Thursday, August 04, 2005

Analogies going off base....   posted by Razib @ 8/04/2005 01:59:00 PM

Analogies are ubiquitous on blogs. On the more partisan/polemical ones they serve as the foot soldiers in disputations. But they are also important when you trying to communicate a concept to someone else in good faith using analogs where they are already familiar with the basic interrelationships of the elements. You map relations from the base (which they know something about) onto a target (which they know less about). But here is a key point: analogies have to maintain the interrelationships of the base to the target, and this is where most people stumble. I have talked about this before in regards to the common Sunni:Shia::Protestant:Catholic analogy. My initial skepticism was due to reading reports during the 1980s of the Shia of Iran as being the "Protestants of Islam." The fact that the analogy flipped makes me wonder about its utility...but in the end I will grant it some minimal explanatory power, though it is dependent on the knowledge base of the audience.

Consider the fixation on Islam and the War on Terror. Most people have some opinions on it, and to the first approximation I suspect that one's evaluations of the short term policy prescriptions are usually contingent on values, as well as a weighting of costs, benefits and the concomitant probability of each parameter being relevant. But what about the long term? To use an analogy, if you are standing on a field with a few friends, and a monster truck which doesn't seem to have a driver is erratically moving around, and any escape options are closed (perhaps there are walls), your short term response is going to be obvious: you get out of the way. Each individual will have their short term evaluation of the most efficient evasive tactics, you don't need to know much about the truck, it is a moving object that needs to be avoided. But in the long term you can't hope to avoid the truck indefinitely, you need to figure out how to destroy it or disable it or control it. To do this, you need to know more about the truck, inside and out. You might not really be interested in the details of how the truck works or the surface morphology which dictates where someone might be able to grasp a hold.

As some of you might have guessed, the truck is Islam. I'm not going to stretch the analogy, or get into whether Islam, or post-colonialism, or particular economic conditions, etc. are the "real problem," let's just label it "Islam" for now. There are some short term issues which need to be dealt with, and I think people's viewpoints will be contingent upon the parameters I pointed to above (values + evaluation of cost vs. benefit in light of those values). Nevertheless, I still think there is the medium-long term issue that needs to be grappled with. To deal with it, or at least discuss it, people need to have a basic level of understanding of "how the truck works." This is not always particularly easy, the first half of Western Muslims and the Future of Islam read like Islam explained by a French philosopher (this makes sense, the author is a Francophone Swiss Muslim who makes copious references to French philosophers). Nevertheless, I read it because I wanted to know more about how Muslims actually view their religion. I understood the importance of this a few years back when I read Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras at the recommendation of Aziz Poonwalla, who happens to a Daudi Bohra himself. After reading the book his blog entries were much more intelligible and less confusing to me. This doesn't mean that I believe in the truth value of Aziz's religion, but, I understand with greater precision and accuracy what Aziz believe's to be true. This capacity is of course often considered a unique trait of the human mind, we can put ourselves in other people's shoes, and examine and consider ideas which we do not believe to be true, or which do not have a easy correspondence with anything in our material universe. This competence is one reason that fiction is popular, with perhaps fantasy fiction being an extreme form of this tendency.

This moves me to an important point: many do not maintain the proper relationships between elements when they try to map an analogy to communicate information. Problems ensue from this. For example, consider the term "moderate Muslim." It is clearly a concept which defines an abstraction which doesn't exist in concrete terms. To be clear, people don't define themselves as "moderate Muslims," they are "Pakistani Muslims," or "Ismaili" or "Salafi" or "Sufi." Moderate Muslims are simply Muslims excluding Islamists by the most common definition. But I suspect many Americans simply map "moderate Muslim" from "moderate Christian." There are problems with this. In One Nation Under God the authors tend to interpret the survey data on various Christian denominations in regards to issues (political and theological) as pointing to Methodists as the most "moderate" (between the liberal Congregationalists and a host of very conservative churches defining the range), or median, confession in the United States. So do "moderate" Muslims map onto the ideals, views and norms of Methodists? First, I do not think so. Second, even if they did, George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton are both Methodists, so be cautious about taking these typologies are being very predictive in the first place. But my personal impression is that moderate Muslims are not the equivalent of American Methodists, that their values and self-perception of their religion is more similar to Southern Baptists, that is, they know they are the "one true religion," though they might tolerate other religions they do not cede them any inherent legitimacy beyond what their scriptures and traditions would grant, and they view avant-garde social practices with skepticism and outright hostility. Within Christianity I think the best analogy for non-violent Islamists would be the Reconstructionist movement, which though influential beyond their numbers, is marginal enough in numbers to be mostly unknown. Interestingly, it is out of this movement that many of the violent anti-abortion activists have emerged.

What I am proposing here is that one of the problems with the contemporary discourse, on both the Right and the Left, is that it is focused on typologies but ignores the nature of the distribution. If one considers a population on a spectrum of "religious intolerance," I would argue that the generic "Muslim" median is shifted further toward the intolerant end than the "Christian" one. Though no doubt the distributions are not going to be normal, it seems plausible that they will decrease at the tolerant and intolerant tails, but numerically there could be many more Muslims at the lower ranges because the whole distribution is shifted over. So, on a relativized system the term "moderate Muslim" is intelligible, but people tend not to renorm it appropriately. In terms of religious dynamics, in the United States it has been estimated that 1/3 of individuals switch from their natal confession to another religion. This is somewhat high for most of the world, but, the conversions are not random. Jews are more likely to shift between different variants of Judaism, Protestants between Protestant sects, extremely conservative Roman Catholics to switch to the Eastern Rite, and so on. If the Muslim center of gravity as regards tolerance is not shifted, obviously a large number of specially selected moderate Muslims can cause problems because over time many will shift toward a more intolerant conservative brand of Islam simply because of the tendency toward a minority of the population to switch religions.

Finally, I want to offer one analogy that I find interesting, but deceptive. Turkey is often held up to be an example of laicism in the Muslim world on the French model. But an examination of the numbers indicates that a higher percentage of Turks express "strong religiosity" than Americans. I point out the comparison with Americans because, of course, Americans are the nutty fundamentalists of the Western world by reputation, and yet Turks, the French secularists of the Muslim world are even more religious! While 34% of French consider themselves religious, 71% of Turks and 65% of Americans do. My point is that the interrelationships do hold, Turkey is the France of the Muslim world, but the Muslim world is a crucial qualification.1

I know much of this is pedantic detail...but if you don't find this interesting, or at least relevant, I ask that you not comment on any of the Islam posts I make in the future. There are only so many unique insights you can get from reading the newspaper everyday. I am aware that a biased percentage of readers of this weblog come out of science, and so I don't expect the data base to be particularly broad in history, religion or international affairs, but I post on these topics partly to expose some facts and models to people in the sciences, who being educated, are expected to have opinions about social topics and public policy. And of course, there's always the scroll option!

1 - Obviously the analogy disregards all sorts of local pecularities. For example, I would suggest that elite Kemalism has resulted in an enormous range of religious practice in Turkey which is wider than in the United States. While many Turks are social drinkers, many rural Turks (often Kurds) are also the types which will engage in honor killings. This suggests a gap between the 21st and 11th centuries.