Obnoxious speech and trusting the Other

By Razib Khan | September 28, 2010 10:09 am

Update: After watching the videos of what went down at the cultural festival I seem to have unwittingly slandered the Act 17 missionaries. They behaved well and were obviously unjustly arrested. Their YouTube site is testimony to the reality though that they’re pretty shallow and obnoxious in some contexts, but that’s frankly not atypical for this sort of evangelical Christian from where I stand. I apologize for engaging in stereotyping in this case, because my expectations were out of line with what I saw on the tapes (though their attempt at apologia is stereotypically laughable, and the goonish response of some of the Muslim youth to Act 17’s antics unfortunately predictable).

Ed Brayton points to a resolution of a case of aggressive and seemingly obnoxious Christian missionaries being arrested for “public disturbance”. Ed observes:

Those four Christian missionaries I wrote about who were arrested for disorderly conduct and breach of the peace while preaching at the Dearborn International Arab Festival in June were acquitted by a jury on Friday. That’s the right result, but frankly the charges should have been dismissed by the judge in the first place.

Nabeel Qureshi of Virginia, Negeen Mayel of California and Paul Rezkalla and David Wood, both of New York, were acquitted of breach of peace, 19th District Court officials in Dearborn said after the verdict. Mayel was found guilty of failure to obey a police officer’s order.

[my emphasis – R]

That last result is still a bit disturbing because the order she was given was an unlawful one. The officer had no legitimate reason to give her the order to stop videotaping what was going on and therefore she should not be held liable for violating that order.

Unfortunately, the mayor of the town continues to be confused about the legal realities….

I’ve only followed the case casually. From what I can gather it seems that these preachers were sort you find around college campuses, or sometimes in downtown areas of big cities. Going by stereotypes of how objectionable Middle Eastern Muslims tend to find proselytization by Christians in their own countries I assume that this sort of behavior would result in a public disturbance, because this sort of preaching tends to be “in your face” and confrontational. The politician is behaving in the craven manner politicians are wont to behave. That’s why we have the Bill of Rights. And I say we in particular to the readers of this weblog, we tend to be irreligious and unloved by the public. If for example I simply stood on a street corner in some small American towns and kept shouting “there is no God” in a monotone voice I suspect I’d attract attention, hostility, and perhaps threaten public disturbance. But all I’d be doing was stating my simple belief.

In any case, enough commentary. How about if the shoe was on the other foot? In the last iteration of the GSS, in 2008, they had a question: SPKMSLM: Now consider a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community preaching hatred of the United States, should he be allowed to speak, or not? Here are the results by demographic:

Demographic Ban preaching by Anti-American Muslim in community
Male 51
Female 65
Northeast 57
Midwest 56
South 63
West 56
White 56
Black 70
Hispanic 74
Protestant 62
Catholic 65
Jewish 68
No religion 42
No High School Diploma 82
High School 62
Junior College 57
Bachelor 45
Graduate 30
Dumb (Wordsum 0-4) 75
Average (Wordsum 5-8) 61
Smart (Wordsum 8-10) 34
Atheist and agnostic 30
Know god exists 68
Bible Word of God 76
Bible Inspired Word 55
Bible Book of Fables 38
Liberal 45
Moderate 62
Conservative 61
Democrat 56
Independent 66
Republican 59

Can I get some hallelujahs for the Bill of Rights and elites who will defend them? If you’re curious why “moderates” and “Independents” are as intolerant, or more so, than conservatives and Republicans, I think it’s because they’re generally stupid, and stupid people in particular are suspicious of deviations in speech and thought. Ideologues tend to be brighter. There is more than a dimes worth of difference.

