0. Introduction: Narcissism of Minor Differences

One of the socio-political mechanisms that join civilization and war in a coevolutionary spiral is the ethno-sectarian realization of what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences, which not only accounts for ongoing disputes between neighbors, but can explain how such ongoing disputes can turn into morbid fascinations and neurotic obsessions that come to exclude rational calculation of interests, which in the strategic sphere is the operative form of rationality.

In Europe, narcissism of minor differences repeatedly set neighbors at each others' throats -- Jonathan Meades called this "neighborly murderousness down through the centuries." While we might first think of the Balkans in this connection -- Churchill made black humor of this European fratricide by saying that the Balkans produced more history than they could consume -- perhaps the central rivalry of Europe has been the rivalry of France and Germany, which led to the two most destructive wars in history. Many commentators have opined that the ulterior motive of postwar European efforts at economic integration were to bind France and Germany so tightly together than there would never be a repeat of the first and second world wars.

The same narcissism of minor differences that animated the geographical, linguistic, and cultural divisions of the Germans and the French in twentieth century Europe have been playing out since the 1947 decolonialization and partition of the Indian subcontinent between the ethnic, cultural, and religious identities of Muslim Pakistan and (mostly) Hindu India. As France and Germany imagined different destinies for the European landmass they shared, so too Muslims and Hindus imagine different destinies for the South Asian landmass that they share.

1. Manifest Destinies

While we associate the phrase "manifest destiny" with a particular phase of US expansionism into and across western North America, there is a much more general meaning implicit in the idea of manifest destiny. I appealed to this generalization of manifest destiny in my post Manifest Destiny: Roman and American. The essential elements of manifest destiny have been present in other places and other times than the Roman and the American instantiations.

What happens when two distinct manifest destinies collide? What happens when distinct conceptions of civilization are forced to confront each other? What happens when peoples who see themselves as part of distinct traditions are forced by historical and geographical circumstances to live next to each other? Often this confrontation is understood by partisans on both sides as each side posing an existential threat to the other. Moreover, perception of mutual existential threat often means a war of extermination once the appropriate trigger erupts within an escalation and so allows events to pass beyond a critical threshold. Wherever one finds revanchist or irredentist sentiment that looks toward a neighboring territory, one finds a ready audience for ideological justifications to covet thy neighbor's possessions.

Manifest destiny is, in a sense, a vision of the future of civilization, the unfolding of a destiny implicit in the life of a people -- it is a teleological conception of a people, and therefore often formulated in deterministic terms. The idea of "destiny" is of course a slippery term for geopolitics and geostrategy, given its eschatological and soteriological overtones, but it is precisely for this reason that the idea of destiny maintains a powerful hold over human minds -- a much more powerful hold than mere nationalism, for example, which does not usually extend its roots into the religious identity of a people in the same way that manifest destiny does. Any idea that moves masses in an age of popular sovereignty must be taken seriously by geopolitics and geostrategy, and destiny must be counted among these ideas. A destiny that grows organically out of the life of a particular people -- the destiny of a particular geographical, ethnic, social, political, or sectarian group -- has a particular appeal to members of that group. Vague and ambiguous conceptions that appeal to a potent mix of powerfully felt yet ill-defined sentiments such as patriotism, ethnic and sectarian pride, ethnic and sectarian autonomy, and self-sacrifice for an ennobling and edifying cause still today have significant traction in the popular mind.

2. Geopolitics and Big History

Manifest destiny incorporates all of this and more as well, and for that reason it deserves our analytical attention. An analytical approach to a concept as elusive and protean as that of destiny demands that we place the lands and the peoples and the ideologies in a larger theoretical context, and the largest possible theoretical context for geopolitics is Big History.

Will Durant was my introduction to Big History. I suppose I owe this to Earl Fisher, as he was my impetus to read Durant's The Life of Greece while I was still in high school (by the way, thanks Mr. Fisher). At the same time I also read Burn's classic Western Civilization text (also at the behest of Mr. Fisher), but it was Durant that stuck with me. Burns was too much like a textbook. Long before I had read Pascal, I felt as he did: "When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man." After my school years, when I began my true self-education, I acquired Will and Ariel Durant's entire Story of Civilization series of books (purchased in a small used book store in Beaverton that no longer exists), which I still read and still admire as a synthesis of human history.

In the first book of the Durant's massive history, Our Oriental Heritage, Durant says this of the history of India and the Indian subcontinent:

"We must conceive it, then, not as a nation, like Egypt, Babylonia, or England, but as a continent as populous and polyglot as Europe, and almost as varied in climate and race, in literature, philosophy and art."

Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. I, Our Oriental Heritage, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954, Chapter XIV, p. 393

The first time I read this -- I was probably 16 or 17 years old -- it made an impression on me, and over the intervening years I have thought about this statement. For a Westerner like myself, European history is the standard of history, and I can recount, off the top of my head, the various movements and conflicts of peoples even in a small fragment of Europe -- for example, the English, Welsh, Scotch, and Irish peoples on the British Isles. On the continent, we know that Spain was only unified by granting special charters and traditional privileges to peoples within the Iberian peninsula, while Italy and Germany were only unified in the nineteenth century from a diverse patchwork of traditional political entities. To think that South Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, hosted a similar plurality and diversity of peoples, each with their own histories and traditions, was almost too much to take in. But I remembered it, and returned to think about this theme from time to time.

It is only in my maturity that I have begun to understand the truth of this quote from Durant, and to gain an inkling of the complexity of history as revealed in the synchronic "thickness" of a given geographical region (historians sometimes say they will give a "thick description" when they delve into details usually conflated by some overly-general yet convenient label).

In a previous post, Thoughts from Horseback, I quoted another passage from Durant that places India's religious traditions within its biological and climatological context, which again shows Durant as an authentic ancestor of Big History:

"Here and there, constituting one-fifth of the land, the primitive jungle remains, a breeding-place of tigers, leopards, wolves and snakes. In the southern third, or Deccan, the heat is drier, or is tempered with breezes from the sea. But from Delhi to Ceylon the dominating fact in India is heat: heat that has weakened the physique, shortened the youth, and affected the quietist religion and philosophy of the inhabitants. The only relief from this heat is to sit still, to do nothing, to desire nothing; or in the summer months the monsoon wind may bring cooling moisture and fertilizing rain from the sea. When the monsoon fails to blow, India starves, and dreams of Nirvana."

Robert D. Kaplan, in his recent book The Revenge of Geography, like Durant, sees South Asia as a geographical unity in spite of its contemporary political divisions, and for geopolitics, geographical unity can be more significant that passing political arrnagements:

"...the vast region that today encompasses northern India along with Pakistan and much of Afghanistan was commonly under a single polity, even as sovereignty over southern India was in doubt. Thus, for Indian elites, to think of not only Pakistan but Afghanistan, too, as part of India’s home turf is not only natural but historically justified. The tomb of Babur is in Kabul, not in Delhi. This does not mean that India has territorial designs on Afghanistan, but it does mean that New Delhi cares profoundly about who rules Afghanistan, and wishes to ensure that those who do rule there are friendly to India."


"This is a rich history that few in the West know of, while sections of the Indian elite know it in their bones. When Indians look at their maps of the subcontinent they see Afghanistan and Pakistan in the northwest, just as they see Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh in the northeast, as all part of India’s immediate sphere of influence, with Iran, the Persian Gulf, the former Soviet Central Asian republics, and Burma as critical shadow zones. Not to view these places as such, is, from the vantage point of New Delhi, to ignore the lessons of history and geography."

Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of geography: what the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate, New York: Random House, 2012, Chapter XII, "INDIA’S GEOGRAPHICAL DILEMMA"

Kaplan here more or less gives the Indian perspective -- his chapter, after all, is called "India's Geographical Dilemma," and one tends not to think of Pakistan as a geopolitical "power" due to its internal strife -- but it is a sanitized Indian perspective that fails to do justice to the fact that the geographical unity of India has only been approximated in the modern period under Muslim Mogul emperors and British colonialism.

3. Greater Pakistan and Greater India

Some Pakistanis harbor the idea of a "Greater Pakistan" which is expressed in the idea of "Ghazwa-e-hind" (or "Ghazwatulhind" depending on your transliteration; غزوة الهند). The literal translation of this is something like, "When the Prophet (PBUH) goes to war in the Indian subcontinent," however, over time the idea has come to signify something more like the Pakistani equivalent of Manifest Destiny. On the surface, this idea could be seen as overtly hostile to India, and in the some forums there are maps that show most of what we now know as India as part of a Greater Pakistan, as in this example:

gazwa al hind

Now, we all know that this is a fantasy, and that no iteration of contemporary Pakistan would be able to push across India like this, much less make it stick with boots on the ground. Such visions are eschatological dreams of true believers. But there are conceptions of a Greater Pakistan that are much more realistic. For example, there are many maps (check out the Pakistan Defense Forum) that show what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single nation-state within one border, as in this example:

greater pakistan

It is, of course, very unlikely that the global powers that be would allow anything like this Greater Pakistan to come into existence, but the important thing here is that this is something like a rational and realizable vision for extreme Pakistani nationalists, whereas the vision of a Greater Pakistan including most of India is not realistic. The deep penetration of Afghanistan by the Pakistani ISI, and the ability of the ISI to exercise influence and to shape events in the region, make the idea of a Greater Pakistan including large swathes of Afghanistan a believable manifest destiny for Pakistan, since de facto Pakistani control of parts of Afghanistan is already a reality in some regions.

