Every tribune a Rick Santorum!

By Razib Khan | May 6, 2012 1:03 am

After the power of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt made itself felt, and current domination of Iraq by Shia political parties, and the likely strength of Islamists in Libya, the media finally has become more cautious about pushing any narrative which makes them look as prescient as Paul Wolfowitz about the nature of the Arab body politic. So, for example, this article surveying the Islamist strands within the anti-Assad coalition in Syria. The problem for the Islamists is that Syria is “only” on the order of 75 percent Sunni, and they do not want to project the image of chauvinist exclusivity which has come to the fore in Egypt, lest the religious minorities dig in in their strongholds (e.g., along the coast). But I think it needs to be pointed out here that in Iraq the Shia Arabs are only somewhat more than 60 percent of the population. In other words, there is no question that a democratic order will result in the regression of minority rights in Syria if the Islamic Brotherhood wishes this to the the nature of things.

Why are we even talking about this in the 21st century? Because of a particular tendency toward religious nationalism which seems to be part & parcel of Arab identity in our time (and more generally, of Middle Eastern identity, as the same strain is evident in Turkey and Iran). The nature of this religious nationalism is hard for many Westerners to grok. The constitution of Iraq states that no law must must contradict Islam. The provisional constitution of Egypt states that sharia is the source of legislation. As a practical matter these dictates can’t be followed literally. But they’re used to justify oppression of minorities and deviants from the orthodoxy.

And yet I do wonder if what is occurring in the Arab world today gives us an insight into a counterfactual scenario: what if democratization came to the West before secularization? Recall that by the late 18th century most of the European elite had put aside sectarian differences. The push for religious liberty in fact came from elites and sub-elites, with the populace at large often resisting (e.g., the Gordon Riots). In contrast, democracy evolved in these societies in the second half of the 19th century, and sometimes only in the 20th century. The acceptance of democracy by the Roman Catholic Church did lead to the rise of “Christian Democratic” parties, but these have only been factions on a larger landscape. What if democracy had come to Europe in 1700? I think the argument could be made that if that was the case you would see exactly what is happening in the Arab world today, religious nationalism would serve as the focus for mass mobilization. I suspect that a democratic, as opposed to oligarchic, parliament would have revoked the Act of Toleration 1689.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion
MORE ABOUT: Islam
  • Stanley Danger

    I think what we call democracy is a package of things, only one of which is universal sufferage. Meaningful independence is another, fumctioning representative institutions (which may precede universal sufferage) are yet another.

    All of the Northern European Protestant states that are now watchwords for secularism went through periods as totally fanatical theocracies as they went through these stages, whether as independent Lutheran prinipalities or Reformed commonwealths.

    My hypothesis is that it’s just a stage that has to be endured, but one that passes.

    One of the virtues of representative government is that it allows people to enact their worse prejudices and then be thoroughly disgusted by them.

  • April Brown

    That’s indeed a chilling scenario – (but all religion makes me viscerally uncomfortable and kind of panicky, so I’m likely to imbue that alternate timeline with more nightmarishness than might be reasonable.)

    I suspect the secularizing of our society pretty much had to happen, at least for the United States to maintain cohesion (as opposed to breaking up into lots of smaller enclaves). There were just so many of us, new on the scene, from such varied religious and cultural backgrounds, that it was going to be a melting pot or a bloodbath.

    The time I spent living in a Muslim country (ok, Uzbekistan isn’t REALLY Muslim, but they did like to claim that they were…) I noticed that in places where populations had been established for at least a few hundred years tended to be more conservative and intolerant of religious and cultural difference. Also, more brutal to their own populations, in terms of basic human rights for each other. The city where i lived had been a labor camp set up by the Soviets, and the largest ethinic majority clocked in at about 30 percent, and had only been there about 2 1/2 generations. It was an extremely open and tolerant population, with nobody caring much about religion, and at most the ethnicities were amused by each other, with almost no hostility at all.

    (My students were ethnically – Karakalpak, North Korean, Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, German, Tartar, Armenian, Khazak, Turkmen…)

    It was cool seeing the melting pot effect, and it seems like jumbling lots of different people together all of a sudden does really make for a secular (and, pardon my personal logical fallacy) therefore more tolerant society.

  • Darkseid

    I guess this:
    http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2012/May-03/172256-kuwait-mps-pass-death-penalty-bill-for-cursing-god.ashx#axzz1tvhpiCM7
    is sort of related. Yesterday, i thought: “Why did we bother rescuing these people if they’re just gonna do stuff like this?”

