24 October, 2013

Escaping the Echo Chamber of Modernity

Whilst Reading: A Portrait of Sofia Kramskoya, the Painter’s Wife (Ivan Kramskoi, 1866)
Image Source.

 Earlier this year I asked if the 'great books' have a place in the 21st century. Jospeh Sobran says that they do:
"Dogged readers of my columns will observe that I habitually quote a handful of classic writings, chiefly the Shakespeare works, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and The Federalist Papers. If those readers suspect that these few masterpieces pretty much exhaust my learning, they are correct.... In Mark Twain’s famous definition, a classic is a book everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read. Gulp! But those daunting all-time must-reading lists are a little misleading. It can take years to master a single great author. Much of what we “know” about the classics is what we’ve heard about them in advance, and we may not get beyond their reputations until we’ve read them several times.

Yet the few classics I know thoroughly have been invaluable, even in my work as a journalist. To know a single old book well, even if it hasn’t been canonized as a “classic,” is to have a certain anchorage you can’t get from most contemporary writing.

There are no particular classics, not even Shakespeare, that you “must” read. But you should find a few meritorious old writers you find absorbing and not only read them, but live with them, until they become voices in your mind — a sort of internal council you can consult at any time.

When you internalize an author whose vision or philosophy is both rich and out of fashion, you gain a certain immunity from the pressures of the contemporary. The modern world, with its fads, propaganda, and advertising, is forever trying to herd us into conformity. Great literature can help us remain fad-proof....

When confronted with a new topic or political issue, I often ask myself what Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, or James Madison — or, among more recent authors, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, or Michael Oakeshott — would have thought of it. Not that these men were always right: that would be impossible, since they often disagree with each other. The great authors have no specific “message.”

But at least they had minds of their own. They weren’t mere products of the thought-factory we call public opinion, which might be defined as what everyone thinks everyone else thinks. They provide independent, poll-proof standards of judgment, when the government, its schools, and the media, using all the modern techniques of manipulation, try to breed mass uniformity in order to make us more manageable." (emphasis added) [1]

 I agree entirely with Mr. Sobran's conclusions. There are plenty of reasons to read "the classics," but one of the most powerful is the sense of perspective it brings. Few things are worse than an echo chamber. From this curse modern technological wonders offer no relief. The internet may have killed geographic parochialism, but it has made an insular intellectual life all the easier. In a world where confirmation bias is just a click away a concerted effort must be made to find and listen to those unafraid to stand against the tide.

Studying 'old books' is a perfect way to do this. The classics are sometimes maligned because they do not  reflect the central values or address the concerns of the present moment. This critique misses the mark. The 'backwardness' of the classics is exactly why they should be read. In the echo chamber of modernity it is easy to forget just how new and unusual most of modern society's cherished ideals truly are. It is worth your time to spend a few hours engaging with minds that passionately proclaimed what are now antique ideals. Much can be learned from alien minds that believed honor compelled one to act or that the first role of a leader was to rectify names. So invite Seneca and Caesar into your bedroom; bring Xunzi and Sima Qian to your den. Theirs is a doorway into a world apart -- and with it, a window to view your own.


[1] Joseph Sobran. "Reading Old Books." The Imaginative Conservative.  8 July 2013.  H/t to Isegoria.

17 October, 2013

Not Everyone Likes Sunzi

The Great Kangxi.

Source: Wikimedia.

Born Aixin-Jueluo Xuanye and styled Kangxi, his reign was the longest of any emperor. To this day no Chinese scholar has followed in the foot steps of Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and gathered China's best historians together to rank all of China's emperors, but if the task ever is completed, we can be assured that the Kangxi Emperor would receive a choice spot on the list. He ruled the Celestial Empire in a day when this title was well deserved.

Xuanye was a man of two natures. Famed for his calligraphy and poetry, the Kangxi Emperor presented himself to the world as a Confucian scholar but rode and shot as good as any true Manchu. He managed to strengthen the Chinese bureaucracy without weakening Manchu power. Under his rule the Qing economy began its 'efflorescence' despite a major rebellion in Southern China and near continuous warfare in Taiwan, Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. Because of Xuanye's tireless efforts the Qing line was accepted by the Chinese people and it is because of his determination China's modern borders have their current shape.

The Kangxi emperor was one of the great men of human history. He was also not impressed with Sunzi. 

Said he:
"For in war it’s experience of action that matters. The so-called Seven Military Classics are full of nonsense about water and fire, lucky omens and advice on the weather, all at random and contradicting each other. I told my officials once that if you followed these books, you’d never win a battle. Li Guangdi said that in that case, at least, you should study classical texts like the Zuo Zhuan, but I told him no, that too is highflown but empty. All one needs is an inflexible will and careful planning." [1]

To attain victory all one needs is an inflexible will. "Inflexible will" is one way to describe the Kangxi's schedule:
"Admittedly there has to be a limit to the work that any one person can do, and when the Ping-yang prefect, Chin, boasted that he could handle seven or eight hundred items of business in one day, I demoted him, saying: “I’ve been ruling for forty years, and only during the Wu Sangui rebellion did I handle five hundred items of business in one day. Nor did I myself hold the brush and write the documents, and even so I could not get to bed until midnight. You may fool other people but you can’t fool me.” In other military campaigns there were sometimes up to four hundred memorials, but usually there are about fifty a day and it’s not too hard to read them, and even to correct the mistakes in them." [2]

More interesting is what the emperor studied while actually on the campaign trail:
"Before we moved against Galdan in 1696 I told the senior officers—Manchu, Mongol, and Chinese —to meet together by Banner and discuss how we might anticipate Galdan’s movements and how we should deploy our own troops. Even the most casual suggestions were to be collected and reported to me. After the basic strategy of a western strike from Ningxia and a central strike from Beijing across the Gobi was agreed upon, the Council of Princes and High Officials worked out the details of rations for soldiers and servants, fodder for camels, the number of carts, and so on, basing their figures on an estimated 10,790 troops in the western army, and 8,130 in the center—with four horses, one servant, eighty days’ basic rations, and an extra two pecks of rice per month for each active combatant soldier (with the exception of the gunners, two of whom could share one servant).

