The blood on brown hands is a legacy of all of history

Yesterday I put up a tweet which went a bit viral (I won’t embed since it has a vulgarity). It was the result of my frustration with a very liberal Indian American who was using unfortunate tensions in the Indian subcontinent to attack “white supremacy.” My frustration was due to the reality that a major conflict between India and Pakistan would not just impact India and Pakistan, though that is dire enough. In a globalized world, a war involving the world’s fifth largest economy, situated athwart the southern flank of Asia, would impact many people outside of the subcontinent. In the midst of this, the fact that someone was using this to promote their own ideological hobbyhorse was offensive to me.

But the construct of “white supremacy” was presented specifically in the context of a particular history with the British. That is, British policies in the 19th and early 20th centuries laid the seedbeds of conflict between Hindus and Muslims, along with the tortured borders of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. This is a complicated issue. It is simply manifestly true that the British administered most of the Indian subcontinent from the beginning of the 19th century down to 1947, to various degrees. And, the British were at the center of defining and delineating the borders and divisions which frame the current tensions within the Indian subcontinent.

And yet, the reality is that I believe all these were contingent. That is, imagine an alternative history where the Sepoy Mutiny succeeded in winning independence for several states within the subcontinent, even if the British also retained some of their territories. Presumably, when the British receded, more independent states would emerge. Would the subcontinent be one of amity and low tension, with the much milder historical footprint of the British? In such a timeline the Amritsar Massacre may never have happened (I presume the British would be more likely to retrench to the coastal areas to the east, south, and southwest).

I don’t believe that that is so. Since I am not Pakistani I did not know what the “Two-Nation Theory” (TNT) was before I ran the Brown Pundits weblog. Basically, this is the idea that the Indian subcontinent has within it two religious nations, the Hindu and Muslim. This is not a theological assertion as much as an ethno-sectarian one. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was not a devout Muslim. His personal mores were more that of an upper-class Brit (he enjoyed his whiskey). But, his ethnocultural identity was clearly that of an upper-class Muslim. As a lawyer, he defended a man who killed a Hindu who the man believed had blasphemed against Islam. Jinnah’s defense was motivated by his communal loyalty. Even if he himself was not pious, the offense was against the Muslim nation, and he stood with the Muslim nation.

This highlights the fact that the 1947 partition was not driven by the all-powerful British, but also native Indian groups. Though the British, as imperial rulers, implemented the specifics, the underlying demand was from the Muslim League, with the tacit acceptance of many Hindus who were happy to remove a substantial proportion of the subcontinent’s non-Hindu population into another state (some extremely religious fundamentalist Muslims actually opposed partition, since their goal was to convert the whole subcontinent, for which a united India would have been more efficient!).

If you had asked me at a younger age my unconsidered opinion would have been that India should have stayed united to avert the bloodiness of the partition, whose death toll is estimated from the hundreds of thousands to millions. But upon further reflection and thought, I think the TNT captures the essential fact that the Muslim upper-class of Northern India would never be able to reconcile itself well with secondary status within the state, and, with ~25% of the population being Muslim, would always have a huge vote bank so that they could not be ignored. Perhaps a confessional state with a divided balance of power such as Lebanon could have been attempted, but I doubt the Lebanese solution would scale to a polity which covered the whole Indian subcontinent. A more feasible scenario might be a confederation.

The separation of East Pakistan, what became Bangladesh, within a generation of the partition, actually proves to me the point about the Muslim upper-class of Northern India and its general attitude toward power-sharing. Though the Muslim League was quite successful in East Bengal before the partition due to the salience of religious divisions in the region, with the emergence of a Pakistani state the party became the instrument of an elite whose cultural focus was on the northwest of the subcontinent. These were people who saw themselves, quite often genealogically in a valid sense, to be heirs to the Mughal tradition. They dreamed of the time when they had been part of the dominant ruling class (albeit, often subordinate to Turks and Persians).

This was quite separate from the Muslim Bengali identity, which existed more at an equipoise between an Islamic self-consciousness and a Bengali one, which connected them culturally in a deep sense to the Hindu Bengalis who resided across the border in India. The Muslim elite of West Pakistan saw the Bengalis of East Pakistan, even when Muslim as the majority were, to be a culturally and racially inferior group. Culturally inferior because of their embrace of a Bengali high culture which was originally pioneered by Hindus such as Rabindranath Tagore, and racially inferior because they were a smaller and darker-skinned people, who could clearly not make the pretensions toward non-Indian West Asian ancestry common among the post-Mughal Muslim elite.

Now, imagine this same elite having to deal with the Hindu elites of a united India!

