Monday, December 28, 2009

Is foreign education to blame for Nigeria bomber's radicalism?

There are couple of stories in the newspapers that blame "foreign" education for the radicalism of Umar Abdulmatallab - the Nigerian who was charged couple of days ago for trying to blow up a Delta airlines flight. Here is one at Reuters, Nigeria bomber's home town blames foreign schooling and here is another in Dawn/AFP, Nigerians pulled to radicalism by education, poverty.

I was intrigued by this assertion. So where did he go for schooling and what kind of education did he get there? From the Reuters article:
Abdulmutallab was educated at the British School in Lome, Togo -- a boarding school mostly serving expatriates and students from around West Africa -- before studying engineering at University College London (UCL), where he is believed to have lived in a multi-million dollar city-center apartment.

One friend who knew him in London said he kept himself to himself and always wore a skullcap, rare among young Nigerian Muslims who usually wear such caps only on religious occasions.

Nigeria's This Day newspaper said he had been given the nickname "Alfa" -- a local term for an Islamic scholar -- while at school in Togo, for his preaching to other students.

He also made two trips to Yemen during his student days for short Arabic and Islamic courses, according to a family friend.

Okay - it seems hard to pin down the blame at one place. Was it Togo, UCL, or Yemen? To add more information, here is an article from Dawn/AFP:

Alleged would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is from a well-off family in northern Nigeria but his relatives said he had broken contact with them weeks ago after announcing he was studying in Yemen.

“Whatever religious views he held while studying in the UK, Farouk did not get the crazy idea of bombing a plane until he went to the Middle East for further study,” said Sani, who is also a neighbour to the family.

Scores of agents for Asian and Middle East education institutions are based in northern Nigeria.

Well...that may be the case. But where is the evidence that foreign schooling caused his radicalism? Was he rebelling against a particular curriculum or being educated in a particular form of Islam? As such, these are mostly quotations from Umar's relatives and neighbors - but it troubles me that their statements are taken somewhat uncritically in these articles.

It is possible that foreign education did play a role. But there may be other important factors: issues of identity in a foreign land, rebelling against his own privileged class, having a company of friends with radical views, etc. But those interviewed in the articles seem to have already found an answer - with or without evidence. It is also convenient to blame outsiders. But this strategy may simply divert our attention from the root-cause(s), whatever that might be.

I actually don't know what caused him to turn to the dark side (
My bet would be on his company of friends - rather than his schooling). It is possible that he was indoctrinated in some hate-spewing madrassa (not all are like this, but these do exist), but how much time did actually spend in a school in Dubai and Yemen? The Reuters article states that he went to Yemen for short Arabic and Islamic courses. Were these courses that effective to turn him into a bomber in a short period of time (if yes, then we better have a look at the curriculum)? In this particular case, I'm skeptical about this from the information presented in the two articles (for other posts on the recruitment of suicide bombers and radical madrassas, see here, here, and here). We definitely need more information before reaching any conclusions.

Read the Reuters article here and the Dawn/AFP article here.

Here is another article that fills in some more details, Umar farouk AbdulMutallab - a portrait. This again makes it clear that he was in Yemen and Dubai for a relatively short period of time and his ideas may have been radicalized before his journey there:

According to a family member,he particularly excelled in Physics during his time there. According to a friend, it was here that the first signs of his extremist views started to manifest. "We were together in Lome when the twin towers crashed and we watched it on TV," the friend said. "We used to call him "Pope because of the stately manner in which he carried himself. He was kind of quiet but anytime when there was an argument he would just come alive. After the 9/11 thing he actually defended the Taliban's actions saying that they were provoked.

Everyone thought he was kidding but he stood his ground." In 2004, he graduated from the British School with an International Baccalaureate and applied to study Mechanical Engineering in several universities in the United Kingdom and United States, finally opting for the University College London. He began a three-year course there in September 2005 and graduated with honours in 2008. He lived in a three bedroom basement flat near London's West End. Family members would occasionally drop in to spend time there but primarily he lived there alone.

