Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Understanding (Artificial) Intelligence

 This piece in the Atlantic from a few months ago is a wonderful profile of Douglas Hofstadter and a timely exposition of an issue at the core of the artificial intelligence enterprise today.

I read Doug Hofstadter's great book, Goedel, Escher, Bach (or GEB, as everyone calls it) in 1988 as a graduate student working in artificial intelligence - and, as with most people who read that book, it was a transformative experience. Without doubt, Hofstadter is one of the most profound thinkers of our time, even if he chooses to express himself in unconventional ways. This piece captures both the depth and tragedy of his work. It is the tragedy of the epicurean in a fast food world, of a philosopher among philistines. At a time when most people working in artificial intelligence have moved on to the "practical and possible" (i.e., where the money is), Hofstadter doggedly sticks with the "practically impossible", in the belief that his ideas and his approach will eventually recalibrate the calculus of possibility. The reference to Einstein at the end of the piece it truly telling.

My main concern, however, is the deeper point made in the Atlantic article: The degree to which the field of artificial intelligence (AI) has abandoned its original mission of replicating human intelligence and swerved towards more "practical" applications based on "Big Data". This point was raised vociferously by Fredrik deBoer in a recent piece, and much of this post is a response to his critique of the current state of AI.

deBoer begins with a simplistic dichotomy between what he terms the "cognitive" and the "probabilistic" models of intelligence. The former, studied by neuroscientists and psychologists - grouped together under the term "cognitive scientists" - was the original concern of AI, which sought to first understand and then replicate human intelligence. Instead, what dominates today is the latter approach which seeks to achieve practical capabilities such as machine translation, text analysis, recommendation, etc., through the application of statistics to large amounts of data without any attempt to "understand" the processes in cognitive terms. deBoer sees this as a retreat for AI from its original lofty goals to mere praxis driven, in his opinion, by the utter failure of cognitive science to elucidate how real intelligence works.

The high visibility of the statistics-based "machine learning" approach is real enough. To a large degree, it is a matter of what is possible and lucrative. In its formative decades, AI developed a lot of computational tools that were theoretically promising but could not be applied for the lack of computational power and sufficient data. Today, thanks to Moore's Law and the Internet, we lack for neither, and the same statistical analysis that seemed so impossible twenty years ago now powers search engines, recommendation systems and the occasional winner of Jeopardy. However, the critique of AI and its failures by deBoer and others is profoundly misplaced as I will try to show below.

The main problem with the critique (and others like it) lies in its definition of "intelligence". Intelligence isn't something explicit that dwells in the brain and must be explained in terms of simpler primitives; it is an attribute that we assign to behavior that is sufficiently productive or complex. There is no "there" there other than this attribute, and the main issue in both understanding and replicating intelligence is to focus on the embodied behavior rather than on some disembodied Platonic essence called "intelligence". Once this is done, the dichotomy between the cognitive and probabilistic views disappears.

The idea that "true understanding" of intelligence must go beyond "mere statistics" is nothing more than crypto-dualism hiding behind statements of principle. Dualism is the notion that the "mind" has an essence beyond the material composition of the "body" - the two comprising a mind-body duality. This belief is, of course, virtually identical with the belief in a "soul", "spirit", "psyche", etc., and is profoundly rejected by modern science. Most of those who study mental phenomena today - neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers of mind, and, yes, AI researchers - believe that the mind is a product of the physical body, much as life itself is. Just as the physical phenomena affecting the body - notably disease - that were once ascribed to divine providence are now understood exclusively in material terms, so are mental phenomena - perception, cognition, awareness, memory, thought - being moved ever so slowly away from immaterial explanations to material ones, with a corresponding increase in possibilities of intervention and artificial replication. Though the tools for doing so are still very primitive and a full understanding of how the mind emerges from the body is still a distant goal, a lot of progress has been made - deBoer and others notwithstanding. The anatomical connectivity within the brain and with the body has been studied for more than a century, and is now clearer than ever before, but there has also been a remarkable revolution in understanding the functional connectivity of the system and its underlying mechanisms. Reports on this are widespread in the scientific literature, but many of the most exciting results are summarized in a wonderfully readable new book by Stanislas Dehaene called Consciousness and the Brain (yes, he uses the "C-word" and lives!). Through such research, it has become increasingly clear that the mind - including whatever we may term intelligence - arises from the dynamics of the multi-scale complex network called the body; that ultimately, all percepts, thoughts, memories and choices correspond to ever-changing patterns of activity over hundreds of billions of cells - in the brain and the rest of the body - and that "understanding" these phenomena is a task for physics and chemistry rather than philosophy. The question, then, is this: What is the most appropriate quantitative framework in which to study these physical phenomena? And this is where AI finds itself.

