Learning, research, and received wisdom

As I’m now deep in the depths of the final revisions of the resubmission of my thesis (long story), I’ve found myself re-reading books and journal articles that I first read years ago, and as a result, I’ve also found myself thinking a great deal about how learning and research works, and in particular, how ideas get recycled across years and years without any real critical consideration.

There are a whole bunch of circumstances in academia today that, at least from where I’m standing, seem to be limiting innovation.  An academic job market that has never really recovered from the recession puts pressure on graduate students and early career investigators to focus on ‘safe’ material – grad students get told we need our theses to generate great letters of support, and then need to be turned into books that will get great reviews.  If we score a tenure-track position, it seems like more and more the mentality is to keep your head down until you have tenure, whether that means being expected to live above your means or not making waves on campus.  Even for established researchers, the pressure of funding still puts the emphasis on continuing existing projects rather than branching out into something new because no one wants to fund failure.  All told, that means that for upwards of the first twenty to thirty years of your career, the pressure is to keep to familiar ground.

These circumstances are particularly problematic because, even without them, it seems like we humans tend to keep to familiar ground with our thinking anyway.  We like precedence, and seem to have the tendency to judge new information against what we already know about the subject.  In doing so, however, we’re essentially privileging whatever we heard first.

This plays out in education all the time.  Take, for example, a couple of weeks ago, when many children learned, as many of us did, that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  We learned that he was proving the world was round, not flat as everyone else thought, and that he had three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.  And to prove how effective that early teaching is, I did all of that from memory.

However, only bits and pieces of that are true.  He did sail in 1492; he did have three ships, and he did sail an ocean of some color.  However, he wasn’t proving the world was round – according to contemporary records, he was arguing for the world as being significantly smaller than it had already been proven to be (by a mathematician in Alexandria using trigonometry), and according to his own sea journal, he thought the world was pear-shaped or the shape of a woman’s breast, with the ocean being the bulge (thus taking so long to transverse).  The children’s account also leaves out his many atrocities in the Americas.

The claim is that the children’s version has to be simplified and sanitized in order to make it appropriate for children.  However, the differences go well beyond simplification, to the point that many of us have the experience of learning the more complex and complete story as adults and feeling either lied to or strongly resistant to the latter version, as contradicting what we already know.  We take the children’s version as received wisdom – something from on high that comes to us complete and elegant – and resist the adult version, with all of its problems and problematic questions, as being less satisfying.

The apparent benefit of received wisdom is elegance.  Elegance is also a mathematical principle – in logic, the best proofs are elegant, in that they are succinct, rely on a minimum of assumptions, and contain no extraneous material.  It’s tempting to use the same model for all information, but the problem is that oftentimes, the thing we learned first wasn’t actually more elegant than the thing we learned second – especially if we learned it as children or when we were just starting out in a particular field, it was probably oversimplified, and we were too inexperienced to know how to ask the right questions or interrogate the information properly.

This comes up with Islamic studies because, as I’ve talked about before, my field has a history of source skepticism.  But it’s a selective source skepticism.  It has to be, because pure source skepticism is impossible – there are so few extant manuscripts dated to within the period they describe that we can authenticate that we would barely be able to describe the historical periods pre-publishing at all.  And in rereading so much material in one go, I’ve started to notice the pattern of what sources are privileged above others, and in many cases, they’re the ones we all learn first, pure and simple.

For example, I was reading a book recently that made an absolutely beautiful source skeptical argument about a particular Christian theological debate from the seventh century called the Monothelite debate, basically arguing that too many of the sources that historians have traditionally relied upon come from after the Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 680.  Monothelitism was one of the reasons that Council was called, and historians have used this to cast backwards a version of the controversy in which the theology was always full-formed and the sides clearly delineated.  This guy made a compelling case that we need to be more careful and look exclusively at the earlier sources to understand how the controversy started, and not just accept the Acts of the Council as the full story.

And then proceeded to defend his reading of what the controversy looked like in the early seventh century by citing Michael the Syrian, a 12th century source, extant in a single complete 16th century manuscript and four known partial manuscripts.

So if the concern is authenticity to a 7th century mindset, one that didn’t yet bear the strict “orthodox/heresy” perception of the church council, why use a 12th century source?  Well, to be honest, I don’t think the author was thinking about it like that.  I think the starting point was ‘it says this in Michael the Syrian, so how does that compare to other things?’  And I think the source of that mentality is that Michael the Syrian is, quite literally, how many historians of the Late Antique period learn what a chronicle is.  It’s one of the first things you translate if you’re learning Syriac; it’s one of the first things you read about in any given textbook or general study.  We don’t hold it to the same rules of source skepticism because it’s how we learn what a source is, so of course it must be a good one!

This isn’t a vote for Michael the Syrian as a good or bad source – on some level, it’s a demonstration of the essentially tautological nature of source skepticism.  We can’t apply the same skepticism to all sources because on some level, we need a model to use as a standard.

But it’s also a vote for innovation, and for a certain flexibility in how we do research, so that there are opportunities to go back and revisit even well-accepted sources, with enough time and space to approach these questions, even, or perhaps most importantly, for the beliefs and perspectives with which we’re the most comfortable.

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Pay no attention to the women behind the veil? (Actually, no, don’t do that.)

So in the on-going saga of Western countries being horrible to women who wear burqas or niqabs, Australia announced that it was going to require anyone wearing “facial coverings” to sit behind a glass partition when viewing Parliamentary procedures.

A whole lot of people immediately pointed out that this was a ridiculous decision (buzzfeed has helpful collected some of the cleverest responses), the Prime Minister Tony Abbott backtracked and said that the new rule might not be necessary, as those wearing facial coverings would already have gone through the same security screenings as everyone else, and as far as I’ve heard online, everyone is just sort of waiting to see what Parliament does next.

Obviously the rule is silly.  People go through security screenings, and people are no more likely to hide dangerous materials on their face as anywhere else on their person (I’d argue less likely, actually, but I’ve never tried to tape a gun to my face).  If the issue were identity screening, anyone wearing facial coverings could just be checked privately, and then allowed to wear the covering like usual.  The only reason to single out those wearing facial coverings once in the proceedings would be in order to stress the differences between those people and all others – the same reason there was once segregated seating for women or for people of color.

