Rohingya unmasking complexity in a world we want simple

There is currently a major humanitarian crisis in Burma as Rohingya Muslims flee conflict between the military and separatist militants. Obviously this is a developing story. Unfortunately, very few in the West and the media have a well developed understanding of the history of Burma. Therefore the easiest framework is something worthy of a DC superhero film: there is the good, and there is the bad.

Just because such black and white dichotomies tend to collapse complexity doesn’t mean they are wrong. In World War II the Nazis were the bad. But details are often illuminating and informative. The Soviet Union was on the side against the Nazis, but it wasn’t exactly a “good” actor. Similarly, Finland at points made common cause with Nazi Germany, but that was less about its affinity with Hitler’s regime and more about surviving a Soviet invasion. There are people who are good and bad. But there are also people in situations, which dictate actions which are bad, or enable actions which seem good. (and a mix)

If you want a broader view of mainland Southeast Asian history, which Burma plays a large part in, I’d recommend Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830. Unlike Africa (with the exception of Ethiopia and Egypt), Indonesia, and much of the Middle East (Iran and Turkey excepted), mainland Southeast Asia developed nation-states organically. Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, were not dreamed up by European colonialists, but evolved through their own historical logic (in this case, the migration out of southern China of Tai peoples and the response of the older Southeast Asian polities, being the central narrative thread).

The only book about Burma’s history I’ve read is The River of Lost Footsteps. It has a lot of personal detail, as the author is himself a member of the Burmese Diaspora, and seems to come from an elite family with many connections the people who have run the country since independence.

In The River of Lost Footsteps the author alludes to the fact that Burma in the early modern period was on the edge of Islamicate civilization. At its peak the Mughal Empire had within its penumbra the Burmese polity, and it was impossible for the latter not to be influenced by the former (the influence actually pre-dates the Mughals, though intensified with them). The Buddhist kings of Arakan styled themselves sultans, and employed Muslims of Indian (or West and Central Asian) origin in their armies.

The descendants of these soldiers are part of the story of Islam in Burma. Too often the media representations of Islam in Burma reduce them to the Rohingya. The reality is that there are several Muslim communities within Burma, with different relationships to the majority Theravada Buddhist ethnicities. The River of Lost Footsteps claims that Aung San Suu Kyi herself (or more precisely her father) is in part from a family whose ancestry includes some of these Muslim soldiers.

Aung San Suu Kyi of course is at the heart of current events right now. Many are confused as to why this person, who has put her life on the line to defend the rights of self-determination of the Burmese people in the past, will not speak up for the Rohingya now. To a great extent this reminds me of the Lewis’ trilemma in relation to Jesus, that he was either a liar, lord, or lunatic. For many of us the answer may not be any of the above. Aung San Suu Kyi is a complex person at the heart of complex events. It was easy to portray her as a selfless saint, who was always on the side of the good as we understand it, but current events show that she was never immune to the exigencies of reality and practicality. Just as she was not saint in the past, I doubt she is a monster in the present, even if she has become caught up in events of monstrosity. Remember, if Gandhi was alive today he would surely be excoriated for his lack of solidarity with other people of color at least, and his racism at most.

Stepping aside from Aung San Suu Kyi, I think it is no surprise that democratization of Burmese society and culture has been occurring while there has been a rise in aggressive Buddhist chauvinism. Americans often do not want to admit that democratization and liberal tolerance do not go hand and hand. In places like China, and yes, Burma, authoritarian governments likely keep a lid on ethnic tensions because they are destabilizing for the public order. It was with universal white male suffrage in the United States that the racialized character of the American republic became much more explicit. Similarly, popular nationalism in Europe was associated with drives toward homogeneity and assimilation of subordinate groups.

Why are the Rohingya so hated in Burma? There are several possible reasons:

– They are racially distinct (all the photographs make it clear that they are not physically different from Bengali peasants) from most of the other ethnicities in Burma (including some groups of Muslims who descend from intermarriages with the Bamar majority).