AI, invented by computer scientists, lived long with the conceit that the mind was "just computation" - and failed miserably. This was not because the idea was fundamentally erroneous, but because "computation" was defined too narrowly. Brilliant people spent lifetimes attempting to write programs and encode rules underlying aspects of intelligence, believing that it was the algorithm that mattered rather than the physics that instantiated it. This turned out to be a mistake. Yes, intelligence is computation, but only in the broad sense that all informative physical interactions are computation - the kind of "computation" performed by muscles in the body, cells in the bloodstream, people in societies and bees in a hive. It is a computation where there is no distinction between hardware and software, between data and program; where results emerge from the flow of physical signals through physical structures in real-time rather than from abstract calculations; where the computation continually reconfigures the computer on which it is occurring (an idea central to GEB!) The plodding, sequential, careful step-by-step algorithms of classical AI stood no chance of capturing this maelstrom of profusion, but that does not mean that it cannot be captured! The fundamental insights that have powered the recent renaissance of aryificial intelligence - and yes, there is one - are that:
  • Mental capabilities from simple pattern recognition to intelligence arise through an evolving, growing and learning networked complex system (i.e., the embodied animal) interacting continually with its environment.
  • These mental capabilities are meaningful only in the context of a specific body embedded in a specific environment, and not as general, disembodied abstractions.
In this view, the physical form of the body, along was all its capacity for change, endows it with the capability to support perception, cognition and intelligent autonomous behavior when it interacts with its environment. This happens, not through the instantiation of Platonic abstractions but through the continual flow of information (in material form - ions and molecules) through the cellular network of the body, which is continually reconfigured by this flow, thus shaping flows in the future. And while the flow of information is from the past to the future on the physical scale, mental phenomena are sufficiently slow that the linear causality of the "sense-think-act" sequence is replaced by a circular causality where perception, thought and action all influence each other in the course of any single mental event such as making a choice or recalling a memory. Today, brain imaging technologies allow us to see these flows in progress, albeit very imperfectly and in ways that are difficult to interpret. As the technologies improve, however, these functional networks of the brain and the body will become ever more visible.

 This "embodied" view of the mind has several important consequences. One of these is to revoke the idea of "intelligence" as a specific and special capability that resides in human minds. Rather, intelligence is just an attribute of animal bodies with nervous systems: The hunting behavior of the spider, the mating song of the bird and the solution of a crossword puzzle by a human are all examples of intelligence in action, differing not in their essence but only in the degree of their complexity, which reflects the differences in the complexity of the respective animals involved. And just as there is a continuum of complexity in animal forms, there is a corresponding continuum of complexity in intelligence. The quest for artificial intelligence is not to build artificial minds that can solve puzzles or write poetry, but to create artificial living systems that can run and fly, build nests, hunt prey, seek mates, form social structures, develop strategies, and, yes, eventually solve puzzles and write poetry. The first successes of AI will not be Supermind or Commander Data, but artificial flies and fish and rats, and thence to humans - as happened in the real world! And it will be done not just by building smarter computer programs but by building smarter bodies capable of learning ever more complex behavior just as an animal does in the course of development from infancy to adulthood. Artificial intelligence would then already have been achieved without anyone "understanding" it.

To decide whether progress is being made in artificial intelligence, the place to look is not in the theories of cognitive scientists but in the practice of neuroengineers.  Remarkable advances are occurring in using the information within the nervous system to control prosthetics and in replacing parts of the nervous system with artificial circuits. While those trapped in an older view of AI may fail to see it, these advances are the most concrete instances of artificial intelligence. The classical view is clouded by a distinction between "thought" and "action" - again, rooted in the dualism-that-will-not-die. But once it is recognized that perception, thought and action are all fundamentally manifestations of the same basic phenomenon - patterns of activity over complex biological networks - it becomes clear that there is no essential difference in the brain generating a pattern of nerve signals to control an artificial hand and the brain generating a pattern of nerve signals corresponding to a thought or a memory. The error lies in seeking that these processes have pre-specified forms that fit our algorithms. The body asks no such thing - it just learns to generate the most fortuitous patterns of activity across its networks and lives (or dies) with the consequences. The wisdom encoded in its DNA by four billion years of evolution, in its structure by years of development from a single cell to a full-grown individual, and in its cellular networks by years of learning enables the body to be right more often than wrong, and more right the longer it survives. Statistics are just a way to capture this wisdom. The body does so without math; we do it with math. But there is no essential difference.

For critics such as deBoer, statistics and understanding are dichotomous. If and when a function of intelligence - say, facial recognition - is replicated through statistical methods, these critics declare that the computer does not "truly understand"; it is doing "mere statistics". What they fail to acknowledge is the possibility that this may be exactly what brains and bodies are doing too!

The statistical engines that power Google and Amazon may not fit our stereotypes of intelligence, but at an essential level, they are doing what animals do: Capturing the statistics of their environment and adjusting the statistics of their own bodies to thrive in that environment. The real task for those studying intelligence is to understand the physical mechanisms by which this occurs. This is where the action really is in the study of intelligence, and this is where is has been since seminal thinkers like  Donald Hebb and Horace Barlow first began to theorize about how the mind might arise from the body. And, far from being mired in failure, this enterprise is making progress every day.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Jab We Met: Encounters between Islam and Hinduism in Early-Medieval Punjab

If the exhortation to pity the nation that forgets is own history is taken seriously, few nations are more pitiable than Pakistan today. Occupying one of the most historically rich pieces of land on the planet, modern Pakistanis go about their business oblivious to the echoes of the past that swirl all around them and the layers of history that lie buried under their feet. And more’s the pity for a better understanding of this historical past could explain a lot of the present and its problems, and perhaps even help solve them.

