Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Islamicate civilization: It will get worse before it gets better...

by Omar Ali

First published at 3quarksdaily.com

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At about 6 pm on Sunday evening, a young suicide bomber (said to be 18 years old) blew himself up in a crowd returning from the testosterone-heavy flag lowering ceremony held every evening at the India-Pakistan border at Wagah, near Lahore.

Presumably this young man (a true believer, since a fake believer would find it hard to explode in such circumstances) had wanted to target the ceremony itself (usually watched by up to 5000 people every day, most of them visitors from out of town) but the military had received prior intelligence that something like this may happen and there were 6 checkpoints and he was unable to get to the ceremony, so he waited around the shops about 500 yards away from the parade site and exploded when he felt he had enough bodies around him to make it worth his while.
About 60 innocent people died. Many of them women and children. Including 8 women from the same poor family from a village in central Punjab who were visiting relatives in Lahore and decided to go to the parade (whether as entertainment, or as patriotic theater, or both). The bombing was instantly claimed by more than one Jihadist organization but it is possible that Ehsanullah Ehsan’s claim will turn out to be true. He said it was a reaction against the military’s recent anti-terrorist operation (operation Zarb e Azb: “blow of the sword of the prophet”), that his group wants "an Islamic system of government" and that they would attack infidel regimes on both sides of the Indian-Pakistani border.




The Indian authorities decided to suspend their side of the parade for the next three days. But on Monday evening, the Pakistani side decided to hold their parade as usual and a crowd was on hand. Cynics have pointed out that most of the “crowd” looked like soldiers in civilian clothes, but that is not fair. The “show of resilience” meme is a very ancient and well-developed meme and has solid credentials and should not be easily dismissed. I personally wish both India and Pakistan end this ridiculous ceremony someday (soon), but on this particular occasion a show of resilience was the smart move. But then, the respected corps commander of the Pakistani army corps in Lahore, General Naveed Zaman (an outstanding officer, himself on the Taliban’s hit list for his role in various anti-terrorist operations) made a statement and beat his chest a bit about how we are a brave nation, we are back the next day and “look, on the Indian side it’s like a snake has sniffed them”, the implication being, they are cowards, they didn’t show up, but look at us, we are back and we are strong.
Naveed zaman on wagah blast
This is par for the course for the Pakistani army (whose propaganda software was designed and built for only one enemy, and whose soldiers are motivated to attack Jihadi terrorists by being told that the Jihadists are all Indian agents, I am not kidding) but is still telling: the day after one of the biggest massacres of civilians by a Jihadist terrorist bomber (there being no other kinds in our area these days, though the Tamil Tigers showed that a Tamil Hindu version is indeed possible, and in fact preceded the adoption of this particular weapon by Islamist terrorists) the senior army officer in the region could only taunt the Indians across Eastern border.
Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the Boko Haram terrorists announced that most of the 276 girls they kidnapped have been “converted to Islam” and married off. So the matter is settled.


And in Iraq, the “Islamic State” has been buying and selling captured Yezidi girls as slaves in the best medieval Arab tradition. In the video below, the young men of IS can be seen joking about the topic (the translation is by Jenan Moussa, an Arab journalist, not by MEMRI, so discerning viewers can view it without violating any of the standard guidelines):


Boko Haram has also gone ahead and blown up some Shias in Nigeria as they commemorated Moharram, while their fans have apparently shot a Shia in the face in, of all places, Sydney.
My point is this: the Salafist-Jihadist meme, so carefully nurtured and brought together in the Afghan-Pakistan border region by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US in the 1980s, is now global and will soon come to your neighborhood if your neighborhood happens to be in the core Islamicate territories of the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, Londonistan or Mississauga. Many different narratives about this phenomenon are in the market, ranging from Neocon propaganda and Fox News to Islamist apologetics and Marxist “class-based analysis”. For Western and Westernized liberals of a particular disposition, there are also “commentators” like Pankaj Mishra, who can be relied upon to press all the politically correct buttons without committing to anything resembling a coherent description, prediction or prescription. I would like to add some random thoughts to this mélange:

