Still not understanding the nature of affairs

By Razib Khan | July 7, 2012 12:59 pm

I’m primarily science blogger, with an amateur interest in history. But I’m still disturbed that over 10 years after 9/11 elite media still can’t be bothered to be precise and accurate about the affairs of the Muslim world. As a neo-Isolationist when it comes to military adventures I wish that ignorance were tolerable, but the reality is that a substantial minority of the populace and the majority of the elite seems intent on flexing American muscle abroad, come hell or national bankruptcy. Instead of imparting to the populace a genuine structure of facts and concepts which adds value in terms of comprehending things as they are, the media seems to just repackage its preconceptions in more sophisticated garb.

For example, The Washington Post:

Timbuktu now endures the destruction of many of the city’s ancient monuments and religious sites. The devastation is reminiscent of the Taliban’s 2001 attacks on the towering Buddha statues of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Four of Timbuktu’s landmarks are included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites, but history and heritage mean nothing to the leadership of Ansar Dine, which has destroyed at least six above-ground mausoleums of religious figures regarded as saints and, on Monday, the door of one of the city’s most sacred mosques.

Timbuktu, a center of Sufi mysticism, apparently represents a broad-minded world view at odds with Ansar Dine’s radical conservatism. When asked this week whether the destruction of these cultural artifacts will continue, a spokesman for the sect told the New York Times: “Of course. What doesn’t correspond to Islam, we are going to correct.”


There are many points to dispute in this editorial, but I want to put the focus on the idea of “radical conservatism.” Though one can strictly be radically conservative, one has to be careful when someone uses such a term. After all, conservatism in a deep sense is at cross-purposes with radicalism. In the 1990s many American conservatives were angered that the media kept referring to unreconstructed Communists in the former Eastern Bloc as “conservatives,” but in a strict sense that was defensible (though I do think that the terminology ultimately reflected media bias in part).

Not so in this case. Groups like Ansar Dine, inspired by the infantile iconoclasm which seems to crop up in Islam, makes it part of its program to destroy very ancient monuments. In other words, Ansar Dine is attacking the organically developed traditional customs and folkways of Islam in the region, going first at the material manifestations of the local culture. This is fundamentally anti-conservative. Rather than conserving, these radicals resemble the Khmer Rouge or the Red Guards, who wished to create a cultural blank slate and start over. This is the delusion of strain of the Islam which we term Salafi (and its related siblings, such as the more radical Deobandis).

Salfism is predicated on a radical delusion, that modern Muslims have access to the arrangement of life of the first generations of Muslims, and can recreate that way of life. The analogy here to radical Protestant sects which attempted to emulate “primitive Christianity” is strong. To recreate the Islam of the first decades of the religion the Salafists and their fellow travelers construct a society to their own tastes. It is fundamentally a utopian project. Because of their reliance on their own rational faculties of analysis and reconstruction the Salafists feel no need to give due deference to the organically evolved history of Sunni Islam from 8th century down to the present (or, what was to become Sunni Islam). This is why they are engaging in acts of egregious iconoclasm against the past: they believe that the past is untrustworthy a idolatrous, as opposed to their own idealized blueprint. To get a better sense, here is a Wikipedia entry, Destruction of early Islamic heritage sites:

The destruction of sites associated with early Islam is an on-going phenomenon that has occurred mainly in the Hejaz region of western Saudi Arabia, particularly around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The demolition has focused on Mosques, burial sites, homes and historical locations associated with the Islamic prophet, Muhammad and many of the founding personalities of early Islamic history. In Saudi Arabia, many of the demolitions have officially been part of the continued expansion of the Masjid Al-Haram at Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and their auxiliary service facilities in order to accommodate the ever-increasing number of Hajj pilgrims. Detractors of the demolitions and expansion programs have argued that this phenomenon is part of the implementation of state-endorsed Wahhabi religious policy that emphasizes the Oneness of God (Tawhid) and entirely rejects the worship of divine proxies to God or even the practices and habits which might lead to idolatry and polytheistic association (Shirk).

For example, “The House of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid in Makkah was demolished and paved over and several public protests were heard at the building of a public toilet on the same site. The house where Muhammad was born was converted into a library and was slated for demolition as part of an expansion project.” Khadijah is Muhammad’s first wife.

Why does any of this matter? Because of the media characterization of radical Islamists as neo-feudalist reactionaries misleads the public as to the basic nature of the danger the world faces. Radical Islamism is not the resurrection of an old world, it is the accelerated destruction of elements of the old world, an almost nihilistic response to modernity. The project of development and modernization may inevitably lead to a minority of Muslims in any nation to embrace a position analogous to that of the Salafis. All the education and economic development won’t change that. Instead of expressing shock and horror we need to figure out mitigating strategies. These sorts of infantile pseudo-traditionalist radical may be like a fever which will eventually pass as cultures stumble to modernity.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture, History
MORE ABOUT: Islam
  • http://educationrealist.wordpress.com Education Realist

    “These sorts of infantile pseudo-traditionalist radical may be like a fever which will eventually pass as cultures stumble to modernity.”

