Understanding across cultures

By Razib Khan | April 9, 2012 11:37 pm

One of the non-science aspects of this weblog which I’ve been addressing over the past 10 years is attempting to get a grip upon cultural variation. There are two major dimensions in terms of the problem. One is positive, in that people don’t really have a good sense of cultural variation. This is simply a function of stupidity, or ignorance. In the latter case the primary problem is that the media and public intellectuals aren’t very good at concisely transmitting information (I don’t expect normally curious people to pick up ethnographic or historical monographs). For example, “elite” publications like Slate routinely flub facts which could be confirmed via The World Book Encyclopedia, such as whether Iran is an Arab country. Sometimes the confusions are more obscure, but nonetheless misleading. In 2004 I slammed an Iranian American writing for Slate (this publication deserves to be picked on because of its quasi-New Yorker superiority; it’s a “smart” webzine which doesn’t live up to its own billing too often in substance if not style) for asserting that Iran’s Islamic history has been predominantly a Shia one. Going back to that 2004 post, I realized now that it was written by Reza Aslan:

…On the contrary, Iran has been a continuous entity for nearly 2,500 years. Half of that time has been as an empire founded upon the ancient Zoroastrian ideal of the “just ruler”—the divinely sanctioned shah, or king, whose omnipotent rule reflects the authority of the gods. The other half has been as an Islamic, and distinctly Shiite, community anchored in the principle of the “righteous martyr,” who willingly sacrifices himself in the fight against oppression and tyranny….


Whether Iran has been a continuous entity for 2,500 years is debatable (as I’ve said before, I think modern Iran really owes its origin to the Safavids; the Iran of the Achaemenids has only marginally more connection with modern Iran than the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar II does with Iraq). But the idea that Iran has been distinctly Shiite for most of is Muslim history is indubitably false. Though Shia movements have long been active within Iran it was only in the years between 1500 and 1700 that Iran as we know it became a Shia domain. Before that the Shia had been a minority amongst a Sunni majority. This not a hard fact to stumble upon, but one that is rarely circulated. Unfortunately this results in “truisms” about Iran’s distinctive non-Arab and non-Sunni nature, as if it is has persisted since the Islamic conquest. Intriguingly, Reza Aslan just six months after this entry in Slate published No god but God, which lays out in detail exactly how the Safavid monarchy created a Shia state to serve its ends in the 16th century. From this I have to wonder if Aslan simply did not believe that the readers of Slate would be able to handle a nuanced and factually correct take, and rather decided to simply go with the standard motif of an eternally dissident Shia Iran.

The second issue is normative. By this, I mean that people have a preference that other cultures fit into preconceived expectations and paradigms. Unlike some cultural anthropologists I do not believe that intercultural communication and comprehension is impossible due to incommensurability. But, I do believe that on occasion people purposely or subconsciously misunderstand for reasons of their own cognitive ease. For example, a particular strain of moderate to liberal Christianity attempts to reach a common ground with Islam predicated on the mutual understanding that both traditions understand the other to be an emanation from a common divine source. But from the perspective of moderate to liberal Christians there is clearly a purposeful misunderstanding, for only the most radically liberal Muslims reciprocate in kind in regards to a universalist soteriology. Rather, a more proper analogy to how Muslims view other People of the Book is how some Christians view Judaism: a true revelation which has been superseded (it can be argued that the Christian perspective is somewhat more respectful, insofar as many Muslims argue that non-Muslim revelations have been distorted). When I emphasize some, I must add that before the past few generations all Christians viewed Judaism as an imperfect prologue to their own religion, which was the more perfect fulfillment of divine revelation.

Conversely, there are a set of American anti-Muslim thinkers whose opposition to Islam, and overall hostility toward the religion and culture, clouds their own clear thinking and perception. Some of this misunderstanding is due to the fact that some of these thinkers believe that Islam is a genuinely demonic religion. There can’t be much reasoning with this element. But many are not so superstitious in orientation. Rather, they reduce Islam into a coarse caricature of the natural cultural phenomenon that it is. They invert the purposeful misunderstanding of some liberal Christians, who transform Islam into an exotic species of their own conception of spirituality, by transforming Islam into a qualitatively different expression of religiosity from Christianity. They may or may not be correct in supposing that Islam is a qualitatively different species, but that is a different proposition from taking that position as an axiom from which one can confidently deduce. If the axiom is not correct, then all deductions are for naught.

