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November 25, 2003

Look to the Yehudi - Part II

I don't have much time now, so I am going to offer that I will elaborate on this much more in future posts. I started this series last week with a general sketch of my thesis: that Reform Judaism in 19th century Europe after emancipation offers a good model for a Muslim compromise with modernity. I also hinted that this applied only to the United States.

To see why, here is an excerpt from Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge's A Theory of Religion (page 150-152):

...If sect membership also entails a very distinctive ethnic or racial marker, defection is impeded thereby, for two reasons...the surrounding society will still tend to code the defector as a member of the sect. Second, because of the bond of loyalty - not merely religious but also racial or ethnic. There is a further barrier if the high tension group does not belong to exactly the same religious tradition as the low tension relgious groups in society, as has often been the case for non-Christian groups in predominantly Christian societies....

Further on, they point to Reform Jews as an example of the response to these conditions:

...they had lost status among other Jews...They lacked the influence to transform Judaism into a state of lower tension. The result was the Reform Movement. This new movement discarded the bulk of Jewish traditions as "superstition and antiquated custom"...Tension between Reform Judaism and its surroundings was very low....

The basic point is this: Jews bound by the traditions of their faith since the times of the Roman Empire broke with those traditions in exchange for acceptance and advancement into gentile society. The Jews who remained true to halakah and clung to the shtetl remained unaccepted and economically deprived. Various compromises with gentile Christian society were formulated, from Christianized "Messianic Jews," secular "cultural Jews," mildly religious Protestantized non-Orthodox Jews, the "orthodox" revival movements around chasidism and of course the traditional orthodoxy of the Jewish people for the past 2,000 years.

To Muslims: Over half of Muslim immigrants to the United States have graduate degrees! These are people who have much to gain from assimilation with the rest of society. In the lingo of Stark & Bainbridge (they are rational choice theorists), they would benefit from trading "compensators" (pie-in-the-sky-promises) for "rewards" (tangible goods and services). Liberal, well connected ethno-religious groups tend to be able to offer rewards, while closed sects offer compensators. To leverage the full power of advanced degrees in the United States, especially professions that require interpersonal relationships, transformation to a lower state of tension is critical for Muslims. The other option is defection, but as noted above, there are ethnic-racial markers that prevent this. As an example, I am an atheist Republican, but it sure takes a long time for me to make it through security at an airport, my profession of disbelief in my natal religion matters little to much of society that does not know me. For many, onversion to Christianity might not remove the costs associated with being "Other," and would incur the negatives of social ostracism from your natal community[1].

Of course, the whole point is that transformation to a state of lower tension, liberalization, is in the interests of groups with high socioeconomic status or aspirations. American Muslims, especially immigrants, can make that claim. European Muslims usually can not. While American Islam might produce a liberalized form of Islam, European Islam is shaped by a low socioeconomic group experience. Stark & Bainbridge predict that they will favor "compensators" over "rewards," because the latter are simply not available in those societies, and the existance of copious rewards in their environment will lead them toward extreme preference to the compensators only they are willing to make the sacrifices for to raise their own self-worth. European lslam therefore should be more like the faith of Baptist fire & brimestome preachers. Of course, one caveat is that I think Stark & Bainbridge's rational choice theory of religion is much less well tested, and frankly, less well supported, by the European religious marketplace.

fn1. Interesting side-light: since South Asian Hindus and Sikhs are regularly confused with Muslims, and Sikh men in particular "stick out," it is in the interests of the former to encourage the liberalization of the latter. The "costs" incurred by Islamic estrangement from the greater society to some extent overflow into the communities that Muslims get confused for!

Posted by razib at 03:46 PM