Sunday, January 01, 2006

Don't pretend, believe....   posted by Razib @ 1/01/2006 06:35:00 PM

I haven't said much about Islam recently, though it has been one of my interests which I have pursued periodically. In large part this is due to ennui in regards to this topic, as well as my perception that focusing on science tends to bring much quicker results in terms of cognitive satisfaction. Human beings often develop the conceit that our ideas are particularly special and nuanced in relation to the median, and I am no different. On the whole I tire of those who would minimize the genuine challenge that modal Islamic values pose to the Western consensus, and contrarily claim that the rise of Islam in the West is a good thing because it adds another thread to the fabric of diversity. Yet, I also tend to feel that many of the people who sense the danger that Islam poses to the Enlightenment project are not particularly well informed on the details of the history that they attempt to marshal to support their intuition. Of course, human beings are given only a finite allotment of time, so fluency with a particular topic is not always possible and one must make decisions based on the set of facts on hand if those decisions can no longer be deferred pending more data. Nevertheless, the encapsulation of thought into prose for the purpose of communication raises the bar, and gross historical errors or lack of fluency with the context of facts tends to weaken the force of the argument. Process matters a great deal to me, and if someone agrees with me because of fallacious arguments I am not necessarily excited about that agreemant.

When the riots in France broke out I wasn't surprised. Something restive and sinister in European Islam has clearly been simmering under the surface for several years now, as illustrated by the Madrid and London terror attacks, or the stabing of Theo van Gogh, etc. etc. But the details that the riots were multiracial (i.e., black Africans, both Christian and Muslim might have been involved) and that many of the youth might not have been particularly religious were confusing. Some on the American Right seemed to take the opportunity to attack France by utilizing the inevitable accusation of racism, while many on the Left seemed to be taken aback as the mental model of "it is always better in Europe" was now being challenged by the reality that the "race problem" was more problematic across the Atlantic. Some individuals made the call for affirmative action and multiculturalism in contravention of the republican tradition of equality before the law, socialism with a more color conscious face. Others argued for free market economics and looser labor laws.

After the past few years it seems that Sam Huntington's observation in The Clash of Civilizations that Islam has bloody borders is on first glance obviously correct. Though this truth can be mitigated by observing that the geography of the Dar-al-Islam facilitates inter-civilizational conflict (the higher perimeter:area ratio vis-a-vi other clusters), the recurrent problems with Muslim minorities across many nations suggests the robusticity of the observation. A common dismissal of Huntington as a racist or shoddy scholar are in my opinion simply dodges of the truth at the heart of his contention. Islam is a genuine problem. The scope of the problem may be disputed, but that does not negate that the problem exists, sometimes manifesting in very a personal manner.

The problem of ideal types

There about ~1 billion Muslims. Within Islam there are 4 primary schools of Sunni sharia as well as dozens of Shia groups and heterodox sects. The religion spans much of the Old World, and cuts across hundreds of cultures. Even within the immigrant communites newly settled in the West there is a great deal of ethnic and religious diversity. The classic problem with discourse on the Islamic question can be highlighted as follows:

  • Person A points out the problem with "Islam"
  • Person B points out that there are Muslims who behave in contradiction to said problem
  • Person A responds that these individuals are not true Muslims, or do not represent most Muslims
  • Person B responds that the individuals who are not problematic are the real Muslims, and there are many interpretations
This sort of discussion might seem idiotic, but in the generality it is often recapitulated in forum after forum. I used the term modal very specifically above, after all, there are out gay Muslims, that does not make them typical. When we use a term like "Muslim" we (non-Muslims) are expressing the gestalt understanding of the averaged traits of a group. The problem with this term is that the background assumptions vary from person to person, and the diversity is often great enough that if you neglect to state the background assumptions individuals will use it as an opening to offer evidence that refutes the Platonic ideal you have putatively espoused. When Muslims refer to Islam they are often simply substituting their interpretation of Islam for the totality of the religion (i.e., there is a wide variance in modesty norms across Islamic subcultures, but those who hew with a rather stringent standard simply conflate their own particular religious sensibilities with the only true form of Islam). I have discussed Salafis in particular because they are the locus of the particular problem of transnational terrorism. Using some narrow terminology is important in cutting through the shit since very few people will defend violent Salafis.

