Modernity is not magic with Muslims

There are many reasons I have become very skeptical of the media over the years. Though I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory paradigms, it is obvious that the mainstream media often combines fidelity to precise narratives with a lack of detailed knowledge about the topics they are covering. In other words, they’re stenographers with an agenda. When you don’t know the topic they are expositing upon they can seem quite persuasive. But when you do know the topic they are addressing the emperor can be revealed to be naked. Naturally this warrants concern in most people who observe this, as if they are catching errors in the matrix.*

One area that this problem crops often for me is in regards to media coverage of Islam and and the Middle East. Most reporters don’t seem to really know much about their beat in a deep sense, so they are superficially taking in facts and putting them through coarse interpretative filters.

To name names, David Kirkpatrick covers the Middle East for The New York Times. I read his stuff, and he is not a bad journalist, but he clearly has no deep familiarity with the history of the Middle East or the details of Islam. His work is like a pop-tart; sweet, temporarily filling, but long on a sugar-rush and short on filling substance. For example, he can talk about a contrast between peaceful Sufis and Islamist militants Libya, without knowing that Sufi orders were often militant organizations, and that Libyan independence after World War II was spearheaded by a militant Sufi order. (I know this, so I’m passing this on to you!)

But readers of The New York Times “know” that Sufis are peaceful. So for prose contrast it makes sense that Kirkpatrick would bring that up. Never mind that this is so reductive to be useless in terms of getting people a better picture of reality.

In the interests of adding context, let me add something to the story about FGM in Michigan which is prominent in the news today. A Dr. Jumana Nagarwala is accused of practicing FGM on young girls. Though it is not emphasized in the American media (because it wouldn’t mean much), it seems she is from the Dawoodi Bohra of Ismailis. In India the Bohra community is well known, as it is a very distinct group from the majority of Muslims, who are Sunni, and even most Shia. Its origins seem to be among the mercantile castes of the Gujarat coast, who were converted to a particular Ismaili sect of Shia Islam.

I have some “book learning” about this sect under my belt because I read Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras about 15 years ago on the recommendation of my friend Aziz Poonawalla, who is a member of this community. Mullahs on the Mainframe was topical in the post-9/11 era because it seemed to depict a community which was both modern and religiously orthodox and observant, with fewer tensions being a minority in the West than other groups of Muslims. I don’t want to rehash that line of argument too much; descriptively it is correct that Daudi Bohras are a well behaved minority who attain success, combined with adherence to traditional beliefs and practices (Daudi Bohras, like many conservative Islamists, tend to “look” obviously Muslim because of matters of grooming and dress).

But another aspect of the Daudi Bohra community is that it is one of the few in South Asia that practices FGM. I don’t know or care about the prevalence, extent, or origin of the practice among the Bohra. When I saw the doctor’s name, which seemed South Asian, I immediately suspected she was from the community (the type of headscarf seemed familiar too).

The point of this post is not to demonize the Daudi Bohra community; the vast majority of the world’s Muslims who engage in FGM are not Daudi Bohra. TheĀ Shafi school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence is the big offender in terms of numbers. Indonesian Sunnis are Shafi, so that nation often praised for its tolerant version of Islam has a very high proportion of FGM. Rather, it is to point out that the neat narrative frameworks we prefer are often not descriptively correct nor predictively useful. Since 9/11 rather than a more complex and nuanced view of Islam it seems that opinion leaders have been converging upon the idea that the religion is either with the angels or the devils, rather than a man-made thing which occupies the area in the middle.

The reliance on theories and heuristics which appeal to our sensibilities as right and true misleads in many ways. The arc of history bends toward justice, but the path is winding. The Protestant Reformation was rooted in the more literate and well off classes, and aimed to rid corruption from the Christian church. In the process it unleashed horrible intolerance, cultural genocide, and conflicts which resulted in tens of millions of deaths. Not taking a view on the Reformation as a whole, it is clear that its consequences are not so simply integrated into the Whig version of history when taken in full.

Ultimately we need to rush less quickly toward our preferred conclusions, which align neatly with our prior models. Rather, we need to explore the sideways and what we think are certainly dead-ends, because sometimes those dead-ends will open up startling new landscapes (by the way, I think the “rationalist” community is much better at this than the general thinking public, though that’s not saying much).

* When I was in grad school an acquaintance mentioned this in relation to Jonah Lehrer before his exposure. Lehrer was persuasive whenever he was talking about a topic he wasn’t familiar with, but was clearly out of his depth whenever it approached something he was familiar with.