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

    only one of which is universal sufferage.

    democracy is not universal suffrage. think about it.

    All of the Northern European Protestant states that are now watchwords for secularism went through periods as totally fanatical theocracies as they went through these stages

    again, you are sloppy with language. they were not ‘fanatical theocracies.’ this is a fanatical theocracy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%BCnster_Rebellion#Rebellion

    and it seems like jumbling lots of different people together all of a sudden does really make for a secular (and, pardon my personal logical fallacy) therefore more tolerant society.

    this is a complicated social science issue. the fact is that some people argue that ethnic diversity in fact makes for competition between religions, and increases religiosity. e.g., northern ireland, the USA. in particular, religious diversity. in contrast, japan. but this is not a settled point.

  • ackbark

    Is it that what she describes is the new settlement in direct contrast with the rest of the country produces exaggerated characteristics in both, and the same dynamic happens regionally in the US?

    Would the south be so nuts if they weren’t in the same country as the rest of the country?

  • Stanley Danger

    democracy is not universal suffrage. think about it.

    I promise that I will. Do you mean it has to be qualified as adult citizen suffrage? Or that universal (adult citizen) suffrage is necessary but not sufficient? Not sure what specifically you’re asking me to think about.

    again, you are sloppy with language. they were not ‘fanatical theocracies.’ this is a fanatical theocracy:

    I think fanatical theocracy is a pretty fair description of Cromwell’s England and Calvin’s Geneva. Maybe less so of the Lutheran states, but extreme chauvinism would still be appropriate.

  • April Brown

    I’m totally speculating here (with a heavy dollop of wishful/magical thinking), but I’m hoping that when every single member of a society is a stranger in a strange land, with no one group having the sense of permanence and security of many generations living in that land, that religious and cultural diversity tensions will get steamrolled in favor of surviva,l game theory style.

    I wish to believe this, because someday when we get a Heisenberg Compensator and Star Trek becomes real, I want to believe that human colonies will move ahead without religious crap holding them back.

    (Also, I want a pony…)

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

    I promise that I will. Do you mean it has to be qualified as adult citizen suffrage? Or that universal (adult citizen) suffrage is necessary but not sufficient? Not sure what specifically you’re asking me to think about.

    i mean that until the 20th century women were routinely excluded from the suffrage. and in any case, the USA did not have universal adult male suffrage until the 1820s-1830s (it was state by state). there were property holding qualifications at the founding. this was the norm in many democracies.

    I think fanatical theocracy is a pretty fair description of Cromwell’s England and Calvin’s Geneva. Maybe less so of the Lutheran states, but extreme chauvinism would still be appropriate.

    the geneva case is peculiar, and we shall set it aside. cromwell’s england was actually exceptional in the religious freedom it granted to noncomformists (he famously allowed jews back in england, though that i was to hasten the end times). did you know that?

    i don’t think you have a good grasp of history. you should read more.

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

    I promise that I will. Do you mean it has to be qualified as adult citizen suffrage? Or that universal (adult citizen) suffrage is necessary but not sufficient? Not sure what specifically you’re asking me to think about.

    i mean that until the 20th century women were routinely excluded from the suffrage. and in any case, the USA did not have universal adult male suffrage until the 1820s-1830s (it was state by state). there were property holding qualifications at the founding.

    I think fanatical theocracy is a pretty fair description of Cromwell’s England and Calvin’s Geneva. Maybe less so of the Lutheran states, but extreme chauvinism would still be propriate.

    the geneva case is peculiar, and we shall set it aside. cromwell’s england was actually exceptional in the religious freedom it granted to noncomformists (he famously allowed jews back in england, though that was to hasten the end times). did you know that?

    i don’t think you have a good grasp of history. you should read more, and then your conceptual models will be more well informed.

  • TangoMan

    I think that you could extend the theme that you’re developing to include what Amy Chua referenced with respect to IMF imposition of free markets and political reform in nations where these processes were not developing organically. It looks to me that the outcomes she describes and the outcomes that you’re pointing to both come from the same root – the conditions for reform are not built on a wide enough foundation.

    what if democratization came to the West before secularization?

    Secularization seems to be a necessary precondition for democratization and they appear to stem from the same root, solving the factional issues prepares the battlespace for democratization reform because the benefits of the secularization reform effort are being enjoyed and slowly the attitudes permeate through the broad culture. However if the battlespace is not prepared and one jumps some steps, as we see democratization reforms, it’s difficult to see a process working backwards towards reforming viewpoints on secularization because the desire to do so isn’t present considering that the fruits of the democratization reform are close to being poisoned fruits.