But Afghanistan is far from being controlled outright by Pakistan, and other destinies may conflict with this western vision of Pakistan's future. Another quasi-eschatological vision of a "greater" political entity
is Greater Khorasan (or Khurassan, or Khurazzan), which, like the ideas of Greater Pakistan and Greater India, are based on idealized historical models of greatest territorial extent of past empires. The most ambitious maps of Greater Khorasan and Greater Pakistan overlap considerably, and while these represent (slightly) distinct political eschatologies, both are ideas that draw from the traditions of Islamic civilization and frequently cite the same sources, so that these visions are not necessarily mutually exclusive -- which does not mean that they are necessarily compatible.


More obviously mutually exclusive is the Indian political eschatology of a Greater India. This Indian parallel to this Pakistani vision of Ghazwa-e-hind or Greater Pakistan is Akhand Bharat (अखण्ड भारत, Akhaṇḍa Bhārata, literally Undivided India), which is a conception of Greater India based on the historical unity of India prior to the partition of 1947, but carefully skirting the issue of this unity being based on British colonialism or Indian imperialism under Muslim rulers.


In the above illustrations of Greater Pakistan, Greater Khorasan, and Greater India maps are employed as tools of political propaganda, with vast geographical areas identified by a single bold color as falling within some expanded political imperium. Given the record of expulsions and populations transfers that marked the violent partition of India and Pakistan, merely to contemplate grandiose schemes of Greater Pakistan or Greater India humbles one by the mere idea of the magnitude of human suffering that would attend any attempt to realize such a vision, much less the successful imposition of a political eschatology. (Colors on a map indicating territory, like lines on a map indicating borders, are easy to draw, but their realization comes at a high human cost.) And yet, this is the dream of those who dream big on the Indian subcontinent.

4. Manifest Destiny and Eschatological Wars

While dreams of political eschatology were once mere fantasies, and it is easy to consign them to a pre-modern past that lives today only in the dreams of deluded antiquaries, contemporary technology has given new impetus to the idea of eschatological wars (that is to say, cosmic wars); Pakistan and India are now both nuclear-armed nation-states, and the rational reconstruction of the traditional state on the basis of the nation-state model means that both powers meticulously plan for nuclear engagements. (Cf., e.g., Race to the End: Pakistan's terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea to develop battlefield nukes by Tom Hundley, 05 September 2012, and India 'unlikely' to deploy Cold Start against Pakistan)

Planning for doomsday was once the sole preserve of raving prophets; now it is the daily occupation of professionals. Together with a de facto tolerance for state-sponsored weaponization of eliminationism as long as it is kept below the threshold of atrocity, doomsday planning becomes the natural telos of escalating atrocities. If atrocities can be explained away as hostages to fortune, and doomsday as the technological implementation of manifest destiny, the lives of millions of human beings might be dismissed as being of little account compared to the cosmic forces in play.

5. Tolerating Fanaticism through Facilitating Moderation

I have no doubt that there are a great many sophisticated and cosmopolitan Indians who understand that the future of India lies in greater integration with the global economy, improving living standards for its people, broadly-based recognition of the importance of democracy and human rights for long-term global stability and prosperity, all of which would be turned back by any attempt to act upon Akhand Bharat as a political ideology. And I have no doubt whatsoever that an equally proportional number of sophisticated and cosmopolitan Pakistanis understand precisely the same in relation to any attempt to act upon Ghazwa-e-hind as a political ideology. Such individuals as I have described would immediate recognize the appeal to any such retrograde ideologies that would result in socioeconomic retrogression as an opportunistic and probably purely cynical political gambit for power on the part of ambitious and unscrupulous elements.

However, it is not the sophisticated and cosmopolitan outlook of Indian and Pakistani elites that shapes the history of the subcontinent, but rather it is history and geography that shapes the elites. Even the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan members of society -- that elite segment of society from which political leaders are usually drawn -- remain captive to ideas of manifest destiny that are likely to be destructive of all the whatever gains have been realized through economic development. Why is this the case?

In my post Hearts and Minds I quoted Sam Harris on the relationship between religious moderates and religious extremists...

"...people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused. One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance -- born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God -- is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss."

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005

Implicit in Harris' formulation is a more general principle, as applicable to manifest destiny as to religious identity, which I stated as, "...ideological moderates of any kind, subscribing to any set of (vaguely held) beliefs, provide cover for ideological extremists who are willing to put their beliefs into practice in an uncompromising form." I will call this the principle of facilitating moderation, since, according to the principle, moderates facilitate the beliefs and actions of extremists.

The ideological moderates likely to be found among Indian and Pakistani elites facilitate the fanaticism and militarism of the masses -- much as Soviet and American elites during the Cold War had to play to the vulgar us-against-them dialectic of the masses. And while India and Pakistan find themselves sharing a border and coveting the same landmass for their manifest destiny, Soviet and American military planners reflected the global ambitions of the conflicting ideologies that defined the Cold War: each side in the conflict had a vision and a destiny for the planet entire.