For my part, I reviewed the campaign instructions of my ancestors’ victories and combined them with the demands of this new campaign.” [3]

In his campaigns against the Zunghars Xuanye valued his Manchu ancestor's campaign instructions far more than the words of the ancient Chinese strategists. He was not the first to belittle the Chinese strategic canon. In China snubbing Sunzi is itself a veritable military tradition.

Wrote the Grand Historian two millennia before the Kangxi's day:

Huo Qubing was little given to idle talk. But he possessed great daring and initiative. The emperor once tried to teach him the principles of warfare as expounded by the ancient philosophers Sun Zi and Wu Zi, but he replied. “The only thing that matters is how one's own strategies are going to work. There is no need to study the old-fashioned rules of warfare!” [4]

Many of China's greatest commanders would dispute this. For every Huo Qubing of Chinese history there is a Cao Cao, who treasured the Sunzi so much that he wrote his own commentary for it.

But there is an important difference between men like Cao Cao and Huo Qubing. Cao Cao's greatest enemies were Chinese. He spent his days fighting other Chinese warlords and the kingdoms they created. They were the kind of enemies the strategies of the Seven Military Classics--written for the most part in a vicious world of  Warring States--were designed to defeat.

The authors of the Sunzi never saw a steppe horde. Such a thing was beyond their imaginations. Yet this was exactly the kind of enemy many Chinese generals spent their lives trying to defeat. Huo Qubing and his flying cavalry columns fought their way to fame in the wars against the Xiongnu confederacy of the Northern steppes; the Kangxi told his generals to ignore China's strategic canon while campaigning against the Mongols of the Zunghar Khanate.

The authors of the Sunzi and the other military classics operated under the assumption that those who would read their words would be warring against a bureaucratic state that fielded large armies of free-holding farmers led by professional generals. Their stratagems reflected these assumptions; these strategies could prove disastrous when these assumptions did not match the enemy Chinese soldiers faced. The advice to not totally surround enemy soldiers and force them to fight to the death  makes a great deal of sense in the conditions Sunzi and company envisioned. [5] This same advice is ruinous when fighting steppe hordes who have no land or homes to protect and are masters of the strategic retreat. As long as an avenue of escape is possible, the nomads could not be defeated. To defeat a nomadic army is to surround it, surprise it, and slaughter all of it without offering hope of quarter or escape. [6]

This is an irony of Chinese military history. In many ways the Chinese strategic tradition better equips Chinese statesmen to deal with the challenges of the modern, 'multi-polar' world of today than it ever did equip the statesman of the traditional Chinese world order.


[1] Jonathan D. Spence. trans and ed. Emperor: A Self Portrait of Kang-hsi. (New York: Alfred A Knopf). 1974. p. 22

[2] Ibid. p. 6.

[3] Ibid. p. 18.

  [4] Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty II. Translated by Burton Watson. (New York: Columbia University Press). 1993. p. 177.

[5] This is a formula that appears in all of the Seven Military Classics, but perhaps most explicitly in section five of the Sima Fa. Sawyer, Ralph. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books.) 2007. p.149.

[6] A point made by David Graff in "Strategy and contingency in the Tang defeat of the Eastern Turks, 629- 630," in Nicola Di Cosmo, ed. Warfare in Inner Asian history (500-1800). (Leiden: Brill). 2001.

15 October, 2013

Akbar Ahmed on Terrorism and the Collapse of the Tribal Order

Car bomb in Peshawar.
Source: Mohammad Sajjad/Associated Press. 29 September 2013

Last week I penned a two-post series on the purpose of and underlying reasons for the savage terrorist attacks radical Islamic groups have launched across the world. I argued that these attacks were not "senseless" acts of violence, nor merely the results of fanatic Islamic fundamentalism, but a reaction to the collapse of traditional tribal society that defined the old Islamic order.

If Malise Ruthven's New York Review of Books review of Akbar Ahmed's newest book, The Thistle and the Drone, accurately represents its content, then the esteemed professor presents a stunningly similar argument: 
"In contrast to Obama and his advisers, who identify “ideological extremism” as the primary motive for terror, Ahmed looks to the complex interactions between national state systems and tribal identities, as the latter react to the imposition of state authority. Like Hadji Murad, tribal leaders are torn between collaboration and resistance. While bin Laden himself may have become an ideologue, driven by a vision of global jihad against America, the Asiris and Yemenis who signed up as his “muscle hijackers” were motivated, he suggests, more by local considerations of honor and revenge, the usual responses of tribes that feel themselves threatened....

