Thursday, October 11, 2007

Why Middle Eastern cults matter, East Asian ones, not so much....   posted by Razib @ 10/11/2007 12:01:00 PM

Steve Sailer has an amusing post related to the one below about Middle Eastern religious diversity. It really isn't that easy to keep track of. I've emphasized quasi-Muslim groups, but what about the faction within Eastern Christianity? For example, start here and see if you can follow the links and make sense of it all. I also noted that most Muslims probably don't know about the large number of heterodox believers in Turkey to emphasize that even hypothetical "cultural insiders" really aren't, or at least they aren't knowledgeable to the level of granularity which is necessary for an accurate model. Why does this matter in the first place? First, locally it affects lives. Consider the Yezidi woman stoned for falling in love with a Sunni boy. The choices of hundreds of millions are scaffolded tightly by Bronze Age early Iron Age belief systems. Second, globally it is critical in generating a model of local power structures & relations. Look up Syria in CIA Factbook and you note that it is 3/4 Sunni. Syria then is a Sunni country? Well yes, except for the fact that the ruling clique is predominantly Alawite, a religious faction which is aligned with the Ithna Ashari Shia, who are dominant in Iran. Syria is often aligned with Shia groups in Lebanon and has had an alliance with Iran of long standing (during Iran-Iraq war Arab Baathist Syria was aligned against Arab Baathist Iraq and with Iran). But it isn't like the Middle East is the only region in the world with religious diversity, consider South Korea, which is about 1/4 Christian, 1/4 Buddhist and 1/2 non-affiliated (and many minor religions as well). Despite this diversity this is generally only of academic interest (though involvement of Korean Christians in missionary activities does have some geopolitical import). Why is the Middle East different?

I think it is fair to observe that religion is a central part of one's life in the Middle East in a manner that it is not in East Asia, but that is a trivial observation. Why does it matter so much? To understand that I think you need to go back late antiquity and the early medieval period. With the conversion of the Eastern Roman Empire to Christianity and the resurgence of Zoroastrianism in Sassanid Persia you started to see the fusion of a particular exclusive institutional religion with imperialism. Within the Sassanid state the situation of non-Zoroastrians varied dependent upon their relations with Rome. The progenitors of what became termed the Nestorian Church were Christian, but anti-Roman for theological reasons. It was tolerated, even encouraged among non-Iranian peoples. In contrast those Christian groups who had closer relations with Roman movements across the border were perceived as fifth columnists. Within the Roman Empire, what became Byzantium, theological faction was a major excuse for social and political convulsions and machinations (the famous Green and Blue factions behind the Nika Riots in Constantinople even favored different theological positions!). As the 5th and 6th centuries proceeded pagans were expelled from public life and forcibly converted. The long history of the persecution of Jews also began in earnest. In Persia the Shahs attempted to induce Armenian nobles to give up their Christianity and accept Zoroastrianism so that they could be totally assimilated into the warrior caste of the Sassanids. The rise of Islam extended this concept further, as non-Muslims were given formalized but secondary positions within society. Over the centuries Muslims took over all major secular roles (remember that St. John of Damascus held a leading position at the Umayyad court, as did his father, so it was not always so) and the non-Arab groups relegated their old languages (e.g., Aramaic, Coptic, Greek) to their liturgy. This meant that the main distinction within society was religious, and religious leaders became the representatives of their communities (though this might have been prefigured a bit during the Byzantine and Sassanid periods) in relation to the dominant Muslim ruling caste. During the Ottoman period Middle Eastern & Balkan society was organized into Millets, and the substitution of ethnic for religious identity continued (ethnic identity as such is a tricky concept and in many ways is rather modern for most peoples in any case). Though European style nationalism emerged in the form of pan-Turkism and pan-Arabism in the 19th and 20th century, these movements have not eliminated the tendency to default back to a religious identity, a phenomenon which has deep cultural roots because of the aforementioned histoy.