6. Conclusion: A Problem of Civilization

Is respect for the unjustified beliefs of others pushing us toward the abyss in the Indian subcontinent? Yes and no. In the Darwinian struggle of ideas, science and technology are rapidly transforming our knowledge in unprecedented ways, and in the long term the sheer efficacy of science and technology triumphs over barbarism and superstition, which become marginalized as a result. Technologically implemented eschatological wars that seek to embody a long-imagined manifest destiny can only be successfully prosecuted by societies in possession of the scientific and industrial infrastructure necessary to the waging of industrial-technological warfare, and the unpleasant reality is that, whereas victory once lay with the larger battalions (as Napoleon observed), victory now lies with the higher technology.

But we aren't home free yet. There is no reason for smugness, and much reason to yet fear the danger. Industrial-technological warfare, as it grows in sophistication, presents an existential threat to civilization, and possibly also to all life on Earth. In so far as these means are placed at the disposal of those who still believe in cosmic wars, and who see modern technology as a means to realize an eschatological end, the advancement of science and technology only brings us closer to anthropogenic extinction.

Keynes famously said that the long term is a misleading measure because, in the long term, we are all dead. The danger here is that in the short term we also may all be dead. The prospect of industrial-technological warfare among societies still envisioning their destinies in agrarian-ecclesiastical terms means that we are at the present stage of history passing through a window in which the means to destroy ourselves are provided by novel developments that have not yet changed our societies, and our traditional societies provide the pretext for war on a scale not possible for agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

Ultimately, then, this is a problem of civilization -- perhaps we could say a problem unique to civilization. Civilization changes our means more readily than it changes our ends, and that puts advanced means at the service of stagnant ends. The problem of civilization is, then, resolved by the need for more civilization. But how are we to expand civilization so that its ends are brought up to a level equal to its means? That must be a question for another time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Riots in Sweden?

23 May 2013


Stockholm riot

Since when are there riots in Stockholm? Who could even imagine social unrest in Sweden, that classic example of successful welfare state socialism? Sweden the exemplar of progressive social policies? And then there is the old joke that America is the second most Americanized country in the world — after Sweden. What’s going on? What went wrong? Is the dream of the Scandinavian welfare state unraveling?

No one is innocent in this shocking episode, neither Sweden, nor the immigrant communities that have increasingly come to Sweden, taking advantage of its generous social welfare benefits and its open immigration policy.

Sweden immigration graph

Sweden’s self-image as a progressive society has led to its opening its doors to increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees, and Swedish society is in the process of being transformed as it attempts to assimilate these immigrants, who increasingly come from a profoundly different social, cultural, and ethnic context.

In the Wikipedia article Demographics of Sweden we read:

“According to Eurostat, in 2010, there were 1.33 million foreign-born residents in Sweden, corresponding to 14.3% of the total population. Of these, 859,000 (9.2%) were born outside the EU and 477,000 (5.1%) were born in another EU Member State.”

In other words, almost ten per cent of Sweden’s population comes from outside Europe. Ten per cent is enough of a population to make a real difference, especially if this ten per cent identifies with a different social, cultural, or ethnic tradition than that of its host country.

And again from Wikipedia:

The fastest growing groups of foreign-born residents in Sweden between 2011 and 2012 were the following nationalities:

Syria (+5,153)
Afghanistan (+3,995)
Somalia (+3,801)
Bosnia and Herzegovina (+2,458)
Iraq (+2,361)
Thailand (+1,941)
Iran (+1,821)
Eritrea (+1,741)
Turkey (+1,176)
China (+1,161)

The issue of Muslim immigration into Europe has been discussed extensively, and usually in a highly politicized context. Muslim immigrants complain of discrimination while doing little to assimilate, while Europeans have expectations of immigrant assimilation while doing little to accommodate the profoundly different culture they have received into their midst.

So, it’s time for some blunt talk. State structures in the Middle East, where many Muslim immigrants originate, have always been weak. The institution of the nation-state has been imposed on the region by the international system, although it resonates but little with the peoples (i.e., the nations) whose interests these nation-state putatively represent. That is one reason (among many) that the region is torn by violence: state regimes in the region lack intrinsic legitimacy, so they cannot enforce an internal security regime.

The lack of a viable state or national identity in the Middle East has been compensated for by a strong sectarian identity. Muslims see themselves as part of the global Ummah, the global community of Muslims, and identify with this community more than their putative political community. When Muslims immigrate to Europe, they continue to identify with the Ummah and not with the nation-state to which they immigrate — just as they did at home.

The Europeans, on the other side, made it easy for immigrant peoples to retain their traditional identities rather than to attempt to assume a new social identity. For my American readers, it may perhaps be worth mentioning that Europe does not assimilate immigrants in the same way that the US does.