But, once the point about Salafis is accepted, I think it is important to address the issue of what defines a Muslim and hit the reality that the problem can not simply be cordoned off to a particular sect, whether they are a natural development or an aberration is to some extent a matter of semantics. After 9-11 many Muslims (and non-Muslims) made statements about "what Islam" is and whether the 9-11 terrorists could be true "Muslims." Using deductive inference from "truths" they made various assertions about the character of Islam and attempted to match individuals up to the predictions implied by the axioms. In actuality I think that it is important to acknowledge, at least in intellectual discussion, that definitions of many religions come close being nominal assertions, which make deductive inferences parlor games. Nominalism is view that concepts exist primarily as names rather than terms that identify with real ideal types. One could assert for example that a Christian is deductively defined by adherence to the Nicene Creed, but the problem is that there are self-identified Christian sects (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses) who reject the Nicene Creed. The most parsimonious definition of Islam revolves around the Five Pillars of Islam, yet there are groups that are tentatively accepted as Muslim whose adherence to these axioms is nominal at best. I have argued before that much of theology is quasi-propositional, though it mimics the forms of propositional logic and deductive inference, it is socially mediated. The evolution of an isolated form of Chinese Islam is I believe empirical support for this contention, when separated from the consensus of the learned ulema, Chinese Muslims developed practices and theories radically at variance with the rest of the Islamic world, though they began from the same source texts and axioms.

The problem of source

The human brain is a peculiar device, and it doesn't always operate the way it perceives itself to operate. Humans commonly engage in fabulation where they attribute reasons and causes for opinions and behaviors which seem to be the domain of reflective intellect. Studies of implicit memory show quite clearly that there are many "under the hood" cognitive processes which influence how we behave and interact with other individuals and our social matrix are hidden from our consciousness. Laboratory subjects can be "primed" to be biased through artiface in selecting a particular set of offered choices. When asked to give reasons for why they behave how they behave individuals can concoct very plausible narratives with a coherent logical structure. This problem is more commonly illustrated with "split brain" patients, whose verbal Left hemisphere is disconnected from the visual Right hemisphere, but in some ways all humans exhibit a great deal of disconnect and modular subconscious processing of inputs. Not only do individuals have difficulty gleaning the causes behind their actions during the present, they are shockingly unable to accurately offer up the trajectory of their own cognitive evolution in regards to a particular topic. In his book Search for Memory the psychologist Daniel Schacter recounts studies which show that individuals who were tracked over a 15 year period simply tended to back-project their opinions of a given time into the past when in fact their opinions had changed. In Schacter's case it was attitudes toward racial and political issues which had shifted during the period between 1970 and 1985. Subjects in the 1980s seem to have recalled that they had the same opinions on racial and political issues in 1970. The psychologists had tested them in 1970 and observed that in reality the individuals opinions tended to match their social matrix at any given momemt, so when the social matrix shifted so did their opinions (of course, they knew that in 1970 society was less racially egalitarian in outlook than 1985, but they perceived themselves to have been ahead of the curve). This makes much more sense of the oft-noted fact that surveys of voting patterns are not explicable in terms of the data that we have in election returns. Many fewer people claim to have voted for Richard Nixon in 1972 than actually did, while many more individuals claim to have voted for John F. Kennedy than the close 1960 election would suggest.

The way this relates to Islam is obvious, don't trust terrorists when they give you their reasons for why they behave how they behave. If a terrorist says that the "Koran says x," be careful. There is a strong likelihood that the behavior they attribute as legitimized by the Koran is not legitimized by the Koran, and they have not even read the Koran in its original classical Arabic, a language which is highly allusive and prone to subjective interpretation. It is natural for us in the post-Freudian Age to seek the root causes in personal trauma or childhood events, but we should be cautious about such an individualistic explanation. Likely, on average, there are a host of intersecting parameters which result in the developmental path that induces one to behave in such a violent fashion toward "kafirs." But the actions of individuals are not fully intelligible outside of their social matrix, and that matrix not only feeds inputs into the individual mind but it buffers and smooths that mind's development over a period of time. That social matrix can also offer convenient fabulations which can rationalize and justify their behavior (i.e., "they were unclean dogs, animals, not humans"). An especially egregious example in the context of Islam is the historical enslavement of fellow believers. Since only non-Muslims can be enslaved by Muslims, the slavers got appropriate instruction from religious notables that the Muslims enslaved were actually apostates because of trivial infractions (or perceived infractions). This sort of ingenuity makes a mockery of the idea that texts serve as any sort of constraint upon capricious intent when there is no social buffer that interprets the law in the spirit it was intended (of course some law is better than nothing, as there is an overhead in suborning said law through verbal gymnastics, there was a reason that Paul was vocal about declaring his Roman citizenship).

