The servitude I saw

Many people are talking about the late Alex Tizon’s article in The Atlantic, My Family’s Slave. Much of the piece was as disturbing for me as it was for most Americans. But some of it was shockingly familiar. I’ll get to that.

First, Tizon died unexpectedly before the article was published. We won’t be able to ask him about how we can judge the veracity of his own role and culpability. Though the narrative is laced with guilt and admissions of fault on his part, ultimately he does come off as somewhat the soft-hearted hero in comparison to his parents.

Since he is the source of all of this it is hard to not assume that he cast himself in a more flattering light than reality might warrant. The obituary he helped inform in 2011 was entirely deceptive, and apparently the slavery did not feature in his memoir, Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self.

On the one hand writing such an article exposed himself to critique. On the other hand this piece would surely have been an incredible capstone to his career; his has wife admitted as much. Ultimately truth would really only have been served if “Lola,” the slave in question, had been allowed to speak for herself. I’m sure she would have had very different perceptions from Tizon.

But overall I suspect his guilt was genuine.

This is not how it always works out. About ten years ago there was an infamous Long Island case where a wealthy Indian American family had had two Indonesian slaves. There were incidents recounted in the media and testimony which made it clear that their American born children were entirely complicit and cooperative with their parents in the enslavement of these women.

As many of you know it is not uncommon in many societies across the world to have household help. It was even the case in the United States up until relatively recently for young women to go through a stint of menial labor in a more affluent family’s home. My own wife’s grandmother did this when she was a young woman in the 1920s.

I was born in Bangladesh. I moved to the United States right before my schooling began. So though my formative years are operationally all in the United States, I retain memories of Bangladesh. Additionally, I have visited twice since I left (due to the recent spate of killings of secularists I do not plan on visiting again until the nation joins the civilized world). When I was a young child I had a beloved nanny. Additionally, before we left for the United States there were two families who were resident with us in our large apartment. They helped my mother keep the house.

These were not simply capitalist transactions. My nanny was from the same village as my paternal grandfather. Many of the people who served in my family’s household in Dhaka were from the same district we had come from, and had had prior associations with my family in the 19th century (for reasons I’m not aware of, they were all from my mother’s side of the family). Obviously my nanny couldn’t come to the United States. She was relatively elderly*, so she retired to my maternal grandfather’s home village, and the last time I saw her in 1989  she was living in one of the houses he owned, which had an indoor flush toilet (a luxury at the time).

The first time we visited Bangladesh my mother made sure to visit the families who had once lived with us and worked for us before we left for the United States. In some ways it was like reacquainting with distant relatives. But obviously there was the distance of class. These were people whose families had been subsistence peasants only a generation earlier. My own family on both sides were not subsistence peasants. They either collected rents from the peasants in question, or operated businesses which generated revenue (e.g., jute farms or milk production operations), or were professionals (e.g., my maternal grandfather was a doctor, my paternal grandfather was an ulem, though he supplemented his income with rents).

Some of the things that I heard my family say about the families who had once had a servile relationship with them were the very definition of patronizing. That being said, both sides of my family are relatively religious, and took some pride in the humane character of their relationship with the people who they employed. Additionally, these were not impersonal relationships. My mother never behaved as the “boss.” Rather, I recall she maintained at least the artifice of a genuine friendship with the women close to her age who worked in our household. The ties between our families went back generations. I would not be surprised if in some sense they were relatives in some fashion.

All this is to frame a searing incident (or series of incidents) that I recall from 1989. My uncle, my mother’s brother, had married into a family which hailed from the city of Chittagong. This brother was arguably my mother’s favorite, so we went to visit him inChittagong. Most of the time though he was away on a merchant marine vessel on which he was an engineer, so we were left to spend time with my uncle’s in-laws. Overall they were lovely people.