For all the US problems with immigration and social identity, it is virtually effortless to become an American. If you arrive in the US from another country, the day you step off the airplane you are a Swedish-American or a Somali-American or an Armenian-American, and so on. All you have to do is to speak English and call yourself a such-and-such-American, and it becomes true as soon as you say it. This is the ultimate political performative language (to borrow a term from J. L. Austin).

It is not so easy to become a European. In fact, it is almost impossible to become a European. If I were to move to Italy tomorrow, and stay there for the next thirty years (if I should live so long), at the end of thirty years I would still be an American living in Italy. I would not be an American-Italian. One cannot simply assume European identity in the way one can seamlessly assume and assert American identity.

We have already seen the results of these European-Muslim immigrant tensions in the riots in Paris and London. Now these tensions have reached as far north as Sweden. The same tensions exist in Sweden despite the efforts of the Swedes and their government to be tolerant, and this is partly the result of pure numbers: neither France nor the UK have an immigrant population of ten per cent from outside Europe, and if they did the problem would be even worse. It is probably more difficult to “become” a Frenchman or an Englishman than to be accepted as a Swede.

In the Financial Times article, Swedish riots spark soul-searching on immigration, we read the following:

The big problem in a suburb such as Husby, where immigrants represent about 80 per cent of the population, is unemployment, particularly among the young. Swedish youth unemployment stands at 25.1 per cent, about triple the level of overall joblessness. And much of that youth unemployment is concentrated among immigrants from countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. “Sweden isn’t that different to other countries when it comes to problems of integration in larger cities where we have these suburbs with a lot of unemployment,” says Per Adman, an associate professor at Uppsala university. He points out that the media often refers to “unemployed young men” without specifying that they are predominantly immigrants.

It can be interpreted as an attempt to studiously avoid racial profiling to refuse to specify the differences within statistics between native-born Swedes and immigrants, and we often find this in the US media and police reports, in which one has to read between the lines to try to understand what is really going on. This is a strategy of tolerance that probably has limits. In so far as a democratic country relies on public education and accurate media reports for intelligent public policy discussion, even the best intended efforts to avoid the stigmatization of immigrants can result in false information and false public impressions that leads to a failure to engage with the problem as it is.

And it continues. After a fourth night of rioting, the BBC in Stockholm restaurant torched as riots spread reported:

Stockholm police spokesman Kjell Lindgren said the rioters were a “mixture of every kind of people”.

When does promoting the illusion of integration (such as citing a mixture of “every kind of people” involved in a riot in a neighborhood that is eighty per cent immigrant) contribute to the formation of a mendacious society that makes things worse instead of better? And one cannot appeal to a status quo to be restored, maintained, or achieved. Demographics tells us that populations change over time, and either you find a way to manage the change, or you succumb to chaos and social disintegration.

Riots in one of the most stable and tolerant societies on the planet is an unambiguous sign of social disintegration, though in the name of integration it will be called anything but this.

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The Stockholm neighborhoods most affected by rioting.

The Stockholm neighborhoods most affected by rioting.

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Since writing the above yesterday the Swedish Minister for Integration, Erik Ullenhag, has issued an official statement about the rioting in stockholm, Minister for Integration Erik Ullenhag comments on the unrest in some Stockholm suburbs, which is interesting in several respect. The statement in its entirety is copied below.

Society must make it clear that it is never acceptable to burn cars or throw stones at the police. The people of Husby want a society where the rule of law prevails, they want to be able to feel safe and secure. We must remember, the cars that are burning do not belong to people who live in the centre of Stockholm, they belong to people who live in Husby.

In the short term, this is a matter for the police. In the long term, it is a matter of making a change for the better where people live, so that more children and young people can successfully complete school and more people get jobs.

What we are seeing are extreme, unusual events. But we need to be absolutely clear about one thing: we can never accept violence. Violence has a negative impact on social segregation. We know there is discrimination based on where people live, and these events do not improve the image of these residential areas, where there are plenty of positive things going on too. At the end of the day, what this is all about is that we must create a positive belief in the future in areas at risk.

And one positive thing is that civil society has taken to the streets. That adults in the community are helping to calm down the situation in these areas. The Government is not actively involved right now – this is a matter for the law enforcement authorities. But we are taking long-term action, for example by taking measures to increase the visible police presence.

This is a small group of individuals. They are young boys and men who are not representing the 15 percent of foreign born living in Sweden today. Several of them are known by the police and some of them don´t even live in the area where they now burn cars.

Swedish integration policy is now focusing on jobs and education. We can see that school results in some of these areas are bad. But we can also see that we have schools in these areas where the kids are working very hard and doing extremely well.