    The acceptance of democracy by the Roman Catholic Church did lead to the rise of “Christian Democratic” parties,

    I can’t come up with any examples where democratic reform preceded secularization in the West but if I really push the definitional boundaries of what constitutes a society, perhaps the governance of the Vatican might fit the bill. Of course there was never a complete democratization there but there was a move towards decentralization and this has led to doctrinal differences emerging, most recently with one order of nuns. Then there is the doctrinal split in the Anglican community where there is even less centralized control than seen in Catholicism. These two examples are not really good proxies for societies in that we’re really only looking at one vector that binds a group together (religion) whereas a societies incorporates multiple vectors but it would seem that decentralization allows factions to develop with less restriction but there really isn’t a toleration for dissent under a common roof.

    If a factional battle within a religion leads to a weakening of common bonds, then when societies introduce democratic reforms into an environment where there exist strong religious differences then the process of weakening societal bonds seems to be exacerbated because now one is given the freedom to make a choice of who one shall stand with and melding state power with religious difference is a worse outcome than just having religious differences but not having any power to do anything about the differences or to punish your religious enemy.

    Lesson? Destroy the factional standing armies before distributing political power to the atomized level for if you distribute the power in an environment characterized by strong factions, then you add more weaponry to the factional battle.

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

    I can’t come up with any examples where democratic reform preceded secularization in the West

    in fact, democratization seems often to lead to nominal de-secularization of the political class. expanding suffrage in the USA seems to correlate with the shift from american presidents who were cultural christians, to american presidens who asserted their orthodox bona fides. and in places like italy and france explicitly anti-catholic politicians flourished before widespread suffrage and the acceptance of the catholic majority of political democracy made their positions less tenable.

  • Amanda S

    Cromwell might have been a poor example but the Covenanter movement in Scotland is an example of a populist movement which sought to limit monarchical power but was also religiously intolerant of all other brands of Christianity. The greatest period of Covenanter power in Scotland was in the late 1640′s in an era known as “the rule of the Saints”. There’s an excellent episode in the BBC’s History Of Scotland series which covers this history.

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

    #12, yes. see my allusion in the post to populism and the acts of toleration. i think the reason that genuine theocracy was rare during this period was the lack of democracy.

  • http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/ Brian Schmidt

    Democracy came to the subcontinent before secularization. I’ll leave it to others with more expertise whether an alternate-universe India without democracy would have had more or less religious conflict.

  • toto

    what if democratization came to the West before secularization?

    Well, Ancient Greece! Socrates was condemned, by a democratic system, in part because of his impiety. Alcibiades had to swiftly escape due to some blasphemous prank. OTOH philosophers were not exactly slaughtered en masse, despite their notorious heterodoxy, so clearly there was some grudging toleration.

    If you want a “conservative” contemporary view of Socrates and his ilk, and what the conservative Athenian-in-the-street thought of these God-denying ne’er-do-wells, you can simply read Aristophanes – the original paleo-conservative!

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

    #14, excellent point. #15, that’s why a republic was invented. gov. of men, and laws.

  • Tomasz R

    Religions artificially bread religous society. Killing of apostates and blasphemers by Islam eliminates rationalist genes or anti-religious tendencies from the population, out of the remaining population the artificially inflated (by treatment of women etc.) rates of reproduction of fundamentalists compared to moderates assure the final fundamentalist victory outcome.

    So current middle eastern populations are not “normal” human populations, but rather arificially bread for religion.

  • April Brown

    Rationalist genes? Is that a real thing?

    Also, the bread is fantastic in the middle east.

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

    #17, you’re wrong in a lot of the details. i will elaborate later.

  • hifastius

    The first Muslim civil war was fought over two models of government, the Sunni’s won and their model was not theocracy. Christianity on the other hand emerged under a foreign -Roman- occupation and so didn’t have a model for government for a while, as everyone knows Islam’s case is different and frankly I find the secular vs. theocratic comparisons annoying. There never really was a -Sunni- Muslim theocracy like what the Jews had or say, the Vatican.

    Now Razib, your model better describes Iran which is pretty Catholic and even has a a mini-pope more than it does the Arabs, who are majority Sunni -as you know-, I’m stressing this because to me you seem to suggest that what’s happening in the Arab world is a struggle between the forces of secularization against theocracy, which is misleading.