– Their Muslim religion is very distinct from that of the dominant culture in Burma, Theravada Buddhism. Unlike China, where Buddhism is a strand within the national culture (and not a dominant one), in Burma Buddhism occupies the role that Christianity does in Northern Europe: the religion’s arrival was associated with the rise of complex societies, and political self-awareness. Though the Theravada Buddhism of Burma has local flavors (nat worship), it unites many of the disparate ethno-linguistic groups together, from the majority Bamar, to the Tai Shan, to the Austro-Asiatic Mon.

The Muslim religion of the Rohingya also enforces a stronger divergence from the majority religion than the Hindu background of other South Asians in Burma. Though most Indians left Burma in the years after independence, a substantial number have remained. The ethnographic literature I’ve seen indicates that many have re-identified as Theravada Buddhist, though no doubt maintaining many Hindu customs and practices within the community. This is not that difficult when you consider that Burmese Buddhism has many indigenous and Hindu influences already. Additionally, Hinduism and Buddhism are connected traditions, and arguably exhibit a level of commensurability that makes identity switching less stressful for both individuals and communities.

– They are perceived to relatively recent migrants to the Arakan coast from Bengal, and so not an indigenous ethnic community within Burma. Note that there are Muslim communities, even within Arakan, which are not Rohingya, which are recognized as indigenous. Not only are they perceived to be migrants, but their numbers threaten the dominance of the Rakhine people of the region.

In highlighting these elements I’ve suggesting that the Rohingya are arguably the most marginalized group in Burma. There are other Muslims ethnicities in Burma, but most are not demographic threats, derive from attested older migration events, and have intermarried with local populations so that the physical differences are not quite as salient. There are Christian minorities, such as the Chin, which have been targeted for persecution based on the religious differences, but the Chin are not perceived to be alien to Burma, simply unassimilated to dominant Theravada cultural complex. Additionally, there is no large racial difference between the Chin and the Theravada groups.

Much of the public debate revolves around the issue of Rohingya indigeneity or lack thereof. Though I have only modest confidence in my position, I believe that most of the Rohingya presence in Arakan dates to the period of British rule. Though the Rohingya language is not intelligible with standard Bengali, it is rather close to the dialect of southeast Bangladesh, Chittagong. My family is from Comilla, which borders the Indian state of Tripura. When I listen to Rohingya speak it’s only slightly less intelligible to me than the dialect of West Bengal (which is the basis for standard Bengali). In fact, the accent of Rohingya men is uncannily similar to what I remember from peasants in rural southeast Bangladesh when I visited in 1990!

If the Rohingya are not Bengali, they are something very close.

But the Rohingya will tell you something different. They do not self-identify as Bengalis, but as Burmese. Additionally, like some South Asian Muslims they deemphasize their South Asian origins, and create fictive extra-South Asian genealogies. It is important to note that the Rohingya do not write their language in the Bengali script. This means that their intelligentsia has no strong consciousness of being Bengali, because they are not part of the world of Bengali letters.

Earlier on I noted that mainland Southeast Asian had polities which easily transitioned to nation-states, because of the organic development of their identities. This is not true in South Asia. There is a bit of artificiality in the construction of South Asian polities (perhaps with the exceptions of Bhutan and Sri Lanka). Though South Asians no matter their identity are clearly defined and demarcated from other peoples, among themselves religion and community, rather than nationality scale ethnic identity, have been paramount.

In The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier the author points out that a Bengali cultural identity evolved relatively slowly over the past 1,000 years. He makes the case that the Islamic character of eastern Bengal had to do with its underdeveloped state, and that land reclamation projects under the aegis of Islamic polities stamped the local peasantry who were settling the territory with the religion of the regnant order. And yet until recently the Muslim elite of Bengal was not culturally Bengali; they were Urdu speaking. The Bengali dialects of the peasantry were not prestigious, while the Bengali Renaissance was predominantly driven by upper case Hindus who helped shaped what standard Bengali became.