However, I do think the ongoing saga of the West’s relationship to Muslim styles of dress is a useful way to discuss why intersectionality is so important to both understanding religion in the public sphere and in understanding the treatment of women today.  Because the problem of Australia’s response to Muslim women wanting to attend Parliamentary proceedings does not lie exclusively in the fact that they are women.  Or in the fact that they are Muslims.  It’s the intersection of the two that matters.

In order to demonstrate this point, think about how many times you’ve seen this picture:

niqab1

Or this one?

niqab2

Or this one?

burqa1

All three are from news sites discussing Western veil banning and whether Islamic styles of dress oppress women (here, here, and here).  But in looking at these images, we need to ask – who are these women?  Are these the same women over and over again?  Did they agree to be photographed?  Did they know how these photos were being used?

For all the West’s apparent discomfort with the veil, we’ve become increasingly comfortable with the use of women wearing the veil as a visible cue for the differences between Islam and the West.  These photos also reveal the continued lack of interest in knowing more about these women’s choices or these women as people – the guardian article even mislabels the woman in photo 2 as a French woman wearing the burqa – she’s wearing a niqab (as are the women in picture 1, despite being attached to an article specifically about burqas – only picture 3 is wearing a burqa).

This repeated image of an anonymous woman wearing a veil is essentially a form of objectification.  Although we most often discuss the objectification of women as objects of sexual desire (if you haven’t ready Ozy Frantz’ fantastic breakdown of women as sexual objects, you’re missing out!), objectification can take many forms – in this case, the anonymous nature of the figure in the photo encourages the perception of women in Islam as voiceless masses being forced to conform to tyrannical requirements of their religion as seen in their style of dress.  In reality, lots of women wear veils and other forms of ‘Islamic’ dress for lots of reasons – even if that reason is just “everyone else does it,” that’s still a choice, made by an autonomous human being (and the same reason millions of people around the world choose what to wear – “everyone else is wearing this” is basically how fashion works).

None of these discussions are about specific women who choose to wear the veil, or how the discrimination against them has affected them personally.  Instead, these pieces (this one included!) discuss ‘women who wear veils’ as a generic whole.

As I said, objectification of women is commonplace.  However, the specific objectification of the anonymous women in veils isn’t just a result of their being women.  It’s specifically about them being Muslims.  Indeed, one aspect of the supposed security threat of women in veils is the identity concern, that it could be anyone under there!, essentially abstracting these women’s identity beyond them even being women.  Objectification is dehumanizing – in this case, by emphasizing the supposedly anonymizing effect of the veil, it allows the people pushing anti-veil laws to claim that there’s no downside.  Banning the veil in public just makes non-veil wearing people feel better!  It’s important for security!  Veils make people uncomfortable!

All of those things might be true, but in a free society, we’re supposed to measure the benefit of these changes against the damage and inconvenience caused to the people negatively impacted by these laws, just like we do when we’re considering limiting someone’s freedom of speech or right to bear arms.  Doing so requires listening to Muslim women, those who wear veils, those who wear headscarves, and those that don’t wear either, women who occupy the whole spectrum of how women experience Islam.  We need to listen to them about their experiences, about the treatment they already receive from their choices, and how these proposed changes impact them.  Like Nahida.  And woodturtle.  And Amanda Quraishi.  And Zainab bint Younus.  And the women at altmuslimah.  And the literal millions of others who don’t have websites.

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Outsiders, minorities and learning new tricks

This post sort of follows on from my last one about things always seeming worse than what came before, but it’s also about a tendency I’ve seen in a lot of thinkpieces talking about anything to do with atheism, skepticism, or nerddom, namely, the tendency to conflate being an outsider with the experiences of minorities.

I admit, this is pretty far outside the scope of this blog, but it’s something that’s fairly important to me as a person, so I’m going to write about it anyways.  Having finished it, it’s also pretty long, so sorry about that.

In the interest of full disclosure: I am a nerd.  Always have been.  As a kid, I was a massive Marvel fangirl – I still own several hundred comics, and as a kid, I also had a large collection of Marvel trading cards (which I never traded with anyone, because I didn’t know any other Marvel fans) and action figures.  In middle school and high school, I got into scifi novels and anime.  College and grad school introduced me to Doctor Who and Firefly.  They also introduced me to intersectional feminism and the idea of modern imperialism.

As a girl, I always felt unworthy of calling myself a nerd.  The boys who ran the comic book shop would give me pop quizzes on aliases and origin stories before allowing me to step into the Marvel section, to prove that I deserved to dig through boxes looking for an old back issue to complete my collection, unless my dad (who got me into comics) came in with me, in which case they’d hang back, casting side-eyed glances as we poured over the re-issued original X-Men.  I had a few female friends in high school who liked anime, and my school had a small anime club run by the Japanese teacher, which was mostly boys and maintained a strict “NO SAILOR MOON” rule, as not being ‘real’ anime.  I didn’t get into video games until my mid-twenties – until then, I remained distinctly, and often literally, ‘gamer-adjacent,’ happy to sit around and watch my friends game.

I was still enough a part of the nerd community to know the Story of the Nerd, though – the brilliant, misunderstood boy who got picked on by bullies for liking comics more than football, who could never get hot girls to talk to him, but who was creative and interesting and would eventually grow up to be Steve Jobs or Frank Miller.  As a kid, the Story made me empathize with the boys who were refusing me access, believing that they were bullied and mistreated, and thus distrustful of others.  It also made me feel guilty, that I wasn’t hot enough or not the right kind of girl for them (something they were also happy to extemporize about to my face).