 1. We are all human beings. And in the great Eurasian landmass, we have been mixing, biologically and culturally, for thousands of years. It is not possible that a relatively recent religious movement (Islam) has somehow significantly altered the biology of the people involved. This is a trivial observation, but some people on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide seem to have some misapprehensions about this, so it is worth reiterating. Going beyond that, I would add that even as a cultural phenomenon, Islam is not from some other planet. It evolved within pre-existing cultures, borrowing and altering already existing cultural memes. Much of “Islamic history” is the history of an initial (very successful and very extensive) Arab conquest, followed by some further conquests (primarily in Central Asia and India) by Islamicized Turkic invaders. Only in Indonesia and Malaysia did the initial wave arrive as traders and the subsequent conquests and conversions were almost entirely the work of local converts. This makes early South East Asian Islam a bit of an outlier, but that is another story. Only by disregarding most of history can we regard these conquests (and their associated missionary activities) as somehow completely unique. There are some peculiar features of Islamicate civilization, but not as many as its fans or its detractors would like to claim.
2. That being said, Islamicate civilization developed a remarkable degree of consensus on it’s core doctrines in the Islamic heartland. Even Shias and Sunnis converged on similarities in daily life and communal attitudes towards non-Muslims, towards women, towards apostasy, towards blasphemy, towards the notion of holy war. While agreeing with Razib Khan’s views about the relative unimportance of theology in general, I think modern life and the recent experience of colonization, decolonization and its associated psychopathologies have led to an unusual situation in the Islamicate world: while the pressures that cause religious revivalist movements or “fundamentalist” movements may be similar in non-Muslim communities (hence Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist identity-based semi-fascist  fundamentalist movements), the material that is available to these movements and the historical background of the religions involved, makes it difficult to associate a detailed “shariah” with any of those movements. Sikhs can ban tobacco and kill blasphemers and traitors, Buddhist mobs can kill Muslims without compunction in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Hindu nationalists ban beef and carry out pogroms, but the notion of a Sikh state or a Hindu state or a Buddhist state is mostly the notion of a state where their co-religionists hold sway (or even hold exclusive title), but lacks consensus on any well developed legal code or even theology.  This is not the case with Islam.
3. There is such a legal and theological framework in Islam and it has wide support in principle. In principle is, of course, not the same as in practice. Most Muslims know as much about Muslim theology as Christians know about Christian theology, which means they know very little. But because of widespread beliefs about blasphemy and apostasy, this “in principle” support translates into an inability to frontally challenge those who come armed with more detailed Islamic knowledge. For example, most Pakistanis may have no idea that classical Islamic law permits slave girls to be captured, used for sex (without marriage) and bought and sold as desired. If and when IS comes to Pakistan and wants to talk about buying and selling slave girls, most people will probably be shocked. It is possible that most people will initially even find some way to say this is wrong. But it is also my guess that when face to face with an IS ideologue, most people will be unable to argue for too long. Because he will have classical Islamic texts on his side and his opponent will have nothing beyond his human intuition of fairness and good behavior. Intuition will not stand against argument. And there will probably be no argument for too long because to argue too much would cross over into the zone of blasphemy.  And most people (except maybe for the tiny sliver educated in Western or Western-style universities and out of touch with their own traditions almost completely) believe that blasphemers should be punished, and at least for the most extreme kinds of blasphemy, the punishment should be death. This, by the way, is just a simple empirical fact, easily checked if you step out among the people in that region.
4. Whenever the existing state order (in almost all cases, the product of recent Russian or West European colonization, so somewhat suspect in any case) falls apart, the next common denominator tends to be Islamist. And among those Islamists, the ways of the golden age are not some distant myth. Those books are still around, still honored, still relevant, still protected against criticism by blasphemy and apostasy memes. And those books include rules for holy war, for slave holding,for female legal inequality etc. that are no longer fashionable in the modern world. That is just how things happen to be.
5. The ruling elites in most Islamicate countries are not Islamist in practice and may not be so in principle either. But having taken the path of least resistance (or having received their Islam from Karen Armstrong or post-Marxist theorists) they have acquiesced in the glorification of medieval Islamicate norms, not as past history but as guides to present behavior. They will now be (literally in many cases) hoist on their own petard.
6. Elements of the ruling elite (especially in South Asia, where penetration of Western postcolonialist/postmodern/post-Marxist garbage has been most extensive within the elite) are vigorously opposed to many of these medieval norms, but have disappeared into an alternate universe where only White people have agency and therefore only White people are responsible for all events. This has effectively taken them out of the equation for now. They remain mostly harmless, but the opportunity cost of their withdrawal into la la land is not insignificant.
7. As the Bill Maher-Ben Affleck affair has shown, Western Liberals are generally clueless about Islamic history and the status of (most of) the Islamicate world with regard to issues like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, feminism and suchlike. This is NOT to endorse a particular Whiggish vision of history as the only valid path, with every community situated somewhere along the timeline from barbarian to Western liberal democracy. But it is to emphasize that opting out of this linear timeline is one thing, pretending that everyone is already at point X on the timeline while paying lip-service to multiculturalism is another. If Ben Affleck thinks that Western standards of “liberal democracy” (however defined and whether regarded as an endpoint or not) are not to be applied to everyone on the globe and that these standards are being used to demonize and colonize those who hold to different values and models, then he has a leg to stand on. But he (or others like him) seem to lose this admirable level of “nuance” when they get to specifics. Instead of saying that Pakistani Muslims do not permit free speech when it comes to X, Y and Z and who are we to comment or interfere (especially when we are just using this commentary to justify our invasion of this or that country), they are saying “there is no real difference in free speech norms between X and the US”, which is patently absurd. Other liberals (too numerous to list) will look at history as if European powers have real histories (with colonization, oppression, invasions, decimations etc, also with progress, emancipation, democracy, etc.) and everyone else lived on some other static planet with no history, no past and no future. I don’t have to go into detail, Wikipedia can solve this issue for anyone these days, but it is still surprising how few people will bother to even read Wikipedia before brandishing absurdities in this matter. The opportunity cost for this (loss of some Western liberals) is perhaps insignificant in real life, but since I tend to interact with some of these (very nice) people, I obsessively comment about them. Hence this comment.
8. More after I get some feedback; many or most of these comments are very likely to be misinterpreted by many people. This is partly because I am not a good enough writer, but partly because all of us use various heuristics to slot every commentator into pre-existing boxes. To see a little of where I am coming from, some of the following articles may be helpful. Thank you.
http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/the-roots-of-the-islamic-states-appeal/382175/

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2013/04/against-the-seriousness-of-theology/#.VFb-nPnF9DI

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2006/09/atheism-heresy-and-hesychasm/#.VFb-4PnF9DI
http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2013/01/-some-notes-on-the-shia-sunni-conflict-by-omar-ali.html
http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2012/10/from-innocence-to-mohammed-joyce-by-omar-ali.html
http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2011/01/one-thousand-year-writers-block.html