Now that we’ve established that Americans are probably hypocrites, I recall that The Future of Religion reported that excepting Seventh Day Adventists the more fundamentalist a person was the more likely they were to support banning missionaries from non-Christian religions in the USA. In other words, preaching for me but not for thee. How does trust of other religious correlate with religiosity? Let’s look at it internationally. The WVS has a question about how important religion is in your life, very important, rather important, not very important, and not at all important. I constructed an index of religiosity by recoding these responses into numbers and multiplying by weights. So, 50%*3 + 25%*2 + 10%*1 + 15%* 0 = 2.1. 3 would be 100% who say that religion is very important, 0 would 100% not important at all. There is also a question about trusting people of “another religion.” The answers were trust completely, trust a little, not trust very much, and not trust at all. I constructed an index of trust of other religions in the same manner. On the X axis I placed religiosity, and on the Y axis trust of other religions. Here’s the scatterplot with r-squared:


There’s really no relation here. Only 10% of Y can be explained by variation in X. But, rescaling a bit we can generate quadrants of values. I now label the nations as well:


As you can see Muslim nations can be trusting or not trusting of other religions. One of the main issues with international perceptions of Islam is that we take Middle Eastern Islam as the normative Islam, and Middle Eastern Muslims tend to be among the most religiously intolerant people in the world, along with Chinese, and well as assorted group from the Orthodox Christian world. In contrast, as you can see with Mali and Burkina Faso, African Muslims are more tolerant of pluralism. As I have noted before, Senegal is more than 90% Muslim, but the “father of the nation” was a Roman Catholic. In contrast, Boutros (the equivalent of Peter) Boutros-Ghali’s political career always had an implicit glass-ceiling because he was a Coptic Christian, even though Christians are about the same percentage of the population in Egypt. Now, if Egyptian religious liberals would have the same heft and authority when they said “but in Senegal Muslims do….” or “in Indonesia they practice Islam….” as when Pakistani or Indonesian religious conservatives did when they stated “in Arabia….”, we’d be in a better place. But as it is, I do think it is a little misleading to state that “only 20% of the world’s Muslims are Arab.” That 20% “counts” more than the 30% which is South Asian.

Here’s the raw data….

Trust of other religions
Country Trust completely Trust a little Not trust very much Not trust at all Weighted index
Sweden 16.40% 72.40% 8.70% 2.60% 2.03
New Zealand 23.60% 59.90% 10.80% 5.70% 2.01
France 29.00% 48.70% 14.70% 7.60% 1.99
Norway 14.70% 64.80% 16.40% 4.00% 1.90
Great Britain 11.50% 69.40% 13.60% 5.50% 1.87
Mali 23.60% 44.50% 25.20% 6.70% 1.85
Finland 12.20% 64.60% 19.00% 4.20% 1.85
United States 6.10% 73.40% 16.00% 4.50% 1.81
Canada 5.10% 74.70% 14.90% 5.20% 1.80
Australia 6.00% 67.00% 22.20% 4.70% 1.74
Switzerland 5.30% 65.60% 24.60% 4.60% 1.72
Andorra 3.20% 72.80% 15.40% 8.60% 1.71
South Africa 14.80% 48.60% 27.90% 8.70% 1.70
Rwanda 5.30% 61.90% 27.40% 5.40% 1.67
Argentina 11.80% 51.00% 25.40% 11.80% 1.63
Trinidad 6.40% 56.90% 26.80% 9.90% 1.60
Burkina Faso 13.50% 41.90% 30.20% 14.40% 1.55
Uruguay 12.70% 44.60% 24.30% 18.40% 1.52
Ghana 12.20% 40.60% 32.00% 15.20% 1.50
Taiwan 1.80% 44.90% 46.50% 6.80% 1.42
Serbia 4.30% 42.20% 43.30% 10.10% 1.41
Poland 1.70% 47.60% 39.90% 10.90% 1.40
Brazil 5.70% 44.60% 33.60% 16.10% 1.40
Netherlands 2.70% 43.00% 44.20% 10.10% 1.38
Spain 7.50% 39.70% 35.20% 17.60% 1.37
India 12.60% 32.70% 32.80% 22.00% 1.36
Ethiopia 12.00% 27.70% 44.50% 15.90% 1.36
South Korea 3.90% 37.80% 48.10% 10.20% 1.35
Bulgaria 4.50% 40.30% 41.30% 14.00% 1.35
Indonesia 1.60% 38.30% 50.80% 9.20% 1.32
Georgia 3.00% 36.10% 49.60% 11.20% 1.31
Germany 1.50% 41.30% 42.70% 14.50% 1.30
Ukraine 5.70% 33.10% 43.50% 17.70% 1.27
Zambia 8.70% 30.80% 38.30% 22.20% 1.26
Italy 0.70% 40.40% 43.00% 16.00% 1.26
Malaysia 2.20% 33.30% 50.20% 14.20% 1.23
Chile 4.10% 32.90% 43.30% 19.70% 1.21
Egypt 3.50% 35.70% 38.70% 22.10% 1.21
Thailand 5.00% 23.70% 53.40% 17.90% 1.16
Russia 2.30% 33.90% 40.40% 23.40% 1.15
Vietnam 1.00% 26.90% 58.20% 13.90% 1.15
Slovenia 4.60% 23.60% 49.90% 21.90% 1.11
Romania 2.40% 28.20% 46.00% 23.50% 1.10
Jordan 4.90% 27.40% 35.40% 32.30% 1.05
Mexico 4.50% 27.80% 32.50% 35.30% 1.02
Turkey 2.40% 26.00% 42.00% 29.60% 1.01
Cyprus 1.90% 25.80% 42.90% 29.40% 1.00
Moldova 1.20% 25.00% 44.10% 29.60% 0.98
Morocco 1.20% 21.30% 45.00% 32.40% 0.91
Peru 2.30% 23.20% 35.60% 38.90% 0.89
China 1.90% 15.60% 51.90% 30.60% 0.89