    I hope you’re right, but I’ve seen no sign of it.I grew up in Saudi Arabia, during what is now considered a bit of a golden era (mid-60s to 1980, the year of the Grand Mosque Seizure, although I lived there from 68 to 77). For years, I assumed that Saudi Arabia just continued on the path to modernity after I left. Instead the Seizure, and then the first Iraq war with the Saudi blessing to put troops in the country (an absurd objection, since the Army Corps of Engineers had been in Dharan for decades), led backwards to increased demands for fundamentalism. Beginning in the 90s, women had far fewer freedoms than they did in the 70s, when I lived there. And this insistence came about not because of a sudden change in the population, but because the population demanded that the leaders stop mucking about with modernity and follow their will. In that environment, the destruction you so accurately call nihilism strikes me as inevitable, and the people who don’t actually subscribe to it will at least be sympathetic to it.

    I honestly don’t know what can be done to mitigate it, and worry that we don’t do enough to protect ourselves from what could come.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #1, petro-states are a special case. their social conditions are radically different from anything else in the world because the whole ration is basically living off massive rents. in the USA high incomes lead to polarization and a luxury consumption of social issues ideology. seems to be the same in places like saudi arabia.

  • http://educationrealist.wordpress.com Education Realist

    By “luxury consumption of social issues ideology”, you are referring to (for example) the fact that the 9/11 terrorists were all middle class, or am I misunderstanding?

    Egypt isn’t a petro state, yet still has similar issues. I agree that the petro states are a special case, but that makes it all the worse. By our normal lights, we’d expect these countries to embrace modernism. Instead, the people constantly force their leaders towards fundamentalism.

    I think it was Jeane Kirkpatrick that said the Arab world shook her faith in democracy, because they always chose fundamentalism. (Of course, the intersection between Arabs, petro states, and Muslims is only partial, but still.)

    I agree with you that the press gets it wrong. I think you correctly characterize the belief. I am merely not sanguine that any strategy can mitigate the reaction.

    But look, I’m not out to debate you on this, particularly after a pointed reminder that we shouldn’t get comment unless we have something relevant to say. Sorry if these comments didn’t qualify!

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    By “luxury consumption of social issues ideology”, you are referring to (for example) the fact that the 9/11 terrorists were all middle class, or am I misunderstanding?

    well, in their societies were often more than middle class! but yes, basically ideological terrorism tends toward being a luxury good. left-wing anarchists of the 19th and early 20th century were often literate types, and marginalized aspirant elites (ergo, the over-representation of jews, who were marginalized because of their ethnicity despite their upward mobility). more concretely in the arabian case if gulf arabs had had to focus on productivity increases through oyster diving and date farming you wouldn’t have some of the crazy social policies of the modern oil-states.

    By our normal lights, we’d expect these countries to embrace modernism. Instead, the people constantly force their leaders towards fundamentalism.

    democracy often leads to what you might term ‘fundamentalism,’ or at least more traditional piety. i’ve argued a milder form of this is evident in american presidents. orthodox christians become the norm only after universal white male suffrage becomes common, and the necessity for public conformity with orthodoxy only increases as media and information tech brings the tribunes of the plebs closer to the plebs.

    I think it was Jeane Kirkpatrick that said the Arab world shook her faith in democracy, because they always chose fundamentalism.

    some of the same applied to europe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Riots

    arguably the high bourgeois and aristocrats were the pioneers of the liberal tolerance which we find normative. the fact that democracy in europe processed in a step-wise fashion prevented the outbreaks of illiberalism which are going to follow total democracy in the arab world.

    I am merely not sanguine that any strategy can mitigate the reaction.

    i wouldn’t say i’m sanguine.

    in any case, the big takeaway is this: social tolerance and liberality do not increase as a monotonic function of economic development. puritan new england was the world’s first universal literacy society, but it was also a society which in some ways resembled saudi arabia in its mores (though we shouldn’t exaggerate here!). for example, like some crazy salafists the puritans debated whether things not mentioned in the holy texts were permissible or not. i was rather surprised when i stumbled upon the almost perfect correspondence of the debate, but it seems a likely natural progression when you have a scripture based religion.

  • Krishan Bhattacharya

    Conservatism is understood by some to be a philosophy of political stability and tradition. However, there is a strong argument to be made that it can be radical, or revolutionary. The political scientist Corey Robin has written a book arguing just that, called “The Reactionary Mind”. You can read his central thesis here:

    http://chronicle.com/article/The-Conservative-Mind/130199/

    and check out his blog at coreyrobin.com

    In any case, even if you disagree, the WaPo piece’s reference to radical conservatism would make a lot more sense, if they would have used the proper term: reactionary.

