Monday, August 14, 2017

Fascinating new Pew poll on US Muslims: From religiosity to acceptance of homosexuality

by Salman Hameed

A new Pew poll on US Muslims came out earlier this month and I think it is absolutely fascinating. There is much focus on the way Muslims see themselves in the society and those results by themselves are interesting. For example, close of half of US Muslims report personally experiencing a case of religious discrimination in the past year. However, about half also report that they received expressions of support for being a Muslim. Both of these numbers are significantly up from 2007.

But couple of things that caught my attention. First of all, the opinions on religiosity are fascinating. About 60% of US Muslims identify themselves as "religious". The remaining are split evenly between "spiritual but not religious" (19%) and "neither spiritual nor religious" (21%). Now this last category reminds me a bit of the growing category of "Nones" - people who do not identify with any religious tradition (about 23% of US population). Now of course, here they are identifying themselves as Muslims (and 15% in this category consider religion "very important") and will be interesting to get an insight into this population.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, more than half of US Muslims say that traditional understandings of Islam need new interpretation. Of course, there are a lot of ambiguities in the question - nevertheless, the emphasis is on new interpretations:

Now the respondents were also asked what they think is "essential" for being a Muslim. Not surprisingly, 85% considered Belief in God as being essential - though 15% did not and may be the ones who are "neither religious nor spiritual". Love of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is next. But then it is followed by "Working for justice and equality in society" (69%) and then "working to protect the environment" (62%) before we get to "Following the Quran and Sunnah". Just by comparison, only 22% US Christians thought that working to protect the environment is essential to their Christian identity. So instead of "creeping Shariah", the worry should be creeping environmentalism? 



One of the surprising results from the Pew poll is the rising acceptance of homosexuality amongst US Muslims. This is an issue that was used politically after the Orlando nightclub shooting and Trump presented himself as a defender of LGBTQ rights against Muslims. Of course, we now know where he (and many of the Republicans) really stand on these issues. Nevertheless, over half of US Muslims say that homosexuality should be accepted by society and this number has almost doubled since 2007: 


Considering that 66% of US Muslims identify themselves as Democrats and that they are also likely to be more educated than the US general population, it is perhaps not surprising that the acceptance of homosexuality is high. However, the rate of change is striking and - again - this is something worth exploring. 

And while we are at it, the US Muslims are more against the killing of civilians than the general US public. Now some of this may be an overcorrection for Muslims (i.e. they may feel themselves a bit defensive on this particular question), but still 76% say that the targeting and killing of civilians can never be justified:

These were more or less positive aspects of the poll. On the negative side, half of the US public thinks that Islam is not part of mainstream society, with white Evangelicals expressing the most doubts on the place of Islam in the US society:


There is a lot more to explore in the survey. You can read get the full pdf here

Monday, August 07, 2017

Arrests in protest against Solar Telescope in Maui

by Salman Hameed

You are probably familiar with protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea. These protests halted the construction of the telescopes and initiated a review of the permit process. Just last week, a judge recommended the construction of the telescope - though the legal challenges are far from over. Nearby, on Maui, there is another telescope being built. The Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) will be world's largest solar telescope and it is located on top of Haleakala - the peak of Maui. The construction on this telescope began in 2012 and First Light is expected in 2019. It also faced protests and legal challenges, but nowhere close to the level Mauna Kea. However, this past week, six people were arrested in protests as they tried to block the equipment convoy to the telescope:
An early-morning attempt by protestors to block the delivery of telescope equipment to Haleakalā resulted in six arrests, including one man who was hospitalized.  
The protest was organized by a group called Kākoʻo Haleakalā, which stands in opposition to the further desecration of sacred space.  

Last week's issue of Science also has a good summary of the controversy regarding DKIST. In fact, one of the central questions is why DKIST has been successful compared to TMT on Mauna Kea. While the article came out before the latest protests, DKIST is far along in its construction and I doubt that the project will even be delayed let alone be stopped altogether. Here is the key bit from the article that talks about the difference contexts of DKIST/Haleakala and TMT/Mauna Kea:
The DKIST’s ability to investigate the solar eruptions that can endanger electric grids and communications may be one reason why it received more public support than the TMT, which is solely a research tool, Hasinger says. But he believes a more important difference between the two projects is simply their scales. At 18 stories, the TMT would be not only the largest telescope on Mauna Kea, it would be the largest humanmade structure on Hawaii Island. The TMT’s footprint—2 hectares including its roads and parking lot—is 10 times the size of the plot used for the DKIST. “It’s just a huge structure,” Hasinger says. “In relative size you could say it’s similar [to the DKIST], but in absolute size it’s much bigger.” Moreover, Mauna Kea is not only higher than Haleakalā, it’s the highest peak in the Pacific—and, consequently, it offers Native Hawaiians a higher-profile platform to air their grievances. 
Mauna Kea also poses a bigger management challenge for the University of Hawaii. The science reserve on the Mauna Kea summit spans nearly 5000 hectares—an area more than 650 times larger than Maui’s compact Science City. “If someone is not happy with the management of Mauna Kea, it falls directly on the university,” Hasinger says. “On Haleakalā we only have the small area of Science City. The rest is managed by the national park.” And although the university owns Science City, its preserve on Mauna Kea is a lease, which means it is subject to state audits. In 1998 and 2005, the auditor released critical reports about IfA’s stewardship of Mauna Kea, providing ammunition to groups opposed to mountain telescopes. (A follow-up audit in 2014 reported improvements in IfA’s management of environmental and cultural resources.) 
The organizations behind the two projects are very different, astronomers note. The DKIST is a national project, funded by the National Science Foundation and owned by NSO. Using federal funds meant that NSO had to follow strict accounting procedures, perform a federal environmental impact assessment, and satisfy U.S. historic preservation rules. By contrast, the TMT, a private consortium supported by institutions in five countries, received no federal funds for construction. That meant it didn’t have to deal with those same regulations. “The opponents were able to sell it as this foreign company coming in and basically using our mountain for their purpose, whereas [the DKIST] at least is a national interest,” Hasinger says.