What this shows is that the cleavages that exploded into violence in 1947 with the partition were long pregnant within India, before the British ever arrived. The reason I have no patience for the constant indictments of the British is that South Asian elites had their own agency, and their own history, long before the British became the major power in the subcontinent, and retained that agency after. First, one has to remember that the British domination of the subcontinent in a sense we’d recognize it probably dates to the defeat of the Marathas in the Second Anglo-Maratha War of the early 19th century. This puts British rule across much of the subcontinent at 150 years, and even then many of the Princely States administered themselves.

Obviously, India has a history before the British period and that history as preserved and maintained amongst its ruling elements continued down into the British Raj and reemerged after the independence of India and Pakistan. From the period after the emergence of the Delhi Sultanate in ~1200 to the decay of Mughal power in the early 18th century, Turkic conquest elites espousing the faith of Islam were the dominant ruling class of South Asia.

To be sure, not all of them were Turkic. Many were Iranian, Afghan, or Arab, and some were slaves from the Caucasus and Africa. But all of them were swept up in the invasion of the Indian subcontinent driven by Central Asian Turks. This is not exceptional to India, Turkic military elites were often the ruling class of Iran (e.g., the Safavids and Qajars) and many parts of the Arab Near East after 1000 AD. Once in India, the Turks transplanted their Central Asian civilization as best as they could on the very different soil of the subcontinent. A migration of Persians, and even some Arabs such as Ibn Battuta, occurred so as to allow the development of a fully-functioning Islamic civilization co-located within a landscape dominated by diverse Indian traditions that we would today call Hindu (which was at that time was just the generic term for Indian).

Ibn Battuta, in particular, illustrates the fact that within India a whole Muslim world had been transplanted which nevertheless remained not of India, as his own reflections are that of a Muslim moving through Muslim lands, not an Arab in a non-Muslim territory.

The imperialist nature of the conquest dynasties should not be underemphasized. Because of its size and population density, India was attractive to rent-seekers and fortune-hunters. Like the Mongol rule in China, the dominance of a Muslim military elite within India culturally and ideologically distant from the local Brahmin elite opened up an opportunity for West Asians to find favor at court. Ayatollah Khomeini’s paternal grandfather was born in the Indian city of Lucknow. His own ancestors had been invited by the rulers of the region, who were migrants from Nishapur in Iran. Khomeini’s grandfather’s Persian ancestors had left Nishapur and settled in India to receive the patronage and provide service to the rulers who were Shia Muslims of Persian origin such as themselves.

These enclaves of Muslims with recent foreign ancestry have given rise to the ashraf quasi-caste. In White Mughals the author asserts that just as a poor European noble might marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant, so ashraf of pure blood could elevate the lineage of prosperous native stock Indian Muslims.

This digression is to emphasize how the Islamic civilization of South Asia was to some extent a West and Central Asian society intercalated with indigenous elements. The court language of the Mughals, who were in their paternal lineage Timurid arrivistes from Central Asia, was Persian. The camp language was Turki. There were centuries of migration of West and Central Asians into Islamic courts and camps in South Asia that connected India with the Muslim regions to the west and northwest. The non-Indian pretentions of upper-class Muslims from the northwest of the subcontinent are not totally off base. To be sure, the reality is that the vast majority of the ancestry of modern-day South Asian Muslims, even those from the northwest, is indigenous.

Though South Asia remained an overwhelmingly non-Muslim domain, rather early on Islam took on something of the patina of an imperial religion due to the dominance of Muslim military elites. To give an example, in the early 1400s a certain Raja Ganesha, a Hindu, usurped rule in Bengal (which had been under a Turkic dynasty). One concession that mollified Muslim elites toward this usurpation was that he agreed that his son would become a Muslim. And so he did so that Raja Ganesha’s son and grandson ruled Bengal as Muslims. To me, this is reminiscent of the selection of Eugenius as a puppet of the pagan general Arbogast in the West Roman Empire in the late 4th century. Though Eugenius was tolerant toward pagans, he was a Christian. The norm of a Christian ruler of the Roman Empire had already been established by the 390s, even though Christians were only a minority of the population at this time. The Emperor was a Christian ruler of a pagan Empire.

The existence of Islam as an imperial religion resulted in the emergence of an “Islamicate” civilization. Though Rajputs and Pandits remained devout Hindus, they emulated aspects of the elite culture of the Muslims whom they served as vassals or courtiers. Eventually, Muslims of a more native Indian background also came to the fore. Though the powerful ruler of 18th century Mysore, Tipu Sultan, claimed distant West Asian ancestry, the realistic depictions of his features indicate he is clearly an Indian and the descendant of converts to Islam. The Mughal Emperor Akbar exhibits his Turco-Mongol and Persian heritage in his features, while his grandson Shah Jahan looks like the Rajput Indian that three of his four grandparents were. And yet Shah Jahan was a Muslim Mughal prince in culture, and a proud Timurid who wed the daughter of Persian migrants, even if three of his four grandparents were Hindu.

