Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review of the New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 5

The New Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 5, The Islamic World in the Age of Western Dominance. Edited by Francis Robinson, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This volume covers the period from 1800 until the first few years of the 21st century.

One of the most important themes in this book is Muslim "revival", or reform. I think in the West Wahhabism is its best-known manifestation. Quite a few features of this movement resemble Protestantism.

Modern Muslim reformers oppose the veneration of "saints'" graves. They don't want believers to appeal to famous dead clerics for help because that seems to undermine monotheism. They're opposed to Sufism, which is the closest thing Islam has to monasticism. Like Protestants they emphasize individual believers' personal study of holy scripture at the expense of professional mediation.

This aspect of their reform was obviously made possible by printing, which spread in Muslim lands several centuries after Europe. Perhaps other features of their movement were caused by this technological change too, in less direct ways. Of course many historians think that Gutenberg's invention set the Reformation in motion.

This book quotes a reformist Islamic cleric who made an explicit comparison between his movement and Protestantism, even casting himself as the Muslim Luther.

European colonialism might have reinforced some aspects of this movement:

" the absence of state power to support God’s guidance," Muslim clerics needed "to bring the individual human conscience more into play as the sanction of the law. Followers were reminded, for instance, of the horrors of the Day of Judgement, and encouraged to reflect on their actions daily. Thus a ‘protestant’ or willed form of Islam came to be developed."

Of course there must have been some copying of the colonialists' own ideology. People tend to imitate winners. The chapter on 19th-century India says that Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism also moved in a Protestant-like direction at this time.

However, the Muslim reform seems to have had its beginnings in the 18th century, before colonialism had much of an impact. The book tries to sum it up as a movement from otherworldly to thisworldly Islam, from a "contemplation of God's mysteries" to the urging of action here on Earth. It's easy to see how that would sour people's attitude to Sufism.

In the later 19th and for most of the 20th century secularism advanced in Muslim societies. The Young Turks, Ataturk, the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, Nasser and many other leaders in that part of the world were secular, sometimes in violent ways. If you asked the people of that time why Islam was retreating, they would have brought up scientific and technological progress. Religion in general seemed incompatible with it. Progress is still ongoing, yet starting in the 1970s, perhaps a little earlier, Islam has revived. Why?

Some say that the humiliation of the Six Day War of 1967 discredited Muslim leaders, who were then very secular, in the eyes of ordinary Muslims. According to this view, defeat at the hands of Israel made Muslim societies search for an alternative. Ironically, defeat at the hands of the European powers in the 19th century appeared to discredit the religious Muslim rulers of that time. Then the untried alternative was secularism.

I don’t know how much truth there is in this explanation. When Nasser and company overthrew the king of Egypt in 1952, they talked angrily about his toadying before the British. The king was secular, yet his perceived humiliation by the Brits did not lead to an Islamist backlash. Also, if Islamism is a reaction to Israeli successes, why didn’t it get going in 1948?

Jews, who were on the winning side of the Six Day War, started to turn away from secularism at roughly the same time as Muslims. Can the same phenomenon be blamed on both victory and defeat?

At some point the West’s own propaganda organs began to denigrate Western civilization. The contributions of other regions to progress, including of the Muslin world, were exaggerated. Jewish nationalism, disguised as other things, played a role in this.

The flight from Islam was obvioulsy caused by the feeling that it was backward. Yet here are academic tomes, published in the West itself, saying that it wasn’t so backward after all, that Westerners stole a large part of their knowledge from other peoples, including Muslims. 

The portrayal of Western political successes as a series of massacres must have contributed to the destruction of the mystique, of the desire to emulate. Of course there were massacres, but they were practiced by everyone since time immemorial. If anything, I would guess that in the historical period inner-Asian nomads set the most impressive records in that field. 

The presidents of Liberia always dressed in European suits until William Tolbert, who assumed office in 1971. I’m guessing that the revival of Islam was a part of a larger trend: the loss of prestige by the West, the return of other peoples to their native cultural traditions.

President Tubman of Liberia with Kennedy.
President Tolbert of Liberia with Nixon.
A popular theory says that the turn to Islamism was caused by urbanization. Proponents say that irreligion was mostly an urban phenomenon. When millions of rustics settled in cities, they drowned out secularism. Governments never cared much about the opinions of the countryside, but had to pay attention to urban mobs.