One of the most interesting and least understood periods in the history of the region is the time between 711 CE and 1200 CE, i.e., from the time when the first Arab conquerors under Muhammad bin Qasim established the so-called Emirate of Sind to the end of Ghaznavid rule in Punjab. One reason why this period is of special significance is that it represents the first extended encounter between Islam and the religious traditions of India, notably Hinduism (Buddhism too, but more on that another time). Given how the interaction and conflict between these two traditions has shaped – and continues to shape – the history of the region, looking back to the earliest encounters is especially important.

Though not studied as intensely as some other periods, the history of the early medieval period in Northwestern India has attracted its share of scholarship, from the contemporary writings of Al-Biruni, Al-Maqdisi and Ibn Hawqal to the work of modern historians such as Romilla Thapar1, Finbarr Flood2,3 and Derryl MacLean4. These works describe a fascinating process of interaction, integration and antagonism between two great cultures in an ancient land. In this piece, I will only consider a narrow but interesting set of issues, motivated, as often, by a coin in my collection – a bilingual Ghaznavid dirham circa. 1128 CE, shown below.


The silver coin was minted in the name of the greatest ruler of the Ghaznavid dynasty, Mahmud, who is famous – at least in South Asia – for his repeated attacks on India and his destruction of the great temple at Somnath in 1024. While his attacks ranged over large parts of northern India, Mahmud annexed only regions that lie in modern Pakistan. The coin was struck in 419 AH (1028 CE) at Lahore, which was then known as Mahmudpur – itself an interesting bit of historical information (the name “Mahmudpur” can be read clearly in the margin of the image on top at the 6 o’clock position). The complete inscription in the margin reads (as far as I can reconstruct it from this and other similar coins): bismillāh zuriba hādha-al dirham mahmudpur tis’a ‘ashra wa arba’ mi’ah (In the name of Allah. This dirham struck at Mahmudpur 419). The central text on this side of the coin reads: lā-ilāha ill-allāh / muhammad rasūl-ullāh / yamīn-ud dawlah / wa amīn-ul millah Mahmud (There is no God but Allah / Muhammad is His messenger / protector of the state / and custodian of the community Mahmud). The inscriptions at the 12 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions together read al-qādir billah, which was the name of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, to whom Mahmud nominally professed allegiance (more on this below).

Even more interesting is the reverse side of the coin, shown on the bottom. The text is in Sanskrit, written using the Sharada script, which was used throughout the region at the time and is the ancestor of the Gurmukhi and Kashmiri scripts. The text in the margin declares that the “tanka” – the Indian equivalent of the dirham – was struck in Mahmudpur on the given date, but it is the central inscription that is most interesting. The text reads: avyaktam ekaṃ, muhamadaḥ avatāraḥ, nrpatiḥ mahamudah. This translates as: The Invisible is one; Muhammad is His manifestation (avatar); Mahmud is the king. The margin also has a Sanskrit translation of the statement about the mint and date, including the Arabic bismillāh (in the name of Allah) translated as avyaktīya nāme (in the name of the Invisible). I rely on the reading reported by Flood in Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter3 (with citations to several other works),  but also given by Thapar in Somnatha: The Many Voices of History1, and other sources, such as the entry for coin number 39207 in the Zeno Oriental Coins database and CoinIndia.

This inscription, which is the first known “official” translation of the Muslim declaration of the creed (shahada) into Sanskrit, is interesting for three reasons. First, the very fact of putting a Sanskrit version of the shahada on a coin signals a certain outreach to the conquered Hindu population. After all, they were the only ones who would be expected to read the Sanskrit version. Perhaps there was also an element of proselytization in the move, trying to acquaint Hindus with the basis of Muslim belief. In any case, it was a remarkable acknowledgement of the need to communicate across communal lines. Second, the exclusive Islamic declaration, “There is no God but Allah” is translated as “The Invisible is one” (or sometimes as “the Unmanifest is one”), which excludes nothing. Indeed, it is best read as an affirmative statement declaring the unity of all that is ineffable and immaterial – the great world spirit, so to speak. For Hindus who believed in the undefinable, unchangeable reality – Brahman – at the core of everything, this would not have been a stretch at all. This is especially so if MacLean is correct and the major form of Hinduism prevalent in the area was Pasupata Saivism with its strongly monotheistic beliefs. Finally, the most remarkable aspect of the translation is the declaration that the Prophet Muhammad is a manifestation (avatar) of God – not a messenger, as Muslims believe.  From an orthodox Islamic viewpoint, this is a heretical statement, but there it was on the coins of that most pious protector of Islamic orthodoxy, Mahmud “the idol-breaker”!