But there was an exception to their behavior. They had a household domestic. She must have been about fifteen or so. She was very quiet, and I was never formally introduced to her, though a few times I tried to talk to her, to the irritation of others. Like an automaton she operated silently in the background, cleaning and cooking. One day I was in the kitchen talking about something with my cousin-in-law, and my uncle’s mother-in-law began yelling at the young woman. My cousin-in-law broke off our conversation, turned to the domestic, and began yelling at her too. Next thing I knew all the women in the house had come into the kitchen and were screaming at the domestic.

I was very disturbed and left the scene of the incident. Something similar happened at least two other times the week we were there. When I asked one of my cousin-in-law’s about this young woman and why they yelled at her she shrugged, rolled her eyes, and said she was stupid, useless, and didn’t know her place. I asked my mother about this treatment, and she didn’t seem to want to speak of it, though she did say something to the effect that not all families treat their domestics the way she was raised to treat them. My mother did not approve, but her disapproval did not rise to the level of causing her to begin a controversy with her brother’s in-laws.

This behavior seems very similar to what Tizon recounts about his parents using their slave as a emotional and verbal punching bag. And it was not a total aberration, the second time I went to Bangladesh we stayed with one of my mother’s brothers who had become rather wealthy. He married a woman who was 20 years younger than him. She was in fact one year younger than me (this is my mother’s youngest brother). This woman was nice enough, but she seemed a bit dull and I was to understand she wasn’t particularly educated (i.e., she hadn’t gone to university of any sort).

My uncle’s household had a domestic. She was a young woman, probably in her early teens. One day I saw my aunt-in-law scream at her in exactly the same way that I had seen years earlier with my other uncle’s in-laws. When my aunt was irritable about something, she would invariably begin to verbally abuse the domestic, who was probably about 13.

Many things have changed in Bangladesh in the period my parents have lived in the United States. This includes the language; both of my parents speech exhibits archaisms which contemporary Bangladeshis find amusing. But something substantive has been economic development. My parents in the 1970s were at best upper middle class. But they had numerous servants. My uncle in contrast was, and is, genuinely wealthy, even by American standards. He is literally part of the capitalist class.

Yet it was difficult for him to find a competent domestic. He had to drive 50 miles into the country into obscure villages to find a family who had a young woman who was willing to work in his household. The families who had traditionally worked for my own family were now in a different economic situation. Some number had lived long enough in the city that their children had gained enough education that there were now opportunities besides menial labor or domestic work for them. Others were now sending their young daughters to textile factories, and not the homes of the middle or upper classes.

Why? I can’t speak from inside knowledge, above I made it clear that in our own telling my family is that they were benevolent patrons. But even if we were benevolent patrons, I assume that the families which customarily had to treat us with deference would have preferred to live in a world where our legal equality in the modern world matched social equality.

Going to work in a dark and hot factory for low ages is horrible I assume (I wouldn’t know except for a short stint at a Christmas break job when I was 20). But it may be better than the alternative of being subjected to abuse by one’s “betters” for a pittance.

To end on a positive note, sometimes my parents complain about how much Bangladesh has changed. Much of the rural area has been swallowed by the conurbation that is Dhaka. But many things have gotten better. Both my parents come from large families. But though my maternal grandmother was married to a doctor of some means, several of her children died as infants. This was not a tragedy, but just a part of life. The mortality of children under five has decreased 7-fold in what is now Bangladesh since my parents were young!

* People who live a difficult life tend to age quickly. I want to say that my nanny was in her late 50s when I last saw her, but I would not be surprised if she was younger. She was illiterate, and when I was a child in elementary school I recall my parents discussing the best way to send her some money when they found out that she was subsisting on plain rice and salt.

The lesson of Erasmus: the center that could not hold

The return of the civilian

“On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them”
-Niccolò Machiavelli

The sentiments expressed above are typical of Renaissance men, prone to archaisms and love of ancient learning. As all stylized facts are, the dichotomy between a dark Middle Ages and a flourishing Renaissance are clearly overwrought, and an artifact in some ways of the reality that the victors write history. A passionate intellectual such as Abelard is clearly a familiar figure despite the reality that he flourished in the early part of the High Middle Ages. And the period described in Aristotle’s Children was not lacking in brilliance on the whole.