Well, urbanization was a long, gradual process. Islam continued to decline through the 1960s. And this theory’s logic doesn’t apply to other parts of the world. Why didn’t urbanization drown out European secularism in the 19th century? Because European peasants were smarter? Then why didn’t it drown out secularism in 20th-century Latin America? If urbanization caused Iran to veil its women, why didn’t it cause Brazil to close down Copacabana?

The oil embargo of 1973 raised oil prices enormously, suddenly enriching Arabia, the least secular part of the Muslim world at the time. Saudis and Emiratis have used some of this wealth to promote their fundamentalist view of Islam elsewhere. Some point to this as the cause of Islam’s revival.

However, the first big achievement of the Islamist trend was the 1979 revolution in Iran. I don’t think Saudi money would have had any effect in the global center of Shiism. And in Iran the benefits of the oil boom were initially reaped by the very secular shah. Why didn’t that boost secularism?

Some think that CIA and friends kick-started Islamism as a counter to Soviet influence in the Middle East. But if their efforts in this field could be so effective, why didn’t the Islamist trend start at the beginning of the Cold War? Why did it continue long after the Cold War ended? And why did Islamism attack America as early as 1979?

Islamism attained visibility in the mid-1970s, but the book first mentions it while describing the last years of Nasser’s rule in Egypt, in the late 1960s. It seems that this trend started among students, young intellectuals. Islam became cool to them the same way that socialism was cool to their predecessors. Subsequent events sometimes seem like ripples emanating from Al Azhar and similar places.


This book begins with a chapter on the Ottoman Empire. The author traces the start of that state’s decline to 1683, when Turkish troops retreated from Vienna without taking it. In the 18th and 19th centuries things got progressively worse, with large territorial losses to Russia, the Habsburgs and others.

Millions of Muslims fled these areas, resettling in the remaining parts of the empire. In the 19th century "non-Muslims slightly outnumbered Muslims in the European provinces". "In the Asian ones, Muslims outnumbered non-Muslims nearly three to one." It seems weird now, but around 1900 non-Muslims reproduced faster than Muslims in the Ottoman realm.

In the 19th century Britain seemed to be the chief promoter of economic and political liberalism in the world, playing a similar role to today's US. The chapter on the Ottoman Empire talks about British efforts to force the Turks to abolish their state monopolies and to allow free trade. I know from Niall Ferguson's history of the Rothschilds that that family and bankers in general had a huge influence on British foreign policy then.

"In the past, politics had revolved around personalities more than policies. Great men had formed household-based factions, competed for the sultan’s favour, and intrigued to overthrow their rivals."

The book says that after the introduction of newspapers this sort of politics was replaced with the modern, ideological kind in the Ottoman Empire. I think that globally newspapers did increase the amount of ideology in public life. But it existed before them in some countries and eras. Mazdakism in 6th-century Iran had many similarities with socialism. The politics of Greek city states revolved around class conflict and the role of government in the economy. The same was true in late-medieval Italy. Bartolome de las Casas promoted leftism in high places five centuries ago.

As we move through the 19th century, the global liberal trend rises. An Ottoman decree of 1856 asserted the equality of Muslims and non-Muslims and even forbade language that "held some communities lower than others". Public office was opened to subjects of all religions. The empire adopted a constitution in 1876.

Revolutionaries threatened. Sultan Abdulhamid, who reigned from 1876 to 1909 rarely left Istambul for fear of assassination. To compensate for this he amassed a large collection of photographs of his realm.

He lost all real power in 1908. There was a revolution in Iran in 1909 and one in China in 1911. In this context the Russian events of 1917 look like a part of a larger phenomenon which one is tempted to call the eastern empires spring.

The Ottoman military's performance finally improved in WWI, just before the state's demise.

"Effectively using artillery and aviation, the Ottomans besieged the British at Kut al Amara (1916), forcing an entire division and its general to surrender".

