does not mask the historical context of the passage, but it strikes me that it’s totally silly to make any identity between Europe in the 5th century BC to Europe in the 18th to 20th centuries, and Asia in the 5th century BC to Asia in the 18th to 20th century.

To be honest, the concept of différance may apply here. Said cannot be so naive as to not understand the chasm between Europe in the Classical World, which was an almost clinical description of the geography, and Europe in the early modern period, which was freighted with the weight of history. The Thracians did not care if they were European, but the Russian nobility yearned to be so thought.

Now transfer this to a typical undergraduate. Are they intuitively aware of the chasm of history, the centuries, the transmutation of words and their implications? To be entirely frank, I think some of the teaching assistants guiding the students are probably too stupid and ignorant to actually understand these nuances themselves.

But the students learn about terms like postcolonialism and Orientalism, and as some of them move into the professions and the media these words became part of the common lexicon to show you are an educated person, just as dialectical materialism was for an earlier generation.

And that is how postcolonial theory mutated from being a system that decomposes very precise and delimited historical dynamics to becoming an heir to classical Marxism, a theory for all of history in the past and into the future.

Forgive them their ignorance, for they infer the path through the darkness by Theory alone.

August 15, 2018

Hinduism was not invented by the British (or Muslims)

Filed under: Hinduism,Postcolonialism,Religion — Razib Khan @ 1:20 pm

I’m reading a book titled The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. It’s works within the postcolonial framework. Unlike a lot of postcolonial scholarship it isn’t bluster and rhetoric riddled with basic historical errors. The author presents a lot of interesting facts. But, as I’ve said elsewhere I disagree with the thesis of the book, which is that modern Islamic identity can be understood primarily through its interaction with European colonialism.

This isn’t to say colonialism doesn’t matter. It does matter. It’s just that Muslims are not inactive substrate upon which European agents operate. Muslims, and Islam as a civilization, has its own life, orientation, and self-conceptions, which exist somewhat apart from Europeans, and the West (I say somewhat because it is hard to understand the modern West and Islam without their coevolutionary dance over the centuries). Colonialism did not create the idea of the Muslim world de novo, it operated upon the idea of the Ummah which predated the modern West, and in fact emerged in tension with the ancient late antique Near East and Turan in the 7th and 8th centuries AD.

But this post is not about Islam. From the comments:

The big tragedy during the unmitigated disaster that was the partition upon the Hindus, many realized was that while there was a thing known as Ummah, there was no such thing as the Hindus. There are Muslims, but they are actually the largest plurality. There was no such thing as the Hindus. There was the Brahmins. There was the Namashudra. There was the Punjabi. There was the Thakur…

This to my mind is a much stronger position to defend than the ideas above in relation to Islam. To a great extent modern day, Hindu nationalism seems to be about creating an analog to the Dar-ul-Islam and Christendom for Hindus, many centuries after Muslims and Christians. But, I do think I disagree with this. It seems clear that Megasthenes, al-Biruni, and Faxian all had a sense of Indians, or Hindus as we were all called then, as a distinct, albeit variegated, people.

Hinduism as a particular confession with a creedal orientation is a relatively recent affair. Perhaps you can date it to Adi Shankara. Or even as late as Arya Samaj. That doesn’t matter. Hinduism as a distinctive civilization of Indians, with consistent particular unifying beliefs, is very ancient and dates to antiquity.

One might object that this only applies to the twice-born varna. But the Maurya were like of sudra origin. And South Indian polities welcomed Brahmins, who they clearly saw as part of their civilization, albeit different and apart.

Of course one might change the goalposts with some semantics. I myself liked to be clever and would say that Hinduism was invented by Muslims or Westerners a few years ago. But thinking more deeply, I think that that was just a stylistic pose by me, attempting to burnish my heterodoxy, as opposed to reflecting the first order substance.

