Sunday, August 3, 2014

ISIS, ibn Khaldun and patterns in history

One of the benefits of reading Ira Lapidus's A History of Islamic Societies (which I review here and here) is understanding how much Islamic history shows recurring patterns. For example, how conflict between modernisers (we should learn from others), traditionalists (we should practice the religion as it is handed down to us) and reformists (we need to recover the purity of original Islam) is a recurring dynamic in Islam, going back to its first centuries. Note that modernising learning does not mean mere techniques or technology--both traditionalists and reformers are up for that, where it is useful to them--it means we should adjust our understanding of reality by taking in what outsiders have discovered.

Recurring Islamic patterns
The outcome of these struggles is also a recurring pattern--the modernisers lose, the reformers win but Islam reverts into inter-generational transfer that picks up cultural accretions on the way through. (I.e. traditionalism ends up with the numbers.) In our day, the Islamists and jihadis (overlapping categories) represent the reformers, liberals and secularists represent the modernisers while most Muslims remain traditionalists. As I have noted before, Islam does not "need" a Reformation--it has them over and over again. What Islam "needs" is an Enlightenment

The trouble is, the logic of belief embedded in mainstream Islam militates strongly against any such outcome as it largely lacks even the precursors thereto. When Westerners talk about what Islam needs, what they really mean is "in order to be good neighbours in the modern world". (To get away from Islam having "bloody borders".) But, of course, an alternative solution is to make the modern world conform to the dictates of Islam. Which is precisely the project of the Islamists and the jihadis. They emphatically oppose adjusting the doctrine and practice of Islam to fit in with the modern world (the modernising strategy), they want to remake the world to fit in with (their understanding of) the doctrine and practice of Islam. 

Let us leave aside whether they can achieve the power necessary to do that, is that an attainable goal at all? Is it possible to create a society that lives up to their concept of a properly Islamic society? (Remembering that Islam generates very complete rules of social order, far more so than Christianity or rabbinical Judaism.) The long term pattern of Islam--particulary the regular waves of purifying reformism--suggests not. Indeed, Daniel Pipes argued, in his Slave Soldiers and Islam (pdf) (the book of his doctoral thesis), that the distinctive Islamic use of slave soldier systems (such as the mamluks and the Janissariesflowed directly from Muslim polities being unable to live up to Islamic ideals, resulting in a withdrawal of most Muslims from political participation and a search by rulers for ways to recruit reliable military forces. 

Even more paradoxically, adhering to Islamic principles (other than that of submission to Muslim rule) turns out to be much more common in non-Islamic countries, at least according to an economic index (pdf), composed for that purpose (full publication is available here, behind a paywall). In the economic index, (and apparently also in the final version) Northern European Atlantic littoral states (or former British colonies) score in the top 10, while the highest ranked majority Muslim country is Malaysia (also former British colony). As measured by said index, not being ruled by Muslims can get to you "Islamic" ideals more thoroughly. (The "Great Satan"--aka the USA--ranks better than any majority-Muslim country: apparently, those Muslims who claim you can practise Islam much more safely and thoroughly in the US than in majority-Muslim countries have a point.) Muslim rule is not so clearly the path to the Islamic-principles adhering society the jihadis fondly imagine they are fighting for.

But, of course, rule by Muslims is precisely what the jihadis are fighting for, not ticking doctrinal outcome boxes. What the jihadis and Islamists are interested in us whether you tick doctrinal adherence boxes and reconfiguring the social, cultural and religious environment according to such adherence. In other words, forcing the modern world to adhere to their understanding of Islamic principles, which emphatically means rule by Muslims (as they define it and them). Whether it is the Taliban enforcing the burqa and blowing up Buddha statues, or sub-Saharan jihadis in Mali or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) destroying tombs or "heretical" mosques, and enforcing religious subordination, the pattern is very clear. (And extends back to the original Wahhabi take-over in Arabia.)

Ecological frontiers
Human history is full of patterns, both general and specific, because of commonalities of human nature (both cognitive and physical), of human experience, because of geographical constraints and enduring belief. Islam in particular generates very strong, recurring, logics of belief which result in persistent patterns.