But often times it comes down to understanding the grievances and acting accordingly:


The DKIST team. 
The groundbreaking ceremonies for the two projects reflected the stark differences in their characters—and also exposed their different vulnerabilities. Kuhn remembers going as a guest to the TMT ceremony in October 2014. He stayed at a fancy Hawaii Island resort, surrounded by scientists and media from around the world, as big-screen TVs ran a live feed of the TMT’s construction site on Mauna Kea. But the celebratory atmosphere faded when Native Hawaiian protesters blocked a convoy of dignitaries heading up the mountain for a blessing and groundbreaking. As protesters shouted and chanted, organizers eventually turned off the live feed. “It was a disaster,” Kuhn says. “I understand why they wanted a great big party—it was a way of saying, ‘Yes, we’re moving forward, partners, come and join us, and bring your checkbooks.’ But I think it had the opposite effect, which was to put up a lightning rod that attracted lightning.” The event “marked real doubt” about the project’s future, he recalls. 
TMT Executive Director Ed Stone, who is also a professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, concedes the event didn’t go as planned. “Certainly whatever groundbreaking there was could have been done better than what happened,” he says. 
In contrast, the groundbreaking ceremony for the DKIST, in November 2012, was kept “very private,” with only a handful of people closely involved with the project, Kuhn says. “I think there was an honest sensitivity to those people who felt strongly that it shouldn’t be there,” he says.
Furthermore, the access to Science City on Haleakala is much more controlled than the Science Reserve on Mauna Kea, and there is the presence of the military as well. All of this makes protests and blocking of roads much more difficult. Nevertheless, for a while the protestors were successful, before the equipment got to the telescope.

Lets see what happens next. But I think there will be a lot more activity about TMT on island next door.

World Science Forum in Jordan this year

by Salman Hameed

Jordan has been making some waves in the science world. I think the Jordan-based multi-country collaborative effort of the synchrotron particle accelerator (SESAME) is outstanding and may end up being quite fruitful to all the countries involved. The country is also hosting the World Science Forum this year. These kinds of events are rarely that productive, as the focus is usually on the parading guests. Nevertheless, this week's Nature has an article on Jordan with relation to WSF:
When the World Science Forum kicks off on the shore of the Dead Sea in November, it will be the latest jewel in the crown for one of Jordan’s biggest champions of science. Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan successfully lured the high-profile biennial conference to the Middle East for the first time — part of Jordan’s ongoing push to transform itself into a regional research powerhouse. The country hopes to emphasize the power of science to transcend politics and war in the increasingly volatile Middle East.  
It’s a tall order, but there are signs that these efforts are beginning to pay off for Jordan, which created its first national science fund in 2005. In February, the country cemented plans for a reticular-chemistry foundry, the world’s first. And in May, the Middle East’s first synchrotron, SESAME, opened near Amman with the backing of seven nations and the Palestinian Authority.  
Jordan’s leaders see science, engineering and technology as an engine of economic growth for their 71-year-old country, which lacks the oil resources of many neighbouring states. The nation’s political stability and central location have aided these ambitions. So has its diplomacy: Jordan is one of the only places in the Middle East where scientists from Israel and Arab countries can meet. “We are all in the region facing issues with energy, water and the environment,” El Hassan says. “A bird with avian flu does not know whether there is a peace accord between Israel and Jordan, it just flies across the border.”
Now of course, one of the immediate issue that comes to mind is that of the monarchy (and yes, there are good and bad monarchies - nevertheless, the issue of appointing family members may still be problematic for genuine development. See also Trump!). However, I was struck by this very sensible way of boosting research funds by the Jordanian government:
To help build research capacity, the government set up the Jordanian Scientific Research Support Fund in 2005. The fund was initially supported by a law that required all companies in Jordan to pay 1% of their profits into the fund. By 2012, when that statute was overturned, the fund had acquired US$85 million. It is now kept afloat by Jordan’s universities, which must spend 3% of their annual budgets on research or contributions to the fund. Between 2008 and 2016, the foundation gave a total of $35 million to 325 projects, mainly in the medical, pharmaceutical and agricultural sciences. 

The goal of hosting the World Science Forum is to bring attention to science in Jordan. Hope that spurs further development. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Another twist in the case of telescopes on top of Mauna Kea

by Salman Hameed

I have followed the controversy over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on top of Mauna Kea. In December 2015, the Hawaiian Supreme Court rescinded the construction permit for the telescope citing that the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) that authorized the permit had not followed full procedure. This, of course, was after massive protests on the mountain in mid-2015, that blocked vehicles from going to the construction site.

However, 44 days of testimony, a judge has now recommended the construction of TMT on Mauna Kea:
A year and a half after the Hawaiian Supreme Court revoked the telescope’s building permit, saying that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources had cut corners in the application process, a judge recommended on Wednesday that the board issue a new permit. 
The telescope’s opponents, a coalition of native Hawaiians and environmentalists, say that the proliferation of observatories on Mauna Kea has despoiled a sacred mountain and interfered with native Hawaiian cultural practices that are protected by state law.
The judge’s recommendation included the condition that the telescope’s workers and astronomers undergo “mandatory cultural and natural resources training.” 
The telescope’s backers, a consortium that includes the University of California, California Institute of Technology, India, China and Canada, called the decision an important milestone, but cautioned that it was only one in a series of bureaucratic and political hurdles to overcome.
You can read the full 305 page document here.

That said, this is the beginning of a new phase of challenges. It is quite likely that BLNR will accept the recommendation. However, the judgement is then probably going to get challenged again in the Hawaiian Supreme Court. On the flip side, the TMT consortium had earlier indicated that they were thinking of moving the TMT to the Spanish Canary Islands. That is still their backup location. I really have no idea how things will end up on Mauna Kea. I was really surprised at the intensity of the protests in 2015 and that those protests were successful in pushing back against the consortium.

While I understand the importance of Mauna Kea to astronomy, I do think that it would be better to have TMT on the Canary Islands. It is not about the telescopes, but the long history of Hawaii-US relations. This is a compromise, I hope astronomers are willing to make. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Fascinating New Book on "The Islamic Enlightenment"