The Ottoman Empire "maintained large forces on four fronts, and at times a fifth - a feat matched by no other belligerent but Great Britain. In November 1918, ‘even after the collapse of Russia, Bulgaria, and Austria Hungary [and] the mutinies in the French Army and the German Navy...the Ottoman Army, although battered beyond recognition, was still on its feet and in the field".

All of the other large states involved in the war were run by governments which revolutionaries wanted to topple. The social and economic strain caused by the fighting gave them an opportunity. Leftist revolutionaries were already in charge of the Ottoman government, so they didn't foment any mutinies.

The war was lost nonetheless:

"The collapse of Bulgaria (September 1918) had severed overland contact with the Central Powers and brought Entente forces perilously close to Istanbul, without adequate forces available for its defence".

With its capital threatened, Turkey accepted an armistice. The winners quickly began to divide it:

"As if assuming that the Turkish people were as dead as the empire, Sevres gave away most of the future Turkish Republic. The Armenians were to have an independent state in north eastern Anatolia. The Kurds were entitled to autonomy or independence in south eastern Anatolia. The straits and Istanbul were to be internationalised. Greece got control of the zone around Izmir in western Anatolia. Another agreement recognised spheres of influence for Italy in south western Anatolia and for France in the south east. By default, part of central Anatolia and the Black Sea coast remained to the Turks."

"Syrian and Anatolian death rates approaching 20 per cent compare starkly with French and German war losses of under 5 per cent."

Unlike the Germans and Austrians, the Turks immediately rose up in arms against the post-war settlement. The terms were renegotiated in 1923, after they won what we now think of as Turkey. The only area which Turkish nationalists wanted, but failed to get, was Mosul.

After the massacres, expulsions and refugee flows of WWI and its aftermath Anatolia became 98% Muslim. It feels strange that a militantly secular, seemingly anti-Muslim government would expel almost all non-Muslims from the country. Maybe Ataturk really was a nationalist, in contrast to the earlier Young Turks, who seemed like stereotypical liberal lefties. I'm assuming that the Muslims of Anatolia and the Balkans considered themselves a nation in Ottoman times.

The book says that Turkey sided with the US in the Cold War at least partly because "Stalin had refused to renew the 1925 Treaty of Friendship and started to make belligerent comments concerning the Straits of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus."

After Turkey became dependent on America, the state's attitude to Islam became less hostile. When I read about the Cold War, I root for the Soviet side, so it's fun for me to cite instances of NATO's hypocrisy. This is about the events of 1980:

"...the leaders of the 12 September coup were thorough in completely suppressing the democratic process in Turkey. The government was deposed, parliament was dissolved, political parties were closed down and their leaders were arrested, all political activity was banned, all mayors and municipal councils were fired and all labour unions and civil society organisations were outlawed. The constitutional protections for free speech, freedom of press and for the autonomy of universities were suspended. To say, write or even imply anything that was critical of the coup or the coup leaders was banned."...

"Within a year over 120,000 people were imprisoned for activities that were criminalised by the military regime."

Neoliberal propaganda associates political liberalization with the economic kind, but the leaders of the above coup were privatizers and free-marketeers, like Pinochet a few years earlier.

"Although he was responsible for liberalising significant parts of Turkey’s economy and society, Özal’s style of government also contributed to the development of widespread corruption". I like that "although".

Egypt turned towards market economics several years earlier, with predictable results:

Sadat “could not"..."erase pervasive popular images later parlayed into popular television soap operas and hit films of unrestrained fat cats and low class parvenus devouring public space and bulldozing public morality."

I shouldn’t let go of the topic of Egypt without mentioning the funniest thing in this volume. One of the authors called an Egyptian notable a “crusading Islamist lawyer”. Made me think of the word “crescenting”, perhaps for the first time ever. Turns out it’s a real word.

This book came out in 2010, so it shows Erdogan in a positive light. At some point, perhaps as far back as Ataturk, the Western powers that be soured on Turkey's secularists. Islamists like Erdogan were thought of as a welcome alternative. To his credit Erdogan has since alienated elite Western opinion.

In 1914 tsar Nicholas II “ruled over more Muslims than any Muslim sovereign”, so this book devotes a lot of space to Islam in Russia.

Perhaps the most interesting Muslim region of that country is Tatarstan.