    Iraq is a special case seeing as it barely scraped it out of a brutal dictatorship that lasted for decades plus the heavy toll from the American sanctions and let’s not forget the 3 Gulf wars. It’s only natural for a strongman to emerge from that kind of environment, and he’s Shi’a because Sunni influence was weakened and Iran allowed pretty much free rein to do its thing by the typically clueless Yankee.

    Moving on, Conservatives are winning elections in the ME because those countries just came out of revolutions against militant secularists. Or even more simply put: Successful popular revolution brings populists (duh?) to power, and conservatives are populists and hence the MB + Salafi’s win in elections.

    and if they mention Islam or Shari’a in their constitutions, well so what? Upper and lower houses write & pass legislation, not some cleric on a pulpit, i.e. the interpretation of what Shari’a means is up to elected representatives in countries with diversity -and yes, even tolerance- sometimes greater than that found in Europe.
    You mention Egypt and the connotation is that bad conservatives will kill minority rights etc, but Egypt has Copts with religion and culture intact after over a millennium of the Muslim conquest.
    A recent example of that society’s tolerance can be seen during recent rioting and clashes, as members of the Muslim Brotherhood stood guard over churches, another e.g. would be the Copts who fought alongside their fellow Egyptians against the British occupation. Meanwhile Spain doesn’t have anything of its previous Moorish population except pretty architecture, location names and some genes, but not religion/culture.

    Final point, there is no such thing as Democracy in actuality, rather all democracies are practically Oligarchies, this is relevant because Elites are practical people, especially elites in democracies, and the impractical ones lose elections or get toppled, and so again, the simplistic secular vs. religious is a caricature and barely reflects anything of what’s going on in the Arab world.

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

    #20, you aren’t as informed as you think you are. you exhibit a superficial understanding of a lot of issues, and, you presume i’m a retard and stuff opinions into my mouth. for less informed readers, when you see someone write this: your model better describes Iran which is pretty Catholic , understand that the individual is trading in superficial analysis barely at the level of the new york times.

    (follow up comments by you will result in banning if you take the same tack of condescension toward someone who has a better grasp of history than you do [me])

  • hifastius

    ^Razib, I re-read my post and yes, my tone is condescending, I apologize for that.

    Let’s consider the differences and similarities between democracy and oligarchy etc a tangential point for now, what’s so uninformed about comparing the Shi’a model for government to the Catholic one in general?
    If you have specific evidence and arguments then do present them, but a naked claim isn’t enough, and before you jump to any conclusions I do genuinely like your posts and want to know your opinion, I wouldn’t have written that very long comment or this one if I weren’t.

    Perhaps that stuff about popular revolution & conservatives wasn’t worded that well but I don’t think it’s wrong either.
    To clarify my position further; It seems to me that Egypt, Syria and even Libya sometime in the foreseeable future will become more like Tunis in terms of the spread of secular/conservative/third way parties, and that the current overwhelming majority that the conservative’s are enjoying is a temporary result of their secularist opponents being for the most part allies of the regimes the people revolted against in the first place.
    Assad for example is a staunch secularist at least in his speeches, in reality it’s a bit more complicated than that, and his secularism might be seen as a defense against the overwhelming Sunni majority etc but for the purpose of my argument it’s enough that he outwardly and practically supports secularism. Ben Ali was even more secular than Assad is, and Mubarak to a lesser extent but he continued repressive policies against the conservatives. As for Gaddafi, the first thing his heir Saif did when the revolt broke out was to accuse the demonstrators in a very long rant on TV of being fueled by drug addicted religious extremists.

    In short all of them repressed conservatives except when it suited them, and were generally supported by a lot of what I call militant-secularists; a foreign educated/influenced elite who simply didn’t feel they belonged in their societies and who furthermore sought state protection and sponsorship, and were in turn used as peons in ideological struggles with conservative opposition groups like the MB and so on by the state.
    I believe the election results skewing conservative are a direct translation of that link and only that, let things calm down a bit in Egypt for example and in a couple of years the urbanized youth who make the majority of voters will display voting patterns similar to the Tunisian ones, Right now the only nominally untainted opposition group is the MB.