The minister here asserts that “The people of Husby want a society where the rule of law prevails,” but the problem here is that when the minister speaks of the “rule of law” he means the territorial principle in law which is now nearly universally adopted by nation-states, whereas the Muslim immigrants, is so far as they see their identity in terms of the global Muslim community, the Ummah, does not look to the state as a source of law, but to the traditional law associated with this identity, which is Sharia. In so far as those who understand their political identity in terms of the Ummah, distributed across many different nation-states, and in so far as they look to Sharia as the law of the Ummah, they implicitly understand the “rule of law” as the personal principle in law, i.e., that an individual be judged according to the law of their ethnic or sectarian community, and not in terms of a geographically defined nation-state. So while political representatives can use glittering generalities like “the rule of law” and “civil society,” they do not necessarily mean the same things when they use the same words.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A Psychodynamic Account of Contemporary

muslim rage

Islam and its Place in Civilizational Seriation

Some time ago in From Neurotic Misery to Ordinary Human Unhappiness I discussed a famous Freud quote. The quote runs as follows:

…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.

After this, in Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations, I suggested that Freud’s distinction between neurotic misery and ordinary human unhappiness can be applied not only to individuals but also to social wholes. Thus it makes sense to speak of neurotically miserable civilizations as compared to civilizations possessing merely ordinary levels of human unhappiness.

Then I went yet further afield in Agriculture and the Macabre, in which I tried to make the case the agricultural civilization is particularly vulnerable to neurotic misery. While industrial-technological civilization certainly has its problems and its limitations, whatever may be said of it, it is not macabre and retrospective in the way that agricultural civilization is.

I have been even more specific in identifying the religious wars of Early Modern Europe (also corresponding with the witch craze) as the nadir of Western civilization and as a paradigm case of a civilization in the grip of neurotic misery. Eventually Western civilization grew out of its neurotic misery, although not without an unprecedented level of carnage, and today Western civilization is a fine representative of ordinary human unhappiness as the basis for civilization. Not very exciting, but it’s better than the alternative.

Islam, as an historical phenomenon, is several hundred years behind Christianity in its development. I do not intend this statement to in any way imply that there is anything intrinsic to Islam that keeps its development behind that of Christendom, but there is the historical fact that, of these two religious traditions of the masses, Islam was promulgated six hundred years later than Christianity. Christianity had already been at its internecine squabbles for hundreds of years when Mohammad performed the Hijra to Medina to found the first Muslim community.

The strife we see today in Islam is the sign of a civilization — Islamic civilization — in the grip of neurotic misery. This situation did not come about suddenly, and it is not going to go away suddenly. It is a narrative that must unfold over a period of hundreds of years, and, as I recently wrote in Why tyranny always fails but democracy does not always prevail, Homo non facit saltumMan makes no leaps. All development is evolutionary.

The trend toward the neurotic misery of Islamic civilization has been developing for quite some time. Charles Doughty, who traveled through Arab lands in the nineteenth century, frequently comments on the fanaticism of his hosts, as, for example, in this passage:

“The high sententious fantasy of ignorant Arabs, the same that will not trust the heart of man, is full of infantile credulity in all religious matter; and already the young religionist was rolling the sentiment of divine mission in his unquiet spirit.”

Charles Montagu Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta, Volume 1, Cambridge, 1888, p. 95

And this…

“I wondered with a secret horror at the fiend-like malice of these fanatical beduins, with whom no keeping touch nor truth of honourable life, no performance of good offices, might win the least favor from the dreary, inhuman, and for our sins, inveterate dotage of their bloodguilty religion. But I had eaten of their cheer, and might sleep among wolves.”

Op. cit., p. 502

Such passages are most unwelcome today, and many would regard them as an embarrassment better forgotten, but I suspect that Charles Doughty knew a great deal more about Arabia than many an Arabist today. Rather than taking such remarks as a sign of Doughty’s racism, we might take them in historical context as intimations of what was to come. And historical context is crucial here, since precisely the same thing would no doubt have been in found in Christendom in a parallel historical context. I have no doubt that if a worldly and learned Muslim visited Europe one or two hundred years before Europe’s religious wars, he would have found much the same thing. In fact, Montesquieu depicted exactly this after Europe’s neurotic misery in his epistolary novel The Persian Letters.

A recent feature in Foreign Policy magazine, It’s Not About Us by Christian Caryl (20 February 2013) about intra-Islamic relations, and especially the split between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, is an exposition of the extent to which Islam is as much at war with itself as with the infidel — exactly like Christendom during its period of neurotic misery. It is well known that militant Jihadis sympathetic to Al Qaeda tend to be Sunni, while the Persians and minority communities throughout the Arab world are Shia, and that there are radical elements on both sides of this divide who are vying to be recognized as the vanguard to militant Islam in the contemporary world. These sectarian divides within Islam frequently correspond to divisions in political power and economic influence, making the religious quarrel indistinguishable from broader social conflicts (again, like early modern Europe). And why should social groups contest with each other to be recognized as the vanguard of Islamic radicalism? Because there is a social consensus that radical Islamism is the telos of civilization.