As do the interactions of institutions and geography in the deserts-mountains-river valleys belt from Morocco to the Ganges River; the region across which Islam has been dominant for centuries. The belt Islam has also had problems expanding beyond, apart from its mercantile spread to the Malay world and Africa's Indian Ocean coast. (These being explicable in terms of the commercial advantages of Sharia and Islam's appeal as an oppositional identity against European colonisers. Part of the general pattern of trade networks spreading religions.)

The Taliban, ISIS and Mali jihadis are also manifestations of a pattern classically delineated by C14th historical sociologist ibn Khaldun (Abū Zayd ‘Abdu r-Raḥmān bin Muḥammad bin Khaldūn Al-Ḥaḍrami: 1132-1406). High asabiyyah (social cohesion) groups from marginal areas attacking and even overwhelming urban-based polities.

The region from Morocco to the Ganges River is riddled with ecological frontiers. That is, areas which favour very different forms of social organisation. (Such ecological frontiers tend to favour [pdf] creation of empires.) The river valleys were, using the terminology of James Scott in his Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed, generally highly "legible" to state power. Conversely, the mountains, deserts and steppes were not.  These favoured pastoralists where lineage systems provided protection, as explained in Philip Salzman's Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (which I review here). Because Islam provides no bar to cousin marriages (so daughters were married back into the lineage, providing sons for the same lineage, not a different one), and failed to created high trust polities, use of lineages for support and protective services was favoured throughout the region, even in the farming river valleys.

Contours of trust
[Longstanding social patterns] gave Islam a very strong competitive advantage within the region, as it provided both a means and a motive to unite pastoralist warriors across lineages. Western social scientists talk of low-trust societies, but it is more apposite to think of them as variable trust societies. They may have a lower level of general trust, but they have pockets of much higher trust. This highly differentiated levels of trust provides means for higher trust networks to flourish--either commercially (e.g. overseas Chinese in South East Asia [pdf]) or militarily. Hence the powerful recurring pattern of Islam failing to create high trust polities encouraging waves of religious reformism uniting religiously motivated warriors whose high social cohesion (i.e. mutual trust due to intense signalling of common motivation) then overwhelm urban polity-troops lacking such cohesion.

As we have seen with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the jihadis in Mali and now ISIS in Iraq.
Mali jihadis destroying a tomb in Timbuktu.

As an aside, while one can point to varying specific features of, for example, Arab culture affecting levels of military success, said features can be usefully understood as manifesting wildly divergent levels of general social cohesion compared to Western societies, which explains why Western forces typically find it almost ridiculously easy to defeat regular Arab armies. (Highly motivated insurgencies are a different matter.)

The politics of worldly salvation
Tying social cohesion to a particular belief system has problems for long term stability, however, and the more so the more "worldly" the ambitions of the ideology. One of the features that Islam (particularly political Islam) and revolutionary socialism have in common is the worldly content of their ambitions: they sell the politics of worldly salvation via achievement of unparalleled social harmony and success. The trouble is that performance inevitably fails to live up to the motivating claim--which then undermines the motivation.

Which is why the Soviet regime, in the space of its 74 years of existent (1917-1991: officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 1922 to 1991), managed to travel through the complete cycle of ibn Khaldun's stages of rule from rise to collapse: a pattern that can be traced through its successive leaders. First, a group bound by common feeling (asabiyyah) seizes power (Lenin 1917-1924). Then the ruler separates himself from the original group to entrench his own power (Stalin 1924-1953). Then the regime slowly decays as group solidarity fades and corruption erodes social resilience and regime power (Khruschev, BrezhnevAndropov, Chernenko 1953-1985). Until the regime finally collapses (Gorbachev 1985-1991).

The Soviet regime can also be seen as following an accelerated version of the cycles of peak-and-decay that the three "mandarin" Chinese dynasties (Song 960-1279, Ming 1368-1644, Qing 1644-1912) went through. The three rule-by-meritocratic-bureaucracy dynasties lasted similar amounts of time (312, 276, 267 years respectively) and each went through a similar peak-and-decline cycle, which can reasonably be seen (pdf) as a specific principal-agent problem.

