Sunday, July 30, 2017

Was Adam Smith An Economist? A Mediocre Economist's Identity Crisis

Let me begin by saying that I am not exhibiting fake modesty by admitting to being a mediocre economist. In fact, a better title would have been "... An Inferior Economist...," if we take mediocre literally (in the middle). Were I any good at Economics, I would not be where I am, or having these thoughts; but I am extremely grateful for being where I am, which is much more than I deserve. Nonetheless, I now have an identify crisis.

The crisis is precipitated by a monotonous stream of rejections by journal and book editors, who all tell me that whatever I submitted is not Economics. The issue is not technical rigor; some of those articles are relatively technical, and some book-oriented writings are totally non-technical. The crisis was further exacerbated when two luminaries of econometrics separately volunteered advice that I should pick up where I had left off in my work on Bayesian updating (one of them very kindly said that he still cites my 1995 JASA paper with David Grether, and thinks that it has not yet been surpassed although more work is needed).

By asking whether Adam Smith was an Economist, I am not being facetious or comparing my work with his, David Hume's before him, or Ibn Khaldun long before them all. I am merely confused about the nature of the questions that I am asking (about religion, ethics, perceptions of injustice, and Economics) not being considered Economics.

Nearly three decades ago, in Fall 1988, I was a fresh PhD and rookie assistant professor of Economics at Rochester. I went to a supercomputing conference at Cornell, and in the evening, as usual, conference participants went to a bar (I went to bars with friends, colleagues, and mentors, even though I do not drink; both because I was a useful designated driver, and because this was a virtually mandatory part of professional socialization).

I ended up in a booth, squeezed against the wall. Next to me sat Ed Prescott, already a superstar economist, although it was still many years before he received the Bank of Sweden Prize in honor of Alfred Nobel (known somewhat pretentiously as "the Nobel Prize in Economics," and one should read the history of this prize and its objective to portray Economics as a scientific field; thus giving greater political power to economists, bankers, and others).

He asked me what I did, and then what my dissertation was about. I was mortified, but told him that it was about estimation and inference in chaotic dynamical systems. I had already known that he had very low and well known opinions both about econometrics and about work on chaos theory in economics;  so I was bracing myself for some tough words.

Instead, he smiled kindly, and said: "It's OK! You have to prove that you are not a math wimp. And every five years or so, you have to publish another paper to prove that you are still not a math wimp. But in between, you can write some Economics. And remember this: Unless you can explain the substance to any drunk guy next to you at a bar, it's not Economics."

He was not himself drunk, as the evening had just started. The meaning was obvious: Play the game by its rules so that you may have the intellectual privilege of working on real Economics. I already knew that. Had it not been for my abilities (limited as they may be) in mathematics and computing, I would have never been admitted to a PhD program, received a degree, had academic jobs, or received tenure.

Had I been even a tenth as good as Prescott or the other two luminaries to whom I spoke recently (who have not won the Bank of Sweden prize... yet), I could have probably juggled the two. But I was never that good, and now in my mid 50s, with no graduate students or junior coauthors on whose energy and intellect I can rely, I cannot read as fast, retain information as long, or absorb new math and technology as proficiently. So, I have to make a choice.

Do I write about what is important to me, and what I consider to be Economics, or do I write what would be read and can be published by Economists (or other "social scientists," I had the same problem with editors in Political Science and Sociology)?

In a recent seminar for graduate students, wherein I presented some empirical results, I gave them the unequivocal advice: "Don't do what I do. Don't work on what you're interested in. To graduate and get a job, you need to work on what others are interested in." But it is difficult to follow this advice in my mid 50s for the sole purpose of retaining partial respect of my colleagues (which is a fool's errand, in any case), and I have the luxury of tenure but not the luxury of intelligence, work ethic, and young collaborators who can allow me to engage with what others are interested in while contributing to real Economics (as luminaries like Prescott could do and preach). That, of course, is assuming that Economics is the field in which people like Adam Smith were interested.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Neo-Wahhabism and Neo-Sufism: Two Facets of the Same Modern Phenomenon

Let me begin by saying that my focus on Islam stems from being Muslim, and, therefore, partially responsible for my tradition and its evolution.