"Since the eighteenth century, Muslims of the Volga Basin had conceived of their community as ‘Bulghar’, descended from the kingdom of that name that had first accepted Islam."

"The term ‘Tatar’ was seldom used by local Muslims themselves, while memories of descent from inner Asian nomads played no part in this identity. All this changed in the last decades of the nineteenth century."

However, the Bulgar language was Turkic. The original Turkic speakers were nomads from Mongolia.

Right after the Russian conquest of Kazan’, in the 16th century, the Muslim population was expelled from the city and mosques were destroyed. The authors take the Muslim side in most interfaith conflicts, so if you want balance, you have to provide it yourself. For example, while talking about the Crimean Khanate, this volume never mentions slave raids, which were kind of the basis of that state's economy.

Catherine II corresponded with Voltaire and Diderot, so during her reign the Russian state moved in a liberal direction. Among other things, she "made religious tolerance an official policy". This continued for the rest of the imperial period, though the book implies that the government's attitude towards Islam cooled a little after Catherine's death. Interestingly, Muslims were never drafted into the Russian army until WWI. Christians weren’t drafted into the Ottoman army either until the liberal reforms of the late 19th century.

"In many parts of the steppe, indeed, Islamisation accompanied the consolidation of Russian rule, and was at times even supported by the Russian state. For Catherine, Islam was a higher form of religion than shamanism, and she hoped that the Kazakhs would gradually be brought into the fold of Islam through the efforts of the Tatars."

In the late 18th century a Tatar man studying in far-away Bukhara caused controversy around the question of evening prayer. It's supposed to be performed when the sky is completely dark. Kazan’ is located as far north as Copenhagen, so for a few weeks in the summer there is some light there even in the dead of night. Islamic laws were written in, and for, much lower latitudes.

That student inquired whether evening prayers should even be performed in his homeland. This incident was deeply symbolic. It's hard to farm in a cold climate, so the mean IQ of farmers correlates with latitude. A student of HBD would expect the Tatars, the northernmost farming Muslims, to be the smartest representatives of their religion. And this does seem to be the case.

This book's Russian chapters often talk about Tatar leadership of the empire's Muslim community.

"...the all-Russian Muslim movement remained the work of Tatars, with some Azerbaijanis prominent in it. Central Asians, who accounted for half the empire’s Muslim population, were virtually absent from the Muslim congresses".

The Tatars were also the first in Russia to try to adapt Islam to modernity, to rationalize it.

With time Russia expanded into other Muslim territories, first in the Caucasus and later in Central Asia.

Alexander I "appointed a new commander in the Caucasus in 1802, Prince Tsitsianov, a Georgian by origin and a convert to the cause of Russian imperialism whose distaste for ‘Asiatics’ was proverbial..."

This is interesting because many have described Stalin as a convert to the cause of Russian imperialism. Or greatness, depending on the observer's attitude to Russia.

"Tsitsianov moved his forces southwards, occupying most of the Caucasus, and actively agitated for a seizure of Iran’s Caspian provinces including Gilan..."

Here’s a weird bit of Central Asian history that I didn’t know until I read this book: in 1921 the Bolsheviks sent Enver Pasha, the former Ottoman minister of war, to help them take over Central Asia. “Once he reached the area he switched sides.” He ended up dying “in a clash with Soviet forces” in 1922.

This is the book’s explanation of the switch from Latin to Cyrillic script in Central Asia in the late 1930s:

“Officials no longer saw the Russian language or Cyrillic alphabet as stigmatised by association with the tsarist empire; instead, Russian had become the language of the revolution. By 1939 the Turkic languages of the Soviet Union and Tajik had adopted Cyrillic alphabets.”

This misrepresents things. The early USSR was anti-Russian, so it hated Cyrillic. The later USSR was pro-Russian, so it promoted Russia’s traditional alphabet.

“Along with the change of alphabets came a heightened emphasis on the teaching of Russian in non-Russian schools.“

Stalin’s 1943 “concordate” with the Orthodox Church was not an isolated event:

“After the German invasion in 1941 the Soviet Union shifted to a policy of limited tolerance for Islam in the hope that that would bolster public support for the regime’s war effort. Moscow halted anti religious propaganda. In 1943 it established new Islamic bodies subject to the central government.”

