The American Scholar on the Value of Historical Research

Anthony Grafton and James Grossman have published a blog post on The American Scholar entitled, “Habits of Mind: Why college students who do serious historical research become independent, analytical thinkers” (HT Zalman Newfield). The article begins by summarizing the conventional thinking on both sides of the “value of the humanities” argument, and then settles in to a thoughtful and informed discussion of the benefits of the processes and side effects of studying one particular field with the broad and diverse macro-field of “The Humanities,” namely, history. You’ll have to read through the article yourself for all the insights, but the conclusion is that the student who learns to conduct serious historical research is not just learning a vocation, but is doing much more:

When a student does research in this way—when she attacks a problem that matters to her by identifying and mastering the sources, posing a big question, and answering it in a clear and cogent way, in the company of a trained professional to whom she and her work matter—she’s not becoming a pedant or a producer of useless knowledge. She’s doing what students of the humanities have always done: building a self and a soul and a mind that she can take with her wherever she goes, and that will make her an independent, analytical thinker and a reflective, self-critical person. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?


Erin Darby on Judean Pillar Figurines

jpf

On Facebook I recently posted this interview of Erin Darby regarding her new book, Interpreting Judean Pillar Figurines. The book, which attempts a more methodologically grounded analysis of the function of JPFs in ancient Israelite practice, is based on the author’s 2011 Duke doctoral dissertation (available here) and is published in Mohr Siebeck’s Forschungen zum Alten Testament series. It looks like it will make a very welcome contribution to the field, and I look forward to digging into it. Check it out!


Marginalia Blog: Why How We Define Religion Matters

Thomas Whitley has an insightful and important blog post up now over at MRBlog entitled “Why How We Define Religion Matters.” The post is commenting on the Washington Post’s new feature, Acts of Faith, and it highlights and critiques the Western and Protestant framework that defines what counts as religion for the editors of the feature. For whomever edits Acts of Faith, religion appears to be delineated by collections of beliefs, but if we are going to attempt to define religion at all (more complex a concern than you might think), we need to be aware that religion is more fundamentally about praxis than about belief. Religions are lived, not just assented to. David Morgan has even defined the concept of belief itself as “a communal set of practices that structure life in powerfully aesthetic terms.” And where belief is detached from practice, it functions primarily as a tool for “constructing a particular kind of identity.” Because Protestantism has exalted a particular notion of faith over and against religious praxis, however, our contemporary Western worldview has come to know religion primarily through those lenses.

When seeking to understand a religion, scholars have long trended to ask: what are its teachings? Focus on ‘belief’ as a set of teachings derives from the creedal tradition of Christianity, which was intensified by Protestantism. From there, belief passed beyond the realm of religion into the philosophy of language, where it came to be strictly defined in terms of the truth-value of a proposition. (Morgan, “Introduction,” 1)

This has far-reaching implications for contemporary discourse about religion, public and private, as Whitley points out (see here, as well):

Though I have been critical of how the Washington Post has covered religion before, this is not an attempt to call just them out, but rather is an attempt to show that how we define “religion “determines what we classify as “religious” which largely determines what gets sacralized in our society, what is afforded legal protections, and what counts as terrorism. This discussion is not one without relevance outside of the walls of academia, for major news outlets are jumping on the “religion beat” left and right these days but are often doing a disservice to their readers because they have not critically examined the category, their use of it, and the implications thereof.

I have additional concerns about the possibility of actually “defining” religion as opposed to just describing it, but that’s a discussion for another day. I think Whitley’s call to examine our presuppositions about knowing a religion when we see one is timely and important. A final thought from Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy (p. 103):

The chief lesson of a survey of attempted definitions of religion is that, in religion, practice, feeling, and belief are intertwined, and every definition that would see the essence of religion in just one of these three facts is too partial.


Some Facts & Recommendations About Terrorism

In the wake of this week’s Charlie Hebdo tragedy in France and Boko Haram attack in northeastern Nigeria, a lot of rhetoric has been floating around the internet regarding the nature of Islam and its relationship to extremism and terrorism. Research has long been gathered related to terrorism and its motivations, so facts are readily available that can help to contextualize the discussion. Unfortunately, they mostly go ignored in the interest of promoting one ideological position or another.

Most of the following comes from the Institute for Economics and Peace’s 2014 Global Terrorism Index. Important insights from this report include (1) key trends, (2) correlates of terrorism, and (3) successful strategies for ending terrorism. In this post I’d like to share some of these facts and some ways we can contribute to more constructive discourse on the problem.

