Tag Archives: Religion

Why I’m Voting for the Boycott Part 1: David vs. Goliath

UPDATE: The second post in this series is now up. And now the third post as well.

Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting takes place by electronic ballot starting today, April 15th, and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision.

While we have been posting extensively about the boycott here on Savage Minds, so far none of the full-time contributors have expressed their personal opinions on the matter. Over the next few weeks I hope to do just that, starting with a post about my own experience growing up as a Reform Jew in New York City. I have at least two more posts planned as well, including one on boycotts as a political strategy and another in which I try to round-up and summarize some of the writing which I have found most persuasive on the topic.

What follows is a very personal statement and intentionally avoids most of the issues that have already been discussed elsewhere. For those wanting more information I recommend looking through our own archives on the subject, or exploring the blog maintained by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, as well as the anti-boycott blog. But, above all, I recommend you read this post on “Myths and Facts About the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions,” Dialogue vs. BDS, and the Report on Israel/Palestine (PDF) prepared by the AAA task force.

David vs. Goliath

I was raised as a Reform Jew in New York City in the eighties and the Judaism we were taught at Hebrew School was little more than Zionist propaganda. As Lisa Goldman recently put it,

for Jewish-Americans, more so than ever for Jews in Israel, Zionism is a crucial element of their identity. The most important element is neither God nor religion but the Holocaust, with its heavy legacy of trans-generational trauma. The lesson of the genocide, many believe, is that Jews need a safe haven. A state of one’s own.

During my weekly Hebrew school classes, as well as related weekend activities and camps, we almost never discussed Jewish religion, ethics, or philosophy.1 Instead, we were taught to think of ourselves as victims of historical persecution stretching back to the dawn of time. We were taught the importance of maintaining our ethnic identity in the face of this persecution.

David and Goliath
“David and Goliath” by Erik Bragalyan

Even as young children, we were encouraged to think of ourselves as little David’s standing up to Goliath. The holidays we celebrated were similarly built around such David and Goliath narratives: Purim celebrates the story of Esther who triumphed over the evil Mordecai Haman,2 and Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of the Maccabees over the forces of Antiochus.

Only as we got older did we learn of stories in which the Jews failed to triumph against overwhelming odds: the Spanish Inquisition, Eastern European pogroms, and, of course, the Holocaust. Yet even when learning about war and genocide, there was always the promise of a new David emerging that might once and for all put an end to such historical defeats: muscular Jewish nationalism. The Warsaw Uprising may not have succeeded, but the Six Day War and the raid on Entebbe were another story. Israel’s success meant that Jewish children could sleep peacefully at night. It also meant that Isreal was all that was standing between us and the abyss.

I never went on any of the trips to Israel organized by the school, but we watched films about the wonders of life on the kibbutz. (We were, of course, carefully warned away from socialism with stories about the horrors of collective family life.) I also helped raise money to plant trees in Israel. We were told that the Arabs had not cared for the land properly, turning it into a desert; the implication being that they did not deserve the land because they had been poor caretakers. Such stories of neglect by indigenous inhabitants will be familiar to scholars of all forms of settler colonialism. (I have since heard ethnic Chinese say much the same thing about indigenous Taiwanese.) At the time, however, it evoked a powerful image of Palestine as a desert which was only able to bloom once the rightful owners had returned.

When I was twelve they took us on a weekend retreat where we watched the movie Ticket to Heaven about a man who gets “brainwashed” by a cult and has to be “deprogrammed” by his parents. But unlike that film, unlearning Zionism was not a simple process involving being locked in a room with a professional “deprogrammer.” It took years of reading, questioning, and talking to people who actually knew something about life under the occupation. Thanks to patient friends in college and graduate school, I began to question the simple narrative by which the Holocaust served to legitimize colonialism. I learned about the Nakba by which “led to the expulsion and displacement of the Palestinian Arab population.” I learned how life in Gaza was like living in a giant prison. I began to question the logic of the two state solution. I learned about the rise of right wing extremism in Israeli politics. And slowly, bit by bit, the stories I had learned as a child began to unravel a the seams, creating space for a much more complex story to take its place.

