As I’ve noted in this space before many of my “web friends” and readers are confused why I call myself “conservative.” This is actually an issue in “real life” as well, though I’m not going to get into that because I’m a believer in semi-separation of the worlds. I’ll be giving a full account of my political beliefs at the Moving Secularism Forward conference. A quick answer is that I’m very open to voting for Republicans, and have done so in the recent past. And, my lean toward Mitt Romney* in the current cycle is probably obvious to “close readers.” But I’m not a very “political person” in the final accounting when it comes to any given election. I didn’t have a very strong reaction to the “wave” elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010, except that I was hopeful but skeptical that Democrats would actually follow through on their anti-war rhetoric (I’m an isolationist on foreign policy).
Rather, my conservatism, or perhaps more accurately anti-Left-liberal stance, plays out on a broader philosophical and historical canvas. I reject the very terms of much of Left-liberal discourse in the United States. I use the term “discourse” because for some reason the academic term has replaced the more informal “discussion” in non-scholarly forums. And that’s part of the problem. I am thinking of this because of a post by Nandalal Rasiah at Brown Pundits commenting on a piece over at Slate, Responding to Egregious Attack on Female Protester, Egyptian Women Fight Back. Whether conventional or counter-intuitive Slate is a good gauge of “smart” Left-liberal non-academic public thought. Nandalal highlights this section:
I’ve been keeping track of events in the Arab world only from a distance. There’s been a lot of excitement on twitter and Facebook. Since I’m not an unalloyed enthusiast for democracy I’ve not joined in in the exultation. But I’m very concerned at what I perceive are unrealistic assumptions and false correspondences. This is a big issue because the public is very ignorant of world history and geography. For example, I was listening to a radio show where Roger Cohen was a guest. Cohen covers the Middle East, so he is familiar with many of the issues to a much greater depth than is feasible for the “Average Joe.” In response to a caller who was an ethnic Egyptian American and a Coptic Christian who was concerned about possible persecution of religious minorities Cohen pointed to Turkey, which is ruled by Islamists, and has “many” Christians. His tone was of dismissal and frustration. And that was that.
Let’s look more closely. About 5-10% of Egyptians are Christian, with most estimates being closer to 10 than 5. In contrast, the non-Muslim minority in Turkey numbers at most a few percent, with ~1% often given as a “round number.” This low fraction of non-Muslims in modern Turkey is a product of 20th century events. First, the genocide against Armenians cleared out eastern Anatolia. Second, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s resulted in each nation removing most of its religious minorities. Of the religious minorities which remain in Turkey, they have been subject to sporadic attacks from radicals (often Turkish nationalists, not Islamists). But from a cultural-historical perspective one of the most revealing issues has been the long-running strangulation of the institution of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church by the Turkish republic.
But that’s not the big issue. Rather, it may be that Turkey is a particularly tolerant society in the Muslim Middle East when it comes to religious freedom, and so not a good model for what might play out in Egypt (and has played out in Iraq). This matters because people regularly speak of “secular Egyptians,” “secular Turks,” “Turkish Islamists,” and “Egyptian Islamists,” as if there’s a common currency in the modifiers. That is, a secular Egyptian is equivalent to a secular Turk, and Islamists in Egypt are equivalent to Islamists in Turkey (who have been in power via democratic means for much of the past 10 years). Let’s look at the Pew Global Attitudes report, which I’ve referenced before. In particular, three questions which are clear and specific. Should adulterers be stoned? Should robbers be whipped, or their hands amputated? Should apostates from Islam be subject to the death penalty?
TNR has a post up, Egypt and Indonesia. In it, the author argues that:
At times of unexpected but momentous political change in distant countries, we grasp onto political analogies to help get our bearings. Even if we know they are imperfect, we can’t resist their tempting suggestiveness. But, if we cannot resist them, we can at least choose them thoughtfully. Invoking Iran after the Shah is scary indeed, but dangerously misleading. A different analogy that provides more useful grist for our unsettled analytic mill concerning Egypt is Indonesia and Suharto in the late 1990s.
We can gauge the force of this analogy by looking at a Pew Gobal Attitudes report on Muslim public opinion from December 2010. Egypt and Indonesia are in their set of countries surveyed. Below are a selection of results, with Turkey and Pakistan included in for comparisons. I ignored most of the stuff on Muslim radical movements. Additionally, one has to be cautious about interpreting survey data, as people will interpret questions in relation to their local situation. For example, below you will see that 89 and 46 percent of Indonesians and Pakistanis think that the role of religion in politics is “large.” I think empirically we have to conclude that Indonesians and Pakistanis are using the terms somewhat differently, as Indonesia is a much more robustly pluralist regime at this point than Pakistan is. Indonesia is not an officially Islamic state. Pakistan is. Indonesia forthrightly acknowledges its pre-Islamic heritage, and continues to have prominent symbolic roles for non-Muslim cultural forms. The Hindu epics are still popular on the most populous island of Java.
With all the geopolitical tumult and news I was a bit curious to see what The World Values Survey could tell us about public opinion in Egypt and Tunisia. Unfortunately, Tunisia hasn’t been in any of their surveys, though Egypt has. So I thought it might be interesting to compare the USA, Sweden, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq, for wave 5, which occurred in the mid-2000s. The main thing I took away from the exercise is to reflect that Americans are a more equivocal people than I had expected. Many of the questions have a 1 to 10 scale, and I’m providing the most extreme answers. So the low fractions for Americans for some questions point to a relative moderation on some topics…which is kind of weird when you are asking whether “People choosing their leaders is an essential characteristic of democracy.” Since that’s the definition of democracy broadly construed anything below a 10 out of 10 seems strange to me.
One of the structural difficulties with any systematic study of civilizations is that the sample size of the category is rather small, as is clear in the few attempts to examine their progression (see Arnold Toynbee). Additionally, there’s always the problem with how one generates a typology for something as fluid as civilization. Where does antiquity end, and the medieval period begin? One can get a rough sense of the discontinuities impressionistically. Consider the appearance of the Column of Phocas, erected in 608 AD. It may be correct that chronologically the Byzantine state and society on the eve of the expansion of Islam in the early 7th century was closer to the era of Charlemagne than Constantine, but many would argue that it was basically a Late Antique society more than an Early Medieval one. Certainly the Byzantines of that age would have agreed with that assessment (though one has to be careful about taking people at their word, the last Byzantines before the Ottoman conquest in 1453 famously still referred to themselves as Romans).
But such typologies remain a matter of art, and are subject to great dispute. Any inferences one generates or generalities one perceives will be subject to the reality that the individuals engaging in the act have a strong impact on the size and distribution of the sample (this is obviously true in ecology or empirical social sciences, but the methods here are generally more explicit and easy to critique). With all that said I think at the boundary condition we can agree upon some civilizational distinctions if such typologies have any meaning or utility. The world of the ancient Near East was on a deep level culturally alien to our own, and the period between 1200 and 800 spans a extremely sharp rupture between what came before, and what came after.