Though any objective analysis shows that the Muslims of South Asia are overwhelming of indigenous ancestry, the cultural and historical imprint of West Asia is indelible upon them, in particular among certain elements of the elite of the northern cities. Their appearance, food, and language, tie them to South Asia. But their religious commitments and romantic attachment to a greater Islamic civilization pull them west.

But of course, there were other people in South Asia. Today we call them Hindus, but that used to be the term for an inhabitant of the Indian subcontinent more generally. Hinduism encompasses a wide range of traditions, from local folk religion to the elite philosophical schools. Perhaps the two things that define Indians, and Hindus, to outsiders are karma and caste. As in Iran the conquest of India did result in some synthesis between the intrusive element, and the native substrate. In the Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier the author argues that the rule of the region by Turkic and Afghan Muslims without investment in Sanskrit allowed for the emergence of a native Bengali linguistic tradition. Meanwhile, in Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia, the author argues that before the assertion of orthodoxy during the Mughal period, many ethno-religious groups in South Asia were liminal to both Islam and Hinduism. The Meo community may be a relic which reflects some of the sub-elite and peasant practices which have vanished.

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Why Indian forms dominated Chinese forms in mainland Southeast Asia


On Twitter Peter Turchin had a question in response to me tweeting a new preprint on bioRxiv:


This was my impression too until a few years ago, but the genetic evidence does point to gene-flow. Here are two recent posts from me, Likely Male-Mediated Indianization In Southeast Asia and Indic Civilization Came To Southeast Asia Because Indian People Came To Southeast Asia. Lots Of Them.

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How the English abolished their British (Celtic) ancestors

Reading both Bryan Ward-Perkins’ 2000 paper Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become more British? and The fine scale genetic structure of the British population, published in 2015, is interesting. To date, this second paper is probably the “best of breed” when it comes to estimating Anglo-Saxon admixture into the British population in the 5th to 7th centuries (confirmed with a smaller sample ancient DNA publication). The authors conclude that:

Two separate analyses (ancestry profiles and GLOBETROTTER) show clear evidence in modern England of the Saxon migration, but each limits the proportion of Saxon ancestry, clearly excluding the possibility of long-term Saxon replacement. We estimate the proportion of Saxon ancestry in C./S England as very likely to be under 50%, and most likely in the range 10%-40%.

The ancient DNA paper gives an estimate of ~38% Anglo-Saxon (German) for the “East English.” So the two seem roughly in line. The C./S. England cluster refers to the genealogical network of the lowlands of central and eastern England.

There are several ways we can look at this. First, the majority of the ancestors of the modern English were British. That is, Brythonic people of various levels of Romanization. They became Anglo-Saxon. Even on the “Saxon Shore” in the far east of England it is likely that the majority of the ancestors of the natives derive from post-Roman Britons (if barely).

A second way to look at it this that this validates Peter Heather’s model in Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. The model being that the post-Roman barbarian migrations were coherent “folk wanderings,” and large numbers of Germans moved into the collapsing Roman Empire. In post-Roman Britain, a large number of Germans clearly arrived and demographically marginalized many Britons. To be sure, it is unlikely that in the year 550 AD the census size of Germans to Britons in East Anglia was ever 38 to 62 in ratio. Rather, I suspect that in the centuries after the rise of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms German elites had higher reproductive rates than the Britons due to their superior access to resources. Over time this resulted in their contribution being more prominent in the genealogies of people alive today.

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Hinduism before India

Azar Gat is one of my favorite scholars. He does not seem to be one who bows before fashion. If you haven’t, I recommend War in Human Civilization a great deal.

With that being said, perhaps an overlooked work is his more recent Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. It is a reasonable antidote to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Anderson’s book is apparently one of the most assigned works to undergraduates in the United States, and I saw it cited so often that I went ahead and read it to see if there was any “there there.” Alas, that was not to be. I have come to conclude that those who find profundity in Imagined Communities are superficial thinkers, and want “information for free.” That is, a theory that can explain history without having to learn many facts.

Gat’s Nations is not a simplistic argument that the specific nations we see around us today have deep roots in antiquity. The chasms between Arminius, Luther, and Bismarck, are great indeed. But for Gat the conceptual framework of nationhood is derived from primal constituents and extends itself naturally from a common human set of cognitive reflexes and the selective sieve of cultural evolution. A late Roman Republican politician could understand broadly the process of the formation of the creation of modern Italy from various constituent polities which shared a cultural affinity, just as the Roman Republic itself was a fusion of tribes.