All this is a preamble to some cursory discussion of a piece which has emerged in The Wall Street Journal, Turkey’s Shiites Fear Contagion. The title itself may surprise some. Is not Turkey a Sunni nation? The CIA Factbook cryptically notes that Turkey is 99% Muslim, “mostly Sunni.” That qualification is due to the fact that 10-20 percent (depending on which source you trust) of the population of Turkey, inclusive of ethnic Turks and Kurds, are Alevis. Notionally a Shia sect, like the Alawites of Syria, the true religious beliefs of the Alevis are a matter of some dispute. This state of affairs is itself a product of centuries of persecution at the hands of Sunni hegemony; Alevis, like most heterodox Muslim sects, practiced dissimulation to survive the oppression which they were subject to. Like religious minorities in the West the Alevis has been aligned with Left and secular forces in modern Turkey. In Europe many of the Leftists and assimilationists within the Turkish communities are Alevis, and so are perceived to “not count” in the eyes of the Turkish Diaspora majority. The Alevis may be exotic, but like their Alawite cousins they seem to have gravitated toward a secular nationalism as the best safeguard of their communal rights against a suspicious religious majority.

As the names suggest Alevis and Alawites likely share a common genealogical origin out of a synthesis of late antique paganism, gnosticism, Christianity, and Shia Islam. Their current identity as Shia Muslims is a matter of necessity in terms of survival and social acceptance in the Middle East today. It does not necessarily capture the totality of their religious system, and therefore does not get at at the root as to the source of the antipathy toward them from orthodox Sunnis.

Theology and history aside the crux of the matter today is that there is a perception that the Alevi and Alawite together form the western wedge of the “Shia Crescent”. With Arab nationalism on the wane and majoritarianism ascendant sectarian alignments are now coming to the fore. The Wall Street article notes multiple instances where it does seem that the Shia minority of Turkey is less hostile to the Assad regime than the Sunnis of Turkey. Here is the section which jumped out at me:

Last month, sectarian barbs appeared to infect Turkey’s domestic debate on Syria. In a speech,Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Sunni, accused the leader of the country’s opposition, an Alevi, of being in sympathy with Syria’s president. “Don’t forget that a person’s religion is the religion of his friend,” the prime minister said of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, who like many of his sect, is a member of Turkey’s secular Republican People’s party.

Erdogan and his Islamist movement have made claims at being moderates. And Turkey is a very moderate country when it comes to religion in comparison to its Arab neighbors. But the comment above is a pointer to the real state of affairs in terms of how different Turkey still remains from Western nations. Can one imagine Angela Merkel, a German Protestant, badgering a Roman Catholic political opponent of their possible connection with Catholic Austria? As a matter of fact the loyalty of staunchly Catholic Bavarian units under Prussian Protestant officers in the Franco-Prussian war against a notionally Catholic France reiterated how far in the past religious concerns had faded when set against the nation-state even in the 1800s. The proportion of Sunnis in Turkey today is considerably higher than the proportion of Protestants in the newly unified Germany of the 1870s. This means that Erdogan could have forgone cheap and emotionally satisfying appeals to sectarianism in favor of presenting at a minimum a facade of national cohesion. After all, the Sunni character of Turkish society can not be in doubt, and there is no threat of an Alevi take over.

Turkey and the leadership class of Turkey are obviously “not quite there,” where ever “there” is. Of course it would be ridiculous to assert that 21st century Turkey is like a 19th century European nation-state, only a few decades from its early 20th century ripening and maturation. It is not. Conditions are radically different. The early 20th century and its lesson have passed us by. But we can in small areas make useful analogies. Kemal Ataturk attempted to transform the Turkic core of the Ottoman Empire into the nation-state of Turkey. Though he did not succeed in totality (e.g., the Neo-Ottoman nostalgia), it did establish some basis upon which to move forward. The Islamist faction may be dominant in modern Turkey (in contrast, self-consciously Christian American culture is a minority amongst a majority which is outwardly secularized despite dominant Christian affiliation), but it does not swallow up the whole society for all practical purposes as it does in most Middle Eastern nations.

And that is where we must end. Instead of simple and easy to digest answer, Turkey is European, or Turkey is Islamic, we need accept each particular detail and construct the whole from those, rather than imposing a structure from on high driven by our hypothesis. Hypothesis-driven science is powerful, but data-exploration is also necessary. In the realm of human affairs the latter yields much more than the former in many cases, in particular in areas where our knowledge is thin.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Religion
MORE ABOUT: Islam, Turkey
  • Daniel I.

    Nice post.
    I think it is normally easy for writers to gloss over the truth and make incorrect generalisations because most readers will not know any better, and it makes their writing shorter and easier to understand. To truly do justice to the complexity of a culture, race, religion or place is more than most writers are able to do short of writing a book. However, stating something that is simply not true is lazy, at best.
    I’d love to see world history taught in schools. It would give everyone a much better understanding of their own culture, and help them connect with others.

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

    It would give everyone a much better understanding of their own culture, and help them connect with others.

    most people don’t seem particularly interested in other cultures except for the manner in which they forward their own narcissistic fascination with their own culture. at least that’s my personal experience…. (e.g., a muslim friend who had a hard time understanding the idea of the west as anything except a counter-point to the islamic world; as if the frontier with northern and eastern european heathenry was of zero consequence).

