Monday, March 2, 2015

Islam, ISIS and the Dream of the Blue Flower

First published on 3quarksdaily.com

A few days ago, Graeme Wood wrote a piece in the Atlantic that has generated a lot of buzz (and controversy). In this article he noted that:
"The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam"
The article is well worth reading and it certainly does not label all Muslims as closet (or open) ISIS supporters, but it does emphasize that many of the actions of ISIS have support in classical Islamic texts (and not just in fringe Kharijite opinion). This has led to accusations of Islamophobia and critics have been quick to respond. A widely cited response in "Think Progress" quotes Graeme Wood's own primary source (Princeton scholar Bernard Hakykel) as saying:
“I think that ISIS is a product of very contingent, contextual, historical factors. There is nothing predetermined in Islam that would lead to ISIS.”
Indeed. Who could possibly disagree with that? I dont think Graeme Wood disagrees. In fact, he explicitly says he does not. But that statement is a beginning, not a conclusion. What contingent factors and what historical events are important and which ones are a complete distraction from the issue at hand? 
Every commentator has his or her (implicit, occasionally explicit) "priors" that determine what gets attention and from what angle;  and a lot of confusion clearly comes from a failure to explain (or to grasp) the background assumptions of each analyst. I thought I would put together a post that outlines some of my own background assumptions and arguments in as simple a form as possible and see where it leads. So here, in no particular order, are some random comments about Islam, terrorism and ISIS that I hope will, at a minimum, help me put my own thoughts in order. Without further ado:
1. The early history of Islam is, among other things, the history of a remarkably successful imperium. Like any empire, it was created by conquest. The immediate successors of the prophet launched a war of conquest whose extent and rapidity matched that of the Mongols and the Alexandrian Greeks, and whose successful consolidation, long historical life, and development of an Arabized culture, far outshone the achievements of the Mongols or the Manchus (both of whom adopted the existing deeper rooted religions and cultures of their conquered people rather than impose or develop their own).
2. Islam, the religion we know today (the classical Islam of the four Sunni schools, as well as the various Shia sects) developed in the womb of the Arab empire. It provided a unifying ideology and a theological justification for that empire (and in the case of various Shia sects, varying degrees of resistance or revolt against that empire) but, at the very least, Islam and the nascent Arab empire grew and developed togetherone was not the later product of the fully formed other. Being, in it's classical form, the religion of a (very successful and impressive) imperialist project, it is not surprising that its"official" Sunni version has a military and supremacist feel to it. Classical Islam is not intolerant of all other religions (though it is in principle almost completely intolerant of pagans) but the rules and regulations of the four classical schools all agree on the superior status of Muslims and impose certain restrictions, disabilities and taxes on the followers of the "religions of the book" that they do tolerate. By the standards of contemporary European "Christendom", many of these rules appear tolerant and broad-minded; and since Western intellectuals (leftists as much, or even more than rightists) are completely focused on European history and culture (and therefore,on the achievements and deficiencies of that culture), this relative tolerance is frequently remarked upon as a stellar feature of Islamicate civilization. But it should be noted that this degree of tolerance is quite intolerant compared to contemporary Chinese or Indian norms and is horrendously intolerant compared to post-enlightenment ideals and fashions. The imposition of Ottoman rules today would be most unwelcome even to post-Marxist intellectuals if they had to live under those rules. Of course, this does not mean they cannot speak highly of these norms as long as they themselves are a safe distance away from them, but such long-distance  approval is of academic interest (literally, academic) and not our concern for the purposes of this post.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Sometimes the Bible just gets it right

I can't claim to have read the Bible, the only books I read are book club prescribed ones and Holy Books haven't yet come onto the selection.
But I always turn back to my favorite chapter

Another Angry Voice on Podemos

Why the EU is damned to doom


On facebook I follow the extreme left page, Another Angry Voice, and they have a small piece on Podemos, the new left-wing party that's virulently growing in Spain (even more worryingly the party wants to call a referendum on the Spanish monarchy).

Podemos and the appeal of Pablo Iglesias

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Sam Manekshaw (and a comment from Major Agha Amin)

A post from Dr Hamid Hussain. A (typically earthy) comment from military historian Major Agha Amin follows below Dr Hamid Hussain's post.

Dear Sir;

A while ago, many officers asked about the controversies about Ayub Khan's selection and I wrote a piece that may interest those raising these questions.

