Tuesday, November 18, 2014

SSiMS talk tomorrow by Caroline Tee: "The Technical Sciences and the Purposes of God"

by Salman Hameed

We are excited to have our lunch talk tomorrow on Turkey. Our speaker is Carline Tee from University of Bristol, UK. Join us tomorrow if you can. Here is the abstract of the talk and her bio:

The Technical Sciences and the Purposes of God
Theory and Practice in the Hizmet Movement in Turkey
by 
Caroline Tee
Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology
University of Bristol, UK

Wednesday, November 18, 2014
 at Noon 
Adele Simmons Hall, Hampshire College

Abstract: This presentation explores the philosophical justification for engagement as religious actors in the technical sciences, showing how practitioners within the movement derive spiritual meaning from the practical application of science, namely in the fields of medicine and engineering, by drawing on the Nursian doctrine of ‘positive action’. This observation is situated within a wider ethnographic framework which traces the activities and evolving priorities of the Hizmet Movement, focusing on its emergence as an actor in the lucrative field of private higher education in Turkey in recent years.

Speaker Bio: Dr. Caroline Tee is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the Department of
Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol, UK. She holds a MA in Islamic Studies and a PhD in Social Anthropology. She is currently working on a two-year project funded by The John Templeton Foundation exploring the teaching of science within an Islamic milieu in Hizmet schools in Turkey.

This talk is hosted by the School of Cognitive Science and the Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS)

In The ASH Lobby at Hampshire College.
A light lunch will be available at noon

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ferdowsi's 11th century epic Shahnameh in illustration

by Salman Hameed

I have posted about Hamzanama and Tilisme-Hoshruba before (see: Homer meets Tolkien in Medieval World and Tilisme-Hoshruba: "Magic that will blow your senses away"). These are South Asian stories mixed with Iranian and Arab/Islamic tales. Well, if you go back a bit, you run into the grand-daddy of these stories: Ferdowsi's epic poem, Shehnameh (The Book of Kings). There are new illustrations of the epic now by a New York based artist, Hamid Rahmanian. From the Guardian:
After the enormous success of the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, as well as blockbusters such as 300 and Clash of the Titans, the time might be right for Persian mythology to find an audience in the west. 
Iran's national epic, the Shahnameh, involves many of the same themes and motifs as popular works of fantasy: heroic quests, magical beasts, devilish monsters, passionate romances, fierce intrigues over power, and monumental conflicts fought across immense spans of time. 
Written more than 1,000 years ago by Abolqasem Ferdowsi (940–ca. 1019), the Shahnameh recounts a long, legendary history of the Iranian people from the beginning of civilisation until the historical Arab conquest of the region in the seventh century. The heart of the narrative concerns the adventures of Iran's most celebrated mythological hero, Rostam.
On a nostalgic note, can I mention that I still remember seeing a movie called "Rostam and Sohrab" back in the late 70s or early 80s. I went with my older brother and I was probably 9 or 10. I have no idea who made that film but I remember the ending quite distinctly (yes, it was sad - Rostam kills his son, Sohrab, in the final battle but he did't know that Sohrab was his son. It is not a spoiler if the story is a 1000 years old and even the movie is at least a several decades old!). I have tried finding that movie, but have been unsuccessful. May be it was a local Pakistani production - but don't know. There is an Iranian and an Indian version from the 1950s, but as I remember, this film was in color (oh the fields got bright red from the blood of the dead from the two armies - I think I'm still impacted by the film :) ). Anyways, so here is one of the new illustrations that depicts a scene between Rostam and Sohrab:
Sohrab assesses his enemy's strength and looks for his father, Rostam

Here is a short video by the artist explaining how some of the images were created. Here is specifically talking about the scene when Sohrab learns the identity of his father:


Here are a couple of more illustrations: 
Siavosh confides in Piran about his doomed fate

The young Feraydun crosses the Arvand River to confront the serpent king Zahhak

Siavosh marries the Turanian commander's daughter

You can see more about these illustrations and buy a copy here

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Your chance to explore medieval Arabic manuscripts from your basement

by Salman Hameed

This is a phenomenal resource. The Qatar Foundation in collaboration with The British Library have just digitized and placed 25,000 medieval Arabic documents in the collection of The Digital Qatar Library. And the access is free! Basically you can now do your historical research in your pajamas. The archive actually contains documents all the way to the 20th century. You can search this digital library by subject, by type (for example, photographs, maps, letters etc), or by people or organization.  So for example, here are pictures of Mecca and Medina from 1907: Album of 'Views of Mecca and Medina' by H. A. Mirza & Sons, Photographers, and here is a sample picture:


But of course, you can also browse through documents related to Arabic science. The Guardian has done of fine job of highlighting some of the key pictures from those documents (tip from Vika Gardner). For example, here is a page from the Arabic translation of the one of the most influential books of ancient/medieval astronomy, Ptolemy's Almagest (see here for more detail):


And here is a page from a treatise on astrology by 10th century philosopher, al-Biruni (though this copy was probably made in the 15th century - se here for more detail):


And here is a primer by al-Biruni on the construction and use of astrolabes (see here for more detail):


There is a lot more at the digital library. If you have a chance, spend a few minutes and at least browse through some of the books. 

Monday, November 03, 2014

SSiMS talk today: "Creating Creationists: Understanding Public Perceptions of Clash Narratives between Evolutionary Science and Belief"

by Salman Hameed

This is a very short notice (hey - I just came back from a conference last night), but still wanted to announce this talk - which should be excellent. Our speaker is Dr. Fern Elsdon-Baker, and here is the abstract and bio information. Join us if you are in close range:


"Creating Creationists: Understanding Public Perceptions of Clash Narratives between Evolutionary Science and Belief" 
by Dr. Fern Elsdon-Baker, Coventry University, UK.