  • Joe Bohemouth

    I think it’s methodologically dubious to take the Usuli-Twelver school of Shi’ism centered in Iran as the norm and consider the Alevi, Alawi, and other “ghulat” sects to be innovators.

    In point of fact it is the relatively orthodox Usuli sect that is the innovator (starting in Safavid Iran, natch). Whatever sort of religion was practiced by the Safawi shahs’ nomadic Turkic ancestors, it is more likely to have resembled Alevism in broad outline if not in detail.

  • marcel

    If the axiom is not correct, then all deductions are for naught.

    Not so fast…

    Several decades ago, I was killing time in a small Welsh town and came across the following in a book entitled, IIRC, “Welsh Jokes”.

    Two politicans, one Labour, one Tory, competing for the local Parliamentary seat, gave speeches, one after another, to the same crowd. The Tory went first and gave a real stemwinder, leaving the crowd very impressed. The Labour candidate rose, apologetically, and admitted that he had a hard act to follow. He began by praising the logic of his opponent’s argument, saying that his own logic was almost certain to be flawed. On the other hand, he questioned his opponent’s assumptions; not that his own assumptions were any more likely to be accurate, but starting with flawed assumptions and proceeding with flawless logic, you had no chance of being right. However, he (the Labour candidate) starting with flawed assumptions and proceeding with flawed logic had at least a positive probability of ending up with a correct conclusion. Therefore, he argued, the audience should attend more to his words, and should support him over his opponent.

    (As an economist, this has stuck with me ever since).

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

    #3, probably true. though generally the ismailis make the claim to be ‘truest to the source’

  • Chad

    Worth reading just to see someone say that Slate deserved to be picked on. But frankly I don’t think its simply the fact that media and public officials do a bad job of communicating the differences, rather its that they are generally every bit as ignorant as the rest of society.

    I also spent several months in Turkey, primarily in Adana (south central), but have traveled throughout the Western portion, including Istanbul. Its really hard to get a grip on culturally as it has for millenia been a crossroads of civilizations and the culture changes dramatically from East to West. It is hard to convey the subtleties so I am not surprised that the media often gets it wrong when it comes to Turkey.

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    A big third issue that is very common in cross-cultural analysis is the argument that one can understand a religion in practice from its sacred texts. One cannot understand Islam in practice from reading the Koran without a cultural gloss, any better than one can understand Christianity or Judaism in practice from reading the Bible in a vacuum. Scriptural source have a remarkably weak relationship to how religion is practiced.

  • John Emerson

    Ignorance yes, stupidity no. Ignorance is the result of laziness, conventionality and lack of curiosity. The root problem is that the media is an old boy network of good buddies (drinking buddies and fuck busddies) and almost every member has a primary loyalty to the media itself, with little concern either for knowledge and understanding or for the public good.

    I say this as a left-liberal, but many conservatives can agree. But Limbaugh and other supposed conservatives are not exceptions.

  • John Emerson

    It’s American, too. Long ago I casually followed the the Lebanese civil war, or one of them, in the US papers and could make little sense of it. Finally I saw a little 300-word box in Le Monde which explained that the (local) players included 2 Arab Christian groups, 2 Arab Muslim groups, the Druze (neither Christian nor Muslim), and the Christian Armenians, and that most of these groups were militarily organized and controlled specific territories. There were shifting alliances, and every time something changed the American newspapers first were baffled, and then switched with the new alliances and went on as if nothing had happened.

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

    Scriptural source have a remarkably weak relationship to how religion is practiced.

    i think this is true, and secularists who have never been religious are the most likely to not understand this.

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

    There were shifting alliances, and every time something changed the American newspapers first were baffled, and then switched with the new alliances and went on as if nothing had happened.

    americans are lumpers, not splitters? ;-)

  • kirk

    When ad hoc literalism became Identity Christianity and Identity Islam we mostly gave up history as an explaination of what happens next.

  • John Emerson

    I say this from time to time, but the supposed literalists almost always accept far-fetched prophetic interpretations (especially of the Book of Revelation) which are essentially metaphorical. What they reject is any metaphorical interpretation intended to make the Bible consistent with scientific reality. And even then, only on selected topics. In one place the Bible assumes that pi = 3, but they’re willing to fudge that.

  • Onur

    Whatever sort of religion was practiced by the Safawi shahs’ nomadic Turkic ancestors, it is more likely to have resembled Alevism in broad outline if not in detail.

    Safavid shahs came from a Kurdish family lineage that adopted Turkic tongue as a result of being exposed to Turkic where they lived (to communicate with their Turkic soldiers?).

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    I spent a couple of pleasant weeks in Turkey in 2009 and came home convinced of two things:

    – This place is complicated.

    – I have no idea what’s going on there.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    Another thing you should not rely on Reza Aslan for is an accurate summary of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.

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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

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