It is worth noting that, as far as is known, these bilingual coins were issued only at Lahore, and only for two years (418 and 419 AH). In an end note, Flood (p. 279) quotes Tye and Tye 5, as suggesting that these might have been fiduciary coins for local use. Nevertheless, given the importance of Lahore to the empire – it was virtually a joint capital with Ghazni – and the fact that in 1028 (when the coins were issued), it was governed by Mahmud’s hand-picked governor, Malik Ayaz (of Mahmud-o-Ayaz fame), the issuance of the bilingual coins and the text of the Sanskrit inscription cannot be dismissed as an anomaly. Clearly, there was an explicit and official attempt to reach across the communal divide, not only in form but also in ideas – perhaps to promote a version of the Islamic creed that would win greater acceptance among the Hindu populace. Nor was this the only such example. Mahmud’s son, Mas’ud I, also issued coins depicting Hindu iconography, including an image of Nandi, the bull of Shiva, which had been a prevalent motif in the Hindu Shahi coinage before the Ghaznavids. Indeed, these Hindu motifs continued to be used on Ghaznavid coins by Mahmud’s successors in clear contravention of the orthodox Islamic proscription against images. Some coins also used Sharada inscriptions naming the king and occasionally invoking Hindu deities. These iconographic practices persisted into the Ghorid dynasty as well.

But the history of bilingual coinage and syncretism between Islam and Hinduism in the region goes back somewhat further, and has some ironic twists.

As far as is known, the first bilingual coins by any Muslim rulers in India were struck in Multan by the Sāmid Amirs who reigned there in the 10th century. Multan was then the capital of what is sometimes called “Northern Sindh”. After the initial Arab conquest in 711, Sindh was rules by a succession of governors appointed by the Umayyad administration, and then by the Abbasids after they took over in 750 CE. However, the hold of the caliphate on Sind became increasingly tenuous, and by the early tenth century, the region had split into a southern part, ruled from Mansurah by descendants of ‘Umar bin ‘Abd-ul-‘Aziz al-Habbāri, and a northern part, ruled from Multan by the descendants of Sāmah bin Lu’ayy. Both dynasties were of Qurayshi Arab origin, and professed nominal allegiance to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. Multan, at the time, was famous for its magnificent Sun Temple, which was a major center of Hindu pilgrimage. The Sāmid rulers seem to have supported the temple and a tolerant, perhaps syncretic version of Islam. However, sometime in the mid-tenth century, the rulers of Multan converted to Ismai’ili Islam, and transferred their allegiance from the Abbasids to the Fatimid caliph in Cairo, who was also the Isma’ili imam. Initially, the Isma’ili religious leadership in Multan appears to have continued on a tolerant course, but this aroused the wrath of the Fatimid Caliph, Al-Mu’izz, who sent a new preacher (dā’i), Jalam bin Shayban, insisting that the Isma’ili Amir of Multan purify the local religious practice (per Isma’ili doctrine, of course), and end support of “idol worship”. In a famous incident, the Caliph, hearing that a major local idol had been destroyed by the new preacher, asked that the head be sent to him as proof of destruction. It has been believed, on the authority of Al-Biruni, no less, that this refers to the destruction of the Sun Temple and its idol, but other evidence, summarized by MacLean, suggests that it was probably another, lesser idol. Nevertheless, it is ironic that the first recorded instance in Punjab of systematic idol-breaking in the name of Islamic purity came from Isma’ilis rather than orthodox Sunnis. A second irony is that it was the Isma’ili presence in Multan that attracted the most famous of “idol-breakers”, Mahmud, to attack Multan in 1010 CE, depose its Isma’ili ruler whom he regarded as an apostate, and annex the province into the Ghaznavid empire. Apart from his religious objections, Mahmud may also have been motivated to punish the rulers of Multan for transferring their allegiance away from the Abbasid caliph, to whom Mahmud pledged nominal fealty.


The bilingual coins are thought to be from the early Isma’ili period Multan around 965 CE. As shown in the examples from my collection (above), the text on these very small coins is usually hard to read. However, one side had the name of the ruler in Arabic (top panel) while the other often had a Sanskrit word, written in the Sharada script, with Hindu religious significance (bottom panel). According to Flood3, four distinct Sanskrit inscriptions have been identified – two referring to Vishnu, one to Lakshmi, and the fourth to “Madhumadi”, which is regarded as the Sanskritized version of “Muhammad” (also used elsewhere in India at the time). If this is true, the coins represent an attempt to insert the Prophet of Islam into the Hindu pantheon. Perhaps it was such practices that raised the ire of al-Mu’izz and motivated him to send a “purifier”.

To summarize the sequential ironies of the situation: First, Isma’ili Muslim rulers in Multan attempted to create a syncretic culture among the Hindus and Muslims of their emirate; then they were chastised by an Isma’ili Caliph in Egypt who ordered them to destroy idols and temples – which they did; but their Isma’ili faith was still seen as heretical by the pious Sunni king, Mahmud, who invaded and annexed their kingdom; and then, Mahmud’s own hand-picked governor in the region made another similar effort at syncretic outreach, minting coins with statements that orthodox Muslims would have regarded as heretical – but only in Sanskrit!

History is a lot more complicated than we think!


1.       1. R. Thapar (2005) Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History. Verso.

2.       2. F.B. Flood (2011) Conflict and Cosmopolitanism in “Arab” Sind. In: A Companion to Asian Art and Architecture, R.M. Brown & D.S. Hutton (eds), pp 365-397. Blackwell.

3.       3. F.B. Flood (2009) Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval "Hindu-Muslim" Encounter. Princeton University Press.