    Now, about Syria, why would the Brotherhood there wish to regress minority rights? Would they be even capable of such a feat? I very strongly disagree with you on this one, just look at who’s doing the daily killings and for the most part it’s regime thugs plus an army led by an overwhelmingly Alawi officer corps, with the majority of victims being Sunni. Let’s say the Assad family flees Syria tomorrow and elections are held and everything is back to semi normal in a year or so, how and more importantly why would the Brotherhood want to regress Alawi/Kurd etc rights? The country is on the brink of shredding itself apart because of the sectarian nature of the current regime’s makeup and response and the Brotherhood would crack down on those same people who own most of the firepower and have every reason to fear a backlash?
    And again, Iraq is a special case, people there were pretty secular before the last invasion and will return to it as soon as the shenanigans of the current government -the most recent being the Shi’i PM accusing the Sunni VP of being a terrorist- are too much for the voters.

    If any of the above is still NYT in your opinion then I think it’s common courtesy to at least explain why.

  • hifastius

    I also wanted to elaborate on there being relatively large minorities all across the ME, and the fact that they still exist and to such a degree as compared to the flatness of at least West Europe is quite telling, just compare the linguistic/ethnic diversity of Syria to that of say, France or Germany and you’ll see my point.

    The Arabs might be generally backward and support religious conservatives and whatnot, but their societies also have developed a pretty tolerant informal social contract despite what their governments did or do.

    Europe on the other hand had to first go through it’s centuries of conflict culminating in the two world wars before it’s major ethnic groups learned to live in peace with each other, where and when has something like that ever happened in the ME?
    That’s why I say that comparisons like that are to a great degree moot when comparing these two areas.

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

    what’s so uninformed about comparing the Shi’a model for government to the Catholic one in general?

    it isn’t uninformed. rather, it’s just informed enough to reassure and individual that they are informed, and that they have a good enough grasp of the social & historical context to be about to write for the new york times. i chose my words there carefully, i didn’t say ‘uninformed,’ though that’s an implication you could make. but if you want to have a more productive discussion with me you should try and read closer, rather than between the lines, often because in this domain i do try and use words and concepts as carefully as possible (i.e., this sort of thing does not lead to quantitative discussions).

    so let’s go back to what you said. you didn’t say that the shia are more catholic, though i understand that that was part of your thrust, but you said: Iran which is pretty Catholic and even has a a mini-pope more than it does the Arabs. on paper the usuli twelver shia are ‘more catholic,’ in reliance on a clerisy, than ‘sunnis’ (as a catchall term). but the analogy is superficial, and a lot of the crap about clerical supremacy was literally made up by khomeini within his lifetime. the shia clerics were, like clerics the world over, utterly subservient to the temporal power of the safavids. they were initial brought from the arab world, because despite the presence of holy cities like qom iran was in the 16th century a sunni realm by and large. additionally, with the decline of the safavids, and the weaker rule of groups like qajars, the clerics did rise to become more powerful, but from what i recall there was still a division here between the iranian usuli and iraqi akbari in terms of emphasis on the autonomy of the clerisy vis-a-vis the temporal powers. the idea, which i presume you were attempting to impart, is that in the shia world the religious authorities exhibit some independence, perhaps even supremacy, in relation to the state, as is the case in catholic europe. in contrast, like the protestants, the sunnis tend not to have such a superstructure, or where it exists the religious authorities are servants of the state. but the role of the iranian shia is not something fundamental to shia at all, but an artifact of the last 30 years, due to very specific conditions. in other words, couching it as a shia-sunni distinction totally misleads in terms of causality IMO.

    there is a major qualification in this narrative because there is one segment of the shia where the analogies for a highly clerical religion is very strong: the ismailis. in terms of characteristics it can be argued that ismailis are more distinct from the twelver shia than the twelver shia are from the sunnis. the ismaili dai or imams have an authority on religious matters which is supreme in a way which is genuinely similar to the roman catholic pope. such is not the case in the vast majority of the shia, who are twelvers, let alone the zaydi, who have even less distinction from sunnis.

    but about that distinction: the reality is that sunnis and protestants who deny the power of the clerisy only do so on paper. the reality among sunnis and protestants is that shayks and preachers had a greater deal of personal power, and command enormous followings. additionally, the innovation of offices such as the mufti (an ottoman bureaucratization of religious function) imbued sunnism with a more official clersiy, despite its lack of sacramental power. though sunni “clerics” are not officially clerics, they are so in all but name. similarly, jewish rabbis are not priests, but they serve the same role as priests for all practical purposes (though some priestly functions are reserved for the genuine priesthood, the cohens). institutional religions always seem to converge upon very similar priesthood-laity relationships, even if notionally a religion lacks a priesthood (e.g., radical protestantism, sunni islam).