Just as there were many sane and rational men who lived through Christendom’s neurotic misery (Michel de Montaigne comes to mind, for example), so too there are many sane and rational Muslims in our age of Islam’s neurotic misery — but it would be dishonest to pretend that the exceptions to the rule are anything other than exceptions. When almost everyone agreed that “spectral evidence’ could be admitted in the trials of individuals accused of witchcraft, we must acknowledge that there existed at that time a social consensus that this is what constituted “justice.” And so, too, today, when polls reveal that a majority of Muslims will not condemn atrocities and acts of terrorism carried out in the name of Islam and Jihad, we must acknowledge that there is a social consensus that such acts are widely considered to be permissible, if not encouraged — no matter the reasonable few who are rightly horrified.

I have learned that when talking about the scales of history that apply to civilization and big history that one must go out of one’s way to emphasize that these are not events or movements that can be observed in a single human lifetime. Christianity’s buildup to its own neurotic misery required hundreds and hundreds of years of development; the actual period of neurotic misery lasted as much as two centuries, and the whole episode is still, hundreds of years later, being put behind us. It doesn’t matter how much you might want things to be tied up neatly in your lifetime — if you’re going to discuss these great forces that shape civilizations, you have to get used to the idea that it’s not like observing the life cycles of fruit flies.

Astronomers, who similarly work on very long time scales, have the same difficulty in explaining themselves and getting others to understand in a visceral sense the elapse of eons. The astronomer reconstructs the dynamic history of a universe that seems, to us, to be standing still, by looking in all different directions in the sky and observing different kinds of celestial bodies at different stages of development. The astronomer must then put all these fragments of cosmological history together on one large canvas that he will never himself see in a lifetime, but which he sees in his mind’s eye.

When archaeologists similarly survey different sites and find pottery in different stages of development in different places, they try to put it all together with the movements of ancient peoples. This assembly of a structure in time is called seriation. The astronomer engages in cosmological seriation. (The Hertzsprung–Russell diagram is the seriation of stellar evolution.) The student of civilization and of big history, engages in civilizational seriation.

We observe but a single slice of time — the present — and from this single slice of time we attempt to reconstruct the whole of the continuum of time. Ultimately, this is a project of temporal seriation.

The limited temporal horizon of most contemporary commentators on political strife makes it impossible to seem the larger patterns revealed by civilizational and temporal seriation, and so they make elementary errors of historiography. And not only in politics, but in every aspect of civilization. I have repeatedly tried to point out the misunderstandings in the media of China’s “peaceful rise,” which is really China’s industrial revolution.

Have I repeated myself a sufficient number of time to make my point? I doubt it. But i will keep at it, reminding the reader at every turn that the perspective of Big History cannot be assimilated to the personal experience of time, and that one must pursue a strategy of temporal seriation to see larger patterns that do not reveal themselves to the eye.

One of these larger patterns is the pattern of the development of religion as a mass social phenomenon, and among mass religions one pattern is that of passing through a stage of neurotic misery on the way to the mature expression of religion within a civilization that does not cripple that civilization.

Religion begins with something as small and as personal as a superstition or a ritual observance. Eventually it becomes a system of mythology, and once the system of mythology is systematically integrated with the state structures of agricultural civilization religion becomes a principle of social order and a locus of conflict. This conflict must play itself out until civilization gropes its way toward a social principle consistent with the change and diversity that makes a state successful in an age of industrialized economies. All of this takes time — much more time than any one individual can observe in a lifetime. (There, I’ve repeated myself again.)

The neurotic misery of Islam will persist for hundreds of years, as the neurotic misery of Christendom persisted for hundreds of years. There are perhaps ways to ease the transition and lessen the suffering, but we cannot simply leap over this unpleasantness. It must be worked on in real time, just as a patient on the psychiatrist’s couch must work his way through painful early memories before he can simply be unhappy instead of being neurotically or hysterically miserable.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Historical Disruption

19 August 2009


I‘ve written here a couple of times on Tamim Ansary’s book Destiny Disrupted, in An Alternative View of History and The Unfinished World. I’m now nearing the end of this book (I’m on disk 12 of 14 total CDs) and have a few more reflections on it.

Overall, I really enjoy Ansary’s exposition and I have learned a lot from it. This is the kind of book that one could easily listen to several times over and learn something new every time. The straight-forward historical sections are sufficiently interesting that one’s attention doesn’t drift (too far). More interesting for me, however, were the interpretative sections.

A good history will challenge the reader (or the listener) with an interpretation that departs from trite generalities. Even if the generalities are true, there is always much in the details to surprise us, and sometimes a careful consideration of these details will cause a new and distinct picture to emerge. This hermeneutical aspect of history is for me the most interesting part.

I almost groaned when Ansary began an exposition of nationalism and how it affected the Islamic world, as I expected the worst, but I ended up enjoying this almost more than any other section of the book. It was superb. I will probably listen to it again, taking notes.