Importance of religion in life

Very important Rather important Not very important Not important at all Weighted index
Egypt 95.40% 4.20% 0.20% 0.20% 2.95
Jordan 94.50% 5.20% 0.20% 0.20% 2.94
Indonesia 94.70% 4.10% 0.90% 0.30% 2.93
Morocco 90.60% 7.90% 1.30% 0.30% 2.89
Mali 90.20% 8.60% 0.90% 0.30% 2.89
Ghana 90.40% 7.50% 1.70% 0.40% 2.88
Burkina Faso 84.30% 12.20% 2.70% 0.70% 2.80
Georgia 80.20% 17.00% 1.90% 0.90% 2.77
Malaysia 80.50% 15.50% 3.30% 0.70% 2.76
Ethiopia 81.00% 13.20% 3.80% 2.00% 2.73
Zambia 77.50% 16.70% 4.60% 1.20% 2.71
Trinidad 76.80% 13.00% 7.90% 2.30% 2.64
Turkey 74.70% 16.60% 6.20% 2.50% 2.64
South Africa 70.30% 20.20% 6.50% 3.00% 2.58
Thailand 56.30% 37.90% 5.40% 0.40% 2.50
Romania 58.00% 32.50% 7.20% 2.40% 2.46
Mexico 59.00% 26.10% 11.50% 3.40% 2.41
Brazil 50.60% 40.40% 6.20% 2.70% 2.39
Rwanda 38.90% 56.90% 4.10% 0.10% 2.35
Poland 47.80% 39.00% 10.40% 2.80% 2.32
Cyprus 54.10% 27.20% 12.10% 6.60% 2.29
India 51.40% 29.30% 13.90% 5.50% 2.27
Peru 49.60% 26.70% 18.90% 4.80% 2.21
United States 47.40% 24.20% 19.70% 8.70% 2.10
Chile 39.90% 33.50% 18.40% 8.20% 2.05
Italy 34.40% 41.70% 17.00% 6.80% 2.04
Moldova 31.80% 41.20% 20.40% 6.60% 1.98
Argentina 33.40% 32.00% 24.00% 10.60% 1.88
Serbia 25.70% 40.90% 26.80% 6.60% 1.86
Canada 32.00% 27.10% 25.30% 15.60% 1.76
Ukraine 18.30% 38.80% 27.70% 15.20% 1.60
Bulgaria 18.90% 31.90% 32.20% 17.00% 1.53
Taiwan 12.40% 39.30% 35.80% 12.50% 1.52
South Korea 21.20% 25.80% 34.50% 18.60% 1.50
Finland 17.60% 27.50% 40.60% 14.30% 1.48
Russia 13.70% 35.10% 32.50% 18.70% 1.44
Uruguay 22.80% 23.20% 27.80% 26.20% 1.43
Switzerland 17.20% 28.30% 31.70% 22.80% 1.40
Great Britain 21.00% 19.70% 33.90% 25.40% 1.36
Slovenia 15.30% 27.60% 31.00% 26.10% 1.32
Australia 19.50% 19.70% 31.40% 29.30% 1.29
France 13.00% 27.90% 30.70% 28.40% 1.26
Spain 14.90% 24.20% 31.10% 29.80% 1.24
Vietnam 7.20% 25.60% 47.60% 19.60% 1.20
New Zealand 17.30% 18.50% 30.70% 33.60% 1.20
Norway 10.50% 22.20% 41.30% 26.00% 1.17
Sweden 9.30% 20.10% 40.90% 29.80% 1.09
Germany 11.20% 22.70% 29.00% 37.00% 1.08
Netherlands 12.50% 19.00% 28.40% 40.20% 1.04
Andorra 8.00% 21.20% 31.30% 39.50% 0.98
China 6.70% 15.20% 31.00% 47.10% 0.82
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Data Analysis
MORE ABOUT: GSS, Religion, Tolerance, WVS
  • Pingback: Obnoxious speech and trusting the Other – Discover Magazine (blog)()