There are a number of new interesting books on Muslims and Muslim societies out there. One of them is Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason - 1798 to Modern Times by journalist and author Christopher de Bellaigue. It starts with the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 and traces the shock of the ease with which Napoleon's forces won the battles against Ottoman/Egyptian forces. Of course, this is one of the major events that triggered the discussion of the disparity of science and technology between invading European forces and the Ottoman or Persian or Indian militaries. I am finishing up the book and will have some thoughts on it later (I like the book and the stories he focuses on, but I also find the tone occasionally problematic and a bit Orientalist), but here is a review of the book in last week's New York Times:
De Bellaigue, a journalist and author, focuses on three Islamic cities in the first half of the book — Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran. In each, the rulers attempted to adopt elements of Western modernity. Egypt’s nominal suzerains, the Ottoman sultans, had in fact begun reforms before the period covered by this book, but progress was slower in a sprawling multifaith empire in which there were many more interest groups to reconcile than in Egypt alone. In Istanbul, the sultan succeeded in using French military advisers to reform the army and destroy the reactionary Janissaries. The introduction in 1836 of quarantine and other preventive measures against plague, which had hitherto been treated with fatalism, changed people’s life expectancy, and saw plague eradicated by the 1850s. 
“The Islamic Enlightenment” introduces us to a fascinating gallery of individuals who would grapple with reform and modernization in theory and practice over the next two centuries. Efficient guns, training in modern drill, factories, machines and bank loans were tools for the entry of Muslim states into the modern world, but they were not value-free. Rising levels of literacy, with the introduction of printing, allowed a press to flourish, in the European mold — but rulers in Istanbul found the means to control them could also be imported. The first censorship law was based on similar edicts issued by Napoleon III.
The book does a good job of highlighting these tensions and complexities that would naturally arise from these interactions:
The growing complexity and interdependence of society and economies changed the way government was viewed, and the development of a literate bourgeoisie created people who thought about such things, focusing attention on the need for constitutions. That they often fared badly was hardly a surprise — by the time the Ottoman sultan agreed to grant a constitution in 1876, France had already run through 12 of its own. 
Reactions were further complicated by the persistent pressure of the West on the resources of the Islamic world. Autocrats saddled their countries with profligate loans. The shah of Iran actually sold the resources of his country to Baron Reuter in 1872, an act of such egregious self-interest that it was undone by popular demand and international outcry, while the Ottomans were humiliated by the imposition of a foreign-staffed debt administration and the British occupied Egypt, effectively on behalf of European bondholders, in 1882. There were plenty of people in the Islamic East who could read Darwin and conclude, like the Egyptian feminist Qasim Amin, that natural selection impelled Europeans “powered by steam and electricity, to seize the wealth of any country weaker than them.” And while many others felt that their values — Islamic values — were threatened by the soullessness of the machine age, a multifaceted and slippery Sunni cleric, Jamal al-Din Afghani, was able to articulate some Muslim responses to modernity in ways that were distinctly modern, involving wreaths of cigar smoke, opera seats, international travel and a bulletin for the doctrine of Pan-Islamism called Firmest Bond, which was sent out, like an email newsletter, free of charge to every influential ruler or opinion maker in the Middle East. Islam, Jamal said, required its Luther. 
One candidate for the role might have been the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh, who proposed a return to attitudes from the time of the salaf, the ancestors — not, as the term is used today to describe salafism, a fundamentalist religious outlook that denies the importance of reason, but as a creative moment in which, in Abduh’s view, any educated Muslim with the Quran could think out his position for himself. Abduh, like Attar a century before, was swept aside by a concert of vilification.
The book does not focus on India at all. Otherwise, I think that would have made an interesting case of these debates directly in a British colony. Nevertheless, this is fascinating book with lots of good information. You can read the full NYT review here

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Two new books of possible interest

by Salman Hameed

There are some really good new books out. I want to highlight a couple of interviews with the authors as part of the fantastic New Books Network. The first one is important because it traces the origins of the way we use the term "Muslim World". Today, this notion that a dominant motif for Muslims today is this religious identity. But this was construction of the 19th century and then saw its revival again in the mid-20th century. Here is a description of this new book, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History, by Cemil Aydin:
Almost daily in popular media the Muslim World is pinpointed as a homogeneous entity that stands separate and parallel to the similarly imagined West. But even scratching the surface of the idea of a Muslim World reveals the geographic, social, linguistic, and religious diversity of Muslims throughout the world. So what work is performed through
the employment and use of this phrase? And in what context did the idea of the Muslim World emerge? 
Cemil Aydin, Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tackles these questions in his wonderful new book The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Harvard University Press, 2017). It in he weaves distant and interconnecting social, intellectual, and political histories of modern Muslims societies with clarity and detail. Altogether, he reveals the complex story of how the concept is constructed as a device intended to point to a geopolitical, religious, and civilizational unity among Muslims. The term is defined and employed by Muslim and non-Muslim actors alike across imperial and national contexts over the past nearly 150 years. In our conversation we discussed the justifications for imperial conflicts, the effects of Christian nationalistic liberation and the colonization of Muslims, orientalism, social Darwinism, the racialization of Muslims, the global role of the Ottomans, European and Russian imperialism, Muslim modernists thinkers, the effects of the World Wars, and the changing political landscape of the late 20th century.
You can listen to the interview here and Kristian Peterson did an excellent job with probing questions on the topic. This book is in my queue to read next but you should remember to buy books via New Books link, as it helps the Network.

Two other author interviews I want to quickly highlight. Here is Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the 'Ground Zero Mosque' Controversy by Rosemary Corbett:
Among the most powerful and equally insidious aspects of the new global politics of religion is the discourse of religious moderation that seeks to produce moderate religious subjects at ease with the aims and fantasies of liberal secular politics. For Muslim communities in the US and beyond, few expectations and pressures have carried more
weight and urgency than that to pass the test of moderation. In her brilliant new book, Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the Ground Zero Mosque Controversy (Stanford University Press, 2016), Rosemary Corbett, Visiting Professor at the Bard Prison Initiative, interrogates the tensions and ambiguities surrounding the moderate Muslim discourse. Far from an exclusively post 9/11 phenomenon, she presents the long running historical and political forces that have shaped the demand for moderation, especially in the equation of Sufism with moderate Islam. The strength of this book lies in the way it combines a deep knowledge of American religious history with the historical narrative and contemporary dynamics of American Islam. Written with breathtaking clarity, this book will spark important conversations in multiple fields including the study of Islam, American Religion, and secularism studies.

You can listen to the interview here.

More book recommendations coming soon. 

Monday, May 08, 2017

Excellent NYT article on SESAME particle accelerator in Jordan

by Salman Hameed

At a time when we are bombarded by various kinds of terrible news, the story of Sesame particle accelerator becomes all the more amazing (see earlier posts here, here and here). Just to remind you, SESAME stands for the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications, and it is located in Jordan. The accelerator is modest in terms of current particle accelerators around the world. However, what makes it amazing is that it is a collaboration between Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Bahrain. Even getting visas across these reasons is impossible, let alone a scientific collaboration of this magnitude. The accelerator saw the first beam circulation this past January, and its Sesame institute will formally open on May 16th.