But generalizations also have a basis. Henry the VIII reputedly wrote Defence of the Seven Sacraments as a rebuke to the assaults from the nascent Protestant tradition. For his services the Pope gave the king the title Defender of the Faith. It is no surprise that Thomas More “aided” in the composition, but the point is that a Renaissance monarch was expected to be a cultured individual for whom writing a theological treatise was not ludicrous.

Though one should not take the analogy too far, in some ways the polities of the medieval period in Western Europe exhibited a social structure not unlike that of the Bronze Age. Literacy was one of the hallmarks of Romanitas, and later of Christian civilization. But literacy was not broad-based in Western Europe, but rather concentrated in a particular caste, that of the priests. In the Bronze Age literacy was also defined by its caste association, that of the scribes. In contrast, kings fought. Their rule was by divine right, whether as living gods on earth, or as vice-reagents of the national deity. Similarly, monarchs during the medieval period ruled as representatives of the God on high.

During the Iron Age the antipodes of Eurasia were dominated by polities and civilizations which were predicated on military rule, but at whose peak civilian norms reigned supreme. Even as militaristic a figure as Julius Caesar was a cultural patron who also wrote The Gallic Wars. Similarly the Chinese emperors were manifestly civilian figures, who often also had personal skills in the arts which they cultivated. It wasn’t until the reign of the emperor Justin in the year 518 that Rome first had an illiterate ruler (and this is implausible enough that some historians attribute this claim as one intended to be scurrilous toward Justin and his successor and nephew, Justinian).

The fall of the Western Roman Empire ended this civilian ascendancy, which in any case was being eroded by the necessary rise of military emperors to defend the borders against barbarian incursions. Once the German tribes, Roman allies or not, took the reins of power there were deep fundamental transformations of the order of society. Though great rulers such as Charlemagne were patrons of learning and Roman civilization, he himself remained very much a barbarian warlord.

The ruling elite of medieval Europe were manifestly a military elite. The feudal system demanded that they provide service in the armies of their lords, and that service entailed outfitting themselves and a retinue. Martial skills were a necessity. The legacy of this physical aspect to being part of the ruling elite persists down to the present day. Both of the two young princes in the House of Windsor have had military careers, while hunting remained a major part of every nobleman’s life down to the early modern period (apparently Louis XVI’s diaries are filled with days which simply state “went hunting”).

The gun and the printing press

Events such as the Battle of Crecy, the rise of the Swiss infantry, and the ubiquity of the gun, heralded the end of the military elite as a necessity. Gentility of birth became a matter of mores and manners, and the reemergence of an almost classical model of education and cultivation took hold.

Along with the the rise of the gun, there was the printing press. The existence of ancient graffiti in Egypt and Rome tells us that we should be cautious about assuming that literacy was rare in antiquity, but we should also admit that it was not quite common (when men of the lower classes were allowed in the legions in the late republic there were accommodations made for the fact that many would be illiterate).

The printing press was a technology that made production of printed works much easier. And so Europe was indudated with pamphlets and books. This was not always due to the literate content, as illustrations were quite influential. But it is hard to deny that this spread of information technology probably triggered a blooming of the “republic of letters” not out of chance, but necessity. The intellectuals of the medieval period were by and large clerics, but now they were joined by newly emerged urban professionals and the leisured nobility.

The Age of the Princes and their Liberal Critic

As medieval Western Christendom entered into the final stages of putrefaction something new was ripening within it. I do not believe it is coincidental that the Iberian powers were pushing forward and exploring the world beyond Europe in the decades before Martin Luther, and during the same period new learning was overturning the long reigning scholasticism.