This is on my mind because of a post over at Brown Pundits, India Never Existed. In the post, there is a quote from a scholar of South Asia who is seemingly at the center of constant controversy with “Hindu Twitter”:

In the old days, India was not united. And there was no cohesive Hindu identity. Literally, “Hindus” did not call themselves Hindus in premodernity.

So far as today, Hindutva is an ideology of hate, based on early 20th-century European fascism, that derides religious minorities.

Overall I think this is an unhelpful and polemical way to present the facts. I am not a Hindu nationalist. But neither am I secular Indian. In the Indian context “secular” means a very precise thing which is not covered simply by being an irreligious atheist (which I am). As an American who has an intellectual, but frankly no deep emotional, interest in South Asian affairs it is up to Indians to sort out their cultural and political conflicts. But, just as the “Out of India” Hindu nationalists strike me as in the wrong, it seems clear that some secular Indian intellectuals engage in polemics unfounded in fact, or shading the truth in a manner that serves their ideology rather than the facts on the ground.

A certain school of scholars, who seem to be engaging in a culture war against Hindu nationalists, present the genesis of Indian identity as a pure reaction to the engagement with Europe. That is, Indianness develops as a mimic of Englishness. Before 1800 there were  jatis, Muslims of various ethnicities, and curious minorities like Parsis, all coresident across South Asia, but there was no Hindu identity except as a disjoint set of characteristics and cultures which were not included amongst Muslims, Christians, Parsis, etc.

This view is extremely misleading. The genetic evidence seems clear that the ethnogenesis of modern South Asians dates to the period between two and four thousand years ago, between the last massive phase of admixtures between different continental elements, and the emergence of an endogamous caste system. The antiquity of caste is genetically attested and spans much of North and South India. As far back as the time of the Greeks and Persians, the people of the Indian subcontinent were known to those outside as a distinctive and coherent element, and the Hindu religious traditions certainly predate 1800. Adi Shankara, an 8th-century thinker who arguably outlined the core tenents tone of “elite Hinduism” as we know them today, was a Brahmin from the far South of the subcontinent.

It is true that the indigenous traditions of the Indian subcontinent were a diverse mix, and many communities (now termed “tribes”) were outside of the caste system and Hindu society. But by the time that Islam arrived in the subcontinent the influence of Brahmins had certainly spread a particular elite culture patronized by most rulers, with those who were skeptical often being devotees of religious groups more distinct from Hinduism (whether it be Buddhists or Jains). It is correct to point out that most people in the Indian subcontinent did not subscribe to Brahmin religious thought, but most of the population of Europe in 1000 AD practiced a very inchoate Christianity, and yet we do not hesitate to term this a Christian civilization, seeing as how much of the continent was bound together by a priestly elite which obtained sponsorship from kings and nobles.

To be frank, some of the anti-Hindutva scholars seem to be engaging in semantic games to win arguments with their ideological enemies. It is clear that Indian national identity in a political sense is recent, and is not analogous to that of China, which is ancient. But should one then say that a “European” identity did not exist in 1000 AD because most European polities were bound together by personal rule and the Christian religion, rather than geography and nationality as we understand it? It is clear that the outlines of what became Europe emerged in the wake of the Roman collapse, and the rise of Islam. Just because courtiers in the court of Charlemagne did not term themselves “Europeans” does not mean that the general outlines of Europeanness did not predate the ideological formulation in the early modern period, as Christians became Europeans.

A bigger framework is that we can see patterns across societies in time and space, and draw analogies and inferences. Human social and political institutions are commensurable. The development of Europe in the wake of the fall of Rome and the shock of the barbarian invasions is neatly analogous to the emergence of native Indian religious traditions in the wake of the shock of the arrival of Muslim Turks. There are differences, but Europe and Europe’s experience is not sui generis. One could state that France “did not exist” until the French Revolution, and the 19th century drives toward assimilation of local dialects and the emergence to prominence of “standard French.” But it is clear that something “French” clearly motivated the elites, Protestant and Catholic, who battled in the 16th and 17th centuries, at the intersection of religion and nationality. Even though most peasants had a rural and local identity, the stage was set for the national passions which inflamed the Revolutionary regime of the 1790s.

Similarly, the Indian republic has had its issues, but it is not a coincidence that it has managed to maintain continuity and integrity through all its ups and downs. Indian identity is clearly somewhat an artificiality because a unified Indian state was imposed relatively late in history, and only for a short period by a Mughal elite which was not in cultural solidarity with the diversity of its subjects. But across the cultural diversity, there is a level of affinity which has historical roots. An analogy here can be made to Indonesia, a diverse archipelago which was never a unitary state, but whose cultural cohesiveness is a product of history rather than politics. The regions of India and Indonesia, Kashmir and the northeast for India, and the eastern islands for Indonesia, are those regions with less cultural affinity and oftentimes no shared history with the central elite.