In this, as in numerous other settings, Ahmed puts his finger on the crucial linkage connecting the localisms of tribal conflicts with the broader Islamic notion of global jihad. His theme is not some vaguely defined “clash of civilizations” but rather the clash between metropolitan centers and rural peripheries that is internal to all modern civilizations—whether these be Islamic, Western, Russian, or Chinese. He provides numerous examples to show that the “thistles” of Tolstoy’s metaphor are to be found in a wide variety of regions, including Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Pakistan’s northwest frontier, as well as Berber North Africa, Nigeria, and Aceh in Indonesia.
Ahmed produces an impressive body of data to support his argument that tribal systems are coming under attack everywhere from the forces of the modernizing state. With regard to Waziristan, for example, where he served as a Pakistani political agent before entering academic life, he finds that
every aspect of life—religious… and political leadership, customs, and codes—is in danger of being turned upside down. The particles that formed the kaleidoscope of history and remained stationary for so long have now been shaken about in bewildering patterns, with no telling when and how they will settle into some recognizable forms.
The linkage with Islam, he suggests, is more symbolic than religious or ideological. In many Muslim societies the tribes acquire prestige through claimed (if questionable) genealogical descent from the Prophet Muhammad. In these patrilineal societies the Islamic identity thus sanctioned confers legitimacy on practices that may differ significantly from the Islamic norms applied elsewhere. For example, the Pukhtunwali, or tribal code, of the Pukhtun people of Pakistan and Afghanistan combines notions of hospitality and revenge with the “constant compulsion to safeguard what is normatively understood as honor.” The same code denies inheritance to women and permits interest on loans, contrary to sharia law.
Although the Pukhtunwali tends to be glorified over other forms of identity “including Islam itself,” Pukhtuns do not recognize any contradiction with Islam. Their claimed link to the Prophet through a common ancestor is, Ahmed writes, a “cultural master stroke” that provides every local custom with a “religious cover, however tenuous.” Hence interference with local custom, or the writ of local elders, can be represented as an attack on Islam that justifies jihad.

Ahmed argues, convincingly enough, that the acts of terror or violence directed at the US or its allies are set off as much by revenge based on values of tribal honor as by extremist ideologies." (emphasis added) [1]
I encourage you to read the whole review.


Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context, pt I” and “Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context, pt II
T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage. 9 & 10 October 2013.

“The Middle East’s tribal DNA”.  
Philip Salzman.. The Middle East Quarterly. Vol. 15 (1). Winter 2008. p. 23-33.

 "Rising Literacy and a Shrinking Birth Rate: A Look at the Root Causes of the Arab Revolution."  
Emmanuel Todd interview with Der Spiegel. Der Spiegel English. 20 May 2011.


[1] Malise Ruthven. "Terror: The Hidden Source." New York Review of Books. 24 October 2013. Hat tip to Fabius Maximus.

10 October, 2013

Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context, pt II

How to make sense of radical Islamic terrorism? This violence is barbaric - but it is not senseless. When you understand the society from which savagery has sprung, the cold logic behind these attacks becomes all too apparent. Part II of a series; Part I is here.   

How do you save a civilization from implosion?

Modernization has never been pretty. It destroyed Christendom before the growth revolution picked up steam and left the European subcontinent in disorder for two centuries more. The collapse of the Chinese imperial order and the traditional family that supported it was a cataclysmic string of tragedies that left tens of millions dead. Now it is the Ummah's turn to walk through the threshing ground of modernity.

Traditional Islamic civilization does not need to fear spectacular cultural or political collapse. These are the after shocks of a more mundane type of destruction. Social anthropologist extraordinaire Emmanuel Todd explains:
SPIEGEL: Monsieur Todd, in the middle of the Cold War, in the days of Leonid Brezhnev, you predicted the collapse of the Soviet system. In 2002, you described the economic and imperial erosion of the United States, a global superpower. And, four years ago, you and your colleague Youssef Courbage predicted the unavoidable revolution in the Arab world. Are you clairvoyant?

Todd: The academic as fortune-teller -- a tempting idea. But Courbage and I merely analyzed the reasons for a possible -- or let's say likely -- revolution in the Arab world, an inexorable change, which could also have unfolded as a gradual evolution. Our work was like that of geologists who compile the signs of an imminent earthquake or volcanic eruption. But when exactly the eruption takes place, and its form and severity -- these things cannot be predicted in an exact way.

SPIEGEL: On what indicators do you base your probability calculation?

Source: "Rising Literacy and a Shrinking Birth Rate:
A Look at the Root Causes of the Arab Revolution

Der Spiegel English. 20 May 2011.
Todd: Mainly on three factors: the rapid increase in literacy, particularly among women, a falling birthrate and a significant decline in the widespread custom of endogamy, or marriage between first cousins. This shows that the Arab societies were on a path toward cultural and mental modernization, in the course of which the individual becomes much more important as an autonomous entity.

SPIEGEL: And what is the consequence?

Todd: That this development ends with the transformation of the political system, a spreading wave of democratization and the conversion of subjects into citizens. Although this follows a global trend, it can take some time. (emphasis added). [11]
 Monsieur Todd explains the fall of the old order from the heights of the ivory tower. He can collect data dispassionately and pronounce revolutions from afar. Those closer to the upheaval are not granted such liberties. For them the death of civilization is an intensely personal affair. To understand their view--and how it can lead to radical terrorism--we must see the disintegration of their society as they do.