The problem of definition

This moves me to the topic of defining who and what Muslims are. As I have suggested above, Muslim states and potentates have often simply declared other Muslims apostates or non-Muslims to justify wars. Parallels are clear in the case of Christianity where "Crusades" were sometimes declared against political enemies who were Christian. But there is a clear problem in definition when we move to subgroups of Muslims, i.e., the "moderate Muslim." I have seen some atheists, like Salman Rushdie, defined as a "moderate Muslim." Though an ethnic definition for Islam is not entirely unjustified (according to Muslim law you are a Muslim if you father is a Muslim), in the context of transnationalist terror this not always helpful in light of the overrrepresentation of converts in radical Salafism, or the reality that many of the Muslims themselves "converted" to the Salafist sect in young adulthood from alternative Muslim traditions.

So we must move to the realm of ideas, profession of beliefs. The term "moderate Muslim" is meant to imply the central tendency within the distribution of Muslims. Turkey is often held up as a moderate Muslim culture, yet I have pointed out that Turkish Muslims are rather like Americans in their religious sensibilities. And yet would we consider Americans "moderate Christians"? The reality is that Americans are particularly conservative in comparison to Christians from other parts of the world. Though analogies between Islam and Christianity can yield fruit, the correspondences must be normalized so that we can interpret the terms in their appropriate context. If one conceives of a belief system as existing within the minds of believers, one can conceive of a distribution of beliefs which range from "liberal" to "conservative," with other axes like "quietist" vs. "activist," or "pacifist" vs. "violent." Even if the gross morphology of distrubtion of Islam and Christianity resemble each other, it seems reasonable to conclude that their positions on the axes are shifted over from each other (or perhaps time shifted), a "moderate Muslim" is probably cognate to a "conservative Christian." In other words, the modal/median (assume normal distribution) center of Islam might very well be where evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity in the United States is. To the Right of the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian mainstream are the Christian Reconstructionists. In many ways Christian Reconstructionists are Calvinistic Protestants who resemble Islamists a great deal. Though influential above their numbers, they are marginal actors on the American landscape, which is witnessing a slide toward less doctrinal rigor and an increase in the numbers of those who espouse no specific religion. In any case, you can computationally investigate the importance that a mean has on the frequency at the extremes of a range, the large numbers of Islamist radicals and the relative paucity of liberals may simply be an outcome of the distribution's center of gravity.