I will elide over the details of the emergence of a self-consciously Bengali and Muslim intelligentsia. It is something which I am only aware of vaguely, though I have seen fragments of it in my own extended family and lineage, as people from Urdu-speaking backgrounds have allowed their children to grow up speaking only Bengali, and fully assimilated to a Bengali identity without any qualification.

But the development of a Bengali and Muslim self-identity was occurring at the same time the ancestors of the Rohingya were pushing beyond the borders of traditional Bengal, into Arakan. Their lack of Bengali identity comes honestly because peasant identity has always been more localized and inchoate, and the Rohingya intelligentsia crystallized around other identifiers which could distance themselves from their relationship to Bengalis. In particular, the Rohingya seem more uniformly Islamic in their orientation. The female anchor for Rohingya news updates always seems to wear a headscarf, as opposed to those for Dhaka news reports.

In the short-term the killing of infants and raping of women has to stop. But these simple answers have behind them lurking deeper complexities. While agreeing upon the urgency of action now, we need to be very careful to not turn complex human beings into angels and demons. We have enough history in the recent past that that sort of model only leads to tragedy down the line, as those who we put utmost faith in fail us due to their ultimate humanity.

Our civilization’s Ottoman years

Some right-wing intellectuals are wont to say that multicultural and multiracial empires do not last. This is not true. Historically there are plenty which lasted for quite a long time. Rome, Byzantium, and the Ottomans, to name just a few of the longest. But, though they were diverse polities modern liberal democratic sensibilities would have been offended by them. That is because these empires were ordered and centered around a hegemonic culture, with other cultures accepted and tolerated on the condition of submission and subordination.

The Ottoman example is the most stark because it was formally explicit under the millet system by the end of its history, though it naturally evolved out of Islamic conceptions of the roles of dhimmis under Muslim hegemony. For 500 years the Ottomans ruled a multicultural empire. Yes, it decayed and collapsed, but 500 years is a good run.

I bring up the Ottoman example because I was having a discussion with a friend of mine, an academic, and he brought up the idea that the seeming immiseration of the middle to lower classes in developed societies will lead to redistributive economic policies. Both of us agree that immiseration seems on the horizon, and that no contemporary political movement has a good response. But I pointed out that traditionally redistributive socialism seems most successful in relatively homogeneous societies, and the United States is not that. American society is diverse. Descriptively multicultural. There would be another likely solution.

Eleven years ago Amartya Sen wrote a piece for The New Republic which could never get published in the journal today, The Uses and Abuses of Multiculturalism. In it he looked dimly upon the emergence of plural monoculturalism. Today plural monoculturalism is the dominant ideal of the identity politics Left, with cultural appropriation in vogue, and separatism reminiscent of the 1970s starting to come back into fashion. Against plural monoculturalism he contrasted genuine multiculturalism. I think a better word for it is cosmopolitanism.

The Ottoman ruling elite was Sunni Muslim, but it was cosmopolitan. The Sultan himself often had a Christian mother, while during the apex of the empire the shock troops were janissary forces drawn from the dhimmi peoples of the Balkans. This was a common feature of the Islamic, and before them Byzantine and Roman empires. The ruling elites exhibited a common ethos, but their origins were variegated.

Many of the Byzantine emperors were not from ethnic Greek Chalcedonian Christian backgrounds (before the loss of the Anatolian territories many were of Armenian, and therefore non-Chalcedonian, origin). But the culture they assimilated to, and promoted, as the core identity of the empire was Greek-speaking and Chalcedonian, with a self-conscious connection to ancient Rome. I can give similar examples from South Asia or China. Diverse peoples can be bound together in a sociopolitical order, but it is invariably one of domination, subordination, and specialization.

But subordinate peoples had their own hierarchies, and these hierarchies interacted with the Ottoman Sultan in an almost feudal fashion. Toleration for the folkways of these subordinate populations was a given, so long as they paid their tax and were sufficiently submissive. The leaders of the subordinate populations had their own power, albeit under the penumbra of the ruling class, which espoused the hegemonic ethos.