Monday, November 3rd at 4:00pm in West Lecture Hall, Franklin Patterson Hall (FPH) 
Hampshire College

Abstract: Clash narratives relating to evolutionary science and personal belief are a recurrent theme in media or public space discourse. However, a 2009 British Council poll undertaken in 10 countries worldwide shows that the perception of a necessary clash between evolutionary worldviews and belief in a God is a minority viewpoint. How, then does the popular conception that there is an ongoing conflict between evolution and belief in God arise? One contributing factor is the framing and categorisation of creationism and evolutionism within large-scale surveys for use within media campaigns. This paper examines the issues framing within four polls conducted both in the UK and internationally between 2008 – 2013. It argues that by ignoring the complexity and range of perspectives individuals hold, or by framing evolutionary science as atheistic, we are potentially creating ‘creationists’ - including ‘Islamic creationists’ - both figuratively and literally.

Biographical Statement: Dr. Fern Esldon-Baker is Senior Research Fellow and Principal Investigator of Clash Narratives in Context Project at Coventry University, UK.  She previously
worked for the British Council as Head of the Darwin Now Project. Darwin Now was a large-scale multi-million pound global initiative running in 50 countries worldwide, which celebrated the life and work of Charles Darwin, as part of the international celebrations of the Darwin anniversaries in 2009. She then became Director of the Belief in Dialogue Program - a portfolio of inter-cultural dialogue projects, exploring how people in the UK and internationally can live peacefully with diversity and difference in an increasingly pluralistic world, which include projects exploring the relationship between science, culture and modernity. Her research is predominantly philosophical, historical and sociological in approach. She focuses on: intercultural and cross community dialogue; the communication of evolutionary science; the role of ‘science’ or ‘worldviews’ as identity markers and in public space ‘clash narratives’, or prejudice formation; and the perceptions of evolutionary theory within faith communities. She is currently serving on the Arts and Humanities Research Council advisory board for the ‘Science in Culture’ Research theme and the programmes committee for the British Society for the History of Science. She is also recorder for the History of Science section and serves on general committee for the British Science Association.


This talk is hosted by the Hampshire College Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS).

Friday, October 10, 2014

Nobel Peace Prize to Malala! Here are three videos including a song by Laal

by Salman Hameed


In the off chance you haven't heard, Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi - an Indian child rights campaigner - have been awarded this year's  Nobel peace prize. This cannot be any more perfect - a Pakistani and an Indian, and a Muslim and a Hindu sharing the peace prize (heck the Nobel committee still has a long way to make up for the Obama prize.

Just in case you think that Malala is simply overrated and has gotten all the attention for being shot, check these two videos from NYT. She is an incredibly smart with an amazing sense of charm and natural humor. First, watch this interview in which she is asked about her own mother becoming a literate as an adult:



And then I have posted this before as well (for example, here) but here is a NYT video that follows Malala from her early days (way before she was shot) as a campaigner for education to the latter actions of the Taliban. Again, Malala's intelligence, charm, and passion are all on full display here:

And then finally, here is a song for Malala by the Pakistani band, Laal (thanks to Asif Alam for the tip):


Laal - You Give Me Hope Malala from Taimur Rahman on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) disrupted by protesters

by Salman Hameed


After years of court cases, it looks like the construction for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is about to start (see this earlier post: Thirty Meter Telescope Inching Towards Final Approval). Yes, I'm an astronomer, but I do feel a bit sad about native Hawai'ians who have been fighting to keep this large telescope off of Mauna Kea. It is a complicated issue at the intersection of economic development, science, colonial history, power imbalance between the interested parties, and questions of the sacred. Perhaps, appropriately, the groundbreaking ceremony for the telescope was disrupted yesterday by protestors:
A groundbreaking ceremony for what will be one of the world’s most advanced observatories was disrupted Tuesday by Native Hawaiian protesters and others opposed to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.
More than 50 protesters blocked access near the mountain’s summit and greeted vans carrying dozens of attendees from five countries with chants and hula.
After waiting more than an hour, many of the attendees walked the rest of the distance to the dedication site, located just below the summit at 13,150 feet.
Sandra Dawson, TMT spokeswoman, said a blessing was held at the site but speeches were cancelled after protesters disrupted the event in progress.
“Several dozen people came and they chanted and sang and they talked and we listened and we heard them,” she said.
The event was cut short after it became clear there wasn’t going to be an end to the discussion, Dawson said.
Protesters said they oppose the $1.4 billion project because they see it as a desecration to a sacred mountain.
The TMT, developed by researchers from the United States, Canada, India, China and Japan, will be the ninth optical/infrared telescope on the mountain, prized by astronomers for its clear views of the heavens.
It will be more than 50 meters tall and about 40 percent larger than either of Keck Observatory’s twin 10-meter optical telescopes, currently the world’s largest, though it will also be nearly 10 times more powerful.
Mayor Billy Kenoi, who was scheduled to speak at the groundbreaking, attempted to defuse the situation at the roadblock, but demonstrators refused to back down. Kenoi assured there would be no arrests.
“Akua gave us all this to respect and love each other,” he said.
Said Kaliko Kanaele, of the Royal Order of Kamehameha: “We can’t keep on desecrating.”
Many of those protesting also brought up the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty, arguing the United States is illegally occupying the islands and that the University of Hawaii doesn’t have the right to lease a portion of the mountain to the observatory.
While defiant, the protest was mostly civil, though a couple demonstrators shouted at those trying to attend the groundbreaking.
Dawson said the protest was much bigger than expected though it won’t prevent the project from proceeding. Construction is expected to begin in spring.
“There’s no one there that is not used to some controversy, I’m sure,” she said, adding no one felt physically threatened.
The Office of Mauna Kea Management was initially considering closing Mauna Kea Access Road due to concerns over civil disobedience, said Stephanie Nagata, director.
But it chose to keep it open to maintain access for those not attending the event and for emergency purposes, she said.
Here is one of the videos of the protest:



For earlier posts on this topic:
Thirty Meter Telescope Inching Towards Final Approval
Thirty Meter Telescope Approved on top of Mauna Kea
Update on Mauna Kea: Telescope project given green light
University of Hawaii Regents Approve Plans for TMT on Mauna Kea
Management Plan Approved for Telescopes on Sacred Mauna Kea
Hawaii-Tribune Herald on the recent Mauna Kea lawsuit decision
Mauna Kea Observatories Update Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new Solar telescope?