East Asia is a study in contrast. Though religious movements and sentiments are often powerful, consider the Yellow Turbans or the Taipings, society has never been organized on confessional lines and religious institutions have repeatedly been subordinated and marginalized in relation to the state. Buddhism is a common religious bond across East Asia, but for most of history it has not had the relationship with the ruling clique that Christianity or Islam cultivated in Western Eurasia. When the Buddhist establishment became too powerful after a few centuries of ascendancy the Chinese state defrocked hundreds of thousands of monks and repossessed their lands. In Korea the Choson dynasty expelled the Buddhist religion from the centers of power and forced the monasteries to the mountains. In Japan religion was sharply controlled and an instrument of central power. The Tokugawa forced every family in Japan to register with a Buddhist temple not because of their piety, but to root out Christianity, which they perceived as a foreign religion and a tool of Western imperialism (Tokugawa Ieyasu's predecessors, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi forged some ties with Christianity in part to marginalize the power of the Buddhist establishment). The Jesuit switch from dressing like Buddhist monks to Confucian Mandarins in China was a calculated maneuver once they realized that the elite held clerics in contempt.

All this is not to imply that East Asia was a hot-bed of anti-clericalism which anticipated 19th century European nationalism. Buddhism was a major vector for the spread of Chinese civilization in early Japan, and Confucianism was patronized in both Choson Korea and to a lesser extent Tokugawa Japan. In China many Emperors were personal believers in Buddhism and Daoism and a variety of other religions. The key is that the relationship of religion to individuals and the community was (and is) often open, fluid and contextual. One might be a devotee to a form of Mahayana Buddhism on the one hand, but curtail the power of the clerisy in the interests of national strength. The founder of the Ming dynasty was educated at a Buddhist monastery but later championed Confucianism in the interests of securing the approval of the bureaucracy in his rebellion against the Mongols. The state might offer funds to various religions which provided services to the populace, both spiritual and material, as well as serving as glues for civil society, without elevating one to prominence.

Such an opportunistic and non-dogmatic attitude persists today in East Asia. Shinto priests conduct ceremonies of life and the Buddhists those of death in Japan. In Korea a substantial number of Christians were once Buddhists and Buddhists were once Christians, and a subset of individuals promiscuously attend services in different religions concurrently. Small "New Religious Movements" always bubble in the cultural background. In China the trinity of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism had attained nearly official status as three coequal customary religious dispensations, along with local cults beneath them as well as the impersonal worship of Heaven above them. Christians have had leading positions in the 20th century across East Asia without resulting in total conversion of the society. Sun Ya-sen, Chiang Kai-shek and Lee Teng-hui were Christians (though the sincerity of the Christianity of the second has long been questioned, while the last also experimented with Buddhism seriously). The past two presidents of South Korea have come from the small but influential Catholic minority (while some of the previous presidents and dictators have been Protestant and Buddhist).

Some of you might wonder how this dovetails with the known persecution of Christians in China. I think that one must be careful about exaggerating the extent of the persecution (there are no Christians being thrown to the tigers!), and, one can look to the past to comprehend the root of the hostility. In the 9th century concomitant with the persecution of Buddhism foreign religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeanism, Christianity and Islam were suppressed. Buddhism itself was criticized by Confucian Mandarins as inimical to Chinese culture, a foreign import which undermined filial piety. In Japan Catholic Christianity's relationships with foreign powers was an important consideration the turn of the state against it. In South Korea Christianity was looked upon positively in the 20th century first because adherents of that religion resisted the Japanese colonialists, and second, it was the faith of the American protectors of their state. So long as religion or faith is not perceived as disrupting the order and harmony of the society it may find tolerance, but once it is perceived as destabilizing to social order it is often proscribed (see the Chinese rites controversy).