The War Nerd gives us a chance to do just that. Several days before the attack on the Westgate, he suggested that Western malls were a particularly conspicuous assault on the old Arab order:
In Najran, in the most remote corner of Saudi Arabia, a state so afraid of Western contamination that it doesn’t even issue tourist visas, there is a mall. And, when I lived there, you could watch —literally watch—the conflict between Sharia Law and Mall culture, five times a day.

The mall was anchored by a huge market, HyperPanda, complete with its own cheery green and red logo. HyperPanda sold everything from camel meat to iPods.... You go in the mall and the logos of all the high-end retailers of Europe and Asia wink at you, and there are even chairs and benches for the tired grandmother to slump in while the kids try their skate-shoes on the marble floors...
All this, only eight miles from the Yemen border. It’s amazing, actually. Amazing that the regime tolerates it at all, because as jihadis know, or sense, all social change is corrosive, and worse still, unpredictably corrosive, eating away at norms that don’t seem to have any direct connection to the change itself.

HyperPanda’s most direct affront to the culture is that it provides an attractive nuisance, in insurance terms, to the adolescent population. Malls draw teens in Najran just like they do in Minnesota. But the Mutaween have taken a, shall we say, proactive stance toward that fact in Najran.
HyperPanda in the Dubai.

The Mutaween (“Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice”) has hundreds of men, and even a few women, working in Najran. Some wear the big beards and special headdress, but others are in disguise. And what these undercover morality police do, mostly, is patrol HyperPanda to see if boys are talking to girls, or looking at girls, or throwing girls little folded-up slips of paper with their cell phone numbers. That last one is perhaps the greatest threat to morality in town, and HyperPanda is the scene of most such crimes. The Mutaween mount multi-cop surveillance routines, with some disguised as Malays or Filipinos, to detect any instances of heterosexual contact at the mall.

The culture, the law, are very clear. No pre-marital fooling around, and that includes flirting at HyperPanda. Mall rules are very clear too: It’s an obvious place for boys and girls to check each other out. When mall meets culture, hijinks ensue—and murders sometimes follow, with the male relatives of the girl who’s been compromised at HyperPanda hunting down and killing the boy who accosted her.

Ten years ago, the mall didn’t exist. Cell phones, the other contributor to the delinquency of minors in Najran, have only been around for 20 years, like the internet that gives girls notions of romance, thanks to the South Korean soap operas they all watch.

Everything is tilting toward the mall, away from the old rules, and the resistance is always futile, and worse yet, ridiculous. Every day one piece of this resistance breaks away. Yesterday it was the new head of the Mutaween admitting that there’s no Scriptural basis for forbidding women to drive.

That will infuriate men in Saudi, because as devout as they consider themselves to be, this was never just a religious argument. Orthodoxy never is; it’s always what’s comfortable and familiar. It would be news to these guys, watching the old world crumble, that people in South Dakota are afraid that “creeping Sharia” is about to creep its way into Fargo, presumably on insulated booties.

Kids in Najran already hate the Mutaween. They see kids flirting on TV from the west, and cops chasing grownup criminals, and it strikes them as ridiculous that so many cops devote all their time to the prevention of flirting. Now that the King has ordered the Mutaween to be nice, hate will turn to contempt. Pieces of the old walls will start falling even faster.

It’s hard to see how defensive jihad is, when you come from the homeland of the malls. At first, when you get to a place like Najran, you notice how alien and annoying everything is, how unlike California. Slowly you begin to realize that all the ingredients of California are being added to the mix.

It’s amazing how well most people handle this very volatile, unstable mix. When people are flooded with so much alien culture and technology, you’d expect wilder upheavals than we’re getting, especially in rural patriarchies like the one that used to operate unchallenged in Saudi Arabia. It’s not a surprise—not at all—that a fraction of the young males from there joined up for jihad. The real surprise is that there are so few of them. [12]
HyperPanda delivers a blow to the traditionalists no number of crusades, sieges, Nakbahs or democratic liberations ever could. The traditional Islamic system is well prepared for their type of shock. Defending the honor of the near in-group from the faraway out-group was a fundamental moral value of the Arab tribal system; Islam hijacked this tribal frame of mind, elevating the conflict between in and out to the entire Muslim community. The tribal mindset does not fear division and conflict between dar al-Islam and dar al-harb. Pressure from the outside is business as usual.

But HyperPanda does not come from the outside. The old system is not falling apart because of anything intentional the outside has done at all. Middle Eastern women are choosing to have less children, marry outside their families, and pursue education because they want to. Arab teens are watching dreadful K-dramas and flirting in malls because they want to. The enemies of the traditional order don't come from the House of War. The threat comes from within.


Totalitarian regimes have it easy. They have a ready-made response when people start to lose faith in the system: round the offenders up, force 'em to write self criticisms, and send them to the Gulag -- or if that is too complex, simply kill them. Just enough should be done to strike fear in the hearts of everyone else. Fear works when faith fails.

This is not a universal solution. Totalitarian methods prove fantastically impossible in decentralized societies. Arab tribes are a prime example. There are few human cultures so overtly hostile to centralized government as that sired by the Bedouin tradition (though the most zealous citizens of the Anglosphere can get pretty close). Anthropologist Philip Salzman describes the common tribal attitude towards their governments as one of the 'central tenants of [Arab] deep culture': "Middle Easterners regard states as criminal organizations to be distrusted, avoided, and, whenever possible, defeated and conquered." [3]

Using the government to enforce social norms or ideological purity just isn't in the cards. Governments have tried to do so, but as the Saudi example suggests, this method has a poor track record. If the more radical elements are truly committed to keeping things the way they are, they must find a way to cajole, convince, pressure, or dupe the modernizers away from modernization. They cannot coerce their fellow Arabs back into the stone age.