He returned to Nigeria immediately after and later tried go for a Master's in London. However, the British embassy denied him a visa to pursue his studies after he allegedly used a fictitious college name in his application. He got an admission for a Master's degree in Dubai in the same year, but surprised his parents by saying that he wanted to abandon that for a seven-year Sharia programme in Yemen. According to his family, he travelled to Egypt and Yemen for holiday during his time in Dubai. Ibrahim Lawal, a friend of the terror suspect, said that Mr.Abdulmutallab was a deeply religious individual and often showed an avid interest in the theoretical side of Islamic study."He is very inquisitive," he said. "Always asking questions and always looking to learn new things. He didn't keep many friends because he was very quiet and a bit shy even.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Roots of Religion

Figure 2
The world over. All cultures have religious beliefs, though they express them in diverse ways. (from Science, 326, 5954, p. 784)

CREDITS: (TOP FROM LEFT TO RIGHT) ISTOCKPHOTO.COM; JUPITERIMAGES; ISTOCKPHOTOS.COM; JUPITERIMAGES; WIKIPEDIA (2); JUPITERIMAGES; WIKIPEDIA (2); WIKIPEDIA; JUPITERIMAGES; WIKIPEDIA (2)

Last month, the journal Science had an essay on the origin of religion. It primarily focused on researchers looking at cognitive factors contributing to our belief in a supernatural, and archaeologists searching for the earliest evidence of religious behaviour amongst humans. It is a good short overview, but I'm surprised that it did not discuss in detail ideas that invoke group selection - such as the work David Sloan Wilson and others. To balance this out, check out David Sloan Wilson's lecture at Hampshire College and also a review of Nicholas Wade's book, The Faith Instinct - How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, in today's NYT.

Here are some key points in the Science article, On the Origin of Religion (you may need subscription to access the full article):
This new field, the cognitive science of religion, draws on psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to understand the mental building blocks of religious thought. "There are functional properties of our cognitive systems that lean toward a belief in supernatural agents, to something like a god," says experimental psychologist Justin Barrett of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Barrett and others see the roots of religion in our sophisticated social cognition. Humans, they say, have a tendency to see signs of "agents"—minds like our own—at work in the world. "We have a tremendous capacity to imbue even inanimate things with beliefs, desires, emotions, and consciousness, ... and this is at the core of many religious beliefs," says Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom.

Meanwhile, archaeologists seeking signs of ancient religion focus on its inextricable link to another cognitive ability: symbolic behavior. They, too, stress religion's social component. "Religion is a particular form of a larger, social symbolic behavior," says archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. So archaeologists explore early religion by excavating sites that reveal the beginnings of symbolic behavior and of complex society.
Then it lays out a nice time sequence based on archaeological evidence. It doesn't go into the details here, but I'm fascinated by Neanderthal burials (for example at Shanidar Cave in the Kurdish areas of Iraq) that included rituals 60-80,000 years ago and may possibly hint at their belief in an afterlife (though this last part is heavily disputed):

The first deliberate burials are found at roughly the same time, at a site called Qafzeh in Israel, dated to about 95,000 years ago. Researchers have dug up more than 30 individuals, including a 9-year-old child with its legs bent and a deer antler in its arms. And starting about 65,000 years ago or even earlier, Neandertals also sometimes buried their dead. Henry de Lumley of the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine in Paris has referred to these ancient burials as "the birth of metaphysical anguish."

But others aren't sure what metaphysical message burial conveys. "There can be lots of reasons to bury things; just look at kids in a sandbox," says Barrett. Burial by itself, says archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany, may best be considered a sign of "protobelief."
But these issues are more well-settled when we get to 30-35,000 years ago. Now we start seeing paleo-lithic cave-paintings in Europe, such as the caves at Lascaux and Chauvet:
If they had to name one time and place when the gods were born, Conard and some others might point to 30,000 to 35,000 years ago in Europe. That's when symbolic expression flowered in what's called the Upper Paleolithic explosion (Science, 6 February, p. 709). At this time, Ice Age hunter-gatherers painted strikingly realistic animals—and a few half-animal, half-human figures—on the walls of France's Grotte Chauvet and other caves. They also left small but spectacular figurines in caves in Germany, including a dramatic carved ivory "Venus" reported in May and three "lion-men"—each a carved male body with the head of a lion.
And then from artistic expressions to building structures, such as the various megaliths, starting about 10-11,000 years ago:
Twenty thousand years later, humans reached another religious milestone, building what is often considered the world's first temple at the 11,000-year-old site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey (Science, 18 January 2008, p. 278). There, rows of standing stones up to 6 meters tall march down a high hillside in circles; each massive stone is carved with images of wild animals. "There is the erection of monumental and megalithic architecture for the first time," says excavator Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin.
But then the cognitive side looks at how our mind constructs a world that may also provide clues about the origins of religious belief:
According to the emerging cognitive model of religion, we are so keenly attuned to the designs and desires of other people that we are hypersensitive to signs of "agents": thinking minds like our own. In what anthropologist Pascal Boyer of Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri has described as a "hypertrophy of social cognition," we tend to attribute random events or natural phenomena to the agency of another being.

