Response to Razib

Preface by Razib: My friend Aziz Poonawalla responded to my previous post with a long missive, which you can read below. To the left is a photo of the both of us in late 2004 when I visited him in Houston. I’ve lost some weight since that time. In general despite our different religious outlooks there are core basic liberal democratic values we both adhere to. In general I’ve had a difficult time over the past few years talking about the subject of religion and Islam because my own views have become very “gnarly.” Hopefully this exchange with Aziz will clarify some issues for both us.

I’m going to preface this with the observation that Razib is a dear friend, someone I genuinely trust. So anyone with an agenda who looks at this debate as an avenue to try and foment fitnat between him and myself is quite simply wasting their time. And mine. The truth is that friendship is a heavy responsibility and in a sense I abused it by leaving an intemperate (for me) comment, because (dispensing with false modesty) I am one of the few people that can trigger Razib to spend 1.5 hours writing a post in response to something I jotted out of irritation in 30 seconds. So I am suitably contrite.

On the merits, I agree with all of Razib’s facts, but I disagree with his conclusions.

I’ll confess I am too lazy to look up the meaning of “essentialism” but I can surmise the general gist of it (and I don’t think Razib is such). I will say that Razib claiming he is any sort of Islamophobe, garden variety or not, is pretty hilarious. He’s a secularist to the core, and that makes him predisposed to bias against the value of religious practice, just as my being a theist makes me predisposed to bias towards that value. Pretending we are immune to our biases is not, in general, something either of us do when we are talking to each other, but when we address our blog readers we do put on a facade. (This is something I hate about blogging, and why I am trying to distance myself from it).

Razib frames his objection to Islam as a reaction to muslims and outcomes:

My suspicion of Islam writ large doesn’t come from reading the Koran or the Hadiths, rather, it comes from my survey of the history and nature of current societies where Islam is the dominant religion (I’ve read the Koran, and have skimmed a collection of Hadiths which my uncle sent me, for what it’s worth).

Rather, I judge religions by the sum totality of opinions and actions of the believers, and, the material and phenomenological consequences upon myself and those who I care about. This latter point is important to highlight, because the experience of particular believers of their religion can be very different from the experience of outsiders to a religion.

In principle this is pretty unobjectionable, even on a theological level. Fundamentally, religion is (as we believe) a system imposed upon flawed humanity by a flawless Divine; it’s expected that the human element will be a filter through which the divine signal gets corrupted. We do the best we can; its fair we be judged, individually and collectively, by our performance. And we will be in the Hereafter, too.

But judging by the totality of the believers and their effects strikes me as verging on the absurd. What is that totality? By what metric does Razib claim to know or probe or measure it? None, as he readily admits – his assertion of Islam’s adherents’ actions’ totality is nothing more than yet another filtered subset, this one filtered by Razib rather than a muslim apologist like myself. Razib is not generally prone to making meaningless statements; they really stand out vividly on those rare occassions they manifest.

(as an aside, Razib’s observation, “Christians may have imposed the Athanasian Creed on the pagans of yore, but I doubt most understood the Platonic philosophy embedded within which they demanded others profess“, is exactly the kind of brilliant sardonicism that endears him to us godfolk!)

(aside 2 – I really should look up the word Eudaimonia. I suspect when I do it will be an anamnesis of sorts)

Razib continues, “When evaluating Islam as a whole one has to look over the full distribution of Muslims,” and I guess I agree, if one’s intention is to “evaluate Islam as a whole”. But that evaluation, even if one could indeed sample the full distribution of muslims, is also so diluted as to be worthless. One might as well “evaluate” Christianity or African Americans or redheads. To what end?

Lets get pseudo quantitative. A weighted mean is a set of coefficients, a1, a2, a3… applied to the samples x1, x2, x3. If there are N such samples, then for a proper assessment of the mean, we must know all N of the x’s and all N of the a’s. If however there are a few x’s with very much larger a’s than all the rest, we can indeed safely discard the vast majority of them and still get a reasonable estimate of the weighted mean.