In the Middle East religion is society, in East Asia it is a part of society. The Japanese state encouraged the Diaspora community to convert to the local religion of their new homelands, and that has generally been the tendency of East Asians abroad (the main exception here is in Muslim countries where food taboos tend to impose a break, but, a substantial number of Chinese in Southeast Asia seem to have converted nevertheless but simply lost their ethnicity and become Malayized, so to speak). This attitude is likely relatively familiar and comprehensible to many Westerners, for whom religion has become both private and a function of personal choice. Substantial numbers of Americans do not wear their faith on their sleeves and will change affiliations for relatively trivial reasons (e.g., Howard Dean become a Congregationalist because the Episcopal Church opposed a bike path in Burlington and is raising his children as Jews). On the other hand some Westerners have a different attitude, and their religion is an essential part of their identity, and changing their religion is a major event in their life (I do not want to minimize the religious identity of East Asian Protestant converts, nevertheless they are not as numerous within their society). One can point to many groups of evangelical Christians as manifesting some of these tendencies, but also consider Jews, who conceive of themselves as a faith and a nation. The hostility that some liberal Jews exhibit toward attempts by evangelicals to convert them, leading toward the accusations of cultural genocide, show that the mentality that one is born into a religion and that changing one's identity is an event of grave consequence is not alien to the Western mindset (e.g., "cultural Catholicism" and so on). In the Middle East one remains what one is born, Edward Said remained identified as an Arab Christian by others to his dying day despite his avowed atheism. One of the founders of pan-Arabism was Michel Aflaq, a Christian, was claimed to have converted to Islam upon his death by the ostensibly secular government of Iraq. Why? Religion mattered in Arab nationalism so much that one of its leading lights could not remain a Christian, he had to be fully assimilated into the Islamic identity. Said himself asserted that though he was not a Muslim by birth or profession his civilization was Islam. Would it make sense to say that Japanese civilization is Buddhist? Certainly Buddhism has had a major impact upon Japanese civilization, but Buddhism is not Japanese civilization. Some Arabs might make the argument that Islam is Arab civilization! (this is obviously less true of Persians)

Middle Eastern society is carved up at the joints of religion. Centuries of persecution by Muslims has resulted in the non-orthodox engaging in habitual dissimulation and obfuscation. Religion is both highly salient and obscured. Consider crytpo-Jews in Spain, their Jewishness was secret and important at the same time. The most important variable in Middle Eastern life is one fraught with deception and double-speak, the skeleton of the society is garbed in superficiality. Fundamentalist Protestants have attacked Buddhist temples in South Korea and there are often complaints from Buddhists that their Christian acquaintances and superiors attempt to coerce them into converting, but the magnitude of the social distance and tension seems to be far less than in the Middle East. Individuals and families span the religious divides and theoretically choice is the primary factor in determining one's religion. The centrality of Islam in Middle Eastern culture is such that a non-Muslim head of state is not conceivable (this served as a check upon Boutros Boutros-Ghali's ambition in Egyptian politics). In contrast, East Asian societies have repeatedly been lead by people from a minority religious tradition. In Thailand Therevada Buddhism is the official religion (though in a much looser sense than say Shia Islam in Iran), but the general who leads the military junta is a Muslim. The Middle Eastern fixation on a head of state who is of the dominant religion is not unique, Carlos Menem of Argentina converted from Islam to Catholicism because the Argentine constitution of the time required that for the head of state.

The pillarization of Middle Eastern society means that one must understand the pillars and their relationships to each other to model the culture properly. Religion is not a private matter, but a public parameter which operates in shaping the dynamics which characterize the sociey. The choices available in one's life, the opinions and alliances one makes, are strongly contingent upon one's notional confession. Obviously other segments of the hierarchy matter, clan and tribe and such, but for the smaller groups the tribe is coterminous with the confession. In any culture the psychological complexities and interests which a set of religious beliefs accrue to an individual are important in understanding their actions, but in the Middle East the principle ascends up the ladder of complexity that so that sociological complexities and interests accrue for religious identities of groups. So why does belief in obscure and esoteric religious systems matter so much in the Middle East? First, because it matters to individuals in how they relate to the world around them. Second, these beliefs demarcate the boundaries of important organs within the body politic which are critical in and of themselves as units of action within the society.

Addendum: Any discussion of religion is under-girded by assumptions. For example, how important is belief & practice in determining behavior as opposed to material considerations? I don't think it is a black & white issue, people vary and circumstances vary, though I think over the long term material considerations tend to loom larger than esoterica of belief or constrains of ritual. Nevertheless, belief & ritual are critical in demarcating boundaries between groups, and no matter their putative substantive rationale the chasms between groups are relevant to our lives. The general thrust of my argument above is that in establishing ingroup vs. outgroup boundaries religion is a much better guide in the Middle East than in East Asia, or even the United States. Such generalizations are subject to variance of course, but I think the ratio of within to between group variance is much lower in the Middle East in terms of affiliation and identity when it comes to the trait of religion.