  • omar

    Why do you think Females were less liberal in their response to “anti-American preaching”? Is it because they are generally wary of anyone upsetting the social order or something else is going on? And does the male-female difference hold up among the University educated? Just curious….

    About the 20% of Arab Muslims counting for more, I think that it would be more accurate to say that fundamentalist muslims count for more, where fundamentalism means they accept the orthodox “fundamentals” that were more or less agreed upon in the Sunni mainstream by 1200 AD. Some Arab nations are in fact relatively moderate (like Tunisia and Syria) while a non-arab nation (Pakistan) is probably closer to the fundamentalist norm than most Arab countries. Also worth keeping in mind that the relative (very relative) liberalism of Indian Muslims is primarily due to their minority status in India and the liberalism of Malaysian and Indonesian Islam is under sustained pressure from fundamentalists (and is mainly resisted by elites that are conscious of significant non-muslim populations and the need to make money, not really because the liberals have an alternative and well-fleshed out liberal version of Islamic theology). Muslims, in their daily life and their political attitudes, are not very different from non-muslims at the same level of modernization, but they get by because they ignore the fundamentalist arguments, not so much because they (or rather, their liberal intellectuals) have a coherent liberal alternative theology. Am I making sense?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    the sex gap seems to be concentrated among dumb or uneducated. IOW, dumb or educated women are particular illiberal compared to their male counterparts. not much difference among those with more education or intelligence. so there’s some interaction effect going on.

    i don’t think syria is that liberal really, i think the alawites keep a lid on the sunni majority. syria is really a backward country, just like “secular” baathist iraq was. once the dictatorship fell in iraq the latent fundamentalism of the population came to the fore (it’s evident in the WVS).

  • pconroy

    Slightly OT, but in terms of religious preachers in the Subway in New York, they are almost all fundamentalist Protestant. Usually White if Jews for Jesus, and Black if Baptist etc.

    But in the last 2 years I’ve noticed 2 preachers – I’ve seen them multiple times – who are Roman Catholics preaching in the same manner as fundamentalists, which is strange to me. Now the interesting thing is that neither is US born, one is Black Carribbean, sounds Jamaican, the other, even more curiously is Dravidian…

    I mentioned this to my mother when I was in Ireland recently, and she said that some churches in Ireland, due to the shortage of priests, were bringing in South Indian priests… now that’s a change.