Addendum: Genetics is now making it clear to me that the matrix of “Dravidian” and “Indo-Aryan” proto-India were closely connected and emerged around the same time, probably in tension, conflict, and interaction. Religious ideas we’d term “Hindu” probably didn’t exist 4,000 years ago, but the openness of South and North India to engagement and cultural exchange in the historical period is not I think coincidental, but reflects primal commonalities derived from the tumult in the centuries after the decline of the IVC.

September 23, 2017

Postcolonialism as theory often fails; it would be nice to actually know something

Filed under: Postcolonialism — Razib Khan @ 8:23 pm

The cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer introduced me to the phrase “theory is information for free.” It’s a succinct way of saying that if you have a theoretical framework you can deduce and extrapolate a lot about the world without having to know everything. And, you can take new information and fit it quickly into your model and generate more propositions (you may not need to know everything, but you do need to know something).

But as we all know the utility of theory varies by field. In physics, there is a large and prestigious caste of theoreticians. In contrast, this group is a much smaller fraction of biologists. Biological phenomena are much messier, stochastic, non-linear, and historically contingent. Even highly abstruse fields such as population genetics have relatively limited powers of precise prediction in comparison to Newtonian physics.

When you move to history the problem is much more extreme than in biology. I am a major proponent of Peter Turchin’s work in modeling historical processes, as outlined in his series of books, War and Peace and War, Secular Cycles, and Historical Dynamics. If you read his works you know that Peter exhibits a punctilious attention to detail when it comes to historical phenomena. Not only does this mean that he presumably has good intuition about which formal models are plausible, but it allows him to “test” his predictions more quickly.

But it’s early times yet when it comes to “a theory of history.” There’s a reason that the older systematic method such as Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History and Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West fell out of fashion; they ended up reading like speculative fiction more than scholarship.

And yet when it comes to popular understandings of history and cultural dynamics theory is implicitly extremely dominant. Exemplified by Edward Said’s Orientalism, and now bracketed under the general term postcolonialism, a broad theoretical understanding of historical dynamics is assumed by many. Even if they do not know the term postcolonialism, or have never read Said or Fanon and their modern heirs, the postcolonial paradigm is highly influential and implicitly taken for granted. It’s part of our cognitive furniture.

Here is the definition of postcolonialism from Britannica:

Postcolonialism, the historical period or state of affairs representing the aftermath of Western colonialism; the term can also be used to describe the concurrent project to reclaim and rethink the history and agency of people subordinated under various forms of imperialism. Postcolonialism signals a possible future of overcoming colonialism, yet new forms of domination or subordination can come in the wake of such changes, including new forms of global empire. Postcolonialism should not be confused with the claim that the world we live in now is actually devoid of colonialism.

The key to understanding postcolonialism is that it is not a generic analysis of power relations between rulers and the subjugated. It is almost uniformly concerned with the relationship of European/white people and those whom they subjugated over the last 500 years or so. So powerful is this model that it often pushes white European supremacy back to antiquity. Works such as The invention of racism in classical antiquity only have a wider audience because the audience is primed to explore the original sin of the West, and moderns tend to see the origins of the West with the Classical world. The recent protests around racism and Reed college saw the promotion of a counter-syllabus which presented works which explored the racial attitudes of the Greeks.

To my mind this sort of analysis of the Greeks is nonsense. The Greeks were clearly racist, but to our understanding in the West today all premodern people would seem racist. Not only that, but Greek parochialism was different in kind from modern Western racism, so a genealogical connection seems implausible if you’re being generous, and ludicrous if you are being honest. One could make a similarly crazy case for the Jewish origins of racism in Western culture (any analysis of the Hebrew Bible has to confront strong ethnocentric and exclusivist sentiments, though tempered with works such as the Book of Ruth).

The primary issue is that postcolonialism takes the real and present dynamic of white supremacy, which crested in the 19th and 20th centuries, and extrapolates it back across all of history, and presumes that it will be the determinative factor in relations between peoples going forward. It’s like a theory of social physics; invariant across time. Bizarrely, this is a tendency that postcolonial theorists share with white supremacists.  Years ago when I read Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant, I was struck by the fact that many of the racialist thinkers of the early 20th century would likely easily and comfortably accede to the generalizations made by the postcolonial theorists as to the sui generis disruptive and dominationist tendencies of white Europeans. It is simply that where postcolonial theorists place a negative ethical valence on this essential orientation, men such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard would have seen the generalities in a positive light.

This is all germane in light of a post over at Brown Pundits, which reacts to a piece with the title Confronting White Supremacy in Christianity as a Christian South Asian. As I said at the other blog the piece was interesting because it was the perspective of a progressive South Asian Christian, which is very different from my own stance as a conservative South Asian non-Christian (atheist). But there was an implicit historical model within the piece which struck a false note with me:

Christianity in India highlights a violent history of white supremacy through colonization and mass conversion by Europeans including, the Portuguese, Irish, Dutch, Italian, French, and English many of whom hold cultural influence that has remained to this day in places like Kerala, Pondicherry, and Goa. Similarly, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference in the diaspora. For instance, my family converted to Christianity while living under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, an entire system of white supremacy supported by ‘Christian’ values.

Though there were Irish soldiers in British armies, I think it is a bit much to blame the Irish for Indian colonialism, seeing as how Roman Catholic Irish themselves were de facto colonial subjects. I also do not know of any Italian presence in India (aside from Sonia Gandhi)…if there was one, presumably there would be a delicious Indo-Italian cuisine? Finally, as a point of fact, the Dutch were famously ineffectual and apathetic toward Christianization in South Asia. Today in Sri Lanka there are many Catholics, but few Protestants, in large part because the Dutch did not exhibit the same zeal to convert the natives that the Portuguese did (British Anglicanism also did not take hold, many elite families converted to Theravada Buddhism at independence).

But this is secondary to the fact that mentioning Kerala misleads the reader as to the nature of Christianity in that region of India. The St. Thomas Christians are an old community, with attested connections to the ancient Church of the East in Mesopotamia. Though European intrusion into South Asia had a major impact on their affiliations and identities (they are splintered into many groups), their Christianity predates European presence in South Asia by many centuries, and perhaps over one thousand years!

The author, being of South African Indian heritage, and raised in Canada, may not know these well known facts. But, they are bathed in the paradigm of postcolonial theory, and in postcolonial theory European agency is paramount. If you did not know much about the history of Kerala, that is, specific details of fact, then your natural prediction based on your theory is that like Goa and Pondicherry Kerala’s Christianity is due to European influence and coercion.

Unfortunately, the sorts of mistakes of inference made by the author of the above piece are not atypical. It seems that she is conflating white evangelical Protestant Christianity (which her family likely converted to) with Christianity writ large. Why would you do that? Books like The Next Christendom report extensive numbers which illustrate that global Christianity is now a post-white religion. The same author also wrote The Lost History of Christianity which credibly makes the case that the majority of the world’s Christians were non-European until sometime after the year 1000 AD.

Not only does postcolonial theory extend the model of white supremacy toward one that is temporally and spatially maximal (that is, white supremacy is relevant at all times and all places), but it also collapses the complex multi-textured power relations between various peoples and groups into a dyad. From a comment over at Brown Pundits:

The tribals of the NE were converted to Christianity by European (and American) missionaries during colonial rule. They obviously weren’t Hindus before they converted, but to imply that colonialism has nothing to do with their conversion would be mistaken – if, indeed, that is what you’re implying.

It is obviously true that conversion to Christianity in India among groups such as Dalits and Northeastern tribal populations has to be understood within the colonial context. Many of these converts are joining denominations of Western provenance. This seems the sort of analysis which postcolonial theory would be useful. The problem here is that since postcolonial theory tends to privilege the dyad between Western and non-Western, it masks the complex relationships between non-Western groups and individuals.

