How Do You Start an Islamic Reformation?

Since my post on the U.S. embassy riots had so many good comments, I thought I'd write a sequel and continue the discussion. I'd like to offer some further thoughts about Ayaan Hirsi Ali's article in Newsweek, on the mindset of "Muslim rage" and what this violence means for the future of Islamic and Western civilization. In general, I agreed with the article (its awful, lazily prejudiced title aside [would anyone ever write about "Christian rage"?]), although there are some points where I think there's more nuance to be acknowledged.


Several people, like Crommunist on Freethought Blogs as well as comments here on Daylight Atheism, argued that the silly video which ostensibly inspired the riots was just a pretext. The real roots of anger in the Islamic world, they say, come from feelings of disenfranchisement and humiliation engendered by decades of Western interference - whether it be propping up dictators, waging preemptive wars, killing innocent people with bombings and drone strikes, and so on - and riots like this are just an outlet for that pent-up anger, which coalesces around convenient targets.

I think there's probably some truth to this. But I disagree with this theory in one important respect: regardless of what actually inflamed the riots, what the protesters themselves are demanding has nothing to do with that. Instead, the most common demand from all quarters, such as from Turkey's prime minister and even American Muslim commentators, is to pass new laws banning speech that offends religious feelings. Hirsi Ali is correct when she says that this is a mainstream, not a fringe, position in the Islamic world. But this would do precisely nothing to address those underlying grievances.

You could draw an analogy to American conservative politics. There's much in our society to be legitimately worried about - skyrocketing levels of inequality, mushrooming government secrecy and fading accountability, the erosion of privacy rights, and more. But the leaders of the Republican party have successfully distracted their base from these issues of systemic injustice by conjuring up imaginary enemies at the gates - immigrants, gay people, women who use contraception, poor people who need health care - to keep them perpetually angry and embroiled in phony culture-war controversies. What's going on in the Muslim world is a more extreme version of that. You can feel compassion for the people who've been so badly misled; but that doesn't change the fact that their misguided demands are wrong and must be opposed.

But I think America has a more plausible way to escape this ignorance trap. We have a well-entrenched legal system to protect minorities' constitutional rights, a vigorous tradition of free speech and debate, and strong civil institutions like public schools to help educate people out of their delusions. But in brand-new democracies like Egypt, the institutions of civil society are weak, and more vulnerable to strong-arming by angry mobs or corrupt officials. I'm not so sure if they can pull themselves out as easily.

In this respect, Hirsi Ali is more optimistic than me. She says that democracy, in the long run, will be the undoing of Islamists because it will force them to deliver on their grandiose promises, and suffer popular scorn when they inevitably can't. That was what I thought originally, but I have to admit that events like these have put me in some doubt. Again, as the U.S. experience shows, would-be theocrats are endlessly creative when it comes to rationalizing their failures.

On the other hand, perhaps I'm too pessimistic. It seems that Roman Catholics were once viewed in the same light as Muslims - as a sinister, invasive subculture given to authoritarianism and unwilling to assimilate - and in retrospect, this clearly turned out to be nothing but prejudice. (I should draw a distinction between Catholic laypeople, who've assimilated to the point where it no longer makes sense to speak of a distinct "Catholic vote", and the Catholic hierarchy, which has grown increasingly authoritarian and regressive.)

I see no reason to believe that a similar reformation can't eventually happen with Islam, but I don't know whether it will happen if we continue along the path we're on now. Your thoughts?

Image: Children attending school in Afghanistan, via Wikimedia Commons

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.