The point is that when Razib speaks of assessing the behavior of all muslims, he is not describing a single group but many measurements (x) whose weights (a) differ dramatically. One set of weghts we might use is population, and one set of measurements we might use is ideology, so for example x1 would be “Indonesian mainstream Islam” which on a fanaticism scale of -10 (crazy) to +10 (granola) we might rate as a 2.0, and a1 would be (according to the CIA Factbook) 240 million * 86% = 206 million. Suppose there were only Indonesian muslims and Al Qaeda in the world; the latter group would be x = -10 but a = 1 million (which is a gross overestimate).The weighted mean works out to 200e6*-2 + 1e6*-10 / (200e6 + 1e6) = 1.94 on the fanaticism scale. Obviously there are more groups than just these, obviously the specific weights are subject to debate, but no matter how you honestly slice the numbers, when you add up all 1.5 billion muslims you are going to find a weighted mean is dominated by the populations of South Asia, Indonesia, the Arab world, and Africa who generally aren’t causing Razib any grief and who really would prefer to be left alone. Tallying up all the crazies isn’t going to move your final result much.

(aside 3 – I’m curious, and am sure Jonah Blank would be likewise, to know where in Mullahs on the Mainframe Razib got the impression that Bohras as a group view Sunnis as a group with contempt. The latter assertion, about Sunni distrust of Ismailis as barely muslim, is unfortunately a fact of life, but not one that justifies dismissal of Bohras by nonmuslims such as Razib as non-representative. Most muslims, sunni or not, find Bohras to be thoroughly unobjectionable and in fact a little too orthodox at times.)

On to the word at the heart of the debate:

Today the term “barbaric” has some really negative connotations, but I use the term to simply point to societies which even if they are civilized have values which are difficult to comprehend across the cultural chasm. Muslims, and South Asian non-Muslims as a whole, have an emotionally charged relationship to their religion which is simply not easy to understand in the Western world today. To be fair, a German from 1640 could absolutely understand the attitudes toward religion of a Muslim or South Asian, but then Europeans in the 17th century were pre-Enlightenment barbarians. Barbarous societies are not necessarily evil, rather, they are just alien, and their values are such that you would not want to live in those societies.

Societies are barbaric even if they are civilized? Well, whatever – I’ll happily agree with Razib about muslims’ barbarity if he is going to embrace the definition of barbarism as “attitudes predating the Enlightenment” but then again, the Enlightenment is a classic case of Orwellian doublespeak because it imposed as many intellectual constraints as it purported to free humanity from. The whole myth of super-rationality that the Enlightenment has seeded is a barbarity of its own. I am a trained scientist, I hold a Ph.D. But these academic and scientific credentials have made me more, not less, skeptical of claims of the objectivity of reason and human faculty. Anyone who has written a grant application will surely vouch for my point here.

But to be brutally honest, it’s America which is the outlier when it comes to “emotionally charged relationships” with religion, on a scale that sometimes even exceeds the muslim world. After all, Turkey’s secularism was home-grown from an Islamic context. I think that Razib’s critique makes a false dichotomy between “the West” and everything else, a common theme of disagreement between ourselves since frankly I don’t really believe that any such thing as “the West” – or, for that matter, “the Ummah” – really exist, except as rhetorical bludgeons. There are no more alien societies; everywhere is pretty much the same as everywhere else. In the past few years I’ve traveled to cities as diverse as Mombasa, Karbala, Najaf, Kufa, Mumbai, Stockholm, and Houston. I can tell you that all of these places are, to a degree, alien socities and I would not want to live in any of them.

Razib goes on to grant my point, agreeing that barbarism is subjective. But on a blog devoted to Enlightened Reason, and in the course of making a claim to objective assessment of Islam, isn’t this a rather tremendous admission?

But the problem here is really that we are dancing in the fog of generalities. Razib’s original post was about the muslim American response to the Qur’an burning scheme. In it, he quotes some sod who is overwrought with angst. Thats an attitude that might well be mainstream abroad, in one of the other Islams, but in the American context it is he, not myself or Haroon or the other many muslim voices across the media and blogs and pundtocracy, that is an outlier. Given that Razib is one of the strongest proponents of the fact of many Islams, it’s odd that he would on this issue conflate them all into one. The truth is that Kenyan Islam or even Saudi Arabian Islam doesn’t drectly impact Razib in a material way (unless you count indirect effects such as American government intrusion upon civil liberties in the name of security). American Islam is the highest-weighted Islam in razib’s universe, and the voice of American islam is really not very hard to find. Razib himself has his fingers on the pulse of that Islam – he’s a full frontpage author at the Talk Islam weblog, which is a nexus of western muslim bloggers, and a resource that lays bare the muslim american zeitgeist.