This is only superficially related, but the book says that the Chinese state’s attitude to local Islam became more lenient under Deng Xiaoping. The idea that his reforms were only economic is false.

By 1985 there were 392 mosques existing legally in the USSR.

During WWII, in Iran, "Azerbaijani socialists under the auspices of the Soviet Union established an autonomous republic that lasted for nearly a year. However”...”the Soviet Union withdrew in May 1946 in the face of reported US threats to use nuclear force".

This was actually the second time that northern Iran failed to become Soviet:

"In Gilan the Communist Party formed a Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran and in 1920 prepared to march into Tehran with a guerrilla force of some 1,500."

The Iranian chapters of this book are fascinating.

“In the run up to the First World War, probably the most important development to affect Iran occurred in Britain with the transfer of the Royal Navy to oil and the subsequent decision by the British government to purchase a ‘golden share’ in the newly formed Anglo Persian Oil Company.”

Iran's government remained neutral in WWI, but that didn't spare the country:

"The Russians and Ottomans continued to use Iran as an extended battlefield. While no accurate figures remain as to the extent of the losses incurred by Iran in the First World War as a consequence of fighting, government mismanagement and poor harvests, some estimates suggest that the population may have decreased by as much as 25 percent."

After WWII prime minister Mossadegh nationalized Iran's oil, which had been controlled by Britain. The Brits reacted by asking president Truman to overthrow Mossadegh. He refused. Several days after Stalin's death Eisenhower approved the coup. The book says that the timing wasn't coincidental. Eisenhower decided that without Stalin the USSR was less likely to intervene.

"Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt and a distant cousin of Franklin Roosevelt, was appointed ‘field commander’. Roosevelt recruited General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who had trained the Iranian Imperial Gendarmerie as well as a secret security squad."

I was 16 during the first Iraq War, so I remember the media coverage of Schwarzkopf’s son very well.

"The CIA had already assembled a clandestine network of politicians, military officers, clergy, newspaper editors and street gang leaders, paying them thousands of dollars per month to push the American agenda. A leading CIA propagandist, Richard Cottam, estimated that four fifths of Tehran’s newspapers were under CIA influence. Once the decision was made to oust Mosaddegh, the Americans and British attempted to promote instability and resentment against the prime minister. Articles in the Iranian press claimed that Mosaddegh’s ancestors were Jewish and that he might be homosexual. In the Western media he was portrayed at times as a communist and at other times as the cause of instability, which could benefit the communists. The British even arranged the kidnapping, torture and murder of Iran’s chief of the national police, General Muhammad Afshartu, in late April 1953, in the hope of provoking a coup.

To carry out the coup, Roosevelt arrived in Iran followed shortly by Schwarzkopf with millions of dollars to distribute among Iranian operatives. They recruited segments of the military, a few ulama, a group of well known thugs and some prostitutes from southern Tehran’s poor neighbourhood. The thugs, who worked closely with the CIA agents, had no political ideology and operated purely for economic gain. When two leading thugs expressed reluctance to continue the operation and a desire to with draw, Roosevelt offered the simple choice of cooperating for $50,000 or quitting and death. They decided to take the money and cooperate.  The Iranian operatives failed in their initial attempt at a coup on 16 August, and the shah, who had been very reluctant to remove Mosaddegh, fled the country. Despite Washington’s orders to leave Iran, Roosevelt improvised a new plan that succeeded three days later in ousting the prime minister and reinstalling the shah.”

Here's a description of the shah's regime:

"He controlled all the major centres of power in the country, including the army, government bureaucracy, the cabinet, parlia ment and political parties. He appointed all the top officials of the govern ment and approved all political candidates for office. Political parties were never able to operate independently. Furthermore, the shah personally made every important political and economic decision, including national planning. The government strictly controlled the press and other media. With the consolidation of exclusive rule, the shah relied increasingly on his coercive apparatus to maintain power."