Even as I began to question my Zionism, however, certain habits and reflexes of thought still remained. I would find myself instinctively grasping at straws to support claims I had already come to realize were unsupportable. Recently I encountered similar reflexes while teaching here in Taiwan. We are starting to get exchange students from China and during one lecture, after I said something mildly critical of China, one of these students spoke up to challenge what I said. I was actually quite happy about this because Taiwanese students are usually so passive in class that actually getting challenged by a student felt refreshing. But after the lecture the student came up to me and introduced herself. She said that she actually agrees with what I had said about China and that she’d come to Taiwan precisely to get exposed to more critical views, but that defending China’s honor had become a reflex for her so she’d spoken up without thinking. Nationalism works upon is in very deep ways which talk of “imagined communities” often fails to grasp.

Zionist reflexes are not unique to Jewish kids from NY. They seem to exist at a more general level in European and American public discourse as well. I see non-Jewish politicians, media personalities, and even academics reflexively defending Israel, portraying anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism, unquestioningly accepting the necessity of a two-state solution, and refusing to engage in any way with Palestinian political aspirations. It is as if the slightest break in our collective resolve would open the door to the ultimate evil. “Never again” means you are either “with us or against us” and the failure to be “with us” is too horrible to contemplate.

At a very basic level I supported the boycott resolution because I felt that it would open up a public space that would allow for questioning of these deeply ingrained assumptions. I don’t expect those people on Facebook who write “Disgusting” every time I post about the boycott to change their minds, but my public support of the boycott, and of the BDS movement more generally, has already sparked dozens of conversations with people who are genuinely curious and open-minded. In this sense the boycott resolution and the resulting discussion have already done a lot of the work I hoped they would, but I still think AAA members should vote for the boycott. In my next post I will try to explain one reason why I think an actual boycott, and not just this discussion about the boycott resolution, is still important.


  1. My brother went to a different Reform Hebrew school and had a very different experience, one that did indeed involve interesting discussions of ethics and philosophy. 
  2. Thanks to reader “yogi” for the correction. I obviously wasn’t paying enough attention in Hebrew school! (Or just have a lousy memory…) 

Belief is a Practice

In an effort to cut through a lot of hot air being blown on the internet I recently argued that race (and gender) is a “technology of power.” I would like to follow that up with an argument that belief is best understood as a set of social practices, not as an internally coherent ideological system. This is because a large number of seemingly well-intentioned people on my timeline are arguing something along the lines of “we shouldn’t let Islam of the hook for terrorism.” In my previous post I argued that we should endeavour to engage the best arguments that we disagree with, not those easiest to dismiss. This is one reason I haven’t engaged this particular argument before. At first blush it strikes me as little more than laughable “clash of civilizations” Islamophobia (not that Islamophobia is funny). However, some recent discussions have convinced me that there might be a more anthropological version of this argument which is worth a more serious discussion. This argument has two parts: (1) that we should take people’s ideas seriously, including those of violent extremists, and (2) that we should not erase difference by arguing that all forms of violent extremism are the same (i.e. by arguing that not all, or even most, violent extremists are Muslims). I think few anthropologists would take issue with either point, but in so doing we would still not end up in the same place as those making these arguments.

Continue reading

Angry White Buddhists and the Dalai Lama: Appropriation and Politics in the Globalization of Tibetan Buddhism

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Ben Joffe. Ben is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado. He holds a MA from the University of Capetown, and a Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research dissertation grant for the project “White Robes, Matted Hair: Tibetan Renouncers, Institutional Authority, and the Mediation of Charisma in Exile.”]

You know that guy. He talks about ‘Tantric yoga’ in casual conversation. Maybe he has dreadlocks. Maybe he’s shaved his head. He’s definitely not had a beverage with regular milk in it for years. He’s probably white and affluent. He’s probably been to India. And he probably wears Buddhist prayer beads as jewelry.

It’s easy enough to compare this stereotype to the ‘serious’ convert to Buddhism, who though they too may talk about Tantra, sport distinctive hairstyles or be white and affluent, seem at least to wear their prayer beads as more than just a fashion statement. Yet, how easy is it to identify where religious conversion begins and cultural appropriation ends? Continue reading

The End is Nigh. Start blogging.

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Clare A. Sammells.

My thanks to the editors of Savage Minds for allowing me to guest blog this month. Hopefully I will not be among the last of Savage Mind’s guests, given that the End of the World is nigh.

You hadn’t heard? On or around Dec 21, 2012, the Maya Long Count will mark the end of a 5125 year cycle. Will this be a mere a calendrical turn, no more inherently eventful that the transition from Dec 31, 2012 to Jan 1, 2013? Will this be a moment of astronomical alignments, fiery conflagrations, and social upheavals? Or will there be a shift in human consciousness, an opportunity for the prepared to improve their lives and achieve enlightenment? Continue reading

After Oak Creek: A Roundup

“On August 5, 2012, a mass shooting took place at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, with a single gunman killing six people and wounding four others. The gunman, Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, shot several people at the temple, including a responding police officer. After being shot in the stomach by another officer, Page fatally shot himself in the head.” [via Wikipedia]

Below I’ve gathered together some of the reactions to the tragic Oak Creek shooting, presented without comment. Feel free to add your own links, or leave comments below. (Respecting our comments policy, of course!)

An American Tragedy, by Naunihal Singh:

The media has treated the shootings in Oak Creek very differently from those that happened just two weeks earlier in Aurora… Sadly, the media has ignored the universal elements of this story, distracted perhaps by the unfamiliar names and thick accents of the victims’ families. They present a narrative more reassuring to their viewers, one which rarely uses the word terrorism and which makes it clear that you have little to worry about if you’re not Sikh or Muslim.

Top Ten differences between White Terrorists and Others, by Juan Cole:

2. White terrorists are “troubled loners.” Other terrorists are always suspected of being part of a global plot, even when they are obviously troubled loners.

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Mediating the Real I

Whenever I mention that one of my primary areas of anthropological research is media, the question I come across on a recurring basis is the following: How will you be able to pursue that through ethnographic fieldwork of everyday activities? My sense is that such a response comes from the view that media are disembodied and deterritorialized objects or processes, or that they operate at a pace that is difficult to engage through participant-observation. In response to such concerns much work in anthropology has sought to “ground” media by focusing on production or reception practices, or occasionally both. However, I consider this kind of question crucial to think through during my exploratory fieldwork and research design phase.

A similar issue has arisen in anthropological research on Muslims in North America. In the conclusion to Katherine Pratt Ewing’s edited volume, Being and Belonging (2008), Andrew Shryock called for greater attention to “the immediate and mediated worlds…articulated in everyday life” (206). So, how should one strike a balance between studying media and the everyday? One could study the everyday dimensions of production practices, or how the reception of media is incorporated into people’s everyday lives, or how and why media producers construct the everyday in certain ways. Continue reading

The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 2

She is Freedom
She is Freedom

For philosophers, sociologists and historians, freedom is a concept exquisitely defined and heroically distinguished. There are the familiar distinctions like positive and negative liberty (Isaiah Berlin), there is the long tradition of thinking freedom togther with sovereignty, government and arbitrary power (sp. the newly reinvigorated “civic republican” tradition from Machiavelli to Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit); there is the question of free will and determinism (a core Kantian Antimony that generates both moral philosophy and philosophy of science debates seemingly without end); there is the question of freedom and the mind (the problem of the “contented slave” or the problem Boas raised in arguing that freedom is only subjective); the question of coersion, of autonomy, of equality and of the relationship to liberalism and economic organization. Within each of these domains one can find more and less refined discussions (amongst philosophers and political theorists primarily) oriented towards the refinement of both descriptive and normative presentations of freedom as a concept and as a political ideal. And then there is Sartre.

As I mentioned in the first post, anthropologists have been nearly silent on the problem, while philosophers, political theorists and historians have not. There are shelves and shelves of books in my library with titles like A Theory of Freedom, Dimensions of Freedom, Freedom and Rights, Liberalism and Freedom, Political Freedom, etc. There are readers and edited volumes and special issues of journals to beat the band. In history there is Orlando Patterson and Eric Foner, and a 15 volume series called The Making of Modern Freedom that includes books on Freedom from the medieval era to the present, and includes books on China, Asia, Africa, slavery, migration and fiscal crises (!).

If anthropologists find the concept of freedom distasteful, how then do they organize their concern with things and issues related to what political philosophers or historians approach via freedom? What concepts stand in, challenge or reframe that of freedom? Here is a long list (which could no doubt be longer):

agency, authority, bare life, biopower, biopolitics, citizenship, civil society, colonialism, consent, contract, development, domination, empire, exclusion, governance, governmentality, human rights, humanitarianism, interests, interest theory, in/justice, kingship, neoliberalism, obligation, oppression, precarity, resistance, secularism/secularity, security, social control, sovereignty, suffering, territoriality and violence.

Note that this list concerns terms also familiar to North Atlantic political philosophy, which is to say, this is not a list of “indigenous” or ethnographically derived concepts of/related to freedom. That would constitute yet another distinct question (and a separate post, to follow).

Most of the concepts in that list are closer to the empirical than the theoretical, and I suspect this is why they are preferred to manifestly abstract ideal like freedom. Humanitarianism for instance, has seen a wealth of great work over the last couple of decades for the concrete reason that it is a practice, a domain of law, a set of international economic imperatives as a well as an ideal. Precarity nicely captures a particular economic condition and the effects that has on well-being, etc.

Perhaps most central to the anthropologist’s suspicion around freedom is its inherently individualist bent. Continue reading

The Semiotics of Islamophobia

Via the PostSecret website, it is unclear whether the poster intentionally picked a photo of Sikhs or if this was unintentional irony. Not that the sentiment would have been any less offensive if the person wearing a turban was actually a Muslim. It certainly didn’t matter to the families of victims of post 9-11 hate crimes whether the victim was Muslim or not. I bring this up because William Dalrymple has an op-ed in the NY Times about the proposed Islamic center planned for lower Manhattan (for those living under a rock, see William Saletan’s piece in Slate for a good roundup of the issues surrounding the center):

The problem with such claims goes far beyond the fate of a mosque in downtown Manhattan. They show a dangerously inadequate understanding of the many divisions, complexities and nuances within the Islamic world — a failure that hugely hampers Western efforts to fight violent Islamic extremism and to reconcile Americans with peaceful adherents of the world’s second-largest religion. Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors. Yet many of our leaders have a tendency to see the Islamic world as a single, terrifying monolith.

Dalrymple’s main point is that the Sufis behind the Cordoba Initiative are themselves “infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate[s]” in the eyes of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. We’ve been here before:

In 2006, the investigative reporter Jeff Stein concluded a series of interviews with senior US counterterrorism officials by asking the same simple question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia?” He was startled by the responses. “One’s in one location, another’s in another location,” said Congressman Terry Everett, a member of the House intelligence committee, before conceding: “No, to be honest with you, I don’t know.” When Stein asked Congressman Silvestre Reyes, chair of the House intelligence committee, whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shia, he answered: “Predominantly – probably Shia.”

Clearly the United States would be better off if our leaders, journalists, and citizens knew a little more about Islam. But there are also some lessons here about the semiotics of racism which I would like to think offer some insights beyond the 24 hour news cycle.

A Liverpool working-class accent will strike a Chicagoan primarily as being British, a Glaswegian as being English, an English southerner as being northern, an English northerner as being Liverpudlian, and a Liverpudlian as being working class. The closer we get to home, the more refined are our perceptions.

The above quote is taken from a discussion in Asif Agha’s masterful book Language and Social Relations. Agha’s focus here is on the limits of of performativity. By pointing out that the hearer’s own prior socialization provides an important context for the successful performance of identity, Agha sets the stage for one of the book’s central themes: that identity is not only mediated by discourse, but also requires a process of negotiation between speaker and hearer—and that this process of negotiation can be transformative, changing the possible range of identity positions available to both parties as well as society at large.

I quite like Agha’s argument, and in chapter after chapter he makes a convincing case for it. Particularly interesting is his discussion of kinship terms, in which he shows how a mother might refer to her in-laws using terms which, taken literally, would place her in the role of her own child vis-a-vis her relatives, but are nonetheless lexically differentiated from the terms a child might use. In doing so she claims her rights as the mother of the child without reducing herself to the status of a child.