When I got older, and learned about things like intersectionalism, microagressions, and socialization, I recognized the Story for what it was – a myth.  Myths are stories that, although they may stem from reality, preserve an imagined version of reality.  Like parables and fables, they’re instructive, but myths give instruction on a macro scale, demonstrating how communities should behave.  The Story of the Nerd preserves nerd identity – outsiders, misunderstood, under-appreciated.  But more importantly, the myth also requires that the Nerd be a boy, and a straight one at that.  The women in the Story are symbols for his identity, demonstrating how unappreciated he is.  Women in the Story are something to strive for and achieve – effectively, a prize, handed out in recognition of a person’s acceptability to society.  They have no personality and will of their own.

Nor does the suffering of the archetypal Nerd ever get truly terrible or severe.  We’ve all grown up with stories of nerd and bullies – the nerds are occasionally beaten up, but more often humiliated – pants pulled down, heads dunked in toilets, etc.  At least in the portrayal of bullying, no one is ever seriously injured.  There’s also almost always a comedic component, again reducing the severity of the whole scenario.

The Story was accurate, at least in comparison to the nerds I knew personally.  They were sometimes bullied in school, generally made fun of or occasionally publicly embarrassed.  When I was old enough to think to compare notes, the suffering they had experienced as a nerd was pretty mild, compared to what I had experienced as a young woman.  Most of my nerdboy friends had never been followed, screamed at in the street, or grabbed and held against their will.  None of them had had stalkers.  None of them had been physically or sexually assaulted.  As white kids, none of us had ever been followed or threatened by the police.  As white kids growing up in Arizona, none of us had ever been accused of being in the country illegally.  None of us had ever been chased by people screaming racist slurs.  Most of us had ever been beaten up.

And herein lies the difference between being ‘an outsider’ and being a minority.  ‘An outsider’ is still a recognizable part of the privileged, normalized section of society.  They don’t play a central part in that society, but they’re still in it.  They still receive the basic protection of that privilege.  And in order to receive a more central role, all they need to do is either change their interests, or lie.  Or, as the last decade has proven, wait, as most of the things which marked me and my friends out as nerds and ‘outsiders’ in the 90s have since received mainstream popularity.  The Marvel cinematic universe is now only competing against itself for box office records.  Gaming is so mainstream that we can’t even decide what “a gamer” is.  And most of my nerdboy friends are successful by any traditional measure.

And yet we continue to want ‘being an outsider’ to be the same thing as being oppressed.  The most recent version of this I’ve read is this lengthy thinkpiece on Buzzfeed about whether the atheist movement can survive misogyny.  The author reiterates over and over again how outside the mainstream the ‘freethought’ movement is, and how much better than the mainstream it is, too – it’s a “progressive, important intellectual community” made up of “cheekily anti-establishment skeptics.”  They’re “liberal, forward-thinking types” with “matter-of-fact attitudes” and started out as “a tiny, bygone community of eccentrics” and “a safe space for science geeks, political dissidents, and other kinds of misfits.”

He also repeatedly side-steps the question of whether this wacky, fun-loving, bygone community of eccentrics used to be sexist – he suggests that the any institutional sexism would have been the result of history because “groups like American Atheists drew from university faculties, particularly philosophy and science departments, and from libertarian and objectivist political culture — all heavily male” and seems to suggest that the modern sexism is a result of the rapid expansion of the culture: “This overall growth, and increased parity between the sexes, would seem like a good thing for the movement. But not everyone saw it that way. Older male activists in particular were like fans whose favorite obscure band hits it big; their small, intimate shows were becoming big arena concerts, leaving them a bit dislocated.”

To start with, this is another example of the tendency to read ‘history’ as ‘what really happened.’  By the 1950s, there were women professors in both philosophy and science, including the often majority-female faculties of women’s colleges.  There were also a growing number of women – including women of color – involved in politics in the civil rights movement.  It wasn’t that there weren’t women who might have had opinions about religion and skepticism – it’s that the men forming these clubs weren’t talking to them.  Similarly, like the boys in the comic book shop quizzing me on Wolverine’s past, there’s no logical reason why the growth of the community should cause the old guard to lash out against women specifically – if it were just a concern for maintaining either the size or the purity of the community, then the gate-keeping should be applied equally across the board. There’s no reason to assume a priori that a women is less qualified to be either a ‘real’ skeptic or a ‘real’ nerd than a man, so why quiz one and not the other?

But what really struck me, reading the piece, is that it seems like the biggest difference between ‘an outsider’ and a member of a minority is whether they can learn new tricks.  One of the repeated themes from the piece is one that also gets brought up about feminism and racism in general, that all of this discussion of feminism makes it so that ‘no one knows the rules,’ meaning usually the rules for friendliness and/or flirting.  In the piece, this is vocalized by the only figure the author even comes close to accusing of sexism, Michael Shermer, that he’s the victim of “a growing movement to clarify or even to redefine the rules of sexual encounters.”

I’ve talked before about how people use the concept “rules” to claim  a natural state where none exists.  The “natural” rules for human sexuality would be the same as other primates – lots of sex, with everything and everyone, regardless of age, blood relation, or consent.  We don’t do that because of social expectations, and those social expectations change over time.  Shermer here is essentially decrying that he’s expected to go with the times and accept those changes, but in doing so, he’s invoking the myth of the Nerd – he’s on the outside, not being part of the social mainstream.  He’s a rebel, Dottie.

However, the privilege to ignore the rules is just that, a privilege.  It doesn’t extend to everyone.  In particular, minorities and oppressed communities are expected to adapt and change their behavior in order to avoid being blamed for their own oppression.  Women are told they can avoid being raped – don’t get drunk, don’t go out alone, don’t dress a certain way, wear ‘roofie-sensing’ nail polish, carry a self-defense weapon, etc.  When innocent black people are shot by the police or their neighbors ‘standing their ground,’ we look to how they were dressed, how they wore their hair, how they were standing, or what they said to account for what happened.

The same goes for the privilege of being confused or not knowing the rules.  A man can say he was confused and didn’t know what he was doing if he gets drunk and assaults someone, but it’s hard to imagine a woman getting away with saying she didn’t know what would happen if she got drunk in public.  Similarly, a police officer can claim he thought a black teenager was armed, but we’d have little sympathy for a black teenager who mouthed off to a cop because he didn’t know what would happen.