Mr. Ardeshir's comment about Sam Manekshaw and Ayub Khan is incorrect.  It is related to Sam and Yahya Khan.  The real story is as follows;

In early 1947, Sam and Yahya were serving together at Military Operations directorate in New Delhi.  Sam owned a red James motorcycle that looked like the picture below;



Yahya fell in love with it and Sam agreed to sell it for 1000 Rupees.  In the chaos of partition, Yahya left for Pakistan promising to send the money from Pakistan but later forgot about the money.  After 1971 war, Sam once joked about the incident stating that '"Yahya never paid me the Rs1,000 for my motorbike, but now he has paid with half his country." In 2001, Pakistani columnist Aredshir Cowasjee went to India and met Sam.  Cowasjee remembered Sam's quip and offered to pay the money Yahya owed along with the interest.  Sam replied that 'Yahya was a good man and a good soldier.  We served together and he didn't have a mean or corrupt bone in his body'.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Trip to Pakistan

A heartfelt post consisting only of pictures and Urdu verses from Dr Hamid Hussain (about his latest trip to Pakistan). 

My recent trip to Pakistan was in the aftermath of the December tragedy in Peshawar.  More painful at personal level as it is my hometown but I and many had no illusions and though hoping against all hopes that this may be the last whole sale slaughter but we knew in our hearts that this is not yet the drop scene of the horror movie.  Surely, the ever enterprising militants showed up again and mowed down several Shia praying in a mosque in Hayatabad where brother and cousins of a very dear friend narrowly escaped death.   During my trip, many in different cities in Pakistan were kind enough to share their fears, anger and hopes with me and I’m thankful.  Sometimes few short verses give more meaning to feelings than lengthy explanations but off course it is only for Urdu readers. 
Regards,
Hamid

November 2009. Over ninety People killed in bombing of a crowded bazaar in Peshawar.
http://i.dawn.com/archives/2010/Website%20Metropolitan/81blast-608.jpg
زمیں سے آیے ھیں یا آسماں سے آیے ھیں
عزاب شھر پہ جانے کھاں سے آیے ھیں

Sunday, February 22, 2015

End of the Muslim Brotherhood

This is an old post and I would probably change some things now (and in fact, will change some things soon once I do a new post) But this was lost when the old Brownpundits crashed and I wanted to recover it. So here it is
Posted on October 7, 2013 by omar

Hussein Ibish has written an article on the decline and (impending?) fall of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Reports of their death may be exaggerated, but surely the “Islamist political party” project is not doing well in most places. Turkey will be cited as an immediate counter-example, but I think AKP just hasn’t had the chance to really become too “Islamic” yet. If and when they do (and pressure to do so is bound to come from within, unless the project falls apart so badly in the middle east that Turkey gets away without trying it), they will find themselves in trouble as well.

The problem (in over-simplified form):

Modern states and modern politics (not just all the complex debates about how power should be exercised, who exercises it, who decides who exercises it, the theories around it; but also the actual institutions and mechanisms that evolved) arose first and foremost in Europe. There are surely things about that evolution that are contingent and could have been different elsewhere, but there are also many very fundamental features of modern life (modern levels of knowledge, modern industry and organization, modern understanding of human biology, psychology, sociology etc) that will still hold no matter where they develop on this planet. This is an extremely dense and imposing edifice. You cannot reject it and be modern in ways most people do seem to want to be modern (I have NEVER met an Islamist who did not want an air-force). Some non-western countries have already managed that knowledge transfer (e.g. Japan, South Korea), others are getting there (China), others hope to get there someday (India?) but Muslims are notable for wanting to get there while remaining medieval in terms of theology, law and politics. And not just at the fringes. Fringes are fringes everywhere. But in the Islamicate world, this dream is mainstream.

Why? maybe because while no serious theory of politics developed in Islamicate religious thought (Ibn Khaldun is not religious literature), some dreams/fantasies of an idealized “Islamic state” were allowed to percolate. The deal was that the ulama would throw this dream around at each other and leave actual ruling to the rulers (who in practice were always and everywhere guided by existing Byzantine, Persian and Central Asian models and by “mirrors for princes” kind of literature, not by the dreamworld of the “rightly guided caliphs”). Every Islamicate empire down to the late Ottomans ruled in the name of Islam, but they did so using institutions and methods that were typically West-Asian/Central-Asian in origin. And then the Europeans took off (literally by 1903 but earlier metaphorically) and that whole world crashed and burned.

And out of this wreckage, somebody dug up the old stories of the rightly guided caliphs; It seems to me that early fantasists (like Allama Iqbal) took it for granted that a lot of this is just propaganda and we all need propaganda, so “ek hi suf mein khaRey ho gaey Mahmood o Ayaz” (a famous verse of Iqbal, describing how Sultan Mahmood and his “slave” Ayaz could pray in one row; the wonders of Islam, that sort of thing) but they fully expected reality to be much closer to London than it was to Medina (witness his approval of the Grand Turkish assembly). To them, it was more like Chinese or Japanese reformers creating their own version of what worked and getting out from under the imperialist thumb. I am sure Iqbal did not expect to be the leading poet of the Pakistani Taliban! But over time, stories frequently repeated can come to be seen as the truth. Islamist parties want to create powerful, modern Islamic states. But the stories they are using are more Islamic than modern. Far more so than the early reformers perhaps realized. The result is that every party is all the time in danger of becoming hostage to those espousing primitive notions of Shariah law and medieval political ideas. It turns out that pretending to have “our own unique genius” was much easier than actually having any genius that could get the job done. Human nature being what it is, the easy path was taken.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The signs when you become white

