Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Why civilizations may clash more, not less   posted by Razib @ 4/08/2008 12:48:00 AM

Update: Added a chart.

One of the major themes of the past few decades has been the perception that greater cultural homogenization is occurring because of globalization, which is enabled by the changes in technological and institutional parameters. Shared material culture & values may piggyback along the cresting wave of economic integration and growth. An extremely optimistic model might be that we are seeing the emergence of a vast world market unified by a common set of mediating institutions and core values. There is obviously something to this. A substantial number of Muslims defend their religion's feminist credentials and decry polygyny, while Buddhists reframe their own independent tradition as an elucidation of a universal rational spiritual tradition. These responses show the power of Western culture in setting the terms of debate. But these general trends need to be tempered by an attention to the details, the specifics of which may not entail the results in all cases which our general framework would lead us to expect.

Consider the issue of language. The consistent belly-aching over the mass extinction of obscure languages is just the latest chapter in thousands of years of linguistic winnowing. Today the Iberian peninsula is home to a group of related languages aside from Basque. 2,000 years ago it hosted tongues of disparate families; Basque, Celtic, Latin, Punic and a medley of southern Iberian languages such as Tartessian. With the extinction of most and the emergence of a few large blocks one may perhaps argue that there is more discontinuity, not less, when it comes to speech. The logic here is that a welter of dialects would tend to fade into each other, and even when there would be a "jump" across language families (e.g., Finnic to Slavic) there would be a greater number of mediating dialects sharing lexical features to facilitate cross-fertilization. With the rise of nation-states and the expansion of originally narrow dialects into lingua francas which quickly monopolize the public spaces (e.g., modern Italian and French as descendants of particular Florentine or Parisian dialects) these intermediary variants no longer play their roles. Oligopolies of languages sponsored by nation-states force bridge dialects to fade to the margins. What are bridge dialects? Catalan and Occitan are two that I have in mind. Because of the decentralized nature of the modern Spanish polity the former looks like it may have a future, but the latter is slowly being crushed by the dominance of French.

Though language is emotionally salient for many, that is really not what I had in mind. In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order Samuel Huntington presented a thesis which used religion as the major organizing principle around which societies cohere. I am willing to accept this more or less (though language is obviously a major fissure as well). I have argued before that communication improvements are a major reason that I believe Islam is becoming more centralized in terms of belief and practice; the ummah is realizing its unity much more concretely than in the past. Recently I was reading a history of Burma, and the author noted that in the past many Muslims who were in areas where they were a minority were difficult to distinguish from non-Muslims. Most of their practices were similar to their neighbors, and they did not dress any differently, men and women prayed in a mixed setting etc. Much the same could be said of 19th century Bengal, where the outlook of Muslim and Hindu peasants didn't differ greatly and veneration of Hindu and Sufi saints bled into each other, resulting in an operationally syncretistic milieu, the perfect matrix for groups like the Baul to operate and receive patronage. Among abangan Muslims in Java the Ramayana remains very popular. In China the Hui Muslim intellectuals of the 18th century justified the high status of their religion on Confucian principles. In Vietnam the Cham Muslims were known to syncretize their Islam with that of the Mahayana Buddhism of their Vietnamese neighbors. The examples are endless, and one can generalize beyond Islam in South and East Asia.

Things have changed a great deal. In many of these regions Islam has gone through periods of "reform" and new found adherence to "orthodoxy." I suspect that santri Muslims in Java would assert that the spread of their form of Islam simply has to do with education; their Islam is the more authentic Islam, that of the abangan is debased weak tea. In China ties with the West enabled by modern transportation (broadly construed) resulted in a rethinking of the Hui relationship with the majority culture; instead of Confucius as the arbiter of correct thought they began to look to Muslim eminences from Southwest Asia as their authentic sages. In Kerala in South India Yemeni ulema who were reforming the Islam of that region instructed peasant women to no longer go topless as had been their custom when working in the fields. What you see here is a tightening of the ship, a purging and paring back of heterodoxy, heresy and laxity allowed and engendered by isolation.