I think we’re particular sympathetic for nerds and skeptics when they use this ‘but you’re changing the rules!’ excuse because so many of us know the Story of the Nerd, and feel like breaking the rules and not adhering to society’s norms are parts of their identity, so by expecting them to treat women as people or by asking them to consider issues that affect people of color in majority, we’re somehow destroying their identity.  But in reality, doing these things isn’t mainstream – most people don’t do them, which is why we have institutional racism and sexism.  Social justice is an outsider activity – if nerds and skeptics really wanted to be on the outside, they’d be standing next to us.

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Imaginary Islamophobic strawman: Everything’s worse than it was!

Well, since there wasn’t roaring disappointment over my use of an imaginary Islamophobic strawman, I figured I’d carry on, footloose and fancy free.  (Seriously, my feet are so loose.  Dangerously loose.  Does anyone know where I can get some new bolts for my feet?)

The other strawman argument I run into the most often isn’t actually anything unique to Islam, or even to the study of religion – it’s the tendency of people to associate “history” as we can read it in books with “an exact record of what happened in the past” and not “an extremely limited view produced predominantly by the educated elite who didn’t care much about the vast majority of the population.”

Examples of this phenomenon include the ever popular “women in the workplace/homosexuality/variety of sexualities/non-nuclear families/insert thing someone doesn’t like here is just such a recent invention” or “there’s so much more drug addiction/depression/mental illness than there used to be.”

The problem with any social institution or trends, particularly minority ones like mental illness (which affects roughly 1 in 4 in the US) or non-heterosexual orientations (on which there is very poor reporting even today, but let’s go with the old figures and say 1 in 10 in the US), you need a decent sample size to be able to track them.

It’s just like when you learned about statistics in school – statistically, a flipped coin should land 50/50 heads and tails[1].  However, it’s a totally reasonable outcome to flip a coin several times and have it land the same way.  You need to flip it roughly a hundred times before you start to see a consistent pattern.  In the same way, you need to study a large pool of people in order to get an idea of what is and isn’t common behavior.

But you can’t do that with historical sources, because even histories that claim to tell a universal history of their own times or the preceding centuries aren’t doing that.  They’re inevitably telling a little bit of that history that seems relevant to that particular historian.

Case in point: The Muslim armies, during the Muslim expansion, besieged Constantinople twice.  The first time was around 674 CE, when they managed to maintain a siege more or less continuously for several years.  The second was in 717, when the siege lasted for one year and most of the Muslim army starved to death.  We have historical records from the period of the 674 discussing the first siege, but it is often left out of later histories.

So what?  Well, if the earlier records haven’t survived (and remember, books are rather perishable and, in particular, very flammable.  Also very inflammable.), we’d never know the earlier siege happened.  It did happen, but it just wasn’t relevant to the later authors.  It was longer than the 717 siege, but it was ultimately just as unsuccessful.  And the 717 siege happened to coincide with a major change in rule in the Muslim caliphate, and marked the last significant incursion by the Muslims into Byzantine territory.  So it felt more important to later generations.

And in general, historians care way more about military and political history than they do about social history.

Take, for example, the case of depression.  There is definitely more diagnosed depression than there was two hundred years ago.  This is, at least in part, because there was only a clinical definition of depression in the mid-20th century.  But even if we could read a definition into history, how exactly are we going to judge depression against the general horribleness of life for millions of people in the last two centuries?  I would go out on a limb and guess that many people living in the US in the mid-19th century displayed signs of depression, but I’m not sure it counts if millions of them were being forcibly held as slaves.  Hundreds of thousands more were living in poverty, working long hours under grueling work conditions, suffering in war, slowly dying of infection, cholera, or influenza, or scraping together a bare existence on the frontier.

So in order to speak accurately to whether there is more depression now than a hundred years ago, we would need a historian who was running around, interviewing a large and varied section of society about their personal experiences and problems, in such a way that we, as modern readers, could effectively analyze their responses for signs of depression, and weigh those responses against the often terrifying realities of that person’s life to decide if their feelings of hopelessness or emptiness weren’t simply common sense.

So why does any of this matter?  Well, our oversimplified view of history is often used to make the current day look worse than it is.  These arguments are also often highly dependent on post hoc, ergo proctor hoc – there was no homosexuality in the 50s, and everyone was happy, as proven by things like Howdy Doody and Leave It to Beaver, so clearly all of these gay people are making people unhappy.  Well, no.  Firstly, there were gay people in the 50s, and for centuries and centuries before that.  And secondly, loads of people were unhappy in the 50s, due to things like racism, civil unrest, tyrannical government practices, and Howdy Doody (that puppet is evil).

It’s also possible that the opposite was true – maybe the majority of people 100 years ago were really contented and comfortable with their lives (honestly, seems unlikely, but then again, I’ve never had cholera).  The point is that we don’t know, and trying to draw social lessons from the past about anything except the really big events implies a whole bunch of knowledge that we just don’t possess.

[1] Actually a flipped coin has a slight preference for the facing side when flipped, but whatever.

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Can a company have a religion?

ETA (5:45pm, 7/28/14): Edited to clarify the claimed religious affiliation of Hobby Lobby.

So in the wake of the Supreme Court’s rather sweeping decision in favor of Hobby Lobby last week, there have been a range of responses, but perhaps the strangest I’ve come across comes from The Immanent Frame on “The impossibility of religious freedom.”

There’s a lot going on in the discussion, and the title is obviously meant to be controversial, but one of the major points is the idea that the religion intended to be protected in the Constitution means something different than just ‘religion’ in the colloquial sense:

“Human history supports the idea that religion, small “r” religion, is a nearly ubiquitous and perhaps necessary part of human culture. Big “R” Religion, on the other hand, the Religion that is protected in constitutions and human rights law under liberal political theory, is not. Big “R” Religion is a modern invention, an invention designed to separate good religion from bad religion, orthodoxy from heresy—an invention whose legal and political use has arguably reached the end of its useful life.”