(1.) you actually start becoming punctual
(2.) your schedule runs months into advance
(3.) you stop socialising nearly as much
(4.) you start saying Christ inadvertently
(5.) when you and your other half are the only dark-haired (let alone dark-skinned) people in the room
(6.) your friends are based on shared hobbies
(7.) your social calendar revolves around societies
(8.) you would never dream to drop into other people's homes as you used to
(9.) seeing people once a year is more than enough to sustain a friendship
(10.) Christmas becomes a BIG thing and you start thinking about bona fide Easter Eggs lol.

Bonus 11:
(11.) your ethnic identity becomes a very valuable tool to differentiate yourself from the white bread upper middle class, who are very homogenous & metropolitan at times.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Is Islam a Religion of the Book?

Razib put up an interesting post on this topic on his blog . I think his point is that no religion is a "religion of the book". People make the religion and they remake it as time demands. Messily and unpredictably in many cases, but still, it moves. And in this sense, Islam is no more fixed in stone by what is written or not written in it's text (or texts) than any other religion.

Someone then commented (and I urge you to read the post and the comments, and the hyperlinks, they are all relevant and make this post clearer) as follows:

"Well, if you take the Old Testament and Koran at face value, the OT is more violent. The interesting question is then why Islam ends up being more violent than Judaism or Christianity, and for that I agree you have to thank subsequent tradition and reinterpretation of the violence in the text. It appears that for whatever reason Islam has carried out less of this kind of reinterpretation, so what was originally a less violent founding text ends up causing more violence because it is being interpreted much more literally."

I replied there, and then thought I would put that reply up as a new post here because I want to see what people think of this quick and off-the-cuff comment. THEN, I can maybe improve it in a final new post this weekend. So, without further ado, my comment:

There is an easier explanation. Islam the religion we know today (classical Islam of the four Sunni schools and it's Shia counterparts) developed in the womb of the Arab empire. It is evident that it provided a unifying ideology and a theological justification for that empire (and in the case of various Shia sects, varying degrees of resistance or revolt against that empire), but at the very least, they grew and formed together; one was not the later product of the fully formed other. Being the religion of a (very successful and impressive) imperialist project, it's "official" mature Sunni version obviously has a military-supremacist feel to it.

Whether the text canonized as "foundational document" does or does not fully explain the imperialism and supremacism is a red herring. The Quran is a fairly long book, but to an outsider it should be immediately obvious that you can create MANY different Islams around that book and if you did it all over again, NONE of them have to look like classical Sunni Islam. The details of Sunni Islam (who gets to rule, what daily life is supposed to look like, how non-Muslims should be treated, etc) are not some sort of direct and unambiguous reading of the Quran. Even the 5 daily prayers are not specified in the Quran. The schools of classical Sunni Islam are supposedly based on the Quran and hadith, but the Quran and the hadiths are clearly cherry picked and manipulated (and in the case of the hadiths, frequently just invented) based on the perceived needs of the empire, the ulama, the individual commentators, human nature, economics, whatever (insert favorite element here).
So in principle, we should be able to make new Islams as needed (and some of us have indeed done so over the centuries...the Ismailis being one extreme example) and I am sure many of us will do that in the days to come as well. The Reza Aslan types are right about that (though i seriously doubt that HE can make anything lasting). In fact, in terms of practice, millions of Muslims have already "invented new Islams". Just as a random example, most contemporary Muslims do not have concubines and do not buy and sell slaves (and find the thought of doing so shocking). They take oaths of loyalty to all sorts of "un-Islamic" states and most of them turn out to be loyal at least to the same degree as their other fellow citizens of various hedonistic modern states. And so on and so forth.
What sets them apart is their inability (until now) to publicly and comfortably articulate a theological framework that rejects medieval (aka no longer fashionable) elements of classical Sunni Islam. And this is especially a problem in Muslim majority countries. What stops them? I think apostasy and blasphemy laws (and the broader memes that uphold those laws) play a big role. King Hussein or Benazir Bhutto or even Rouhani may have private thoughts about changing X or Y inconvenient parts, but to speak up would be to invite accusations of blasphemy and apostasy. So they fudge and do one thing while paying lip service to another. Unfortunately, this means the upholders of classical Islam (and ISIS and the Wahabis are not as far from the mainstream Sunni Ulama in theory as is sometimes portrayed, though clearly they are pretty far in practice) have the edge in debates in the public sphere. This IS a serious problem. But the internet has made it very hard to keep inconvenient thoughts out of view. So there will be much churning. Eventually, some countries will emerge out of it better than others.
ISIS itself will not. Of course, in principle, anything is possible. But we can still make predictions based on whatever model we have in our head. Like most predictions in social science and history, they will not be mathematical and precise and our confidence in them (or our ability to convince others, even when others accept most of our premises) will not be akin to the predictions of mathematics or physics. But for whatever it's worth, I don't think ISIS will settle into some semi-comfortable equilibrium. They will only destory and create chaos. And eventually they will be destroyed, though it is possible (maybe even likely) that large parts of Syria, Iraq and North Africa could become like Somalia. Too messy, too violent and too poor to be worth the effort of colonizing even by intact nearby states. But probably not forever. The real estate is too valuable and eventually someone will bring order to it. Probably using more force and cruder methods than liberal modern intellectuals are comfortable with.