I am fully aware that all the difficulties with the evolution of modernity that I spell out here are present also in other traditions -- whether within Orthodox Judaism (not recognizing fully many American Rabbis); pseudo-Christian fundamentalism (a neighbor who grew up in Houston told me that growing up in the 1950s, the phrases "mighty-Christian of you" and "mighty-White of you" were interchangeable); or secular socio-legal constitutional originalism (which brings to mind Derrida's comment that to imitate an original is to miss the point).

It is a mistake, in my humble opinion, for Muslims to deflect responsibility by pointing to similar difficulties elsewhere. The above mentioned problems in various traditions all emerge from social evolution (for example, the racial difficulties facing traditionally White America as we make progress towards a post-racial society; two steps forward, one step back).

Wahhabism itself was born when Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab, a Central-Arabian cleric, was shocked by the cosmopolitanism of Southern Iraq. The stark contrast can be seen to this very day within Saudi Arabia, where the coastal cities of Jeddah and Dhahran remain much more cosmopolitan, at least compared to the greater orthodoxy of Riyadh. Pure Wahhabism, like Orthodox Judaism, sought to freeze time, for fear of losing their tradition. Of course, pure Wahhabism could not defeat modernity entirely, and has evolved with time.

My central focus in the last two postings on this blog was squarely on the phenomenon of neo-Wahhabi American preachers, who teach a softer form of orthodoxy, but orthodoxy nonetheless -- and it bears repeating that there is nothing authentic about orthodoxy. It is an attempt to freeze in time a mythical society that the orthodox invent to fight change. Thus Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab's own family of scholars were perplexed by his teachings -- they thought that they were already preserving the tradition, which required keeping up with the times!

It is not surprising that American Muslim immigrants would seek some similar form of time-defying orthodoxy (especially after they had to admit, even if silently, that the programs of MB and JI have been disastrous failures in their countries of origin and throughout the world). All immigrants are known to try to preserve tradition, much like Italian immigrants in New York did a century ago, for fear that their children would melt within society and lose their identities (in the cases of Judaism and Islam, that includes intermarriage and conversion). They sent their kids to Madinah to learn what they thought to be authentic Islam, and find comfort in the mixture of American youth slang and orthodoxy (what I have labeled neo-Wahhabism for lack of a better term).

Others have not been comfortable with this neo-Wahhabism, and found comfort in their children chasing alleged Sufi masters. Those have failed to see that organized Sufism (which is pseudo-Sufism) is just as dogmatic and potentially dangerous (hence my constant discomfort with the Gulen movement, for example; after all MB had also claimed since its inception to be a Sufi Tariqa and devised very similar chapter and family structures). Just as Wahhabism tried to turn human beings into Shari`a-following automata, Sufism tried to turn them into Tariqa-following automata; and the irony is that the two terms (Shari`a or road to watering hole and Tariqa or method) almost mean the same thing. Today's neo-Sufis play the same role as the neo-Wahhabis, even as the two groups claim that they couldn't be more different.

I am aware, as my friend hinted in his emailed response to my posting yesterday, that I tend only to offer criticism, which does not seem constructive (this is the same charge that I received for my work on Islamic finance). This charge misses the point of, say, the negative theology of Maimonides or the perpetual deconstructionism of Socrates: Some problems simply do not have positive answers (or at the very least easy positive ones), and the role of the critic is to point out that easy solutions are by definition no solutions at all. I do not mean easy in implementation (neo-Wahhabis and neo-Sufis are given many tasks to keep their bodies and minds busy); it is conceptual ease that I criticize. As the Grand Sheikh Mohyiddin ibn Arabi would say, every time you think you are worshipping God, you are merely worshipping your own created mental image of God; and since this is your own creation, you are still worshipping yourself.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

American neo-Wahhabi Preaching, Part II

Two friends have responded critically to my post this morning. 

The second simply responded with the quote:
"At the end of my life, I want to be able to say I contributed more than I criticized." Brene Brown
 I replied as follows:
A good point.

However, the great teachers, from Socrates onwards, including most prophets recognized in our scripture, contributed mainly by criticizing.