This point is important. I will repeat it: The Arab world has plenty of people who want modernization. A small minority actively agitate for change. A much larger group cannot be bothered to agitate for anything, but are content to let history take its course. This second group are the people who keep Arabian reactionaries from sleeping properly each night. They know that letting history run its course is to declare defeat. They also know that they alone do not have power to derail history from this chosen path. Defeat seems assured.

Those most agitated by the erosion of the old Islamic order do not accept defeat. They will not accept defeat until they know with a certainty that the game is up and the rest of their society will never rise up to make a more perfect Ummah. But only if the idle majority joins in unity with the committed minority can this dream become a reality. The most committed are willing to go to extreme measures to awaken the apathetic to their senses.

This is the social context that gives birth to radical Islamic terrorism. From the radical's perspective,  compromise is just another step towards defeat; moderation or apathy from inside the system pose greater dangers than pressure from outside it. Thus the central aim of radical groups is to create a political environment where moderation and compromise is not possible.

This chosen end leads easily to extremist means. An example closer to home may help us understand why this is so. 


The antebellum South could never decide if they loved or loathed Thomas Jefferson. They loved him for the obvious reasons. By 1860 they would justify secession with his fabled words. In those early days of glory and gunpowder, it was gratifying to pronounce that the spirit of the American revolution was the spirit of a Southerner. But not everything Mr. Jefferson wrote was congenial to Southern sensibilities. From his pen came venomous eloquence that undermined everything the Deep South's faux aristocracy pretended to be:
Public Enemy of the Old South.

Thomas Jefferson. By Rembandt Peel (1800). 
Source: White House Historical Association.
"There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it... The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other.... And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. -- But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation." [4]
Thomas Jefferson's actions never matched the high standard set by his rhetoric. This did not matter much in the eyes of his contemporaries; a plantation master was never to be judged on what he physically accomplished. These parlor patricians took pride in their independence from work. Sweat was for Yankees - and slaves. They strove to live in a world of the mind. 

Here the words of Thomas Jefferson tore through their pageantry. His sin was to express with eloquence sentiments shared by many - too many. Whether or not this was his intention, with such words Jefferson forced slavers to step down from their abode in the clouds and see their elect existence for what it really was: a base, reprehensible tyranny that corrupted all it touched, running counter to the courtly system of morals southerners pretended to honor. Yet this was not the most frightening thing about Mr. Jefferson and his words. What most disturbed those committed to the South's 'peculiar institution' was not the realization that it was a system of tyranny. No, what disturbed them most was that other southerners had the gall to admit it.  

The historian William W. Freehling once asked how a radical minority of a minority could lead the United States into Civil War. Part of the answer can be found in the paranoia of this class. Condemned by the Europeans, overtaken by the Yankee economy, and in perpetual fear of slave rebellion, the antebellum South was a world besieged. Who did this people under assault, the most radical slavers, hate the most? Freehling’s answer: Other southerners. They loathed and feared Thomas Jefferson's intellectual descendants -- southern gentry who sat rich and fine on their plantations, but all the while discontent in their hearts with the tyrants they were.  The fire-brands of the South hated those who were happy to let the demographic and economic trends of their day lead slavery to its eventual demise.  If the South was to be the South, then all southerners needed a gut for slavery. 

Soon the weak-hearted elements of Southern society forced its most trenchant members to extremes:
Perptualists [who believed slavery should be saved or extended] early discovered that apologists [like Jefferson] could neither be forced into consolidations of the institution nor forced away from increasing its vulnerabilities. The result was early loss of proslavery opportunities and early emergence of crimped and contained slave power.

The second and third generation of slave holding perpetualists drew the proper conclusion. If the South was ever to be a South, actively warring against anti-slavery, Jeffersonians passive failure to man the barricades had to be contested as aggressively as apologists’ tame attempts to chip away at the institution Thomas Jefferson epitomized why fire-eaters had to rally the irresolute. Such necessity profoundly shaped Southern extremist politics. [5]

As more and more states started to look (and act) like Maryland the question became more desperate. How do we keep the system alive? More importantly, how do we keep our own slave holders in line? How do we keep the South united against the moral assault from the outside?

The answer is fairly simple: we do everything our power to create a world divided into ‘us’ vs ‘them,’ anything that will force our moderates and the apathetic to pick a side. Even if it means war.

It is a tactic old as time. And it is a tactic we see repeated in the Middle East today. Like the antebellum South, theirs is a society radically different from those around it, subject to cultural incursions from the outside, apparently doomed to the forces of history, and fatally weak to the claim that it is oppressive and immoral. Many people living in the old order are not emotionally invested in it; a radical only needs to see the crowds at a Haifa Wehbe concert to a know that too many of their compatriots are cheering its death.These people will not be moved to action unless something radical is done.

Some people make the mistake of thinking these terrorist attacks are about Westerners or Christians. They are not. They never have been. [6] Jihadism isn’t about destroying the West – it is about creating an Ummah that has no West in it. There is no room for compromise in his vision. If the Ummah is to be what it is supposed to be then the moderates must be forced to pick a side. 