At the center of much of the cultural religious ferment was Desiderius Erasmus. Born in 1466, he was the illegitimate son of a priest, and became a priest himself. After a fashion he was man of the later medieval period, born of a cleric who violated his vows of chastity, in the decades after the papacy was riven between different claimants, and conciliarism attempted to throw the Western Church back to a more antiquated style of governance. This was the age of the Borgia and Medici popes.

Erasmus’ accomplishments are legion in the field of humanities. Today he would be a stellar public intellectual, as well as a productive research scholar. He was the prince of the republic of letters of his day.

Like many Catholic reformers Erasmus aimed to sweep the superstition from his faith, and mocked and criticized the corruptions that he saw in the Church. With his pen he attempted to reform Christian civilization in his own image, sincere of faith and theologically orthodox, shorn of the idolatrous excesses of the medieval Catholicism, with its cult of saints and Marian devotions, as well as contemptuous of the hypocrisy of the clerical class as a whole (though still reverential of its role in performing the sacraments).

Erasmus was instrumental in the rebirth of the liberal arts in Europe in his day. But it seems clear that Erasmus was also fundamentally a liberal person in his attitude toward deviation from what he himself thought was true and right. And, events at the end of his life also suggest that he was much more accepting of the imperfections of the institutions which he critiqued throughout his whole life than others would be.

The Age of the Zealot

The last 19 years of Erasmus’ life overlapped with the Reformation. At the peak of his fame and influence men such as Luther reached out to him, but Erasmus did not return their enthusiasm in kind. The Reformation unleashed atavistic passions, and much of the world Erasmus had known, that he had critiqued and chided, collapsed before him.

Where Erasmus inveighed against the corruption of the Catholic Church, zealous new converts to the Protestant cause destroyed church property and relics, and expelled priests from their territory. When the Jews did not convert to Luther’s form of Christianity, he attacked them. When the peasants rose up against their lords, analogizing their rebellion to that of Luther and his colleagues, he justified their slaughter. When Erasmus temporized Luther attacked him.

Though there were long periods of peace in the decades after Erasmus’ death, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre became emblematic of an age. The period of the Reformation is also one of the age of Wars of Religion. The whole map of Europe transformed due to religious disputes, and between 25 to 50 percent of the population of the German nation died during the Thirty Years War due to causes rooted in the war itself.

In Northern Europe they burned witches. In Southern Europe the inquisition was in full effect. In France Protestants and Catholics lived separate lives, until the French monarchy gave the Protestants a choice of conversion or emigration.

Ideas With Consequences

In Erasmus’ life and work we see the shadow of the future. Some figures just subsequent to him, such as Montaigne, echoed his liberality of spirit. But they were marginalized for centuries by the intolerance of Luther, the controlling character of Calvin, and the machinations of the Jesuits. The power of monarchs grew, as they dispossessed the Catholic Church, or claimed that the Catholic Church gave them divine right to rule.

Charity toward those with whom one disagreed with, a plea of Erasmus in his later  years, disappeared. And what reason had the Catholics to be generous to the Protestants after the iconoclastic attacks on their sacred sites and objects? Protestants when they were expelled or forcibly converted by Catholics? Reformed when they were driven out of Lutheran and Catholic lands? Baptists when they were oppressed everywhere?

The decline of the centrality of fighting as the primary task of nobles, and the rise of humanist and cultured values among the aristocracy, was coincident with wars which tore the fabric of Europe apart for generations, over and over.

The Exhausted Return

Of course as I write today in 2017 the figure of Erasmus strikes many moderns, whatever our religious inclinations, as an admirable one. His emphasis on heart, and the fact that his heart was in the right place, are appealing. His liberality of spirit, his low tolerance for hypocrisy and corruption, but acceptance of genuine disagreement due to human fallibility, are characteristics many of us would wish we could cultivate more.

