Sunday, May 20, 2007

Flux and Reflux

This post is really part of my Horses and Peoples thread, but it is going to take a bit to get there. I'm going to argue that a different relationship to the metaphorical Horse in this opposition informs a lot of what we need to know about the contradicion between secular power in the Euro-christian world and temporal power in the muslim world.

I have been thinking about Ernest Gellner's estimable study, Muslim Society, in which he quotes David Hume:

It is remarkable that the principles of religions have a kind of flux and reflux in the human mind, and that men have a natural tendency to rise from idolatry to theism, and to sink again from theism to idolatry.

I like ideas like flux and reflux, and notwithstanding the contradictions in Hume's religious thought, which Gellner coolly details, this paradigm has exceptional utility in looking at religion and, its "partner in crime", power. Hume postulates that fear-motivated "competitive sycophancy" (Gellner's term) can focus on a single god in a polytheistic context until it overwhelms all other gods and becomes increasingly unapproachable; thereafter, the reflux, as it were, is to throw up intermediaries who make the onetruegod more approachable. There's some food for thought here ... seeing the Reformation as a flux (or re-reflux) that sought to isolate the onetruegod from the numerous intermediaries mediated by the Catholic church, or seeing the Joel Osteens of the world as a re-re-reflux that allows the desperate faithful a way to access the onetruegod without having to swaller all this rapture, self-denial, authoritarian crap that the Falwell's of the world proffer to their profit.

The Islamic case is more difficult because reflux is both formally and essentially illegal ... Mohammed being the last prophet and all that. Historically, the reflux has tended to be sociological in the form of saint cults and Sufism and women's religion as well as charismatic mullahs. Shi'ism is a form of reflux because the imams are charged to represent the community to the onetruegod; but they in turn, by becoming hidden, had a re-reflux of their own.

So there's the idea. What has it got to do with political power in today's world?

Gellner goes on to discuss the rather sociological thought of the 14th-century muslim thinker, Ibn Khaldun. I have to state my bias here that I believe that Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah (his introduciton to his world history) should be read every year by as many college kids as read Herodotus because its thesis is the best tonic to the simple idea that there is no separation between religion and state in islam. Ibn Khaldun is concerned about the relationship between an urban, literate society in which blood ties atrophy and the surrounding bedouin societies in which a relatively egalitarian communitarianism creates the ideal conditions for military prowess. The urbanites in this conjecture need militarily potent rulers to guard them against the ready supply of potential replacements in the surrounding tribes, and this reliance limits the ability of these urbanites to rule in their own name. In other words, better the devil you know than the devil you don't ... better the ruler you have than the one who would replace him ... better surrender power than have it taken from you.

Islamic history is replete with cases in which the military-imperial elite domesticated the institution of the bedouin/horsemen through mamlukes or janissaries (i.e., the "slave" soldiers recuited from peripheral non-muslims), but the principle is the same: the urbanites stick to piety and trade while the rulers stick to soldering and taxing. The flux and reflux here operates through the competition between the religious demands of the urban pious upon the ruling "tribesmen" and the exploitative demands of the horsemen upon their semi-captive urban pious.

Horsemen? Again channeling Gellner, the essence of being a soldier is being able to run away (or retreat, if you prefer), and tribesmen do that on horses. For the bedouin, victory means wealth, defeat means running away and trying again some other time; but the urbanites always stayed put and had to endure the victors no matter who they were. So the enduring dialectic of the urban pious and their horsey overlords meant precisely that power and religion confronted one another as aliens notwithstanding that the onetruegod meant that they had to speak in the same ideational language.

Meanwhile in Europe, the horseman barbarians were domesticated in an entirely different way. They were quickly localized, and their ability to run away was diminished because their power was in the fields and peasants who provided wealth, and later in a stone castle that did not travel well; defeat meant death and annihilation of the line. On the other hand, religion's epicenter was not a broad community of urban pious merchants and their sedentary clients, but a narrow and thickly interlaced group of specialists, the church, who negotiated and struggled directly with the horsemen/barbarians/nobles/kings over the centuries. This was the situation that the Enlightenment confronted in creating the political theorizing that led to democracy. Religion and state shared in and struggled over power overtly with specialized languages that were congruent but not identical; the masses, in particular the steadily rising numbers of urbanites, were in between, increasingly experienced at negotiating on their own behalf, and eventually able to seize that power directly.

This is idealized and reduced, of course, but I believe it is one of the essential things we need to know about islam: there is no concept of civil society in islam because the dialectic between power and religion was historically a radical separation that trapped the masses in religion, notwithstanding that both sides spoke the same language of the onetruegod. (In shi'ism, the train of historic defeats meant that power did not speak the same langauge as religion, and the concept of taqiyyah (dissimulation) interjected another mediator that further separated religion from power ... the curiosity of Iran is that the mullahs actually rule like sunnis, not shi'as ... another flux and reflux.) So in modern times, there is a deep historical/sociological expectation that power is best left to itself because confronting it can only lead to substitution of another power equally remote. That is the flux. The terrible reflux now being visited upon the planet is that islamism seeks to subsume the military power of the state within religion, in contradiction to the long historical pattern: by yet another cascade of competing sycophancy, the religious seek to conflate the onetruegod with the state and make it ever more and more remote from those it rules, just like the onetruegod.

And so historically, we might expect to find the tonic more in a new flux (a re-reflux, if you will) of intermediaries. Right now those are the self-styled mullahs. Will that change? Who, what, where, when? No signs on the horizon just yet.

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