This is what barbarity is for. This is why innocent men, women, and children are being gunned down in malls and blown up in market places. It forces everyone to take a side. Barbarity precludes compromise. It takes advantage of the old tribal urge to unite and defend the near us from the far other. And if these savage tactics de-humanize Muslims in eyes of the rest of the world – well, all the better. In the traditional Islamic system pressure from the outside is business as usual.


[1] Emmanuel Todd interview with Der Spiegel. "Rising Literacy and a Shrinking Birth Rate: A Look at the Root Causes of the Arab Revolution." Der Spiegel English. 20 May 2011.

[2] Gary Bretcher. "Jihad vs. The Shopping Mall." NSWFCorp. 20 September 2013.

[3] Philip Salzman. "Why the Middle East is the Way it Is." The Hedgehog Review. Vol. 13 (3). Fall 2011
[4] Merrill D. Peterson, ed. Notes on the State of Virginia: Thomas Jefferson. New York: Library of America, 1984. pp. 288-291. 

[5] William Freehling. The Road to Disunion, vol I: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854. (New York: Oxford University Press). 1991. pp. 120-121. This entire argument is adapted from his book.  

[6] Attacks against Israel - and to a certain extant, India - are generally an exception to this.

09 October, 2013

Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context, pt I

How to make sense of radical Islamic terrorism? This violence is barbaric - but it is not senseless. When you understand the society from which savagery has sprung, the cold logic behind these attacks becomes all too apparent.  Part I in a series; Part II is here

Smoke rises from the Westgate Mall

Source: Jerome Delay/AP. 23 September 2013. 

Brendon O'Niell says it is time to recognize the sheer barbarity of 21st century Islamic terror attacks:
"In Western news-making and opinion-forming circles, there’s a palpable reluctance to talk about the most noteworthy thing about modern Islamist violence: its barbarism, its graphic lack of moral restraint. This goes beyond the BBC's yellow reluctance to deploy the T-word – terrorism – in relation to the bloody assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya at the weekend. Across the commentating board, people are sheepish about pointing out the historically unique lunacy of Islamist violence and its utter detachment from any recognisable moral universe or human values. We have to talk about this barbarism; we have to appreciate how new and unusual it is, how different it is even from the terrorism of the 1970s or of the early twentieth century. We owe it to the victims of these assaults, and to the principle of honest and frank political debate, to face up to the unhinged, morally unanchored nature of Islamist violence in the 21st century." [1]
I applaud Mr. O'Niell's frankness. Islamic terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab are savage, barbaric, and evil. Period. They should be seen by all and denounced by all as the monstrous brutes that they have become. Civilization has a pale; this lies beyond it.

But stating this is not enough. We cannot simply name a man a monster -- we must try to understand why so many men want to be monsters in the first place. O'Niell is less helpful here:
"Time and again, one reads about Islamist attacks that seem to defy not only the most basic of humanity’s moral strictures but also political and even guerrilla logic.... consider the attack on Westgate in Kenya, where both the old and the young, black and white, male and female were targeted. With no clear stated aims from the people who carried the attack out, and no logic to their strange and brutal behaviour, Westgate had more in common with those mass mall and school shootings that are occasionally carried out by disturbed people in the West than it did with the political violence of yesteryear." [2]
There are problems with this line of thought. In his zeal to denounce Islamic terrorism O'Niell makes two errors: 1) He assumes that indiscriminate slaughter of 'the young and old, black and white, male and female' is a 'new and unusual' development in human history and 2) that the sheer barbarity of these acts 'defy logic.'

Perhaps the Khwarazmians also thought the slaughter they witnessed was something new under the sun:
"The Mongols now entered the town and drove all the inhabitants, nobles and commoners, out on to the plain. For four days and nights the people continued to come out of the town; the Mongols detained them all, separating the women fiom the men. Alas! How many peri-like ones did they drag from the bosom: of their husbands! How many sisters did they separate from their brothers! How many parents were distraught at the ravishment of their virgin daughters!

The Mongols ordered that, apart from four hundred artisans whom they specified and selected from amongst the men and some children, girls and boys, whom they bore into captivity, the whole population, including the women and children, should be killed, and no one, whether woman or man, be spared. The people of Merv were then distributed among the soldiers and levies, and, in short, to each man was allotted the execution of three or four hundred persons." [3]
The indiscriminate massacre of 700,000 men and women and children outside the walls of Merv was barbarous. It was savage. It was evil. But it was not illogical. The horror and slaughter of Mongol conquests often seemed senseless - even ludicrous - to the historians who recorded them. But to the Mongols it had a very real and useful purpose.  When these massacres are seen in the context of the strategic dilemmas faced by the Mongol forces, the imperial system Chinggis Khan created out of whole cloth, and the basic dynamics that defined the encounters between Eurasian steppe peoples and their sedentary neighbors for centuries, the unrestrained butchering of men and women begins to make more sense. [4]

To understand something is not to justify it. The Mongol hordes wrought inexcusable evils. But these evils were deliberately chosen and should be understood and described as such.

All that remains of Merv

Source: Mark and Delewan. Wikimedia. 7 March 2006. o

The Mongols of the twelfth century are not the the terrorists of the twenty first. No radical Muslim slaughters for the same reason hardened Mongols once did. But neither slaughtered simply for the sake of it. While Islamic terrorists attacks can seem the acts of "lunatics" who have "no logic," nothing could be further from the truth. There is a cold and frightening logic that defines these terrorist attacks. As with medieval historian bewailing the Mongol advance, latter day observers struggle to understand the use of barbaric terror because they are unfamiliar with the social and political context from which the barbarians come.