Dalit populations within South Asia were and are subject to marginalization and deprivation by the majority groups. Though one may question the usefulness of converting to Christianity, it is clear that this is an act driven not by Western oppression, but by deep structural inequities of the native non-Western culture.

Similarly, the tribal populations of the Northeast convert to Christianity in part to block assimilation and subordination into a South Asian culture from which they are distinct. Christianity in this framing is not an expression of Western domination and oppression, but an alternative identity to those preferred by the assimilative majority. It is an escape hatch from the inevitable forces of assimilation.

This is not an exclusively South Asian phenomenon. Dayaks in Borneo, Karen in Burma, Montagnards in Vietnam, and Koreans during the Japanese colonial period, all looked to Christianity to buttress and solidify their ethnic identity against dominant populations who were of a different religion. Reducing power relations to purely Western vs. non-Western collapses many degrees of affinity within and between non-Western cultures, which are obviously not a formless whole.

Much of the problem that I’m concerned about would be obviated if people actually read world history. Having a multitudinous array of facts at your fingertips automatically allows you to vet propositions you derive from some grand theory of history. But assembling facts together takes time, and it is relatively arduous. This is why I ended up studying evolutionary genetics instead of neuroscience; I prefer theories to facts. But sometimes there is no choice in the matter if you truly want to understand something, as opposed to simply striking a virtuous pose.


August 6, 2012

It takes a village to murder

Filed under: Postcolonialism — Razib Khan @ 10:44 pm

In a small follow up to Zach’s post on honor-killing. Let’s reiterate something: individuals are responsible for horrendous crimes, and their acts of horror reflect their own choices. But choices don’t occur in a vacuum. Most people are conformist, and deeply reliant upon social networks, and the succor which that provides. Therefore, it is not surprising that Muslim men (and to a lesser extent women), to give one example, go through a “liberal” phase, before reasserting “traditional” values. Why? Because not reaffirming a commitment to those values entails an alienation from family, kith, and kin.

This alienation is not distressing for many people. For example, if my relatives are discomfited by my life choices because of their barbaric superstitions, I don’t hesitate to tell them to fuck off. So it has been, and so it will be. But most people are not willing, or capable, of being so aggressive about asserting their individuality. Social norms matter. If we are truly horrified by acts of barbarism which are commonplace in Muslim communities in the West, then we need to address the root cause. Culture. Legal sanction won’t change the underlying dynamic.


July 4, 2012

Barbarians on the blog!

Filed under: Postcolonialism — Razib Khan @ 4:36 pm

Omar says below:

Razib Re Anurag, As someone who once more or less took for granted all that Anurag has written, I have a few observations:

1. These beliefs are integral parts of a certain “elite” Brown worldview that is so normative that it is not even visible AS a worldview. Its not just left wingers. The brown elite, right, left, fascist, all share this view. Since it is also then normative in academia, the usual method of “look it up” also doesn’t help much. So Anurag is not being personally retarded. It’s like saying Newton was retarded because he believed in alchemy. That was the normative view. Everyone believed it. Why wouldnt he?

2. Particular counter-examples mean nothing. They can be set aside and the argument continued with new books about the Congo. The list of actual crimes (as you know better than most of us) is very long. And coming from a more advanced civilization, they are also better documented. A lawyerly argument can easily be sustained for decades (and can be backed up with quotes from hundreds of well respected historians and intellectuals, not just fringe elements).

3. For many of us, somewhat distanced from our traditional religions, its is an almost religious understanding of the history of mankind and of good and evil. Anyone not fully convinced is not just challenging a particular historical fact. He is challenging beliefs that give meaning and structure to our lives (that nothing much changes if you do drop it is irrelevant…..thats not how it feels while you are within the religion).