The idea of this accelerator was first proposed by Prof Abdus Salam. It is incredible how influential he has been for the development of sciences in developing countries. Sesame has been built under the auspices of UNESCO, and some of the main components were donated by Germany. However, I did not know that CERN, which operates the Large Hadron Collider, was also inspired by the idea that scientific collaborations can transcend conflicts. In the case of CERN, it was in the aftermath of World War II. Here is a bit from an excellent article by Dennis Overbye in today's NYT:
Sesame is following a path blazed by CERN, which was birthed by Unesco with the aims of reviving European science after World War II and fostering a spirit of cooperation on the Continent. 
The only difference today, Dr. Llewellyn Smith noted, is that in Europe hostilities had already ended, while in the Middle East they are still very much alive. 
Dr. Rabinovici traced the origins of Sesame to the 1993 Oslo Accords, when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands in front of President Bill Clinton. 
At the time he was working at CERN. A short while later, he recalled, an Italian colleague, Sergio Fubini, walked into his office and told him it was time to put his “naïve idealism” to the test. 
Science is a natural way to build bridges between cultures and nations, Dr. Rabinovici said, because of its common language. 
He and Dr. Fubini went on to create a self-appointed Middle Eastern Science Committee, which in turn led to a meeting in November 1995 in a big red tent at Dahab, Egypt, in the Sinai Desert near the Red Sea, attended by scientists from around the Middle East and beyond. They escaped uninjured from a 6.9-magnitude earthquake. “We saw Mount Sinai shake,” Dr. Rabinovici said. 
In another telling moment, the Egyptian minister of scientific research Venice Gouda, asked everyone to stand for a moment of silence in honor of Mr. Rabin, who had been assassinated just two weeks before. 
“The silence echoes in my ears still today,” Dr. Rabinovici said.
The group got a mission when German scientists offered it an old accelerator known as Bessy, that had served as a light source in Berlin and was being replaced after the country was reunified. 
Read the full article here.

No - this is will not solve world's problems (even though Trump thinks it is easy to achieve peace in the Middle East). But at least it can show that scientific collaborations can sometimes transcend political and national hostilities. Perhaps there will be more attempts like this. In other news, Pakistan said "no, thanks" to India's offer to use its satellite. May be some other time (or in some other universe). 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Talk on "Muslims, Science, and the Travel Ban" at Dartmouth

by Salman Hameed

If you happen to be near Hanover, New Hampshire, I am giving a talk today on the topic of Muslims, science, and President Trump's travel ban. The last couple of months have made all three aspects of the talk quite relevant. Here are details of the talk and join us if you can:

Muslims, Science and the Travel Ban

What will be the immediate and long-term impacts of President Trump's travel ban from 6 Muslim-majority countries on science, education, and broader international relations?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017
4:30pm-5:30pm
Haldeman 41 (Kreindler Conference Hall)
Sponsored by: Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement
Intended Audience(s): Public
Categories: Lectures & Seminars
What will be the immediate and long-term impacts of President Trump's travel ban from 6 Muslim-majority countries on science, education, and broader international relations? Dr. Hameed, an astronomer and director of the Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) at Hampshire College (MA), will address some of these topics, followed by Q&A.

Presented by the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement in conjunction with the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures, Department of Religion, Sierra Club Upper Valley Group, Upper Valley Refugee Working Group, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Our Savior Lutheran Church and Campus Ministry.

For more information, contact:
Amy Flockton

amy.flockton@dartmouth.edu

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction and other related news

by Salman Hameed


There are couple of good signs about recognizing Professor Abdus Salam in Pakistan. If you are a science fiction writer, then you have an opportunity to compete for the Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction. It is the brainchild of Tehseen Baweja and Usman Malik, and you have to submit your entry by July 31, 2017. Here are the rules:
  1. Original content, must be written by you
  2. Never published before
  3. Not more than 10,000 words
  4. PDF or Word Document
  5. Submitted on or before July 31st, 2017
  6. Participants must either be currently residing in Pakistan, or be of Pakistani birth/descent
  7. Entries must be in English
  8. One story per entrant
  9. Please don’t place your name, address, or other identifiers within the body of the story. Please place those in the submission email with the story attached as .pdf or .doc
  10. Please don’t quote another author or poet whose work is not in the public domain unless you have explicit permission from said author or poet.
If your story gets recognized by the judges, you will get: 
  1. A cash prize of Rs 50,000
  2. Review by an established literary agent for market guidance and possible representation
  3. An editorial review by a professional editor for critique and potential publication in a multi-award winning science fiction magazine
There are two other significant Salam related developments. In December, the government decided to rename the National Centre for Physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad after the Noble Laureate. Underscoring their consistently regressive agenda, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) predictably opposed this move. 

Second, this summer, we hope to the release of a documentary about Professor Abdus Salam. I have covered its production several times here on Irtiqa. The films looks awesome. It is a such a delight to see this result of pure ambition and passion of its producers, Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal. And of course, all the others supporting the project. 
More on the film as time comes closer to its release. In the mean time, here is the latest trailer:

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Science Organizations and Universities speak up against Trump's travel ban

by Salman Hameed


First of all, there is a March for Science on Earth Day, April 22nd. Apart from Washington D.C., there will be satellite marches as well. Here is the blurb for the March:
We are scientists and science enthusiasts. We come from all races, all religions, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all political perspectives, and all nationalities. Our diversity is our greatest strength: a wealth of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is critical for the scientific process. What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone. 
Science is often an arduous process, but it is also thrilling. A universal human curiosity and dogged persistence is the greatest hope for the future. This movement cannot and will not end with a march. Our plans for policy change and community outreach will start with marches worldwide and a teach-in at the National Mall, but it is imperative that we continue to celebrate and defend science at all levels - from local schools to federal agencies - throughout the world.
In another move, 151 science organizations and universities have denounced Trump's Muslim ban from seven countries. The list includes pretty much any science related organization you know of, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and International Council for Science (ICSU) that represents 142 countries (they also have a separate statement, and you can read it here). Here is the letter against the ban:


While these are utterly depressing times (see the conformation of Attorney General and Education Secretary for some of the low points in the last two days), it is great to see science organizations standing up both for immigrants and for science itself. And it makes sense. The US has become a scientific powerhouse by attracting the best minds from all over the world. The visa restrictions has started to get crazy even under the Obama administration. But now with this ban, it will take years to reverse the damage. Apart from impacting individuals and their families, this action will also have an impact on science conferences as well as the ability to do broader scientific collaboration work.

One of the organizations impacted more directly impacted by it is the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). Its meetings always happen here in US (it is an American association). However, this year there had been calls to move the next MESA meeting outside of US. They have decided against it, but have issued the following statement:
MESA strongly condemns the Executive Order limiting the entry of Middle Eastern refugees and immigrants to the U.S. and urges the President and Congress to lift the ban. The ban impedes the mission of the Middle East Studies Association, which is to bring together scholars, educators, and those interested in the study of the region from all over the world. Further, the ban disproportionately discriminates against individuals from the Middle East, many of whom are members of our community. With other universities and academic associations, we call on the President and Congress to lift this Executive Order
The next four years are going to be long.