There is a temptation to look at radical terrorist attacks across the globe and boil them down to their most obvious common element: Islam. This is a step in the right direction but ultimately an insufficient explanation. This theory can be dismantled with a simple question: what of the Islamic communities who have produced no terrorists?

Kingdom of Champa, c. 1300 AD

Source: Wikimedia user clioherodotus. 26 July 2010.
Consider the Cham. (Pronounced jam, as the type spread on toast). Today the Cham are a minority ethnic group whose communities are scattered across the lower Mekong delta in Vietnam and Cambodia. They were once a more powerful people whose kingdom--Champa---stretched across the southern half of modern Vietnam. Theirs was a maritime polity; when not sacking Angkor or fighting off Viet attacks on the land, the Cham traded far and wide by sea. It is through their contacts with Malay, Indian, and Arabic seafarers that the Cham were introduced to Islam. By the 1600s the Cham ruling class and literati had converted.

The Cham's subsequent history is not happy. The Vietnamese continued their grand Nam tiến and whittled away at the Cham polities century by century until their last capital fell into Vietnamese hands in 1832. Many of the Cham fled to Cambodia, and there they lived as an exile race on the fringes of Khmer society. In retrospect, their treatment by traditional Khmer society does seems not too bad. In those days they were targets of discrimination; when the Red Khmer came to power they were targets of extermination.

 The Cham were everything the Khmer Rouge despised: many of Cambodia's most successful livestock merchants were Cham, all Cham spoke an alien language, refused to eat or dress in a standardized way, and most damningly of all, were fiercely loyal to their God. They paid a staggering price for their faith:
"the Moslem Cham, were sought out and killed as part of a "centrally organized genocidal campaign." Whole Cham villages were leveled.  For example, in the district of Kompong Xiem five Cham hamlets were demolished and their population of 20,000 reportedly massacred; in the district of Koong Neas only four Cham apparently survived out of a population of 20,000 inhabitants.121 The Chain Grand Mufti was thrown into boiling water and then hit on the head with an iron bar; the First Mufti was beaten to death and thrown into a ditch; the Second Mufti was tortured and disemboweled; and the chairman of the Islamic Association of Kampuchea died of starvation in prison." [5]
One of every three Cham died during the three years of Khmer Rouge rule. [6]

To this day the Cham live on the margins of Cambodian society. They are poor, have no power, and are often taken advantage of by the powers that be. They are also Muslim. Islam is as the core of their identity. One Cham in Vietnam succinctly summed his people's common view in an interview with anthropologist Philip Taylor: "To be Muslim is to be Cham."[7]  The Khmer agree. In common speech Cambodians rarely use the word Cham at all-- when talking about the Cham they usually just call them "the Muslims" (buak Islaam --- ពួកឣិស្លាម) and call spoken Cham "Muslim language" (phiasaa Islaam --- ភាសាឣិស្លាម). [8] Their ethnicity and their faith cannot be divorced in the minds of the Cham or the society in which they live.
A Cham women from Vietnam

Source: photo by Adam Jones

This existence of the Cham and peoples like them are stumbling block to those who blame Islam alone for barbaric acts of terror. The Cham's identity is defined by their adherence to Islam. They are a people stripped of a kingdom, scattered and despised by cultures around them for centuries, and the target of a genocide which aimed to eradicate them and their faith.  Within living memory one of every three Cham died because of their religion. Alienated by their customs, language, and beliefs from the community in which they live, the Cham who survived the killing fields have known little but poverty. They have not benefited substantially from Cambodia's recent economic growth and have no strong voice in the Cambodian political system.

If there was ever a group of Muslims whose history is bitter enough to justify radicalism or whose present condition is desperate enough to encourage terrorism, it would be the Cham.

Yet not one of the Earth's 400,000 Cham has ever participated in terrorist attack. Never has a barbarian arose from their ranks.


If barbarity is not an inherit part of Islam, then from what source does it spring?  Lynn Rees offers a perceptive answer to our query:
The problem is less the software architecture of Islam and more the Arab firmware its embedded in. The Arabs reintroduced tribalism to parts of the Near East and Africa where it had been extinct for centuries along with Islam. The pernicious thing about our enabling of the House of Saud through our petrodollars is that the particular Islam they export comes with the most primeval of Arab tribalism. [9]
Lets talk a bit about the social system Mr. Rees names "Arab tribalism."

The historian Jack Goldstone has suggested that the great civilizations of Eurasia -- "Latin and Greek Christendom, the Islamic Caliphate, Hindu India, and Confucian China" - can be understood best when seen as complex systems."Despite wars and conquests, epidemics and famines, dynastic struggles and heterodox religious movements," he notes, "they remained basically true to their founding visions" responding to each disturbance with an eventual return to "equilibrium." [10]

Mr. Goldstone focuses on the imams and the qadis of medieval times, but the traditional Islamic order was much broader than the Caliphate or the Islamic theology that supported it. The chattering classes and the religious ideas they passed between themselves was just the top layer of Islamic civilization. More relevant for our search is its foundations - the basic structures of the Islamic order that shaped the daily lives of every man and child that lived within it. Though dynasties fell and economies collapsed, this bedrock survived the arrival of the Turks, the ravages of the Mongols, and the empires of the Europeans and molded both the dazzling cities of the Levant and the nomads of the Mahgreb.