Obviously, the umma-wide Islamist trend had a lot to do with the Iranian revolution of 1979. But this book implies that Jimmy Carter's Christian humanitarianism might have made a contribution as well:

"Amnesty International accused Iran of being one of the world’s ‘worst violators of human rights’. More importantly, Jimmy Carter singled out Iran in the 1976 US presidential campaign as a country where human rights had been violated. American congressmen began to question the wisdom of selling so much weaponry to a regime where power resided solely in one man. Although the Carter administration did not really press Iran to introduce major political changes, the shah, dependent on US support, initiated small policy changes in the government’s treatment of political opponents. In March 1977 the government released 256 political prisoners, and in May permitted the International Red Cross to visit political prisoners. The government also legalised civilian trials for political opponents who criticised the government. Prompted by the reduction of repression, leftist and secular moderate political groups were quick to mobilise for collective action."

The author of the chapter about 20th-century Iran is an economically left-wing secular liberal. He presents the revolution as a popular struggle for freedom, economic justice and liberal democracy.

Shortly before the shah's fall government workers' organizations declared that they would only obey a government appointed by Khomeini. This would come as a surprise to a reader of this book who doesn’t already know how the Iranian revolution ended. The author does mention Khomeini before that point, but not as a figure of much importance. Workers and students are fighting for liberal democracy against an authoritarian regime, and then, almost out of the blue, at the most decisive moment, they start demanding a holy man to lead the country.

Many people try to avoid talking about things they don't like, unless and until they really have to. But this guy is a freaking historian. On the job.

After 1979 Saudi Arabia was left as America’s principal vassal in the region. Its current importance would have seemed surprising to past generations. When the winners of WWI divided the Middle East among themselves, they left Arabia largely unclaimed. They didn’t yet know about its oil reserves.

Even in central Arabia most of the population were farmers then. Foreigners overestimated the share of nomads because they usually came to Arabia as pilgrims or traders - two groups often attacked by nomadic tribes.

The book says that in the 19th century “morals in Mecca were widely thought dubious”. I remember reading somewhere - Druon’s Cursed Kings series? - that Avignon was famous as a center of prostitution when the papacy was lodged there.

In those pre-Saudi times the religious culture of the Hijaz “was alien to Wahhabı creed, more akin to the Ottoman pluralism of legal schools and Sufi orders.”

Under pressure from Europeans, "the Ottoman government in 1855 outlawed importing slaves, provoking riots in Mecca."

It's funny that the world now associates slavery with Euro colonialism.

"...when an imamate was again launched in Oman, in 1913, the British were accused of permitting the forbidden (tobacco and alcohol) while forbidding licit transactions in slaves and arms."

The chapter on Afghanistan says that the holding of Hazara as slaves was only outlawed there in 1919.

Pearl diving was an important economic activity on the Gulf Coast. In the 1930s Japanese cultured pearls drove down the prices. The discovery of oil “could not have arrived at a more propitious moment”.

Modernity was sometimes greeted with violence:

“In 1975 King Faysal was assassinated by the relative of a prince killed while protesting against the introduction of television.”

The book says that Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was "Intended to pressurise the oil rich Gulf states into cancelling Iraq’s multi billion dollar debts and contributing to its reconstruction" after the Iran-Iraq war.”

People think of Saddam as a secular leader, but the Islamist trend affected nearly everyone:

"As the [Iran-Iraq] war dragged on, the Iraqi government tried to mobilise its own population. It launched a campaign of sustained public religiosity, including a programme of mosque building, restoration of the great Shıı shrines of Iraq and the honouring of religious scholars. Ayat Allah Khomeini and his fellow clerics were depicted as thinly disguised Iranian nationalists and ‘Magians’. By contrast, Saddam Hussein was portrayed not simply as a pious Muslim, but also as a direct descendant of the fourth caliph, Imam Alı."

Speaking of the Islamist trend, this book claims that Sudan offered Bin Laden to the US in 1996, but America declined to take him, being instead “satisfied” with Osama going to Afghanistan. This is a list of things he’s thought to have done up to that point:

“In Khartoum, Bin Laden allegedly planned the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, attacks in Somalia in 1994 and on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, various attacks on tourists in Egypt, and the attempted assassination of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in 1995.”

I’m not a “truther”, but stuff like this, not on a random web page, but in a Cambridge University publication, makes you wonder.