How does any of this apply to today? Perhaps this time it’s different, but it seems implausible to me that our multicultural future is going to involve equality between the different peoples. Rather, there will be accommodation and understandings. Much of the population will be subject to immiseration of subsistence but not flourishing. They may have some universal basic income, but they will be lack the dignity of work. Identity, religious and otherwise, will become necessary opiums of the people. The people will have their tribunes, who represent their interests, and give them the illusion or semi-reality of a modicum agency.

The tribunes, who will represent classical ethno-cultural blocs recognizable to us today, will deal with a supra-national global patriciate. Like the Ottoman elite it will not necessarily be ethnically homogeneous. There will be aspects of meritocracy to it, but it will be narrow, delimited, and see itself self-consciously above and beyond local identities and concerns. The patriciate itself may be divided. But their common dynamic will be that they will be supra-national, mobile, and economically liberated as opposed to dependent.

Of course democracy will continue. Augustus claimed he revived the Roman Republic. The tiny city-state of Constantinople in the 15th century claimed it was the Roman Empire. And so on. Outward forms and niceties may be maintained, but death of the nation-state at the hands of identity politics and late stage capitalism will usher in the era of oligarchic multinationalism.

I could be wrong. I hope I am.

Democracy leads to Islamism

The New York Times has a piece up on the rise in Islamic extremism in the Maldives, Maldives, Tourist Haven,
Casts Wary Eye on Growing Islamic Radicalism
. I want to highlight one section:

It was governed as a moderate Islamic nation for three decades under the autocratic rule of the former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. But after the country made a transition to democracy in 2008, space opened up for greater religious expression, and conservative ideologies like Salafism cropped up.

Years ago in graduate school I told a friend that democracy and even economic prosperity did not monotonically lead to greater liberalism. In the long run perhaps, but in the short run it doesn’t necessarily do that at all.

Today we generally focus on the Islamic world, but there are plenty of examples in the past and in other places which suggest to us democratic populist passions can be quite illiberal. The Gordon Riots in England in the 18th century are a case where a pragmatic shift toward liberalism in regards to religious freedom for Roman Catholics triggered a Protestant populist riot. In the United States the emergence of universal white man’s suffrage during the Age of Jackson signaled the rise of a much more muscular and exclusive white supremacy in this country. In Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 you see the arc of democratization tethering itself to conservative rural vote-banks which reinforce aristocratic privilege. Finally, democratic developments in Burma have seen an associated increase in Buddhist radicalism.

Eric Kauffman argues in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? that modernization, economic development, and the expansion of political representation, integrates conservative rural populations and uplifts them all the while transforming the norms of urban areas. In other words, the rural bazar melds with the urban shopping mall, and both are changed. The 1979 revolution in Iran and its aftermath has been argued to be a victory of the bazar over the Western oriented gentry. In India the rise of Hindu nationalism is an assertion of the self-confidence of sub-elites from the “cow belt” who arose to challenge the Western oriented ruling class that had dominated since the early 20th century.

When the Arab Spring was in full swing in 2011 I wrote An Illiberal People:

In newly democratic nations which are pushed toward universal suffrage and the full panoply of democratic institutions the organic process of developing some safeguards for minorities and liberal norms has never evolved, because there was no evolution. Rather, these democracies are being created out of a box. Instead of a gradual shift toward more cultural conservatism with broader franchise, in these contexts it is a foundational aspect of the democratic system. I suspect this may have long term repercussions, as in other contexts liberal elites often institutionalized or established norms which served to check majoritarian populist impulses as they ceded much of their power over time.

The modern Left has a very anodyne view of Islam. It denies that there is something structurally within many Islamic societies which enables their illiberalism, the religion of Islam. In Islamic Exceptionalism Shadi Hamid argues that the religion itself may in some fundamental manner be inimical to the sort of secular liberal democratic society we perceive to be the terminal state of all cultures. I disagree with this view. Rather, I see in contemporary Islam the torture that Reformation era Christianity experienced attempting to navigate between an ideal of a universal church and the nascent emergence of nation-states. But in the short term both Shadi and I have the same prediction: greater democracy may lead to greater illiberalism and more repression of minorities. This an inconvenient truth for many Americans. But it may be true nonetheless.