The tribes of per-Mohaddeian Arabia 

Source: The human journey

This foundation was the traditional Arab endogamous community family, usually embedded in larger tribes, and marked by the lack of independence and education afforded to its women and the number of children they bore. The substructure spread with the original Arab conquests but long survived survived the demise of the the Caliphs. The Federal Research Division explains what a society built upon this structure looks like in modern times:
Syrian life centers on the extended family. The individual’s loyalty to his family is nearly absolute and usually overrides all other obligations. Except in the more sophisticated urban circles, the individual’s social standing depends on his family background. Although status is changing within the emerging middle class, ascribed rather than achieved status still regulates the average Syrian’s life. His honor and dignity are tied to the good repute of his kin group and, especially, to that of its women….

Because of the cohesiveness of religious and ethnic groups, they universally encourage endogamy, or the marriage of members within the group. Lineages, or groups of families tracing descent to a common ancestor, also strive for endogamy, although this is in fact less common, despite its theoretical desirability. Viewed as a practical bond between families, marriage often has political and economic overtones even among the poor….

Being a good family member includes automatic loyalty to kinsmen as well. Syrians employed in modern bureaucratic positions, such as government officials, therefore find impersonal impartiality difficult because its conflicts with the deeply held value of family solidarity…

Syrians have no similar ingrained feelings of loyalty toward a job, an employer, a coworker, or even a friend.

Women are viewed as weaker than men in mind, body, and spirit and therefore in need of male protection, particularly protection from nonrelated men. The honor of men depends largely on that of their women, and especially on that of their sisters; consequently, the conduct of women is expected to be circumspect, modest, and decorous, with their virtue above reproach. Veiling is rarely practiced in villages or tribes, but in towns and cities keeping one’s women secluded and veiled was traditionally considered a sign of elevated status. In the mid-1980s, the practice of wearing the veil was quite rare among young women in cities; however, the wearing of the hijab (a scarf covering the hair) was much more common. Wearing the hijab was sometimes more a symbol of Islamic affiliation than a token of modesty, and the garment underwent a revival in the 1980s as a subtle protest against the secular Baath regime. For this reason, the government discouraged the wearing of such Islamic apparel.

“The traditional code invests men as members of family groups with a highly valuable but easily damaged honor (ird). The slightest implication of unavenged impropriety on the part of the women in his family or of male infractions of the code of honesty and hospitality could irreparably destroy the honor of a family. In particular, female virginity before marriage and sexual fidelity afterward are essential to the maintenance of honor. In the case of a discovered transgression, the men of a family were traditionally bound to kill the offending woman, although in modern times she is more likely to be banished to a town or city where she is not known." (emphasis added). [10]

This is the traditional Arab social order. [11] This tribal familialism formed the bedrock of Islamic civilization since its genesis; when combined with Islamic religious authority it created an Ummah that could thrive in cosmopolitan fleshpots and rugged pastoral lands. Its fifteen thousand year history is a testament to how resilient and well structured a system it turned out to be.

But now the whole thing is falling apart. The repercussions of its fall will be heard for years - and they will be barbaric.  

Part II is here.


[1] Brendon O'Niell. "I'm sorry, but we have to talk about the barbarism of modern Islamic terrorism." The Telegraph. 24 September 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Juvayni. Genghis Khan: A History of the World Conqueror. trans. John Andrew Boyle. (Manchester: Manchester University Press). 1959. pp. 161-162

[4] Though dated, J.J. Saunders, The History of the Mongol Conquests. (Philadelphia: Univrsity of Pennsylvania Press). 1969. p. 63; David Morgan. The Mongols. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing). 2nd ed. 2007. p. 81-82 provide a fair example of this approach.

[5] Rudoplh J Rummel. Death by Government. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers). 1994. p. 188

[6] Ben Keirnan. Genocide and Resistance in Southeast Asia: Documentation, Denial, and Justice in Cambodia and East Timor. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: transaction Publishers). 2007. p. 72. Mr. Keirnan notes that this 36% death rate almost doubled the percentage of ethnic Khmers who died during the same period.

[7] Phillip Taylor. Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta: Place and Mobility in the Cosmopolitan Periphery. (Singapore: University of Singapore). p. 74

[8] This probably reflects the general tendency of Khmer to see religion through an ethnic lens. An encyclopedia will tell you that Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists; the Khmer will tell you they follow saasna Khmer - the Khmer religion.

[9] Jack Goldstone.  "The Origins of Western Superiority: A comment on Modes of Meta-History and Duchesne’s Indo-Europeans Article" Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, Vol 4, Issue I

[10] Lynn Rees comment (24 September 2013) on Trent Telenko. "Al Shabaab Sarajevo in Nairobi." Chicago Boyz. 23 September 2013.

[11] Federal Research Division. Syria: A Country Study. ed. Thomas Collelo. (Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress). 1996. H/t to HBDchick for this source.

[12] Anthropologist Philip Salzman's analysis of how the tribal system and its values fit into the Middle Eastern political order are worth reading. See "Why the Middle East is the Way it Is." The Hedgehog Review. Vol. 13 (3). Fall 2011. and "The Middle East's tribal DNA". The Middle East Quarterly. Vol. 15 (1). Winter 2008. p. 23-33.