  • crutcher

    Stick to your strengths. Muslim politics is not one of them. Respectfully.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #6, check your facebook account. sent a personal message. i’d rather have a real critique from someone who knows, so i’m inquiring what you know. you must know a lot if you can judge. i know quite a lot, so now i want to know what you know.

  • John Emerson

    Clifford Geertz’s “Islam Observed” describes three types: the traditionalist, the modernizer (or westernizer in specific cases) and the fundamentalist. (I’m not sure about his exact terminology). The traditionalist accepts the practices he grew up with and lives his life rather complacently and uncritically. The modernizer attacks the tradition from a modern or international point of view. The fundamentalist defends the tradition against the new and foreign ideas, but as part of that he attacks the parts of the tradition which he thinks are corrupt and harmful in terms of the original truth of the tradition.

    Geertz is talking about Islam, but this framework can be applied pretty generally. For example, Peter the Great was a modernizer who fought both the corrupt traditional boyars and the fundamentalist Old Believers, who formed an alliance against him even though they hated one another. (Musorgsky’s opera “Khovanshchina” is like an illustration of Geertz.) Confucius was a traditionalist reformer, fighting both the modernizers (proto-Legalists) and the corrupt traditional lords (who were in a kind of alliance since the modernizers promised to increase their revenues) .

  • Dm

    If someone is striving to reinforce an old tradition, at a cost of overturning a more recent but still venerable tradition, then what’s wrong with calling it both radical and conservative at the same time? Chipping away the younger to restore the older is conservatism.

    Your comparisons with Red Guards or Khmer Rouge are valid in terms of radicalism, but they say nothing about conservatism.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    If someone is striving to reinforce an old tradition, at a cost of overturning a more recent but still venerable tradition, then what’s wrong with calling it both radical and conservative at the same time? Chipping away the younger to restore the older is conservatism.

    if i wasn’t clear in the first place, let me make this clear: there is no older tradition they are reinforcing. they’re making it up and calling it the older tradition! if you are still confused, the radical salafists are as conservative as modern wiccans: they are reconstructionists rather than reactionaries. modern salafism may have some original root in the indigenous traditions of arabia, and they say some good things about ibn hanbal, but as it has manifested it’s pretty obviously a modern ideology adapted to modern conditions, with a mythological grounding in the 7th century.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    if #6 doesn’t respond in 24 hours i’m banning him. i sent him facebook pings too. please don’t ask me not to talk about anything if you aren’t willing to elaborate because you know a lot. i understand people are busy, but so am i. if you don’t have time to engage, don’t leave short comments directing someone to something.

  • http://contemplationist.wordpress.com Contemplationist

    Curious

    Is #6 a White liberal? That would be my guess.

    Regardless, to understand your position better, would you say European neo-monarchists would count as reconstructionists or reactionaries?

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #12, no idea. i can’t find what he majored in, but thought perhaps he knew a lot about muslim politics & history. as you know, i know quite a bit and am open to learning. very few of my readers know too much on these issues, so i was hoping to get some context. OTOH, if someone doesn’t have a background i’m confused as to how they could judge my posts, except on normative grounds, as you imply.

    would you say European neo-monarchists would count as reconstructionists or reactionaries

    reactionaries. european monarchy is a living tradition, and even the dead monarchies generally are relatively recently expired (there are even people alive today who lived under the habsburgs and ottomans!). OTOH, if someone wanted to revive the byzantine empire & the house of palaiologas , then that’s reconstructist.

    my argument is that modern radical salafism is ruptured from real tradition, and attempts to reconstruct a culture which

    a) never existed in all likelihood

    b) they don’t have access to even if it did

  • Crutcher

    Hi, yes, Crutcher is a white liberal, though not as liberal as he used to be.

    I really like your blog, when it’s about science.

    Your description of how these radicals see themselves is not wrong, my knowledge like yours is secondhand. I would say that while WEIRD people like us are keen to see ideology as explaining behavior, the people we are talking about are usually not WEIRD and are not ideological in the sense that they’ve had youths where they can debate ideology abstractly. As another pointed out, the 9/11 attackers actually were WEIRD.

    What is wrong in your “analysis” is the wild, paranoid “may inevitably” leap of logic concern for the “danger the world faces.” CNN pays top dollar for this kind of reporting on the Terror Threat. And your notion that if only CNN would report more accurately on the exact beliefs of radicals, we could protect ourselves better, is absurd. Americans do. not. care. triple emphasis.

    You already know that the US vastly outspends Muslims in war. As far as the dangers that Muslims pose to America, you could balance that by asking what dangers America poses to Muslims, and the body count speaks for itself.

    In short, researching the beliefs of an extreme sect and saying “maybe a dangerous minority of all ____ will start to believe this” where ______ is the larger group is not analysis but partisan foolishness. I could pick particularly insane sub-group of Americans and do the same thing. Muslims do it all the time. Great sport, bad analysis, and irresponsible if you care about a world where world can mean something including but not limited to America.