4.       4. D.N. McLean (1989) Religion and Society in Arab Sind, Brill.

5.       5. J. Tye and M. Tye (1995) Jitals: A Catalogue and Account of the Coin Denomination of Daily Use in Medieval Afghanistan and North West India. John Tye.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Thinking Turkey

I returned a few days ago from an extremely enjoyable and rather thought-provoking 12-day family vacation in Turkey. The visit included a guided tour of north-western Anatolia – Bursa, Sardis, Pamukkale, Hierapolis, Ephesus, Izmir, Pergamon, Troy and Gallipoli – and then five days of sightseeing and shopping in Istanbul on our own. Without being planned as such, the trip ended up giving us a great – though sketchy – cross sectional view of the region’s rich history, from ancient Troy through Greeks, Romans and Ottomans down to the senselessness of the Great War. As I went through ancient ruins, glorious mosques and silent cemeteries, I could not help but think on the history still being made in the region. Modern Turkey lay all about us, and I found it to be fascinatingly complex.


  The fabled walls of Troy.


Ruins of the Temple of Artemis near ancient Sardis, where Croesus ruled and Xerxes reveled.

I’m not sure what I had expected the experience of Turkey to be, but what I found (at least in the areas we visited) was a remarkably well-organized, highly functional country that has achieved an enviable integration of its historical heritage with modernity. Not only were the amenities of modern life all available and functional, people in general exuded a sense of economic participation and civic responsibility. In visiting ancient ruins, we saw no signs of vandalism or neglect. No doubt these exist, but at nowhere near the levels one finds in South Asia. Visiting the amazing Museum of Archaeology in Istanbul, my daughter remarked on how 4000-year old sculptures and reliefs were displayed with no barriers around them, and yet, there was no sign of harm. The guard in each room was sufficient deterrent for all visitors – foreign and Turkish. A remarkable number of things were under renovation, and the rest were obviously well-maintained. Occasionally, one might see a run-down old structure, but that was rare. It was clear to me that the powers that be took their responsibility for maintaining the national heritage very seriously, and that this outlook was broadly shared by people.

    Only tourists visit the ruins of Roman Ephesus….           

    ..... but modern life thrives in the shadow of Ottoman glory.

With so much to offer, it was not surprising that Istanbul was swarming with tourists. And yet, there was none of the sense of unreality that pervades so many tourist sites in America and even Europe. The tourists were experiencing a very real place that, yes, made concessions to them, but worked pretty much as it had for thousands of years. Even the Grand Bazaar – the nearest thing to a tourist trap in Istanbul – exuded a sense of history, which was only fitting for a market with centuries of tradition behind it (though rebuilt many times after fires down into the 20th century).

To me, the most remarkable thing was the ease with which people on the street were willing to engage. From cab drivers to shopkeepers to waiters, most were willing to make conversation, to express opinions, to joke and to cajole. These were not people alienated from their society. I’m sure they had their problems, but they still seemed to have the feeling of participation in a self-confident, living culture. Of course, my sample was very limited. I had no opportunity, for example, to talk to construction workers or farmers or janitors, but unhappy societies infect everyone with their poison, and I saw none of that.

Perhaps I should have gone to Taksim Square to see it. We were staying in the old Sultanahmet area, near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, and far from where new history was being made. Every day we were in Istanbul, the police clashed with protesters in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets. We stayed away from these areas, partly because we were there to see as much old history as we could in our few days and partly out of natural caution, but it was clear that, for all its apparent efficiency and liveliness, not all is fine in Turkish society.

Even though we stayed away from the protests, they were omnipresent. Directly or indirectly, many people I talked to – from our erudite tour guide to rug merchants in the Grand Bazaar – had something to say. Based on my limited interactions, my impression was that Erdogan had a lot of support on the street. The protests – as protests often are – have been driven by the young, the educated and the idealistic, but have not captured the sympathy of other groups. Of course, it is too early to say if this is the final disposition of the situation, and the protests must be understood in the context of recent Turkish history.

The beautiful main dome of the Blue Mosque, whose inscriptions most Turks can no longer read.

In the ninety years since the inception of the Republic, Kemalist Turkey has been a massive sociopolitical experiment: A democracy ruled by an edict of amnesia. Recognizing the potential dangers posed by religious zealotry and rivalries, Mustafa Kemal forced Turkey into an experiment without parallel in modern history. He forced millions of people, with a long, rich cultural tradition grounded in Islam, to give up that tradition immediately, to change their mode of living, their way of dressing, even their language and their faith. Such edicts – usually imposed by conquering outsiders, but here imposed by the country’s own government – always have complicated consequences, and Turkey has been no exception. Over the decades, aggressive Kemalism supported by the iron fist of the military has managed to create a distinctly modern, secular culture in urban Turkey. But, beginning with the election of the first Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbekan in 1996, it has become increasingly clear that the embers of tradition are far from extinguished in the country at large. And as that country has moved into the cities – Istanbul now accounts for about a fifth of Turkey’s population – it has brought its conservative ethos to the street as well. As in many other countries of the region, it is a competition between a globalizing (and, therefore, Westernizing) educated youth and a populace tied to thousand year old traditions. The manifestation of this competition is different in each country, determined by socioeconomic conditions and history. Turkey, with a dynamic economy, strong industrial and agricultural base, educated population and no memories of colonial oppression, represents probably the most important case for the world at large.