Monday, February 06, 2017

A Middle East Particle Accelerator Success Story Amidst the Doom and Gloom

by Salman Hameed


In a topsy-turvy world, an unlikely scientific collaboration in the Middle East provides a ray beam of hope. This is the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science in the Middle East or SESAME saw the first beam circulate around it just this past January. This accelerator, located in Jordan, was first proposed by Prof. Abdus Salam and established under the auspices of UNESCO. The most amazing part of SESAME is not the instrument itself, but the collaboration behind it: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. This is the Who's Who of who doesn't like each other. And yet, scientists and engineers from these countries have managed to work together to get this project to completion. As the Economist puts it:
 Proposals to build this device, the world’s most politically fraught particle accelerator, date back nearly 20 years. The delay is understandable. Israel, Iran and the Palestinian Authority, three of the project’s nine members, are better known for conflict than collaboration. Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus, but both have worked together on the accelerator. As well as Jordan, the other members are Bahrain, Egypt and Pakistan. Nonetheless, Sesame, a type of machine called an electron synchrotron, is about to open for business.
And on January 17th, it had its first beam:
“This is a great day for SESAME,” said Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn-Smith, President of the SESAME Council. “It’s a tribute to the skill and devotion of the scientists and decision-makers from the region who have worked tirelessly to make scientific collaboration between countries in the Middle East and neighbouring regions a reality.”
The first circulating beam is an important step on the way to first light, which marks the start of the research programme at any new synchrotron light-source facility, but there is much to be done before experiments can get underway. Beams have to be accelerated to SESAME’s operating energy of 2.5 GeV. Then the light emitted as the beams circulate has to be channelled along SESAME’s two day-one beam lines and optimised for the experiments that will take place there. This process is likely to take around six months, leading to first experiments in the summer of 2017. 
Yes, yes. Things can change for the better. This is another version of Scientists' March for a Better Future.

You can learn more about the project from the SESAME website.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Back to the blog world...in the Trump era of Muslim travel bans

by Salman Hameed

Hello folks. For various reasons (not the least of it - the depressing political climate here in the US), I had taken a break from posting on Irtiqa. The landscape of blogs have also changed substantially in the past couple of years. One of my initial goals here was to highlight and comment on stories related to science in Muslim societies, and those science and religion stories that I think would be of interest to the readers here. But now it has become much more easier just to share it on Facebook or other sites like that. However, I think there is still a difference between passive sharing versus commenting on the specifics in the article, even if it is the highlighting of only a couple of paragraphs. Plus, in the Trump era, we need to get as many voices out there as possible - no matter how insignificant (I learnt that from reading Horton Hears a Who! to my 3-year old. Come to think of it, most of my life lessons  come from Dr. Seuss).

It takes a while to get back into the rhythm of things and hope that the posts will become regular again. In the mean time, here is the journal Science about the impact of last week's travel ban in scientists from Iran and other countries:

Ehssan Nazockdast was planning to attend his sister’s wedding in Tehran in March. One hitch: The specialist on fluid dynamics at New York University in New York City is an Iranian citizen. That leaves him vulnerable under an executive order, signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday, that calls for the rigorous vetting of applicants for U.S. visas from Iran and six other predominantly Muslim nations, and bars the entry of any citizen from those nations for 90 days while procedures for that vetting are put in place. Nazockdast has lived in the United States for nearly a decade, has a green card, and has two young daughters with a wife who is a U.S. citizen. But now that Nazockdast is branded with a scarlet letter, he dare not leave. “I’m living in a big prison called the United States of America,” he says.
Furthermore, it is not just the travel of immigrants in the US. It also isolates them. Their family members cannot travel to them either. This will have a tremendous long-term impact.
Scientists of all nationalities and religious persuasions are up in arms. An open letter signed by more than 7000 academics and counting, including 43 Nobel laureates warns that Trump’s order “significantly damages American leadership in higher education and research” and calls it “inhumane, ineffective, and un-American.” “We recognize the importance of a strong visa process to our nation’s security,” Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C., said in a statement yesterday. But the order, she says, “is already causing damage and should end as quickly as possible.”
...
Perhaps more Iranian academics will be hit by the order than any other nationality. The open letter notes that approximately 1500 students from Iran have received Ph.D.s from U.S. universities in the past 3 years. Hananeh Esmailbeigi, an Iranian-born biomedical engineer at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC), says that many UIC faculty and department heads are Iranian. “I joke that you would be OK knowing only Farsi on campus,” she says. 
Now, Esmailbeigi’s mood is bleak. The green card holder says she teaches 300 students a year about how to design medical devices. “Now, I’m flagged as being a threat to the country. It just doesn’t make sense.” Iran’s foreign ministry yesterday labeled the executive order “a great gift to extremists” and vowed to take reciprocal measures that may include suspending issuance of visas to U.S. citizens. 
Scientists from the other six countries are suffering too. Wael Al-Delaimy, an Iraqi-born physician and chronic disease epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), travels six times a year to U.S.- or UCSD-funded projects in Ecuador, Mozambique, Jordan, and India that address topics such as indoor air pollution and refugee mental health. A green card holder, Al-Delaimy says he is now afraid to leave the United States, which will hobble his work. He takes no solace from the fact that the executive order’s ban on Iraqis entering the United States is limited to 90 days. “I am fearful that this is just going to be extended and extended. That this is just a litmus test to see the reaction, and once people are complacent they go ahead and [a permanent ban] becomes OK.”
Folks. Things are going to get far worse before they get better. The ban is expected to be expanded to other countries. Here is a New York Times article from yesterday talking about the centrality of anti-Islam views in the Trump White House policy:
Mr. Trump was echoing a strain of anti-Islamic theorizing familiar to anyone who has been immersed in security and counterterrorism debates over the last 20 years. He has embraced a deeply suspicious view of Islam that several of his aides have promoted, notably retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, now his national security adviser, and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s top strategist. 
This worldview borrows from the “clash of civilizations” thesis of the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, and combines straightforward warnings about extremist violence with broad-brush critiques of Islam. It sometimes conflates terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State with largely nonviolent groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots and, at times, with the 1.7 billion Muslims around the world. In its more extreme forms, this view promotes conspiracies about government infiltration and the danger that Shariah, the legal code of Islam, may take over in the United States. 
Those espousing such views present Islam as an inherently hostile ideology whose adherents are enemies of Christianity and Judaism and seek to conquer nonbelievers either by violence or through a sort of stealthy brainwashing. 
The executive order on immigration that Mr. Trump signed on Friday might be viewed as the first major victory for this geopolitical school. And a second action, which would designate the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political movement in the Middle East, as a terrorist organization, is now under discussion at the White House, administration officials say.