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

    I’m stressing this because to me you seem to suggest that what’s happening in the Arab world is a struggle between the forces of secularization against theocracy, which is misleading.

    do a control-f for the term “theocracy.” first, you notice i don’t use it in my post. second, you see how i react when people use the term “theocracy” in a broad and general fashion in the comments? i specifically did not use the word ‘theocracy’ in my post. so again, i have to deal with the fact that you are arguing against an interpretation of me, one which i tried to avoid by being cautious about the terms i used.

    the division between secular and theocratic is not dichotomous. for example, ‘church-state separation’ really doesn’t make sense in an american way before the 18th century. even in cases where religion was subordinate to the state, and there was little specific sponsorship, such as east asia, there were cooperative relationships between religious institutions and the powers that be. so ‘secularization’ in a modern sense is uniquely western, though the idea is spreading because i think that ‘westernization’ is in many ways simply a particular evolution toward individualism and dismemberment of the power of corporate entities over the lives of individuals.

    just compare the linguistic/ethnic diversity of Syria to that of say, France or Germany and you’ll see my point.

    have you done a calculation? (e.g., ‘index of diversity’) i mean, do you know that 1) the local dialects of france and germany are actually close to unintelligible. 2) that france has genuine linguistic minorities outside of the dialect continuum like celtic, basque in gascony, as well as the rather large difference between the southern romance languages such as occitan and the french dialects? similarly, in england you have welsh and scottish nationalities, and in the case of wales 25% still speak welsh with some fluency. in spain you have multiple regional languages. to a great extent the homogeneity of europe is somewhat real, because the nation-states were created to produce them. and the ME is very diverse on the scale of small exotic micro-ethnicities (e.g., yezidis, druze, mandeans). but the homogeneity of italy and france are also somewhat artificial projections of an educated elite who share a common language which was ‘invented’ in the 18th or 19th century (e.g., french = derived from parisian dialect, italian = derived from florentine dialect).

    the main problem is that you throw a lot of detail at me. that’s normally something i encourage, but unfortunately i don’t think you grasp all of the detail very well, which prompts me to have to respond and explain the greater nuance or even falsity in assertion.

    Europe on the other hand had to first go through it’s centuries of conflict culminating in the two world wars before it’s major ethnic groups learned to live in peace with each other, where and when has something like that ever happened in the ME?

    the general argument is that the world wars in europe were vicious in part because of the technology brought to the enterprise, not that europeans (aside from hitler perhaps) were uniquely psychopathic. a better argument would be to point out that the wars of religion in the 1630s were particular vicious, and freighted with sectarian and ethnic conflict. that being said, one can immediately point to a similar occurrence in the conflict between the ottomans and safavids during the 16th and 17th centuries. but i think that it is a bit too neat and reductive to simply say that the ottomans and safavids fought over sectarian differences, just as it is too reductive to say that the french and germans fought during world war ii for ethnic reasons (latinate italy aligned with germanic germany against latinate france and germany england).

    now, if your point is that europe was, and to some extent is, savage. sure. but by western standards europe is certainly far less barbaric than the middle east. by many middle eastern standards europe is decadent and lacking in proper morals. that’s all fine, as long as everyone knows where they stand. the main problem though is that middle easterners want to go to europe for economic reasons, while europeans do not want to go to the middle east, except dubai (and unless you count israel, but that’s a peculiar case).

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

    this is a general comment which i will leave here: whenever a commenter imputes to me a specific word, or paraphrases me in a way that i find objectionable, i always ‘control-f’ to see if i wrote that. if i did not, i don’t react very well, because i try and be careful about how i phrase things. i’ve been blogging long enough that i’m aware of the standard semantic pitfalls and try and avoid them. i honestly don’t see why some people want to argue with their interpretation of what is said, rather than what i said, because i’m really not necessary for that. just make up whatever you want.

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

    i went back and reread my original post. you say:

    and if they mention Islam or Shari’a in their constitutions, well so what? Upper and lower houses write & pass legislation, not some cleric on a pulpit, i.e. the interpretation of what Shari’a means is up to elected representatives in countries with diversity -and yes, even tolerance- sometimes greater than that found in Europe.
    You mention Egypt and the connotation is that bad conservatives will kill minority rights etc,

    on the point about shariah, i specifically state: “The provisional constitution of Egypt states that sharia is the source of legislation. As a practical matter these dictates can’t be followed literally.” also, i didn’t use the world “conservative” in my original post. there was a reason for that. don’t worry about connotations. you aren’t very good and inferring what i’m trying to say. no idea why, but that’s just how it is. i don’t think that islamists are really “conservatives.”