The profile of Ataturk looms over the Izmir waterfront.The protestors want to make sure his secular state survives.

Only the willfully blind would deny that – for better or worse – some kind of Islamic “awakening” is afoot in the world today. Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia are looking for a suitably “Islamic” mode of sociopolitical organization. Lacking any recent historical models, each society seems to be exploring its own model, often with disastrous consequences for social cohesion and human rights. At the risk of over-generalizing, however, one can identify three distinct types of models on offer. The first – very well-defined but of necessarily limited appeal – is the Shi’a theocracy of Iran. The main reason its appeal is limited is that it relies on a framework that does not exist in the rest of the Muslim world: The Shi’a institution of a well-defined clerical hierarchy that can provide formal guidance. The second model is the Salafist approach that wishes for a forced return to the (often mythical or misread) laws and social contracts of fourteen centuries ago. While the violent form of this model, i.e., jihadism, has not had much political success, a less militant but equally pernicious form has found a home in many places through the patronage of rich, Salafist-minded regimes. Pakistan offers a case study of what happens when this goes horribly wrong, and an even worse case may be in the offing in Syria. The third model is the one on display in Egypt and involves the much more “practical” approach promoted by overtly political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Jamaat-e-Islami in the Sub-Continent. Unlike Salafists, these groups wish to engage with modernity, but on Islamic terms. They seek an “Islamic order” that implements the principles of orthodox Islam in the modern world, though it is clear that even the most thoughtful proponents of this model have a woefully – and perhaps willfully – inadequate understanding of modernity. In a real sense, this is a movement that is attempting to walk on the edge but is precariously close to falling into the Salafist maw (again, see the case of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan).

Turkey’s current Islamist government offers, potentially, a fourth model.  Turkey differs from most Muslim-majority countries in the region in several respects:

1. It has a dynamic, robust and diversified economy that has come through the recent global recession in remarkably good shape. Egypt and Pakistan, in comparison, are economic basket cases. Iran has been under sanctions for decades, and Saudi Arabia is a narrowly-based economy with significant dependency on foreign labor.

 2. Turkey has not suffered a significant loss of sovereignty for centuries – in fact, never within the cultural memory of the society. It is, therefore, free of the social conflicts and psychological scars of colonialism, and is able to act with self-confidence (I owe this observation to a recent talk by Mustafa Akyol).

 3. Unlike many other countries in the area, Turkey has also not emerged only recently from a period of abject poverty, isolation or medieval social organization. It has been a cosmopolitan, prosperous, significantly urbanized and internationally integrated society for centuries, and arguably for millennia.

4. It has the most recent and well-remembered experience of being a world power and regional hegemon among all powers in the area. Reminders of this recent glory exist all over the country in mosques and mausoleums, palaces and forts that are still part of peoples’ lives.

5. Most importantly, Turkey has decades of experience with (often imperfect) secular democracy, and has moved beyond the debilitating superficial issues that haunt the discussion of “Islamic government” in so many other societies. Even if this issue appears a little less settled today, Turkish society at large has no appetite for theocracy.

These – and many other – factors make it at least possible that Turkey could offer a more successful model for integrating an Islamic ethos with modern governance. Whether the autocratic Mr. Erdogan is currently offering such a model is still an open question. It is not clear whether his goal is simply to reverse the aggressive anti-religious policies of the Kemalist Republic (e.g., forbidding the wearing of headscarves) to arrive at a kinder, gentler and more culturally Muslim version of it, or if his ultimate aim is to replace the secular state with something that the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to achieve elsewhere – albeit more successfully than the Brotherhood. Only time will tell whether today’s Turkey truly offers a new model for a modern “Muslim” state. One thing that is already clear, however, is the role Mr. Erdogan sees for his nation on the world stage, and that is the main reason anyone interested in geopolitics should pay close attention to Turkey. Arguably, it is one of the few most important countries in the world today.


A modern Turkey rises behind the old palaces.

Over the course of his years in power, Prime Minister Erdogan has given important clues about his ambitions. His stand on the Gaza flotilla, his early support of the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions, his aggressive policy in Syria, his hard-nosed approach to Israel, his courting of the EU, and even his long-overdue (though now flagging) rapprochement with Kurdish nationalists, all indicate a desire to play a much stronger and more global role in the geopolitics of the region – a role not compatible with interior strife (as with the Kurds) or inconvenient social unrest. As by far the most successful country in the entire region, Turkey feels self-confident enough to assert itself abroad and, consistent with the Islamist outlook of the ruling party, reclaim the leadership of the Sunni Muslim world from India to Morocco. In this, it needs to hold off the influence of the Iranians, counteract the Salafist ideology emanating from the Arabian peninsula, and fold in the destitute Islamists of Egypt. The first goal is aligned with Western interests and is not difficult for Turkey as a member of NATO. The last is almost too easy as Egypt sinks into its latest plague of economic misery and grasps about for a helping hand. The second? Well, that is more complicated, but a nominally secular version of “Muslim democracy” might well become attractive to many in the region over time as they tire of the Salafist extremists’ carnage.