Monday, February 16, 2015

Indian Troops in East Africa

As usual, a post from Hamid Hussein, this time about the British Indian army in East Africa, with some comments about "all Muslim regiments' and neo-orientalist claptrap about the Pakhtoons and the British. Enjoy. 

Omar 

Major ® Agha H. Amin; an authority on history of subcontinent armies sent a reminder about 129th Baluchistan Infantry in E. Africa.  Few questions about Indian soldiers in E. Africa in Great War as well as some ancillary long forgotten aspects of military archeology came my way and following was the outcome.  Only for those interested in military history of the region.

Indian Soldiers in East Africa in Great War

“We are too much inclined to think of war as a matter of combats, demanding above all things physical courage.  It is really a matter of fasting and thirsting; of toiling and waking; of lacking and enduring; which demands above all things moral courage”.   Sir John Fortescue

East Africa is a forgotten chapter of Great War.  Several Indian battalions served in East Africa.  British East Africa is now Kenya and German East Africa is now Tanzania, Rawanda and Burundi.  German army in East Africa was calledSchutztruppe.  Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF) - C commanded by Brigadier ‘Jimmie’ Stewart arrived in September 1914.  This force was predominantly from state forces with about half battalion strength each from Rampur, Kapurthala, Bharatpur and Jind state forces.  Only one regular Indian battalion 29th Punjabis was part of the force.  Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF) - B under the command of Major General Aitken consisted of 27th Bangalore Brigade (2ndLancashire, 101st Grenadiers, 98th Infantry and 63rd Palamcottah Light Infantry - four companies of Madrassi Muslims, two Tamils and two Christian Madrassi companies) and Imperial Service Brigade (Gwalior Rifles, 2nd and 3rd Kashmir Rifles).  This was followed by battalions re-deployed from European and Egyptian theatres as well as.  As usual unsung heroes of the theatre are pioneers, railway volunteers and sappers and miners who were superb in the most trying conditions.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Caste "privilege", the Americal Dalit speaks

Over at The Aerogram there is an interesting piece up, Caste Privilege 101: A Primer for the Privileged. The main downside of the piece is that it is standard post-colonial "social justice warrior" claptrap. Unless you buy into the premises a lot of the rhetoric falls flat. You can really write a regular expression to just "search & replace", and it could be about another set of people. Really the post just leverages pretty generic ideas about race privilege, and interpolates them into a South Asian context.

But the good part is that it is interesting that the experiences of low caste South Asians is highlighted. There simply aren't that many in the Diaspora...or are there? Perhaps they "pass" as this woman and her family have done? And it is a nice reality check to note that what many South Asians consider normative South Asian behavior and folkways are actually just representative of a relative thin and elite strata of Indian cultures. It is also quite sweet and delicious when the authors suggest that many South Asian Americans with names like Iyer and Mukherjee who play the part of "oppressed person of color," despite a customary elite family background, and impeccable educational qualifications and a high income, are oblivious to the structures of privilege in which they partake while excoriating white society.

The major issue I have is that in the process of lecturing (and frankly hectoring) higher caste Indians the authors express their own narrow viewpoints. For example, when talking about religious differences between low castes and higher castes, they excise Muslims out of the equation. As Muslims are about 1/3 of the South Asian population this seems an important lacunae, and as we all know there are caste and caste-like structures within Islam too, some of which have been imported from Hinduism (e.g., "Muslim Dalits").

Finally, a lot of the generalizations about upper caste Indians seems to be bullshit. American born Indian Americans intermarry at nearly a 50% clip. I really don't think that caste matters that much when they (we) are marrying people of other races at a very high rate. The fact is that no matter if you are a fair skinned Pandit or a dark skinned Nadar in this country you're a "sand nigger." Next to that all the caste posturing looks like a farce.