While it’s certainly the case that the constitutional conception of “religion” was shaped by early modern ideas of liberalism, just like the rest of the constitution, the idea that orthodoxy and heresy are modern inventions makes the Late Antiquarian in me cringe.  If nothing else, “orthodoxy” is a Greek word!  Christianity has been debating with is orthodox and what is heterdox since the New Testament.

I think it’s a perfectly useful conversation to want to discuss “what is the religious phenomenology at work in these cases and how does that religious phenomenology reflect changes to religion in the U.S.,” but I’m less enthusiastic to hear that, “it is the business of religious studies scholars to explain these phenomena, not to decry them.”  I’m not sure when we decided on that rule, but I for one am definitely not going to follow it, any more than I’d expect an environmental scientist not to have a stance on global climate change or a sociologist not to have a stance on ending poverty.  We study things we care about, and are invested in, and pretending otherwise does a disservice both to us and to the communities we work with, especially in cases where there are major, potentially deeply problematic shifts underpinning these decisions.

In this case, that big shift is that the Supreme Court just decided a company could have a religion, something the article itself sort of slides over – it somehow goes from the standard, Harold Bloom-style discussion of the American Religion as individualized, “radically disestablished free religion, defined not by bishops and church councils, but by themselves—ordinary Americans reading their Bibles, picking and choosing from among a wide array of religious practices,” to religion as practiced by a company.  Not even a company that’s producing something religious.  It’s not as though Hobby Lobby is a Bible publishing group or a kosher deli – it’s an entirely secular business producing entirely secular goods while claiming that the company as a whole – on some level separate from its staff, who obviously have different religious views if they want to be able to choose to use birth control – is practicing a religion, and for that reason, needs protection to continue in its religion.

I’ve touched on before the idea that there’s not really an agreed definition of “a religion” even among scholars, but religion as practiced by a company is certainly an innovation worthy of at least a few lines.  In this particular case, Hobby Lobby claims to be Pentecostal, which makes the ruling more confusing, as Pentecostals (or the Assembly of God, as the churches themselves are often called), like most Protestant Revivalist churches, has no authoritative hierarchy which passes laws, which could ban the use of birth control.  Use of birth control is thus not strictly forbidden, and practice varies from church to church.

There are communities that the SCOTUS decision does address directly, however, in particular Roman Catholicism, which can be understood to ban the use of birth control by all of its members.  Moreover, for myself, what I find really unsettling about the Hobby Lobby decision is that, from the point of view of religious debate, it’s not the federal government allowing religions to make decisions for themselves.  It’s the federal government picking a side on a religious debate and then forcing that decision on the entire religion.  Similarly, despite the individualist view of modern religion presented in the article, the side the government picked is exactly the side “defined by bishops and church councils.”  Within Roman Catholicism, the church hierarchy has declared the use of birth control to be unacceptable (remember that word “use,” as it will be important later).  But a significant percentage of Catholics use birth control (the exact number is up for debate, but probably more than half is a safe bet).  So the SCOTUS decision would potentially prevent Catholic-identified employees of Hobby Lobby from being able to afford birth control.

This is not a case of protecting religious practice.  It’s writing laws to prevent Catholics for being able to do what they were already doing, while all the while identifying as Catholics.  It’s not the federal government’s place to do that, and honestly, as someone who has spent most of the last decade working with religious communities, I think religious people should be freaked out that it’s happening.  I appreciate that not being able to manage your flock is frustrating, but turning to the government to do it for you?  There’s never been an example in history where that’s ended well.

Mostly because of that pesky word “use.”  Religious law cares about action and motive, so coercion becomes a really big problem.  Again to use Roman Catholics as the model, there’s a reason why confession must be undertaken “in a spirit of contrition.”  The person confessing has to feel guilty for what they’ve done and be willingly seeking divine forgiveness.  But if that person would have happily used birth control (a sin), but couldn’t afford it because their company wouldn’t pay for it, have they sinned?  They didn’t do anything, but they probably would have given different circumstances.  That’s not a moral choice, that’s a lack of opportunity.

Thus, from the point of view of religious law, using the federal government to prevent people from having access to birth control in order to protect a company doesn’t accomplish anything.  The company can’t have sinned, because a company doesn’t have a soul.  It’s also never been baptised, gone through catechism, been given the Eucharist, it won’t get married, and it can’t confess.  The people in the company are being forcibly prevented from doing something that some of them might consider a sin, but that also doesn’t accomplish anything because, for the ones who do consider it a sin, they’re not making the choice themselves, so there’s no personal morality in it, and for the ones who don’t, it’s irrelevant.

And yes, I’m aware that this whole argument is a little hyperbolic.  The court didn’t really mean to assign a religion to a company – the claim in the decision was that Hobby Lobby was a “closely related” company, a title that allows for the exchange of certain rights between a company and its owner.  But again, if this is the case, and we’re really protecting the religious rights of the owner of Hobby Lobby, then we’ve just protected his right to the religious practice of dictating how his employees should spend their wages, and denying those wages if they spend them on anything he considers a sin.  And as far as I’m aware, no religion has that as a tenant,and again, certainly doesn’t apply to Pentecostalism.  So again, we’ve made a legal ruling about religion in order to protect a religious practice that doesn’t exist and that doesn’t need protecting.

This all comes back around to why people who work in religious studies need to be engaging directly with what’s happening with religion in the public sphere, because without people willing to discuss the theology underpinning these decisions, we’re left with a scenario where “it’s my religion!” becomes a get-out-of-jail-free card.  If we’re spending taxpayer dollars on writing laws about religion, then we need to be willing to ask people about their religion and expect them to supply evidence about their traditions and practice, in exactly the same way we’d expect for any other kind of court case.

Or if not, I’m going to start claiming I can’t come into work on Fridays because my office computer is Muslim.  I’m perfectly happy to enter it into a religious debate with Hobby Lobby as evidence.

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Why was the Islamic expansion successful?

So, following on from my last post, I thought I’d talk a bit about the historical circumstances that made the Muslim army so successful.