But it’s nearly 500 years since he died, and it took about two centuries after he died for the long road to enlightenment to put us where we are now. Erasmus shows us that a moderate position, taking the middle path, speaking in the language of intellectuals, has difficulties with the zealots who spew the argot of the street. John Calvin had a humanist education, as did many of the Reformers were humanists, but that did not prevent him from burning a heretic and giving voice to his inner totalitarian (though I do understand that Geneva was not totalitarian in a way we would understand it today). Humanism became a tool, part of one’s education, as opposed to the broad liberal minded spirit with Erasmus exemplified.

When learning is instrumentalized, when it is reduced purely to a tool in the service of society, that enslavement saps something out of its spirit. The idea of truth, the valorization of it above other things, likely does have broader cultural consequences. Without truth, I believe that our species reverts to zero-sum and negative-sum “games.” That was our past. I believe it could be our future.

 

Why A Song of Ice and Fire is more definitive than A Game of Thrones

Wired has a piece out George R. R. Martin Doesn’t Need to Finish Writing the Game of Thrones Books. The title is needlessly provocative, as there are many good points in the article (though I understand clickbait considerations). Over the years I’ve come to expect and accept that the “great fork” is here to stay, and the books and the the television shows are in some deep and fundamental ways going to be distinct narratives (though Martin and the producers of the television show assert that their conclusion will be congruent, which I actually think may not be optimal).

But the author dismisses an important point rather flippantly:

For the last few years being able to say “Sure, yes, but the books are better” has provided a nice little dopamine rush. But beyond that thrill, what Game of Thrones fans really want is more Game of Thrones. And right now, their best bet for getting that is on premium cable.

Earlier there are comparisons made to the books which inspired Jaws, The Godfather, The Shining, and Blade Runner. These are all cases where films overshadowed the literary works which preceded them.

But none of these works are on par with the world-building and richness of George R. R. Martin’s series (especially the first three books, A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords). Additionally, in the case of the Jaws and The Godfather I think most people agree that the films are far superior artistic productions to the books. And in relation to Blade Runner, most people know that Philip K Dick’s story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was only tenuously connected to the movie adaptation.

I understand that writers are sometimes given tasks or make a really good pitch on the most general terms. But if the points wouldn’t pass muster wit your high school English teacher, should they pass muster with a national magazine? In the clickbait era, probably. But I’m still here to point out that Mrs. Barry would not have approved….

The great Han Empire in Africa

Howard French’s China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa is a bit cliche. Rather than a scholarly book it’s more an observational travelogue, and it suffers somewhat from the fact that it is focused on Chinese who live in Africa, but are never of it. Chinese are Chinese, and those who migrate to Africa have more commonalities than most. So French’s attempts to spin out distinct experiences was a bit stretched. Basically, the same thing is happening over and over across the African continent.

When I say this that it is cliche, I’m alluding to the fact that for many Chinese presence in Africa is rather well known. But the reality is not everyone knows about it. So I was happy to see The New York Times put this issue front and center, Is China the World’s New Colonial Power?

There are twists which are important to remember. First, China’s working age population has been declining since 2012. This is going to put a crimp in any “imperial” ambitions. Second, this Chinese “empire” is not going to be an explicitly political one, but rather one of influence, control, and tough soft power.

That being said, we should’t underestimate the will and need of the Chinese to have their “time in the sun.” Fifteen years ago Ross Terrill wrote The New Chinese Empire. In it be observed that for much of Chinese history there has long been a division between a moralistic/ideological camp and a more nationalist realpolitik element. He traces this division back to antiquity, with Confucianism and Legalism as the prototypes (I’m not sure I believe this). But Terrill observed that Deng Xiaoping and the leaders who he cultivated and promoted to succeed him were generally much more nakedly nationalistic than Mao ever was.

Just something to keep in mind as we look to the future….

Millennials with college degrees don’t favor censorship

There’s a specter haunting the academy. The specter of “red guards” destroying lives and tearing down Western civilization and all its accomplishments in the interests of antinomian leveling impulses through denunciations and purges. (here is the latest instance; the whole thing leaves me yawning, because too few people have the courage or gall to stand up for what they know is right, so this will happen again and again and again)

I am plain in my view that this is a problem. Some of my friends in the academy agree, but in the end they make different choices about priorities. Others don’t think this is a problem at all (and honestly, they clearly think that free speech is more about speech that they think is acceptable). Ultimately I don’t think that this will end well; I’m most certainly going to be on the other side of people whom I consider friends if and when the end of our current liberal democratic order collapses of its own contradictions.

