Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bye bye Kalash! It was good while it lasted....   posted by Razib @ 9/22/2009 03:39:00 PM

Taliban targets descendants of Alexander the Great.* In this case, we're talking about the Kalash of Pakistan, a non-Muslim cultural relict in the mountains of northwest Pakistan. The Kalash are like the Mari of Russia, a relatively isolated group who managed to maintain their explicit pagan religious traditions down to the modern era, at which point a legal framework allowed for them to practice their customs in the face of hostility from the world religion which had come to dominate their region. In the case of the Kalash, that authority and legal framework was that of the British. On the other side of the border in Afghanistan the more numerous cultural kin of the Kafir Kalash were forcibly converted to Islam in 1896

Though there are plenty of supply-side theories of religion which posit individual ("rational") choice as the driver of change, historically this has not been so useful. I've noted before that in Reformation Europe Protestantism was initially very successful in converting much of the population across broad swaths of Austria, Bohemia and into Poland. Not only that, but Protestantism's initial strength was almost always in what might be termed the "upper middle classes" (literate urbanites) and the lower nobility. But if the Protestants failed to secure political power, which usually meant the monarchy, generally there was a swing back toward Roman Catholicism. Both the Huguenots and Dutch Protestants started out as a small, motivated, and well organized minority (today around 20-30% of the population of the Netherlands is Roman Catholic, but I've read that during the height of the Protestant revolt against Spanish Catholic rule in fact only 10% of the population was Protestant, but these included much of the elite as well as very motivated refugees from Antwerp). But the Dutch Protestants managed to take control of the political machinery of the Netherlands and achieve independence from the distant Catholic rulers; the Huguenots did not.

A more explicit analogy with the Kafir Kalash is what occurred with the population of ancient Haran. In the 6th century Justinian the Great was getting around to imposing religious uniformity on on the East Roman Empire. The Empire had been Christian for a long time, but there were still large minorities of pagans, Jews, Samaritans, etc. Missionaries were sent to Anatolia to convert rustic populations who remained pagan, and persecutions of Jews & Samaritans triggered revolts in Palestine. A force was sent to Baalbek to stamp out the pagan enclave there, the Academy in Athens, a redoubt of Neoplatonism, was scattered, and the last active center of ancient Egyptian paganism at Philae was shuttered. But Haran was spared from conversion because of an accident of geopolitics; it was too close to the Sassanid Empire, and Khosrau I fancied himself a patron of culture, which including the dispersed members of the Athenian Academy. Some members of the Academy reputedly settled in Haran, with its pagan population, and Khosrau secured religious freedom for this area under a treaty with the Byzantines. The proximity of the Persian forces meant that it was reasonable for the Byzantines to grant this concession. Haran's peculiar religious mix persisted down into the Islamic era, when they became the Sabians, and were instrumental in the translation of Greek works into Arabic under the Abbasids.

As for the Kalash, their persistence is only due to a combination of historical accidents (the Durand Line), their isolation, as well as their backwardness. The importance of the last fact is that they have been underdeveloped enough to maintain very high fertility rate, compensating somewhat for the high rate of conversion to Islam. As I have noted before, paganism tends to cede before higher religions at a particular level of social complexity. With modern communication and transportation the ability of the Kalash to be protected by isolation is diminished. One way that the Kalash could preserve their identity would be to align with another higher religion. This is a common occurrence in Southeast Asia, where ethnic minorities resist converting to the majority religion because it connotes assimilation to the majority ethnicity. Instead, many minorities in Burma, Thailand, etc., convert to Christianity, acquiring the ideological and institutional armamentarium which might serve as a check on conversion. In Indonesia pagan groups often redefine themselves as Hindu, and so enter into a relationship with the institutional structures of Balinese Hinduism.

This is not feasible in Pakistan. Religious minorities are under extreme pressure. The Kalash have no cultural future, extinction is their lot. It is a matter of 10 years or 30 years. No more. After that point they'll be photographs in National Geographic. This is frankly the lot of non-Muslims in many Muslim nations (the best option is to escape abroad, as a substantial minority of Mandaens have, and the Church of the East did in the 20th century. Or, remain segregated and isolated and numerous enough in your own geographic enclaves, such as the Yazidis).**

* They're a genetic isolate, probably not derived from Alexander's sojourn in the east.

** The main exceptions to the grim record of religious minorities under Islamic majorities is in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In both these regions conversion to Christianity from Islam is known and accepted. In Nigeria Islam has barely increased as a proportion of the population, while Christianity has nearly doubled to parity. In Indonesia there has been a marginal decrease in the proportion of Muslims since the 1960s, probably because of the conversion of nominal Javanese Muslims to Christianity and Hinduism (Hinduism is considered by many Javanese to be their ancestral religion, and there remain Hindu Javanese minorities).

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