5 thoughts on “Modernity is not magic with Muslims

  1. Anyone who’s ever made an utterance that ends up as a news quote knows just how perversely wrong reporters can be, and, even beyond seeming merely ignorant, reporters often come off as being willfully obtuse as they compound their follies by making their own squishy, rushed, short-minded laziness sound authoritative. In their defense it’s inherent to reporting that there’s too many facets to reality to make a perfect complete narrative if ANY event, no matter how seemingly simple. But still!

    Pretty germane article by Oremus just today. He highlights the following article:

    And here’s the main piece which addresses these same issues and some of the commercial constraints

  2. So reporters are human. I used to be one, first for radio news, and later in online print journalism (I’m a Society of Professional Journalists alum). And, they have to report the news as it comes in ready or not.

    If they were really experts about Islam, they’d probably be professors or religious professionals. At best, they’ve taken a few college courses that touch on the topic, have a few Muslim friends who aren’t particularly close, and maybe even took one or two course in college devoted specifically to the topic. More likely, they’ve cribbed everything they know from Wikipedia and the World Almanac (which aren’t bad sources, as far as they go).

    What background information or perspective would allow them to do their job better given their limitations of where they are starting from? What methodologies in their reporting should change?

    Fidelity to a precise narrative certainly isn’t the goal you cross-stitch and put up on your wall, but incoherent reporting of incidents in a vacuum with no context at all is surely worse. Even a second rate theory is usually better than having no theory at all with which to approach your subject matter.

    Given that reporters are good at fitting stray bits of new information into larger narratives and applying interpretative filters, perhaps the most constructive thing would be to suggest alternative narratives and interpretive filters that would do a better job of bringing readers closer to a “better picture of reality.”

    What narratives and what interpretative filters that a mere human reporter who is a well meaning educated layperson without a lot of specialized knowledge be best advised to resort to in order to get closer to the truth? Maybe a really diligent reporter can spare the time for one full length book or half a dozen shorter articles or video pieces to get up to speed. What would point that reporter in the right direction?

  3. A general term for the phenomena is “the Murray Gell-Mann amnesia effect”, although I suppose the accuracy of different fields does vary.

  4. What background information or perspective would allow them to do their job better given their limitations of where they are starting from? What methodologies in their reporting should change?

    i’m pretty sure david kirkpatrick is paid a few hundred thousand dollars per year working at the new york times at his senior capacity. he has a specific regional-cultural beat. if he is going to write interpretative analysis pieces, as he does, he needs to keep up on scholarship. if i can know this stuff as a lay person, he can. and it’s not even my job.

  5. With regards to your following comment:”Its origins seem to be among the mercantile castes of the Gujarat coast, who were converted to a particular Ismaili sect of Shia Islam” –it’s a bit more complicated than that. Bohra Ismailis emerged after schiisms within the Fatimid Ismaili Shias based on the succession of 18th Ismaili Imam al Muntasir-Billah. Agha Khani Ismailis followed son Nizar, while Bohras followed al-Musta’sil. There was a further schism– Hafizi vs Tayibi, but the Tayyibi Ismailis (Bohras) were recognized by Arwa al Sultania, the Queen of Yemen and the sect established and emerged there. The Tayyibi Ismaili community in Gujarat began when Moulai Abullah and Moulai Nuruddin travelled to Cairo and started following the Tayyibi Imam (Dai). They then became the Wali-al Hind and started a successional Wilayat in Gujarat, following the instructions of the Dai in Yemen to promote it in India (mostly to safeguard it from persecution in Cairo and Yemen). The wilayat officially moved to India when Yusuf Najmuddin bin Sulayman in 1567 because of persecution from Zaidi Shias in Yemen. So the sect was originated in Cairo, established in Yemen, promoted in Gujarat by converts and then officially moved to Gujarat from Yemen centuries later due to persecution. At the height of this sect’s influence, it was prevalent across Yemen and Egypt. Therefore, asserting that Dawoodi Bohras originated from Gujarati mercantile classes is very simplistic and (somewhat) inaccurate. Later internal schiisms within Tayyibi Ismailis lead to Dawoodi, Sulyemani, Aliyah and Hebtiah Bohras in India. Farhad Daftary provides a great overview of this major schiism in Ismailis and in her book “Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Societies”.

    [I read the book so I know all that. But genetically they are clear bania]

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