But this isn’t about that. Rather, it’s about an aspect of it: are Millennials, those born after 1980, who go to college more opposed to freedom of speech than previous generations? Is this what’s driving the flair up of campus events? The answer, as clear in the GSS is that Millennials who have gone to college are not more censorious.

The GSS has a variable, SPKRAC. It asks:

…. consider a person who believes that Blacks are genetically inferior. a. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community claiming that Blacks are inferior, should he be allowed to speak, or not?

Should this person be allowed to speak? As you can see above there is hardly any difference between people of different generations if they have a college education on this question.* The big difference is between generations among those who have a high school education or less. I think this is simply due to the reality that if you have only a high school education as a Millennial you’re much more likely to be not very intelligent in relation to older generations. The slight decline for college educated Millennials might be due to this effect as well, and more marginal kids are now going to, and finishing, college.

If you do a logistic regression in the GSS you see what I have reported earlier: both education and intelligence have independent and notable impacts predicting support of free speech to a liberal extent. Being a woman usually correlates with lower tolerance of deviant or abhorrent speech. Socioeconomic status, income, and age, don’t really matter too much when other variables are accounted for.

What about politics? The results might surprise you.

As you can see on the whole liberals are the most supportive of free speech for racists. It does look that there has been some regression since the real “greatest generation.” And as I expected moderates are the least tolerant.

Moderates are usually less intelligent (this is easily confirmed with the GSS) and informed, and they’re conformists. Today racism is in bad odor, so their instinct to ban or restrict it is strong, as opposed to the abstract principle of free speech. This impulse probably explains the declines broadly among Millennials.

But the results at the top indicate that university education may actually inoculate a bit against this! (remember, it’s not just intelligence, as university education had an independent effect on opinions in the regression)

There’s something going on. It’s a problem. Perhaps a big problem. I do think it ultimately threatens the credibility of the academy in a way we haven’t seen in generations. But it’s not because the majority of students agree with driving speakers they don’t like off the campus or banning speech they find hurtful. A minority of students are loud, mobilized, and active. Sometimes minorities can shape history….

* I limited the sample to non-Hispanic whites. I used the variables SPKRAC, COHORT and DEGREE. I recombined some. E.g., COHORT(r:1800-1945″pre-Boomer”;1946-1964″Boomer”;1965-1980″GenX”;1981-*”Millennial”). Adding groups besides non-Hispanic whites didn’t change the qualitative result, though support for free speech declines among minorities.

On understanding the algebra of history

Over the years I’ve convinced many people to read Scott Atran’s In God’s We Trust. Why? Because it gives you a basic framework for understanding and interpreting religious phenomena.

The cognitive anthropological toolkit does not give you the total resources of decomposing religious phenomena. But, it is probably a necessary toolkit to begin at the process of carving it up tractably. And since people talk about religion constantly I think it is important that learn to talk about it more rationally and empirically.

I believe my friend Peter Turchin is doing something similar with cliodynamics, which attempts to model history formally and quantitatively. Unlike classical cliometric analysis, which was mostly descriptive, Peter attempts to construct models which make predictions which can be tested.

Of course to test these models you need well organized data. To do this he has been instrumental in pushing forward the Seshat: Global History Databank (which I have supported with a donation).

Cliodynamics is a few decades behind cognitive anthropology as a field. I’m still following it closely because it hasn’t hit the point of diminishing returns for me yet.

I’m putting this post up mostly because on Twitter someone mentioned offhand that more people should know of Peter’s work.

Well, here I am boosting him up a bit! Of his books, I’ve read three related to history, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall, and Secular Cycles. For those who are curious about Peter’s ecological scholarship, Complex Population Dynamics may be of interest.