The distribution is important because as I have stated, humans develop within social matrices. In genetics the norm of reaction is a concept which illustrates the non-linear response of genotypes to environmental context. I have talked about the applicability of this concept in terms of political orientation. It is also clearly relevant in terms of the heritability of religiousness. While a very religious youth might become a violent Protestant radical in the milieu of 16th Germany, in the United States they are more likely to become involved in parachurch groups. The German example is illustrative, as it seems plausible that catastrophes like militant Protestant Munster theocracy naturally resulted in the generation of quietist pacific radical Protestants like the Mennonites as a cultural backlash. Though on the finer levels gross sociological typologies mislead, at the broadest scopes of time and space when conceiving of organic civilizational development cultural types are the only verbal tools available to us. The norms, folkways and traditions of a given place and time are contingent upon what has gone before, so the slow but inexorable trend toward religious liberty and freedom of conscious in the West can be traced across the span of time in Europe between 1517, 1648, and the various random walks toward the target of religious liberty which came to full fruition with the emancipation of the Jews as the 19th century progressed. The turning of disaffected youth who were born into and grew up in a Muslim cultural matrix toward violent radicalism can be considered an individual's journey, but that trek can not be comprehended unless one knows where the journey began. If one imagines that an individual is standing on a football field and stumbling randomly up and down between each goal post, the probability of entering either end zone is proportional to the initial distance from each end zone. To restate it in terms of population genetics, the probability of fixation for a neutral allele is equal to the initial frequency, i.e., for a mutant, 1/(2Ne). If you selectively sampled a population so that a particular allele was exhibited at a higher frequency in the isolated daughter population, than that allele would have a correspondently higher probability of fixation with that subpopulation over time. In short, the, the flash frying of many non-Western cultures in the cauldron of modernity has resulted in the transposition of medieval and pre-modern cultures into a vat of advanced technology and semi-affluence which those values were not designed for. To fall back on a genetic analogy, the end result of long term directional selection with a moderate selection coefficient (s) on a particular trait (or suite of traits) may not be recapitulated by powerful short term selection on the same traits. Consider the reality that milder selection might allow the genetic background to adjust over time as modifier genes may mitigate some of the deleterious pleiotropic effects of the selected alleles (large jumps in phenotype also tend to overshoot fitness peaks as noted by Fisher and illustrated analytically by him). Additionally, on quantitative traits mutation can replenish variation relatively quickly, but extremely fast selection can outpace this replishment. Finally, powerful selection can reduce the effective population so (as only "fit" individuals reproduce) that random genetic drift becames more salient and can induce the fixation of negative alleles into the genetic background (recall when selection is more powerful when 2s >> 1/(2Ne), but a high s means the effective population drops fast because of the non-reproduction of the majority of the previous generation which was not "fit").

The genetic analogy was not meant to be an accurate description of the exact parallel dynamics. Rather, it was to illustrate that the changes wrought by modernity, affluence, mass society and jarring technological innovation, likely have had a qualitatively different effect on Islamic society than they ever had on Western Christian cultures. Though it might be helpful in some contexts to analogize Salafis to Calvinists, or assert that "Islam needs an Enlightenment," these correspondences are extremely weak and should be used with that knowledge in mind. The Enlightenment was fostered by an elite repubic of letters, when even sufferage for the bourgeoise was an alien concept. The Reformed Calvinist engagement with the text of the scripture is in some ways not possible in Islam because of the ignorance of classical Arabic that is nearly universal among the non-clerical class of believers.

Reason and emotion

In Descarte's Error Antonio Damasio makes that case that emotion is crucial to make reasoned judgements. But mixing emotion and reason in a helter skelter fashion does little good, though reason may serve passion, it does a poor job if passion overwhelms it. Though self-reflectively humans give lip service to reason, many of our decisions are dictated by our passions. When no reasonable data or chain of logic is on hand, passion is all we have to go on. But too often it seems that emotional sincerity overwhelms a cool analysis of the way the world is. This was pretty obvious to me after a reader stated that the West could destroy the Muslim world in nuclear holocaust if need be, after I had pointed out that it seems possible that 80% of the Salafist terrorist network might be residing on the soil of Western nations. Emotionally satisfying as a military show of force might be, it does not always get the job done, especially when you find out that the object of your ire has little to do with the threat that you perceive. I have spoken before of the need to make our priorities clear. There is a big difference between our course of action when faced with existential threats and when confronted with a long term adversary.

Unjustified emotion

But reason serves and ends, and that end is the good society. The good society is a subjective perception. A libertarian would place the non-aggression principle first and foremost. A devout Muslim in the Islamist mode would prioritize a reconstructed Caliphate. A radical feminist may dream of a gender-egalitarian society. And so forth. Humans cry and laugh in the context of their small joys, but as thinking, rational beings, despite our reflexive and subconscious selves, we take pleasure and comfort in the vision of the society which we believe to be good and true. An classical Greek reveled in the back and forth discourse with fellow citizens in his polis. A Roman was a citizen of his republic. A Hindu existed within a matrix of social relations where their jati served as the axis mundi. A Confucian mandarin was grounded by filial piety. Certainly these truisms elide over the textured complexity of a individual life and the society within which that individual lives their life. It ignores the reality of common joys and triumphs and fears which unite us as human beings. It disregards the variations that exist across and through all societies, divisions and axes of power which are also human universals.