    So Razib, how militant/fundamentalist is Roman Catholicism in India?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    not very to my knowledge, but my knowledge is sparse. most south indian catholics would be anglo-indian, or st. thomas christians, i think. though i guess i could look up the % for tamil nadu who are catholic dalits.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    p.s. in the usa priests are often vietnamese. there were in the 1990s more hispanics in protestant seminaries than in catholic ones in the USA. part of it is that the former have much lower educational entrance requirements. part of it is that american hispanics aren’t really that religiously identified. american born latinos are barely majority catholic.

  • omar

    About Syria, I was thinking of tolerance of religious difference in the public space, but you are right, its enforced by the Alevi minority regime, not a particular feature of Syrian Arab society. Still, is it any less liberal than similarly medieval Hindu or Christian societies? I mean does their Islam make them more illiberal than one would expect from an a relatively underdeveloped society in any case? And taking that further, is African islam more liberal or just more primitive…..it seems like there is a spiral where very primitive societies dont have a lot of well developed fascism either. You have to move beyond rural India or Africa to get to illiberal answers to your questions. I remember my village in the 60s was pretty much cool about religious difference; until 1947 they had no difficulty with Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs living in the same village and even obtaining prayers and intercession from each other’s holy men….They were not formally liberal, but practically they were far more genuinely multi-culti than modern San Francisco.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Still, is it any less liberal than similarly medieval Hindu or Christian societies?

    hindu societies were religiously more liberal i think broadly defined. obviously not socially. parsis did flee to india. st. thomas christians did have a stable, and even growing presence in a hindu order. in contrast, religious minorities were ground down in muslim societies, and are still usually ground down in muslim societies in the “crazy core”.

    And taking that further, is African islam more liberal or just more primitive

    lack of development explains some of it. but is yemen really more advanced than senegal? bangladesh mroe than senegal? it doesn’t explain all of it. africans are moving to a more “arab model.” other variates are communism. albania, azeribaijan, etc., are pretty secular. ibrahim rugova of the kosovo independence movement was a convert to catholicism from islam. the model of primitive -> advanced leading to more fundamentalism though works pretty well in south asia.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Obnoxious speech and trusting the Other | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine -- Topsy.com()

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Some of the data for SPKMSLM is surprising. For example, the fact that 68% of Jews supported a ban is surprising given the general history that Jews have gotten hurt badly by measures which restrict free speech. I suspect that this has to do with the fact that question specifically asked about a Muslim. I’d be very curious to see if the question simply said “Anti-American” whether that percentage would go down.

    The other one that is puzzling is that 38% is the value for people who say that the Bible is a book of fables but people for no religion the percentage is 42%. They are both close, but if I had had to guess I definitely would have had the two reversed.

  • Tom Bri

    I saw the video of the preachers being confronted. Not all that obnoxious. Simply insisting repeatedly that they had a first amendment right to distribute literature.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    tom, being lazy, could you post a link? i’ll update my post if i agree with a retraction of the aspersion.

  • M Burke

    As a disclosure, I am not affiliated with the four arrested, I am affiliated with an apologist who IS affiliated with them and has been on ABN (Aramaic Broadcasting) on their show.

    “From what I can gather it seems that these preachers were sort you find around college campuses, or sometimes in downtown areas of big cities.”

    Actually, these folks are specifically missionaries to Muslims. Their behavior can be viewed in the videos they’ve posted. They simply were discussing Muslim and Christian doctrine with the Muslims at the festival. Remember this was an Arab festival, NOT a Muslim one.

    “I assume that this sort of behavior would result in a public disturbance, because this sort of preaching tends to be “in your face” and confrontational.”

    If one views the videos you’ll see the central figure, Nabeel Qureshi discussing doctrine with the Muslims at the festvial. The discussions are intense, but not out of hand. Often, Mr. Quereshi shakes hands with the folks he’s talking to. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Mr. Qureshi is arrested.