Also, here are my 10 questions for Peter Turchin.

And of course, you should checkout his website.

Samurai Jack is back!


After all these years, Samurai Jack is back. You can find the first three episodes at the Adult Swim website. A little Googling will get you the rest of them. There are three episodes left to finish out the series.

It’s pretty incredible that this short, which I watched in the first half of the 2000s, comes back in 2017. In the interim the original actor who voiced Aku died, but the replacement seems rather good to me (I wouldn’t have noticed the difference).

What makes this series so special? I think it’s the seamless melange of motifs, whether from medieval Japan to a steampunk retrofuture, to science fictional time travel, combined with a stylized animation which gives one the appropriate impression of disorientation that the protagonist must be feeling when confronted with a nightmarish future.

Female Genital Mutilation IS a Muslim Issue. And, it’s a Medical Issue. And, it’s an African Issue. And, it’s a Human Rights Issue.


Slate has put up an extremely misleading article up, Female Genital Mutilation Isn’t a Muslim Issue. It’s a Medical Issue.

Articles such as the one above are why people end up eventually not believing the media at all. First, a few minutes of Googling will show that female genital mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision is not simply an issue related to African culture, and does have some relationship to Islam. From the article:

…The ancient, barbaric practice originated in pre-Islamic Africa and has endured irrespective of the prevalent religion of the area. Today, it is primarily a cultural problem in central Africa, with Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt and Somalia on the list alongside Christian-majority ones such as Ethiopia and Eritrea. Though much lower in comparison to many African nations, the practice is also seen in Iraq and Yemen.

I do have to wonder if this is one case where liberal progressive concern for not seeming to be racist against Africans by imputing upon them barbaric cultural practices is trumped by their concern not to disparage Islam by its promotion of barbaric religious practices. As Oliver Scott Curry has shown, a simple scatter plot illuminates the correlation between Islam and FGM, even though the practice is found among plenty of non-Muslim Africans.

Additionally, the chart has a lacunae. Do you know the country with the largest number of women in the world who are the victims of FGM? Indonesia! (obviously, not an African country, just the world’s largest Muslim country, famed for its moderate practice of Islam) Why Indonesia?

In about fifteen seconds of Googling you’ll get to an article on Wikipedia which states that of the Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence the Shafi considers female circumcision obligatory. The Hanbali school considers the practice strongly encouraged, while the Hanafi and Maliki schools consider it preferred.

If you look at a map of where the Sunni schools are dominant you see that much of East Africa and all of Southeast Asia are Shafi. Take a look at the correlation between the Shafi school and FGM on the map above (it may not be totally accurate, so take it with a grain of salt; the map suggests FGM doesn’t happen in Malaysia, but this VICE article says there are surveys that 93 percent of Muslim women have been subject to some form of circumcision).

The writer of the Slate piece is an American Muslim doctor, not a religious scholar. His family is from Pakistan. Therefore, unless they were Dawoodi Bohra he would have no real knowledge of FGM. Though it is preferred in the historical Hanafi tradition dominant among South Asian Muslims, it rare to nonexistent among them today (and may always have been so, as the Hanafi tradition originally was popular among culturally very different Persians and Turks). I know this from personal experience, as I come from a family with many members who are professional ulema, and this was never a practice that they mentioned or alluded to (in contrast to male circumcision).

When I first began to hear about female circumcision (now usually referred to as FGM) in the media I accepted the line that it was a cultural practice, usually with African associations. I accepted that line because I didn’t know any better, and trusted the media to not lie, and my own Islamic background didn’t suggest that this was a necessary practice of the religion. But some discussions with people and using something called the internet quickly made it clear that I did not understand what it was to be Muslim in Indonesia, much of Africa, or among Iraqi Kurds.