I was less enthusiastic, however, about his treatment of how industrialization came to and affected the Islamic world. I did not disagree with everything, but I disagreed with a lot that he said about industrialization. I won’t go into details now, though it would be a worthwhile intellectual exercise (even if done for one’s own benefit in the spirit of self-clarification, subsequently abandoned to the gnawing criticism of mice) to make a detailed criticism of Ansary’s version of Islamic industrialization.

Industrialization in Arab lands centered around the oil extraction industry.

Industrialization in Arab lands centered around the oil extraction industry.

I agree with Ansary that it is not merely an invention that makes a difference, but that a given social context is needed for an invention to take hold in a society. I would frame this in my own formulation by saying that the set of social practices needed to fully exploit a mechanical innovation constitute a social technology, and that social technologies are integral with mechanical technologies. An industrial revolution emerges from the synthesis of mechanical and social technologies, or, if you prefer, from machines and the techniques used to run machines.

Taqi al-Din, Muslim polymath

Taqi al-Din, Muslim polymath

Ansary uses the example if Taqi al-Din’s steam turbine as an example of the invention of the steam engine long before James Watt’s steam engine, but this is deceptive. It is not quite the same steam engine as James Watt. Taqi al-Din was obviously a gifted engineer and inventor, but a steam turbine in a chimney is a rather different machine than an internal combustion steam engine.

A rudimentary turbine similar to that described by Taqi al-Din.

A rudimentary turbine similar to that described by Taqi al-Din.

This discussion in Ansary drove home a particular lesson to me, both in terms of my agreement and my disagreement with his exposition of Islamic industrialization: technology evolves. This is significant in this context because the evolution of technology places it in an historical continuum that includes antecedents and consequences. The evolutionary developments in English engineering that led to James Watt’s steam engine were very different from the evolutionary developments that led to Taqi al-Din’s steam turbine. And because the antecedents are distinct, the consequences are distinct. Perhaps this is a general principle. I will have to think about it.

Watt steam engine

James Watt's steam engine of 1763.

There is a famous description of a steam turbine from antiquity credited to Hero of Alexandria. This appears in many textbooks and there have been reconstructions of it. Should we say that Hero of Alexandria as the inventor of the steam turbine? He was, in a sense, but the ancients no more exploited this potential source of power for industry any more than Islamic civilization exploited Taqi Al-Din’s steam turbines for industry.

Hero's Steam Turbine

Hero's Steam Turbine

I remember when I went to the Archaeological Museum in Madrid, most famous for the Dama de Elche, how impressed I was with an ancient Roman water pump, which showed not just ingenuity but also a sophisticated degree of mechanical and industrial engineering. The famous Antikythera mechanism, more technically sophisticated yet, probably dates from a few hundred years before the water pump in Madrid. The point here is that antiquity developed industrial engineering technology but experienced no industrial revolution. Antiquity too had distinct antecedents to its mechanical inventions, and so it experienced distinct consequences.

Ancient Roman water pump, a sophisticated artifact of mechanical engineering.

Ancient Roman water pump, a sophisticated artifact of mechanical engineering.

Ansary’s list of Islamic technological and engineering accomplishments is a little too close to the book Black Athena from a few years back, in which Martin Bernal argued that what we think of as unique and distinctively Greek in ancient civilization can be traced to Asiatic and Africa roots. Well, yes. But a long list of priorities over ancient Greece does not change the character of Greek civilization or its role in the Western tradition. We do not remember the Greeks for any one accomplishment or any cluster of technologies, but for the synthesis they made of the civilization of the mind and the civilization of the hand.

A manuscript illustration of a water pump designed by Taqi al-Din.

A manuscript illustration of a water pump designed by Taqi al-Din.

The list is gratuitous and unnecessary, because every educated person knows at least the outlines of the Islamic contribution to civilization, including its contributions in terms of science, engineering, and technology. To produce such a list not only implies ignorance on the part of others (which I will not deny), but also defensiveness on the part of the partisans of a given tradition.

One minor irritation with the book: throughout Destiny Disrupted Ansary frequently gives dates both in the Islamic calendar and the Western calendar. This is appropriate for a book about Islamic history intended for Western readers. But while explicitly acknowledging the origin of the Islamic calender with the Hijjra, an event of some significance to Muslims, he gives dates in the Western calendar in terms of the awkward “CE,” which is a recent stand-in for “AD.” “CE” stands for “common era” and is used by those who want to use the Western dating system but without the explicitly Christian overtones of a calendar based upon the life of Christ. “AD” is Latin for Anno Domini, which means “the year of our Lord” and indicates a date with the birth of Christ as the origin of the Gregorian calendar. Western civilization is Christian civilization, even if we have secularized it, and I don’t see any benefit to changing our dates from AD to CE. In fact, it irritates me, which, if you are reading this, you can probably tell. As Ansary has written explicitly about Islamic history for a Western audience, acknowledging Islamic history’s debt to the Muslim tradition, it seems a little eccentric to deny the Western debt to our history’s Christian tradition.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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