    The video of Negeen, does show her to be a bit more agressive with the police, but clearly they’re asking her to stop doing something perfectly legal.

    I also HIGHLY recommend folks watch Acts17’s video about Qur’an burning, you’ll see that they’re against the stereotypical knee-jerk fundamentalist mindset.

    Keep in mind that if these men were arrested for preaching/discussing Christianity in most Muslim countries, they’d be imprisoned or worse. You should, I believe, make mention of that.

    “But all I’d be doing was stating my simple belief.”

    Yes, and it is your right to do so, and if anyone attempts to take away your right by attack, arrest or threat, they’re breaking the law, not you.

    We should seek to keep free speech free in the US, even that of those we disagree with. Thanks for this good post.

  • M Burke

    This is from the apologists point-of-view, but there’s other videos linked.


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    thansk! i’ll check it out. if others have other videos i’ll be curious. videos which put acts 17 in the light that i suggested they were probably behaving. i was working off stereotypes.

  • M Burke

    Well there are the King-James-Only types who carry big signs and threaten people with hell fire, these guys are the opposite.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    at this point i’m inclined to retract and apologize for the aspersion. though as an atheist i have to say i found the argument as intellectually fascinating as a smack-down between people who are into magic-the-gathering vs. D & D. i’ll look around a bit more….

  • M Burke

    Acts17 is focused toward Muslims, their arguments therefore are generally tailored to the Muslim mind-set which is often quite different from that of a Westerner. While that wouldn’t excuse a badly formed argument, these guys are enthusiastic, but probably not prepared for a debate on the transcendental nature of morality. 😉

    Generally any religious debate becomes a discussion of authority. The Muslim claims the Bible is corrupt (ie: not supportive of Islamic claims) while appealing to folks like Dr. Bart Ehrman, while not acknowledging that Ehrman’s views would equally apply to the Qur’an. That said, most Christians have little understanding of where their sacred text comes from or how it got to be in their hands, much less the number of copyist errors that exist in various translations.

    As to apologetics towards atheism, I recommend the writings/debates of the late Greg Bahnsen (especially the infamous Bahnsen / Stein debate) and the recent debates between Dr. James White and Dr. Bart Ehrman, David Silverman, Dr. Robert Price, and Dan Barker.

    Thanks for the update on the blog, I highly recommend you check out the debates mentioned as it might challenge or support your worldview, and that’s always a good thing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    interesting, you are kind of saying that i find so much of evangelical apologists stupid because their audience is stupid so they’re using the only tools available? i don’t think of much of richard swinburne’s arguments for the existence of god for example, but he’s not stupid, but he’s obviously aiming toward those with some grounding in philosophy.

  • M Burke

    “interesting, you are kind of saying that i find so much of evangelical apologists stupid because their audience is stupid so they’re using the only tools available?”

    Sorry if I was unclear.

    I think you (and I) find so much of evangelical apologetics stupid because it is usually engaged in by those loosely educated in their own faith as well as the beliefs of those they’re proselytizing, as well as the methodology used in the apologetics.

    Most evangelical apologetics uses (generally) evidentialist methodology, which (imo) can be very base-level in content and vocabulary. It’s usually easy to engage in since it often requires just the echoing of certain ‘facts’ one read.

    Acts17, directed toward Islam, their apologists are well versed in the claims thereof. They might not be well versed in arguments for the existence of God to an atheist. Their arguments, however, do make some sense to the Muslim since the Muslim’s faith is based certain viewpoints. I’m not agreeing with their method, just explaining why it might seem trite.

    A majority of Christian apologetics is been evidentialist in content, using evidences as their basis, but in the late 20th century there was some movement into more presuppositional and philosophical methodology. While I think there are some fine evidentialist apologists, I believe the presuppositional method to be superior, especially in answering the claims of atheism. Presuppositional apologetics views the Muslim and the atheist in the same light, both rejecting the Biblical God, thus they might argue the same toward the atheist as toward the Muslim though the argument would certainly be tailored to the specific topic.