  • hifastius

    First of all thanks for taking the time to respond.

    About the Sunni-Shi’a distinction, indeed both are subservient to political authority as well as each being influenced by the other, but my thrust was in another direction; I wanted to stress that the potential for friction between secular and religious factions is greater in Iran than it is in Arab countries.

    The Sunni position is officially that the people choose their governor, and some accept him if he takes command by force, the Shi’i standard position is that of wassiya or bequest from the prophet to Ali etc. Neither sect follows this and in fact both turned to hereditary types of government fairly quickly.

    That’s the historical flow of events, when it comes to current events though, no majority Sunni country has what Iran suffers from since Khomeini’s revolution: A nation with two entirely incompatible systems for government vying fro control, as on the one hand you have clerics who truly believe in a type of theocracy the world hasn’t really seen in a while (Vilayat-e-faqeeh) and on the other hand you have a deeply Westernized elite (remnants from the last two Shah’s time and onwards) who are diametrically opposed to the clerics.
    In this sense the differences between the Imami’s and the Isma’ili’s for example are not that important, I’m talking about a religious elite that holds actual political power and believes to some extent or other in a theocratic model of government. This dynamic is not repeated in any Arab country, and that’s why I said the struggle between secularists and religious conservatives -what I meant by a catch all ‘theocratics’-will be a much greater issue for Iran than it will ever be for the Arabs.

    The closest the Arabs came to what Iran currently suffers from was the Algerian civil war in the nineties and that has decisively ended. In fact Iran might very well go through a worse experience before its situation is resolved as the failed ‘Green Revolution’ shows.

    Additionally, Iran in a sense uses Shi’ism as an ideological tool in it’s struggle with the Arabs, as seen when it used both Iraq and Lebanon, the original seats of Shi’ism and where the actual spiritual Shi’a leaders -descendants of the prophet- reside as playgrounds for it’s regional rivalries. If they were ‘true believers’ they wouldn’t have been so cynical. Again, The real issue isn’t religious as much as it is an ethnic one between Persians and Arabs but that’s another topic.

    As for theocracy, I did make an assumption and you’re right, except about the separation of church and state in the US after the 18th century. What happened and not just in the US was more of the state taking the functions of the church except for preaching, I’m talking about the transfer of responsibility for things traditionally run by the church from taking care of the infirm to the confession booth -replaced by the psychiatrist’s chair- etc. But that’s a minor point.

    About Europe and the world wars specifically, the Italians and Germans had reached two similar ideological conclusions hence their alliance; in other words Nazi and Fascist ideology trumped ethnicity in that particular instant. This bearing in mind that the Fascist Party had a turbulent reign -see the Matteotti affair for example- and a rocky relationship with Hitler’s Germany, furthermore Mussolini survived multiple assassination attempts not to mention his arrest near the end of the war then execution by his fellow countryman. And again, Europe’s very bloody wars have no real equivalent in the ME. The other point was that a lot of minorities survived Arab conquest, but how many were practically wiped out by the Europeans? Technology can’t be the only factor, if you have better weapons that doesn’t really explain the impetus for wiping out native populations or completely destroying their culture.

    In that vein, I wasn’t pointing to the specific numbers for ethnic and linguistic diversity as much as to the state enforced unity in Europe as opposed to that in the ME. Of course France has a linguistically diverse population but try putting a trendy English name on your shop’s sign in Paris and see what happens. Cultural and linguistic homogeneity is an actively pursued government policy and has very real and direct results, this isn’t comparable to the ME. Qaddafi for example might have forced the Tuaregs to speak Arabic but that didn’t work very well and most importantly he was a dictator, on the other hand French language policy is minted in a democratic system.

    On using conservative vs. Islamist, I’ve been consciously using ‘conservative’ of late, seeing as the Islamists have been slowly splitting and taking sometimes contradictory positions on the board. No one calls Romney or Santorum ‘Christianists’, they’re all different strains of conservatism and it’s the same for the Middle Easterners.

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

    what I meant by a catch all ‘theocratics’-will be a much greater issue for Iran than it will ever be for the Arabs.

    this is a reasonable argument. whether you accept its validity really rests on whether you accept the ‘power of ideas.’ in general i’m kind of skeptical, and i guess i end up sounding marxist a lot of the time (as in, excessively materialist). i need to think on this more, because however it came about, iran’s political system is very strange.