and here is Stephen Bannon himself:
Mr. Bannon has spoken passionately about the economic and security dangers of immigration and took the lead role in shaping the immigration order. In a 2014 talk to a meeting at the Vatican, he said the “Judeo-Christian West” is at war with Islam.
“There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global,” he said. “Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.” Elsewhere, on his radio show for Breitbart News, Mr. Bannon said, “Islam is not a religion of peace — Islam is a religion of submission,” and he warned of Muslim influence in Europe: “To be brutally frank, Christianity is dying in Europe and Islam is on the rise.”
And here is an excellent article in Mother Jones: The Dark History of the White House Aides Who Crafted Trump's "Muslim Ban":
One of Bannon's guests on the show, Trump surrogate Roger Stone, warned of a future America "where hordes of Islamic madmen are raping, killing, pillaging, defecating in public fountains, harassing private citizens, elderly people—that's what's coming." 
Another frequent guest was Pamela Geller, the president of Stop Islamization of America, whom Bannon described as "one of the top world experts on radical Islam and Sharia law and Islamic supremacism." Geller told Bannon that George W. Bush's description of Islam as a "religion of peace" was something "we all deplore," that there had been an "infiltration" of the Obama administration by radical Muslims, and that former Central Intelligence Director John Brennan may have secretly converted to Islam. Bannon never pushed back against any of those unfounded claims. 
In other exchanges on the show, Bannon described the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that defends the rights of Muslims, as "a bunch of spin" and "a bunch of lies." He accused the mainstream media of "basically going along the lines of being Sharia-compliant on blasphemy laws." He warned of "Sharia courts taking over Texas" and said that he opened a Breitbart News bureau in London in order to combat "all these Sharia courts [that] were starting under British law." 
Sorry folks to leave you with these disturbing articles. But here we are...

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

A talk by Zareena Grewal at Hampshire College on Dec 8th

by Salman Hameed

If you are in the area, then please join us for a talk at Hampshire College by Dr. Zareena Grewal. Here are the details:

"An Exceptional Umma?  The Media Mainstreaming of American Islam"
by Dr. Zareena Grewal
Thursday, December 8, 5:30pm
FPH, East Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

Abstract: The argument focuses on a new American exceptionalism that increasingly shapes American Muslim religious discourses, drawing on a particular, troubling (and territorialized) constructions of race and Americanness/indigeneity through the analysis of intra-Muslim debates as they are represented in the mainstream US media.   What do we make of the fact  that as the War on Terror systematically undermines transnational charitable, intellectual, and migrational networks that connect American Muslims to the Muslim World, American Muslims are increasingly calling for the breaking of those same ties?  How are Muslim American religious leaders reproducing their own derivative discourses of Good and Bad Muslims in the course of promoting their own projects of Islamic reform?  How do Muslim American religious leaders respond to charges of religious opportunism by critics who accuse them of "jockeying" for religious authority on the stage of the media?  Case studies of mediatized religious figures will include Yasir Qadhi, Hamza Yusuf, Amina Wadud, Asra Nomani among others.

Zareena Grewal is a documentary filmmaker and associate professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Islam is a Foreign Country (2013) and creator of By the Dawn's Early Light: Chris Jackson's Journey to Islam (2004).

The talk has been made possible by a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust (TRT).

If you can't make it to Hampshire College tomorrow, do check out her excellent book, Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority. Here is the blurb from NYU press:

In Islam Is a Foreign Country, Zareena Grewal explores some of the most pressing debates about and among American Muslims: what does it mean to be Muslim and American? Who has the authority to speak for Islam and to lead the stunningly diverse population of American Muslims? Do their ties to the larger Muslim world undermine their efforts to make Islam an American religion?

Offering rich insights into these questions and more, Grewal follows the journeys of American Muslim youth who travel in global, underground Islamic networks. Devoutly religious and often politically disaffected, these young men and women are in search of a home for themselves and their tradition. Through their stories, Grewal captures the multiple directions of the global flows of people, practices, and ideas that connect U.S. mosques to the Muslim world. By examining the tension between American Muslims’ ambivalence toward the American mainstream and their desire to enter it, Grewal puts contemporary debates about Islam in the context of a long history of American racial and religious exclusions. Probing the competing obligations of American Muslims to the nation and to the umma (the global community of Muslim believers), Islam is a Foreign Country investigates the meaning of American citizenship and the place of Islam in a global age.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Strong reaction against the closing of Pak-Turk schools in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Erdogan is visiting Pakistan these days. He spoke to the Pakistan parliament for the third time. But he wanted the closure of Pak-Turk schools - and be got them. These schools have been running in Pakistan for 21 years and serve close to 20,000 students in several Pakistani cities They have an excellent reputation - but yes, they are also part of Gulen schools. Since Erdogan is going after Gulen with a vengeance, it is little surprise that he wanted these schools to be shut down in Pakistan as well. Pakistani government, for its part, resisted for a while. Their reasoning was correct and reasonable: There is no evidence for any illegal activity from any of the teachers of these schools. In addition, we cannot suddenly leave thousands of kids without teachers simply because Erdogan says so. However, now things have changed. Pakistan government has now asked the staff of Pak-Turk schools to leave within 3 days!! Here are some details:
In August this year, Pakistan promised Turkey’s visiting Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that it would honour his request to look into the matter of the Pak-Turk International Schools’ alleged links with US-based cleric Gulen. Now, finding themselves in the midst of a political battle they want nothing to do with, hundreds of Turkish citizens, many of whom have lived in Pakistan since 1995, move to wrap up their lives at a few days’ notice. 
Car dealers were called to the schools in Lahore on Wednesday to oversee the sale of vehicles owned by Turkish teachers and staff members. “We are selling them at throwaway rates after being ordered to leave the country within 72 hours. This is highly unfair,” said a Turkish teacher, who serves at an administrative post at a Pak-Turk school in Lahore.  
He said government officials had stopped taking their calls. “However, we have been told that the police will arrest us if we do not leave by Nov 20,” he said, adding that they feared that they could be detained upon arrival in Turkey.
Talking to Dawn, a woman Turkish teacher demanded to know how the Pakistani government could hand them a ‘marching order’ without framing a charge sheet. “My husband and I moved here 11 years ago. My youngest son was born here one-and-a-half- years ago and has never visited Turkey. Pakistan is his country now,” she said, requesting not to be named as it might invite trouble for the family.
This is truly unfortunate. Dawn has a strong editorial in response to this, but it starts quite politely:
Turkey's President Erdogan is a welcome and honoured guest to Pakistan this week and we hope his visit will deepen investment and development ties between the two countries. 
However, his visit has coincided with a controversial decision taken by the government here: the Pak-Turk Education Foundation’s Turkish staff and their families have been given three days to leave the country, causing the foundation’s management to move court against the orders. 
The Pak-Turk schools are administered by a foundation linked to Fethullah Gulen, once an ally of Mr Erdogan. However, since July’s abortive coup attempt, the Turkish leadership has blamed Mr Gulen for sponsoring the overthrow attempt, resulting in a global crackdown on the religious and educational network led by him. 
While the coup attempt in Turkey may or may not have been instigated by Mr Gulen, Islamabad’s arbitrary decision is uncalled for. There are thousands of Pakistani children who have benefited from these schools since the 1990s, and there are thousands who will now suffer if their teachers are sent home. 
True, there is nothing wrong with closer government scrutiny if it is felt that teaching methods or the syllabus content is flawed. But the sudden move to issue marching orders, and that too on the eve of Mr Erdogan’s visit, smacks of intentions that may have nothing to do with the quality of teaching or education. 
There are two aspects to the unfortunate situation that must be highlighted.
First, while the coup attempt in Turkey was an event that was justifiably condemned by all those who believe in democracy, the Turkish government’s response has been unduly severe in several aspects, including the pressure on Pakistan to close down the schools. 
Pakistan would have done well to dispassionately assess the situation, especially because it concerned the fate of so many students who might have been worse off in other schools, given the overall state of education here. 
Second, many among the staff now being asked to leave have been working in these schools for several years. They had no visa issues previously, and there was not even a hint of their being linked to any illegal activity. Many have now voiced concerns they might be victimised by Turkish authorities on their return. 
It would be better then for Pakistan and Turkey to see this issue as one impacting the studies of thousands of boys and girls, and address it keeping in mind the future of these students.
I think it is too late to hope for some sanity in this situation. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kuwait's DNA law scaled back for now...

