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February 25, 2004

Of wolves & sheep

About a week ago I posted The gentle jihadist & other tales. In it, the old conundrum about the reality of liberal Islam surfaced again. I repeat over and over that there is issue of quantification-there are certainly liberal Muslims, just as there are out homosexual Muslims (to push the analogy a few orders of magnitude).

But how many? Is it a non-trivial number?

Below are a few anecdotes that illustrate my viewpoint, and allow me to be more precise in what I'm getting at....

Setting: Bangladesh, visiting family in the early 1990s.

I'm at my father's family's place. They live in a high rise apartment complex-and there are a lot of people over visiting. The apartment is packed. Suddenly, a great cacophony of screaming and shouting. My aunt rushes toward the back-room, and I see people cleaning up and hiding pictures.

What's going on?

My cousin tells me, "Your uncle is coming!" There is worry in his eyes. My "uncle" is my maternal uncle. I can see him in the distance, he is wearing a white cap (his "toupee") that marks him as a religious individual, and striding in his white pajamas. My father's side doesn't know him well, but they are terrified of him. The half of a dozen females over the age of 12 in the apartment complex have sequestered themselves in the back room so as not to offend him.

My uncle shows up, and my cousins and uncle greet him. He sits and has tea, and lectures them mildly, because he's noted that my 12 year old cousin is outside playing. He tells my father's brother that he shouldn't allow his daughters outside like that, unaccompanied. My uncle nods and smiles.

As my religious uncle leaves, the pictures come out, and the women emerge from their hiding. Life goes on....

Setting: Upstate New York, early 1990s.

We are visiting a close friend of my father's, a physician. He's preparing to move out of his small cramped apartment, he finally is finishing up his residency, and will soon be making bank. About 25 people are crammed together, chatting and gossiping, eating and drinking (water or juice).

Suddenly, a quiet passes over the room. I don't know what's going on, but next thing I know my mother is gone, she's disappeared. All the women are gone. They've crushed themselves in my "auntie's" bedroom (use of kinship terms with non-blood friends is common among Bengalis). My "uncle" (the host) ushers in a new guest. A man dressed in quasi-Islamic garb and his two sons rush into the living room. A woman covered in a burqua slinks into the bedroom. I vaguely remember him, he's an engineer or something. Someone mentions that he's had a religious conversion in the past year and has become very pious. I try to go talk to my mother, but they only let my younger brother in. I'm 12, too old to hang with the ladies.

My father is irritated, he finds such segregation ostentatious, but he doesn't want to make a scene, so he keeps quiet. My "uncle" stops talking about Madonna (he's a fan). The religious engineer starts talking about some inane Islamic point of ritual or dress.

Setting: Eastern Imbler, 1994.

I'm hanging with my best friend. He invites me to his Catholic youth group. His mother has bugged him about it, and there's a hot chick there. Everyone looks bored, and his sister is there too. People start talking about God, and staying "pure."

My friend's sister starts talking about how "we" have to stay sanctified or something, because that's what the Church teaches. Everyone agrees. My friend seems bored. Someone says that "of course we all believe in Christ," I raise my hand and say, "No, count me out." A little shock, but the conversation moves on.

I wonder, how exactly is lathering yourself up with whipping cream and having sex at your father's house when he's off fishing staying "pure," because I know from my friend's sister's boyfriend that that's what she did 2 weeks previous....

Setting: Western Imbler, college, 1996.

I'm at a party. A feminist friend of mine is telling me how science is another "superstition." My roommates and I are laughing at her. Some hotties in togas (they just showed up from a frat party) walk by and I lear at them. My roommate starts giggling like a moron (he's drunk).

A woman in a short hair-cut walks in. She's wearing some shapeless shirt and loose baggy pants (kind of like a granola version of a burqa). People stop laughing as much. Something has changed in the air.

I smile toward my feminist friend's toga-wearing friend. She gives me an annoyed look, but I'm enjoying myself. My roommate is also glancing her way.

The granola-burqa figure comes up toward me and stands next to my feminist friend. She looks me over as I try to ignore her. "Is she there for you to look at?"

I shrug, not really caring. The granola-burqa keeps staring at me, and a few people are looking my way, but I don't care, as a half-Japanese girl that I know has just walked into the room, and is also wearing a toga. "Women aren't there for you to look at, that's not why they exist. I think perhaps you should be more respectful."

Granola-burqa looks at my feminist friend. "I can't believe you'd throw a party where the power dynamics are like this, we need a place where we can feel safe, not objectified."

I'm annoyed, the corner of the room is tense, and everyone is worried. I pull out the proverbial race card, and granola-burqa backs off and life is good. I never do get to start on a conversation with the toga-wearers, my feminist friend starts ripping into me about science again and I think I lose it....

The moral: the stories illustrate on a personal level how minorities terrorize and dominate majorities. From the Bolsheviks, to the early Christians, to the fundamentalist Muslims of today, True Believers can conquer the apathy of the masses. I remember seeing polls before Roe vs. Wade where the majority of Americans didn't want abortion legal. Today, the culture has changed, and people are OK with the status quo (if not with its exact execution).

My major point is that numbers alone do not matter, the weighting, the organization of the numbers, does matter. Those who mean well can name hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands and millions of liberal Muslims, but as long as they don't organize and make their impact felt to the same extent as the retogrades, and the sheep will keep tumbling over the cliff at their urging. Tipping points happen. I won't make any bets about the Muslim world 50 years from now, once gratification wins over "honor," life will be good. But that's not now, and we shouldn't pretend that that time is forseeable. It's possible, but it will probably slap us on the ass before we've reoriented ourselves. Life goes on....

Posted by razib at 01:25 PM