Terms

Defining terms is a critical (and contested) aspect of the categories utilized in the report, so following is the definition of “terrorism” used:

The GTI . . . defines terrorism as ‘the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.’ This definition recognises that terrorism is not only the physical act of an attack, but also the psychological impact it has on a society for many years after.

This is a somewhat broad definition, although some might quibble with the exclusion of state-sponsored violence. Using this definition, though, the GTI ranked the impact of terrorism within 162 countries:

Terrorism Impact

Trends

As the report notes, there was a 61% increase in terrorist attacks from 2012 (11,133) to 2013 (17,958), and 2013’s attacks represent a fivefold increase from 2000 (3,361). Deaths occurred in 50% of terrorist attacks. More than 60% of the deaths attributable to these attacks occurred in one of five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria. The following charts show various trends over the last 15 years:

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 6.29.01 PM

This next graph shows how significant events influenced the rise and fall of deaths resulting from terrorist attacks:

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 6.28.40 PM

The war in Iraq and the outbreak of the Syrian war coincide with the beginnings of the two largest spikes in terrorist activity. Religious-motivated terrorist activity increased significantly since 2002, when non-religious terrorism predominated. Outside of largely Islamic territories (Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia), political and ethnic/nationalist separatist terrorism predominates, as this chart illustrates:

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 7.01.24 AM (2)

In 2013 Islamic extremism did account for the majority of terrorist activity, but as the following chart shows, this is part of a recent and severe increase owing in large part to the rise of ISIL and Boko Haram:

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 7.01.21 AM (2)

Contributing Factors

You’ll note that comparison with figure 1 above shows the sharpest increase coincides with the beginning of the Syrian civil war. The Iraq War also coincides with an increase in activity. As the report finds, over 70% of terrorist activity occurs in areas experiencing major conflicts. Robert Pape argues that upwards of 90% of suicide terrorism is aimed specifically at uprooting occupying forces, a motivation that crosses the ideological boundaries that are drawn between the secular and the religious. The most prolific suicide bombers of the twentieth century, the Tamil Tigers, were ethnic separatists who appealed to Marxist ideology in their literature. The GTI highlights that, since 2000, 90% of suicide attacks have taken place in the Middle East and South Asia. This does not coincide with any change in the nature or function of Islam as a religion or an ideology, but is a function of the political/ethnic/social/economic dynamics at work in these areas. From the GTI:

From thousands of socio-economic, governance and attitudinal variables analysed, three groupings of indicators show a multivariate significant relationship with the GTI:

— Political stability
— Intergroup cohesion
— Legitimacy of the state

Areas where terrorist attacks are most frequent are areas where there is little political stability, where ethnic, religious, nationalist, and other groups experience conflict, and where the government lacks legitimacy. The fact that more than 70% of terrorism occurs in regions of major conflict suggests war is one of the predominant catalyst for terrorism in areas where those indicators are present.

Terrorism Outside Islamic Regions

Agencies in the United States and in the European Union have gathered a great deal of data regarding terrorism in their areas. For the EU, see the 2014 European Union Terror Situation and Trend Report. In the general overview it notes that 152 terrorist attacks were carried out in the EU in 2013, resulting in seven deaths. Two of those attacks are categorized by Europol as religiously inspired (resulting in one death). While religiously inspired attacks were quite low, there were 216 suspects arrested for planning or carrying out religiously inspired terrorist attacks. This marks an increase over the 159 arrests in the same category in 2012, and represents about 40% of the total 535 arrests for terrorist activities in 2013. This report from the FBI analyzes the 318 terrorist incidents, resulting in 3,178 deaths, that occurred in the US between 1980 and 2005. According to that report, Islamic extremism accounted for 6% of the attacks, just under the 7% attributed to Jewish extremism.

Mitigating Radicalization

A 2010 Duke University study available here analyzed the attitudes of Muslim-Americans toward extremism to attempt to account for the very low occurrence of radicalization taking place on American soil. It outlines several findings:

- There is increased anti-Muslim sentiment
– There is a low number of radicalized Muslim-Americans
– The practices of Muslim-American communities prevent radicalization

The following practices were identified as mitigating radicalization:

- Public and private denunciations of terrorism and violence
– Self-policing
– Community-building
– Political engagement
– Identity politics

The last practice requires some explanation. The report shows that Muslim-Americans have become more assertive of their Muslim identities since 9/11. While a great deal of rhetoric attempts to equate increased piety with an increased chance of radicalization, the report showed the opposite. Citing a 2007 Pew study (here), the Duke report noted that Muslim-Americans who said religion was “very important” in their lives were 1/3 less likely to respond that attacks on civilians were “sometimes” or “often justified” to defend Islam. When Muslim-Americans felt their identities as Americans were salient (increasingly common since 9/11), their communities were organized less frequently by ethnic group, and they felt a cultural connection to other Americans, reducing the occurrence of radicalization. The study states:

Over the past several decades, immigration and conversion have turned Muslim communities into far more multiethnic sites than the homogenous enclaves of a generation ago. According to a survey of more than 400 mosques in 2000, one third had no majority of participants from any single ethnic group. Immigrants from numerous countries come to know one another far more than they would have in their home countries, creating a new Islamic identity that is distinct from the narrower sense of ethnic identity.