by Salman Hameed

It would have been ready-made case for science fiction. Last year, Kuwait passed a law that would have mandated a collection of DNA information of all residents and visitors. Of course, it was about concerns regarding terrorism - and of course we can trust the government for not any purpose at all. When has any government lied to its people??

The law would have gone into effect from this November. However, its legality was challenged and it seems that it will probably now only apply to accused or convicted criminals. So here is a shout out to human rights groups and the group of lawyers who opposed and challenged the law. Here is Adel AbdulHadi who challenged the law:
“Compelling every citizen, resident and visitor to submit a DNA sample to the government is similar to forcing house searches without a warrant,” says AdbdulHadi. “The body is more sacred than houses.” 
He argues that the law means every single person is now considered a suspect until proven innocent 
The lawyers are funding the challenge themselves on the grounds that they personally object to it. “As a person subject to this law, I’ve decided personally, and with my law partners, to launch this challenge,” he says.
... 
The law was introduced following a bombing that killed 27 people in Kuwait last year. But critics say that DNA testing wouldn’t prevent incidents like this. 
“If a suicide bomber wants to come into the country, giving a bit of DNA is not going to scare him off,” says Martina Cornel, at the European Society for Human Genetics. “Also, if you find DNA at a specific place, you could say a person was there, but not necessarily that they committed a crime.” 
AbdulHadi also contends the law will be powerless to prevent terrorist acts. “Terrorism is in the mindset of the person, and you can’t minimise this by restricting the privacy of people,” he says. “I don’t think it will in any way assist in countering terrorism.” 
Another worry is that, once collected, the DNA samples could be used for other purposes, such as identifying illegal immigrants, or determining paternity in country where adultery is a punishable offence. However, the Kuwait government has said that the DNA will not be used to determine genealogy. 
Nevertheless, critics find the mandatory requirement concerning. “Whether for research, clinical use, or any other purpose, disclosure of this information by members of the public should be entirely voluntary,” says Derek Scholes, of the American Society for Human Genetics.
Here is the actual letter that challenged the legality of the law.

While this is a heartening victory, it is only a matter of time when another government tries the same thing. The need is for a universal protection of an individual's right to one's own DNA information. In the mean time, there are many science fiction storylines lurking in the headlines.  

Friday, November 11, 2016

"Arrival" is a good and thoughtful science fiction movie

by Salman Hameed


If Marvel and other superhero films have not yet beaten you to a pulp, you have a chance to see a thoughtful science fiction film, Arrival. It centers on communication with our extraterrestrial visitors. Actually more precisely, it deals with the role of language in the way we think and perceive the world around us. But the movie also has raises interesting questions about free will and predestination - and it is the exploration of these themes that give a justified weight to the film. Here is a trailer for the film:

Arrival joins ambitious recent science fiction films like Interstellar (see my review here) and Gravity (see my review here). What has struck me about all these films is that they are grounded to the Earth and are looking for wonder within. In contrast, movies like 2001: Space Odyssey, Contact, and less so, Solaris, look at wonder outside and then use that to reflect on humans and humanity. There is something in our cultural moment today that is driving this type of story-telling.

In any case, I don't to give too much information about the film except to say that you should check it out (a more detailed review will follow). But I should mention that even Pakistan shows up in the film, as one of the 12 ships land in Punjab (probably at Nawaz Sharif's house :)). There are also a few problems with the film (as usual with a few cardboard characters), but those are quite minor compared to the rewards of the film (and this may also be because I went in with sky-high expectations). The film is based on a short story, Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. I haven't read the story but I have heard glowing things about it.

The movie is directed by the fantastic Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve. You may know him through his recent film Sicario. But if you have a chance, see his fantastic Incendies, which is probably about Lebanese civil war, but set in a fictional country (and Prisoners is excellent too!). Here is a trailer for Incendies:

A few miles from White House, an exhibition on the art of the Quran

by Salman Hameed

I guess just in time for the Trump presidency (did I just write that??), there is an exhibition on The Art of the Qur'an: Treasures From the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC. It runs through Feb 20th. There is a glowing review if the exhibit in the NYT:

It’s a glorious show, utterly, and like nothing I’ve ever seen, with more than 60 burnished and gilded books and folios, some as small as smartphones, others the size of carpets.
Flying carpets, I should say. This is art of a beauty that takes us straight to heaven. And it reminds us of how much we don’t know — but, given a chance like this, will love to learn — about a religion and a culture lived by, and treasured by, a quarter of the world’s population.
The manuscripts, most on first-time loan from a venerable museum in Istanbul, date from the seventh to 17th centuries, and come from various points: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey. Some volumes are intact; others survive as only single pages, though so great is the Quran’s spiritual charisma that, traditionally, every scrap is deemed worthy of preserving. And the Sackler curators, Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig, give the material all the glamour it deserves, with a duskily lighted installation in which everything seems to glow and float, gravity-free.
You can also explore the exhibit virtually. So for example, here is a way of looking at a spectacular Lapis and Gold Qur'an completed in 1517:
Completed in September 1517, this luxurious manuscript is a triumph of illumination and calligraphy that showcases the skill of artists at the Ottoman court. At the time, the Ottoman dynasty ruled a vast territory, stretching from Egypt to Iraq, with its capital in Istanbul. Signed by both its calligrapher and illuminator—a relatively rare practice—the manuscript probably was meant for the Ottoman ruler Sultan Selim I (reigned 1512–20), perhaps to celebrate his conquest of Mamluk Egypt and Syria in 1517. Almost seventy years later, his great-granddaughter Ismihan (died 1585) dedicated the volume to the mausoleum of her father, Sultan Selim II (reigned 1566–74), and instructed that it should be recited over her father's tomb for the eternal salvation of his soul.

You can read the NYT article here and visit the exhibition site here

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A new book on the global politics of religion

by Salman Hameed


If you are interested in the ways religion gets defined and used in 'freedom of religion' debates, then check out this new book by Elizabeth Hurd titled Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion. And of course, I learnt about it through the incredibly invaluable New Books Network podcast (this was part of the series on Middle Eastern Studies and Religion). Here is the interview podcast with Elizabeth Hurd (or download it here).

One of the things that really stood out for me from the interview was her discussion of "good" and "bad" religion as constructed by various international organizations - with their own agendas and goals - and how it skips all the messiness of the actual lived experiences (around 16 minutes in). I also found her discussion of Turkish Alevis, and the varied construction of their religious identity by the Turkish state and the European Union (in the latter half of the interview). She also discusses the book cover (see above) - which shows a photograph of a wall that the Moroccan government built to keep out and demarcate the Sahrarawi people of Western Sahara (for more on this, here is a brief article from Al Jazeera last year: Western Sahara's Struggle for Freedom Cutoff by a Wall).

In any case, listen to this fascinating interview (about 45 minutes long). Here is a blurb about the book from the New Books Network site:
Among the most frequent demands made of Islam and Muslims today is to become more moderate. But what counts as moderate and who will decide so are questions with less than obvious answers. In her timely and politically urgent new book Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton University Press, 2015), Elizabeth Hurd, Associate Professor of Religion and Political Science at Northwestern University, explores the powerful global networks that seek to regulate and moderate religion in the name of promoting religious freedom. Through a careful examination of the discourses and activities of a range of state and non-state actors, in the US and elsewhere, Hurd demonstrates that international regimes of religious freedom advocacy actively participate in the labor of defining and generating particular notions of good and normative religion that privilege particular actors and institutions over others. However, as Hurd brilliantly shows and argues, such attempts to canonize good religion, which often corresponds to the articulation of religion most amenable to US imperial interests, remains thwarted and unsuccessful. This is so because the global industry of producing good, moderate religion cannot come to grips with the messiness and complexities of lived religion that is unavailable for neat, digestible, and ultimately misleading generalized categorizations. In short, this book represents a profound and meticulously documented argument for the unavailability of religion for projects of moderation, division, and bifurcation into good and bad religion. Hurd assembles this argument by discussing the discourse of the two faces of faith in international relations circuits, the politics of religion-making in international religious advocacy programs, overseas religious engagement programs sponsored by the US government, and the construction of religious minorities as endangered corporate bodies. Beyond Religious Freedom is as mellifluously written as it is analytically delicious. It will make an excellent reading for undergraduate and graduate courses on Islam, Secularism, and Modernity, Middle Eastern Politics, religion and politics, and on theories and methods in Religion Studies.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A new collaboration for Harun Yahya?

by Salman Hameed

Most of the recent news about Harun Yahya lately have been dominated about his TV channel and his "angels". However, in late August, his organization held a creationist conference at a hotel in Istanbul. The title of the conference was International Conference on the Origin of Life and the Universe. Now back in early 1990s, his organization held a series of conferences with creationists in the US, in particular, the Institute of Creation Research (ICR). In fact, much of Yahya's work has been a reworking of these US based creationists, and modifying their young earth creationism with an older earth narrative suitable for Muslim audiences. However, for the August conference, his organization collaborated with another US based group Reasons to Believe. As far as I know, they are old earth creationists, and their President, Hugh Ross, is a Christian version of Maurice Bucaille. In fact, here is the main blurb on Reasons to Believe (RTB) website:
RTB's mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature.
Now, of course, there have been other creationist conferences in Turkey (I reported on one a few years ago), but those have (or more likely "had") been organized by the Gulen group. With the current political situation, those are certainly impossible. Perhaps, Harun Yahya's groups sensed an opportunity to organize one by themselves. Not surprisingly, the audience looks different between the Yahya organized conference and the one organized by the Gulen folks: 
A conference in Istanbul from August 2016 - organized by Harun Yahya's group

A conference in Istanbul in 2012 - organized in part by the Gulen group

Here is a self-reporting blurb by the organizers on what happened at the creationism conference in August: 
The conference;
- Once again proved that genetics, biology, paleontology, physics, chemistry and astrophysics all answer the question ‘How did life begin?’ with ‘Creation’.
- Hosted leading academicians from the science world -all experts in their respective areas with many academic studies.
Some of the topics discussed by the prominent scientists during the conference were as follows:
- The true origin of man
- Why I say ‘God exists’
- Detailed examination and criticism of evolutionary theory
- Origins and creation of the universe
- Fossils: The conclusive evidence of the history of life 
The Reasons to Believe speakers were: 
Dr. Fazale Rana (Biochemist, Vice President of Research & Apologetics, Reasons to Believe) http://en.a9.com.tr/watch/228733Dr. Anjeanette Roberts (Molecular Biologist) http://en.a9.com.tr/watch/228732Dr Jeff Zweerink  (Astrophysicist) http://en.a9.com.tr/watch/228730
And here is Fazle Rana on the conference: 
Beginning his lecture, Dr. Rana said, "I am truly honored to be here today. It is refreshing to be part
of a project in where the goals is to show the world that Christians and Muslims can work together towards a common goal.  Showing that there is scientific evidence for God’s existence and also showing that there are genuine scientific challenges to the evolutionary paradigm. Both are objectives that Muslims and Christians can agree upon."

This is all fascinating. Initially I thought that Fazle Rana was a token Muslim at RTB. But that is not the case. He is the Vice President of Research & Apologetics at RTB, and here is an excerpt from his bio
I watched helplessly as my father died a Muslim. Though he and I would argue about my conversion, I was unable to convince him of the truth of the Christian faith. 
I became a Christian as a graduate student studying biochemistry. The cell's complexity, elegance, and sophistication coupled with the inadequacy of evolutionary scenarios to account for life's origin compelled me to conclude that life must stem from a Creator. Reading through the Sermon on the Mount convinced me that Jesus was who Christians claimed Him to be: Lord and Savior. 
Still, evangelism wasn't important to me - until my father died. His death helped me appreciate how vital evangelism is. It was at that point I dedicated myself to Christian apologetics and the use of science as a tool to build bridges with nonbelievers.
I wish I could have attended the conference as it seems a fascinating amalgam of pseudoscience - both against science (evolution) and pro science (both Christian and Muslim I'jaz) at a particularly turbulent time in Turkey. 

And rest assured, our favorite creationist, Oktar Babuna, spoke over there as well (you may remember Babuna from his unintentionally hilarious presentation at the 2013 Deen Institute evolution conference in London. See my article on this here). And of course, there there were two giant faces of Harun Yahya on the screen - as well as some dancing.