24 August 2007

The New Victorians

Why are Islamists the New Victorians, and why does it matter?

The world is too complex to understand in all of its myriad details. We manage it with oversimplifications, heuristic explanations, and metaphors that often work. But, the flip side of this way that we interact with the world is that a bad metaphor can do a world of harm, when it becomes the basis of policy.

I've complained before about the harms done by the notion of "intellectual property" driving inappropriate property law based solution to handling innovation, and the "war on terror" is another whipping boy for metaphor abuse. Today, I'd like to tackle another, the cliche that Islamists are "medieval", which fosters a misunderstanding of one of the most political and social struggles in the world today, which will define our era as the "Cold War" defined the last one.

The notion that fundamentalist Islam is medieval promotes all sorts of misconceptions. It falsely implies that the Islam of the Taliban and Iran, in fact recent in its ascendancy, is centuries old and traditional. It promotes hopelessness in working for political and social change because it suggests that Islamic societies are fundamentally static. It implies a far less complex relationship between what Imans and political leaders are saying and what people are actually doing than actually exists. It suggests that Islamists can't understand modern technology, and are basically dumb and uneducated. And, it promotes a model of Islamic thinking so remote that most people who adopt the metaphor simply give up trying to understand.

The natural first reaction to these flaws in the Islamists as medieval meme is to condemn people who use it for being uneducated and to insist that anyone who wants to have an opinion needs to learn Arabic, live in Turkey, have an Islamic significant other and meet the family, and get a PhD in Islamic studies before they can offer anything meaningful to the debate.

This isn't fair or practical either. Only a handful of people can gain that kind of expertise, but the United States, and the Western world generally, is democratically governed. We don't leave big decisions on foreign policy, immigration and social policy to the experts. The questions are too important for that. Only policies that can be explained to the masses, or at least to the class of educated and politically aware people who vote, influence policy makers and drive public opinion, can prevail. So, rather than simply killing the Islamists are medieval heuristic, the path to greater understanding needs to provide an alternative, albeit imperfect, alternative hueristic that is closer to the truth.

The metaphor that explains much better what is going on is the notion of the Islamists as the New Victorians.

Outwardly, both Islamists and the old Victorians were pious and put women on a pedestal, while emphasizing their continuing subordination to men in the public sphere. Both made modesty a high virtue.

But, the Victorian era was also an age of rampant hypocrisy, something we see in the modern Islamic world in the recurrent tales of Saudi Arabian brahmans decadent trips to the West to shop and enjoy forbidden pleasures out of sight, restoring themselves outwardly to respectability on their return flights.

The Victoria era didn't emerge in a vacuum. Like Islamic fundamentalism, it emerged just as literacy was starting to become much more widespread, among other things, allowing the masses to access religious texts directly and unmediated by the traditional wisdom of religious leaders who learned doctrines and interpretation which had balanced apparently harsh pronouncements. The religious revival that produced fundamentalist Christianity in the Second Great Awakening has similar roots, and while that fundamentalist Christian view failed to take hold in most of the world outside the American South, at the time it was emerging it seemed to be everywhere, including England, which has since emerged to have some of the "tamest" Christians on the planet.

As was the case with the Victorian era in the West, the Islamist movement has come at a time when women are concomitantly increasing literacy and are also starting to gain more legal rights and economic status outside the home, and are on the verge of gaining actually political rights.

Indeed, not only did women's rights start to emerge in the Victorian era, the broad based franchise did, and much of the Islamic world is starting to come to terms with a transition from government by a narrow aristocratic and monied elite, to a broader based polity. The coincided, across the Western world, with the economic transformations associated with the industrial revolution. Political liberalization has progressed hand in hand with economic development.

Every revolution has a counterrevolution. Perhaps, substantive progress must be matched by symbolic regression to make it tolerable to society. Maybe the restraint and respect for fine manners, or parallel extreme regulation of public behavior that Islamists have pushed for, must enter a culture's DNA, before more casual and less definitively defined mutual respect can be established.

At any rate, the big power of the New Victorian metaphor is that is recognizes the genuine causes for hope in a trend that otherwise might seem to offer only a bleak dystopian future for the Islamic world.

We may be just a generation or so (the Islamist movement really took off in the late 60s and in the 1970s, and has simply been gathering steam since then) from the Islamic answer to the American "Roaring '20s" when the covert hedonism of the filthy rich transformed into the covert hedonism of the masses, and when the standards of modesty, while still strict by contemporary standards, started to ease. We may see a parallel emergence of an era like that seen at the end of the Victorian era, where adult women are no longer seen as needing adult chaperons when they are in public and where women actually get the vote. We may see another era, as we did then, where previous generations of religiously different immigrants and their children, while still discriminated against, start to really assimilate much more widely into mainstream society.

The Victorian era was also marked by the dominance of political machines who ran dominant party system that provided far more than get out the vote assistance for candidates for public office. These patronage and social service oriented parties look a lot like the Hamas party, Egyptian ruling party, and Baath party that characterize the so called democracies of much of the Islamic world. Of course, the Victorian era was also the last era in which the West has any monarchies with real power, just as the Islamic world does today.

Is the Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood the Islamic answer to the progressive movement? It is worth noting that the Victorian era progressive movement, unlike its modern namesake, was decidedly religious, morally strict and deeply wedded to temperance. Are Islamist undergrounds, ironically in concert with the other big dissenting group, the secularists, going to become the progressives, muckrakers and goo goos who will destroy the Islamic world's answer to the political machines in the form of authoritarian one party states?

You can leapfrog eras of technological progress -- starting your phone system with cell phones and fiber optics, instead of copper wire landlines. But, it isn't at all obvious that the same is possible for social or cultural progress.

The Victorian era saw the elimination of slavery in the Reconstruction era American South. But, the formal legal change imposed by force of arms didn't penetrate deep below the surface into the general public. The reforms enacted by the carpetbaggers were swiftly repealed when they left. Jim Crow laws and Plessy v. Ferguson keep a deeply segregated society where slavery era attitudes and distinctions were maintained by force of law a century after the last slave was freed. Indeed, it is fair to guess that while ending slavery may have been worth it, that force feeding this change upon the South by force of arms may have also spurred a resistance that greatly delayed social progress in the South on a variety of fronts.

It similarly took social progress in this period to end the practice of dueling which seems an anarchonism today, but was a hallmark feature of many progressive era state constitutions. Will the parallel stuggle in the Islamic world be a movement to end "honor killing" and blood feuds settled with forced marriages?

Even the drugs are the same. The signature drug of the Victorian era was heroin from the poppy plant. Today, 95% of illegal heroin from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, which, until the U.S. invaded, has a Taliban government that was the crowning achievement of the Sunni Islamist world.

The future is never certain, but a different, Victorian, metaphor for what is going on in the Islamic world can provide better insight and intuitions about what is happening and what might be profitable in efforts to guide our foreign policy approaches to it, than the medieval metaphor that seems to be the order of the day in conventional wisdom today.

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