Look, I am not taking issue with Razib’s facts. He’s quite correct to note,

And yet despite the many realities of Islam, there is also a broader Muslim awareness and identity which expresses itself in local contexts. If there wasn’t, Muslims wouldn’t brag about the number 1.5 billion believers. How American Muslims synthesize their identity is their business. But, because of the geopolitical structural realities of the world it does have some relevance for us non-Muslims, as it impinges on our lives, just as Jewish affinity for Israel, or Cuban American hostility to Cuba, does.

Indeed. But the same is true of Catholics, and Latinos, and blonde women. Maybe to a lesser degree, but the point is that group identity is a group identity. There’s a tautology with some real relevance, for once.

The question is, are muslims less susceptible to local expression than other group identities? The answer is no, and Razib may make contrary noises at times but basically agrees with me on this. My sole beef here is the suggestion that the other Islams, the alien and barbarous ones, have any real relevance at all.

I won’t pretend that my reply was any more cohesive or organized than razib’s salvo, but it is almost midnight and I’ve got an R01 to finish, so I’ll leave it here 🙂 I blog at Beliefnet, and invite you all to come find what barbarity I am espousing on any given day!

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8 Responses to Response to Razib

  1. Wm Jas says:

    Can someone define fitnat for the benefit of us damp masses? My guess is that it’s typo or variant of fitna. (I thought at first it might be the plural, as in ayah/ayat, but La Wik says otherwise.) Is it, or does it mean something else?

  2. Ibn Sina says:

    in this context, it means “division” or “strife” – yo’e right, its the same as fitna, but actually theres a arabic “t” letter at the end of the word which is either silent or spoken depending on context.

  3. Hitch says:

    Very interesting exchange. For me it seems that you both focus on different levels. Razib makes a fairly large scale geo-political argument. You make an argument for the particulars of local culture. He emphasizes that one can and must look at larger joining strands of identity, you emphasize the local diversity of identity as the substance of the matter.

    I cannot help but think that in a way you both have a point.

    I think your remarks on enlightenment and secularism are interesting because they encode in part the different way of thinking. See for most “secularists” enlightenment is not a super-rational moment. It is a motion from one political/social tribalist system dominates all to a motion of religious pluralism, toleration and individual empowerment. People like Paine did not emphasize reason and common sense because they were hyper-rational, but because the public as a whole had to be moved from a mental state of servitude to kings, to a state of empowered and “enlightened” decision making. They had to “reason” and use their senses to be part of the process.

    But I understand that enlightenment is also equated, especially in religious circles to a motion to anti-religious tendencies (encoded with this idea of “super-rationality” as a dogmatic rejection of emotions and religious experiences). But for someone like me that is a consequence of pluralism more than an essentialist part of what enlightenment is.

    But is the enlightenment program unfinished, flawed and so forth? Absolutely. But the core concepts are critical in affirming a society where diverging views and real pluralism are possible.

    And, I may be overly simplistic, perhaps wrong, this is a tension with some belief systems. Enlightenment does mean a move towards separating expression and ideas from violent retribution. “Unwelcome” opinions become expressible. To me that seems to be part of the rejection of enlightenment. It’s a selective pluralism, one that does not accept some world views, namely those that go too far in colliding with ones own.

    Even within the “west” there is no uniformity on this, as a detailed look at the US and various parts of Europe illustrates.

    But to bring this long arc back, I’d agree that the category of barbarism is a difficult one. It does rely on an ideal of enlightenment that certainly is not fully realized. At the same time, there is also no absence of values to render observations into something that is content-free, as Razib indicates. So I see a complex space there to articulate what the interplay between identities and consequence to others mean, and what values we want to attach to what we observe.

  4. Chip Smith says:


    Perhaps a dumb question, but can you further explain what you mean when you say that your religious views have become “gnarly”?

  5. David Hume says:

    chip, the main issue is that i used to have a simple model. i don’t any more. but very few regular people have enough knowledge of detail to understand the moving parts, so i don’t even start.

  6. David Hume says:

    to elaborate on my last remark

    1) there are those who assume i’m ignorant because of my opinions due to the nature of my conclusions

    2) there the ignorants who believe i reach my conclusions through the same route as their ignorance

    if i was a politician, this would not be a major issue. but i am not of a political mindset.

  7. Wm Jas says:

    @Ibn Sina

    Thanks. I’ve added a note about that variant spelling to the Wikipedia article.

  8. Chip Smith says:


    Thanks for the clarification. Upon reflection, “gnarly” is apt. You should write a book.

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