    Reread Haidt into yourself, if you can. Morality binds and blinds.

    ps. didn’t get anything on facebook, email if you want to contact. 24h is not realistic for busy people, maybe 72. Calm yourself.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #14, holy shit, you’re fucking stupid. e.g.,

    I would say that while WEIRD people like us are keen to see ideology as explaining behavior, the people we are talking about are usually not WEIRD and are not ideological in the sense that they’ve had youths where they can debate ideology abstractly. As another pointed out, the 9/11 attackers actually were WEIRD.

    i’ve talked about all these issues in detail half a decade ago. e.g.,

    http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2005/12/theological-incorrectness-when-people.php

    http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2005/07/profile-of-salafi-jihadists.php

    http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2007/04/nerds-are-nuts.php

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2007/04/levels-of-analysis-of-religion-atran-boyer-wilson/

    In short, researching the beliefs of an extreme sect and saying “maybe a dangerous minority of all ____ will start to believe this” where ______ is the larger group is not analysis but partisan foolishness. I could pick particularly insane sub-group of Americans and do the same thing. Muslims do it all the time. Great sport, bad analysis, and irresponsible if you care about a world where world can mean something including but not limited to America.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2011/02/culture-differences-matter-even-within-islam/

    i thought i was going elicit a comment from someone who knew something. instead, i’m engaging with a semi-educated moron who assumes i’m as ignorant as they are, and has internalized a few basics of pop cog sci and imputed a whole world view upon me.

    now, i understand that i don’t talk as much about the cog sci of religion as i did in 2006 and 2007, so new readers may be unaware that i’m pretty damn aware of the anthropology and psychology of this topic. nevertheless, that’s no excuse for making judgments when you’re too stupid to make judgments.

    i ban you for the sin of overestimating the impressiveness of your knowledge, and underestimating mine. it’s not a major sin, but it is one that wastes my time and my life, when i could be learning something (you set yourself up with high expectations when you left that comment, as i assume when someone talks down to me implicitly that they can bring it and actually educate me a bit).

    as i am thoroughly depressed now, anyone who posts something stupid or uninformative will be banned. i’m not closing this thread. i’ll use it as a filtering device :-) they say fools come rushing, don’t be bashful!

  • http://blog.jim.com James A Donald

    Making distinctions between one kind of Muslim and another is not very important. They all support executing apostates (as near all them who take their religion seriously as makes little difference) they all believe Muslims are entitled to political supremacy over non Muslims (as near all them who take their religion seriously as makes little difference) and they all believe that using violent means to attain that supremacy is self defense against aggression, that the lack of supremacy is aggression and oppression (as near all them who take their religion seriously as makes little difference). The difference between a terrorist and moderate is merely one of degree.

    As a result, Islamic elections tend to have disturbing and alarming results, and the borders of Islam are bloody. Some borders are bloodier than others, some have steady low level conflict, some are quiet with the occasional threat of high level conflict, but one border between Islam and infidels is about as troubled as another border between Islam and infidels.

    The Koran tells them so, and they accept it. This is contrasts with Christians, who are told to be pacific, and ignore that command, and to be socially conservative about sex and marriage, and ignore that command. If Christians paid attention the New Testament, the Taliban would be the ones accusing Christians of oppressing women.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #16, there are elements of truth i would like to explore in what you say. but the whole is quite stupid for many reasons. i wonder if that’s because you’re genuinely ignorant/stupid, or because i’m missing something. i guess i won’t be able to ever find out….

  • Dm

    #10 there is no older tradition they are reinforcing. they’re making it up and calling it the older tradition!

    No, I got it, but aren’t most conservatives making stuff up about their favorite epochs and concepts anyway? Or at least passing their limited understanding of history through the filters of heavy biases?

    IMHO conservation vs innovation is primarily about the convictions, rather than about qualifications. It really doesn’t depend on the quality of one’s knowledge of history. Simply believing in one’s mission of bringing back “the past” (real, imaginable, or a mix of the two) should be sufficient to get the label

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    No, I got it, but aren’t most conservatives making stuff up about their favorite epochs and concepts anyway? Or at least passing their limited understanding of history through the filters of heavy biases?

    there’s a different between an idealized version of the 1950s, and an idealized version of the 7th century. the latter has more basis in fact because people who lived in that age still are alive. in fact, there are even subcultures who still “live in” 1950s america. utah mormons for example.