Interesting points. This reminds me of the problem I had with some readers when this blog started: they objected that I made fun of their moronic religions, and advised that I should tone it down. This of course led to their banning. I simply don’t follow the normative view common among many brown-folk that savage ancestral superstitions should be given due deference, or that they should be organizing principles of self-identity even if you don’t accept the truth of the belief system (e.g., “cultural” Muslims and Hindus who won’t intermarry and will readily kill each other over retarded religions they don’t believe in). I am not “secular” in the way that Indians (or Pakistanis or Bangaldeshis, etc.) are. I’m secular in the way that Baron d’Holbach was secular, your gods are figments of your imagination, and I don’t feel it relevant to give due respect. Of course doesn’t mean I’m a militant atheist. I think most people are stupid and tend toward supernaturalism, so religion will always be with us like the poor and shit.

In regards Anurag’s comment, I am conscious of the fact that that perspective is normative among many brown folk. Even among Indian Americans raised in households which inculcated a sense of Indian nationalism this view is common. Obviously I don’t agree with it. Ethiopia is stinking pile of crap despite its evasion of colonialism. Additionally, in many cases the economic history seems to make it clear that colonial enterprises were a transfer of payments from the national fisc to the petite nobility, and enterprising rent seekers (e.g., Cecil Rhodes), because only the nation-state could provide the institutional infrastructure for their “adventures.” Anurag, the savage barbarian that he is, didn’t understand that when I was contrasting Spain and Scandinavia I was being sarcastic. The landfall wealth of Spain’s New World colonies resulted in inflation, and a long term disincentive toward investment in human capital, as opposed to the quest to seek rents (e.g., “conquistadores”). In contrast, nations with no overseas colonies for most of their history, such as Sweden and Germany, entered into economic take off because of their endogenous human capital. The same reason that East Asians have taken off. This is not a controversial position among economists, though rejected by many sociologists immersed in postcolonial theory.

As for people like Anurag, apologists for Islamic science, or Han Chinese befuddled with why their nation is now having to catch up with barbarians, I don’t really give a shit. They’re as interesting as a Papuan tribesman with superstitions about ghosts with a bone through their nose. Of anthropological curiosity only.


July 19, 2011

When gods become demons

Filed under: Culture,Postcolonialism — Razib Khan @ 8:36 pm

This comment is interesting to me:

—yes, a pox on poco jargon. Virtually every kind of high culture (be it performance or visual art) in South Asia has been almost entirely reinvented in the past century (with help from white devils), though in the poco academy it remains shrouded in the mists of hoary antiquity, while everything barbarous about modern life is inevitably attributed to the curiously still omnipotent hand of an inchoate colonial influence. It’s a bit like the folks who believe that man learned to do only the bad things (war, aggression) and was born with the blueprint to do only the good things (bonobo conflict resolution).

Nandalal Nagalingam Rasia here points to what seems to me the reality that post-colonial theory has within it the same tendency as the expositors of the “noble savage” concept in the 18th century. In other words, this hyper-critical school in reference to the West is in all likelihood a product of the West itself! Just as post-colonialism transforms the white gods bringing civilization to the coloreds into Promethean demons who tainted the edenic state of colored nature with their particularly pernicious discourse, so it is an inversion of the self-concept of the West. Pride becomes shame, and self-congratulation turns into self-flagellation. The contrast with the noble savage has an ancient pedigree, it is clear in Tacitus’ Germania, but the tendency is not just Western. The same inversion and elevation of the Other crops in some strands of Daoism anarchism for example.

In some ways you can think of it as a self-correcting aspect of any civilization. There must be some internal culture of critique. The problem emerges when the partisans of negation and evisceration confuse their critical role in the ecosystem of ideas for the Idea itself. It is frankly as coherent as building a society on atheism; not too coherent. Atheism is a critique, it is not a positive assertion of anything as such, and so can not serve as the ground of a society in a fully fleshed out sense.

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