The first friend had a longer warning:
I certainly share your concern regarding the advice being given, but see no need to avoid the substantive criticism by condemning people based on where they studied, particularly in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  There are plenty of thoughtful American and Canadian Muslims who have studied in Saudi Arabia, and tarring them with the label of Wahhabis because they studied in the KSA is dangerous and self-defeating. This same strategy can be used tomorrow against any one of us once the identity of the scapegoat is changed.  Let's stick to criticizing or praising ideas, rather than names and places.  We'll be much better off if we do so. 
I responded as follows:
You are absolutely right, ... The problem is that this brand of preacher always make sure to say during their khutab that they studied at Madinah University, and that their teacher taught them this and that… This is an integral part of their own chosen and marketed brandname that lends them legitimacy. 
I agree that the word Wahhabi is counterproductive, but Salafi would be even more misleading, and so on. I am trying to inform them of the alienness of their own teaching to who they are, and use the term neo-wahhabi to describe them… 
In summary, I see your concern about using the term as a pejorative, and understand the dragnet mentality that is ever-present and also dangerous, but my main objective is for families to stop sending their kids to this recruitment school. My guess is that once USG stopped their direct sponsorship of mosques and Imams in the U.S. after 9/11, they started offering these scholarships to indoctrinate American citizens who cannot be kept out. So, I wanted to sound the alarm — not that anyone is listening. 

American neo-Wahhabism: The Outbreak of "Madinah University" Preachers in Our Mosques

Over the past several months, I have noticed a dangerous pattern:

Mostly gone are the immigrant generation of JI-influenced South Asians and MB-influenced Arabs (so far, so good), but the almost exclusive category of new preachers are their American-born children (together with American-born Hispanic, African-American, or White converts) who were sent to study at "Madinah University," only to return and preach a thinly-sugar-coated neo-Wahhabism (the sugar coating is a superficial veneer of Sufism; see my later post here elaborating on what I mean by neo-Wahhabism and neo-Sufism).

I thought that this was only a Houston phenomenon, with which I had been familiar for a while. However, the mosque at which I have been praying most Fridays has had a number of preachers from Illinois, Michigan, and elsewhere who fit the exact same profile. This is too systematic to be a coincidence: It was clearly a methodical recruitment campaign, and it has succeeded in infecting our American-Muslim communities with neo-Wahhabism.

I must point out that those preachers (mostly in their 20s and 30s) clearly don't understand this. Indeed, except for the few forced Arabic terms that they have clearly memorized (with improper grammar and translation that betrays the superficiality of their education), they mostly pepper their sermons with American slang and profess their American patriotism. The sugar coating of superficial Sufism seals the deal for their parents' generation and other uncritical listeners.

Let me give one example to illustrate: Almost all of those neo-American-Wahhabi preachers are obsessed with male and female youth interacting electronically. During Ramadan, the advice was to delete all contacts of their Muslim friends of the opposite sex... "Don't even text her to remind her to pray," the preachers warned: "This is just Satan fooling you to make you commit a sin even as you think that you are pursuing virtue."

For those who are not aware, this is not even an American adaptation of Saudi Wahhabi teaching. For the past decade or more, Saudis have been greatly distraught that their sexual segregation was circumvented by electronic means (many years ago, they tried banning Blackberry Messenger, but they couldn't stop bluetooth scanning for nearby friends, ...). So, even this seemingly very contemporary and American preaching is imported lock stock and barrel through their "Madinah University" pseudo-education.

I have yet to hear a single hint of humanities and social sciences inspired insights from this generation of neo-Wahhabis. To belabor the specific example of sex segregation, I have to say that this cannot be more worrisome. I am not saying that a contemporary and authentic teaching to American Muslims that will meet them on their own terms will advocate sexual promiscuity, but surely these teachings have been proven sources of social disease.

Pew recently shared data that American Muslims are getting more liberal, but our mosques seem to be dangerously trying to stem this healthy tide. Instead of riding and redirecting the natural tide of Muslim integration in American life, with soul-searching similar to that experienced, say, by the Conservative Jewish community a century ago, they are importing the very plague that has caused the backwardness and failure of their countries of origin.

What a shame.