The coast of what's now Tanzania and Kenya is the only place I'm aware of where Muslims ever blocked the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. This was because "existing social and religious structures were connected with claims to cultural superiority: while the coastal populations regarded themselves as the harbingers of civilisation, as Waungwana, they saw outsiders, particularly those from the East African hinterlands, as Washenzi (barbarians) or, indiscriminately, as ‘coastals’ (Waswahili), devoid of proper cultural and religious roots. Washenzi and Waswahili were perceived as an additional threat to the established social order when they started to convert to Islam which was regarded, by the Waungwana, as a major feature of their own culture.”

In the same vein, prominent black families of that region stressed their “Shirazi” origin. Shiraz is a city in Iran.

On another fringe of the Muslim world, in Southeast Asia, Islam was often lax and heavily mixed with local beliefs. The Javanese version of this was called Javanism. The Dutch encouraged its evolution as "a self-consciously separate religious sensibility"...

"Whether Javanism was gradually becoming a ‘separate religion’"..." remains hotly contested."

Yet in their conflicts with European powers Southeast Asians sometimes appealed to the Ottoman sultan as the leader of the world's Muslims.

"In Sumatra, the sultan of Jambi declared his lands to be Turkish territory in 1855. The sultan of Aceh renewed his ancient vassalage to Istanbul in 1850, sent help for the Crimean War, and presented his domains to the Ottomans in 1868."

The Muslim part of the Philippines was never conquered by the Spaniards. Americans seized it in the first years of their occupation of the archipelago.

The Philippines are of course the birthplace of the MILF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

I've been a map nerd since my pre-teen years, so I'm always curious about where modern states and borders came from.

"One of the aims of the British separation of Transjordan from Palestine was to limit the area of the Jewish ‘national home’ promised in the Balfour Declaration. Transjordan was thereby closed to Jewish settlement."

Egypt and Sudan were governed together in many historical periods. The book says that the current separation stems from the 1952 Egyptian revolution, the one that brought Nasser to power. For some reason the new Egyptian government was favorable to Sudanese independence.

On the birth of Pakistan:

“In the end the Congress Party refused to accept Jinnah’s terms, which asked for the creation of a Pakistan within a federal India, and thus an independent India with a weak centre and strong provinces. By doing so, Congress forced the creation of Pakistan as a separate sovereign state.”

“The demand for Pakistan was never strong in Muslim majority areas of India.”

Political Islam was most popular in UP, where Delhi is, where the Mughal Empire was governed from. Immigrants from there had a large role in independent Pakistan.

On the birth of modern Lebanon:

"The arrival of the French army of occupation and the creation of Greater Lebanon in 1920 caused deep disquiet among the Sunnı Muslim leaders. Having been part of the dominant architecture of the Ottoman state, with family and financial ties to Damascus, Latakiya, Aleppo and Homs, the Sunnı Muslim notables found themselves representing a minority within a state dominated by the Maronite Christian community, under the control of the French authorities, administratively separated from Syria. It was not surprising that in the first two decades of Lebanon’s existence the most vocal opposition, not simply to the French occupation but also to the very existence of a separate Lebanese state, should have come from the Sunnı Muslim community."

In 1976 Syria intervened in Lebanon to support the Christians there. This is interesting to me because I've seen people call Alawites crypto-Christians. In 1973 Hafez al Assad introduced  a new Syrian constitution, omitting any mention of the role of Islam. This caused some rioting, so he inserted an amendment requiring the president to be a Muslim.

When you study history you keep noticing that most social phenomena are older than popularly thought. For example, in the 19th century the government in Paris was better predisposed to Muslims than were the French colonists in Algeria. That made me think of the US government siding with blacks over southern whites in the 1960s and many similar situations. The book even says that in the 19th century, on China's Turkic frontier "local officials favoured Han settlers, despite Beijing’s pleas for impartiality."

Amusingly, the book states that the French invasion of Algeria "started as a quarrel over money, in which the dey slapped the French consul of Algiers and refused to apologise".

I was surprised to learn that in neighboring Libya right before WWII 12% of the population, 110,000 people, were Italian settlers.

Another case of the past being more like the present than everyone thinks: in 1835 Macaulay wished for a future in which East Indians would be “English in taste and in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. The denial of HBD here is almost modern in its stupidity.