    The real issue isn’t religious as much as it is an ethnic one between Persians and Arabs but that’s another topic.

    can you elaborate on this? i’m moderately skeptical. after all, azeri turks have been powerful cultural shapers in modern iran. if you are specifically pointing to ethnicity rather than sect, you need to take this counter-point into account. my personal experience with iranians is that they express casual personal racism against arabs, but it seems unorganized and ad hoc.

    And again, Europe’s very bloody wars have no real equivalent in the ME. The other point was that a lot of minorities survived Arab conquest, but how many were practically wiped out by the Europeans? Technology can’t be the only factor, if you have better weapons that doesn’t really explain the impetus for wiping out native populations or completely destroying their culture.

    which populations were wiped out by europeans? be specific, i need to know what you’re talking about. my own working model is that ethnic homogeneity in many societies emerges more through assimilation and absorption of minorities rather than genocide. e.g., the spread of french or italian identity and language from being a small minority in the 19th century to a majority in the 20th (more in france than italy) had little to do with physical elimination, and all to do with co-option of local elites and the promulgation of centralized standards. the drive toward homogeneity than is a function of economic advancement as well as superior political organization. the same process occurred, though more haphazardly in pre-modern times all across the world.

    the persistence of many minorities in the muslim world is a function of the backwardness of the muslim world, to be frank. genuine industrial genocide, e.g., of the armenians and of the assyrian christians in iraq (those who descend from the persian church), in the middle east emerges only with the rise of a semi-modern state and bureaucraticization. but even if genocide did not occur assimilation would have resulted in the elimination of differences. were the syriac speakers of syria in the 20th century forced to abandon their language by the government of syria for arabic?

    one can see this process outside of the islamic and western world (to remove the freight of rooting for/against “team”): the rapid decline in chinese ‘dialects’ (really separate languages) in a place like singapore in favor of english and mandarin. over time it seems likely that ‘taiwanese’ in taiwan will also give ground to standard mandarin, all without ethnic cleansing. similarly, i expect that as the 21st century processes standard mandarin will begin to threaten cantonese and the other languages of southeast china.

    Cultural and linguistic homogeneity is an actively pursued government policy and has very real and direct results, this isn’t comparable to the ME.

    when middle eastern states are ‘modern’ (or attempt modernity) they do try and ‘force’ it just like european states did. e.g., turkey during the early years of ataturk. if the libyans had german efficiency they would have succeeded. in fact, if you read closely the history of world war 2 you will note that the lack of cohesiveness and group-oriented solidity of the italian armed forces, which made them relatively ineffective, also resulted in greater latitude for moral action which we would find redeeming in hindsight.

    No one calls Romney or Santorum ‘Christianists’, they’re all different strains of conservatism and it’s the same for the Middle Easterners.

    good point.

  • Onur

    the main problem though is that middle easterners want to go to europe for economic reasons, while europeans do not want to go to the middle east, except dubai (and unless you count israel, but that’s a peculiar case).

    I assume you include Turkey in the Middle East as you wrote:

    “when middle eastern states are ‘modern’ (or attempt modernity) they do try and ‘force’ it just like european states did. e.g., turkey during the early years of ataturk.”

    You know, I avoid using the term “Middle East”. I do that because I find the term too Arab or Islam centric. For this reason I prefer the much more neutral term “West Asia” (I know this excludes North African countries, but at least does not have the political and cultural connotations the Middle East has). Also, just like the Caucasus states, Turkey is a country that is transitional between Europe and West Asia rather than a purely West Asian country.

    Back on the first quotation, I don’t know how Turkey is seen from the US, but Turkey is a country that attracts both tourists and permanent settlers (whether seasonal or throughout the year) from Europe (including Western Europe). This has been so for the last two or three decades and does not seem to change in the foreseeable future.

  • April Brown

    @ comments in #28

    Not sure I would call Algeria ‘Arab’, or that the civil war all that decisively ended. The whole country is still tense, violent, heavily armed, and under severe martial law with plenty of military actions against ‘terrorists’. There are ethnic Arabs there, and they do hold some financial power, but the various Berberish populations tend to despise them.

    (And they are having parlimentary elections today – eek. Will be miraculous if nobody gets killed.)

    “Christianist” is a term that’s been gaining usage, especially in the leadup to this election. I can’t remember it being applied to Romney, but it’s definitely been slapped on Santorum and his ideological cronies in blogs like Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish. I don’t know what the final definition of “Christianist” will be, but it seems to be evolving into a label for a militant and intolerant strain of Christianity that feels entitled to wield political clout.

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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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