One of the non-science aspects of this weblog which I’ve been addressing over the past 10 years is attempting to get a grip upon cultural variation. There are two major dimensions in terms of the problem. One is positive, in that people don’t really have a good sense of cultural variation. This is simply a function of stupidity, or ignorance. In the latter case the primary problem is that the media and public intellectuals aren’t very good at concisely transmitting information (I don’t expect normally curious people to pick up ethnographic or historical monographs). For example, “elite” publications like Slate routinely flub facts which could be confirmed via The World Book Encyclopedia, such as whether Iran is an Arab country. Sometimes the confusions are more obscure, but nonetheless misleading. In 2004 I slammed an Iranian American writing for Slate (this publication deserves to be picked on because of its quasi-New Yorker superiority; it’s a “smart” webzine which doesn’t live up to its own billing too often in substance if not style) for asserting that Iran’s Islamic history has been predominantly a Shia one. Going back to that 2004 post, I realized now that it was written by
April 9, 2012
December 4, 2011
The New York Times has a long piece, For Turkey, Lure of Tie to Europe Is Fading, which outlines the falling out of love of Turkey with the idea of joining the E.U. I believe this is a good thing. Right now the E.U. is being riven by the fact that northern Europeans, in particular the Germans, feel a lack of solidarity with southern Europeans. This is hampering coordination of economic policies. How exactly would the admission of a nation as distinctive and populous as Turkey help the situation? It is arguable that the E.U. needs to be smaller, not larger.
All that being said, it remains the reality that Turks are on average far poorer than the typical European. So where’s the condescension coming from? I wonder if it has to do with the fact that Turks compare themselves to Rumelia, the regions of the Balkans that were under Ottoman control. This zone of the E.U., excluding the strange qualified exception of Greece (it’s face value GDP per capita is obviously inflated), is actually less well off that Turkey!
May 24, 2011
Since most international migration is apparently between “developing nations”, I thought the Iran-Iraq-Turkey-Syria border would be interesting to look at in terms of differences in economic and social indices.
February 15, 2011
A long post at Gene Expression, Culture differences matter (even within Islam). I conclude:
Where does this leave us? Democratic nations have different characteristics. For much of Japan’s modern history it has been dominated by one political party. It has been a de facto one party state. In contrast, Italy has been subject to fractious shifts between multitudinous coalitions. After the fall of Communism the Czech Republic has transformed itself into a conventional liberal democracy, as it was before World War II, while Russia has morphed into a hybrid authoritarian-democratic state (similar to Iran or Venezuela). We can expect a democratic Egypt to be different from a democratic Tunisia, at least over the short term, because of broad socio-cultural differences. And the gap between Turkey, a non-Arab Muslim nation with a foot in Europe, and Egypt, is even greater. Because of the general ignorance of the American public commentators have been leaning on analogies to communicate the potential arc of possibilities. I believe that many of the analogies are misleading, and entail a deeper understanding of the terms and relations embedded within those analogies than actually exists. Additionally, I also believe that some commentators have been caught up in the democratic fever, and consciously have skewed their analogies in a particular direction. I can not believe that Roger Cohen is not aware of the difficult situation of religious minorities in Turkey. But the American audience caught between a bipolar perception of secular liberal democrats and the totalitarian Taliban may not be able to comprehend the nuance within the Turkish case, and so Cohen elided essential features.
I’ve been keeping track of events in the Arab world only from a distance. There’s been a lot of excitement on twitter and Facebook. Since I’m not an unalloyed enthusiast for democracy I’ve not joined in in the exultation. But I’m very concerned at what I perceive are unrealistic assumptions and false correspondences. This is a big issue because the public is very ignorant of world history and geography. For example, I was listening to a radio show where Roger Cohen was a guest. Cohen covers the Middle East, so he is familiar with many of the issues to a much greater depth than is feasible for the “Average Joe.” In response to a caller who was an ethnic Egyptian American and a Coptic Christian who was concerned about possible persecution of religious minorities Cohen pointed to Turkey, which is ruled by Islamists, and has “many” Christians. His tone was of dismissal and frustration. And that was that.
Let’s look more closely. About 5-10% of Egyptians are Christian, with most estimates being closer to 10 than 5. In contrast, the non-Muslim minority in Turkey numbers at most a few percent, with ~1% often given as ...
December 5, 2009
Mr. Osman’s send-off was just the latest manifestation of what sociologists call “Ottomania,” a harking back to an era marked by conquest and cultural splendor during which sultans ruled an empire stretching from the Balkans to the Indian Ocean and claimed the spiritual leadership of the Muslim world.
Ataturk’s assertion by fiat that Turks were “European” is bound to fail, because a flower can not blossom without its roots. If the Turks had accepted more aspects of European civilization, such as Christianity, then a civilizational shift might have been viable. But for nearly 1,000 years the Turks were the rulers of Islam. In 1600 all three great Islamic powers, the Ottomans, the Safavids of Persia, and the Mughals of India, were of Turkic provenance. Though Turkish potentates accepted the supremacy of the Arab religion and cultivated Persian poetry, their identity was fused with their role as the ruling race of the Muslim world. The iron hand of Kemalism kept this past from intruding upon the present for nearly a century, but I suspect that that time of ham-handed exclusion of what came before is coming to an end. Of course not all that Ataturk achieved can be reversed, his Romanization of Turkish and purging of Arabic and Persian loanwords, means that Ottoman literature is closed off to all except specialists in modern Turkey. The future will be based more on half-remembered glimpses and recreated myth than the flesh and substance of the past.
November 28, 2009
I just finished Vali Nasr’s Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World. Very much in the mold of Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. Nasr is the author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, and the son of the prominent Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr (of the Traditionalist School). The prose is engaging, and Nasr is both erudite and analytically focused. As an ethnic Persian the depth of his knowledge definitely exhibits particular biases, Asian Islam beyond Pakistan hovers on the margins of his narrative, less out of intent and more out of limitations of the author’s own knowledge base I suspect. Nevertheless, the focus on Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan is certainly not hobbling in any way, as these are very important Muslim nations.
Forces of Fortune is very much about the social implications of material conditions. In other words, the relative economic stagnation of the core Muslim world in relation to the developed world or the BRIC nations. Nasr’s argument is that in the 20th century Muslim elites saw in the West an object of emulation, and fixated on the exoteric aspects without comprehending the deeper structural preconditions of prosperity. Kemal Ataturk exemplified this, he forced Turks to re-conceptualize themselves as Europeans by battering them, both psychologically and literally. He demanded that Turks look the part of Europeans, that they change their dress and switch to a Roman alphabet from an Arabic script. In addition to the cultural shifts Ataturk also set the tone through an emphasis on top-down institutional development, in particular state control and guidance of the economy. In Nasr’s telling Islamic revivalism was a natural and reflexive reaction by the lower middle class and petite bourgeoisie to this assault from on high. They were culturally and economically marginalized by Kemalism, Nasserism and the Shah’s White Revolution, and the present is their revenge. Though we are aware of the international scope of Islamic revivalism, the tendrils of Kemalism, and the example of Turkey as an Islamic nation who beat back European colonialism on the fields of battle, also extend across the world. Not only did Ataturk influence Reza Pahlavi, but his model was influential in the thinking of autocrats such as Pervez Musharraf.
But to a great extent Kemalism and its imitators, such as Arab Nationalism, have failed. Iran has an Islamic Republic, Pakistan’s infatuation with Islamic identity seems to grow apace, while most of the Arab world has repudiated secularism. It is ironic and oft-observed that the 2003 invasion of Iraq toppled one of the more secular regimes of the Arab world, and it is surely no coincidence that the past 6 years have seen a mass emigration of Christians and Mandaeans from Iraq. In Turkey an Islam-tinged party is now in power, and seems likely to be so for the foreseeable future.
What does this “mean for our world”? Forces of Fortune does not pull its punches, Nasr asserts again and again that the new regimes predicated on conservative Islamic values and neoliberal economics driven by bottom-up forces will be more prudish and misogynistic than what has come before, the dirigiste and secular autocracies. Whereas in The Future of Freedom Fareed Zakaria expresses concern over “Illiberal Democracy,” Nasr welcomes it more or less, because he sees no alternative. Top-down attempts to modernize Muslim nations have failed. Bottom-up processes whereby development is driven by capitalist forces may well succeed over the long term. Forces of Fortune observes that the Calvinist capitalist revolution was only a sequel of massive Wars of Religion and factional strife touched-off by the Reformation. What Vali Nasr is proposing is that there is no historical “Free Lunch,” no gain without pain.
At the end of the book I was convinced as to the descriptive truth of the argument. It seems clear that top-down autocracies have “sell-by” dates. In particular, the ideological gruel which the ruling elites of Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan provide is too thin to offer a viable long term alternative to Islam for the masses. In the case of the French Revolution, or communism, or even socialist or labor movements, there was an ideological alternative to religious institutions. With the expiration of the radical Left, and the lack of appropriate economic preconditions for liberal democratic pluralism, it seems that the question is not Islamism, but what type of Islamism. That is certainly the answer of Iraq, which presents an Islamism with a more human face than Iran, Sudan, or even our ally Saudi Arabia. Nasr also makes the case that the AKP, the party in power in Turkey, is fostering a more vibrant economic system precisely because of its origins in the non-governmental commercial class, which grew up without the patronage of the state because of their Islamic, and therefore outsider, identity.
One reason that the AKP has been able to hold onto power is pressure from the United States and the European Union. In return the AKP has not enacted a broad Islamic program, though there has been shifts toward cultural conservatism (e.g., misogynistic rape legislation, the widespread teaching of Creationism in schools). It seems quite clear that the more entrenched public Islam becomes in Turkish life, the less likely it is that Turkey will become a member of the European Union. And yet it is also clear that enforced top-down secularity through military fiat is also not a condition which will allow Turkey to join the European Union. Ataturk may have declared Turkey European, but history and structural conditions on the ground contradict such an assertion. Nasr seems to suggest, and envision, a future where Islamic nations might have a recognizably liberal order, predicated on individual rights, free enterprise and acceptance of pluralism. But this is the future, and not a near one. Rather, societies need to evolve in a matter which admits to the reality of path dependency and keeping with their traditions and customs.
As a secular person I do not believe in supernatural entities. And yet empirically it seems clear that a society not dominated by supernatural presuppositions is a peculiar thing, and they have become numerous only within the past few decades. There are obviously certain preconditions which are necessary, and it does not seem that any Islamic nation fulfills those preconditions. Within the broad commonwealth of Western nations there are variations in terms of the ubiquity of secular presuppositions, from the United States and Poland, to Sweden and France. But the presuppositions which one accepts or neglects are the same, that is, Christian or Christianesque presuppositions. In the Islamic world the presuppositions are different, and the spectrum of religiosity explores a relatively alien dimensionality. The secularism of the Epicureans (Greek), Carvaka (Indian) and that of Xunzi (Chinese) exhibit family resemblances because secularism is a spare and clean universe. But religious beliefs and practices are more diverse, and can often seem unintelligible. Civilizations can operate with a spectrum of piety, but I suspect that tensions among pieties would add too much to the mix.