Open Thread – November 6th, 2010

By Razib Khan | November 6, 2010 1:19 am

A few days ago I was propounding to an old friend my hypothesis that social networks of cultural affinity are determinative in both the nature and trajectory of attitudes and norms within subcultures. In more plain language, you come to an opinion on many issues through your peer-network. The number one predictor of conversion to a “New Religion Movement” (NRM) is a prior personal connection to someone in an NRM.

Consider the issue of abortion. In the late 1960s and early 1970s it was not a salient issue for much of the American Right. Historians of Catholicism remember well the forgotten period in the late 1960s when periodicals of the evangelical Protestant movement such as Christianity Today looked favorably upon the decriminalization of abortion, overseen by men such as governor Ronald Reagan in California. This all changed in the late 1970s with the rise of the social wing of the New Right; the Catholic Right-to-Life movement was suddenly joined by a swell of evangelical Protestants. By the 1980s a pro-life stance was almost entailed by an assertion that one was a socially conservative Protestant. Things were very different in the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon‘s concerns about abortion were more about consequence (permissiveness) than principle (sanctity of life). George H. W. Bush’s switch from a long-standing pro-choice position (his father was a treasurer of Planned Parenthood) to a pro-life one before his nomination to the Vice Presidential slot of the Republican ticket in 1980 was a sign of the times.

Did  all this occur because conservatives thought more deeply on the issue of abortion?  I don’t think so. There are plenty of theories why abortion became more salient for conservative Protestants years after Roe vs. Wade, that’s not my primary interest here. Rather, I suggest that an initial trend was amplified by positive feedback loops driven by the need for social conformity. This operates on the implicit level, people may sincerely believe that their opinions derive solely from their own inner logics, but the social and cognitive science does not support that position. There are of course outliers and non-conformists who find themselves out of line with the new orthodoxies; Barry Goldwater on the Right and Nat Hentoff on the Left would be cases when it comes to abortion.

All that is ultimately preamble. This mode of thinking explains why I am not totally sanguine about the existence of large minorities of Muslims in the West. I do not believe that Islam, or any religion, is necessarily “thick” with a lot of specific detail of belief or practice. Rather, I believe it emerges through social consensus and conformity. The idea that a Western Islam rooted in Western cultural presuppositions is somehow novel is ahistorical. In 18th century a sophisticated Chinese Muslim intellectual culture developed in Beijing which was rooted in Chinese presuppositions despite an explicit Islamic outlook. See The Dao of Muhammad. In the 18th century the collapse of the Turkic polities and Ottoman hegemony on the steppes to the south of the Russian Empire led to a long term attempt to formulate an Islam which was compatible with rule under a a Christian monarch. See For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia.

The Chinese case turned out to be something of a false dawn. With the collapse of the power of the Ching dynasty in the 19th century, social chaos and persecution of minorities including Muslims, and the integration of worldwide civilizations through modern transportation networks, Chinese Islam went through several phases of “reform” which re-aligned it with more Middle Eastern cultural presuppositions. The sophisticated intellectual system of Chinese Islam rooted in a wholly indigenous lexicon was to a great extent marginalized, as world normative Islam came to be the standard. World normative in particular being variants of Islamic practice and belief accepted as orthodox in the Turco-Persian-Arab world. If the number of Chinese Muslims in the 19th and early 20th centuries had been in the tens of millions, and not millions, the result may have been different. Indian Islam gives us a possible window into this, as the Deobandi movement has broad affinities with the Salafi reform of the Arab world, but is genealogically independent.

The unfortunate reality is that Islam as it is practiced in the Middle East is a pretty scary sight to non-Muslims. It is most manageable when under the vice of near totalitarian secularism, as in Syria. In contrast, a more populist direction in Iraq in the last 10 years has produced a great religious cleansing. This generation shall not pass before Iraqi Christianity and Mandeanism become extinct, ending thousands of years of cultural history. In the early 1990s I recall reading that Mahathir Mohammed was going to make a push for greater prominence of tolerant Southeast Asian Islam (this means that Islam is the favored religion in Malayasia, but non-Muslims are not in fear for their life in any circumstances because of their religion to my knowledge). Whatever happened to that? There are plenty of nations, such as Senegal, which practice a form of Islam which is congenial to most Westerners. But to my knowledge Muslims who are “seekers” are not likely to emulate Senegalese Islam, which is at peace with the idea of pluralism of parity. The Middle East is the gold standard (this finds peculiar expression in Indonesia, where I have read that Muslim reformists attempt to claim South Arabian genealogy for the earliest Muslims. Many histories generally suggest that in fact Gujarati Muslim traders were the dominant, though not exclusive, influence in the early years. But Indian Islam is much less prestigious than Arab Islam).

A more radical thesis which I hope to elucidate at some point in the future is that these dynamics are pervasive not just in the present: rather, persistent inter-generational social networks operate like shadows underneath the cultural patterns we see before us. This is obvious when it comes to religious, linguistic, or national identities. Who you socialize with in those cases is clearly conditional and predicted by who your forebears socialized with. But I suspect that there are several “dark” social networks present for ever explicit one. These may not not be as important on a per unit basis as the explicit ones, but they may be numerous enough to affect great change on the margins.