    IMHO conservation vs innovation is primarily about the convictions, rather than about qualifications.

    the issue here is your intent. if you want a general category you can create any set of qualifications. if you want to model the phenomena you can’t just take the beliefs of the believers at face value. there are genuine muslim traditionalists, and then there are salafists. the two present very different challenges. in many ways muslim traditionalism can be combated, if you so wish, by more education, or the process of urbanization. this is not a solution to salafism. my overall point is that when you have a catchall conservative label, which both groups can be classed under because of self-belief, you may misdiagnose the nature of the phenomenon. there is traditionalism islam which is a resistance to modernity. and there is salafist islam which is post-modern and reacting to modernity.

  • AllenM

    An interesting discussion to see take place on here. The Salafists explicitly reject modernity, specifically anything that could be considered secular- especially any secular governance on the Western models.

    Of course, looking at the beginning of Islam, and holding them inviolate, which seems to be the ultimate goal of Salafists, brings a whole set of problems from the historical context of the early conquest of the Middle East by those venerated by the Salafi. The mixture of a religion with a governing model generated by conquest pushes (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhimmi ) shows the supra tribal nature of conquest of the local peoples, with encouragement of conversion. The protections of non Islamic peoples proscibed in those early stands in sharp contrast to the current destruction of those longstanding Dhimmi communities today in the Middle East.

    That would be the postmodern reaction you are referring to? The urge to reify the community clashes with the record of those days, including the desire to impose governance on the people conquered who were non Islamic with a minimum of further conflict. This extension of jihad to peoples who had previously lived in peace within the context of an Islamic society provides a tremendous amount of conflict with the secular West, especially as most of those traditional communities have strong ties to religions in the West (Chaldeans and Christian Arabs for example).

    The wiki article correctly (IMO) interposes the rise of secularism in the West as the factor that carries the most conflict in relations with the West. The rise of secularism (dated from the 17th century) removes the religious control from the state, which is an anathema to Salafism, as Islam is directly identified with the political control of the state from the founding of the religion by Mohammad and the creation of Ummah.

    But the postmodern conflict that is the most important in my opinion is this severance from the state of Islam as the official religion. The disestablishmentarian thrust of the secular modern state (Kemal Ataturk et seq until now), has provided that unmooring of beliefs the Salafists seek to reinstate. The colonial interlude from the ending of the Ottoman and Mogul Empires further undermined this disassociation in the governance of the people with Sharia Law in accordance with Islam as essentailly part of the legitimate government.

    Further, I would add that most people in America, living in a place where religion is entirely a choice, fail to understand the intertwining of the state with religion that is at the heart and founding of Islam.

  • http://noseenohearnospeak.blogspot.com AndrewV

    @3.

    Education Realist Says:
    July 7th, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Egypt isn’t a petro state, yet still has similar issues. I agree that the petro states are a special case, but that makes it all the worse. By our normal lights, we’d expect these countries to embrace modernism. Instead, the people constantly force their leaders towards fundamentalism.

    My understanding is that the situation in Egypt makes sense, once you understand the roles that tribalism and kinship have on voting patterns.

    Actors within the Egyptian Military are perceived to be heavily involved in corrupt economic activities, thus tainting all associated with them. These factors tend to limit choices if you are a reform minded voter.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #21, if i wasn’t clear with ER, i argue that a period of ‘conservatism’ and ‘puritanism’ are not unexpected in the drive toward modernity. e.g., the ‘reformation of morals’ which is often spoken of with the shift from universal catholicism to protestantism in parts of europe. there is a debate whether such a reformation of morals ever occurred, but, it is clear it seems that rhetorically there was a greater emphasis on individual probity and accountability.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    once you understand the roles that tribalism and kinship have on voting patterns.

    is egypt is a tribal society by and large? my understanding is that it was not, though some are members of tribes.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #20, i will respond to you this evening. appreciate the informed comment.

  • http://noseenohearnospeak.blogspot.com AndrewV

    @#23

    My understanding is that it does play a role, though moreso in Rural Egypt [pgs. 150, 151-54]:
    H/T to HDB chick:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=gZbRAOFJLBEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Development+and+Social+Change+in+Rural+Egypt&hl=en&sa=X&ei=5uO8T_PSBMGg4gTfuP3mCg&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Development%20and%20Social%20Change%20in%20Rural%20Egypt&f=false

    Also see:
    https://hbdchick.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/voting-patterns-and-clans-in-egypt/

    any and all analyses of the egyptian political situation that you (we) get via western newspapers and media sources will be seriously lacking in insight if they don’t take into account the role of extended families and clans at really every level of egyptian society including the political. and they don’t usually include this, so we really don’t understand what the h*ck is happening there.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #25, thanks. but the issue i’m having is what % of egyptians are members of *tribes* my understanding is that a minority are a member, but not a majority. in contrast, in iraq the majority of the population is a member of a tribe, or so i’ve heard. i take the point about block voting (e.g., all copts basically seem to have voted for shafiq).

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    FWIW, developing a narrative simple enough that a regular daily newspaper reader or CNN watcher can understand it, but meaty enough to convey some sense of what the events mean is not easy.

    Some of the most underused narratives that are fairly helpful IMHO, are:

    * the narrative of modern politics in the Near East as a part of the ongoing story of the fall out from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
    * any narrative that makes clear that global Islam is not monolithic.
    * any narrative that provides a human scale description of what it is like to live day to day in a particular place from a particular perspective so that you escape all the generalities.
    * any narrative that clarifies the extend of government power in day to day life vis-a-vis other business and NGO and family and tribal and foreign business/government institutions.
    * reports that take a long view over time frames of older adults alive today and what they’ve been through.

  • http://noseenohearnospeak.blogspot.com AndrewV

    @#13.

    Razib Khan Says:
    July 8th, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    my argument is that modern radical salafism is ruptured from real tradition

    OK fine, I was not going to say anything but after those displays of “Teh Stupids” I figure I can not do worse. I seriously doubt that what I am about to say will contribute to your knowledge, but it is quite clear that I know more than at least two of your (now former?) readers, and quite possibly this may help some other reader avoid the ban hammer.

    First, a thumbnail sketch:

    http://muslimcanada.org/binladendawn.html

    In short, the battle being waged today is at heart an internal Islamic one and may take a very long time to end. It is part of a larger battle about the very nature of Islamic society and politics, and one in which there are many sides (moderate Muslims, state-sponsored Muslims, radical and moderate Salafis, secular nationalists, and Shi’ah

    Emphasis mine. Seriously people, if your only source of knowledge is the mainstream media you are not qualified to have an opinion about Islam as a whole, much less what Razib is concerned about.

    My underinformed view nonetheless suggests that policy prescription are possible if you bear the following in mind:

    The House of Saud has a historical relationship that enabled them to cut a deal with the Wahhabi with mutual supports for authority and funding. This is by no means a universally approved relationship, for example :

    Historical Mecca was destroyed by a combination of Wahhabi Salafi dogma against history and the greed of the princes and developers.

    I would posit that curbing modern radical salafism means that the linkage with traditional salafism has to be cut if you subscribe to the notion that the former is nourished by the latter, and in any event it is the funding by the House of Saud and other wealthy individuals that enables both to flourish.

    How you would tease apart the strands and sever them is beyond the scope of this comment and my knowledge, other than to note my assumption that this can only be done by Muslims themselves, and interjecting any Western actors into this process at any point, will represent a fairly high probability of presenting negative impacts towards any sort of an equitable resolution.

    Without a doubt there will not be a smooth political/societal transformation given that among other things, that the House of Saud, apparently perceives that continued rule is only possible within the current framework, and to say that I would expect some resistance from all sides, is to understate the case by a significant order of magnitude.

    The possibilities for blunders by the West while the current conflicts within Islam are played out are significant, although I believe they could be mitigated with just a little more awareness than has been displayed.

    As it is, the current level of ignorance has consequences. For instance, I view the folly of disbanding the Iraq army instead of assuming command as one example of a missed opportunity caused by ignorance.

    The surrender of Iraq’s 51st Infantry Division for example, could have played a key role in subsequent societal stability. The 51st comprised approximately 8,000 Sunni soldiers, whereas the Shia make up the majority of the population. Cutting them loose with the attendant loss of income, into a population who already had no reason to love them was not a good idea. They could have been more effectively utilized to mitigate the subsequent and inevitable sectarian violence.

    Another example is where the US military appeared to be completely oblivious to the reason why the “surge” was successful in Iraq and the subsequent failure when they tried to replicate it in Afghanistan.

    The reality is that the success of the surge can be directly attributed to the fact that the local population in Iraq saw no other choice if they were to rid themselves of the radical salafis, but to utilize the US Military to help them do so, and the situation on the ground in Afghanistan precluded a repeat of that strategy.

    In any event, this is not the first time that Islam has undergone a major upheaval, and my understanding is that arguably the defeat of the rationalist philoposy of Averroes (Ibn Rushd), by the dogmatic theology of Al-Ghazali is directly responsible for the current situation.

    In any event as I inferred earlier, I do not foresee the West currently making positive contributions towards conflict resolution except inadvertently, and certainly not while the current level of general awareness is upheld.

    End of Rant.

  • http://noseenohearnospeak.blogspot.com AndrewV

    @26

    thanks. but the issue i’m having is what % of egyptians are members of *tribes*

    My understanding is around 2-3% Bedouins.

    My bad. That was very careless of me and led to an incorrect perception.

    Humble apologies proffered.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    The Salafists explicitly reject modernity, specifically anything that could be considered secular- especially any secular governance on the Western models.

    this is complex. consider: saudia arabia loves malls, and destroys ottoman architecture. the rejection of modernity is selective, and often contingent. e.g., female suicide bombers become OK with sophistic arguments if need be!

    That would be the postmodern reaction you are referring to?

    by post-modern, i mean to imply that many salafists are in truth post-materialist in their values, like western liberals, but a very different sort of post-materialist! the transition between ‘conservative traditionalist’ and ‘reformist modernizer’ can be explained by materialist terms, as villages become cities, and various organically developed local civic institutions collapse, replaced by more abstract entities (e.g., the state, university, the town, the lodge, etc.). but a reformist modern outlook, a variety of western liberalism, is not the only end point. the amish for example are in many ways an artificial people who specific maintain 18th century folkways for explicitly ideological reasons. they are primitive christians, but don’t really resemble primitive christians of the 2nd and 3rd centuries from what i have read. amish ‘conservatism’ is actually a really radical utopianism, which diverges from liberal modernity, but can’t be understood except in the context of early modernity. my argument is that salafism is best understood in the same light. the destruction of genuinely traditional indigenous structures, analogous to what you see in extreme forms of secular leftism, is entirely intelligible in this light.

    Further, I would add that most people in America, living in a place where religion is entirely a choice, fail to understand the intertwining of the state with religion that is at the heart and founding of Islam.

    i think you in the passage before this confuse salafism for a broader strain in islam which rejects the western trend toward separation of the sacred and profane. salafists do reject this, but so do most muslims, or at least on the order of 50 percent. rather than issues of church and state, i think salafism is distinctive in that it positively encourages a stripping away of the “olds”, a deracination and transformation into the ‘islamic man.’ i have talked to some salafist informed muslims in bangladesh. i disagreed with their arguments, but they’re totally intelligible and honestly refreshingly anti-traditional compared to many other muslims, who rely on implicit background assumptions and the wisdom of the ages.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #28, good attempt! i appreciate it. i won’t comment in detail, but, i will add to this: and my understanding is that arguably the defeat of the rationalist philoposy of Averroes (Ibn Rushd), by the dogmatic theology of Al-Ghazali is directly responsible for the current situation.

    i think that we need to be careful on overemphasizing the rationalist vs. orthodox (what became orthodox) position. the rationalist school actually exists today, but among the shia. rather than viewing ideology as a driver, i tend to see it as a signal or indicator. and often it is only informative after the fact. for example, one could argue that the reformation around luther represented a rejection of the renaissance humanism which peaked in the decade around his theses. this is entirely too simple, as obviously men like luther, calvin, and melanchthon were learned. but i think it is arguable that early protestantism had a moderate anti-greek bias, due to the strength of scholastic ideas within catholicism. but over the long term we don’t view the rise of the iconoclastic protestants as the beginning of the end for the closing of the christian mind, do we? a lot happened after the 16th century, and for various reasons intellectual activity increased more in protestant europe vs. catholic europe in the 18th and 19th centuries….

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    but they’re totally intelligible and honestly refreshingly anti-traditional compared to many other muslims, who rely on implicit background assumptions and the wisdom of the ages.

    also, let me be frank and admit that my congeniality with the transparency of salafists vs. traditionalists at that age is a reflection of my mental immaturity, and lack of comprehension of lot of things. i now thing that the rationalism at the heart of salafism is a childish thing, appealing to childish people. it never appealed me because i’m an atheist, but i gave it too much credit vs. the traditionalists, who may not have been clear, but are truer to the complexity of the human condition.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    also, don’t be bashful people. i invite comments! this thread may serve a useful function! :-)

  • riaz

    Here goes one bashful man:

    Taliban also wanted money and attention (3 countries accepted their govt in Afghanistan, by that time) in late 90s, when they were being iconoclastic. It was pretty made-for-TV thing.

  • toto

    i think that we need to be careful on overemphasizing the rationalist vs. orthodox (what became orthodox) position.

    Also, at roughly the same time of Al-Ghazali, the Church was condeming its own star clerics left and right. The battle between the conservatives and the philosophers was ongoing everywhere, and the conservatives held the position of power in both cases.

    If the West had fallen back into high-middle-ages obscurity, maybe we would blame the Bishop of Paris for steering Christianity into darkness, falling to the classic correlation=causation bias.

    My own impression is that the Mongols destroying the centers of Islamic knowledge (and their population) had more impact on the intellectual direction of Islam than the musings of Al-Ghazali.

    this thread may serve a useful function!

    Like enriching your ban list? Here’s hoping I’ll slip through once again! :)

  • http://noseenohearnospeak.blogspot.com AndrewV

    @#35

    My own impression is that the Mongols destroying the centers of Islamic knowledge (and their population) had more impact on the intellectual direction of Islam than the musings of Al-Ghazali.

    That the Mongols had an impact along with the Black Death is not in question to my mind.

    However, while #31 has me chasing my tail in several different directions concurrently, I will offer the following, the author refutes the common belief about Al-Ghazali and points the finger towards the Sunni Nizamiyah colleges.

    http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/how-the-decline-of-muslim-scientific-thought-still-haunts#full

    Academics are correct in pinpointing the exact period in which Muslims began turning away from scientific innovation – the 11th century – but they have identified the wrong person. Abu Ali Al Hassan Al Tusi (1018-1092), better known as Nizam Al Mulk, the grand vizier of the Seljuq dynasty, was in fact the driving force.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    shout out again: open to being edumicated by readers. come on in, i’m waiting for your oh erudite ones! :-) don’t let this thread die.

  • Jordan

    I know almost nothing about Muslim politics and the history of the Arab world, but Razib’s description of Salafi “conservatism” brings to mind an observation that has been made about orthodox Judaism in the post-WW2 era (which has tended toward increasing homogeneity and stringency, both in the religious and social realms).

    In that case, the argument goes that while “tradition” as passed down within communities was the major driver of orthodox Jewish practice in the past, the younger generation now relies more on “texts” (which are in abundance in the orthodox Jewish world) to build their religious orientation. The “texts” represent a smorgasboard of belief and practice from which one can (and often does) pick the most stringent or “fundamentalist” option, even if it negates centuries of family or community tradition.

    The driver of the switch from “tradition” to “text” is thought to be the destruction of European Jewish communities in the early 1940s, which scrambled communities and ruptured the generational chain. Not sure if there is a parallel to this in the Muslim world.

    http://www.lookstein.org/links/orthodoxy.htm for those who are interested.

  • April Brown

    Re: what you said back in comment #10 – that actually crystallized something that had been nagging me for a while. There’s something here that I think was best described in 1984. (We’ve always been at war with Oceania… or Eurasia…) And then the rather extreme brutality to force the population to go along with the revisionist history.

    I’m really not sold on how much the religion can be credited for all the disturbing thing we see coming out of the Islamic world. I’ve now lived in two Muslim countries (for 2+ years apiece), in Uzbekistan and Algeria. Taking my perceptions with a grain of salt (I’m terrible at languages, so it’s entirely possible I missed a LOT of sublties when chatting with locals about life, the universe, and everything), I got the distinct impression that cultural quirks get pinned on religion, when in fact religion is just the window dressing for the way tribes, ethnic groups, cities, and professions have evolved over the centuries.

    For example, in Uzbekistan there are regions where you will see horrific treatment of women, Taliban style, and regions where women basically run society and the men seem quietly relieved that they don’t have to worry about being in charge. There’s about the same level of understanding and adherence to Islam, they’re all Sunni, and yet in Ferghana it’s scandalous if somebody goes to jail for murdering their daughter in law, while in Karakalpakstan it’s scandalous if a daughter in law gets injured.

    Similarly in Algeria (and there I really can’t claim much local knowledge, because that weird French/Berber/Arabic hybrid of a language they speak is COMPLETELY impossible to learn), the general level of religiosity seemed much higher than in Central Asia, where the Soviets had spent a lot of time and effort wiping out religion. Yet there’s a huge variation in political views and cultural practices. The Arabs are still seen as interlopers and invaders, and resented deeply by the Berber population, but all of them are struggling with what to do about the French influence that on the surface has positives, but still leaves a bad taste in their mouth.

    So in Algiers there are people like S—–, a Berber who worked with my husband at the US Embassy, who was a pacifist who prayed 5 times a day and wouldn’t go on his vacation to Spain because his wife would have had to show her ears in the visa photo. And then there’s the Tauregs down south (also Berbers), who are burning down Sufi shrines in Timbuktu. When looking at the motivation for AQIM factions (al quaeda in maghreb), the unifying theme that comes across is not that they have some coherent religious motivation for what they do, but that they want to look cool in the eyes of the neighborhood bully (al quaeda proper).

    I’ve not read much of the Koran, but I’ve had conversations with Muslims from Shia, Sunni, and Sufi traditions, people living in the US, Algeria, and Uzbekistan, and interpretations of the Koran seem as diverse as Christian interpretations of the Bible. Just like the Bible, you can pick out texts that support whatever you want to do, be it slaughtering people or being a pacifist.

    Someday (once I’m not beset with small children) I’d like to look into it more, but my working theory is that religion is more of a justification of behaviour than a cause. The points made about the salafists rewriting the past and then waging war against it fits in with this pretty well, in my mind.

  • ryan

    My sense is that Salafism, while present in Turkey, is a tiny and relatively unimportant stream of political thought there. Turkish democracy is a bit older than a decade and hasn’t witnessed a true transition (my belief is that the major test of a democracy is not the first free and fair election, but the election in which the party that took power through that first free and fair election gives way to a new party. In that sense, democracies like Turkey and South Africa are still in utero.)

    But might this offer evidence that democratization really can overwhelm fundamentalism in Muslim countries rather quickly. That Salafism mixed with democracy may follow a course closer to the evanescent anarchism of foreign-born americans than to the lasting phenomenon of anarchism/violent political nihilism in Russia?

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Gene Expression

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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