    But that’s what I’m getting at. I wouldn’t consider a majority of Christian apologetics, much less the claims of any given individual American Evangelical, to be of much use in a serious discussion with an educated believer of a different ‘faith’, or non-faith simply because a majority of those who profess the Christian faith know so little about it or other faiths. This is evidenced by the recent poll. (http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2010/09/test-religion-atheists-public)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i don’t find presuppositionalism as plainly retarded on the face of it, true. though it’s more like a thought experiment starting from different axioms.

  • omar

    Paul Feyerabend said that “history, not argument, undermined the gods”.

    I suspect arguments do have a slow but perhaps steady effect over generations and centuries, but it seems to me that argument is generally ineffective in the short term. Rather, I think most religions that have grown beyond local cult level have enough arguments to get to work on the typical uninformed human subject and enough counter-arguments to defend their particular brand, so its not superior argument that leads to increased conversion, other factors are more important. For example, if Muslims live in an area with lots of Muslims and have an extended network of Muslim friends and family, then they are pretty resistant to conversion. But if they are scattered in small numbers in a sea of Christians then the next generation is fair game. The same goes for many other religions as well, but Islam has unusually severe penalties for apostasy (which is considered equivalent to treason by all classical schools of Islam) and is particularly resistant to conversion. The support network has to be weak before the subject will succumb to Christians or other religions. Exceptions exist, but large scale conversion is practically unheard of. Unorganized (primitive?) pagan religions are the easiest targets. Thats the low hanging fruit in the race between Christianity and Islam….

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Exceptions exist, but large scale conversion is practically unheard of

    you don’t consider modern africa, 1960s java, imperial china, iberia, the russian tatars large scale exceptions?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    btw, xtian societies had the same norms as muslim ones in a pre-modern age. the main reason it’s not emphasized is that, famously, christian european states just didn’t tolerant religious minorities to which a christian could defect, period. the main exception being sometimes jews. and in the case of christian judaizers they’d usually have to immigrate to muslim spain.

  • omar

    Pardon my ignorance, but what large scale conversion FROM islam to another religion occurred in modern Africa or Java at the hands of missionaries? Iberia was a case of conversion by conquest and the naked use of force, not by superior argument. Russian Tatars? I am not really knowledgeable about their history; were their large scale conversions to Christianity at some point? Again, by argument or by conquest? Imperial China, again I must expose my ignorance about the details of the history of Islam in China…were there large scale conversions to something else at some point?
    I wasnt very clear, but my point was that in a setting where forced conversion or even naked pressure to convert are not kosher, just walking up to Muslims and arguing with them is not going to lead to a flood of conversions, no matter how good the arguments are. But of course, its always hazardous to extrapolate into the future. Maybe there is a sudden collapse out there in the near future, with large numbers of Muslims suddenly realizing that the emperor has no clothes and so on…but somehow, I doubt it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Pardon my ignorance, but what large scale conversion FROM islam to another religion occurred in modern Africa or Java at the hands of missionaries?

    plenty. whole communities, and people, regularly switch between islam and christianity. this is particularly true of west africa. in java in particular abangan muslims in the 1960s left islam for christianity and hinduism. whole communities in east java made the switch. the reason was political, as santri (orthodox) death squads were active in the area.

    Iberia was a case of conversion by conquest and the naked use of force, not by superior argument.

    argument? you serious? lol. look, you are ignorant if you think large scale conversions occur through “argument.” let’s take as a euphemism for non-forced conversion. the conversion of muslims in spain is somewhat more nuanced than “conversion by sword.” in the lands of aragon in particular crypto-islam was accepted and whole communities remained muslim into the early 17th century. this is what prompted their expulsion in that period. on the other hand, the majority of crypto-muslims had shifted to a full christian identity. additionally, plenty of muslims converted to christianity before 1492, they’d lived under christian rule for centuries in much of northern spain. you seem to have bought into the inverse of the muslims-in-spain-were-so-tolerant model, that spanish christianity was fundamentally genocidal in its attitude toward other religions. some of that is clearly true, but the reality of how it played out is more nuanced. pre-modern states didn’t have the ability to be totalitarian after all (isabella probably would have made use of totalitarian means, though ferdinand might have tried to undermine her).