My understanding of these sorts of issues are informed by two things:

  • Specific attention to details of history, which is hard to obtain without just reading
  • A general understanding of human social development informed by evolutionary anthropology

Some systems of thought constrain comprehension in a semantic straightjacket. So, for example, there are those who would argue that “religion” in a Western context is qualitatively different from “religion” in an Eastern context. I think this is ridiculous. All religions exhibit cognitive features, which are the outcomes of our evolutionary history, which is shared. There is the idea that a nation-state has to be understood as a crisp definition which emerges in the period between the Peace of Westphalia and the French Revolution. That the nation-state was born in Western Europe, and all successor nation-states the world over are derived from Western European ideas.

There is some contingent truth to this. Modern nation-states are fundamentally Westphalian. The language and the framework of modern diplomacy are European. In particular, it comes out of the second half of the 17th century. But the European nation-state is not sui generis, and diplomacy was not invented by Europeans. The concept of a geographically delimited polity associated with a standing army and civilian bureaucracy is not just something particular to early modern Europe. The Romans, Chinese, and Muslims created such political systems. The Roman system collapsed in Western Europe, while the later European system overwhelmed the Chinese and Muslim political systems.

But even in their accession to the European forms, native societies retained their uniqueness. Their own deep roots. This is evident in both China and Japan, whose political systems outwardly are replicas of European ideologies and frameworks. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a peculiar hybrid of European and indigenous. When Western scholars deride Hindutva as based on “early 20th-century European fascism”, they remove from Indians any agency. As if Hindu nationalism is simply a curry-flavored form of European fascism. Like Baathism, Chinese Nationalism after the purge of the Communists, and the military regime of interwar Japan, there were clear influences from Europe, but all exhibited strong indigenous roots and bases as well.

There are things particular, and things general. It was almost inevitable that a traditionalist Hindu renaissance would develop long before the ferment of right-wing ideologies in early 20th century Europe. The small-scale decentralized Indian cultural complex which weathered the storm of Islamic rule was unlikely to ever maintain itself in the face of modernity (contra Gandhi). It was going to evolve in various directions, and one of them would be reactionary, even if that reaction was toward an imagined past which synthesized future hopes informed by the present with past solidities.

The past was very different. And other cultures are very different. But they are not incomprehensibly different. Outside of Europe the antecedent of the present is not simply the past of Europe. Other societies differ from Europe and reacted in various ways to the colonial experience, but the European shock is not the sum totality of what they are and what they will be. The terms and concepts we use to scaffold our comprehension of the world around us are important in their details, but they are not what we are comprehending. Just because we see the past darkly through the mirror does not entail that we should simply refashion the past in our easier imaginings.

Donald Knuth in the Galactic Library!

If you are a nerd you have been waiting for George R. R. Martin to complete his A Song of Ice and Fire series. But if you are a next level nerd, what you’ve been waiting for is for Donald Knuth to finish The Art of Computer Programming.

If you’ve never heard of Knuth, The New York Times has a nice profile up, The Yoda of Silicon Valley-Donald Knuth, master of algorithms, reflects on 50 years of his opus-in-progress, “The Art of Computer Programming”. When you first encounter Knuth and his life you get a sense of what it means to live and breath the life of the mind (Paul Erdos seems in the same category).

But this got me to thinking: if human civilization collapses would The Art of Computer Programming make it through to the successor societies? Enough people have memorized large sections of the Bible and the Koran, and various other religious and mythic works, that we’d be able to reconstruct them (and they would be passed down orally in rough form). It is unlikely that all the books would be destroyed. Similarly, great works of literature such as Shakespeare are widely read and internalized by the public.

This is not the case for a lot of detailed technical knowledge. From what I know the paper we use today is relatively perishable. If our civilization collapsed, it isn’t assured that low volume publications wouldn’t simply disappear as the books degrade beyond recognition without being copied (and without our modern technology digital storage will disappear).

Though I do think religious and literary works have value, to be frank it seems that any sufficiently advanced civilization has to converge upon similar narratives to encapsulate the sort of normative framework around which a society can function. For example, cannibalizing other human beings “because you can” always seems to be understood to be in the “bad” category. Some level of generosity toward the downtrodden is usually classed in the “good” category. I don’t think this is arbitrary, I think it’s an interaction between social complexity beyond the tribal scale, and our cognitive architecture which has first-order “natural tools” to deal with clan-based dynamics, but not supra-clan systems.