It continues:

Today, many Islamic groups, including terrorist groups, claim to speak on behalf of the entire umma, the global community of Muslims. However, the pan-ethnic identity of Muslim-Americans serves to undermine terrorism by emphasizing the compatibility of Muslim-ness and American-ness. These are not two civilizations on a crash course, but instead two civilizations overlapping and melding.

Recommendations

The report concludes with the following recommendations for mitigating radicalization among Muslims:

1. Encourage politic mobilization. This is the most significant positive trend the report noted

2. Promote public denunciations of violence. Note: “promote,” not “demand.” The report points out that public opinion polls suggest Americans are woefully unaware of the “consistent and strong public denunciations following incidents here and abroad.”

3. Reinforce Self-Policing Efforts by Improving the Relationship Between Law Enforcement and Muslim-American Communities

4. Assist community-building efforts

5. Promote outreach by social service agencies. “This kind of engagement is viewed as an opportunity for Muslim-Americans to become stakeholders in the general community.”

6. Support enhanced religious literacy. A great example of this might be sharing the Letter to Baghdadi, an open letter recently published by a group of scholars of Islam denouncing terrorism and highlighting the many and various ways terrorism violates Islam and the Qur’an and has no legitimate basis in either.

7. Increase civil rights enforcement.Discrimination and contempt breeds bigotry and radicalization. ” Enhanced civil rights enforcement at local, state, and federal levels will contribute toward addressing Muslim-American concerns.”

Conclusion

Terrorism is too critical a problem to publicly engage with naive assumptions and empty rhetoric. Let’s get educated on the issues before we lose ourselves in rhetorical excesses and dogmatism.


Open Access eBook from De Gruyter: Bremmer, Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World

Initiation into the MysteriesDe Gruyter has a new open access book available here by Jan N. Bremmer entitled Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World. You can download PDFs of individual chapters or download the entire publication in EPUB. It looks like a wonderful publication. See the table of contents below. (HT James McGrath)

TOC

TOC


Thoughts on Schniedewind’s A Social History of Hebrew

Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 7.46.53 PM (2)I just completed Bill Schniedewind’s 2013 A Social History of Biblical Hebrew: Its Origins Through the Rabbinic Period. It is ostensibly an ambitious sociolinguistic examination of the history of the Hebrew language as it was employed within the cultures of Israel and Judah from the second millennium BCE into to the early centuries of the Common Era, but it touches on some important debates currently ongoing in the study of Biblical Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible with only brief acknowledgment of those debates and the clear ground staked out by his discussion. Perhaps most conspicuously, Schniedewind largely ignores the concerns raised in recent years by a number of scholars regarding the ability to date—even relatively—biblical texts on linguistic grounds. Young and Rezetko’s 2008 Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts, for instance, is briefly cited twice, but quickly dismissed by an appeal to Jan Joosten’s review of the volume. The traditional notions of Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH) and Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) are presupposed with little treatment of the challenges that have been raised.

Another rhetorical theme is the rejection of the so-called minimalists’ Persian-period dating of much of the Hebrew Bible. This case was interesting, and was made in one area by highlighting in the continuity of hapax legomena found in LBH and Rabbinic Hebrew and influenced by Persian, Greek, and Aramaic over and against those found in SBH that are absent from LBH and appear to be influenced by Akkadian and Ugaritic. This discontinuity in linguistic influence between SBH and LBH evinces, for Schniedewind, a disjunction in the use of Hebrew best accounted for through the cultural and political upheavals of the exilic period. There is certainly a strong argument to be made here, but one gets the impression it is being made in a vacuum.

I certainly enjoyed reading Schniedewind’s book and found a great deal of insight regarding the relationship of linguistic change to the social and political dynamics of Israel and Judah, but I felt at times that the discussion could have been benefited from more methodological precision and care, and some more transparency regarding its rhetorical targets. It could just be that the breadth of the examination and/or the target audience left little room for extensive technical engagement of opposing viewpoints.


Update to Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language & Linguistics Post

I’ve been tipped off to some additional PDFs of EHLL articles available online, so I’ve updated my post, which now has links to over 100 PDFs. I’ve also rearranged the authors by their last names. Find it here.


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