One way to understand these ambitions is to look at the history of one of Mr. Erdogan’s heroes, Ottoman Sultan Selim I (r. 1512-1520) – called Yavuz Sultan Selim Han (Stalwart Sultan Selim Khan) by Turks and Selim the Grim by the West. By any objective measure, Selim I was one of the most successful of all Ottoman Sultans. Though he ruled for less than nine years, he more than tripled the size of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, it could truly be called an “empire” only after Selim’s conquests. He stopped the westward advance of the Shi’a Safavids from Iran and mercilessly persecuted the Shi’a Alevi sect in Turkey to ensure that Sunni Islam remained the dominant brand in the Middle East and Asia Minor. He also captured Syria, Palestine, Hejaz, and Egypt, bringing to an end the rule of the Mamluks and the nominal caliphate of the Abbasids in exile. He thus became the ruler of Islam’s holiest sites – Mecca and Medina – and of the most important region in the Middle East – Egypt. He had himself named Caliph, establishing the Ottomans not only as secular rulers over their lands but also as the deputies of God to whom all Muslims owed obeisance. Later, even the Mughals in India would acknowledge this nominally. The treasure he added to Ottoman coffers was so enormous that, for the remaining 400 years of the empire, the Treasury bore his seal and not that of the current Sultan. Among the treasures he brought to Istanbul were the traditional symbols of the Abbasid caliph’s legitimacy: The mantle and sword of the Prophet Muhammad. Regardless of whether this attribution was genuine or apocryphal, the symbolism was genuine enough. Selim I and, through him, the Ottomans were the rulers of the House of Islam.

It is significant that the Erdogan government has proposed naming a new bridge being built over the Bosporus after Selim I. The Alevis are not happy to see the name of their oppressor glorified and the matter is now in abeyance, but the signal is clear enough: It is no longer necessary to name everything in Turkey after Mustafa Kemal and other heroes of the Republic. The new Turkey is looking towards heroes of an earlier age, who knew not only how to govern their country but also how to expand its power and defend its faith. Of course, it would be impossible today to replicate the conquests of Selim I, but in the 21st century, empires are defined not by possession of land but by projection of influence. All indications are that, from his prosperous stronghold in Anatolia, Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan is dreaming of a day when Turkey once more will be the primary influencer of events from Damascus to Tripoli – and, who knows, in Mecca and Medina!  Inshallah.

Given the mess that is today’s Middle East, this may not be such an impossible dream, if only those pesky demonstrators in Taksim Square would stop tweeting away.

The piece above is, obviously, just a compilation of personal thoughts, not a scholarly article. I have tried to avoid taking a position one way or the other on what I think of as “the Turkish experiment” – both in its internal changes and its external ambitions. The region that I discuss – from Pakistan westward – is littered with failed states and clearly needs new ideas. If an invigorated Turkey can supply some of these ideas, that would not necessarily be a bad thing. For many parts of the region, it would, in a sense, be a reversion to an earlier and, in its time, more successful order. At the same time, I cannot help but be wary of those who come peddling the wares of piety and faith. From my viewpoint, these are not ingredients of a solution but causes of the region’s current problems. It will be important to see how far the Turkish government goes in reversing Kemalist policies, and whether it gets onto the slippery slope of religious interference in the state. Some think that it is already there, but I am not sure.

Monday, October 1, 2012

On Freedom of Speech

 Will Saletan has a provocative new piece in the recent issue of Slate, arguing that Western Europe must do away with its hate speech laws and other restrictions on free speech before lecturing Muslims on their intolerance for insults to the Prophet. He certainly has a valid point, but his article obscures a larger, more important point: Freedom of speech is neither just a moral imperative nor something to be negotiated in a fair exchange; it is an essential mechanism to ensure the stability of modern societies.

The insulting film that caused the recent furor was made in the United States, not in a European country with hate speech prohibitions. The United States does not have laws prohibiting hate speech against anyone, and the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution guarantees almost absolute protection of speech. This is exactly what gives Americans – uniquely – both the right and the privilege of lecturing others on freedom of speech. Europe can be left to resolve its own dilemmas and exorcise its own ghosts. The principle that all speech – including hateful speech, blatant lies, extreme insults and outright bigotry – must be protected symbolizes a truly optimistic and modern view of human nature – that we are not, as some might insist, slaves to our inner demons or desires, but rational agents capable of analytical thought and self-control. This view of free speech may be somewhat idealistic, but the aspiration towards that ideal should not be obscured by fretting over its imperfect implementation in the here and now - especially when the most powerful, most influential and most diverse country in the world already implements it almost perfectly.

