Re: Meme-set conflicts [was Re: some U.S. observations and notes]

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Sat Dec 15 2001 - 15:51:15 MST

On Sat, Dec 15, 2001 at 08:50:28AM -0800, Robert J. Bradbury wrote:
> Spike, I tend to agree with Samantha here. I don't believe
> that the Islamic faith calls for the killing of infidels.
> However, making a point against Samantha, I did see a PBS
> special on the history of Islam that *did* suggest that in
> Islamic regions it was perfectly accepted to impose a special
> "tax" on non-Islamic individuals.

Yes. Apparently this was very effective too, given the near-total
conversion of the regions where it was used. It seem to not have been
used in other regions and times such as the Ottoman Empire, and this
might be part of the explanation (together with physical isolation) why
so many ethnic and religious groups remained unassimilated.

If we leave out the obvious coercive nature of taxation and the issue of
whether a government should actively or passively promote ideological
memesets (of course they shouldn't, IMHO), it seems that this taxation
approach is a fairly benign form of memetic engineering compared to
coercive attempts to force changes in behavior. It imposes a cost on
certain actions, but does not prevent them. I still find it unacceptable
that other people impose arbitrary costs on our actions (they can impose
arbitrary *rewards* all right, though - a reward can always be ignored,
but not a cost), but for its time it was amazingly enlightened - compare
that to the Christian approach of "convert or die".

(both approaches were combined in the Swedish kings' conversion/conquest
of Finland and the Baltics - "convert and pay taxes or die and pay

> I'll comment by simply asking the question of:
> "Why is the Islamic faith now followed by ~1 billion people?"
> Certainly a majority of them were taught by their parents -- but
> the fundamental question becomes *what* fraction of original
> converts, from Jewish/Christian/Pagan religions, were "voluntary"?
> While, I do not place Islam in the box that Spike does (Kill the infidels),
> I cannot ignore the fact that it seems *highly* likely that many conversions
> to Islam were the result of coercion. This is particularly true if the
> "tax the 'infidels'" policy is accurate.
> Again, going back to the PBS special, it is clear that the rise
> of the Ottoman Empire was based on "warrior princes" where ones
> worth had to be proved by conquest. Cannons were invented by
> Islamic warriors to conquer Constantinople. See:
> The Islamic "expansion" was halted in Spain and Bulgaria.
> Samantha, while "protecting" Islam, has to acknowledge that
> it is questionable how non-violent its initial expansion once
> was. Policies of "warrior princes" that use religions to
> "dehumanize" infidel opponents are certainly of value.
> A lack of "rejecting" such policies by religious leaders
> is essentialy abandoning the religion into the service of aims
> that require violent means to an end.

This is where history is important - we are talking about a nearly
thousand year period across three continents. The culture and religion
of Arabia in 700, Tunisia in 900, the Kaliphate, Spain during the
Reconquista, the Ottoman Empire and the region of today have changed a
*lot*. The taxation approach, I think was mainly used in northern africa
and the Kaliphate during the early era, when Islam was very much the
liberal religion. A lot of the conversions in Egypt seems to have been
due to widespread dislike of the previous Byzantine overlords.

I think it is important to remember that at this time, the concept of a
*faith based* as opposed to a *custom based* religion was only starting
to take hold. Most people were handling religion like it is handled
today in Japan (and most of the US :-), as a matter of what ceremonies,
customs and temples to attend to, rather than a deep personal statement
of faith in a certain vision of the universe. So the conquest was to a
large extent military, the religious change was relatively secondary to
many people's lives.

The tolerant Islam of the Kaliphate eventually got rather rigid, but a
partial reason for this seems to have been the Crusades, starting at
1096. Here is a *nasty* analogy with the current situation: apparently,
much of the initial tolerance waned just because of the attacks, when
the rulers of the islamic world rallied to repulse the invaders and
dissent became unacceptable.

> While the Christian "meme set" has a seductive hook (everlasting
> salvation) I am unsure as to what ideas in the Islamic faith have
> a "trumping" meme. If there are no trumping memes one can only
> conclude that Islam has been spread primarily by violence and/or
> coercion.

It has the same hooks, remember that it is partially based on the same
holy texts. If Judaism is MsDos, Christianity is Windows 3.1 and Islam
Windows 95 - older parts are subsumed inside the new system and given
new meanings. (I *know* somebody is going to get angry at that analogy
:-) Islam promises eternal life in paradise for the faithful, the relief
of prayer, possibly miracles, a sense of meaning and community, a system
of laws and customs to regulate society. I think the real trumping meme
is that it is based on a somewhat static worldview; Christianity has the
idea that the End Times is coming Real Soon Now, and that causes a lot
of millennialist angst and trouble. Islam takes a more timeless
approach, and while the End will happen eventually it is not imminent so
you can get along with your life. The timelessness is also appealing to
many people - hard for *us* neophiles to relate to, but true.

And there is the ISO 9001 side: Islamic expansion set up a natural
system of trade and pilgrimage routes, defined standards of business
(there is even a part in the Quran saying you shouldn't take too much
time from business to pray!) and helped develop social networks
conductive of trade and trust. Just the thing to get a lot of people
very converted.

Sure, forcible conversions occured, but I have a definite impression
from my history studies that they were a minor part in what happened.
Why spend energy on bothering the citizens when you can convert/replace
the ruler? After they change their minds the rest will follow over time.

> The problem is being non-violent, pacifistic, etc. is *not*
> a surviving meme. In a world where some fraction of individuals
> will exploit the terrain, they will extract the resources from
> individuals who allow them to do so, eliminating such individuals.

I think we can learn a lot from the Prisoner's Dilemma here (the game
may be different, but the general truth remains): always cooperating
(pacificm) works well in a cooperating (tolerant) environment, but is
vulnerable to defector strategies (fundamentalists and predators). A
reciprocal strategy that rewards cooperation and punishes defection can
promote cooperation even in a very defector-dominated environment. This
would correspond to a non initiation of force strategy: be nice until
somebody is not nice back, then make sure that trick will cost them.

In societies such strategies can be implemented by labor division, where
we place the retaliatory part of the strategy in the hands of selected
or hired members (police, military) and ourselves largely follow a pure
cooperation strategy. This is really what a civil society is about.

The problem today is selecting just the right amount of retaliation and
who to direct it at. I wonder if a distributed market solution to that
problem could be applied? Not just idea futures, but violence futures?

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y

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