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  • Sandgroper

    ” Islam is the favored religion in Malayasia, but non-Muslims are not in fear for their life in any circumstances because of their religion to my knowledge”

    They were 40 years ago.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_13_incident

    It has never been clear to me to what extent that was religion-inspired, though – it seems that religion, race, Malay nationalism and poorer economic status were all part of an indivisible whole.

    But Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have all had repeat variants on this theme.

    And there’s this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jemaah_Islamiyah

  • https://www.eurasian-sensation.blogspot.com Eurasian Sensation

    “Tolerant SE Asian Islam” is under threat today due to a cultural cringe towards the Arab States. Even within SE Asia, Malaysia is far more stringent in its Islam than Indonesia. Malaysia has government-employed religious police, and legal barriers to conversion out of Islam, whereas Indonesia does not, for example.

    And tolerance is all relative, of course. Malaysia’s Hindus, Christians and Buddhists would scoff at hearing Malaysian Islam described as tolerant; it is only when compared to most other Islamic-majority nations that it seems tolerant.

    It would be lovely if the Middle East could look towards, say, Senegal or Indonesia as role models for a secular, progressive and tolerant Islam. But the reality is that this will not happen. For all the claims of universal brotherhood and equality within the Ummah, there is still an unspoken hierarchy of importance amongst the cultures that practice Islam. The idea that blacks or SE Asians could teach the Arabs something about a religion that the Arabs themselves invented would not be met with much enthusiasm by most Arabs, I suspect.

  • http://changelog.ca/ Charles Iliya Krempeaux

    @Razib said…
    “I do not believe that Islam, or any religion, is necessarily “thick” with a lot of specific detail of belief or practice. Rather, I believe it emerges through social consensus and conformity.”

    I think Paul Graham was talking about the same (or a similar) thing when he coined the phrase “moral fashion”. (At least when these beliefs or practices affect morality.)

    http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html

  • Tom Bri

    Why abortion opposition came to be associated with the conservatives in America can be explained best (I think) by the simple mathematics of the two-party electoral system. The pro and anti abortion arguments could as easily be used by libs as by cons. Perhaps simply by chance, the pendulum swayed towards one side being pro and the other anti. Politicians took advantage of the opportunity to win some easy votes and made an issue of it.

    The exact same process forces the Dem party to be anti-gun and the Reps to be pro. Not through any great conviction, but simply in order to win guaranteed votes. Fortunately, this issue seems to be practically dead now. Anti-gun organizations are entirely funded by a few big donors now, with no grass-roots. It is dead as an election issue. If Democrats want liberal arguments for widespread gun ownership, they are easy to find. Hopefully abortion will follow in a generation as new dividing lines are created.

    Personally, abortion was one of the last political positions I changed my mind on. I was uneasily pro freedom-of-choice on the issue, but eventually decided that I wasn’t taking into account the full range of the issue. In this stance I left my libertarian roots behind.

  • RK

    This operates on the implicit level, people may sincerely believe that their opinions derive solely from their own inner logics, but the social and cognitive science does not support that position.

    It’s not always implicit. I’m pretty sure the fact that I’m religious is due in large part to the revival of punctilious Orthodox Judaism in the last five decades (in which I include the ba’al tshuva movement and all the phenomena described in Haym Soloveitchik’s “Rupture and Reconstruction”), which is itself a part of a broader religious revival. And I don’t think I’m especially self-aware.

    In this case, I think it works by changing the range of practices and opinions that are considered “reasonable,” and not just by making observance easier. As you say, you see the same thing in the political sphere: a conservative in France is more likely than his or her American counterpart to have anti-imperialist, pro-labor, or “nativist” sympathies, because unadulterated neoliberalism is considered a fringe ideology, and most people don’t like being thought of as crazies. (A minority of people love it, of course.) The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for the “paleo” right or Maoists in the U.S. I feel like most people are aware on some level that, but for the grace of G-d, their political, religious, and ethical views would be vastly different.

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

    And tolerance is all relative, of course. Malaysia’s Hindus, Christians and Buddhists would scoff at hearing Malaysian Islam described as tolerant; it is only when compared to most other Islamic-majority nations that it seems tolerant.

    of course. tolerant islam is judged on a curve. malaysian islam is like chris burke, an above average standout among their peers. non-muslim malaysians though currently do not live in the state of oppression of iraqi or pakistani non-muslims. i see no expectation that we can expect any better from muslim societies in the near future than tolerance. some of the post-communist states excepted perhaps, because secularization has gotten so far in them.

    The idea that blacks or SE Asians could teach the Arabs something about a religion that the Arabs themselves invented would not be met with much enthusiasm by most Arabs, I suspect.

    agreed. this is even the arab trump card against turks and persians, though i get the feeling that arabs have a little race envy of these groups cuz they’re whiter. and non-arab muslims outside the middle east generally accept arab leadership as a given, except for a few vocal people who push against the tide and get publicity.