In contrast, a lot of technical knowledge, what we bracket into “natural science”, is quite counter-intuitive, and has appeared in one single civilization, that of early modern Europe. I’m particularly thinking of the fruitful synthesis of mathematical formalism and empirical testing which has characterized natural philosophy since Galileo. The historical record is clear that proto-scientific thinking in various forms emerges in many societies, with disparate threads in the same culture even (e.g., empiricism and mathematical formalism were present, but not fused, in the Classical world). But the combination in early modern Europe that kick-started modernity as we know it is rare, and takes a fortuitous combination of circumstances to allow for its flowering.

I hope that the Long Now Foundation has figured out a way to inscribe various technical texts on long-lasting tablets (perhaps stone?) and store them somewhere!

The rise of printing and the populist republic

The media needs clicks and people are rather myopic. This explains patently false pieces such as this in Buzzfeed, This Is How We Radicalized The World. It is a rather unorganized list of facts, but they are assembled in a way to convince and persuade the reading audience that modern information technology has facilitated the rise of political radicalism, as if it is something new and notable. So wrong it hurts.

Anyone who knows history will realize this is patently false. Anyone who is aware of the Taiping Rebellion, the October Revolution, or the unrest of 1848. Of course, that “anyone” is a small set of individuals because most people don’t know history. Their minds are devoid of most facts not having to do with the Khardashians. And journalists are not much better. Many of them are in the game of creating stories rather than interpreting the world. If public relations operatives are well paid propagandists on a short leash, many journalists are poorly paid propagandists compensated with the freedom to be fabulists.

A piece like the above could convince, but only with a scatterplot. Social science can convince whether history says otherwise, because it is systematic and clear. But most people are not fluent and competent enough to do such data analysis, so they create a conclusion that is congenial to their audience, and marshal evidence in a biased manner (wittingly or unwittingly) to support their conclusion.

To get a sense of what we’re seeing today in the world, we need to go back centuries.

In the early 16th century, the unity of Western Christianity shattered. The standard story you see in the movies is that a German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther led a rebellion against the Roman Church, what became the Roman Catholic Church after it was clear that the Protestants were going to go their own way.

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The leisure class of the ancient world

The years before 1914 and the First World War are often termed the “first age of globalization” (with our current era the second). But that’s a little short-sighted view, even though arguably correct in some sense.

Books such as The Fate of Rome and The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization make it quite clear that Classical Antiquity achieved some level of globalization in its corner of Eurasia. At the other end of Eurasia, the Grand Canal also illustrates the importance of trade and economic interdependence in complex pre-modern societies.

But what has been made can be unmade. One of the major arguments in Framing the Early Middle Ages is that the decline in the social complexity of the early medieval period in Europe was due in part to the collapse of the whole fiscal apparatus of the Roman bureaucratic state. Some of these weak post-Roman states were really chiefdoms bound together with personalized rule. A process which advanced the furthest in Britain and the Balkans.

And yet during the first grat maximum of human civilization in the years after 0 international trade extended even beyond the bounds of specific imperium, from one end of Eurasia to the other.

The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean: The Ancient World Economy and the Kingdoms of Africa, Arabia and India focus mostly on the international aspect of the trade. Much of it is concerned with the role of conspicuous consumption among elites in the Roman Empire in driving this trade, and so the bullion drain to the east. Silk, incense, ivory, and medicines were all imported in large quantities from the east. The state benefited in some sense through taxation, but the drain on specie was a constant consideration. It is well known that Roman coinage, sometimes modified, became the standard in the southern half of India in the first centuries AD.

In a stepwise fashion, East Roman traders pushed across the Indian ocean until in 166 we know that they reached the imperial court in China. This connection seems to have been made by following the trade routes which were already established by Indians into Southeast Asia. Roman geographers were familiar with the general shape of Peninsular Malaysia, as well as Java.

Because our records from China and the Roman Empire are very good, is easy to ignore the reality that a whole network of cities existed along the shores of the Indian ocean. These cities grew up around trade and acted as intermediaries for the demand for particular luxury goods which also pumped specie out of Roman mines. But the decades after the Antonine plague seems to have been defined by multiple regressions across Eurasia, as societies dependent and expecting trade faltered when local nodes collapsed and interrupted the flow.

Postcolonial imperialism

Rereading Edward Said’s Orientalism I am struck by the fact that he’s a very good writer compared to his heirs in postcolonial studies. As someone who cites Foucault, it is natural that there is a fair amount of vapid but lexically textured passages in Orientalism (you can open up any page and stumble upon a polished but inscrutable passage). But the general thesis and the review of the literary works seems moderately coherent actually. Far less of a screed than the more recent distillations. Who says evolution ascends upward in complexity?