The Brits even introduced elections to India, already in the colonial period.


The New Cambridge History of Islam is a 6-volume work, but it’s unlikely that I will read the 6th one. Its topic is more sociological than historical, and I have less interest in that. I did have fun reading the other 5 volumes, and I recommend them strongly to anyone fascinated by this subject.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Getting Smaller

Last May I was having lunch with someone I know. We were talking about random things: common acquaintances, work, the news. And for some reason I said “I’m gonna start losing weight”. I wasn’t planning to say this 5 seconds before I did. Or the day before. Of course I knew I was overweight, but it wasn’t a major problem. I’m fascinated by how people make decisions. Why am I learning Chinese, for example?


Anyway, this graph starts two days after I said that. I’m guessing I lost one or two pounds before I began logging my weight. I didn’t think my chances of losing so much and keeping it off for so long were high, but here I am.

How did I do it? I only eat two times a day now, on my lunch break from work, between noon and 1 PM, and soon after coming home at 7 PM. And during the initial, steeply falling part of this graph I didn’t eat much at lunch. Sometimes just a yogurt. After I get home I eat as much as I want, but in contrast to my pre-diet days I never go back to the kitchen after the initial meal. 

I didn’t change what I eat. And I didn’t do any exercise. New York is a famously walkable city. I’ve always walked a fair amount. And I prefer stairs to elevators and escalators. But that’s it. 

I was sometimes hungry, especially during the first month. But then I’d get a phone call and forget all about this hunger while talking. It was never a strong feeling. 

Do I feel different now? No. I was never so fat that it would cause any discomfort. My cholesterol level has fallen substantially though. A couple of blood indicators that have to do with the liver went from elevated to normal. There are obvious psychological advantages. I can’t help feeling superior to the fat people I see around me. 

My pants size went from 34 to 30. I had to buy lots of new pants and belts. To my surprise I also had to take out a link from the steel bracelet of my Sinn 556 I

I’m below average height, but not by much. And I now have the normal, recommended weight for this height. Yet I’m wearing pants of the smallest size that’s normally available in stores. Actually, with some pants 32 is the smallest size. You rarely see 29 or 28. This made me recall Paul Graham talking in one of his essays about two definitions of normalcy: the average and the optimal.

I do see thinner men on the streets than I am. Hipsters, Asian guys. I wonder where they buy pants. Online, in the kids’ sections?

Once you accomplish something, it’s tempting to develop it further. There were two avenues for that here: muscling up and buying lots of new clothes. ‘Cause you know, once you look a little better, you think “what can I do to look better still?”

I went for the clothes. What this proved once again is that it’s very easy for me to stop doing enjoyable things. I’ve never been addicted to anything, not even coffee. I’ll go even further than that: I could quit Twitter. I think. I don’t see a huge need for that now. But if I wanted to, I think I could. 

But it’s hard for me to force myself to do unpleasant things, like running or lifting weights. The title of this blog is true. 

I don’t think this is a very common combination of traits. Most lazy guys are easily addicted to things because they lack self-control. Fat people, for example, are addicted to food. 

I’ve sometimes thought about doing a blog post on clothes. I have about 100 dress shirts here, for example. And as I said, I‘ve bought a lot of stuff since I got thin. I have many opinions on how one should dress, on how to buy things, where. The people who’ve seen my Twitter feed know that I’m a pretty visual person. 

But to do this properly I’d have to learn something about photography again. Let’s say I went to Macy’s and looked through all the 500 types of shirts they had there, choosing the best 3. I then look at these 3 for several minutes, concentrating on the question of which one I like best. The answer reveals in some way who I am inside. This is almost as aesthetically-charged as writing poetry. Don’t laugh, folks, it really is.

If I then take a crappy picture of the shirt I end up buying with my phone camera, a lot of what I see in it would be lost. I’ve actually done this, and the result is horrible. I don’t know anything about proper lighting, I’ve probably used about 0.001% of Gimp’s features and I’ve never touched Photoshop.

So until I learn all that, which is likely never, here’s a professional, manufacturer-website pic of a shirt I recently bought at Bloomingdale’s: