What is a civilization?

Thinking about the Harsh Gupta podcast and what “civilization” is. What is this identity? how does it form and cohere?

In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order Samuel Huntington emphasizes religion. This makes total sense to a person from South Asia. Religion has become the major fault-line in the Indian subcontinent. But is it justified? I think it is. The ecologist-turned-quantitative-historian Peter Turchin has suggested that “higher religion” is a “meta-ethnic” identity. That is, an identity that transcends tribe, ethnicity, and race.

Contrary to what racial nationalists like to think, historically race has not been a major cleavage. Fair-skinned Frankish Crusaders intermarried extensively with the Christian Armenian nobility of the Near East when they arrived. No matter that genetically Armenians are very similar to peoples of the northern Levant.

These bonds are abstract and higher-order. They are not visceral and concrete. Aside from the most extreme goat-beards growing up in the United States as a Muslim of South Asian origin we never saw Muslims of other ethnicities outside of religious festivals. Arab contempt for non-Arabs was palpable. Persian superiority toward non-Persians was palpable. Rather, it was common to socialize across religious divisions for people of the same regional-ethnic background. And yet if you pinned my father down he would aver that his ultimate loyalty was to the co-religionists of different nationalities with whom he literally never broke bread.

Similarly, Indian Americans have a soft spot for Tulsi Gabbard, because she is a Hindu.

But East Asian society is different. Religion and religious identity has never been at the center of those societies. The insights from one culture are not generalizable to another.

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81 Replies to “What is a civilization?”

  1. “Fair-skinned Frankish Crusaders intermarried extensively with the Christian Armenian nobility of the Near East when they arrived”

    In central India and also in N-East, we have examples of tribal rulers marrying non tribal women (of neighboring royalty) once they became “Hindu”. Which retroactively also made the tribal ruler the ruling caste. This is when inter caste marrying wasn’t even heard of, forget inter marrying with tribals.

    The Bastar example is perhaps the most curious. It was most certainly a tribal principality, “claimed” lineage from a S-Indian dynasty, married into neighboring Rajput families.

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    1. The same thing with the Gond rulers. Rani Durgavati was a Rajput window of a Gond ruler, and led her Gond subjects againtst the Mughals.

      It is a fascinating way that “tribe” transforms into a “caste”

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  2. I would like to think of Civilisation (why “Z” btw?) as the marker of a highest common surviving factor (yes, mathematical concept intruding into the social sciences) between geographically separated communities. It is fluid over a sufficiently long timeline but quite rigid on a daily basis. It is also a carrier of memetics – from the accumulated wisdom of thousands of communities that shared this geography. For example, vegetarianism is a civilisational trait of Bharat – but what does it have to do with religion? Simply because its a desired goal in Vaishnavism? One of the ontological problems in this exercise is that academic elites of the youngest civilization(?) (the US/200 years) are writing and forming opinions on artifacts that are 4000-5000 years old. The lack of shared memetics and wisdom can be both a fetter or an enabler. Taleb’s beautiful wisecrack about the work of primatologists –
    “The problem with the wisdom in these books is that none of them are written by apes.”

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  3. As a historian of Japan I am downright stunned by your claim that “Religion and religious identity has never been at the center of those societies”… serious question, have you read anything about Japan before 1868? The Japanese wars of religion, ikkō ikki? The Buddhist warrior force, sōhei? The entire imperial institution was tied to Buddhism until the late 18th century; that’s called kenmitsu taisei, if you want to Google it.

    This is a weird blog and I never stick around when I visit here but you seem to have such hangups about religion, it’s not surprising to me that they translate into false historical assertions.

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  4. Civilizations are fluid and they incorporate influences from others. However, there are also smaller countervailing forces that keep them distinct. A healthy, creative tension is good. If a society is closed off to influences it does not make progress because it needs to incorporate the most adaptive ideas for the current socio-economic context. If the influencer civilization completely overwhelms the host civilization, then you get cheap wannabe imitators with low self esteem which can also impede progress. It also leads to loss of the adaptive attributes of the host which are relevant to the local socio-economic context. Ideally civilizations should incorporate ideas from currently successful civilizations who have adapted well to the current economic context. Therefore the key influencer civilization for India is the West. However, we should sift through to adopt good ideas and not become cheap wannabes.

    In the case of Pakistan, the influencer civilization i.e. Arabized Islamicate civilization has almost completely overwhelmed the host civilization, leading to Pakistanis becoming wannabe Arabs/Turks etc. The sad part is that the influencer civilization is not even successful in the present day economic context . Maybe the oil wealth has created an illusion of success which is why Pakistan may have picked the wrong influencer or maybe the religious pull will be strong even when the oil runs out.

    However, civilizational differences will narrow over time. We live in a much more connected world and our economic,social contexts are increasingly similar.

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    1. FYI Pakistani society is not Arabized, its Islamicized.

      Hindus have a hard time making these distinctions since their religion is basically an ethno-religion (like Judaism), so they mistakenly over-map ethnicity onto world religions (Christianity becomes European, Islam becomes Arab).

      What you perceive to be Arabization (strict adherence to Sunni orthodoxy, erasure of syncretic/sufi practices, Islamic identity trumping ethnic/tribal) is a relatively new process that has transformed parts of Arab society only recently. What you consider to be “Arab Islam” did not exist a couple centuries ago in the Arab world as it does today (much less in Indo/Pak).

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      1. i’ve been meaning to say this. but indthings is correct above, he’s not trolling. the indigenous highly orthopraxic strain in Indian Islam is not Arab-oriented outside of parts of kerala (where they follow shafi law and have connections with southern Arabia). it is clearly turco-iranian broadly (hanafi).

        the sufi orders prominent in s. asia were from the turco-iranian world and matrix.

        there IS some attempts at explicit arabization going on due to gulf $ and habituation toward arab Islam through working in the gulf but my understanding is that this has been spotty in its impact. one of my uncles started praying in a manner more influenced by non-hanafi forms after some time in Saudi Arabia and tried to evangelize everyone on this for a few years. he gave up and eventually he himself shifted back to hanafi forms.

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      2. Hindus have a hard time making these distinctions since their religion is basically an ethno-religion (like Judaism), so they mistakenly over-map ethnicity onto world religions (Christianity becomes European, Islam becomes Arab).

        i think Islam holds in some ways in intermediate position btwn hinduism/judaism and Christianity. Christianity became decoupled from Jewish identity and demographics so early that jews ‘lost’ the religion. in fact, elite Christianity became a de facto greek religion for a while (all the details of Christian orthodoxy are really due to greek thought, not Latin; st. Augustine is really pretty minor if not for his rarity as a Latin intellectual who ended up influencing protestants, especially Luther).

        in contrast, i think Islam is properly understand as an Arab attempt to fashion a monotheism suitable to themselves that they “lost control of”. but, that lost of control happened in the 9th-century, nearly 200 years after the Arab explosion. this leaves Islam with a stronger Arab imprint than jews left on christianity.

        the Arab obviously has a hold and ‘claim’ on Islam implicitly that the non-arab cannot have, though explicitly and operationally non-arabs can easily supersede Arabs and have historically done so.

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        1. Islamization will always have an element of Arabization to it, you can’t divorce Arabness from Islam. But its just an element.

          Like you allude to a lot of closeness between Arab and Indian Islam we see today is by accident. The collapse of Sunni Islamic civilization in Iran and Turkestan has left Arabia as the only player in town. Saudi’s resources and willingness to export free Islamic resources (and credibility via control of Mecca/Medina), is important as well.

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          1. Good point, especially with the post-Safavid transformation of Iran into a Twelver stronghold.

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      3. This sounds like semantic jugglery…What is the difference between Arabisation and Islamisation? Only Arabic is allowed as the mode of Islamic prayer, only Mecca deep in the Arabian hinterland can be the direction of Islamic prayer, only Arabic script or its derivatives are used by Islamic countries (from Iran to Pakistan). If this is not Arab Imperialism, then what is?

        If somehow this reasoning is flawed, can someone point me to a country that is Arabised but not Islamic? On the other hand, there are several countries that are Islamic but are critiquing slow Arabisation. This counter-intuitively confirms the supposition that Islam is a vehicle for Arab imperialism.

        If an airline told you that a security frisk is voluntary but then you will not be allowed to board the plane if you decline one – whats the philosophical objection to calling out the implied empiricism?

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        1. Pakistanis are not Arab and nor do we want to be Arab (apart from a few fringe people who think that Muhammad bin Qasim was the first Pakistani). We are South Asian Muslims. South Asian Islam has historically been quite different from the Arabic version. For example, Arabs don’t worship at dargahs.

          Turkey is an example of a Muslim country that doesn’t use the Arabic script at all.

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          1. If there are ten points of parity between two groups and just one point of difference, pointing out the lone outlier isn’t any sort of evidence. Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews consider each other different, but this difference is several order lower when they look at Gentiles. There is black and white and then, there is mauve and grey. I can however understand the specific practice you are referring to. Not too long ago, a couple of preachers in Telangana got beaten up by a local crowd of worshippers at a Dargah for professing their views about shirk.

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  5. If people of different religions belong to different civilizations then how are they expected to live together in multi-religious states (such as India)?

    I have a problem with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh being considered different civilizations simply because Pakistan and Bangladesh are Muslim-majority societies. Bangladeshi culture obviously shares many similarities with that of West Bengal. Similarly, Pakistani culture overlaps with that of North India. Despite all the efforts of the Pakistani state over the past 72 years, it has been unable to transform the basic culture of the population. One just has to look at Pakistani weddings (modeled after Bollywood) to see that. The “rukhsati” ritual where the bride leaves her family home is basically identical to the Hindu “bidaai” that one sees on Indian TV shows.

    Huntington’s map (see the Wiki article on civilization) shows Pakistan and Bangladesh as belonging to “Islamic” civilization along with the Middle East and North Africa while India belongs to “Hindu” civilization. It would be ridiculous for anyone to argue that Pakistan shares more with North Africa than it does with India. To me, language, food, clothing, music etc are all much more important than religion. Indeed, even Islam is practiced very differently in South Asia than it is in North Africa.

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    1. Wanted to only make one specific comment regarding “bidai”. Farewell customs for the bride are present in many patrilocal cultures i.e. societies where women are obligated to reside with their in-laws. Patrilocality is not suited for present day socio-economic context because it leads to son preference and sex selective abortion. Both India and Pakistan should abandon patrilocality as well as the custom of bidai or introduce “joint bidai” for the couple. Sorry for being a bad influence! There are other good aspects of Bollywood/subcontinental traditions that are better suited for the modern times.
      Razib do you know how prevalent patrilocality is in Bangladesh? Please provide guidance

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    2. Religion, in certain contexts, can sometimes act as a proxy for other pre-existing sub-currents submerged in society. Naipaul found this out in one of his conversations with a Malay, who remarked to him that, if the Chinese population in Malaysia ever embraced Islam, then the bulk of Malays would convert to Buddhism. This completely put Naipaul at an ideological boulder and forced him to track back on some of his assumptions with respect to Islam.
      In the specific context of India-Pakistan, Koenraad Elst has a fascinating theory of how ancient India considered the lands in Sindh as mleccha-like. And a vast corpus of Vedic literature considers the northwest of India as antagonists. So the dislike goes back several thousand years even before Islam appeared on the scene.
      http://koenraadelst.blogspot.com/2015/11/the-concept-of-pakistan-in-vedas.html

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    3. Agree with Kabir… Religion cannot be basis of civilization. One can’t go on to find a new one everytime society or part thereof changes religion.

      Indian subcontinent needs dharmics to accept the contributions from foreign elements and the Abrahamics need to stop believing in fairy tale origins, syncretize the practised religion within boundaries of civilization.

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      1. The belief in fairy tail origins is much more prevalent among Hindus than Pakistani/Indian Muslims.

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        1. Well no one can hold your hand in claiming origin from different competing groups at the same time as per topic at hand and position you want to take at that moment. Clearly you have aced that part better than Indian Hindus, Muslims, tribals et al

          As for my comment, it was pretty clear that there is no reason for indian /subcontinent Muslims to believe of any differentiation between them and other natives for most part on civilization part how much ever you try with you strawman arguments on this forum.

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      2. The Dharmics have always been good assimilators of ideas from everywhere because their ideologies are non-exclusivist and not binary. India has always absorbed influences from early times and influenced many others as well.

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        1. “The Dharmics have always been good assimilators of ideas from everywhere because their ideologies are non-exclusivist and not binary.”

          @southindian

          it is true that hinduism is very assimilative of native indic religious streams. also, major dharmic religions like classical hinduism, jainism and buddhism have always exchanged ideas among themselves. in fact some of the core ideas of hinduism that we take for granted as quintessentially hindu such as samsara cycle, nirvana, vegetarianism etc probably originated as shramana traditions.

          however, to me it appears that this assimilation is contingent upon the willingness of target religious tradition to be assimilated. when it comes to semitic religions one cant help but wonder how little these religions got assimilated in hinduism.

          for e.g., the core theme of islam and christianity is that the end of the world is near, and a judgment day is coming. you won’t find the echo of this thought in hinduism. even sikhism, which arose in a solidly islamicate punjab has not absorbed any significant islamic tradition. (the monotheism of sikhism is really an expression of advaitvaad of hinduism rather than any influence of islam).

          the only example i can think of where hinduism has assimilated anything islamic is the case of sai baba. here a islamic peer has genuinely become a major hindu god. but even in this case you cant shake off the feeling that sai baba got accepted in hinduism *despite* his islamic roots rather than because of it. (basically, a local, much revered saintly figure got elevated to the status of god because people believed in his miraculous powers. his islamic identity was immaterial).

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    4. If people of different religions belong to different civilizations then how are they expected to live together in multi-religious states (such as India)?

      we have plenty of examples. look to millets and the ottoman empire. the way it historically worked was religious communities were viewed in a corporate sense and there was a dominant one which set the terms of debate and interaction.

      the liberal view which has flourished in the was recently is historically an aberration. it may be the new normal, but who knows? in the Islamic world with exceptions (senegal), it has never really taken hold. hindu nationalists want to bring India back to a premodern modality explicitly instead of implicitly

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  6. Is USA a civilization? After all, they produce their own unique art, culture, architecture and a way of life that can be uniquely described as being North American. If so, is religion the common factor? If so, is that religion Christianity, or Judeo-Christianity, or Abrahamism? If the latter, why the clash of civilizations? Or is it a neo-Greco-Roman manifestation? Heck, corporate management is always quoting the Greeks (and sometimes misquoting them). If it’s not a civilization, which examples can we point towards today that are, and are not?

    In the Bharatiya context, I would argue that religion is a necessary but not sufficient condition (by defining religion in a very broad manner). Individual nation states or political units are not necessary for create it, but can play either a negative or positive role in maintaining it. However, both geography and ecology play a vital role; for example, I can’t imagine being a Hindu vegetarian in the Sahara. Of course, ideas can be imported and exported and cross influence will occur. What keeps a civilization in its equilibrium is the rate at which these disturbances occur are manageable for the civilizational architecture to absorb, reject, or modify the disturbance itself.

    Above all, the well being and survival of the people who live in, and practice the tenets of that civilization is critical to keep it a living entity. Hence, civilizations can fall through internal decay, or external forces, or both.

    If this makes sense, you can see why someone has an affinity towards Tulsi and Tarek Fatah and even Trump, but not towards Ilhad or Truschke or even Sonia Gandhi. In the Indian context, ALL of these views towards these are temporary – if any of these people take the opposite view, you’ll be surprised at how many people with turn on their previous opinions of them. So easily we forgive and forget. That is both a strength and a weakness.

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    1. Agreed. There is a line between healthy critique and encouraging self loathing. Healthy critique is required to cleanse ideas of the local culture that aren’t adapted to the current socio-economic context. Self loathing introduced Illan Omar into US culture or self-loathing introduced by Truschke or even Sonia Gandhi into India, is really not healthy for progress. It is especially unhealthy for India, because if we believe that we are losers, we will never make progress. For a society that was ruled by Turks/Turk-Mongol descendents/Britishers for 800 years such self loathing is all the more destructive because post-colonial hangover already reduces the appetite for achievement. The USA can still take it because they are already doing well and don’t have a comparable history. The other problem with self loathing is that it also results in a backlash where even healthy critique may not be taken seriously. Additionally, there are many good aspects of the civilization that have survived for a millennium that are still relevant or are neutral to present day economic circumstances, which will be lost. The world has already lost most of its pagans, it will be a pity if the self loathing of leftists or other-loathing of Islamists results in us going the way of the Egyptians or Persians.

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      1. The self loathing you speak of has hurt Pakistanis more than Indians. As for Bangladesh – maybe it’s the only success story? I really don’t know.

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  7. As a historian of Japan I am downright stunned by your claim that “Religion and religious identity has never been at the center of those societies”… serious question, have you read anything about Japan before 1868? The Japanese wars of religion, ikkō ikki? The Buddhist warrior force, sōhei? The entire imperial institution was tied to Buddhism until the late 18th century; that’s called kenmitsu taisei, if you want to Google it.

    i know all that. in east Asia religion is subordinate to identity. in south Asia it is superordinate. the Tokugawa used Buddhism as an instrument. the Tang blocked and reversed Buddhism institutional cooption of the Chinese system. the same with the Joson. The same happened in Vietnam.

    in contrast in Tibet and Thailand religion and Buddhism occupy a place in the society’s identity that is more like Islam, christendom, and india.

    i get you are a smart PhD of japan. but perhaps you are a bit more narrow than you realize

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      1. it’s a marketing term invented for political reasons in the 1950s. it describes nothing real. jews and Muslims both agree these two religions have way more in common with each other than christianity

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        1. I always thought it simply means a society made up of Christians and Jews, worki. But when you explain it, I can see how it’s basically meaningless.

          So much to learn.

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          1. 2.) Its peripheral to the Muslim world. Turkey by counterexample is situated to deal with Europe, Israel, the Arabs, North Africa, and Iran. Pakistan is stuck between pagan India, and wartorn/tribal Afghanistan.

            in The Idea of the Muslim World author (who is a Turk) argues Indian Muslims were the leaders in the 19th and early 20th centuries. so I’m not sure. i kind of want to agree, but the reality is south Asia is 30% Muslim. despite its non-muslim majority it was historically dar-ul-islam.

            but i think you are probably right

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          2. “in The Idea of the Muslim World author (who is a Turk) argues Indian Muslims were the leaders in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

            I haven’t read the book, but what came to mind was the fact that this was around the time that the Ahmadiyya movement arose, which even if not that influential in its place of origin now (I know about how Ahmadiyya is considered heretical in Pakistan) was indeed internationally influential for being strongly internationally proselytizing, and many westerners’ first explosure to Islam, in the UK and the US (e.g. I’ve read Ahmadiyya was influential among African Americans prior to the 50s and 60s and was even said by some to have contributed to racial egalitarianism leading up to the US Civil Rights movement, bridging black Americans and immigrant Asians/Arabs alike, though I have no idea how strong an influence scholars accept it played stateside). And it seems like even today, Ahmadiyya while only making a small proportion of Muslims, is quite well represented in the South Asian diaspora in the west, as well as among Africans.

            So, somehow, something was going on so that Indian Muslims were having the inspiration and impetus to spread this new movement abroad and others were receptive to it.

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  8. Like you allude to a lot of closeness between Arab and Indian Islam we see today is by accident. The collapse of Sunni Islamic civilization in Iran and Turkestan has left Arabia as the only player in town. Saudi’s resources and willingness to export free Islamic resources (and credibility via control of Mecca/Medina), is important as well.

    erdogan was trying to bring turkey back into the center. unfortunately south Asian Muslims feel some weird sense of racial inferiority to Arabs and so can’t credibly lead (Arabs sense this which is why they laugh at brownz trying to lead). southeast asians are too exotic.

    but the deoband revival was contemporaneous with the Wahhabi one. Arabia was a backwater until recently, with Egypt being the center of the Arab Sunni world. bu it’s not hanafi, so never influenced s Asia much.

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    1. I agree on the racial inferiority complex but I don’t think that’s why Pakistan can’t lead the Muslim world. I think Pak can’t lead because:

      1.) Its broke. You won’t get respect from Arabs if you are continually begging them for money. Imran Khan has already pissed of Saudi and the UAE by trying to exert a modicum of independence, and had to make profuse apologies.

      2.) Its peripheral to the Muslim world. Turkey by counterexample is situated to deal with Europe, Israel, the Arabs, North Africa, and Iran. Pakistan is stuck between pagan India, and wartorn/tribal Afghanistan.

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      1. Pakistan cannot lead the Muslim world because it has struggled to define itself. It has tried to wrench itself from its South Asian roots in order to be “Pak”. In the process it lost the majority of its population. Pakistani intelligentsia has tried to create a new “Indus” genealogy for the nation, but this is not broadly accepted.

        Till this issue of identity of what it means to be a Pakistani – other than not-Indian – is resolved, there is no way Pakistan can lead any multi-national grouping.

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  9. To me, language, food, clothing, music etc are all much more important than religion.

    no one kills themselves for food, clothing or music.

    all those are more important to me too. but I’m not most people.

    when south Indians start blowing themselves up in public places because north Indian migrants are debasing their dhosa, get back to me

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    1. People have been willing to die for their language though. Bangladesh is independent today largely because West Pakistan didn’t give enough respect to Bengali.

      Indians killed themselves in order to get linguistically organized states (I think Andhra Pradesh was the first).

      It was British rule that made religion the overwhelmingly salient factor in South Asia. One can imagine an alternative future in which nations were created on the basis of language, ethnicity, etc.

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      1. People have been willing to die for their language though. Bangladesh is independent today largely because West Pakistan didn’t give enough respect to Bengali.

        this is a fair point. and i think bengali Muslims have a unique and ambivalent identity in that they are sincere Muslims, but they make less pretense nor have the ambition to become like west asians in any way.

        but i can also tell you that the generation of the 50s and 60s were really sick and tired of the racism and prejudice from west Pakistanis and biharis. my mom tells stories of basically racist behavior by bihars on buses and other things that remind me of the American south.

        Indians killed themselves in order to get linguistically organized states (I think Andhra Pradesh was the first).

        yes. though language becomes more salient when religion isn’t as much of an issue. bengali Muslims of my grandparents’ generation were pro-pakistan on the whole cuz they remember the prejudice and discrimination from bhadrolok. obv my parents didn’t know that at all.


        It was British rule that made religion the overwhelmingly salient factor in South Asia. One can imagine an alternative future in which nations were created on the basis of language, ethnicity, etc.

        re: British. this is false. we don’t have to go over this again, because you express a normal and conventional view that British established the lineaments of the identity of modern south asians. i think this is false. the British played a role, but any casual reading of the history of the dar-ul-islam in India shows that muslims were quite clear about the religious differences between themselves and the local people, while the hindus were keen on theorizing about aryavarta.

        language as the key to nationalism arose in its modern form in Europe after secularization. in the austro-prussian war catholic Bavarians fought german (led) catholic austrians for protestant Prussians, because prussia was forthrightly german nationalistic.

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        1. 1) Part of the racist attitude that West Pakistanis had towards East Pakistanis was expressed through contempt towards the Bengali language. This goes back to Jinnah telling an audience in Dhaka that Urdu was going to be the sole national language of Pakistan and that anyone who argued otherwise was an anti-Pakistan traitor.

          2) Obviously, people were aware of religious differences before the British took over. But this didn’t prevent Hindu sepoys from asking Bahadur Shah Zafar to lead their rebellion. They saw him as the legitimate ruler of India, despite his religion.

          The British introduction of the census and then separate electorates for religious communities made religion perhaps more of an important factor than it would have been otherwise. One could imagine a very different scenario if the British had privileged language for example. Perhaps India would now be divided into a Punjabi nation, a Bengali nation, a Tamil nation, etc.

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          1. 1) Part of the racist attitude that West Pakistanis had towards East Pakistanis was expressed through contempt towards the Bengali language. This goes back to Jinnah telling an audience in Dhaka that Urdu was going to be the sole national language of Pakistan and that anyone who argued otherwise was an anti-Pakistan traitor.

            dude, my parents grew up in Pakistan of that time. of course i know this. the idea more rationally presented is that Urdu is the lingua franca and the ‘natural language’ of Muslims in the subcontinent. amerian Pakistanis routinely continued to make this argument to my parents in the united states. my parents rejected this argument violently. both can speak Urdu with some fluency mind you, and my father’s paternal grandfather or great-grandfather (forget which generation) was an Urdu speaker, and i have uncles who have married biharis, so this isn’t an extreme belligerence.

            bengalis were just demographically the majority, and a different linguistic tradition had emerged in the 19th and 20th century which Muslims claimed and extended (though it was arguably originated in the 18th an 19th century by hindus, despite earlier pre-mughal Muslim patronage of bengali).

            but some of the racism was pretty nakedly because bengalis are dark and short. some of the Pakistani officers claimed the rapes of the civil war genetically improved the local stock. these sorts of views are of course held by Punjabis (Muslim, sikh, Hindu) to this day of brown people to their east and south (and somewhat internalized i think to be frank).

            2) Obviously, people were aware of religious differences before the British took over. But this didn’t prevent Hindu sepoys from asking Bahadur Shah Zafar to lead their rebellion. They saw him as the legitimate ruler of India, despite his religion.

            it’s not an either/or. Indian imperialism was islamicate. legitimacy was tied to that dynasty. this doesn’t mean that they were not aware of the religious difference. the hugenot elite loyalty in the main to the idea and institution of the french monarchy is a good analogy. they were fiercely attached to their religion and separate identity, but they were also loyal to the crown.


            The British introduction of the census and then separate electorates for religious communities made religion perhaps more of an important factor than it would have been otherwise. One could imagine a very different scenario if the British had privileged language for example. Perhaps India would now be divided into a Punjabi nation, a Bengali nation, a Tamil nation, etc.

            again, the British did not create. they rationalized some.

            religious identity seem to be really strong in south Asia for some reason. not so much in east Asia, and now Europe. so language makes more sense.

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          2. I think it is fair to say that the colonialist treatment of East Pakistan by West Pakistan was reflected in contempt for the Bengali language as well as their physical characteristics. Ayub Khan is famous for calling Bengalis “half Hindu” or something like that. It was also an extremely stupid idea to impose Urdu on a group that as you point out was demographically the majority. If anything was going to be the “national language” it should have been Bengali. But clearly West Pakistani elites weren’t going to stand for that. The same problems persist to some level in today’s Pakistan where Sindh, KPK and Balochistan resent the imposition of “national” culture on them. Though there was a period where Bengali and Urdu were “co national languages” and both appeared on currency. I don’t know why it was decided to stop doing that. Presumably, a lot of problems could have been avoided.

            This is why I think Huntington’s schema is problematic. He puts both Bangladesh and Pakistan in the “Islamic” civilization. Clearly, Bangladesh has much more in common with West Bengal than it does with Pakistan. Religion was not enough to keep United Pakistan together. Once the threat of Hindu Raj had been dealt with, language and culture become more important for East Pakistanis.

            In the run up to Partition, an idea was floated for a united Bengal as a third dominion in addition to India and Pakistan. This would probably have made more sense than the whole East Pakistan-West Pakistan experiment.

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      2. Kabir

        Indians killed themselves in order to get linguistically organized states (I think Andhra Pradesh was the first).

        You have forgotten Sri Lanka a 30 year civil war to establish a state with separate language and culture.

        Might have made sense except right next door are 55 miilion (SL is 21 miilion) with the same language and culture.

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  10. “Contrary to what racial nationalists like to think, historically race has not been a major cleavage.”

    Do you think we will see a return to this historical norm after the last couple or so centuries of race being the major cleavage?

    Will, in the near or longer term future, a black American Christian and black Muslim have their civilizational cleavage be the stronger and more salient identity than the fact that both are “black” or African in the eyes of not just Americans or the West but the world? Will one become increasingly part of the global Ummah and another global Christendom (which increasingly is centered around the “global south” like Africa, South America etc.).

    It might also depend on how strong or powerful American/Anglosphere social or identity norms can persist or influence the “rest of the world”? Or if the rest of the world will start to develop their own ways of seeing things independent of the “western” frame.

    I know race and racial strife as the major fault line came to a head during the 19th and 20th century during a time when European/white vs. non-white was such a powerful divide (e.g. “the color line belts the world” quote by W.E.B. Du Bois) that for instance non-white Christians would not be afforded any respite being Christian during the era of slavery (and then segregation, stateside) and colonialism, unlike say in earlier times (e.g. medieval times when the Armenian or Ethiopian Christian was clearly the “ingroup” to blond, fair-skinned Christians over the Muslim).

    But now, (as you have critiqued the social justice movement of overemphasizing the white/non-white split, both stateside, in the west, and then more broadly with the demographic and economic heft of Asia in particular, and I think more long term, Africa) things are different.

    I believe you (and others mentioned) how for instance white evangelical Christians clearly take an interest in supporting fellow Christians in say China against persecution (thus including Asian and also African Christians as the “ingroup”), and we now do see a shift from the Christian world to the “global south” or so to speak, after being historically for a while seen as Europe and North America (which in turn was a turn away from when Christianity was indeed closer to Mid-east (Asian) and African-centered).

    Or will something else be the fault line — perhaps language or linguistic/media connectivity to the Anglosphere (e.g. perhaps educated Indians, Nigerians and Americans/Brits etc. will become closer)? The influence of language can be strong in that it permits or limits sharing of mass media and thus many political ideologies (e.g. China is large enough to have an internal Chinese-language media that may draw its cues less from the west).

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  11. Here’s another thought I was wondering about — although world religions are typically confessional, it seems like there were some trends in how some religious identities became (perhaps informally or casually in some cases, like the “you don’t look Muslim/Jewish” remark but more seriously in others) racialized or ethnicized.

    For examples, if I’m not mistaken, at times earlier in antiquity, Jewish converts were not uncommon before Judaism was becoming more of a ethnic religion in diaspora, as the Jewish diaspora became increasingly surrounded by the Christian and Muslim worlds.

    Also, the racialization of Jews and Muslim Moors in Reconquista Spain, so that lineage and ancestry and “race” came to the fore over confession.

    But there are fuzzier examples like how “Christian” was not really racialized in medieval times (e.g. the example of Prester John, Christian Ethiopia and the crusader examples you give), but towards and during colonial times kind of became somewhat racialized (the Christian “west” was Europe, whites were the default Christian and much of the non-white world was seen as “heathen”), then became less racialized again (e.g. nowadays, hardly any American thinks a Korean Christian or a black Christian is any less the stereotypical “image” of a Christian than a white American southerner).

    Muslim is still somewhat racialized informally (e.g Arabs are seen as the most typical Muslims and internationally, South Asians, Africans, SE Asians’ tendency to defer to Arabs in religious matters, as well as domestically stateside, “Muslim” has become racialized in Social Justice circles as has been discussed a lot).

    Now, will “Muslim” become de-racialized and more egalitarian as the share of South Asian/African/SE Asians Muslims rise? In a way analogous to the fact that a white pastor in Alabama is no longer going to be the modal Christian over a Ugandan pastor when most of the world’s Christians are in Africa. Will there be some loosening of the association of Muslims with Arabs, when an Indonesian or Nigerian can be the face of a Muslim as much as a Saudi citizen is? Perhaps it’s not entirely analogous due to the obvious geographical importance of sacred sites to Muslims versus to Christians, but I’m still wondering if demographics is destiny.

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    1. when an Indonesian or Nigerian can be the face of a Muslim as much as a Saudi citizen is?
      i feel already started. there were indonesian preachers in hyderabad and in the nizamuddin markaz incident. this event is now the south korean virus example in india.

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  12. So i agree more or less on what u and Indthings say about Arab imprint on Islam. More towards Islam being somewhere in b/w Christianity and Hinduism/Judaism. What i disagree on is the magnitude of Arab imprint on Islam.

    All the other ethnicities , Turks, Persians and Egyptians who have made a successful bid to take away mantle of leadership from the arabs did so when they were in terms of magnitude lot stronger than the arabs . Even then the Fatmids / Iranians had to resort to having their own sects since they were unable to take away the leadership of the main religious denomination. They had to still pay obeisance even if nominally to the arabs. Its only much later that Turks and Mamluks could really take away Arab’s position.

    Which leads me to the current situation that if all the 4 ethnicities start off around with the same power , the majority muslims (who are desis and S-E asians) will acknowledge the arabs as the real leaders over the others. The others, yes were leaders at some point of time, but the arabs were the original ones. The best example is u once gave ur uncle (or ur dad) who was ok with arabic being a superior language but could not fathom why urdu should supersede bengali. The same dynamic will come into play with all other aspects of life.

    Oil or no Oil , the arabs today will not fall back to the same obscurity where another ethncity could just wallop them, and thus even in a weakened postion will have the authority which a turk or an egyptian will have.

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      1. officially. but the ottomans ignored this and became caliphs eventually.

        lots of ppl here think religion is like an inflexible rulebook. this irreligious atheist is here to tell you: religion is what men make of it

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    1. All the other ethnicities , Turks, Persians and Egyptians who have made a successful bid to take away mantle of leadership from the arabs did so when they were in terms of magnitude lot stronger than the arabs . Even then the Fatmids / Iranians had to resort to having their own sects since they were unable to take away the leadership of the main religious denomination. They had to still pay obeisance even if nominally to the arabs. Its only much later that Turks and Mamluks could really take away Arab’s position.

      – sunni islam was predominantly shaped by iranians by origin.
      – i have no idea what you mean the fatimids had to resort to having their own sects. the fatimids were alids. they were descendents of ali and of the clan of muhammad.
      – egyptians when muslims are arab-identified. al azhar is definitely the center of arab islam since the fall of baghdad in the 13th-century

      Oil or no Oil , the arabs today will not fall back to the same obscurity where another ethncity could just wallop them, and thus even in a weakened postion will have the authority which a turk or an egyptian will have.

      i think you are speaking of gulf arabs here. these people have been backwaters for over 1,000 years. oil brought them to the front. but please note: everyone else in the muslim world has contempt for these people too.

      i don’t know. it’s complicated.

      iranians hate arabs and are racist against them. but iranians are also named ali and worship in arabic.

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  13. Unlikely to be a clear definition of Civilization given that it is a sociological human construct and not one of Physical Universe.

    Maybe a way to interpret is use the EM Spectrum analogy. “Things” closer together belong to same Civilization and those further apart to other ones.

    “Things” here being sets of traditions, practices over generational lines. Maybe meme concept (original def.) can be used to model this.

    And these traditions can be cross domain, be it related to linguistics, food, ritual, marriage, religion, political theory, etc. We may even devise a model which assign diverse hierarchical values to these various attributes.

    India and China sharing incredibly powerful clan-like behavior makes them closer on that Spectrum distribution (Asian Civilization) relative to say the West (esp one of last 2 centuries at least). But Asian distribution itself has wide bandwidth for enough human-groups inside it so have deviations from each other.

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  14. Quote / 1) Sunni islam was predominantly shaped by iranians by origin.
    2) Iranians hate arabs and are racist against them. but iranians are also named ali and worship in arabic/

    Always thought the inflection point for Islam came after they were successful in converting Persians/Iranians. They got all the accumulated civilisational capital at their disposal. They added the nuance & culture into Islam instead of say Zoroastrianism. Dont know why Iranians fell for that when they didnt fall for Greeks in same way. I read somewhere that it was Alexander that started following Persian ways to the disappointment of fellow Greeks.

    In alternate history if Iran would have held on, maybe Islam would have been limited to Arabian peninsula with Egypt and Iran expanding their civilisational influence rather than trying unsuccessfully to be leaders of Muslim world under shadow of Arabs.

    South Asians have no dog in this fight or maybe that is my wishful thinking.

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  15. Always thought the inflection point for Islam came after they were successful in converting Persians/Iranians. They got all the accumulated civilisational capital at their disposal. They added the nuance & culture into Islam instead of say Zoroastrianism. Dont know why Iranians fell for that when they didnt fall for Greeks in same way. I read somewhere that it was Alexander that started following Persian ways to the disappointment of fellow Greeks.

    the parthians were often phil-hellene, so it’s complex. iran and the classical west had mutual influences on each other. mithraism was an iranian religion which flourished more in the west. there were possibly more christians than zoroastrians in the sassanian empire at the time of the conquest, and the parthians seem to have flirted with converting to christianity at some point. the adoption by the romans probably blocked that since the romans were the enemy.

    the majority of Iranians were probably Zoroastrian until 900. there were still Zoroastrian kings in northern Iran until 850 who resisted abbassid hegemony. arguably turan (transoxiana) was more Muslim in 850 than Iran proper.

    the key inflection point is the fall of the ummayyads, and the shift from Syria to Iraq. but the capital in the early 9th-century was almost relocated to marv by al-mamun

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  16. Iranians hold racial contempt for gulf arabs

    SAs are not taken seriously by arabs due to perceived racial inferiority

    Yet turks might be

    Interesting. Seems like a pattern of lighter on average vs. darker on average

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  17. Clearly, Bangladesh has much more in common with West Bengal than it does with Pakistan.

    this is obv. on the face of it. but sometimes these things don’t map onto a spectrum, and other dimensions make them quite different.

    the basic thing that unites bengalis on both sides is common literary language. Punjabis don’t have that due to different scripts, and the fading away of Punjabi nationalism for Muslims and hindus

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    1. My point was that it seems absurd to me that Bangladesh and West Bengal are (according to Huntington) part of two different civilizations while Bangladesh and Pakistan are part of the same one.

      I was talking about something related with my parents, both of whom argued that they feel completely civilizationally Indian, despite both being born in the 50s, post Pakistan. My dad was incidentally born in Dhaka.

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  18. Yazdegard III, the last Sassanid ruler was buried according to Christian rites and had a Christian wife. I think if not for the Arabs, Sassanid Persia might have converted to Christianity. Heraclius’s ultimate victory and sacking of Zoroastrian holy sites in the Iranian heartland had given huge prestige boost to Christianity.

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  19. My point was that it seems absurd to me that Bangladesh and West Bengal are (according to Huntington) part of two different civilizations while Bangladesh and Pakistan are part of the same one.

    i would say Bangladesh is liminal. if it develops and secularizes it is hard for me to deny it would “reorient” to the subcontinent pretty clearly.

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    1. @Razib
      I always root for at least more West-East Bangla (+Tripura+Silchar+Eastern Jharkhand) integration.
      The Hindu(+Buddhist?) vs Muslim problem in the greater Bengal area is not going anywhere for a few more generations. In addition to reading about it in (one) book I have heard firsthand accounts of grave human right abuses against Hindus during 1971 exodus from refugees(in their 70s-80s now) in West Bengal who absolutely hate Muslim Bengalis for the genocide.
      But, something that is not widely acknowledged is that Bangladesh gives to India much more generously than any other neighbour. Be it South Asia University or the Bangladesh Bhavan in Shantiniketan, Bangladesh puts its money where its mouth is and seeks parity and respect via the correct channels.
      Someone more well versed in economics can correct me on the following, it seems India-Bangladesh are already getting quite economically integrated with all sorts of ‘Made in Bangladesh’ items(clothes, plastic tables, chairs, slippers, rain boots etc) very easily available in even rural Indian markets. (I might be wrong about this) Bajaj already has big manufacturing (not just assembling) plant in Bangladesh so do maybe Hero/TVS/Tata/Ashok-Leyland. India recently even ceded land to Bangladesh and I hope someday road/riverine/railways connections with Tripura will be established via Bangladesh.

      On a very different note, my best friend actually swam across Dawki from Meghalaya into Bangladesh(and roamed around in Bangladesh without passport near Jaflong) and back without any issue. It is not a big deal there to cross over (other than the cold water) and a lot of Indians/Bangladeshis use paid boats to go about their business in the other country without any trouble. So, for some parts, the border is already semi-open like with Nepal. But, (again people will accuse me of Hindutawadi for pointing out the truth) the trouble is with Muslims in Murshidabad/Malda who smuggle currency, cattle and traffic humans and in Mizoram/Tripura where there is immense hatred in tribal(Chakma?) people (commenting on whose displacement might be called my ‘narrative’, ‘nazariya’ and other nonsense by (apologist) Muslim commentators here who will say that these things are my ‘perception’, and may not be absolute reality no matter how much evidence I pile up.)

      In conclusion, I hope that Bangladesh and India get along well (and Bangladesh becomes more Indic). But repeated acts of Muslim atrocities (and their defence by random people on the internet with different nazariyat/narrative) might be overlooked/forgotten (forgiven?) by commentators like me(us?) who have no skin in the game but will not be accepted by local populations who remember their real loss.

      And finally, @Razib, not currying favor with you, but dada you are a bonafide guru, not a ‘mleccha’. And whatever that Japanese history phd guy says this is the most informative blog I follow. Keep up the good work.

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      1. There is a quiet strategic game afoot in many Indo-Bangladeshi circles for the past few years. Very small steps they are, but helped on by the inexorable tide of the economic progress of Bangladesh, the actors in this game will come to a point where competing interests have to be pragmatic.

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          1. The current establishment has been signing peace treaties with a multitude of rebels/factions in the NorthEast – the Isak-Muivah in Nagaland, the Tripura peace accord, the accord with NDFB in Assam -all of these in the last 6 years. These are stepping stones to a saner region that can then focus on economics. The whole CAA-NRC discussion is much more central to the North East than anywhere else despite what Delhi liberals are wont to characterise it as.

            The larger endgame is to achieve a economic trans-union with BD which will provide much needed sea access to most of the North East and propel its economic growth – this was the case for the last 3 centuries – 1947 was a pure political decision with no economic understanding of the region.

            The problem with simply a economic trans-union is manifold as can be seen with the travails of many EU states. When India began to form her union, there was a big discussion on the nature and ways of the beast (the Centre, State and Concurrent list). Some wanted no army, only a loose confederation of politically independent states. Others wanted UK borough style municipalities. In the end, Nehru cut the Gordian knot by insisting on three must-haves – a national Army, a political union and a centralised foreign policy. The brilliance with this lakshman-rekha was that Nehru asked for subsumed localism without stating it as much. The planners then went ahead with these broad contours and produced the Constitution.

            If you have noticed every one of the peace accords India has signed with rebel groups, they have 3 main asks – lay down arms, participate in elections, cut contacts with foreign sovereign parties – the same Nehru formula.

            Now to achieve a economic union, an accord is needed. To achieve an accord, Nehru’s three factors must come into play. To get to a position where Nehru’s agenda can be asked, a conflict is needed.

            Perhaps pragmatism from both parties can avoid a long-drawn out process. It is however inevitable that real life will overtake many of these processes.

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        1. the awami league have an india-tilt because a lot of them are not really big into Islam personally from what i can tell (one of my uncles is big in awami league politics and he dislikes Islam in his private life and hates political Islam in public life; he worked in the gulf many decades ago). they pander to Muslims of course cuz that’s what you do.

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          1. TBH i am still a bit surprised though that awami still has an Indian tilt , and not china tilt. Especially after the way India has treated BD in the recent past.

            India has done far more for other parties in the neighborhood (putting the commies in power in Nepal, that other dictator in Maldives) who have moved to China on the first chance they got

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      2. I know you said you are not responding to me, but such passive-aggressive comments about me demand a response (if not for you than at least for everyone else reading this).

        Everyone has a narrative (I note you picked up the Urdu word “nazariya” which I never mentioned). On this blog, we are engaged in discussions of History and politics, not in discussions of physical science (in which objective truth is possible). I have never claimed that my worldview is the only one that conforms to objective reality. I will openly admit to being a Nehruvian secular liberal (not a “Muslim apologist” which I take offense to). I have come to this worldview through my reading and life experience, as well as family background. You claim not to be a Hindutvadi but like others on this forum believe in the rhetoric of “one thousand years of Occupation”. This is obviously a narrative and not the absolute truth (anyone who thinks it is is delusional).

        On the other thread, I responded to your arguments about “forced conversions” by citing Richard Eaton, a renowned scholar on this topic (whom Razib has also discussed previously). I would be happy to consider arguments from the other side. However, you would have to cite academics who are equally respected as Eaton. Your individual opinion is neither here nor there (especially as someone who is not academically trained in History).

        Someone who denigrates all Sufi saints as “Islamists” is guilty of either ignorance (which is pardonable) or disingenuousness (which is not). Even someone like Anan (whom I profoundly disagree with on many things) shows respect for saints like Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, as do the millions of Hindus who worship at his tomb in Delhi.

        It is futile to engage in historical discussions with someone who shows no understanding of the historical method or of nuance more generally. I am happy to cease responding to you, but if you make snide and passive aggressive remarks, I will be forced to respond once again.

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  20. “Contrary to what racial nationalists like to think, historically race has not been a major cleavage.”

    But what about dalits and non-dalits? Dalits can be far more AASI than their caste neighbours, and are often racially abused for it. They clearly stand out ‘racially’. e.g. the Paraiyar in Tamil Nadu, the Chuhra in Punjab.

    Also I think Islam is a special case, with it’s ummah ideology. I think an Indian Hindu would feel more closer to an Indian Sikh, Jain or Christian than to Tulsi Gabbard.

    Hinduism is very fractured because of caste, as opposed to Islamic ummah brotherhood. While there is Hindu unity of sorts, it is nowhere near as strong as the glue that holds together the ummah internationally.

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  21. one of the ironies of history is that I’m 90% sure west Pakistani racism and religious bigotry and linguistic chauvinism has resulted in a *less* Muslim east bengal than would have otherwise been the case in the 21st-century.

    lots of older people who are conventionally pious still remember the 50s and 60s and how they were treated, so solidarity with fellow brown Muslims always has its limits/suspicions. this is the case with many of the ppl in my parents circle.

    the younger generation doesn’t remember, but export-driven economic growth is leading to a different sort of undermining of the power of corporate islam

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    1. Bangladesh is already reorienting itself towards the wider Muslim world and Pakistan. This I think was inevitable long term but its underwent a major jumpstart due to two recent events.

      The first being the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, committed by a devoutly Buddhist neighbor, and cheered on by Hindu Nationalists in India.

      Second, being the general rise of Hindu Nationalism in India, and specifically, the pet project of the BJP coming to fruition, which entails the mass internment and eventual expulsion of Muslim Bengalis in India to Bangladesh.

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  22. the second is an issue. i don’t think bangladeshis care that much about rohingya, unfortunately. my relatives speak a lot more about the former than the latter, and the latter more in irritation. rohingya might be a new thing for the world, but they’ve been an issue in Bangladesh for decades

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    1. Bangladeshis care about the Rohingya now because they are being forced to house hundreds of thousands of them in refugee camps, while hearing Indians analogize them to Muslim Bengalis in India and advocating that India follows Myanmar’s example in dealing with them.

      We aren’t at the point where these issues have caused a societal shift in Bangladesh, but its happening as we speak. 5-10 years from now we’ll see the effects. If West Bengal flips to the BJP and enacts similar measures against Muslims that are seen in Assam, the shift will literally happen overnight.

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    1. I watched a Youtube video on Chittagong cuisine once. I’m basically an expert on Bangladesh.

      What is the sandman reference.

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