As someone who isn’t well versed in literature I can’t really comment on the validity of the interpretations, but, there is one thing that I noticed in Said’s argument which prefigures modern postcolonialism: it abstracts and generalizes from a particular instance in human history, European interactions with non-Europeans in the early modern and modern period, and projects them across all of history. Like tachyons going back in time the manipulations and predations of early modern Europeans echo back through time and forward into infinite.

Here is a representative sample of what I’m talking about. The first section is a quote from Aeschylus:

Now all Asia’s land
Moans in emptiness.
Xerxes led forth, oh oh!
Xerxes destroyed, woe woe!
Xerxes’ plans have all miscarried
In ships of the sea.
Why did Darius then
Bring no harm to his men
When he led them into battle,
That beloved leader of men from Susa?

What matters here is that Asia speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted as victorious over Asia, that hostile “other” world beyond the seas….

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The coming genetic invasion of history, and the rage to come

About ten years ago I reviewed Bryan Sykes’ book Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. It was what it was, a product of the Y/mtDNA era. Therefore, there were a fair amount of conclusions which in hindsight turn out to be wrong. Sykes, and other genetic historians, such as Stephen Oppenheimer, have annoyed historians for years with their genetic imperialism. More frequently, genetic research has been an accent or inflection on historical work. Peter Heather has integrated some genetic results in his earlier books, though you can ignore those and still obtain the general conclusions.

The recent work on near antiquity is a hint that that is going to be blown apart. Ancient DNA in the historical period has been a slow simmer for a while now. The reason is simple: ancient DNA returns more on the investment for prehistory, where there aren’t historical documents. Until recently ancient DNA techniques were expensive in a variety of ways. The industrial process described in Who We Are and How We Got There is going to change that.

In the near future, a large number of projects are going to surface which test hypotheses and conjectures offered by historians.

You would think that testing hypotheses, generally with demographic predictions, would be something that historians would welcome. The problem is that the test will mean some scholars are going to turn out to be wrong. People who spent decades building up a particular model or understanding of the past are going to have that torn away from them.

The normal human reaction is to get defensive. But the problem is that many historians are not well trained in genetic methods. In fact, many geneticists are not well trained in the abstruse statistical methods developed by scholars in ancient DNA.

We’ve seen some of the same from archaeologists. But archaeologists had models which were, to be frank, more speculative than those historians cling to. Even if a particular historical model may be wrong, it is likely there are reasonable grounds to have held onto to that position. If ancient DNA falsifies it the reaction will be even more strident I suspect.

Of course, geneticists need the help of historians. So when the bad feelings clear I think the synthesis will get us to a better understanding of the past.

The Muslim world stands upon the shoulders of the Ummah


The two plots above are from a new working paper, On Roman roads and the sources of persistence and non-persistence in development. The basic argument is that good Roman infrastructure correlates with modern patterns of prosperity. An ingenious way the authors tested the predictive power is to contrast Europe, where carts and therefore roads, remained critical, and the Middle East and North Africa, where the rise of domestic camels rendered roads less important in the post-Roman period.

We should take these sorts of models with a grain of salt. Too often in economic history, there seems to be a tendency to search around for striking correlations, and then exclaim that this explains it all! Basically, I think some of the issues that plagued psychology and particular social psychology, are relevant here. Of course, most economists are statistically well trained, but there are limitations of data (look at how few data points they have above).

But the bigger takeaway is that historians are able to suggest deep structural reasons for the patterns we see around us today. This doesn’t mean that we should take any particular explanation as “proven” or at face value. Rather, they are interesting models and explanations in a constellation of explanations. To borrow and modify a phrase from evolutionary biology: both the proximate and the non-proximate matter.

This has been on my mind after finishing The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. I’ve written a few posts on this book before, The “Clash Of Civilizations” Is A Thing, Just Not The Only Thing, and The “Islamic World” Was Not Invented By Europeans. The reason that I’ve given some thought to the book’s thesis, and decided to read it after the essay in Aeon, What is the Muslim world?, is that I thought the thesis reflects something in our current Zeitgeist, and, it was audacious.

The audacity is the tacit assertion that the idea of the Muslim world is something very recent, and emerges out of the engagement with the colonial experience. After all, how can you deny the idea that the “Muslim world” was imagined as a thing by people such has Ibn Battuta?

Let me quote in full a few portions of the last chapter:

Simplistic and ahistorical frameworks of European empires vesus non-European subaltern colonized masses must be scrapped and replaced with the history of the world as it actuall existed….