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

    Why abortion opposition came to be associated with the conservatives in America can be explained best (I think) by the simple mathematics of the two-party electoral system. The pro and anti abortion arguments could as easily be used by libs as by cons. Perhaps simply by chance, the pendulum swayed towards one side being pro and the other anti. Politicians took advantage of the opportunity to win some easy votes and made an issue of it.

    right. it could be a chaotic process and positive feedback loops drive the differences. i do think though that there were small initial differences at the elites. the abortion rights movement had a feminist core, which was firmly on the left. the democratic affiliation of some catholic intellectuals who were shaped by the new deal was already fraying in the 60s cuz of the counter-culture.

  • http://thelateenlightenment.blogspot.com Michael Caton

    “The number one predictor of conversion to a “New Religion Movement” (NRM) is a prior personal connection to someone in an NRM.”

    Razib, do you have the reference handy for this? I’m doing some quick survey work of my own and was about to re-invent the wheel on this. Thanks in advance.

  • omar

    “Normative Islam” is also normative because the orthodox Sunni schools developed a very comprehensive set of stories and arguments about the early days of Islam in the Abbasid period. This corpus is well preserved and enjoys nearly universal respect among Islamic scholars. The Chinese version you mention was able to survive for a while precisely because they were so far away. With increased contact, their conversion to orthodoxy was almost inevitable. Even tens of millions would not have changed that equation ..as you can see in the fact that 200 million Indonesians are not getting too far with attempts to create their own distinct center…the center is already defined. Its in Mecca. Its kept centered by the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and the fact that observant Muslims from all over the world go there every year and learn what the center is saying.
    Real life exigencies cause the practice to vary considerably, but no alternative center has a comprehensive set of arguments that can stand up against the arguments from the center in the Arab world. The deobandis have a different genealogy, but are indistinguishable on questions of substance because once you buy into a set of core assumptions about Islam, you will end up in the orthodox corner (or you will do what most Muslims do, you will live your life using whatever ideology works for you and still believe that in principle, the correct way is the way of the orthodox).

    But this whole system was protected by apostasy and blasphemy laws that are no longer fully effective in the age of the internet. Things may change and even change catastrophically in the near future.

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

    omar, i agree with the broad outlines of our comment. or at least i think it’s defensible. the only thing which i would disagree with is the timing. why do you say early abbasid? i would say late abbasid, though the roots go back deeper.

    r you will do what most Muslims do, you will live your life using whatever ideology works for you and still believe that in principle, the correct way is the way of the orthodox

    this is a major issue. even i, who have never believed in islam, took a particular sunni version of islam as ‘orthodox’ as a matter of course. only with exploring the diversity of shia islam did i notice the wide range of heterodoxy and the “long tail” of practice and belief which could characterize islam.

  • https://bluetenlese.wordpress.com M. Möhling

    > there are several “dark” social networks present for ever explicit one
    regarding UK & BE/DE/NL Muslims eg Pashtunwali & Namus?

    > This mode of thinking explains why I am not totally sanguine
    > about the existence of large minorities of Muslims in the West

    Could you qualify “totally?” What follows? All in all you’re still pessimist.

  • omar

    I said early Abbassid just because that was when the first major extant works of hadith and seerah (traditions of the prophet and biography of the prophet) were composed and those have been the source of all subsequent visions of “what really happened in the days of early Islam”. You are correct in saying that the formalization of the four schools of Sunni Islam and their establishment as normative was late Abbassid. Very heterodox versions of Islam (e.g. the Fatimid Ismailis) dominated major parts of the heartland during Abbasid times and a case can be made that what we regard as normative Islam reflects the late Abbassid (post Mongol invasion) elimination of other serious contenders and retrospective establishment of the canon as “real islam”, claiming to reflect the earliest sources most faithfully. So you are probably right. I should have said Late Abbassid.

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

    Could you qualify “totally?” What follows? All in all you’re still pessimist.

    entitlement obligations are a bigger issue that obnoxious minorities. in most countries it is a marginal problem. britain probably has the worst problem because they have a really regressive and high breeding group.

  • http://www.latif.blogspot.com Zachary Latif

    Hey its really interesting I read this in the Times today. It would be very interesting to see what the 2011 census reveals but frankly I was pleasantly surprised.

    http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=459

    In most non-White ethnic groups in Britain in 2004, the majority of people described their national identity as British, English, Scottish or Welsh. This included almost nine in ten people from a Mixed (88 per cent) or Black Caribbean (86 per cent) group, around eight in ten people from a Pakistani (83 per cent), Bangladeshi (82 per cent) or Other Black (83 per cent) group, and three quarters (75 per cent) of the Indian group.

  • Anthony

    Razib -

    this is even the arab trump card against turks and persians, though i get the feeling that arabs have a little race envy of these groups cuz they’re whiter

    I’m not sure it’s pallor envy. In the case of the Persians, it’s culture envy – the Persians had a pre-islamic civilization, and broadly speaking, the Arabs didn’t. Meanwhile, the Turks were the only non-Arabs to ever conquer Mecca and the rest of the Arab heartland.

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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

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