While the discussion of a Liverpool working-class accent shows that Agha is aware of the limits to such performativity, I would have liked to see more discussion about situations where one party refuses to negotiate. Agha’s approach to limits implies that performativity might fail because of one party’s lack of socialization, but what about if one party has a will to ignorance? I think such willful ignorance is behind much American confusion with regard to Muslims, and so I’m not sure how much use historical, ethnographic, or journalistic accounts of the various divisions within Islam can help.

It seems to me that part of the problem derives from the very idea of a “just war.” As Judith Butler argues, such a concept requires the “division of the globe into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war.” For some section of humanity to remain “ungrievable” requires a willful ignorance which refuses to engage in the kind of dialog which would allow for negotiated meanings to emerge. Thus, Islamophobia is in some ways a prerequisite for waging a global war on Terror, even as our leaders insist otherwise.

Bible/Darwin: Here Comes The Hair Dryers

According to Fox News, a group of atheists are performing de-baptizing rituals with hair dryers (thanks for the link Tad). This is one of these moments where as an anthropologist you feel a certain smug self-congratulation that human beings are in fact just as culturally creative as you keep on telling people they are. But it also speaks to deeper issues in the so-called atheism/religion debate that flares up periodically in America and England and is increasingly diffusing all over the place.

Just mentioning people likeRichard Dawkins is likely to draw tons of aggro to this blog, so I will keep it short: most commenters on the cage match between the rabid evolutionist-cum-atheists and the rabid evangelical christians-cum-creationists imagine this conflict to involve two separate groups. The genius of the hair-dryer ritual is that it demonstrates so clearly that what we actually have here is a case of what Simon Harrison calls ‘mimetic conflict’ — two groups competing to occupy a single identity. The opposition is not one of Christian versus non-Christian, but rather a conflict between two different permutations of protestant culture.

Consider: one side believes it possesses an infallible book written by an omnipotent author with a huge beard with completely explains the dynamics all living things on earth. The other side believes in the literal truth of the bible. One side believes it will go to heaven, the other advocates a space program to achieve “Mars in our time” as a mission to direct and shape human aspiration. Atheist parodic appropriation of Christian identity even comes with (according to the article) a ritual officiant who “doned a monk’s robe and said a few mock-Latin phrases” before the drying began — and of course there is nothing more protestant than damning your opponent for their popery.

This de-baptism makes clear in a single ritual what is at the heart of much of this debate: that within American culture, science and religion are two different things but two versions of the same thing, both of which rely in shared, rather intellectualist understandings of human nature and the role of the bible/Darwin: humans attempt to ‘find meaning in the universe’, explain natural phenomenon, and live regenerated lives free of the corrupting influence of earlier, false doctrine. These are notions that are, in general, not shared by members of other religions.

Partially is a way of saying that the anthropological notion of culture often cuts across what other people’s ‘ethnocultural’ notions — we see a single system made of oppositions where others see two discrete ‘cultures’ or groups. But mainly this is just a way to give props to atheists for such a well-designed ritual. I’m not particularly big on running other people’s beliefs down, but setting aside the mean-heartedness that comes across in the interview with the atheists, I have to say as a piece of cultural practice the ritual is superbly imagined.

New Reproductive Health Technologies in Egypt

Thanks to Kerim and Savage Minds for inviting me to contribute. I thought I’d write something about a new research project I’ve recently started on new and emerging reproductive health technologies in Egypt. This project looks at Egyptian interpretations of four technologies: emergency contraception, medication abortion, hymenoplasty, and erectile dysfunction drugs.

Some interesting paradoxes to contemplate:

  • Why are there at least a dozen local brands of sildenafil available from Egyptian pharmacies, and “Viagra sandwiches” or “Viagra soup” is on the menu at almost every restaurant that specializes in seafood, but there is only one brand of emergency contraceptive pill in Egypt, which is sold by an NGO because it’s not considered commercially viable enough for the mainstream pharmaceutical companies to bother with it?

The tap in the bathroom of the apartment where I stay when I’m doing research in Egypt. My roommate and I have often wondered where these came from. Was it a marketing campaign by Pfizer during the era when they weren’t allowed to engage in direct-to-consumer advertising for their product? Or did some sink manufacturer just think it would be cool to put Viagra on the handles?

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Tony Blair on Faith and Globalization

So if you are a student at Yale this semester you can take a course with Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Now it isn’t that uncommon for former politicians to teach university courses, but it is unusual for the rest of us to be able to virtually sit in these courses. Here is the YouTube clip of Blair’s first lecture. It starts about 20 minutes into the clip, after a long introduction by Miroslav Volf.

So, what to make of Blair’s course? The topics are interesting and are exactly those topics which concern many anthropologists: faith, globalization, identity, etc. (Blair recently “came out” as a Catholic.) Unfortunately, I can’t imagine any student staying awake in this class. Neither Volf nor Blair seems to have much to say about these topics except for vague platitudes. I thought that watching this would give me an opportunity to say something interesting and/or critical about Blair’s take on these topics from an anthropological point of view – but I honestly didn’t hear anything worth commenting on. He sees globalization as a force which “opens up” society and religious faith as capable of either aiding or hindering that opening up … depending (not quite sure on what).

I almost deleted this post, but then I thought it might be worth posting it to see if anyone has anything more insightful to say about it than I do. And who knows, maybe the course will get more interesting later on…

Transhumanism vs. Anthropology

In my ongoing quixotic attempt to highlight places where anthropology should be and isn’t, I thought I would bring up the issue of transhumanism, once more with feeling.
Over the years of being a participant-observer amongst geeks, I’ve repeatedly found myself amongst transhumanists. I’ve even written about it a bit, though only as a kind of limit case for certain understandings of history. The only good scholarly work on transhumanism I know of is by Richard Doyle (which is to be distinguished from scholarly work BY transhumanists, which is actually remarkably common if you cast a wide net). I’m a bit gun-shy from trying to engage experimental philosophers, but I’ve often wondered why there is so little interest from anthropologists in this brand of scientific-cum-theological thinking—or vice versa. It seems to me that crap like Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near is pretty bad press for this group—worse in any case than Ted William’s freezing his head, which is just the kind of creepy shit the press loves. There are a lot of interesting variations on transhumanism, from your basic immortality by downloading consciousness onto silicon, to more probable concerns with alteration of the human body through drugs, surgery, or bionic additions. This is just to say that like any ism, it’s pretty hard to pin down.

So I was happy to see that a publication I had never heard of before— “The Global Spiral: A Publication of the Metanexis Institute”— has published a series of articles by scholars in science studies, philosophy and literature (Andy Pickering, Don Ihde, Katherine Hayles and others) about transhumanism (volume 9, Issue 3). Unfortunately, they are all pretty un-anthropological in their approach, preferring to criticize transhumanism rather than engage it. I know why… extreme versions of transhumanism can be pretty unctuous, raising specters of race-purity, eugenics, bad technological determinism etc. However, I for one am pretty surprised by the continued growth of this “movement” (what makes it a movement?) and lately, I’ve started to think that it might well move into a more mainstream light as there are people like Nick Bostrom (an Oxford Ph.D.) and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies gaining attention and authority… Wait a minute, ethics and emerging technologies? Isn’t that what I study?!? Quick, freeze my head!
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Why follow the shoots when you can have the root?

Via Far Outliers, this lengthy and fascinating interview with Jeffrey Summit, “a rabbi and professor of ethnomusicology and Judaic studies at Tufts University,” about the Abayudaya, or the “Jewish people of Uganda”:

The once vibrant Sephardic and Mizrahi of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt, were established in North Africa approximately two millennia ago, but since 1948, the vast majority of North African Jews emigrated, settling in France, Israel, and the United States.

Now, in contrast to these communities, the Abayudaya, which means “Jewish people of Uganda,” proudly reference their conversion to Judaism in the 1920s, stating that they were drawn to Jewish practice by the truth of the Torah, the five books of Moses. Their founder, Semei Kakungulu, was a powerful Ganda leader, and he considered Christianity and Islam, and then according to community elders, said, “Why should I follow the shoots when I could have the root.”

Read the whole thing.

Why Bad Science Happens

Via the Linguistic Anthropology blog, I came across this excellent post by Lauren Squires, entitled “The social life of prescriptivism.” In it, Squires explains to the more positivisticly minded just what social science can contribute to understanding why bad linguistics happens. She brings together several related strains of linguistic anthropology/sociolinguistics research: language attitudes, language ideologies, linguistic awareness, linguistic capital (although she doesn’t call it that), etc.

For those of us trained in linguistic anthropology none of this is new, but I think we tend to forget just how little other people are aware of this research. The linguistics section of most bookstores is one of the smallest, and the anthropological sub-section is usually confined to one or two readers on language and gender. But what struck me about this post is that the same kind of thing could easily be written for any subject where scientists gripe about people not understanding their work, whether it is evolutionary theory or climate change, etc.

Take Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion for instance. The rational argument against the existence of god has been around a long time, and it hasn’t made much headway for a reason. Those reasons are complex, to be sure, but there is a large literature in anthropology that can help us at least begin to understand the continuing appeal of a divine creator.

The trick is to assume that people say and believe the things they do not simply out of error or ignorance, but because within the world in which they live these beliefs make sense and are actually helpful to them. The very fact that church attendance is so much more a part of people’s lives in the US than in Europe should clue us in to the fact that there are important sociological factors going on here. While American’s may not fair as well in math and science as Europeans, I don’t think that math and science education alone can explain these differences.

UPDATE: I forgot to plug the prescriptivism page on my wiki!

The End of Chutnification

One article I like to use when teaching about colonialism is Ann Stoler’s “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” from di Leonardo’s Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge. There is a book length version of the argument as well, but the article does the job. (It works very nicely together with Claire Denis’ film Chocolat)

Central to Stoler’s argument is the claim that colonial policy towards marriages between colonial officers and native wives changed when the mixed-race children began to blur the color line that legitimated European rule. She looks at how in Indonesia, India, and elsewhere, the colonial governments began a policy of encouraging officers to bring wives from home, and how the presence of these wives then created new tensions as a result of the perceived need to protect these women from sexual assault. (The number of people executed for attempted rape does not match any changes in the number of such assaults actually reported.)

It was with this discussion in mind that the following account of changes in Indian colonial rule from William Dalrymple caught my eye:

During the 18th century it was almost as common for westerners to take on the customs, and even the religions, of India, as the reverse. These white Mughals had responded to their travels in India by shedding their Britishness like an unwanted skin, adopting Indian dress, studying Indian philo sophy, taking harems and copying the ways of the Mughal governing class they came to replace – what Salman Rushdie, talking of modern multiculturalism, has called “chutnification”. By the end of the 18th century one-third of the British men in India were leaving their possessions to Indian wives.

In Delhi, the period was symbolised by Sir David Ochterlony, the British Resident, who arrived in the city in 1803: every evening, all 13 of his Indian wives went around Delhi in a procession behind their husband, each on the back of her own elephant. For all the humour of this image, in such mixed households, Islamic customs and sensitivities were clearly understood and respected. One letter, for example, recorded that “Lady Ochterlony has applied for leave to make the Hadge to Mecca”. Indeed, Ochterlony strongly considered bringing up his children as Muslims, and when his children by his chief wife, Mubarak Begum, had grown up, he adopted a child from one of the leading Delhi Muslim families.

Dalrymple’s account of the reasons for this change are not at odds with those of Stoler, but the emphasis is different. On the one hand he attributes it to the “rise of British power” which “quickly led to undisguised imperial arrogance,” but he also attributes it to the “ascendancy of evangelical Christianity, and the profound change in social, sexual and racial attitudes that this brought about”:

The wills written by dying East India Company servants show that the practice of cohabiting with Indian bibis quickly declined: they turn up in one in three wills between 1780 and 1785, but are present in only one in four between 1805 and 1810. By the middle of the century, they have all but disappeared. In half a century, a vibrantly multicultural world refracted back into its component parts; children of mixed race were corralled into what became in effect a new Indian caste – the Anglo-Indians – who were left to run the railways, posts and mines.

The focus of Dalrymple’s article is actually on the 1857 mutiny and the parallels to the current situation in Iraq. It is a taste of his new book The Last Mughal.

(via Arts and Letters Daily)