The values that bind a society are not simply abstract or idealized truths. They take shape in day to day interactions, and in the decisions we make as human beings. Honor killings in Pakistan might shock us, but if we partition our emotional outrage away from our reasoning faculties we might be able to understand how such behavior is a natural byproduct of social structures which influence particular cultural values. If the behavior of one individual can reflect upon the reputation of a whole clan, than it is not surprising that violations, or even perceived violations, of communal norms may bring about harsh and ruthless retribution. Humans are creatures of conformity, the people of Kant burned millions of fellow humans in part because of group conformity (I do not make recourse to the 'authoritarian personality,' I believe that most peoples are capable of genocide on a basic level). Americans raised on apple pie committed atrocities at Mylai in the heat of battle.

A partitioning of emotion and reason allows us to consider the brutal truths in regards to honor killings. Rather than asking why individuals behave in such a fashion, as if they were irrational beasts, we might reflect on the structural conditions of the society and the values that it expresses which allows such behavior to be normative, and then realize why our own society does not allow such acts to be committed in the name of 'honor' (though was I the only one to notice that it seemed a bit unchivalrous for Sean Connery to try Julia Ormond for adultry as if it was a capital crime at the end of First Knight?). Perhaps it may allow us to realize how precious the values we hold dear are, how hard won they have been, and how precarious they might be.

Hobbes and Severus

Thomas Hobbes proposed that we cede to the state, the monarch, absolute power so as to safeguard human society from its natural state of brutish savagery. In the early 3rd century as the Roman Empire fell prey to barbarian incursions, social decay and general chaos, the emperor Septimius Severus unclenched the naked hand of despotism, and the pretense toward republican values was dropped in favor of pure monarchism. In my post A prayer for the Emperor I opined that perhaps history was, in part, repeating itself, and the polyglot empire of multitudinous cults that is America would have to rediscover motifs and forms which once united a previous cosmopolis. Certainly not original thoughts, but perhaps inevitable ones, which is why they are mooted so often.

Though Hobbes and Severus do not present us pleasant choices, they are simply faces of reality. Thomas Hobbes was not an evil man, his life spanned a time of chaos and change in England. Religious faction and civil war tore England from end to end, and a king was beheaded in the name of parliament and its liberties, but truly by the force of personality of Oliver Cromwell and the point of the gun aimed by the army he led. Septimius Severus was born during the time of the "Good Emperors," but saw the decline into barbarity ushered in by the reign of Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus. Severus might have been a despot, but one of his predecessors purchased the emperorship at auction from the Praetorian Guard, so the majesty of Rome had long been torn to shreds before he came to soil the purple. His reign saw consolidation and stability in the face of cracks in the Roman peace, a peace that was broken during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher king beloved of intellectuals, as Germans began to swarm on the borders of Rome and broke through the limes. Stoical virtue is no defense against the capricious forces of nature and demography.

The historical digression serves to underline the point that easy and simple choices are unlikely in the future. If we know what values we truly stand for, what truths we hold dear, than hard choices will become more bearable, and we will be able to make them more quickly. The truths are matters of emotion, points which hold us together and endgender amity between fellow citizens who can face each other unveiled in the public square. How they are implemented and actualized in the real world are best left up to reason. The specter of Hobbes and Severus are on the horizon, and perhaps like death they are inevitable, but life does not have to be nasty and brutish before its completion.

The futility of it all

We live in a world of breath-taking affluence and instantaneous change. And yet the vast majority of the world's population gives lip service to gods and men who lived between 600 and 600, from Buddha to Muhammad. Our posthuman future seems to be rapidly approaching, though whether it will be a postsentient future is yet to be decided. We live in the shadow of madmen who swear fealty to an empire that never existed. Prudence is best when possible, but haste is necessary when oblivion is ready to swallow us. Whatever the future holds our various opinions will have some weight, trivial or not. I do not ask anyone to accept the truths I accept on faith, I simply demand that those who declare that they worship the same gods I do take a stand with me when the lines are drawn for the most imminent battle. In the end I do not believe in personal or cosmic immortality, but I do believe, and that is all that matters while I breathe.

P.S. Happy New Year!