Another way to put it is that the mandarin dynasties relied solely on command-and-control, which greatly limited their feedback mechanisms and social levers; with even the levers they did have dissipating as collusive networks spread (applying Mancur Olson's analysis of the Soviet command-and-control system). The difference being that, unlike the command economies, the mandarin dynasties did not attempt to command-and-control everything, so the command economies were eaten away by corruption much faster, and in much sharper contradiction to their far more hubristic claims.

Nevertheless, I would put more emphasis on the social cohesion cycle, as the Soviet regime did follow ibn Khaldun's pattern of dynastic rise and decay much more specifically, while seeing the single-lifetime speed of the cycle as the consequences of the effects of hubristic-in-aim-and-scope command-and-control.

Russian patterns
Tsarist Russia was very much a variable trust society: even more so once the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) was underway. While societies wracked by civil war are obviously highly variable in trust during the conflict, after the conflict is over, they will, after a recovery period which will be affected by the duration and intensity of the conflict, tend to revert to their long term patterns (e.g. England after the English Civil War 1642-1651, Switzerland after the Swiss Civil War 1847, the US after the American Civil War (1861-5),  and Finland after the Finnish Civil War 1918).

Russia went into the "Leninist deep freeze" with the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War, but has emerged out the other end a genuinely low trust society (that is, even family connections have limited trust value) due to the "institution-and-connection flattening" nature of Leninist rule. (Which also leads to the ironic spectacle of the officially Leninist Beijing regime pushing Confucianism, in part to revitalise family feeling.) Russia has the pretensions to the formal political mechanisms of Western societies (elections, rule of law, etc), but lacks the social cohesion to back them up, which makes the sort of authoritarian rule Vladimir Putin has established a likely social outcome. Adventurism in foreign policy to achieve a form of "success" useful for such rule is a recurring feature of such regimes. Which does much to explain the patterns of postwar Middle Eastern history.

Searching for cohesion
As does the fact that Middle Eastern state boundaries--notably Lebanon, Syria and Iraq--represent the backwash of European imperialism. Neither Syria nor Iraq have any serious common social cohesion to back them up, the states in question (currently fairly irrelevant lines on maps) being not much more than mechanisms for a dominant group to repress other groups. (Lebanon does not have any serious common social cohesion either, but the state is too weak to do much in the way of repression.) It would probably be stabilising for state boundaries to better reflect patterns of social cohesion--which suggests that breaking up both Syria and Iraq would be more likely to produce social stability.

But only up to a point. Not all significant social identities in the Middle East have territorial bases. Hence 800,000 to 1m Jews fleeing to Israel and the West from 1948 to the 1970s and the exodus of Christians from the Middle East, a pattern that has been notable for some time but has accelerated with recent conflicts. Israel has operate as a haven for Middle Eastern Jews (and Russian Jews and now French Jews). Lebanon failed to operate as a similar haven for Middle Eastern Christians.
ISIS fighters in Iraq.

Nor would border re-arrangements solve the difficulties Islam has generating high trust polities. The traditional monarchies do comparatively well while Tunisia is a lonely Arab Spring (or is that Sunni Surge?) democratic success. But traditional monarchies can hardly be created ex nihilo and Tunisia has some rather specific advantages.

Relying on successful authoritarians to maintain peace and order in the Middle East was and is an entirely understandable temptation. Even more so when we contemplate what can follow the collapse or retreat of such rule (either disorder and chaos--as in Syria, Iraq and Libya--or mosque-rule--as in Iran--or the former from the attempt to get the latter--as in the Algerian Civil War) in a region which remains (outside the traditional monarchies) largely suspended between mosque and military.

But the authoritarians were never a solution (in the words of a famous essay of the same name the Shah always falls), just a holding action.  The trouble is precisely that groups such as ISIS and the Taliban are modern versions of recurring patterns that go back to the origins of Islam. Perhaps there is no solution, just various stages of the cycle: no better strategy than holding on until demographic collapse overtakes Islam. (Though that may make for even grander jihadism of desperation.)


[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

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