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

March 11, 2019

How Indian are Pakistanis (vs. non-Indian)

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 4:42 pm

I was sent this link via Twitter, Pakistanis are Arabs:

OK – so clearly that’s nonsense … but while I have your attention ..

Back in 2012, the Aspen Institute held a discussion called “My Middle East” featuring authors from around the “modern Middle East”. This included participants from various Arab countries, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Each author was given an opportunity to provide insight into their unique Middle Eastern experience. The brilliant Daniyal Mueendin was representing Pakistan. When it was his turn to speak, he started rambling about how the question was confusing to him as he was not a Middle-Easterner and so didn’t really know what to say – in other words, he missed the point completely i.e for all practical purposes (and particularly from the perspective of the audience) his cultural experience was Middle Eastern enough. I should add that the participants from Turkey and Afghanistan had no such problems. To me this brought to the fore an issue that’s been bothering me for a while namely a tendency among affluent, liberal Pakistanis to underplay Pakistan’s cultural affiliation with the Greater Middle East and instead fixate eastward, towards India, for such cultural linkages.

To be frank there is no substance I can see to the blog post, just some assertion. After reading this I am more convinced that Pakistanis are South Asian and shouldn’t be included as part of the “Greater Middle East,” because the argument presented is so weak, vacuous and contentless.

Pakistanis, especially the ones who are from Pashtun backgrounds, are more Middle Eastern than other South Asian peoples, even Muslims from Uttar Pradesh. I don’t deny that. But the dominant Punjabi culture of Pakistan is South Asian. Indian if you want to remove the term “Indian” from its current political valence.

Note: It is not surprising that this is the question where some of our local Hindu nationalists agree with Pakistani nationalists. Reality damns them both.

March 9, 2019

The new Amazon Tolkien series will be set during the Second Age

Filed under: Fantasy — Razib Khan @ 10:46 pm

So it’s confirmed, the new Amazon Tolkien series will be set during the Second Age. This seems like a fine choice, since some of the characters that we know and “love,” such as Sauron, Galadriel, and Elrond, will be major players, and the framework for the Third Age which is the backdrop that we’re familiar with will be set.

Additionally, as noted in the reactions, the fact that much of the action could take place on Numenor is probably a good thing for character development and dramatic tension. Numenor is the byword for hubris in Tolkien’s legendarium and opens up a path for a more complex and realistic take on character development than may have been possible during the more mythological First Age.

And of course, the series could culminate in a set-piece battle to end all battles.

Open Thread – Brown Pundits

Filed under: Open Thread — Razib Khan @ 11:31 am

Please keep the other posts on topic. Use this for talking about whatever you want to talk about.

March 8, 2019

BrownCast Podcast episode 21: A conversation with Thomas Chatterton Williams, a cosmopolitan in Paris

Filed under: Podcast — Razib Khan @ 1:07 pm

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsyniTunes and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

You can also support the podcast as a patron (the primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else…). Would appreciate more positive reviews.

This week we have a conversation with Thomas Chatterton Williams, a writer based in Paris. He is the author of Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine.

The discussion was wide-ranging, as we discussed being a writer, cosmopolitanism, race and identity, the nation-state, and finally the prospects for France in the 21st century. Really hard to summarize, so I have to just recommend for you to listen.

March 6, 2019

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 17: Polygenic risk scores and diversity

Filed under: Genetics,Medicine,Podcast,science — Razib Khan @ 4:55 pm

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 17: Polygenic risk scores and diversity

The risk for coronary heart disease

This week on The Insight (Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Google Podcasts) we discuss “polygenic risk scores” (PRS) and genetic diversity with Dr. Alicia Martin. She is a researcher in the Analytical and Translational Genetics Unit at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA.

Citation: Martin, Alicia R., et al. bioRxiv(2019): 441261.

We talked first about the general idea of “polygenic risk scores.” Based on centuries-old techniques of statistical prediction of an outcome (a “risk”) from numerous variables (which include various genes), the age of genomics has allowed for there to be enough data that individual genomes could be analyzed to produce results of utility. But as noted in recent work, the prediction varies by population. The accuracy is far higher in Europeans than in non-European populations, strongly correlated with phylogenetic distance.

One of the major reasons for this difference is the evolutionary history of our species. The “out of Africa” migration meant that Africans and non-Africans split first. Then Europeans from Asians.

When researchers do studies on Europeans, they “discover” variation in that population, and miss out on variation that is unique to other groups. This reduces the power of the predictions as a function of evolutionary divergence.

We discuss the various reasons for the low diversity in modern medical genomics. One reason is that European nations have taken the lead in consortiums. This means that they have a headstart and since genetic studies are easier in large numbers of homogeneous groups due to “stratification,” researchers kept studying the same populations over and over again.

This leads to accumulating differences in how well the technology is suited to different populations. For example, patterns in the genome known as “linkage disequilibrium,” the association of alleles across genes, is far more well known for Europeans. And these patterns are essential in maximizing the power of a given PRS.

We discussed Martin’s paper from 2017, Human Demographic History Impacts Genetic Risk Prediction across Diverse Populations, which pioneered the systematic exploration of this topic. And, we talked about the path forward, and how we can solve this problem.

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 17: Polygenic risk scores and diversity was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

BrownCast Podcast episode 20: Conversation with a middle-class Dalit

Filed under: Podcast — Razib Khan @ 12:24 am

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsyniTunes and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

You can also support the podcast as a patron (the primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else…). Would appreciate more positive reviews.

In this episode, I had a conversation with a middle-class Dalit who lives in Gujarat. For me, Dalits are people who are reported on, written on, people who I hear about spoken of (usually sympathetically). But I wanted to talk to a Dalit who was a university educated middle-class person, to zero in on the essential aspect of being SC in India today. At least urban India.

One interesting observation is that his own experience in India is filled with slights, but not day to day oppression. It doesn’t seem the lot of Dalits in urban India is anything like that of black Americans during Jim Crow. He seemed to assume that America had solved much of its race problem and that that’s what Dalits should aspire to. Curiously, Americans at this point, at least on the Left, perceive our racial problems as dire.

March 5, 2019

The dearth of diversity in genomics

Filed under: Diversity,Genetics,GWAS,Medicine — Razib Khan @ 11:24 pm
Citation: Martin, Alicia R., et al. bioRxiv(2019): 441261.

One of the curious things about genomics is the field has exploded in the 21st century so fast, with such explosive growth and increase in power, that it is hard to keep up if you blink. The first human genome cost $3,000,000,000. Now human genomes can be had for $1,000 or less. Whereas thirty years ago geneticists were debating whether you could even map the human genome, today we have hundreds of thousands of whole-genome sequences.

But some things don’t change as much as you might think. The chart at the top of this post illustrates the proportion of various ethnicities in “genome-wide association” (GWAS) studies over the past twelve years. The logic of GWAS studies is straightforward: you are searching within the genome for genetic variation that explains variation within the population. You are looking for genes that cause diseases and traits.

The chart to the left illustrates the heritability, proportion of variation which is genetic, for a range of traits. Many of these, such as obesity, heart attack, and schizophrenia, are obviously extremely relevant in a medical context. It would be best to understand the genetic basis of these diseases within the population and in the individual.

Therefore, in an ideal world, you could look at the specific genes you carry and construct a “polygenic risk score” (PRS) which predicts your lifetime probability of developing the disease in relation to the broader population. But we do not live in an ideal world.

Because most GWAS are performed in European populations, PRS values for individuals not of European ancestry are far less accurate. This phenomenon is caused by several factors. One of the major ones is that each population has genetic variations that cause diseases special and unique to a given population (“private alleles” in the jargon). Studies which use only Europeans cannot detect unique variation in non-European populations by definition. Those variants are not found in Europeans! Additionally, sometimes genetic variants even give different risks in Europeans than non-Europeans because of interactions of genes. The predictions in one population do not transfer to another.

The brains of schizophrenics are different in neuroimaging

One prediction that one could have made, and one that I did, is that the incredible cheapness of modern genomic technology would mean that people of diverse ethnicities would be included in studies over time. We wouldn’t need to do anything special, the magic of technology would solve the problem for us.

But instead, we’ve seen a process of the “rich getting richer.” European nations have robust healthcare infrastructures geared toward collecting the information needed for GWAS. Additionally, there are statistical reasons that GWAS are more powerful for homogeneous populations…as Europeans have the larger sample sizes, to begin with, many researchers continue to stay with the population with larger sample sizes!

What’s the path going forward? First, researchers are now proactively going and reanalyzing populations within datasets in the Western world with large numbers of people of non-European ancestry. Previously to obtain homogeneous datasets as noted above these individuals would be discarded from the analysis. Second, there are now proactive efforts to obtain diversity from regions outside of Europe. The African Genome Variation Project is one of these cases. Finally, private consumer genomic firms are now assembling databases of quite a large size, and a substantial number of their customers are non-European.

The past has taught us that we can’t be complacent, and simply expect the “laws of genomics” to solve the issues in relation to genomic diversity. Rather, researchers and the public have to proactively address these issues, so as to allow all of us to make the best decisions within our own lives in terms of what our genes bring to the table.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!

The dearth of diversity in genomics was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

The beginning of the end of Game of Thrones and the hanging thread of A Song of Ice and Fire

Filed under: Fantasy — Razib Khan @ 9:44 pm

Even if marginally, A Storm of Swords is the highest rated of George R. R. Martin’s books on Amazon. In the judgment of many people, which includes me, it is the best of his books. It was also the highpoint of interest in the series. For various reasons, it was published several months earlier in the UK than in the USA. So I special ordered the UK edition and received it in June of 2000, about 1.5 years after I began reading the series in the last weekend of January 1999.

Since I began writing this blog, in 2002, I have written now and then about my interest in the series, and frustration and patience with the delay in the books being published. The first three books were published in 1996, 1999, and 2000. The fourth book came out in 2005. The fifth, 2011. We’re now eight years along, and Martin is still working on book six.

For the longest time, I had no interest in watching the television show, since the books were far ahead of them, and I planned on watching the HBO series after George R. R. Martin wrapped up A Song of Ice and Fire. I had long assumed that the penultimate book would be published ~2016 so that the gap between the end of the HBO series and the novels would not too drawn out. Obviously, that did play out.

With the show Game of Thrones to conclude this year, there is a bittersweet aspect to those of us who have been reading the books for nearly a generation. There has been something of a “fork” so that many details of the show now differ from the books, and the HBO series, in fact, outrun Martin’s writing so much last year that much of the storyline was somewhat improvised. But the conclusion is said to be broadly the same between the television series and the book. Which means if and when we read the books we’ll know where it ends.

Open Thread, 03/05/2019

Filed under: Open Thread — Razib Khan @ 7:05 pm

Thanks to everyone who has gotten a membership. Still working out a few kinks and trying to enable yearly billing and Papyal (I’m messing up something on the Paypal API). Since someone asked, here is my Patreon for the Brown Pundits podcast.

Speaking of that, I’ll be posting a conversation with an Indian middle-class Dalit soon (already posted for patrons), as well as interviews pending for Thomas Chatterton Williams and Shadi Hamid.

The Insight will have Alicia Martin on this week, and then Lara Cassidy on Irish genetic history, as well as something on historical linguistics by Asya Pereltsvaig. Yeah, we’re preloaded for the next month! Then the current plan is to talk about deep ancient structure in our complex species.

I’ve been thinking about Twitter, comments, papers, books, and blog posts recently. And the audacious argument in Christopher Beckwith’s Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World. Beckwith renames what we know as the scholastic method as the “recursive argument method.” His contention is that this method developed in the viharas, colleges, of Central Asian Iranian Buddhism before the rise of Islam. With the conversion of these Buddhist peoples to Islam, their intellectual traditions were assimilated into the Islamic one. While the vihara became madrassas, which spread from the Islamic east to the west, the disputation techniques were never fully integrated into Islamic civilization, even though Central Asian Iranians such as Avicenna continued the tradition. Eventually, the tradition did take root in the Latin West, being transmitted by Islamic civilization.

Here is the Wikipedia definition of scholasticism:

Scholasticism is not so much a philosophy or a theology as a method of learning, as it places a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning to extend knowledge by inference and to resolve contradictions. Scholastic thought is also known for rigorous conceptual analysis and the careful drawing of distinctions. In the classroom and in writing, it often takes the form of explicit disputation; a topic drawn from the tradition is broached in the form of a question, opponents’ responses are given, a counterproposal is argued and opponents’ arguments rebutted. Because of its emphasis on rigorous dialectical method, scholasticism was eventually applied to many other fields of study.

Scholasticism is basically enforced nerdiness. Beckwith argues that modernist humans have abandoned this tradition, and he argues that postmodernism is really just a form of late-stage modernism. While in scholasticism the method and substance of the argument are critical, in postmodernism the individual who is making the argument is arguably even more important.

If a wealthy white male and a poor black woman entered into the argument as to whether “income inequality was bad for society,” we (post)moderns would place a great deal of weight upon who the disputants were, no matter the substance of their arguments.

The recursive argument technique is thorough, exhaustive and requires space. One can see scholasticism playing out in the form of a book-length argument, or in an extended paper. But it is almost impossible to imagine that its well-structured method could be format could be fitted to the comments of an article or blog post, let alone Twitter.

Twitter, in particular, is extremely well suited for a who/whom style of argument. Aside from threading it lacks the ability to structure arguments in a complex manner, and, its 280 character limit enforces a level of brevity at the single tweet scale. Deep substantive disagreements are almost never hashed out on Twitter because the platform does not have the capacity, goodwill or no. Rather, short rhetorical bursts and quips are optimized to lift the spirits of conferences in fellowship, ostracize heretics, and demonize the opposition. The laconic sophist is the ideal user of the platform.

Linkage disequilibrium in subdivided populations. Nei hath spoken.

Statistical Thinking from Scratch: A Primer for Scientists. Coming this summer, something new for your dead-tree collection.

Hierarchical clustering of gene-level association statistics reveals shared and differential genetic architecture among traits in the UK Biobank.

Ant collective behavior is heritable and shaped by selection.

Testing for correlation between traits under directional evolution.

Constraint-based analysis for causal discovery in population-based biobanks.

H.I.V. Is Reported Cured in a Second Patient, a Milestone in the Global AIDS Epidemic.

Theranos: How a broken patent system sustained its decade-long deception.

Interesting how similar his take is to some moderns:

Medicare should stop blocking access to next-generation sequencing for people with hereditary cancer.


Will be reading This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution soon. Hope to have the author on the podcast at some point.

Very heartened to see the author of This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, David Sloan Wilson, rejecting attempts to smear and taint Bret Weinstein with guilt by association. Wilson expressed an old-fashioned liberal sense of fair play and decency which seemed totally out of place in a place like Twitter.

Some of the idiots on Twitter once asked me “I wonder how it makes you feel that Ann Coulter retweeted you” in relation to a tweet that “blew up” (I don’t remember what it was). Now Illan Omar is having her words retweeted by the froggish sect for obvious reasons. How does it make her feel? I assume whatever her feelings are they are sincere and deeply felt, and whatever agreements frogs might have with her is neither here nor there to her. At least she cares about the substance of her beliefs, whether you think they are good or bad, not vague posturing associations.

The cult of feeling and naked emotive reflex reigns supreme today. Reason, for ill or goodwill, is at least bracing in its clarity.

The game is on. Let the disputes begin!

The Syeds of South Asia are the sons of Hindus and Magians

Filed under: Genetics — Razib Khan @ 4:12 am

The above figure shows the frequencies of Y chromosomal haplogroups of men of South Asian who claim to be descended from the prophet or his tribe, as cross-referend with their surnames. The “Non-IHL” category indicates those who are not of these honored lineages.

The paper from which I drew the data, Y chromosomes of self-identified Syeds from the Indian subcontinent show evidence of elevated Arab ancestry but not of a recent common patrilineal origin, actually somewhat support the idea that these people descend from Muhammad or the Quraysh or the Ansar.

I think this is wrong.

But first, why do think these data results show Arab affinity? The “IHL” lineages have a higher proportion of haplogroup J, the most common haplogroup among Arabs. J is not exactly rare in South Asia (lots of <<<Brahmins>>> who are not sons of Indra have it because they are the scions of cunning Dasa priests), but there’s clearly a frequency discrepancy.

And yet this paper was published in 2010. We now know through various tests of confirmed descendants of Muhammad, and who descend in the male line from his cousin Ali, that they carry a branch of haplogroup J1.

Even among the Syeds, most do not descend from Muhammad assuredly. There are nearly as many scions of Lord Indra, R1a1, as those who bear haplogroup J. Of the J’s within the Syed community, I think the most likely scenario if they are not South Asia is that they are Iranian. J is found at frequencies of 35% in Iran, and Iranians, along with Turks, were the most common migrants into South Asia.

In other words, the Syeds of the Indian subcontinent are the sons of magians, not Muhammad.

Globalist edgelord fighting for her life at the center

Filed under: Internet — Razib Khan @ 12:57 am

There ~1.5 billion of us and only a few tens of millions of <<<them>>>


Just. Vote. For. Her.

This is our helm’s deep.

March 3, 2019

Very ancient ghosts in the African genome

The above figure is from a preprint (updated from last year), Recovering signals of ghost archaic introgression in African populations. But to truly get a sense of this preprint, I would highly recommend you read the supplementary material. And, to be honest, a publication from 2007, The Joint Allele-Frequency Spectrum in Closely Related Species, as the core of the method used in the preprint is developed in that paper.

Here is the abstract:

While introgression from Neanderthals and Denisovans has been well-documented in modern humans outside Africa, the contribution of archaic hominins to the genetic variation of present-day Africans remains poorly understood. Using 405 whole-genome sequences from four sub-Saharan African populations, we provide complementary lines of evidence for archaic introgression into these populations. Our analyses of site frequency spectra indicate that these populations derive 2-19% of their genetic ancestry from an archaic population that diverged prior to the split of Neanderthals and modern humans. Using a method that can identify segments of archaic ancestry without the need for reference archaic genomes, we built genome-wide maps of archaic ancestry in the Yoruba and the Mende populations that recover about 482 and 502 megabases of archaic sequence, respectively. Analyses of these maps reveal segments of archaic ancestry at high frequency in these populations that represent potential targets of adaptive introgression. Our results reveal the substantial contribution of archaic ancestry in shaping the gene pool of present-day African populations.

To get a sense of how much work went into this preprint, really do read the supplementary material. The step by step analysis convinced me pretty thoroughly that these results are not due to straightforward errors in the genotypes and classifications of the genotypes. Such things do happen, so it was nice to see them be very careful about that.

The key point is that the distribution of the conditional site frequency (CFS) spectrum in West Africans does not align with theoretical expectations. The condition here being the state in the archaic outgroup, generally the Vindijia Neanderthal. The authors ran a bunch of simulations and models and found a subset that could produce the CSF they see, the u-shaped distribution. It is represented by the graph you see at the top-right. Basically, a scenario where a diverged archaic lineage which diverged from the other human lineages before the Neanderthal-Denisovan lineage left Africa contributed to the ancestry of West Africans within the last ~100,000 years (the most likely time is ~50,000 years ago).

This is not a new finding at the highest level of generality. Jeff Wall has been beating this drum for nearly 15 years. For example, Genetic evidence for archaic admixture in Africa.

What has changed is that whole-genome sequencing, including high-quality sequences of ancient hominins, has allowed for a more robust exploration of the topic. The analysis of site frequencies was really not useful 20 years ago without genome-wide data. More data has allowed for more subtle methods.

Within the supplements, the authors are quite modest that many elements of their model are likely to be wrong. The bigger picture though is that they believe they are capturing some general dynamics. It seems rather clear from multiple lines of evidence in the preprint, as well as earlier work, that there are strong suggestions of very deep structure within Africa that assimilated into an expanding modern human population. They actually tested for a scenario of continuous gene flow, and a rapid pulse admixture of the 2-19% is a better fit to the data.

Additionally, there are peculiarities which they haven’t resolved in their results. The Luhya gives really bizarre numbers, and the authors don’t have a good explanation for it. It could be a problem with their model specification in some deep way, or, the history of East Africa (the Luhya are a Bantu group who mixed with East Africans) is more complicated than we may have understood.

They also did some cool things identifying possible introgressed segments. Their methods seem to agree on the regions, and with older literature which had earlier identified these as targets for introgression. Finally, there was also some validation of the finding that West Africans may have some “Basal modern human.” That is, the modern human lineage that split off first from everyone else.

As the coverage of populations and the number of genome sequences in Africa increases, we will probably get more resolution. I do wonder at how computationally intensive some of this work is, and how many moving parts there are. Replicating this work is doable, as all the code is provided, but it would take time.

In general, these results align with most of my priors, so I am pretty confident they’ve grasped onto a thread of reality here. I would, wouldn’t I? Basically, ~50,000 years ago there was a massive expansion of a core modern human lineage which absorbed other human groups as it expanded outward. Though the easiest explanation is that it was one group, the Holocene agricultural expansion should tell us that sometimes differently related groups in close proximity can undergo the sample cultural revolution and expand in different directions.

Note: It is clear “super-deep” lineages admixing is going to be the next big thing. See Alan Rogers recent work.

BrownCast Podcast episode 19: Conversation with Saloni – a globalist centrist edgelord

Filed under: Podcast — Razib Khan @ 3:01 am

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsyniTunes and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

You can also support the podcast as a patron (the primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else…). Would appreciate more positive reviews.

Nearly 20 episodes in, I thought it would be useful to gain some perspective. Here are the traffic trends:

In the next month or so I will be recording a podcast with Thomas Chatterton Williams and Shadi Hamid. The podcast explores what we’re interested in, but I have to be honest that I doubt this would have ever happened without reader feedback.

On this episode, I have a wide-ranging discussion about globalization, globalism, and being Steven Pinker’s bulldog with my friend Saloni. A graduate student in behavior genetics at UCL, Saloni grew up in Hong Kong, carries an Indian passport, and is a hanger-on in the neoliberal shill conspiracy. Somehow she became an “internet person.”

March 2, 2019

Religion change, genocide, and culture in the Indian subcontinent and Eurasia

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 7:47 pm

Since many readers of this website refer to “genocides,” and all of them were born in the 20th or 21st centuries, I want to put a note here which I think will illustrate why it is important to be careful of the use of particular words and what their connotations are as a function of time. In the modern period, the term “genocide” has a particular valence. The Nazi killing of Jews, the Ottoman genocides of the early 20th century, and the killing of Tutsis in Rwanda. These were, I believe, expressions of the mass politics and mobilization. As such, they are not entirely analogous to ethnic and religious turnover in the premodern era, where death was often secondary or a side-effect.

The Tutsis were a socially and politically dominant minority in Rwanda. A militarized rebel force was fighting the Hutu-dominated government, and that rebel force was dominated by Tutsis. The planned extermination of Tutsis in Rwanda was politics by another means. Similarly, various Christian ethnic minorities in the Ottoman Empire during the first decades of the 20th century were seen as stalking horses of European colonial powers in their conflicts with the Turkish Muslim dominated government.

Note that this was a period when the Ottoman state was attempting to transition toward a more modern understanding of its political system, which depended on the support and mobilization of the populace, less differentiated by religion or ethnicity.

Finally, the attempted extermination of the Jews by the Nazi regime cannot be understood except in the light of the theory of history that Adolf Hitler and many antisemitic nationalists promoted in the early 20th century. It was predicated upon a postreligious materialism whereby the Jew could no longer be assimilated into the non-Jewish majority.

There are two changes that happened with the modern world that made genocide as we understand it more feasible:

  1. The rise of mass politics, which I allude to above. That is, the transformation of political units from being coalitions of elites (e.g., early modern France) to being expressions of national-folk will (e.g., post-Revolutionary France). Ethnic and religious diversity within the state is not a problem when the state is an expression of the will of an oligarchy, rather than an ethnic and religious group.
  2. The rise of the state more generally. Pre-modern states were weak and relied on ideology and customary tradition to bind villages together. They were simply not capable of totalitarianism if they wanted to engage in such an activity (in contrast, a single city-state could perhaps engage in totalitarianism, which made the social engineering of the Greek polis more comprehensible). The fiat of the central government had limitations.

The Nazi regime managed to kill 90% of the Jews of Poland. This would not have happened under Frederick the Great of Prussia 150 years earlier. First, though Frederick was a conventional antisemite, he was not a genocidal one. And if the Jews had consented to convert to Christianity (Lutheranism) he would have been forced to tolerate them, despite his contempt for the Christian religion. A biologistic understanding of nationality did not quite exist in a systematic form, though its elements were already present.

And second, though at the time contemporaries were in awe of the size and power of the Prussian state, and in particular its military (e.g, “Prussia is an army that has a state”), it was a far weaker government than what had developed in Germany by the 1940s.

That being said, premodern states could engage in genocide if they wanted to. But it was not in the form of camps and firing squads. They could starve or expel recalcitrant peoples.

In the 18th-century the Dzhungar Confederacy of Oirat Mongols emerged as the last great empire of the steppes. Caught between the two gunpowder polities of the Russians and Manchus, their fate was to close out the 2,000 years reign of militarized pastoralists in Inner Asia.  Modern-day Dzhungaria does exist, it is roughly the northern half of Xinjiang. But the native inhabitants are not Dzhungars, but Kazakhs. These were pastoralists that moved into the emptied Dzhungar rangelands.

How did the Manchus accomplish the ethnic cleansing then? Simple: in a premodern world of Malthusian limits you simply drive people away or force starvation by preventing them from extracting calories from their land.  Huge numbers of Dzhungars migrated into the Russia Empire, with some of them eventually settling permanently in Kalmykia on the Volga. But the death toll was enormous. Most died during the migration (some eventually migrated back).

The Manchu targeting of the Dzhungars was exceptional. That is because the Dzhungars as a whole were mobilized as a political-military force in Inner Asia. They were a predatory power which extracted rents from vassals of both the Russians and the Manchus and was instrumental in decades of machinations in Tibet. Though a small people, in general, these steppe groups punched far above their weight because all free males were potential soldiers for a campaign, with women overseeing the herds while their menfolk were out on the campaign.

This is very different from agrarian populations. When Genghis Khan conquered northern China some record that this plan was to drive off the settled populace and transform the land into pasturage. Basically, he would have induced famine which would have meant most of the refugee population would probably die. One of his advisors explained to him that the rents produced by farmers would far exceed the wealth generated by animal herds. So the farmers lived.

Such a discussion brings into focus the reason that ethnically targeted physical genocide of whole peoples was usually not used as a tool of politics by agrarian states in the premodern period. People were wealth for elites, and killing people destroying wealth. I here use a very specific term: targeted physical genocide. The mass conversion of pagan Slavs on the Baltic frontier by Germans, and their assimilation into a German Christian identity, was cultural genocide. But the rents that knights could extract were maintained. The people lived. Their identity changed.

In fact, the last pagans in the Baltic were to be found on the estates of German Christians in Latvia, into the early 1400s, because pagan peasants were not subject to the protection of the Church from extreme exploitation. In other words, it was more profitable for German Christian elites to extract wealth from pagan peasants than Christian ones!

The reality is that in the premodern period there were many mass die-offs due to famine. Some of these were due to political and historical events. The province of Sichuan, for example, was repopulated to a great extent from Hunan in the 17th century. Part of the issue here is that famine was induced by massive conflicts between the Manchus and the Ming loyalists. Similarly, the qanat system of irrigation in Iran was massively disrupted during the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. This resulted in such depopulation that the region’s census size did not recover until the modern period. This is not due to the concerted attempt by the Mongols to depopulate Iran, but rather, the vicious instrumentalism of Mongol forms of warfare, which responded to resistance with total organized viciousness against both humans and their capital. Mongol genocide was not an ends, but a means toward showing other people why they should surrend and bend the knee as soon as possible.

All of this brings us to India and the idea that genocide was committed against Hindus by Muslims. To be frank, I don’t pay much attention to these sorts of arguments in detail, but there is not much detail. But let me first say that I now lean toward the position that the great Arab conquests of the 7th century were by a people who we would only vaguely recognize as Muslim today. That is, I think a coherent and recognizable Islam dates to the end of the 7th century, and most definitely by the Abbasids after 750 AD.  As I have stated before, I believe that Islam is the product of Empire, it did not conquer an Empire.

Which brings us to the Turkic led predations upon India which began under Mahmud of Ghazni, and continue down until the conquests of the whole subcontinent begun by Muhammad of Ghor.* These conquests need to be understood in the context of steppe pastoralist predations that began with the Xiongnu in the centuries before Christ and continued down to the Dzhunghars in the 18th century.

The steppe is not poor on a per person basis in a relative sense. In the premodern wor,ld the vast majority of the population lived on the Malthusian limit. There were cases, such as in the Roman Empire, where trade and economies of scale allowed for the formation of a “consumer society” after a fashion (e.g., pottery mass-produced in the Mediterranean at particular locations and exported by water transport). But the gap between a Roman peasant and a Sarmartian pastoralist was small in a modern perspective. Rather, wealth is thought of as the aggregate of production of a population given across a region, which was easily understood to be a proxy for wealth for extractive elites.

India and China, or Egypt, were not wealthy because of high per person productivity, but because of high per unit productivity (fertile soil) which translated into large populations. From a purely economic perspective these people were rents that premodern elites could use to translate into wealth and prestige.

Unlike Genghis Khan, more sophisticated agro-pastoralist groups with more exposure to the Chinese world system, such as the Khitan and the Jurchen/Manchus, understood that the high population density of China meant that they could extract wealth out of the Chinese state far beyond what they could extract out of their own subjects. The Khitan operated like the Huns of the Late Roman Period, extracting protection money after threatening invasion. In some cases, the invasion had to be attempted, though ultimately this was a “lose-lose” situation. The Khitan did not necessarily recoup the opportunity costs of invasion through plunder, while the Chinese had to mobilize forces to defend themselves. Ultimately it was often less costly to payoff pastoralists for the Chinese state, and less costly for pastoralists to accept a payoff than work hard to plunder and conquer.

Of course, in some instances invasion did occur. It took the Mongols and Manchus two generations to conquer China. In the short term, this was a high-risk proposition, and the conquest itself resulted in the burning of the capital stock from which the conquerors would eventually extract rent. But, after the small number of Manchus and Mongols established themselves on top of the extraction pyramid that was China, they obtained windfall gains. They were far wealthier than they would have been as steppe warlords.

Which brings us back to the Muslims and India. There are ideological debates about whether we should call them “Muslims” or “Turks” (or Afghans, or whatnot). Ultimately I’m not invested in these debates. It is clear that whether someone was a “good Muslim” or not, since the rise of meta-ethnic religions during the Axial Age, these identities are important in some way for individuals who espouse them. I believe the Arabs constructed the Islamic religion in part as a response to likely assimilative pressures in the Near East.

Sometimes they do result in the sort of genocides that we associate with targeted ethnic cleansing. It is clear that the Frankish Christians who arrived for the first few Crusades killed urban Muslims and Jews in Palestine as a matter of religious commitment. They also encouraged the arrival of whole communities of peasants and artisans, who migrated to Palestine. For a few centuries, these people recreated the social structure of Western Europe in the Near East.

But, after the initial conquests the Christian rulers of Palestine took a far less ideological view because ideological decisions were impractical. Muslim peasants were sources of revenue, and some practices in the Near East were functionally adaptive. New migrants were often shocked at the assimilation, but a synthetic social order sprung up. We can only glean this from historical documents because the eventual expulsion of Christian elites from the Near East resulted in the disappearance of this culture.

So what do I think happened in India with the Turks? To understand this, we need to see what they did in the Balkans, in Iran, Egypt, and Eastern Europe. It is important to remember that the Turkic invasion of India is a piece of a broader dynamic after the year 1000 A.D. when Turkic migrations impacted almost all Eurasian societies outside of Southeast Asia.

Genetically, the Turks of Anatolia are only about ~10% East Asian. Assuming dilution that means Anatolian Turks are probably no more than ~20% descended from the Turkic pastoralists who moved into the region in the 11th century (in contrast, Rumelian Turks, like Kemal Ataturk, are almost certainly descended mostly from converts to Islam from Balkan peoples who Turkicized). Most of their ancestry is from people who spoke Greek, Armenian, and perhaps a form of Kurdish.

Similarly, the Chuvash Turkic people of Russia are genetically more like their Slavic neighbors than the Turks of Anatolia, though like the latter they also have a substantial minority East Asian component.

Unlike most Turkic people, the Chuvash, like the Yakuts of Siberia, are mostly Orthodox Christians. This is due to the fact that on the whole when the Turkic peoples shifted from shamanism to a “world religion” they selected that from the peoples whom they were in contact with, and often engaged in a predatory extractive relationship with. Before the rise of Islam, some Turkic people espoused Persian Christianity and Zoroastrianism in Turan. The Turkic people of western Mongolia during the life of Genghis Khan were nominally Christians of the Church of the East.

As far as Turks and India, it begins with Mahmud of Ghazni. He was a complicated figure. Though Indians are aware of him in large part due to the attack on Somnath, he was a major patron of culture, in particular, al-Beruni and Ferdowsi. Though Turkic slave soldiers came to prominence in the Islamic work under al-Mu’tasim, and Mahmud of Ghazni was from this general class of people, Turkic slaves converted to Islam who nevertheless remained subordinate in many ways to Arab and Iranian culture (e.g., see above the patronage of Ferdowsi, who produced a work valorizing pre-Islamic Iran in the form of the Shahnameh). But it was the period around 1000 AD which saw the emergence of Turkic polities which were fully Islamicized in the form of Kara-Khanids, and, independent of Arab and Iranian polities.

The Turkic “sword” of Islam during this period is clear. Though the Mamluks of Egypt included many Circassians and Georgians amongst their number, their internal lingua franca was a Turkic dialect. Though the Safavids of Iran had Kurdish, Georgian, and Greek, ancestry, their essential presentation was as a Turkic military order.

Some would attempt to dismiss the Muslim character of the Turks of Islam. This is fundamentally wrongheaded. Though the Turks may not have been “good Muslims” (whatever that means), and, their own ethnic-tribal identities may have been very salient, their own self-conception as ghazis and Muslims is very clear. In a similar manner, many of the Western Christian warlords that engaged in warfare in the Baltic and Islamic world on religious grounds may have been barely Christianized, and often concerned more with the material than spiritual conquest, but they clearly saw themselves in some ways as furthering the ends of Christian civilization.

The attempt to secularize Turks makes as much sense as it does to secularize the First Crusade. Material conditions matter, but they are not the only conditions that matter, and if materialism is one’s only concern then much of history would not occur.

How best to understand Muslim engagement with India then?

First, material considerations are not irrelevant. In all places, the Turks went they extracted resources and wealth. Whether it be the indirect Tatar yoke, the direct imposition of Turkic rule on non-Turks, as in Egypt and Iran, without ethnic assimilation, or, Turkic rule and assimilation as in Anatolia.

The reason that extensive targeted and conscious genocide in India is something I am skeptical of is that it is irrational. Turks could have inflected genocidal consequences simply by disrupting local production (e.g., if farmers can’t get to their land and the crops fail and famine ensues). But ultimately the wealth they wished to plunder consisted of the peasants!

But, this does not mean that there couldn’t have been targeted ideologically motivated attacks. The conquest of Italy by the Lombards in the late 6th century resulted in the disappearance of the Roman gentry across much of the peninsula. They were replaced by Germans at the top of the local status hierarchy, above Roman peasants. This was a transition from Catholic to Arian.

In North Africa, the Vandals and Alans replaced the Roman aristocracy in the eastern portion of their territory (modern-day northern Tunisia) but allowed the local structures to remain in place in the west (coastal Algeria). We know this particular detail because the Byzantine armies which conquered North Africa in the 6th century found Catholic Christian elites in the west but not in the east (ergo, elites had to be imported from elsewhere to administer the territory).  The Arian Christian Vandal German and Alan population disappeared, as the women were given to East Roman soldiers as wives, and the men were enrolled in Roman armies which were situated on the eastern frontier against Persia.

My assertion is that the existence of Hinduism as a non-Islamic system which remains dominant within the Indian subcontinent is mostly a function of the fact that non-Islamic elites persisted and survived in the subcontinent. In some cases, as with Rajputs and others, Hindu elites were integrated into the Turko-Islamic sociopolitical order as sub-elites. In other cases, such as the Zoroastrian kingdoms of northern Iran during the Abbasid period, or the Nubian Christian kingdoms south of Egypt, or Russian Orthodox principalities under the Tatar yoke, polities which espoused a non-Islamic religious and cultural ideas maintained themselves. In India, like Russia, these non-Islamic states eventually maintained themselves well enough to rollback the Turkic-Islamic tide (in fact, a substantial portion of pre-Communist service elites descended from Christianized “Tatar” nobility, whose martial skills were put in the service of Cossack brigades which eventually conquered Siberia).

In The Rise of Western Christendom Peter Brown asserts that the Islamicization of the Near East occurred much faster once various forms of Syriac declined, to be replaced by Arabic. That is, once the ethnic difference between Christians and Arab Muslims was diminished, the conversions of subordinated Christians to Islam proceeded much faster.

Though Iranians were part of the story of Islam from the beginning, the mainstreaming of explicit Iranian culture into Islam can be dated to the late Abbasid period. The problem is that even in the early Abbasid period, Iranians remained predominantly non-Muslim. The defeat of the last independent Iranian Zoroastrian principalities and the conversion of the rural gentry is probably what resulted in the likely majority position of Islam within Iran around 1000 AD.

Curiously, many scholars have asserted that Islamicization proceeded faster in Turan, that is, north of Iran proper, albeit dominated by Iranic peoples. As per Peter Turchin’s argument, some of this may be a result of the fact that marchlands are generally more open to cultural innovation than cores (in the late Roman Empire, elites from the borderlands became Christian much earlier than those in the Roman core). But, another fact that is relevant is the Turan was more religious balanced it is identity than Iran proper. In Turan Eastern Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism all had purchased. Islam may simply have been another option on the table, as opposed to a repudiation of Iranian identity, as may have been the case in Iran proper.

I engaged in this digression because the strong West and Central Asian orientation of the Turkic dominated conquest elites may actually have retarded the growth of Islam in South Asia. Though whole communities converted to Islam, and individual high-status converts were prominent, the differentiation between Hindu Indian and Muslim foreign may have prevented greater diffusion of the new elite religious cult. In Europe during the German “Drive to the East,” many Slavic pagans termed Christianity the “German religion.” The stubborn paganism of groups such as the Wends down into the 12th-century may partly have been due to the idea that conversion entailed alienation from their local identity. From becoming Wends into becoming Germans.

This post is written in response to comments below. On the one hand, is the temptation to argue in terms which leverage modern understandings to comprehend the past. This leads to confusions and misunderstandings. The religious skepticism of al-Ma’arri was tolerated and indulged because of he was a genius from an upper-class background in a society that was highly stratified. This does not mean that Muslims of the period were tolerant of atheism any more than they are today, but in that period mass society did not truly exist, and al-Ma’arri’s eccentricities were not perceived to be corrupting of the masses, as they would be today.

And yet similarly the past is not entirely incommensurable to the present. The religious-nationalist rebellion of Simon bar Kokbha is entirely comprehensible in modern terms. The sectarian conflict between Greeks and Jews in Alexandria that bubbled up from below in the wake of the Jewish rebellion is not hard to understand in terms of its social and psychological roots. Urban Greeks and Jews lived together in Alexandria for centuries, and their mores forced separation, despite the fact that Alexandria’s Jews had taken up Greek as their dominant language.

* Is it me or does “Muhammad of Ghor” sound like a barbarian warlord out of a Tanith Lee DAW novel from the 1970s?

Open Thread – Brown Pundits

Filed under: Open Thread — Razib Khan @ 11:30 am

Please keep the other posts on topic. Use this for talking about whatever you want to talk about.

March 1, 2019

Against being an intellectual subaltern

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 3:56 pm

Over at my other weblog, The blood on brown hands is a legacy of all of history. Basically, a long essay where I fire broadsides at reductive postcolonialism in the context of Indian history and communal divisions. The motivation was straightforward: twitter is not really good to outline more subtle or detailed perspectives. But, it is a good platform for people to pepper you with many, many, questions.

Below is the first paragraph of the post:

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.

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.

February 27, 2019

The world is more than two categories

Filed under: GSS,Identity Politics — Razib Khan @ 11:22 pm

A post from Kevin Drum, Once Again, a New Book Debunks Some History I Never Knew In the First Place,* made me wonder a few things. First, Kevin’s confusion:

Am I befuddled by history? Or by historiography? Or do I need a different word altogether?

Until five minutes ago, before I read this book review, it never would have occurred to me that white women were anything less than full partners with men in the white supremacy of the antebellum South. I have never read anything that even remotely suggests such a thing. And yet, apparently this has been a widely held belief—and not just by the masses, but by practicing historians as well.

Additionally, today I listened to the Extremeley Offline podcast where Zaid Jilani moderated a conversation between Liz Bruenig and Jon Chait, and Jilani talks about some of his confusion and discomfort with the racial dichotomies that have recently emerged in the United States (though our politics are very different it seems we have had the same experiences and reactions in relation to this). For example, all nonwhites are now “people of color,” set against whites. The three present a thesis that a dominant form of conceptualization of the world on the modern Left is between the marginalized and those who are not, and so you have dichotomies. People of color vs. whites. Women vs. men. The queer vs. straight. And, of course, the poor vs. the rich.

Which brings me back to Drum’s observation: as an older white male of a certain generation I don’t think he’s internalized the dichotomous framework intuitively. Within that framework, the idea that white women were oppressed, just like black people, in the South by white men, may lead to the idea that there should be and is natural solidarity among the marginalized. Presumably in a “progressive stack” white males would be on top and black females at the bottom. But white females and black males would be in the middle.

Reality is of course not line with the simplicity of this framework. Men, women, blacks, and whites, do not exist in a simple individualized world where their interactions are all dyadic and governed by heuristics of power. White women are part of families and communities, and during the antebellum South, those families and communities were invested in the institution of slavery. White women reflected, reinforced, and even shaped, some of their subculture’s values. They were subordinates. But they were invested in the system, not simply humans from which production could be extracted before their expiration.

To illustrate this complexity, consider differences in attitudes toward laws regarding interracial marriage in the United States. The chart above shows responses from the GSS for whites only by year. What you notice is that there is almost no difference between men and women. Doing a logit regression sex does not predict different attitudes at all. Men and women show the same support/opposition to these laws over the years.

But, this does not mean that men and women are the same in their attitudes on a conventional liberal/progressive spectrum. I did a second analysis of attitudes toward gay marriage. Women are consistently less opposed to gay marriage (again I limited the sample to whites). When I did a logit regression sex remained a very significant predictive variable (though less so than education and political ideology).

Basically, when it comes to racial issues men and women do not seem to differ much in their attitude. In some revealed attitudes, such as dating, women seem somewhat more racially conservative than men. But, when it comes to attitudes toward gays and rights for gays, women have generally been somewhat more liberal than men.

The moral of the story is than Manichaean ideological frameworks are great for tactical mobilization of coalitions. But they don’t easily reflect a simple calculus of moral attitudes, affinities, and sympathies.

* It’s very rare that one of my posts mentions another blog post on another blog nowadays. Very nostalgic.

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 16: Blueprint, a conversation with Robert Plomin

Filed under: Behavior Genetics,blueprint,Genetics — Razib Khan @ 4:54 pm

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 16: Blueprint, a conversation with Robert Plomin

Correlation on a scatterplot

This week on The Insight (Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Google Podcasts) we discuss behavior genetics with Robert Plomin, one of the eminent researchers in the field.

Much of the discussion was around Plomin’s new book, Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are. He admitted that many people were not happy with the book. Nature, in particular, published a rather negative review. But in general, Plomin was happy about the reviews (e.g., a relatively positive review was published in National Review by the author of this post!).

There was some discussion about the history of behavior genetics, the study of individual differences, and the origins of differential psychology with Francis Galton.

We also discussed the “blue period” of the field when Plomin was studying psychology in the 1970s when most researchers were not interested in heredity.

Rather, Behaviorism was in vogue in academia, and Freudianism in the general public.

Moving into the 21st century, we discussed polygenic risk scores, which synthesize genomic technology with behavioral genetic statistics, and Plomin’s enthusiasm for them as tools for discernment. In particular, he discusses his own background as someone from a working-class family where he was the only one to go to college.

We also discussed the difference between heritability, shared environment (family), and non-shared environment, and why genetics is the signal we can understand. In this context, we brought up the late Judith Rich Harris, who emphasized how much we talk about the shared environment, even though it seems rather marginal for many characteristics.

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 16: Blueprint, a conversation with Robert Plomin was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

A toxic cocktail of American narcissism and Indian American self-righteousness

Filed under: Culture — Razib Khan @ 10:44 am

Like many of you, I’m monitoring what’s going on in the Indian subcontinent. I’m not saying much because I don’t know much. No value to add.

But then this showed up in my timeline, and I honestly could not believe that even the confluence of characteristics we’ve been talking about recently might lead to such bizarre self-obsessed comments:

I see this person’s comments in my timeline way too often. Best case scenario is that she’s some sort of ideological grifter who knows how to push buttons. But this indecent.

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