A certain type of anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim thinker infers from the Quran all that is Islam. This is simply not a valid way to go about understanding the history of Muslims and their modern cultures. And yet you have the Muslim writer in Slate asserting “Further, there is no religious sanction for the procedure found in the Quran.” (actually, there is no sanction for the almost universal practice of male circumcision among Muslims in the Quran either)

This reference misunderstands how Islam and most Muslims have related to their religion historically. The Quran is not equivalent to the Christian Bible. Rather, it is more like the Hebrew Bible to Rabbinical Jews. It is a starting point, but not the ending point. Religious practice is more often dependent upon Hadith, Sunnah, and later commentaries by learned jurists, as well as interpretations by living jurists.

From the viewpoint of many Muslim Americans this is a ridiculous way to look at the religion. As an atheist I would assert descriptively that their view of Islam has mapped itself upon a phenomenology of religion which derives directly from American confessional Protestantism, but that’s a digression. For the vast majority of the world’s Muslim, observant or not, devout or not, the religion as transmitted and interpreted by the ulema through these extensive post-Quranic materials and subsequent commentaries is what serves as the intellectual superstructure for belief and practice. The wisdom of the ummah and ulema.

Does this mean that FGM is “uniquely Islamic”? Obviously it is not. As an atheist I don’t think there’s any real essence to a religion in any case. A religion is what people say a religion is. For whatever reason Shafi ulema have asserted that their interpretation of the Islamic religion is such that FGM is obligatory. The fact that over 90% of Muslim women in the 90% Muslim nation of Indonesia have been subject to FGM, and that it is a Shafi nation, is not a coincidence. Nor is it a cultural holdover form the pre-Islamic period. That Iraq Kurdish Muslims, who are Sunni and Shafi, and are the locus of FGM in that nation, is not a coincidence.

Despite the often historically positive comments in relation to FGM in other Sunni traditions, the prevalence of the practice is low to nonexistent in nations dominated by the other traditions. That does show that there is no determinative relationship, and traditions can be reinterpreted.

Additionally, among many Christian groups, and among non-Shafi Muslims, FGM is prevalent in Africa. Looking at the history of the Shafi school much of its jurisprudence was elaborated under the Mamluk Sultans of Cairo. FGM has a long history in Egypt, so without further research I have the suspicion that the strong emphasis on the practice within this school is a function of its history in this region of East Africa.

Overall, I think it is wrong to assert that FGM is necessarily or uniquely about Islam. But, it clearly may be sufficiently about Islam, and denying that many hundreds of millions of the worlds Muslims accept as authoritative religious rulings which enjoin the practice upon them as meritorious is simply promoting falsehood.

The claims made in the Slate piece come from a Kevin Drum piece which show that clearly Islam is not uniquely associated with FGM in Africa. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I think this post has shown that there is some association between Islam and FGM. I don’t expect a Muslim American doctor to actually know about the historical details of why different schools of Islam law have different opinions…because Islamic law is pretty unimportant and trivial in America to most Muslims, who follow a few major orthopraxic norms (e.g., don’t drink, don’t eat pork, etc.). I do wish though that the editors at Slate had looked a bit more closely at this piece in a critical-rational manner.

But I don’t expect the media at this point to be critically rational about these sorts of things. The conclusion was one which the editors were probably happy with, so they didn’t look too closely.  That’s fine. But some of their readers will spend more than five minutes on the factual questions.

Addendum: Unlike in Judaism, circumcision in Islam is not necessarily obligatory (among the Hanafi and Maliki it is simply high preferred). As I note above it is not mentioned in the Quran. There probably wasn’t a need because all the peoples of Arabia were circumcised when the Quran was compiled.

Addendum II: Unlike the editors of Slate, and probably the Muslim American author above (who I assume spends more time fruitfully catching up on oncology journals rather than treatises on Islamic law), I knew off the top of my head the distribution of schools of Islamic law geographically, as well as the soft spot the Shafi had for FGM. So Indonesia did not surprise me at all.

But what do I know? I’m just a humble geneticist, not someone who went to j-school to learn how to report!