The Sciences

Against informed pragmatism in the Middle East

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanSep 15, 2013 8:38 PM

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A little editorializing by me.... We need to be careful about overfitting, but one of the major problems with the American relationship to the Middle East is the superficial understanding of its ethnographic framework. For example, I noticed this weekend that there was media mention of an attack upon the Shabak of northern Iraq. CNN describes them as Muslim, 2/3 Shia and 1/3 Sunni. Reuters, which The New York Times republished, states they are mostly Shia. UPI says they are an offshoot of Shia Islam. The AP states that they are Shia Muslims who are ethnic Turkmen (Turkic speakers). Wikipedia says they are a Kurdish people who adhere to a syncretistic religion. The Reuters piece alludes to the suspicion that Sunni Islamic militants are suspected to be involved in this attack, and that they consider Shiites infidels. The framework here is the typical Sunni-Shia conflict...but as the reference to a syncretistic background indicates

it is a little more complicated and much more clear at the same time.

I have read enough about the history of the Middle East and its ethnography to immediately recall that the Shabak have a religiously ambiguous identity, and this complicated ambiguity explains rather easily why Sunni militants would target them. From Syncretistic Religious Communities in the Near East:

So little is known with certain about the Shabak's religious beliefs that I will abstrain from a detailed description...The Shabak with whom I spoke were reluctant to talk about their religion, and claimed to be "just Muslims"...

The Shabak maintain good relationships with the Yezidis, and make pilgrimages to Yezidi shrines....

One thing you have to understand is that the Islamic, and for the purposes of the core Middle East, Ottoman, order required all religious groups to fall into specific categories. If a religious group was outside of a sanctioned category it might be targeted for persecution and forced conversion. Because the Shia identity is more expansive and open ended than that of the Sunni many heterodox groups take refuge under the umbrella of Shiism even if their connection to the Twelve Shiism dominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, is tenuous at best. This is certainly a plausible explanation for the religious identity of groups like the Shabak who seem intent on maintaining a marginal Muslim identity. In contrast a group like the Yezidi has left Islamic identity for all practical purposes, and open themselves up therefore to justifiable persecution from the perspective of orthodox Sunni Muslims. The evasiveness of many heterodox groups in the Middle East, and their tendency toward esoterism, is a function of this long history of state sponsored policing of belief and practice, and the majority trend of enforcing hostility against heretical and apostate groups. Why does any of this matter? In the comments a few months ago a someone suggested that rather than following a ideological position, like isolationism, we should engage in pragmatic case by case decision making when it comes to foreign affairs.

An association with the Yezidi is a clue to the affinities of the Shabak. Broadly speak in the Post-Ottoman Middle East you have a religious landscape where Sunni Islam is the normative standard. Set against this you have some clear and distinct pre-Islamic religious groups who are bracketed unequivocally under the term "People of the Book," Christians, Zoroastrians (yes, I know there is some debate about this middle group) and Jews. But these are not the only two classes. There is an enormous grab-bag of what I will term 'heterodox' groups who are not Sunni Muslim or one of the People of the Book. Some of these are straightforward in their taxonomy. Twelver Shia Islam, the dominant strain of Shiism, is clearly heterodox from the Sunni perspective, but also clearly Muslim (unless you are an extreme Salafi). The Mandaeans have emerged from the same Late Antique religious cauldron as Muslims, and so their inclusion as a People of the Book seems to follow the spirit of the category. In contrast the now extinct Sabians of Haran were clearly a pagan Hellenistic sect that exploited the rather vague reference to "Sabians" in the Koran to continue to practice their unique religion in a Muslim dominated world. Today the Druze are a case study in a modern post-Muslim heterodox group. Their historical origin is one which derives from the Ismaili Shia tradition, but they have transcended the bounds of orthodoxy as defined by Sunnis. The Alawites share many resemblances with the Druze, but are closer to the Muslim mainstream in their self-identity, and recently have been espousing a more orthodox Shia self-conception.

My argument is that very few people actually know enough to engage in informed pragmatism.

I'm 99.9% sure for example that I know more about the history and ethnography of the Middle East than the patronizing commenter in question. This ubiquity of unselfconscious ignorance to me explains why the commenter thought that informed pragmatic international intervention was so obviously possible. If everyone around you is rather ignorant you don't seem that bad. On Twitter I regularly have interlocutors who attempt to argue with me or comment on the Middle East in response to a short Tweet pointing to my clear anti-interventionist sympathies, but it's often quite obvious that their knowledge is as superficial as the "First Books" designed to prime seven year old children on a particular topic. To give an explicit example someone on Twitter just tried to lecture me on Syria's long history of pluralism. If someone says this to you you should immediately respond that Millet system is not the sort of pluralism we should be relying upon as surety for a liberal order in the wake of Baathist despotism. My interlocutor did not engage my volley, and I suspect they were not even aware of what the Millet system was. When it comes to foreign policy people seem to think that the superficial pap they read in The New York Times can be the basis of informed comment. We've been through this before during the lead up to the Iraq War. Back then when I was blogging I deferred to people making strong and bold claims under the assumption they knew something I didn't. They didn't, and most of the people offering me their worthless opinions today do not. People know just enough to engage in sophistry so as to confuse and convince the choir, and bluster among the ignorant. Since most people are ignorant and are going to remain so, this blustering normally yields dividends. But don't try to pull that on me please. (I immediately ban commenters who do so here, and generally block people on Twitter that attempt to do so) An informed response is not going to work against war-hawks like Eliot Cohen, because I'm rather sure they aren't promoting their cheerleading for war based on information in the first place. Similarly, many liberal internationalists are no more well informed about the details on the ground. Rather, they have normative frameworks of global law and human rights in mind (neocons focus on American exceptionalism and unipolarity). As a rule of thumb arguments predicated on factual information always strike me as arrogant posturing meant to intimidate, rather than sincere attempts to model a situation. It may be that a genuine model of these sorts of complex dynamics is impossible. And therefore we fallback on normative grounded heuristics. Where does this leave us? Shrill accusations. Billions and perhaps trillions of dollars are on the line. Thousands to hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance. It is natural then that people will resort to extreme rhetoric. Don't hate the player, hate the game. Isolationists are to a great extent naive. The world is a brutal place. But I also believe at this point that the hawks are ultimately a danger to the republic, and have confused their globalist interests and overclass egos with the interests of the people, both American and non-American.

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