To put this in context, the Muslim military apparatus conquered territory from the tip of Spain to the Oxus river in just over a century.  This beat the old record for conquest set by Alexander the Great’s army, and their massive, military record would hold until the incursion of the Mongolians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  (Yes, historians really do consider conquests as record-setting or not record-setting.  We’re very sad people.)

Much like the Mongolians several centuries later, much of the surprise expressed by the indigenous people the Muslims conquered (and much of their success, as we’ll discuss in a minute) stemmed from the relatively under-developed nature of their army.  Arabian tribes had offered support forces for both the Byzantines and the Persians, but the Arabian peninsula had little by way of military structure.  The Yemeni had a kingship that predates Islam and which was quickly integrated into the Muslim army, with many of the troops who invaded Syria and Egypt being identified in contemporary sources as Yemeni, but central Arabia was made up of small cities linked by caravan trade routes and nomadic tribes.  By comparison, the Byzantine and Persian Sassanian empires both had standing armies, which were paid a regular wage, trained regularly, and following a precise military structure.

So from the point of view of many of the indigenous communities of Christians, Jews, Persians, and Manicheans who experienced the Islamic expansion in the Near East, two massive standing armies were brought down by some tribal guys on horseback.  How did they do it?

Well, according to both Muslim and Christian sources, the answer is God.  For the Muslims, their victory was a sign of God’s blessing on Muhammad’s message (peace be upon him).  For Christians, it was a sign of divine Wrath, often blamed on the sectarianism and factionalism that had defined Near Eastern Christianity for most of the last three centuries.

Now, as a historian, I can neither confirm nor deny divine intervention as a cause because I’ve never had the chance to interview God.  But there were three other factors that, while probably not obvious to either the Muslims or the conquered Christians at the time, do appear to have played a major role, namely:

1.) That the Byzantine and Persian armies were severely cut down and near bankruptcy due to the Byzantine-Persian wars;

2.) That the Muslims were able to parlay their limited military structure into both a reason for limited initial resistance and a rapid recruitment program; and

3.) That Arabian horses are really fast, really small, and really strong, and easy to stay on if you’ve got spurs.

To break it down:

The Byzantine and Persian armies were severely cut down and near bankruptcy due to the Byzantine-Persian wars

Okay, this gets a little confusing, so stay with me.  It all started with a coup in Persia.  In the late sixth century, the Byzantines and the Persians had been at war for a while, but after a particularly bad loss by the Persians, their army overthrew the shah, Hormizd IV, with the help of his son, Khosrau II.  The army then refused to crown Khosrau, favoring their general, Bahram, instead.  Khorsau somehow fled to the Byzantine court of Emperor Maurice, and despite the two having just been at war with one another, Maurice agreed to help re-install Khosrau as shah, presumably because he thought he could make Persia into a principality in the process, essentially under his control.  The second coup was successful, and Khosrau became shah.

However, the Byzantine senate had voted against supporting Khosrau, and even though it ended the war and resulted in the return of much of the territory of Armenia to Byzantium (the area from which much of the Byzantine army came), they were still dissatisfied with Maurice’s rule. Maurice then turned his attention to the Balkans, and spent two decades bankrupting the empire in an attempt to hold the Danube.  After a particularly bad winter, the troops at the Danube mutinied, and rather than bargaining with them or executing them, Maurice, for some reason, sent them back into the field, at which point they claimed that he had gone mad and called for their general, Phocas, to remove him.  Phocas happily obliged them, and was initially welcomed into Constantinople on the agreement that he would lower taxes, but he couldn’t do so and still pay his men, so the city ended up revolting against him.  Worse, Khosrau had formally ‘adopted’ Maurice as kin out of gratitude for supporting him, and claimed Maurice’s murder as a personal slight, taking the opportunity to invade Byzantium again.

There followed another two decades of fighting, in the midst of which, Islam began (indeed, Muhammad (s’lm) was supposedly born in the Year of the Elephant, when Yemeni troops aligned with Byzantium invaded Mecca and the surrounding area on war elephants in order to drive off the Persian-aligned locals).  The fighting seriously disseminated both armies – the Byzantine army was already bankrupt from the invasion of the Balkans, and largely survived only because a Tunisian aristocrat called Heraclius brought a personal army across North Africa, pushed back the Persians, and managed to end the rioting in Constantinople and get his son, also called Heraclius, installed as emperor.  Persia had additional problems due to their strict caste system, which was designed to maintain the wealth of their aristocracy, making it difficult for the shah to raise enough in taxes to pay the army.

Thus, the Muslim army pushed north into a Syria and Palestine which had already suffered decades of fighting, changing hands, military occupation, and heavy taxation, and faced off against two armies that were barely holding their own.  Which leads to the second factor…

The Muslims were able to parlay their limited military structure into both a reason for limited initial resistance and a rapid recruitment program

So now a small number of Yemeni soldiers and nomadic horsemen were invading Palestine.  The local armies were in pretty bad shape, and the Muslims clearly had some strong generals – they struck a decisive victory over the Byzantines in the Battle of Yarmuk.  Indeed, part of their success many have stemmed from the Byzantines and Persians underestimating them and still being preoccupied with each other.  Who’s going to worry about the Arabian horsemen when you have an entire battalion camped out over the hill?  By the standard rules of invasion, they should have been confined to the Near East, at best.  They had no supply lines back to Arabia, Arabia wasn’t resources- or financially rich to start with, and there weren’t suddenly going to be more than a small population of Arabians to draw from.  So what’s a small, zealous army to do?

Well, firstly, they make a deal.  Or more specifically, two deals.  The caliph gave orders, following on from the Qur’anic injunction to “fight against those who disbelieve in Allah … until they pay the tribute willingly, having been brought low” (9:29), that cities of Christians and Jews should be attacked only until they submitted and capitulated to a treaty, which included a tribute, paid as an annual tax.  Since the cities in the Near East had already suffered decades of back-and-forth conquest and re-conquest, this probably sounded like a pretty good deal.

Moreover, the amount paid by the city in tribute was decided based on how quickly they capitulated – a tactic that apparently worked, as the people of Damascus, after their conquest, argued with their Muslim governor about how much they should have to pay, claiming that the city (which is a circle) was attacked by two Muslim armies, one at the eastern gate and one at the western gate, and that one side capitulated and signed a treaty even as the other side was being invaded, so that they should be treated as a capitulated city because the treaty was signed in good faith (the governor agreed, and the city’s tax burden was lightened).

What’s more, members of the Muslim army were paid directly from the spoils of war, a tricky system to maintain as it requires a continual source of spoils.  In their case, however, it seems to have worked quite well, as it encouraged a continual, speedy expansion outward, as troops sought new, richer lands to invade.  In fact, Hugh Kennedy has argued rather persuasively that the invasion of Persia may not have been ordered by the caliph, but may have been an “El Dorado” situation, with troops on the ground in Iraq hearing tales of Persian wealth and wanting to go explore (and get their share).  The paid-as-you-go scheme also encouraged locals to join up as fortune hunters, thus increasing the army’s size without the negative local response that often resulted from conscription.

The expansion wasn’t nonstop, but the areas of delay were clearly financially beneficial – the Muslims fought for ten years to take Egypt, for example, but Egypt had been the breadbasket of the world for nearly a millennium, so there presumably would have been little argument about its value as a target.  By comparison, when the Muslims encountered strong resistance from locals in the Taurus mountains or the Saharan desert and sub-Saharan plains, they simply stopped their advance and went somewhere else (like central Anatolia and Spain).  And finally…

Arabian horses are really fast, really small, and really strong, and easy to stay on if you’ve got spurs.

So this one isn’t a dealbreaker, but it’s probably a contributing factor.  Many Mediterranean armies had relied on footsoldiers since Alexander’s time, often using infantry to form a phalanx, a long line of soldiers holding shields and spears.  When attacked, they could interlace their shields and dig the spears into the ground, forming a kind of long, solid, spiky wall.  This proved particularly useful against horsemen, because people riding bareback or with simply saddles couldn’t jump the horses high enough to get over the spears without falling off.

But, the Arabians, although they rode bareback (according to contemporary accounts), had both spurs and stirrups.  Spurs make the horse go faster (and are horrible devices, for the record), and stirrups help you stay on the horse, even if something hits you.  A wooden spear versus a fast-moving horse may do some damage, but the horse is going to do at least as much damage to the guy standing next to the spear.

At the same time, horses and camels, which were also widely reared in Arabia, allow for fast travel and fast delivery of supplies, were bred to survive on minimal resources, and in really bad times, can be food themselves (as the Muslim army were forced to do during the siege of Constantinople in 717, during a particularly bad winter).

Again, the animals weren’t a definitive win in and of themselves, but they certainly made a difference, and forced both the Byzantines and Persians to fight very differently than they had historically.  The Arabians heavy use of animals may also explain why the Muslims met with resistance in North Africa, as the North African tribes (called Berbers, meaning simply barbarians) had more similar fighting styles to the Arabians themselves.

Of course, there were other factors, as well, not least the apparent persuasiveness of Islamic practice, as those locals who chose to participate in the expansion were also joining Islam as a faith, but certainly the situation on the ground played a huge role in the Muslims’ military and political successes.

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Imaginary Islamophobic Strawman: Isn’t Islam a violent religion?

So I’ve been considering for a while doing a series of blog posts on “conversations with an imaginary Islamophobic strawman.”  The problem I run in to, trying to answer a lot of the questions that come through on this site, is that they have so many problematic assumptions behind them that I can’t really answer them; the best I can do is deconstruct them.  So this would sort of be an answer to those preconceptions.  However, it would also absolutely be a strawman argument – no one specifically asked me these questions; they would just come from my own nearly-decade-long experience working in this field and having people say weird stuff to/at me.

I’m going to start out with the most obvious one, and depending on the feedback I get, I may or may not do more.  (Also, anyone want to take bets if I get a comment accusing me of using a strawman argument?)

Imaginary Islamophobic Strawman: But isn’t Islam a violent religion?  Violence is approved in the Qur’an!  The history of Islam is a history of conquest!

This is probably genuinely the concept that comes up the most often when people hear about my research, which is a fairly terrifying illustration of how engrained Islamophobia really is in the West.  It’s also the first google result if you type “is Islam..”

[The second is “is Islamic a religion,” which I can answer right now: no.  “Islamic” is an adjective.  “Islam” is a noun, and a religion.]

The problem with answering “is Islam violent?” is that, on some level, the answer has to be yes.  Because as I’ve said before, every religion has violence because every religion has humans, and some humans are violent.  But saying that a religion is violent implies, at least to me, something more substantial than that people within that religion commit acts of violence, or even that the people within that religion use the religion to justify their acts of violence.  Because again, both of those things are true for every religion on the planet.

In order to approach this question from an academic perspective, we would need a more precise definition.  What do we mean by “a violent religion?”  And why are we singling out Islam for consideration when religious violence is so widespread?  From this perspective, the strawman’s argument almost always appears tautological – Islam is a violent religion because of its history or traditions, which are those of a violent religion, without ever actually defining the term.

I think there are three main points to be made to counter this belief:

1.) Ye olde tymes were just really violent.  Everywhere.  For everyone.

2.) The Qur’an is a massive and complicated text – it can’t be said simply to approve or condone any one thing (except probably monotheism).

3.) The Islamic expansion was successful largely because Muslim rule was less violent than its neighbors, which made people like them more.

So, to start with:

1.) Ye olde tymes were just really violent.  Everywhere.  For everyone.

This is not to say that the entire Late Antique and Medieval periods were exactly like Game of Thrones.  Actually, as a historian, the often mindless violence of historical fiction really annoys me – there is a ton of violence in historical texts, but it’s never pointless.  It’s generally really, really pointed (no pun intended for stabbings).  Both torture and capital punishment were made regularly use of by political leaders for specific reasons – to break up coups, to eliminate potential threats to the throne, to end heresy/heteredoxy, and to demonstrate the legitimacy of their rule being among the most common.

Regions also regularly went to war with each other, although this may have been less violent than most people think (especially if you’ve seen movies like Kingdom of Heaven and 300).  Although infantry charges (where two armies on foot stand on opposite sides of a field and then run at each other while carrying sharp/heavy things) were employed, rulers and generals were quite clever when it came to not wasting men.  It was not necessarily out of kindness – standing armies were expensive to recruit and train, and conscripted soldiers were just pretty useless as anything but fodder, so there was no reason to lose an entire, trained army unless you really needed to.  Thus, armies regularly employed tactics like sieges (more on that below), designed to starve out cities to force them to surrender, tributes/bribes, spying, and assassinations to avoid outright battle.  Even infantry charges had pretty precise rules for their execution – raids normally happened in the Near East in spring or summer, during daylight hours, with the expectation that armies would have time to tend to their wounded and regroup in the evenings.

All of this applies to the Muslim caliphate, but also to every other empire and kingdom in the Near East.  Violence = part of being in charge in the Middle Ages.

2.) The Qur’an is a massive and complicated text – it can’t be said simply to approve or condone any one thing (except probably monotheism).

This one pretty much goes for any religious text.  And for most books, for that matter.  There’s a reason there’s a whole field of literary analysis – very few books can be summed up in a sentence.  Moreover, theological texts are often read as philosophical works, giving a system of thought that applies beyond the specific circumstances it describes, often with multiple layers of meaning (thus, in perhaps the most famous example, Plato’s Republic is not simply about how to run a city; it’s an analogy for personal fulfillment, which, in turn, was also a discussion of the failings of Athenian governance and Hellenic polytheism).

The Qur’an is made up of 114 suras, which range in length from a few lines to several pages long.  They were revealed over a period of roughly a decade.  Some refer to specific settings or circumstances (such as the references to the Battle of Uhud and the treaty with the Meccans in the sura al-Imran), while others are abstract.  Some retell the stories of the other Biblical and Arabian prophets (peace be upon them all) as lessons to the listener, others give direct commands and admonitions.  Some passages are abrogated by later revelations.

I think it’s probably fair to say that the work as a whole supports monotheism.  You might be able to compile a list of passages to the contrary, but you would certainly be ignoring more material than you’re employing.  But for nearly any other question, it takes long study and consideration to understand what the Qur’an says about it.  Not surprisingly, there are whole schools dedicated to just that, with the system of Islamic law developing in large part out of the study of the Qur’an.

3.) The Islamic expansion was successful largely because Muslim rule was less violent than its neighbors, which made people like them more.

Again, to understand the Muslim conquest of the Near East, we need to take a step back and consider how rule worked in the period.  For any government, rule was largely confined to the cities – rural areas (generally termed “the provinces”) were often ruled in name only – taxes were levied for an entire territory, with only minimal personnel, either civil or military, installed in any given province.  Cities were understood to be ‘under the rule of’ whomever they paid taxes to without rebelling, even if there were other signs of revolt or outright rejection of that rule – so, for example, prior to the rise of Islam, the Byzantine Empire claimed rule over both Armenia and the western part of the Arabian peninsula, despite both territories having their own governments, laws, and leaders, simply because they were generally allied to the Byzantines and willing to pay taxes/tributes to them in exchange for access to Byzantine trade routes.

Because of this very ‘hands off’ concept of rule, cities and territories regularly flipped allegiance, often repeatedly in a relatively short period of time.  The Persian Sassanian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, both contemporaries of the Muslims (although the Sassanians were wiped out by the Muslims by the end of the seventh century) both regularly sought to ‘conquer’ the Near East, and the territories of modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel-Palestine traded hands repeatedly.  The most common ways to claim cities were sieges or capitulation – or more often, a combination of both.  An army would besiege the city, preventing traders from entering with agricultural goods from the surrounding territories.  Cities had only limited stockpiles of food and fresh water (whereas the armies, if they planned their attack correctly, could raid or trade with those same traders), so the city would be starved out, until it eventually ‘capitulated’ to the new ruler, meaning it agreed to collect taxes and send them to that guy instead of the other guy.

According to contemporary accounts of the rise of Islam, the Muslim army was genuinely terrifying – we have works likening them to demons, Biblical plagues, saying that they were immortal, unkillable, or so big that there were as many of them as there are grains of sand on the beach.  All of these images are used to explain why they were able to successfully knock back the Byzantine and Sassanian armies far enough that they could besiege cities in the Near East (the real reasons have to do with the contemporary state of those armies and the Muslims use of horses and spurs – I can post more about this if people are interested).

But also according to contemporary accounts, once they had pushed back the neighboring armies, their treatment of the cities was actually downright nice.  We find accounts in both Muslim and Christian historical works of the so-called commands of Umar, supposedly the orders of the second caliph Umar (peace be upon him) to the armies who first invaded Palestine, that they should fight against cities only until they capitulate, and then they should not kill or harm anyone in the city, they should not burn fields or orchards, they should not destroy churches, attack monks or stylites, and they should make treaties that treat the cities and their populations fairly.

Now obviously this is partly propaganda, but it actually matches up pretty well with what we see on the ground.  The only works that describe violence against civilians or forced conversion are martyrologies – stories about people being killed for their faith.  Not only is there no historical evidence to support these stories as being historically accurate, even as works of fiction, they go out of their way to explain how unusual the circumstances they were describing were – that the martyrs were being executed by a particularly evil Muslim governor or because these Christians happened to also be the local battalion – suggesting that even these works recognized that their stories wouldn’t ring true to the local Christians who experienced the Muslim conquest without these caveats.  By comparison, Christian apologetics – works arguing for the philosophical and metaphysical superiority of Christianity over Islam – actually often discuss how great Muslim rule is and how bloodless the conquest was, arguing that it was God’s Will for the Muslims to conquer the Near East in order to eliminate the last remaining communities of pagans in the area.

So there you go, a brief overview of how violence is actually just a big part of all Late Antique history.  Fun times.  If people have more specific questions about parts of this, or want to hear more about Late Antique military techniques, or want me to NEVER DO THIS AGAIN, please let me know.

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