    Russian Tatars?

    the russian expansion into siberia and the steppe occurred via the conquest of predominantly muslim peoples. siberia is named after the khanate of sibir, which was muslim. in any case, there was some forced conversion, but what often happened is that muslim elites switched to orthodoxy to maintain their position as local powers. they became amalgamated into the people who we know as “cossacks.” the small, but non-trivial, mongoloid heritage in orthodox christian russians almost certainly came via the assimilation of these christianized “tatars.” additionally, because of the martial nature of muslim steppe elites some have argued they were overrepresented among the “boyar” nobility of 18th and 19th century russia. their skills were of service to the empire. by the 18th and 19th century the russian state was not going to force conversion to orthodoxy, but it did encourage it, while at the same time fostering an indigenous russian form of muslim.

    Imperial China, again I must expose my ignorance about the details of the history of Islam in China…were there large scale conversions to something else at some point?

    there seems a high probability that some of the clans of south china have muslim origins. it seems that in large parts of china the muslims who arrived with the mongols were assimilated into the han majority, unlike the northwest and yunnan, where muslims managed to maintain their own identity. among the han chinese some of them know which surnames are presumably muslim in the region, and aren’t always embarrassed to admit their muslim ancestry. the recollections are evident when you have cases of clans who don’t offer pork to their ancestral graves, because they know that pork was taboo to the ancestors.

    ust walking up to Muslims and arguing with them is not going to lead to a flood of conversions, no matter how good the arguments are.

    sure. i probably agree with your general point. most conversion in western societies happens through networks of friends, most people are too retarded to be convinced by “arguments” anyhow. in pre-modern societies there are macrosocial forces quite often. e.g., low caste hindu groups becoming muslim. the possibility that some nizari muslims with a vague identity in india switched to a hindu status when the sunnis started persecuting ismailis generally.

    anyway, a lot of the idea that islam in particular is immune to being converted, at least in relation to christianity, is based on ignorance, like yours. the generalization you made is pretty much true for the crazy core of the islamic world, but that region has a special history of continuous muslim domination and centrality of islam in its culture. you shouldn’t generalize from it. it’s pretty clear that on the margins of the islamic world people shifted back and forth more often. i’ll give you two an example most people don’t know about: southern thailand has a malay muslim community. this is because the thai empire pushed south into malaya. if it wasn’t for european colonialism they might have gone all the way to malacca. but apparently muslim malay culture was present further north in the 17th and 18th centuries. but some of the muslim warlords converted to theravada buddhism, and there were a concurrent process of religious and ethno-linguistic (malay to thai) shift among some of the population.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    btw, re: act17. i believe this particular type of missionary is engaging in “witness” more for their own ego and creds with the lord than in the real hope of conversion. most missionaries know that this sort of behavior has REALLY low yield. much more successful is interpersonal contact and familiarization. that’s how the pakistani american guy at the heart of this obviously got converted to xtianity himself. the main issue with understanding this is that the type of people inclined to convert to a superstition passionately will rationalize why they did in a way that has no correspondence to reality. even tards can be great fabulists. finally, i believe that people who engage in this sort of work probably have mental issues they’re trying to resolve. i’m not saying to cast aspersions, as much as to suggest that this sort of witness isn’t productive, and is stressful, and they’re taking time away from developing their own life. some missionaries who go to really dangerous zones in the world are also off their meds, even if they’re doing good.

  • omar

    I agree, and my knowledge of the details of history is obviously no match for yours. In my head, I was thinking of the whole business of Act17 developing some “muslim specific arguments”…..and I think we both agree that argument is not the most important factor in these matters.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar