Frustrated status and bigotry

By Lorenzo

Bigotry (in the sense of prejudice-by-category) is a form of moral exclusion–one excludes some group from the moral consideration and standing given to other people. As I have noted before, bigotry is always and everywhere a moral claim–a claim about some category of people’s moral status or standing. A claim not based on specific individual actions against others, but on either some alleged essential flaw they all share or some shared transgression against a conception of social order or human nature. (A classic formulation of such bigotry is Carl Schmitt‘s aphorism that not everything with a human face is human.)

Motivators

There are three basic motivators for such moral exclusion.  One is social cartels–blocking the excluded group from social participation available to others; typically so as to stop the excluded group from competing for social goods or so as to derive some other (typically exploitive) benefit from said exclusion. The “cleanliness of the blood” laws of Christian Iberia blocking Jewish converts to Christianity from holding various positions or receiving various benefits were a classic example of the former. Jim Crow laws in Southern US States provided both the former and the latter, as it increased the ability to extract income from disenfranchised African-Americans.

Certifying not being of Jewish descent for the requisite number of generations.

Slavery is a particularly invidious form of social cartel, allowing the extraction of labour surplus from an entire category of people. Its effect on bigotry is more complex, depending somewhat on whether it is an “open” or a “closed” slavery system. In an “open” slave system, there are relatively high levels of manumission, with ex-slaves being integrated into the wider society as full citizens and economic participants; Ancient Rome ran an “open” slave system. There was some prejudice against freedmen (ex-slaves) but not their children. In a “closed” slave system there is very little manumission and ex-slaves were not integrated into the wider society: the Antebellum South ran a particularly intensely “closed” slave system. This both manifested and reinforced that slavery across a colour line is a powerful generator of bigotry.

The second motivator for moral exclusion is creating and maintaining the authority to exclude–what I call being “gatekeepers of righteousness”. Priests and clerics are classic examples of such, though secular clerisies are hardly immune from either the temptation or the role.

Righteousness in this sense is a normative claim to override basic moral considerations. Deuteronomy 13 6:11 is a classic text of such righteousness:

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known,  gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

Frustrated status

The third motivator for moral exclusion is social status; a sense of superior status both generating, and generated by, said exclusion and so accruing to the non-excluded with little or no effort on their part. Thus slavery across a colour line is a powerful generator of bigotry precisely because it separates physically distinct people into such starkly distinct categories–“real” people and property. The more stark the felt status gap, the more the “insult of equality” potentially arises: that people can feel actively insulted in being treated as the equals of the excluded group, in being subject to the same rules and treatment as the despicable, or at least “obviously” lesser, them.

I have previously suggested that low status people are particularly drawn to the effortless virtue (which is effortless status) of bigotry. A better formulation would be frustrated status–that is, people whose functional status in their society is significantly lower than the status they believe they should have; the disjunct being a source of negative emotions, with the level of emotional intensity generated being the key factor.

After all, it is eminently possible for people to be of low status without investing in effortless virtue. Conversely, people of some (or even considerable) status in society can well experience intense status frustration if they believe such status is nevertheless significantly lower than the status due to them.

Note this is not a point about some status merely aspired to, but status that one feels one is, in some sense, entitled to. The effortless virtue, the effortless status, of bigotry can provide a substitute sense of status. Although, ironically, if those regarded as morally excluded are nevertheless socially successfully, that can set off, and intensify, a further spiral of negative emotions as the morally excluded group’s success becomes even more of an insult to an aggrieved sense of status.

A question and answer on Razib Khan’s gene expression blog is pertinent to the power of frustrated status. A commenter asked, regarding a documentary on escaping ISIS slaves:

…concerning ISIS, I just don’t get what makes people who have grown up in Western democracies join a movement whose members openly brag about having re-introduced slavery.

Razib Khan replied:

they’re in the country, but not of it. they feel marginalized. islamism provides a cultural exit strategy to being members of a society that can’t/won’t/isn’t able to absorb them or the way they insist on being (the second is key, because there are plenty of people of muslim background who are assimilating into european norms). a lot of the radicals of the late 19th century were from jewish backgrounds. they were outsiders, and millenarian political radicalism offered a way to make an end around the system.

Yes, quite. Particularly the way they insist on being point. One of the striking feature of the Islamic world, particularly of Middle Eastern Islam, particularly Arab Islam, is the continuing strength of various moral exclusions–Jew-hatred, misogyny, xenophobia of various forms, even anti-black racism. The last being (yet another) example of the poisonous legacy of slavery. Within the West, Muslim communities are epicentres of the upsurge in Jew-hatred.

While forming social cartels (reserving various social goods for male believers, for example) is something of a factor, most of the excluded groups are already so marginal that there is not much gain to be specifically had from such social cartelisation. Apart, that is, from gender-exclusion; but that perhaps says more to how systematic misogyny tends to be, rather that its comparative emotional power.

The authority to exclude is a much more lively factor. Islam is such a part of the public life in Muslim countries and communities, that Muslim clerics are both in a position to act as effective gatekeepers of righteousness and to have their social authority enhanced by doing so.

But it is frustrated status which has the real kick. Islam is easily read as saying that male believers are not merely entitled to be at the top of the human social pyramid, but mandated by God to so be; moreover, not merely mandated locally, but globally.

Clearly, they are not. Hence frustrated status. Which Islamic clerics can both generate and exploit. The problem with living in a global village is that some may decide (and clearly have) that they have a divine mandate to take over that global village–Allah being the sovereign of the universe and Sharia being His law, so applicable everywhere and to everyone. A status of local and global dominance that beckons, but is so patently not how things currently are.

Indeed, I would put frustrated status at the centre of understanding the violent pathologies within Islam, particularly within Middle Eastern Islam. Thus, the success of Israel–the Jewish state–becomes a cosmic insult, rubbing the noses of believers (particularly male believers) in how much they are not the top of the human social pyramid in their own region of the world. But so much of our globalised world conveys such a message about the contemporary world as a whole.

Much of the complaints about “Islamophobia” are in fact claims for a protected, indeed superior status, for Islam. Hence, as historian Bernard Lewis points out in his classic 1990 essay The Roots of Muslim Rage, many Muslims:

… demand for Islam a degree of legal protection which those countries no longer give to Christianity and have never given to Judaism. Nor, of course, did the governments of the countries of origin of these Muslim spokesmen ever accord such protection to religions other than their own. In their perception, there is no contradiction in these attitudes. The true faith, based on God’s final revelation, must be protected from insult and abuse; other faiths, being either false or incomplete, have no right to any such protection.

As for the patterns of violence and massacre within the Middle East (and elsewhere), lashing out violently not merely assuages rage, it expresses on-the-spot dominance in the most visceral fashion. In the case of the revival of slavery, the appeal of slavery to such status-mongering is obvious. That is so even without the social cartel of slavery allowing for exploiting those stripped of most basic legal standing; and so stripped on righteousness grounds.

The current cycles of massacre are part of a larger pattern going back to the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s and directly connected to an ongoing sense of insult that non-believers could be considered legal, social and moral equals of believers; especially within Dar al-Islam.

Women signalling religious piety by wearing restrictive clothing that goes well beyond anything specifically mandated in Quran or hadiths appeals to, and reinforces, the sense of proper social order being the dominance of male believers.

The use of violence to police public space–and to do so globally, from the Charlie Hedbo killings to hacking to death Bangladeshi bloggers–is also a statement of “proper” dominance.

This is likely why the conveyer belt model of jihadi recruitment works at best weakly as a description of the path to jihadi recruitment. [Or not at all, really.] There are too many direct paths to the energising and viscerally dominating violence of jihadism; extending to its role as a pathway to eternal superior status in Paradise.

A civilisational trap

Islam has an interlocking series of problems. The medieval defeat of Aristotelianism within Islam, with the triumph of al Ghazali‘s critique, meant that mainstream Islam came to hold that revelation defines the ambit of the good, that there is no realm of morality beyond revelation. Hence the Islamic states being the only collection of states who felt compelled to issue their own version of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam.

It is that much harder to argue for a secular public space if the very notion of moral principles not anchored in revelation is deemed to be against Islam; indeed, an offence against Islam–as in the case of the targeted Bangladeshi bloggers but extending to intellectuals, journalists and cartoonists through out Islam and beyond. As Bernard Lewis notes in The Roots of Muslim Rage:

The war against secularism is conscious and explicit, and there is by now a whole literature denouncing secularism as an evil neo-pagan force in the modern world and attributing it variously to the Jews, the West, and the United States.

The medieval defeat of Aristotelianism also meant that mainstream Islam accepted the view that there was no inherent causal structure to the universe, that everything we see is just the habits of God. When Muslims say “if God wills it” (or some similar formula) it is not merely a pious formula, it has an embedded metaphysical claim. In Wikipedia’s useful summary of al-Ghazali’s formulation, that:

There is no independent necessitation of change and becoming, other than what God has ordained. To posit an independent causality outside of God’s knowledge and action is to deprive Him of true agency, and diminish his attribute of power. In his famous example, when fire and cotton are placed in contact, the cotton is burned not because of the heat of the fire, but through God’s direct intervention

It is that much harder to sustain a notion of science, of secular knowledge, if all action in the universe is understood in such a theological fashion. Ideas have consequences.

As noted in my previous post, the state history of Islam militates against well developed habits and patterns of institutionalised bargaining: so Islamic politics has tended to fail to provide countervailing patterns. On the contrary, scapegoating “enemies of Islam” (most obviously, the “Zionist entity”) has tended to be used to pander to, and reinforce, such patterns.

All of which leads to a pervasive sense of frustrated status–a sense of not having proper (even divinely mandated) social dominance–fuelling the politics of hate and violence. Egged on by Muslim clerics all too eager to claim the role of gatekeepers of righteousness. Such preaching extends, at worse, to the implicit or explicit condoning of violence but, even without that, rejects inclusive and egalitarian values which itself narrows the possibilities for social bargaining.

The dominant issues and patterns here are not Western policy, globalisation, the existence of Israel; it is the history and internal patterns of Islam. It there that the explanations of the continuing power of moral exclusions within Islam lie. As Bernard Lewis notes in The Roots of Muslim Rage:

The Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat. The first was his loss of domination in the world, to the advancing power of Russia and the West. The second was the undermining of his authority in his own country, through an invasion of foreign ideas and laws and ways of life and sometimes even foreign rulers or settlers, and the enfranchisement of native non-Muslim elements. The third—the last straw—was the challenge to his mastery in his own house, from emancipated women and rebellious children. It was too much to endure, and the outbreak of rage against these alien, infidel, and incomprehensible forces that had subverted his dominance, disrupted his society, and finally violated the sanctuary of his home was inevitable. It was also natural that this rage should be directed primarily against the millennial enemy and should draw its strength from ancient beliefs and loyalties.

Gender dynamics are so much at the heart of current patterns within Islam, that feminists of Muslim heritage–writers such as Karima Bennoune (Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here) and Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Teheran)–are indispensable to understanding what is going on within Islam; both in Muslim countries and in Muslim communities.

Patterns specific to Islam

Regions outside Islam experienced Western colonialism, live in a predominantly capitalist global economy, have migrant communities within Western states; they do not manifest the specific homicidal pathologies that emerge out of Islam (including among converts to Islam). The narcissistic sense of divine entitlement that Islam is prone to generate; the sense of frustrated status such gives rise to; and the embrace of being highly differentiating gatekeepers of righteousness that so many Islamic clerics are so keen on, are key factors.*

Islam’s history of states weakly integrated with the societies they rule, with very limited histories and institutions of social bargaining, has led to states which often fail to provide compensating social mechanisms while readily adopting modern techniques of social control and repression–repressive security states as modern substitute for the slave warrior states of the past.

Emerging from this fraught history neither has been, nor will be, an easy process: for Islam or the rest of us, their global neighbours. But pretending that the fundamental dynamics arise from anywhere other than within the religion and civilisation of Islam does not, to put it mildly, help.

 

* Palestine provides a microcosm of all this; particularly the ludicrous “right of return” whereby Palestinians–alone of all the myriad displaced peoples of the C20th–get to be hereditary refugees with claim to reside in the territory of someone else’s sovereign state that somehow should be (in that one and only case) taken seriously. While Palestinians cling to this delusion (itself driven by a sense of entitled status) Israel can quite reasonably infer that no serious peace is possible, so it may as well continue to, slowly but steadily, grab what it can.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]

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