…Critically they [Muslims] talked to each other, all over the world, and to non-Muslim Asians and Africans, about solidarity against imperial domination, racism, patriarchy, and economic exploitation….

…By decolonizing (and perhaps deconstructing) our categories and conceptions of religion, civilization, and the world order, we can better confront the rising anti-Muslim racism in Europe and the United States and work in solidarity to tackkle the ongoing crsis of the unjust global order.

After having read the book I was a bit surprised that the author wants us to move beyond the simplistic dichotomy between European and non-European, because to a great extent the book operates within that framework. Since this work seems in the tradition of postcolonialism, that makes sense. The argument that I see at the heart of the book is that the “imagined Muslim world” (a phrase the author uses repeatedly) emerged as a response to the intrusion of European imperialism and that Islamic solidarity precipitated out of the context of a rising ideology of white supremacy which racialized Muslims as colored people.

There’s obviously some truth to this. The Idea of the Muslim World benefits from outlining the argument and then supporting it with facts. Lots of facts. Perhaps the most surprising assertion made by the author (to me) is the preeminence of South Asian Muslims in international discourse in the period between 1850 and 1950. The author argues that this was due to demographic and economic heft, as well as the fact that South Asian Muslims were embedded within a powerful British Empire. Though they were a subordinate people, the monarchy had to take into account Muslim concerns, and the overrepresentation of Muslims in the Indian army was also something that was relevant when it came to force-projection.

I don’t know enough about the details of Indian Islam in relation to West Asian Islam during this period to judge this as a valid assertion or not. But, there are other aspects of the work which left me confused and unconvinced. For example, the author asserts that sectarian divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims were generally minimal, leaving us with the perception that conflict along sectarian lines is a feature of very late modernity (that is, the late 20th century). But during the 17th century and 18th century both Iran and India saw massive forced conversions on sectarian lines. In Iran, it was the transformation of what had been a predominantly Sunni region to a uniformly Shia one. In India, the Mughals, in particular, Aurangzeb, targeted “heretical” Muslim groups, in particular, Ismaili Shia. In Crossing the Threshold and Mullahs on the Mainframe the authors both argue that substantial numbers of Ismaili Muslims were forcibly converted to Sunni Islam (or in some cases, the more acceptable Twelver Shia sect, which is dominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, as well as some parts of South Asia).

The point I’m making is that Islamic sectarianism has had multiple phases of salience and relevance, before abating. Though I agree with the author of  The Idea of the Muslim World that “Islamic fundamentalism” is actually a very modern development, it is also important to understand that these modern ideological movements draw upon much older thinking and precedents. For example, the popularity of Ibn Taymiyyah among many Sunni radicals is important to understand and entirely unsurprising, especially in light of the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah lived during a time when the Muslim world as he understood it was under threat from non-Muslims.

Fundamentally, the author’s observations that Muslims repeatedly sided with non-Muslims against other Muslims due to their own self-interest does not negate the power and depth of the Islamic world. The reality is that these “meta-ethnic” universal loyalties are always at tension with situational interests. History is filled with Hindus in Muslim armies, Protestants marching with Turks against Catholics, and Muslim bodyguards of Catholic monarchs (Frederick II). But Muslim and Christian are not arbitrary and imaginary constructs. These identities have important predictive power over the long run.

The final chapter was at some tension with the rest of the book, because it foregrounded values and views which were clear within the subtext of the book, but which were not prominent. That is, the author has a particular view on current geopolitics and justice, and seems to be suggesting that his scholarship might help in forwarding this project. I bolded the part about “patriarchy” in the quote because I don’t think modernist Muslim intellectuals in the earl 20th century had problems with patriarchy in a way we’d understand it today. True, many favored the education of women and even equal political rights for women, but I don’t think that that’s the way “patriarchy” is defined today in “social justice” circles in 2018.

An attempt to take historical facts, and leverage them for current social and political concerns, often results in these sorts of anachronisms. For example, I have heard people who support gay rights speak as if anti-homosexual legislation derived from the colonial period invented and created prejudice against homosexuality in non-European societies, when the reality is that that prejudice was already there, albeit with modifications and variations. Consider, that Pashtun tolerance of pederasty does not imply that Pashtun society is not homophobic.

The Idea of the Muslim World is a decent book in light of its intellectual tradition, which I disagree with. That is, the author marshals evidence in support of his thesis, rather than engaging in argumentative bluster. But I do have to say that it seems that in the 40 years since Edward Said’s Orientalism was published the field of postcolonial studies hasn’t really made any big conceptual breakthroughs. Rather, scholars seem to be using the same tools on different topics and coming to similar general conclusions.

In the end, it’s all about goblin-kind.