It is also essential that any defense of free speech not be couched in the idiom of Western paternalism, which – rightly – raises hackles in recently decolonized societies. Rather, it should be grounded in an understanding of the essential role freedom of expression plays in the survival and success of any modern society. Those who object to it – notably in the Muslim world, but also elsewhere – hold the depressingly pessimistic view that civilized behavior requires perpetual top-down control through the law, and that without such control, human society would fall apart. This idea – like many other “common sense” notions – is rooted in the belief that order arises only by imposition, that all organization requires an organizer, and that the only natural path for systems without top-down control is descent into entropic chaos. This view of reality, though historically understandable, is increasingly unsustainable for the complex, diverse, globalizing societies of today.
Forget all the examples of bottom-up self organization that we see in Nature. Most people already understand intuitively that human society is, at its core, a bottom-up system – relying on community, the common good, and the cooperative action. For millennia, however, top-down control has proved to be a successful strategy for reaping the benefits of this bottom-up system. From tribal chiefs to emperors and dictators, the wisdom of the few (usually one) has successfully tamed the presumed folly of the crowd, allowing societies to maintain cohesion and – very importantly – increase their influence (at least for limited periods). This is also the framework undergirding organized religion, which is the ultimate form of top-down control without hope of repeal. But the success of this strategy has now created the conditions for its own failure. Modern society and its institutions are arguably too complex to be understood, let alone controlled, by wise individuals or static legal codes. We have no choice but to trust the wisdom of the crowds. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is the best example of this trust. To think that it relinquishes all control over speech is a misunderstanding. Rather, it trusts that a responsible, civilized people can determine the proper norms of speech for their time and place through social, i.e., bottom-up, action rather than through rigid legal control – that society itself can regulate what expression is or is not acceptable, and impose societal sanctions to enforce this flexible, unwritten code. Protection of all expression thus creates a flexible mechanism rather than a brittle one, and is a stabilizing influence rather than a destabilizing one. Wisdom, in this case, lies not in choosing what others can(not) say, but to let them choose and live with the social consequences of their choice.

As we understand complex systems better, it is clear that they are necessarily subject to crises of potentially limitless magnitude. No amount of wise management can prevent such crises. The best that can be done is to create the space within the system to mitigate their effects when they do happen. Resilience and robustness, not strength and control, are the best options for such systems. The role of Law must be only to facilitate this resilience. Allowing people to have their say and be ignored (or mocked!) creates a much more resilient society than forbidding such expression and letting it turn secretly into a cause or a revolution. Freedom of speech is not the permission to sow strife but a mechanism to dissipate it - automatically, without effort, at almost no cost. Those who seek to limit it in the quest for stability are, in fact, inviting instability – a fact well demonstrated by history. Modern societies – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – need to learn this lesson. And they will learn it either before or after they destroy themselves from within.  To avoid the latter fate, they would do well to stop using European laws to justify their myopia and look to the much more useful American example.


 1. It is possible to justify freedom of speech in more concrete terms through psychological, social and economic arguments, but those are just details. Another important issue that could be raised is to ask whether this same laissez-faire approach should then be applied to the economic domain – as free-market purists have argued. This is not the place to discuss it, but, in my opinion, the problem is that money is not speech, whatever five justices on the U.S. Supreme Court might say. It is abundantly clear that the free market system within the right context is, by far, the most productive ever devised by humans (see "The Origin of Wealth" by Eric Beinhocker, or "The Birth of Plenty" by William Bernstein), but the relationship between humans and money is not the same as that between humans and expression. No one dies because of the speech of others, but people can be harmed physically by others' economic decisions. Nor is money an essential part of an individual’s being as expression is. Some regulation is, therefore, required for economic systems, but only as much as is necessary to preclude real harm to innocents and no more.

2. There is a very rich literature on the inevitability of crises in complex systems, and on ways to mitigate them Three of the best are Per Bak’s controversial classic “How Nature Works”, Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan”, and Marten Scheffer’s “Critical Transitions in Nature and Society”. Philip Ball’s “Why Society is a Complex Matter” also looks delicious but I have not read it yet. Nassim Taleb’s upcoming book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” is about the flip side of things – how disorder can be exploited. It should be very interesting.

3. Some readers will note the apparent irony that the freedom from laws regulating speech is itself embodied in a law – the First Amendment. The first few words of the amendment reinforce this irony: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is a law prohibiting the making of laws – a “meta-law”, so to speak! The irony is resolved by noting that the target of its prohibition is the legislative body (Congress), not the population at large, which it frees from oppressive laws. It does not say to people, “You must speak freely”, but only that Congress cannot abridge such freedom. However, the ironies don't stop there. The fact that a few rich white men in the 18th century promulgated this law empowering the many is one of history’s wonders. They needed both an immense portion of wisdom and an inordinate capacity for self-delusion to do so – many were slave-holders, and almost all accepted the practice.

4. I have not seen the movie that caused all the recent mayhem, nor do I intend to do so. From its description, it is, to put it politely, a piece of crap. The proper response to it would have been to ignore it and thus deny its makers the one thing they most desired – attention. The reaction that actually occurred has, alas, guaranteed that more such crap will be made and publicized – mostly to the benefit of extremists on all sides.

 5. I am sure that, in response to this post, I will be told that: a) The U.S. kills innocent people with drones (true but irrelevant); b) Insulting Jews or African-Americans is illegal in the U.S. (false); c) Western values are not universal (making wise choices to improve societal survivability is not a Western value); d) There should be some limit to free speech (yes, when it can physically or economically harm someone); and many more. All such objectors would benefit greatly from watching “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”. Laughter cures all hang-ups.