Or do you? There aren't any black & white answers here, I don't think one can totally deny the thesis that the early texts of Islam reflect an Arab society at variance with assimilative dynamics manifest on the margins of the Muslim world. But there maybe less to the texts than meets the eyes. When reading about Burmese Muslims, or Hui Muslims, and so on, I was struck by the lack of rationalization they seemed to need for the fact that they were subordinated to non-Muslim rulers and populations. Their minority status was taken as a given, and they freely integrated themselves into a non-Muslim order (e.g., Burmese Muslims who served as soldiers, or Hui who entered the bureaucracy via the examination system). To some extent this contrasts with the pro forma nods to propriety near the "center" of the Muslim world; the fact that the Emirate of Granada was a vassal to Christian powers for centuries was long cause for some concern in the domain of political theory. Muslims in the Russian Empire engaged in soul searching as to whether it was acceptable to render under to the Orthodox Christian Tsarina (Catherine the Great). The logic was simply that of jihad and domination; the only peace was that which prevailed under Islamic dominion. That was the argument, but it was breached and contradicted by practice rather early on.

But why did this argument not seem to come up in some lands where Muslims were a small minority? Clearly there is the issue of practicality. There was no question that the Muslims of Burma were in no position to make demands or wage war against the non-Muslim majority. But, going back to my emphasis on communication and identification there was less of an exemplar of extensive Muslim states which expunge pluralism through a process of cultural attrition. Certainly India came close, but the reality remained that it was a primarily Hindu realm demographically, and the Muslim masses of Bengal were only notionally Islamicized during most of history. The apologia offered by the Emirate of Granada and the Tatars who remained within the Russian Empire was necessary because of the affinity & identification with polities where the dominionist narrative was taken for granted. Specifically, the Ottomans offered refuge to any Muslims who emigrated south into their lands, and the Sultan more or less saw himself as the natural lord of the Muslims of Russia. Tatars who remained within a Christian Empire and integrated did so despite the option of emigration or passive resistance and continued loyalty to the Sultan. The Emirate of Granada had successful models of the triumph of the eternal jihad across the Straits of Gibraltar in the Muslim polities of the Maghreb.

Today the information umbrella of the ummah spans the whole globe. Chinese Muslims are no longer ignorant of the currents of change and conformity in the rest of the Islamic world; rather, they are part of the discussion. But as they shift their marginal units of attention to the broader debates in the Muslim world they decrease the attention spent engaging their non-Muslim neighbors. These sorts of processes are complex; note that there is evidence that 19th century reformist Islamic movements in many parts of China succeeded when they used indigenous mythical formula. The paradox is that on the practical level Chinese means were the most efficient method to arrive to the ends of identification of Muslims as distinct from their non-Muslim Chinese neighbors! I bring this up to caution that even if there is a distinct tendency for many Muslims around the world to assert that they are concurrently moving toward a reassertion of 7th century Islamic values, that may not truly be the reality. This goes to emphasizing that despite the anti-liberal ethos of most Islamic fundamentalist movements, their origins, methods and to some extent practical outcomes, imply that substantively they are the product of dynamics of the last few centuries no matter their late antique packaging & marketing. The ubiquity of modern technology within Islamist circles may not be so aberrant or mercenary, but rather hint at structural features at sharp variance with their public propoganda and self-images.

But packaging matters. When the Muslim women of Kerala began wearing blouses some of their Hindu landlords objected that they were putting on airs. When some of these landlords forced the women to revert to their old style of dress their menfolk rebelled and killed them (these were not sui generis in this part of India, the same incidents occurred between landlords and low caste groups, but without the religious valence). Amartya Sen has objected to the emphasis on the Islamic identity of Bangladeshis in the United Kingdom to the exclusion of their Bengaliness, a dimension which they share with Sen (a culturally Hindu Bengali). I suspect though that Sen's objection may be in vain; perhaps the multi-textured demographic landscape is going to cede ground to the religious oligopolies of the future? The very rugged and chaotic nature of the phenotypic space which cultures had previously explored might have served as a buffer to massive seismic collisions which are now going to be inevitable in the world of crashing cultural plates.

The chart to the left illustrates what I'm talking about. Imagine a bounded region, and variation along a character (e.g., % of red-meat derived protein in diet). The further you go back in time the more local variation you tend to see. As you move closer to the present there is "cultural consolidation."

Labels: , , ,