Bitter Libyan Fruit

In Mary Beard’s excellent SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome she describes an “empire of obedience” that emerged in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. This refers to the often ad hoc arrangements of Roman rule and hegemony which preceded the explicit imperial period, when domination was bureaucratized and formalized.

Sometimes it seems that the United States is an empire of obedience, though we do operate through formal institutions such as NATO and the IMF. There’s an ad hoc schizophrenic aspect to it all.

In Across The Chasm Of Incommensurability many of the commenters seem to be focusing Chinese susceptibility to government propaganda. But my post was in large part pointing to the fact that Americans themselves are often blinkered and biased, though we often exhibit a conceit of all knowing objectivity.

On Twitter I said the following:

People immediately thought I was alluding to the Manchester bomber. Actually I wasn’t. I was thinking about the Copts killed in Egypt (including children) by ISIS-affiliated militants with basis in Libya.

This is not a one off. Since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime Libya has been an incubator for terrorism. Its current political landscape is anarchic, with rival militias jockeying for power. Libya happens to be right next to the most populous Arab nation. This is not a good recipe for stability in the region.

Some commentators, such as Daniel Larison, have been arguing against the intervention since the get-go. But in general the media seems to have taken a policy of benign neglect toward what’s going on within Libya.

The Western powers take it upon themselves protect the people from their own governments. This is fair enough. But what Iraq showed us is that not all peoples are ready to be Jeffersonian Democrats. This is a fact.

The Roman “empire of obedience” gave way to one of direct rule. That was the only way to keep the chaos in check. Imperialism and colonialism are not fashionable today, but if Western governments keep intervening that seems the only way to keep the chaos at bay.

America’s great Saudi foreign policy sin

The future past

Periodically on my Twitter feed there is mention of the new series, The Handmaid’s Tale. The New York Times has a typical positive review. The author attempts to assert its contemporary relevance, ending with ‘the new “Handmaid’s Tale” enters the culture as its own kind of Offred-like resistance, pushing back against a reality that somehow got ahead of the show’s own imagination.’

This is not the 1980s. Or the early 2000s. The President of the United States is a nominal Christian at best. Maggie Haberman, who covers Trump for The New York States had this to say about his relationship to Mike Pence:

…When Trump and Pence were first getting to know each other, the one thing that Trump had relayed to people, according to several advisers I spoke to at the time, was that he was a little uncomfortable with how frequently Pence prayed. And Pence is fairly devout about his praying. Trump is not a serious churchgoer and in an anomaly for a presidential candidate, very rarely went to church services when he was running….

We live in an age of massive secularization, even on the conservative Right. Ergo, the rise of a post-religious Right predicated on ethnic identity, whether implicitly or explicitly. Though Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress are going to rollback a few of the victories of the cultural Left, there is no likelihood of turning back the clock on the biggest win of the last generation for that camp, gay marriage.

Also, don’t watch the series, read the book. Books are usually better. While I’m recommending reading, while Atwood’s work gets a lot of attention (it’s already been made into a film back in 1990), I want to suggest Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women for those curious about a different take on broadly similar themes. Flipping the framework of The Handmaid’s Tale on its head Sargent depicts a far future gynocracy, as opposed to a near future patriarchy. Additionally, The Shore of Women  has echoes of the bizarre 1970s film Zardoz.

I’ve always felt the Sargent is an underrated writer (also see Ruler of the Sky, a novelization of the life of Genghis Khan). Her output is not high volume, but it is high quality.

But this post is not about The Handmaid’s Tale, and the specter of an anti-feminist dystopia. Rather, it will be on the reality of an anti-feminist dystopia which exists in our world, which also happens to be religiously totalitarian and oligarchic. I am talking about the great ally of the United States of America in the Middle East, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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