Friday, October 03, 2014

Moon Sighting or Moon Fighting?

by Salman Hameed

Last last year, I had conversation with Akif Khan of Rationalist Society of Pakistan on the topic of lunar calendar controversies amongst Muslims in some countries (not in all places, as some do use calculations. I think Turkey is one of those countries). In any case here is the conversation (yes, it goes for half-an-hour). This is timely as we have Eid here tomorrow. So along with this video, Eid Mubarak!

And much thanks to Akif Khan and Pakistani rationalists.

Video Contest for Eqbal Ahmed Centre for Public Education

by Salman Hameed

The Eqbal Ahmed Centre for Pubic Education is soliciting 8-minute videos for on the topic of Pakistan: How to Make a Better Society. And yes, you can get a cash prize of Rs. 50,000 and your work feature in the Karachi Literature Festival in February 2015.

Here are the details from the EACPE website:
------------------
The competition seeks to raise awareness and encourage activism on important social issues, and encourage the use of new media in Pakistan.
Submissions for 2014 may deal with any of the following:
  1. Citizenship: What are the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen of Pakistan?
  2. Minority Rights: Issues of Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities.
  3. Terrorism: Why is Pakistan afflicted and what’s to be done?
  4. Labour: The working poor, women, domestic servants.
  5. Cities: How can they be made livable for all?
  6. Nature: What are we doing to the environment and how to save it?
  7. Disasters: Natural and man-made. How should Pakistan prepare?

Guidelines:

  • Each video shall be approximately 8 minutes in duration.
  • Submitted videos shall be original and must not have been circulated earlier.
  • Entries must be uploaded by Dropbox to contest@eacpe.org by 20 December, 2014.
  • Results will be announced by 20 January, 2015.
  • Any person may submit an entry.
  • Please write to contest@eacpe.org to let us know you are planning to submit a video.
  • Language may be Urdu or English.
The entries will be judged on content, creativity, imagery, story and technical quality by a panel of activists, experts and film makers.
EACPE may be able to provide use of its studio and technical facilities in Islamabad to prospective contest entrants. Please write to contest@eacpe.org to request this.

The three winning entries will:

  1. Receive a cash award of Rs. 50,000 each. An exceptional entry may qualify for an additional Rs. 25,000.
  2. Be showcased on the EACPE website at http://eacpe.org/8-minute-videos/.
  3. Be featured in the Karachi Literature Festival, 7-9 February, 2015.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sachal Studios Orchestra plays Beatles' Eleanor Rigby

by Salman Hameed

For your Sunday evening, here is a fascinating interpretation of Beatles' Eleanor Rigby by Sachal Studios Orchestra:


Eleanor Rigby - Sachal Studios Orchestra (Lennon - McCartney) from Sachal Music on Vimeo.

Sachal Orchestra shot to fame through their phenomenal rendition of Dave Brubecks' Take Five (you can see the video here). And if you want more, you an see their recent (June) performance with Wynton Marsalis Quintet. Here is Blues Walk:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A bunch of articles dealing with ISIS, Beheadings, and Islamophobia

by Salman Hameed

The territory currently controlled by ISIS (from Wikipedia) 

There are a lot people commentating on ISIS and what is going on in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and the Muslim world at large. The situation is complicated to say the least. The US is involved again in the fight and is planning a Goldilock strategy of supporting those rebel groups that are just right for US interests, i.e. they will fight ISIS and defeat it while at the same time will be able to topple Assad's regime in Syria. And all the while won't change their own views about the US and its allies and will remain pro-US when the job is done (see Clashing Goals in Syria Strikes Put US in Fix). This way the US can form an alliance with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar (whom the Iranian foreign minister recently called the "coalition of repenters" as they are also responsible in many ways for the creation of ISIS), while at the same time avoid a better suited regional cooperation with Iran and (reluctantly - sigh!) Syria. How can anything go wrong with such a strategy?? Though in all fairness, there are reports of back-chanel contacts of US with the Iranian and even the Syrians (see Coalition of the Presentable)

But since the topic of ISIS is intersecting issues of Islam, Muslim youth, modernity, religious violence, Islamophobia, etc., it is also relevant for this blog. What ISIS has been doing is grotesque and barbaric (just yesterday, they killed a prominent human rights lawyer in the center of Mosul for her criticism of ISIS). Here are a few reasonable articles that might help in understanding ISIS and its context within the larger Muslim world:

On checking the potential (and realized) Islamophobia in response to ISIS:

Here is Daniel Martin Varisco, The Trouble with ISIS:
So what is the trouble with ISIS?  For the people living in Syria and Iraq this is a disaster on top of a disaster.  The killing and wanton destruction have become routine in Iraq since the U.S. invasion and in Syria since the Arab Spring uprising.  Out of this morass of insecurity the most radical and extremist faction has emerged, brandishing an intolerant view of Islam that justifies killing fellow Muslims simply for being Shi’a, as well as any Christians and Yazidis they encounter.  The recent ISIS blitzkrieg, fueled in large part by an inept Iraqi army and the regime of Bashar al-Asad on the ropes, has made an unexpected advance, confiscating military hardware and cash.  But it is hard to imagine how ISIS can survive without air power, especially since the United States has stepped in with air support.  None of the surrounding states support ISIS, especially Iran and Turkey; nor have any mainstream Islamic groups or scholars given solace to this radical group.  Their tactics, which include intimidation, stealing, murder and rape, are not likely to foster long-term support. 
The trouble with ISIS goes beyond the loss of life and displacement of Syrians and Iraqis.  This is a disaster for Muslims everywhere, since these deplorable tactics feed Islamophobia.  Since most people in the West have a very limited view of the diversity of Islam, the trouble with ISIS easily becomes the trouble with Islam.  ISIS is doing as much harm to Islam as Osama Bin Laden did with the attack on the Twin Towers.  There will be no new caliphate and the self-proclaimed caliph al-Baghdadi will soon meet his fate.  But this will not end the trouble, a trouble not with religion but the overt and spiteful abuse of a religious veneer to justify political ambition and hateful vengeance.
Here is a fascinating position by Amina Wadud, who argues that who are we to say who is a Muslim and who is not. This avoids the problem of "good Muslim, bad Muslim" distinction:
Since the horrible events in the US on September 11th 2001 I have experienced an overwhelming tendency of Muslim apologia.  Any time anyone who identifies as Muslim commits horrific acts, Muslim civil organizations and community leaders have been quick to not to condone these acts.  Sometimes they use the language “this is not Islam”. This is a slippery slope and I still measure the extent to which they define their terms and what control or power they have over the discourse.  I also do not ever feel like I am personally responsible for every act performed by every Muslim, good or bad.  So I don’t apologize.  I do however continue to live what I believe (that is justice, honor, truth and dignity) and to assert its possibility where ever I can. That did not change for me at September 11th.  However, the ability to argue for it was affected. 
To engage in those arguments, I have become even more committed to the idea that Islam is NOT what every Muslim does and yet Islam is nothing if not lived by Muslims.  I do not then have to distance myself from every spurious action as a way to prove I am the true and good Muslim and they are the bad Muslim
 ---
Still, I demand some criteria for their definitions, some references to the two main sources of Islamic thought and action.  Instead, what I see is a blatant disregard for those sources even to their most absurd interpretations. 
This is not an apology for ISIS, because frankly they can just go to hell.  This is only to assert that the actions that they have been performing exceed even the recommendations about how to engage with an enemy in battle; where all the sources of Islam first demands that war itself has to be declared and respect for prisoners of war and non-combatants is paramount.  This sweep of ISIS across Iraq killing non-Muslims who never declared war, including journalists- to say nothing of killing other Muslims in mass genocide- cannot be connected to any evidentiary base within Islam. 
This is not a case of some one’s disagreeable interpretation of Islam. This is clearly outside of Islam.  So for those who oppose Islam, please recognize you have support amongst Muslims for putting a stop to this group.  We would uphold even our divergent interpretations while having a consensus that this is one bully we cannot claim and wish to employ all methods to put an end to. Do not use this as an occasion to sling Islam-hating which would distract us from coming together to stop them and to put its leaders on trial for crimes against humanity. 
But also see this news item that 120 Muslim scholars from around the world have sent ISIS an open letter denouncing them as un-Islamic.

Here is an article from Columbia School of Journalism Review that raises the question of how to cover the role of Islam in the ISIS crisis. You can find both sides of the arguments there, but here is a bit about the use of Quranic verses by ISIS:
ISIS’s eagerness to advertise its scriptural credentials suggests one possible explanation for the infrequency with which journalists mention the connection: a reluctance to be seen as legitimizing terrorist propaganda. As Quartz’s Ghosh argues, “When terrorists cite the Koran or the hadith, they do so selectively, choosing only those passages that can be interpreted to suit their perverse view of the world. When they can’t find citations, they simply make them up by resorting to ‘fatwas.’ These deserve no credence.” 
Bazian, of UC Berkeley, echoes this point, saying that noting the ideas in holy texts might be the impetus behind terrorists’ actions not only rewards the villains, but is indicative of “Islamophobia.” “When Islamophobes point to the Koran and Islam as the problem, they are epistemically reinforcing ISIS’s claims and also pushing every Muslim into the same categorization,” he says. Bazian further asserts that “Islamophobes look in the Koran, find a verse, and then argue that this is what Islamic belief is all about.” 
The accusation of “Islamophobia” is not to be taken lightly. In many parts of the United States, the terrorizing of Muslims is a serious problem. In 2008, for example, a group of white supremacists burned down the Islamic Center of Columbia, TN. And plans to construct a mosque provoked outrage in Murfreesboro, TN, where, in 2010, arsonists reportedly burned equipment meant to excavate the site. Bob Smietana, a former religion reporter for The Tennessean who now writes for Religion News Service, covered both of these events. He says that he still hears from people who want him to unequivocally condemn Islam.
Of course, one of the things that have set ISIS apart is its grotesque videos of beheading journalists. Now Saudi Arabia routinely conducts beheadings officially (it is their way of capital punishment). But the US also has capital punishment and uses lethal injection for that purpose. The larger problem here is capital punishment rather than the method. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia is now helping the US in its campaign against ISIS. But here is an article that makes a comparison of beheading videos with pornography:
In recent months, there has also been a proliferation of amateur violent propaganda from ISIS and its supporters, ranging from photographs of bodily mutilation to grainy videos of executions filmed on cell phones. This visual and sickeningly macabre material is made and distributed by ISIS fighters themselves and represents a purer kind of gonzo. A few weeks ago, for example, Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, a 23-year-old British rapper from London whom British intelligence officials suspect may be the masked killer in the Foley and Sotloff beheading videos, uploaded to Twitter a picture of himself holding up a severed head. The caption read: “Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him.” Other jihadists have similarly made use of social media to publicize their atrocities. 
Zarqawi was a pioneer of this particular brand of gonzo. His network, originally known as Tawhid and Jihad, publicly released more than 10 beheading videos between September 20 and October 7, 2004, in addition to the video, circulated in May of that same year, believed to show Zarqawi himself beheading the American businessman Nicholas Berg. Given ISIS’s promise to behead more Western civilians, these kinds of videos may yet become the group’s signature production. 
Like gonzo porn, ISIS’s beheading videos are way out there. But the new element isn’t violence. The new element is degradation. Walter Laqueur, the esteemed historian and luminary of terrorism studies, writes of the “barbarization of terrorism,” where the enemy “not only has to be destroyed, he (or she) also has to suffer torment.” ISIS represents the apotheosis of this development, completing the degradation of the enemy by filming the whole process. But the group’s propaganda also signifies a new phase in how terrorist acts are communicated and disseminated to the wider world. Forty years ago, the international terrorism expert Brian M. Jenkins remarked that “terrorism is theater.” What Jenkins could not have envisaged at the time was the speed and ease with which images of terror can now be produced and distributed. Nor could he have imagined just how prevalent and grotesquely pornographic terrorist theater has become, and how radically gonzo the groups are who stage it.
Here in an anthropological take on the beheadings by ISIS:
In beheading the journalists, the Islamic State was making a claim to statecraft. Even if it has declared the US and the West to be its enemy, and even if the expressed reason for the beheadings was that the US did not meet the demand of the Islamic State to stop bombing its territory, resources and subject population, the intended audience of the beheadings was surely not the US government, which the Islamic State must have expected to seek retribution. It was, instead, the existing and potential members of the subject population of the Islamic State. The beheadings are a classic case of what Rene Girard calls a founding violence—the violence at the origin of a new social order, usually directed at an outsider, a sacrificial victim, whose death is intended to dispel internal conflict. 
Many commentators have noted the suddenness with which the Islamic State has come into being. Just a year ago, it was not on the geopolitical map. Now it is the center of the map. I do not know the details of its emergence, but it seems clear from news reports that there has been much violence along the way. This violence was initially directed at internal others like Shias, Christians and Yazidis. It is now directed at external others like foreign journalists. 
As the US intervention to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State begins—and the fragile order founded on violence begins to collapse—the violence will escalate in an attempt to restore the emerging order. The beheadings will not only continue, they will occur more frequently, and they will be more violent than could be imagined.
And here is an excellent article by Scott Atran on why young Muslims may be attracted to ISIS, but he also, I think, correctly links the spectacle of beheadings with that of "sublime" terror:
Isis’s violence is far from being nihilistic – a charge usually levelled by those who are wishfully blind to the attraction of their foes. The moral worldview of the devoted actor is dominated by what Edmund Burke referred to as “the sublime”: a need for the “delightful terror” of a sense of power, destiny, a giving over to the ineffable and unknown. 
Western volunteers for Isis are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, between jobs or girlfriends, having left their homes and looking for new families. For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are “born again” to religion. They are self-seekers who have found their way to jihad in myriad ways: through barbecues or on the web; because they were perhaps uncomfortable with binge-drinking or casual sex; or because their parents were humiliated by form-checking bureaucrats or their sisters insulted for wearing a headscarf. 
As I testified to the US Senate armed services committee, what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool. 
Volunteers for Isis are surfing for the sublime and all that is lacking in the jaded, tired world of democratic liberalism, especially on the margins where Europe’s immigrants mostly live. Many are just “vacationers” for jihad, going to Syria over school breaks or holidays for the thrill of adventure and a semblance of glory. The beheadings are doing what the images of the collapsing twin towers did for al-Qaida, turning terror into a display of triumph over and through death and destruction. In Burke’s sense, a display of the sublime. As philosopher Javier Gomá Lanzón recently mused: is this sense of the sublime part of Isis’s attraction? Is the west’s failing its cynicism about a visceral rather than purely intellectual quest for meaning? 
Atran then brings his work on "sacred values":
Awe of God and its myriad representations in art and ritual was once the west’s sublime, followed by the violent struggle for liberty and equality. The great historian Arnold Toynbee argued that civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets as such. In studies carried out with support from the National Science Foundation and the US defence department, my co-researchers and I found that most societies have “sacred values” for which their people would fight, risk serious loss and even die rather than compromise. In 1776, the American colonists had the highest standard of living in the world. Frustrated not over economics but “sacred rights”, they were willing to sacrifice “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” against the world’s mightiest empire. 
Is our ideal now merely one of “ease, security, and avoidance of pain”, as Orwell surmised in explaining why Nazism, fascism and Stalinism had such a strong pull on engagement and commitment, especially among adventurous youth? For the future of liberal democracies, even beyond the threat from violent jihadis, this may be the core existential issue.
The NYT has some good schematics that provide information about the government structure of ISIS as well as maps that explain how they have moved over the past year or so (see How ISIS works) and has maps of current airstrikes against ISIS.

And for a commentary on the current situation, watch our friend Vijay Prashad on Democracy Now:


More on publicity strategy of ISIS and on European recruits in the coming days. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Two excellent short animated films about Wallace and Leeuwenhoek

by Salman Hameed

Here is an good introduction to Alfred Russell Wallace (co-disoverer of the concept of natural selection) and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (the discoverer of microbes):

Here is The Animated Life of A.R. Wallace (tip from Zakir Thaver):



And here is Seeing the Invisible (tip from Jason Tor):

 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Too easy to shut-down liberal religious voices in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

It is becoming a challenge to write on issues like this at a time when Islamophobia is also becoming rampant in US and Europe and Muslims are being painted with broad brushes (more on this tension later). But these outrageous events need to be called out as well - and that brings us to another tragedy in Karachi, where the dean of Karachi University Islamic Studies department, Dr. Mohammad Shakeel Auj, was assassinated on Thursday. The problem, apparently, was that he had religious interpretations that didn't sit well with some of his colleagues and a former dean of his department (they are all under investigation). As a result, they had started a campaign over text-messages (SMS) calling Auj an apostate and for his beheading ((“The blasphemer of the Prophet and Quran, Dr Shakil, curses be upon him, deserves only one punishment — beheading”)! Dr. Auj was understandably disturbed by that and had launched a court case against these accusation for a justified fear for his life. Alas - now its too late:
Mohammad Shakil Auj, 54, dean of Islamic Studies at the University of Karachi, was on his way to an Iranian cultural centre to which he had been invited as a guest of honour. 
His car was being driven down a ramp from a flyover when "bullets were fired, one hit the professor in the head and he died", senior police officer Pir Mohammad Shah said. Another bullet struck Auj's junior colleague – whom police named only as Amna – in the arm, wounding her. 
Auj, a recipient of a presidential medal of distinction, was known for his unorthodox views and was fighting a court case against his predecessor whom he had accused of circulating a text message that called him an apostate.
And this is what upset his colleagues:
The professor issued fatwas pronouncing, for example, that a Muslim woman could marry a non-Muslim man, and that women need not remove lipstick or nail polish before saying their prayers. 
Such views can cause offence to some conservative Muslims in Pakistan, which has been battling a homegrown Islamist insurgency for more than 10 years. 
"We would tell him to be cautious as he was very aggressive in promoting his liberal views regarding the religion," said Prof Tauseef Ahmed Khan, an old friend and chairman of the mass communications department of the Federal Urdu University.
A NYT article on this also mentioned that a week earlier "a visiting religious scholar at the same Islamic studies department, Maulana Masood Baig, was also shot dead by unknown attackers". I guess, the targeted killings of sunni and shia leaders are now spilling over to Islamic studies scholars. But an accusatory text-message is just too easy to get someone get killed. Oil is already there, the text message is simply the match.

But then you don't need to be actually accused of blasphemy to get killed. You can simply be defending someone else being accused of blasphemy. This was the case of human rights lawyer, Rashid Rehman. Just this past May, he was shot-dead simply for agreeing to defend a lecturer at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University who had been accused of defaming the prophet Mohammed on social media last year (see my post here about the original blasphemy accusation of this lecturer):
At around 8.30pm on Wednesday evening, Mr Rehman, a well-known advocate and a regional coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), was shot dead by two gunmen who entered his office in the city of Multan, apparently posing as prospective clients. The attack came just weeks after he agreed to defend a college lecturer accused of blasphemy and had reportedly received death threats from other lawyers for doing so. 
... 
Earlier this year, Mr Rehman, who was 53 and married, agreed to take on the case of Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University who had been accused of defaming the prophet Mohammed on social media last year. Reports said the accusations were levelled by hardline university students who had pushed for him to be charged. 
The HRCP said no one was wiling to take on Mr Hafeez’s defence until Mr Rehman stepped forward. After the first hearing inside a prison in March, when he was allegedly threatened, the HRCP issued a statement which said: “During the hearing the lawyers of the complainant told Rehman that he wouldn’t be present at the next hearing as he would not be alive.”
And here is a heartbreaking article by Mohammad Hanif, A country where liberal journalists risk death, about the fate of liberal journalists and how easy it is to get them off the map. In fact, it is related to the reporting of the murder of Rashid Rehman mentioned above. Shoaib Adil's life is under threat for being critical of the killers of Rehman:
Shoaib Adil, a 49-year-old magazine editor and publisher in Lahore, has many well-wishers and they all want him to disappear from public life or, even better, leave the country. 
Since blasphemy charges were filed against him last month, the police have told him that he can't return home, he can't even be seen in the city where he grew up and worked all his life. It wouldn't be safe. 
As a journalist, Adil has been a vocal critic of religious militarism. But the threat to his life doesn't come from the Taliban. 
He is the victim of an everyday witch hunt by Pakistan's powerful religious groups - the kind of witch hunt that's so common and yet so scary that it never makes headlines.
For the past 14 years, Adil has been editing and publishing a monthly current affairs magazine, a rare liberal voice in Pakistan's Urdu media. Back issues of Nia Zamana read like a catalogue of human rights abuses. 
The June issue's cover story, for example, reports on the murder of a human rights lawyer, Rashid Rehman in the city of Multan in central Pakistan. Rehman, defending a literature professor accused of blasphemy, was told in the court by the prosecuting lawyers that if he didn't drop the case he would not live to see the next hearing.
Sure enough, Rehman was gunned down in his office before the next hearing.
And here is how it is done:
Adil had just published this issue of Nia Zamana when his crusading journalistic enterprise came to an abrupt end - and he was lucky to avoid sharing Rehman's fate himself. 
He was sitting in his Lahore office when a contingent of police arrived with a dozen religious activists, people Adil simply calls maulvis - teachers of Islamic law. They
waved a book at him that he had published seven years ago - an autobiography of a Lahore High Court judge, titled My Journey to the Higher Court. The author, Justice Mohammed Islam Bhatti, had written that he belonged to the Ahmedi faith - a former Muslim sect that was declared non-Muslim in Pakistan exactly 40 years ago, and whose members have since then been prosecuted by the state and hounded by religious groups with equal gusto. He had then gone on to say some complimentary things about the founder of the faith. 
"The maulvis ransacked my office looking for more copies of the book or any other material to pin blasphemy on me," says Adil. Police officers meanwhile explained that the group the activists belong to, the International Council for the Defence of Finality of Prophethood, had demanded the registration of a blasphemy case against him.
And how easy it is to be offended?
The Council is a much feared entity. Its sole purpose is to hunt down Ahmedis in Pakistan and to look for suspected sympathisers. They don't have to work very hard. The laws against Ahmedis are such that there is almost nothing that they cannot be accused of. They have been imprisoned for saying a casual Muslim greeting like "Asslamu aliakum", for printing a verse of the Koran on a wedding invitation, for calling their prayer a namaz and for calling their mosque a mosque. In Pakistan if you want to tarnish anyone in public life all you have to do is to insinuate that they are Ahmedi. Or an Ahmedi sympathiser. 
"I, the complainant work as a preacher for the Finality of the Prophethood," reads the application for a blasphemy case to be registered against Adil. "I bought and read a book called Journey to Higher Judiciary, an autobiography of Mohammed Islam Bhatti, published by Mohammed Shoaib Adil. I discovered that in many parts of the book serious blasphemy has been committed against various prophets, particularly against Jesus Christ, and the prophet Mohammed. Besides that, the cursed Mirza Ghulam Ahmed Qadiani (founder of the Ahmedi sect) has been shown sitting alongside our Prophet Mohammed. The whole book is full of such blatant blasphemies." 
The complaint goes on: "Because this book has hurt the religious feelings of all Muslims… the complainant pleads that the strictest action be taken against the accused."
Because of his contacts (including in conservative religious circles), Adil avoided the registration of blasphemy case against him. But his life has had to alter completely:
The country's top human rights campaigner advised him to stay invisible, adding: "When you come to see me I feel scared for both of us." A powerful senator advised him to leave the country and promised to help him get a visa. 
Adil still hoped that there might be a way of getting the blasphemy application against him squashed. Justice Bhatti, the author of the autobiography, called fellow judges in the Lahore High Court but there was no response. Then he found a friend who was on good terms with a very influential religious scholar, no less a figure than the chairman of the Council of Islamic Scholars. As it turned out the blasphemy campaign against Adil was headed by the chairman's younger brother. He listened to Adil's plea patiently and then said: "Sorry, I can't help you. My brother is so radical that he considers me an infidel." 
As Adil waits for the Council activists to call off their hunt or for a country to provide him temporary refuge, there is still no registered case against him. But the police who may one day register this case, the lawyers who would then defend him, the judges who would hear the case, and every single one of Adil's journalist and activist friends have told him that if he tries to resume his former life there is no reasonable chance of his survival.
...
Nobody has given him any advice about the magazine that is his life's work, Nia Zamana, because everyone knows that even going near that office is like inviting death. Police have told him repeatedly that his tormentors have reconnaissance teams - they will find anyone who hangs around there. 
"I had only one full-time assistant, I have asked him to stay home, never mention that he was associated with me and try and find a new job," says Adil.
Although Nia Zamana had a small print run, what made it significant was that it published in Urdu, where liberal voices are now rare. 
After a series of interviews during which Adil was not sure whether he should tell his story, and wasn't sure whether his well-wishers should be named or not, he made a request. 
"Is it possible that you write this in English because if it comes out in Urdu and those people read it they'll be even angrier."
Read the full article here

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A new book series on "International Perspectives on Science, Culture and Society"

by Salman Hameed

If you are following this blog then I'm assuming that you have at least some interest in matters related to science and religion. Well, if you are looking to publish in this area (or have a much broader focus on culture and society), then the following may be of interest to you. I'm a co-editor (along with Fern Elsdon-Baker and Ignacio Silva) of a new book series by Pickering and Chatto Publishers called International Perspectives on Science, Culture and Society and we are looking for both established scholars and first-time authors to publish as part of this series. Here is the description:
This series brings together insights from historians, philosophers and social scientists and seeks to build an understanding of the social and cultural context of science, technology, medicine and religion. The scope of the series includes studies relating to both historical and contemporary debates, the interplay between science and systems of belief, and all aspects of scientific research, its application and communication within diverse societies worldwide.
You can find guidelines to the proposal here and/or you can also send me (or one of the other series  editors) an email for inquiry. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Some Twilight Zone for your Sunday evening

by Salman Hameed

In preparation for co-teaching a science fiction short film class next semester, I've been watching some Twilight Zone episodes. I will be co-teaching the class with Hampshire College microbiologist, Jason Tor (we also co-taught Astrobiology for three years) and we expect the final student group products to be 5-6 minute short science-fiction films that have roots in real science (students can take as much creative leeway as possible in the service of a good film, but the back-story has to be grounded in what we know from astronomy and biology). From the storytelling perspective, I think the original Twilight Zone was phenomenal - and all of it was done with no special effects. We are planning on screening a lot of these episodes in our class as well. I recently bought the collection of 17 "Essential" Twilight Zone episodes, and have been going through those. Yesterday, we watched one of the more famous episodes, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. Loved it! This is an episode written by the creator of the series Rod Sterling himself, and here is the opening narration:
Maple Street, U.S.A. Late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbeques, the laughter of children and the bell of an ice cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 P.M. on Maple Street. This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street...in the last calm and reflective moment...before the monsters came.
Oh yeah!

And here is the full episode (but with ads). Enjoy!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

New book on Egyptian revolution and social media

by Salman Hameed

The role of social media was debated extensively at the time of the Egyptian Arab Spring. There is a new book out, Revolution in the Age of Media by Linda Herrera, that looks at it more explicitly (also see a pre-Arab Spring book, Connected in Cairo by Marc Allen Peterson, and his excellent blog that updates on the themes and ideas discussed in his book). Here is an excerpt of Linda Herrera's interview on Jadaliyya:
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 
LH: This book puts a spotlight on the politics of social media during a time of intense youth discontent, free-market globalization, and breathtaking technological change where questions about the liberatory versus the repressive effects of technology have
become paramount. It explores whether youth movements that are oriented towards greater democracy and social justice, movements that aim to expose and alter repressive political and economic structures, are at an advantage in the digital age. Are the new information and communication tools, which citizens use for creating, expressing, organizing, and deliberating, shifting the balance of power? Or are powerful entities finding more effective and efficient ways to contain, monitor, coopt, and disenfranchise people, and especially youth, through these very tools and technologies? The book connects to a cross-section of literature from political theory, international relations, critical media studies, marketing, and the study of youth and popular culture. 
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research? 
LH: My previous research deals with questions about globalization and the contested nature of education, battles over the “control” of youth bodies and minds, and Middle East cultures and politics in the post-Cold War era. These core issues are all present in this work. I also rely on a set of research tools and methodological approaches that have guided my work in the past. The research for this book involved applying techniques of critical ethnography to social media spaces, conducting a number of face-to face-interviews, and undertaking policy analysis of US State Department documents for “Democracy Promotion” and “Internet Freedom” in the post-9/11 era.
I also tread into decidedly new territory. I needed to learn about techniques of online marketing and advertising, venture capitalism, become acquainted with the literature from media and communications studies, and to think about high tech companies such as Google and Facebook as entities comparable in some aspects to the State. The scholarly research dealing with high tech companies lags far behind their impact and power, something that we as a research community need to redress. 
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 
LH: Initially, I envisioned an audience interested in not only the Arab Uprisings, but the range of networked social movements as exemplified by Occupy, Indignados, Taksim Square, the student movement in Chile, and anti-austerity uprisings in Iceland, Southern and Eastern Europe, to name a few. Much of the literature about contemporary networked movements often exaggerates their emancipatory and transformative potentials. On the other side, the blogosphere has been rife with conspiracy theories about the disguised and sinister nature of many of these movements, particularly the Egyptian uprising. I wanted to unpack these conspiracies to the extent I was able to do so. This book does not set these multifaceted issues to rest, but hopefully advances an understanding of political mobilization and crowd-sourced education in this era of social media and uprisings. 
This book raises pressing issues that will remain important far into the future about surveillance, (internet) freedom, privacy, protected speech, human rights, inequality, and civil disobedience in our digital age. The very future of democracy depends on our vigilance and advocacy around these issues. My greatest hope is that this work will serve as a form of critical media literacy, inform practice, and inhabit a place in wider conversations about power, counter power, and democracy in the digital age.
Read the full interview here. Also, here is the description of the book along with the titles of the chapters:
Description 
Egypt’s 25 January revolution was triggered by a Facebook page and played out both in virtual spaces and the streets. Social media serves as a space of liberation, but it also functions as an arena where competing forces vie over the minds of the young as they battle over ideas as important as the nature of freedom and the place of the rising generation in the political order. This book provides piercing insights into the ongoing struggles between people and power in the digital age. 
Table of Contents:
1. Wired Youth Rise
2. Cyberdissident Diplomacy
3. Marketing Martyrdom
4. Virtual Vendetta
5. Viral Revolution
6. Memes and the War of Ideas
7. The Anti-Ideology Machine
You can buy the book here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

"Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story" on PBS tonight


This looks interesting and definitely has an unfamiliar storyline. I will be in class at the time and will catch it later in the week. There is a South Asian connection here as well, as Noor Inayat Khan had an American mother and an Indian Muslim father. Here is a brief blurb about the documentary and a trailer below it (see more details about the film here):
Throughout the 1930’s, an unimaginable evil tore through Europe, as Hitler’s Third Reich terrorized its way to domination. During these tumultuous times, a young Muslim woman living in Paris found her calling. Noor Inayat Khan grew up in a home that fostered faith and hope. Leading with her heart, she overcame her quiet nature and joined Winston Churchill’s covert operation to give the Allies a new chance at victory. This is her story.

Friday, September 05, 2014

In defense of a one-way trip to Mars and a comment on the 'Mars fatwa'

by Salman Hameed

Martian landscape from NASA’s Curiosity Rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Yes, humans will be going to Mars. But in all likelihood, the probability of happening it in the next decade or so rests on a one-way trip. Here is a short article that I wrote for the Magazine section of Express Tribune. Unfortunately, they also took out a bit that mentioned a recent fatwa on the issue. You can read the Tribune article here: A One-way Ticket to Mars. Or you can read the full version (Director's Cut) below:

Making sense of a one-way trip to Mars 

If given the opportunity, would you go on a one-way trip to Mars?

I ask this question in several of my classes, and about a third of the students say “yes”. I am sure that when faced with a real-life decision, many of these students will have second thoughts. This is understandable. It is hard to willingly leave family, friends, varieties of good food, and an abundance of breathable oxygen. Oh, and did I  mention mangoes? But I know that at least some of these students genuinely mean it. They would love nothing more than to go to Mars, even if it means saying goodbye to the planet of their birth forever.

A one-way trip to Mars may seem crazy. The concerns are reasonable – to say the least. Even a round-trip to Mars Going to Mars would be extremely risky. Forget about humans, only a handful of robotic missions have been successful in landing on the Red planet. But even if one were to accept these risks, the fiscal costs of a return trip to Mars are so high that such a mission is unlikely to take place in the next several decades. Much of these costs are associated with bringing people back. You nix the return, and going to Mars becomes more plausible.

Some have misinterpreted a one-way trip to Mars as akin to suicide. Indeed, this was the interpretation behind a fatwa issued by the UAE-based General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE). In their opinion – fatwa - it is “not permissible to travel to Mars and not return” if the “chances of dying are higher than living”. Now, GAIAE has issued literally hundreds of thousands of fatwas since its inception in 2008, including about hunting pigeons in cities (seek a permit from local authorities) and on spreading rumors via social network websites (hmm…don’t do it). But predictably, this Mars fatwa got all the attention of the world press, often with headlines that Muslims are forbidden to travel to Mars. Apart from the confusion over what fatwas mean for Muslims, this story is attractive to the international press as it fits the frame of “those crazy Muslims”. But I digress.

A one-way trip to Mars is not intended to be a suicide. It is expected that a habitat for humans, along with the supplies they need to live on Mars, will already be in place before any humans have even set foot on the spacecraft leaving for Mars. This can be done, as cargo ships are relatively cheap.

This is the plan behind Mars One. Starting in 2024, this Dutch company is planning on sending crews of four, departing every two years. There will be no return missions. The plan is to establish a permanent human presence on Mars. They have already winnowed 1058 candidates from a list of two hundred thousand applicants! Two Pakistanis have made it to the second round of selection, and I wish them all the success.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of my students are also amongst the volunteers. But why would anyone go on a one-way trip to Mars? I can understand at least some of the motivation. It gives me goose bumps just to imagine how humans will experience their first steps on Mars. In fact, every action of these pioneers – however mundane - will be historic and full of significance: Washing clothes; taking a stroll; growing a plant. The most difficult part will be living with only a few other humans, all confined to a biodome. Even a brief stroll outside the oxygenated dome will necessitate a space suit. None of this will be easy, but then perhaps, this is exactly what makes it exciting. The risks of death will indeed be higher. But so what? We die on Earth too. Instead of living up to 80 years on Earth, these Martian humans may live up to 40 or 50. But it will be a path-breaking life in the glory of a literally untouched landscape!

This pioneering spirit has always been part and parcel of our species. I can imagine some of our more out-going ancestors taking the risk to expand humans out of Africa to others parts of the world. The spread of the humans on Earth may in fact be a story of a number of one-way trips. Not everyone had to sign-up for it, but a few adventurous spirits were all that was needed. Establishing a permanent human presence on Mars may simply be another step in the history of our species.

All my enthusiasm for this Mars trip aside, I have one big reservation. What if we detect microbial life living on Mars today? In such a case, I would argue to leave Mars to Martians and not interfere in their evolution on their own planet. Unfortunately, the history of our species on Earth also suggests that such a discovery is unlikely to deter any future humans missions to Mars. For the sake of Martians, I hope they are not there.