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.