When it comes to natural phenomena, "we may be intuitive theists," says cognitive psychologist Deborah Kelemen of Boston University (BU). She has shown in a series of papers that young children prefer "teleological," or purpose-driven, explanations rather than mechanical ones for natural phenomena.

For example, in several studies British and American children in first, second, and fourth grades were asked whether rocks are pointy because they are composed of small bits of material or in order to keep animals from sitting on them. The children preferred the teleological explanation. "They give an animistic quality to the rock; it's protecting itself," Kelemen explains.
Along the same lines:

Other researchers find the work intriguing. "If her data are right, we all from childhood have a bias to see the natural world as purposefully designed," says Barrett. "It's a small step to suppose that the design has a designer."

This predisposition to "creationist" explanations has resonance with another tendency in the human mind, says Barrett—something he calls the "hypersensitive agency detection device": looking for a thinking "being" even in nonliving things. In classic experiments in the 1940s, psychologists found that people watching animations of circles, triangles, and squares darting about could identify various shapes as characters and infer a narrative. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie noted in 1993 that this tendency could help explain religion, because it implies we attribute "agency" to all kinds of inanimate objects and ambiguous signals. As Barrett describes it: "When I hear a bump in the night, I think ‘Who's there?’ not ‘What's there?’ ... Given ambiguous stimuli, we often posit an agency at play."

Guthrie suggested that natural selection primed this system for false positives, because if the bump in the night is really a burglar—or a lion—you could be in danger, while if it's just the wind, no harm done.

There is a subsequent discussion of "theory of mind" in the article, but then it briefly turns to the adaptive explanation of religious origins:
...an additional class of explanations for why religion is so prominent in every culture: It promotes cooperative behavior among strangers and so creates stable groups (Science, 3 October 2008, p. 58). Other researchers hypothesize that religion is actually adaptive: By encouraging helpful behavior, religious groups boost the biological survival and reproduction of their members. Adhering to strict behavioral rules may signal that a religion's members are strongly committed to the group and so will not seek a free ride, a perennial problem in cooperative groups (Science, 4 September, p. 1196). Norenzayan and others also note that helpful behavior is more common when people think that they are being watched, so a supernatural god concerned with morality could encourage helpful behaviors, especially in large groups where anonymity is possible. Some researchers suggest that cognitive tendencies led to religion, which then took hold and spread because it raised fitness.
As you can see, there are multiple explanations and (so far) the question is wide-open. At the same time, it is clear that this is an active and exciting area of research. Perhaps most importantly, many of these models provide testable hypotheses and some of these ideas will scientifically prevail over others. I don't know what will be the impact on religion. One can argue that all these models only provide the "how" but not the "why" of religion - thus possibly placing God behind the mechanism that makes the belief in supernatural universal. On the other hand, one may consider it another major retreat of religion - this time not only removing God as the cause of some natural phenomena, but declaring God to be simply an invention of the human mind. Whatever the case, the discussion won't end any time soon.

Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access the article). If you are interested in this area of research, I would also like to recommend a fantastic blog, Epiphenom, run by Tom Rees. Most of his emphasis is on the sociological and psychological aspects of religion, but many of his posts also deal with why people believe in gods.

Terry Pratchett: "I'd rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel"

Here is an excerpt from Terry Pratchett's discussion at The Guardian Book Club. Here he is asked to give his views on God. Its great that he starts with Carl Sagan and talks about the wonder in nature and of human beings. This clip is, as expected, quite funny and I love his punch line: "I'd rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel". Enjoy (its about 8 minutes long) (tip Jim Wald):

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Magic and a toy cement mixer

David Foster Wallace died last year, but New Yorker has recently published a wonderful short story by him. It touches on magic and religious feeling, and I'll leave the rest for your own interpretation. The story is titled All That, and here is a brief excerpt from the middle of the story:
The toy cement mixer is the origin of the religious feeling that has informed most of my adult life. The question, which I (sadly) never did ask, was what my father proposed to do with the Tooth Fairy if he were ever successful in catching it. Possibly, though, another cause for the sadness was that I realized, on some level, that my parents, when they watched me trying to devise schemes for observing the drum’s rotation, were wholly wrong about what they were seeing—that the world they saw and suffered over was wholly different from the childhood world in which I existed. I wept for them far more than any of the three of us knew at the time.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Off topic: A Punjabi Jingle Bell

Off topic, yes. But perfect for Christmas (especially watching it from here in Pakistan). Enjoy! (tip 3quarksdaily)

Blogging from Pakistan: Obama's blind spot in his Afghan-Pakistan strategy

It is quite clear that the world's fault-line these days runs through the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It is also clear that the US long-term interests are in the stability of this part of the world - and this was underscored by Obama's long deliberation and his decision to increase US troops and for a long-term non-military investments in the region. Furthermore, it is quite obvious that any long-term solution will have to include India as well. Thus, it is a bit disappointing that Obama's plan (at least what has been publicized), when dealing with strategy, pretty much treats Afghanistan-Pakistan in isolation. Here is an article that brings back candidate Obama's words on Kashmir and highlight what is missing from his current plan. From Afghanistan: The Forgotten Conflict in Kashmir:

In October 2008, a month before he was elected, Barack Obama correctly identified Kashmir as the rusty nail in South Asia’s body politic. Discussing the situation in Afghanistan, he told Joe Klein of Time magazine that “working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis in a serious way” were “critical tasks for the next administration.” Obama spoke of devoting

serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach, and essentially make the argument to the Indians, you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this? To make the argument to the Pakistanis, look at India and what they are doing, why do you want to keep being bogged down with this particularly at a time where the biggest threat now is coming from the Afghan border? I think there is a moment where potentially we could get their attention. It won’t be easy, but it’s important.

Yet this promise appears to have been forgotten. The most common American complaint one now hears about Pakistan’s security establishment—expressed yet again by Hillary Clinton at a congressional hearing on Thursday—is that it is “obsessed” with India. Her exasperated tone makes this obsession seem purely irrational, an unnecessary diversion from the urgent task of combating anti-American extremists in the region. But Pakistan is growing ever more fearful of an economically stronger India and its new intimacy with the United States. Convinced that America will turn away from Islamabad just as it did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan’s military leaders will be increasingly reluctant to fall in line with Obama’s announced objectives. They may well launch a few token crackdowns on militants, but they are unlikely to abandon the possibility of allowing some of them to remain in reserve in order to unleash them, at a later date, upon India-ruled Kashmir. As always, the road to stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan runs through the valley of Kashmir, and Obama’s failure to even mention a likely solution to the subcontinent’s primary conflict will doom his new strategy just as surely as his other decision to continue assassinating suspected militants with drone missiles.

And here is another article that argues that Obama' administration is reading Pakistan's strategic interests incorrectly and that may end up undermining the recent efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. From Pakistan continues to be Obama's reluctant bride:

The key character in the US president Barack Obama’s Afghanistan fairy tale is Pakistan – the erstwhile protector and enabler of the evil Taliban, but only out of ignorance, despair and an exaggerated fear of India. If only, goes the story, Pakistan could see that the Taliban is plotting to destroy it and recognise that its true interests lie with the noble purposes of the United States, it would ignore India, turn on the Taliban and flush out the insurgents to be crushed by US firepower. And so, a steady stream of US officials has traipsed through Islamabad this year, bearing carrots and brandishing sticks, trying to get Pakistan to see the light

But the Pakistan of Washington’s imagination is a little like the Iraq of Bush Administration’s pre-war imagination – the one that was going to greet its invaders with sweets and flowers. But the US is choosing to ignore the writing on the wall. Just last week, back to back visits by two of the most senior commanders in the US military, General David Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen, failed to convince their Pakistani counterparts to go after the Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani and Hekmatyar networks. Instead, Pakistan’s own counterinsurgency effort will be confined to the Tehrik e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the local extremist group challenging the Pakistani state.
...

American officials like to console themselves that this is simply a case of Pakistani fear of abandonment by the US, to which they respond by professing long-term commitment to Afghanistan. But Pakistan’s generals have a good enough sense of what’s going on the ground, with Nato’s supply lines, and with the US economy, to know that Obama’s surge can’t be sustained.

Moreover, while the US objective is to prop up the government in Kabul, Pakistan’s military leaders see that government as a Tajik-dominated regime that serves as a cat’s paw for India. The Afghan Taliban insurgency is viewed as a Pashtun backlash against a government from which the country’s largest ethnic group is alienated – a government that Pakistan has little interest in propping up. While not favouring a rerun of the 1996 Taliban march on Kabul, Pakistani military chiefs are said to favour a negotiated outcome in which many Afghan Taliban elements, and especially Haqqani and Hekmatyar, agree to a power sharing formula that strengthens Pashtun representation – and Pakistani influence – in Kabul, and devolves power to the regions, which, would put its allies in charge of the south and east. Far from going after the insurgent groups against whom the US is demanding action, such a scenario requires that Pakistan position itself to broker terms with them that would allow for a US withdrawal.

And here are some of the issues that may end up limiting any substantial success in Afghanistan-Pakistan area - and if you add the above-mentioned Kashmir into the equation, we may end up in a status-quo at best:

The US will keep pressing, of course, because even though its military leaders know some form of political settlement is inevitable with a movement rooted in a significant section of the population, they also know that there’s no incentive for the Taliban to offer a compromise acceptable to the Americans as long as it is winning on the battlefield.

Still, Pakistan will likely find ways of deflecting this pressure, as it has since the US first invaded. And the US will therefore be tempted to expand its “drone war”, that allows it to assassinate enemy commanders using missiles fired from remote-controlled aircraft. There have been conflicting reports in the US media in the past week of just how far Mr Obama wants to extend the drone strikes. Going after Haqqani in North Waziristan could rupture relations with Pakistan’s military; going after Mullah Omar and his cohort in the Baluchistan city of Quetta could spark an outrage in Pakistan that forces the military to push back.
These two excellent articles are quite sensible and point to some important blind spots in Obama's strategy. Read Afghanistan: The forgotten conflict in Kashmir and Pakistan continues to be Obama's reluctant bride.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sorcery charges: Saudi Arabia boldly marches into the 15th century

It seems that sorcery charges are on the rise in Saudi Arabia. This would be funny if the consequences for the accused were not so serious, i.e. death sentence and execution. Yes, you did read it correctly - Saudi Arabia has sentenced people to death on charges of sorcery. In addition, Saudis believe that they can arrest citizens of other countries, Muslims and non-Muslims, and can try them on these charges (we'll see how many are brought against US or European citizens). In 2007, Mustafa Ibrahim, an Egyptian pharmacist working in Saudi Arabia was executed for practicing sorcery. To out-do their own idiocy, now they have passed a death sentence against a popular Lebanese TV host, Ali Hussain Sibat (picture above-right), on sorcery charges. He was arrested from a hotel in Medina in 2008, while he was there for his pilgrimage. Now, let me be clear. I don't agree with psychics, astrologers, palmists, etc. Many of them are charlatans (some are genuinely self-deceived) and often prey on the gullible. But all of this pales in comparison to the barbarity of this Saudi law that declares them to be heretics and then executes them. It is not a joke, but if you are carrying a copy of Harry Potter into Saudi Arabia, be careful - you may actually run into the Middle Ages. By the way, just to underscore the injustice even further, there is no legal definition for sorcery in Saudi Arabia. Instead it is on the discretion of local judges. What a pathetic state of affairs. Here is the story from NPR (tip from Jim Wald):
A Lebanese man who hosted a popular TV show where he gave callers advice and sometimes predicted the future was sentenced to death by a court in Saudi Arabia last month. His charge? Sorcery.

Ali Hussain Sibat's popular call-in show was broadcast on a satellite TV channel in Arabic around the Middle East from Beirut. In May 2008, Sibat traveled to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. His lawyer, May al-Khansa, says Saudi religious police recognized Sibat from his TV work and arrested him.

"They took him to prison," Khansa says, "and after that they took him to the court many times, asking him, you have to say that you have done something against religion, and after that we will release you and take you to your country."
...

Sibat confessed to Saudi authorities that he consulted spirits to predict the future. But the authorities didn't release him. Instead, they brought him to a TV studio and told him to confess again. The conversation was broadcast on a Saudi program about religion.

"How do you rate yourself among magicians?" an interviewer asked Sibat.

"What?" said Sibat, clearly nervous. "I have failed. I confess in front of God."

Sibat was then tried in court, and the confession was used against him. He was sentenced to death on Nov. 9. Saudi justice officials would not respond to several requests for comment about his case.

What a shameful act by Saudi authorities. Now, Europe has its own shameful history with witchcraft - especially in early-modern period. There are estimates that tens of thousands of people (predominantly women) were killed on charges of witchcraft between 15th and 17th centuries. There were myriads of reasons but a lot had to do with a society uncomfortable with changing times and looking for someone to blame. Women, especially widowed women, were an easy target. Saudi Arabia is facing its own problems with adjustments to the modern world. But there is simply no excuse of these barbaric acts in the 21st century. Here are some recent sorcery cases in Saudi Arabia (from The Jerusalem Post):

Other cases reveal a zero-tolerance policy towards what the Saudi authorities perceive as witchcraft.

Mustafa Ibrahim, an Egyptian pharmacist working in Saudi Arabia, was executed in November 2007 for sorcery in Riyadh. He was found guilty for trying to separate a married couple "through sorcery," the Ministry of Interior said.

A court in Jeddah tried a Saudi man this month, after he was arrested for smuggling a book of witchcraft into the kingdom.

In a separate case reported by a local Saudi paper, the religious police in Taif arrested an Asian man for "sorcery" and "charlatanry" and accused him of trying to use supernatural powers to solve marital disputes and induce people to fall in love.

Saudi citizen Fawza Falih was sentenced to death for witchcraft in 2006 after a "discretionary" conviction. HRW protested the sentence in 2008, but the Minister of Justice Abdallah Al A-Sheikh responded that the organization had "preconceived Western notions of Sharia (Islamic Law)," and did not answer questions about the judicial process.

According to HRW, after it approached a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Justice in 2008 to define the crime of witchcraft and its associated evidence, "the official confirmed that no legal definition exists and could not clarify what evidence has probative value in witchcraft trials.Saudi Arabia has no penal code and in almost all cases gives judges the discretion to define acts they deem criminal and to set attendant punishments."

Here is another case (from Human Rights Watch):

In another case, a Jeddah criminal court on October 8, 2006 convicted Eritrean national Muhammad Burhan for "charlatanry," based on a leather-bound personal phone booklet belonging to Burhan with writings in the Tigrinya alphabet used in Eritrea. Prosecutors classified the booklet as a "talisman" and the court accepted that as evidence, sentencing him to 20 months in prison and 300 lashes. No further evidence for the charge was introduced at trial. Burhan has since been deported, after serving more than double the time in prison to which the court had sentenced him.

Lets hope this idiocy stops soon.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Blogging from Pakistan: Fielding questions after public lectures

I had a chance to give two public lectures in Karachi yesterday - and they were both a lot of fun. The first one was at Aga Khan University (AKU) - which includes a prestigious medical college, and the other as part of the Science ka Adda (Cafe Scientifique) at the delightful coffees shop T2F 2.0 (it is a lot more than just a coffee shop - please see this media gallery (12/24)). The lecture at both places was titled Humans in the Cosmos: How 400 years of telescopes have changed the way we look at ourselves (see abstract here). Last Friday, I also gave this talk as part of the physics colloquium at Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad.

Couple of quick comments here: A few words about the different settings. Both QAU and AKU lectures were in an academic environment and the audience was drawn mostly from the respective universities. The AKU lecture was part of a new Faculty of Arts and Sciences seminar series aimed at bringing in speakers of diverse academic backgrounds, especially to the AKU medical school. Thus, the settings at both universities were formal and perhaps not much different from a university or a college in the US. T2F, on the other hand, has a very different atmosphere. Unlike a lecture hall, here I was surrounded by people. Plus, one can expect literally any type of question and nothing if off-limits (this was my second Science ka Adda -the last one in 2008 was on Science, religion, and the search for our origins). If you are familiar with tennis tournaments, then you can see the university lectures as a Wimbledon or the French Open (formal and prestigious), and the T2F lectures as the night matches at the US Open in New York (formality is gone, the atmosphere is electric, and any thing can happen).

For my talk I picked three kinds of telescopic discoveries that have influenced the way we think of humanity's place in the universe: a) Imperfections in heavenly bodies, such as the Sun (sunspots) and the Moon, as revealed by Galileo's observations and the resultant demystification of the sky, b) The discovery of Uranus and the subsequent mathematical prediction and discovery of Neptune, solidifying the power of natural science and providing support for a clockwork universe, c) The measurement of distance to Andromeda and the realization that "spiral nebulae" are individual galaxies, and consequently revealing a universe of an enormous scale.

Of course, a number of questions after the talk(s) focused on astronomy and concepts regarding large distances and how can we understand the early universe. Dark matter, dark energy, fate of the universe, prospects for life elsewhere, were the reliable favorites. Some went into subtle details, such as the radius of the observable universe compared to the size of the universe, the shape of the universe, causes for sunspots cycle, etc.

But of course, this is a topic that touches on religion as well. My last year's talk on Origins dealt with religion more directly. But there was an interesting mix of questions this time. Some dealt with the larger science & religion issues: What about the role of God (or some Divine force) in this type (more a clockwork) of universe, what about the fine-tuning argument? etc. Now these are fair and important questions and I am happy to engage on these topics even if I happen to disagree with the person asking the question. However, I also received some odd questions this time: The issue of world coming to an end in 2012 was raised at each of the three venues. Now this is an example of a loony pop-culture import from the US. However, there were also chuckles from the audience each time the 2012 question was asked. May be there is still hope for critical thinking. Perhaps it is good to engage with the topic to dispel at least some of the crazy rumors.

Here is a sampling of some other science & religion questions: One person was of the opinion that there is no point in wasting money and looking for life elsewhere, since the Qur'an doesn't mention any alien beings in the text. Another doubted biological evolution. This topic was brought into the question by talking about the possibility of life on other planets. One person accused me of skipping over Muslims when talking about telescopes. Now this is odd since I especially brought in Al-Haytham (Alhazen) and mentioned that telescopes would not have been possible without his work on optics. Not enough. This person was insistent that Muslims had actually not only invented the telescope centuries before the accepted date of 1608 but that they had also come up with a heliocentric universe much before Copernicus. These views are mistaken but these misconceptions, perhaps, have an interesting reason. Sure enough there were medieval astronomical observatories run by Muslims. In fact, one of the famous ones is the Maragheh Observatory built in the 13th century. However, there were no telescopes in there. Rather, these medieval observatories were built to house instruments that can measure positions (angles) of stars to a high degree of precision. Similarly, there is growing evidence to suggest that medieval Muslim astronomers resolved may of the problems with the Ptolemaic geocentric system and Copernicus borrowed some of these corrections (especially a mathematical solution of al-Tusi). However, at present, there is no evidence that Muslims removed the Earth from the center before Copernicus.

But here are two of the strangest question/comments I received at the lectures: A young (10-11 years old) girl came after the talk and asked me about the fate of "giants" (humans - not animals like dinosaurs) that she claimed are mentioned in the Qur'an. This was a tricky one to respond to. After all she is interested in astronomy and is bold enough to ask a question. Plus, it involves a sensitive topic. I did not challenge her on whether is in the Qur'an or not - because that is not the point - but I did say that there is no evidence of the existence of giant humans. Furthermore, if anything, humans were a bit shorter than today (plus I briefly mentioned other hominid species). Her reaction: she simply dismissed my answer and said that yes, they did indeed exist. Here is a case where I find hard to communicate further. She already knows the answer (her version of the answer) and she is not really asking the question to know any thing new.

But she is young and if she keeps her interest, hopefully she will find out more about human history, etc. However, I also encountered a grown-up who told me that Mars is not really red. Instead, that NASA has been hiding its blue skies from us. Okay....before I bias your general opinion, I should remind you that there were many other fantastic and thought-provoking questions from audience members. But then you get this. How to respond? At first I didn't really understand the question. So I told him that there is nothing special that the sky is blue here on Earth - its simply the way light scatters off our atmosphere (I may have even uttered Rayleigh scattering in there somewhere) - and Martian sky is red because of the color of its dust. But then I realized the tone of his question and asked him - why would NASA change the color of Martian sky in the first place? To hide the presence of an alien civilization, he replied. Ah - but of course. Why didn't I think about it? He claimed that he has a document that shows that NASA is hiding this information along with the fact that Mars has a thick methane atmosphere. Okay - so now again we get to the issue of how to respond to this? There are some interesting elements to talk about. For example, a few years ago some methane was detected in the atmosphere. Initially it wasn't clear if this Martian methane detection was real, but now the detection has been confirmed. But we are still talking about a very small fraction in the atmosphere and there is still much debate about the source of methane: biological (may be from microbial life forms) or from geological processes. So yes, this could have been an interesting conversation. But, no. He was more interested in conspiracy theories and alien civilizations. So I politely turned to another person with a question. But wait: This aliens on Mars person is a CEO of a private "research center"! (it may simply be a home-based operation). In fact, he also offers help on education resources. With educators like this, who needs enemies?

I should be clear that these last few examples were anomalies and over all I had a phenomenal time at all these lectures. For every crank question, there were many that were inspiring and thought-provoking.

P.S. Congratulations Sabeen and others for getting the new location of T2F 2.0 in a fantastic shape in such a short time!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pakistani astronomers shine during the International Year of Astronomy

I have reported multiple times about the phenomenal effort of Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS) in organizing large scale Astrofests (Falakyati Melas) to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) [for example, see here, here, and here]. Now they have an article in the Physics World that provides a summary of their activities, Pakistani Astronomers Shine a Light on the Skies. Here is a note about one of the Melas:

Perhaps the most memorable event took place on 30 May, which saw a gathering of about a thousand local residents and tourists at the historic Rohtas Fort in Jhelum, a couple of hours' drive north of Lahore. The fort, which was completed in 1547, is a blend of Indo-Afghan architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the gates inside the Fort is the Suhail Gate, named after the star bearing the same Arabic appellation (it is known as Lambda Velorum in modern catalogues). Interestingly, there is a saintly dervish with the name Suhail Bukhari who is now buried at the gate, epitomizing the confluence of science and tradition that has shaped the country.
I was amused to read that at another place they had an impromptu poetry reading about the Moon while waiting for the telescopes to be setup. This is not odd at all in the Pakistani context as Urdu verses are often quoted in conversations - from politics to gossip. This is from the Mela in Okara District Public School in Punjab, which drew over 2000 people:

While the astronomers – led by Umair Asim, an astronomer by passion and school teacher by profession – were setting up their equipment, Okara's headmaster Mazhar Hussain arranged an impromptu competition in which attendees were invited to recall verses from Urdu literature about the Moon, which is a popular poetic icon and used as a simile for the beloved.

Once their gear was up and running, the audience were delighted at what they saw, although the lunar craters surprised many who were used to the Moon's established literary image!
Read the full article here. Perhaps more importantly, due to an overwhelmingly positive response, KSS has decided to continue their activities in 2010 as well, and have added an optical microscope to their public sessions - to introduced the other of the invisible universe. A fantastic effort - through and through.

Flying through the known universe

Here is a nice visual tour of the known universe in 6 minutes (tip from Open Culture).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hauser on universal moral grammar and morality in the modern world

Here is an interesting Edge article by Marc Hauser: It seems biology (not religion) equals morality. At one point in the article he talks about in-group favouritism and out-group hatred and dehumanization, and it reminded of the way many Pakistanis talk about Indians (and vice versa). But for a more abhorrent example of dehumanization, check out the way this suicide bomber is justifying killing even children. In any case, here is Hauser's article:
Where I intend to be divisive is with respect to the argument that religion, and moral education more generally, represent the only — or perhaps even the ultimate — source of moral reasoning. If anything, moral education is often motivated by self-interest, to do what's best for those within a moral community, preaching singularity, not plurality. Blame nurture, not nature, for our moral atrocities against humanity. And blame educated partiality more generally, as this allows us to lump into one category all those who fail to acknowledge our shared humanity and fail to use secular reasoning to practise compassion.

If religion is not the source of our moral insights — and moral education has the demonstrated potential to teach partiality and, therefore, morally destructive behaviour — then what other sources of inspiration are on offer?

One answer to this question is emerging from an unsuspected corner of academia: the mind sciences. Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life.

This code, a universal moral grammar, provides us with an unconscious suite of principles for judging what is morally right and wrong. It is an impartial, rational and unemotional capacity. It doesn't dictate who we should help or who we are licensed to harm. Rather, it provides an abstract set of rules for how to intuitively understand when helping another is obligatory and when harming another is forbidden. And it does so dispassionately and impartially. What's the evidence?

To experience what subjects in some of our studies experience, see the moral sense test . It asks for information about gender, age, nationality, education, politics and religion. Once logged in, there is a series of scenarios asking participants to judge whether a particular action is morally forbidden, permissible or obligatory.

Most of the scenarios involve genuine moral dilemmas. All are unfamiliar, for a reason. Unfamiliar and artificial cases have an advantage over familiar scenarios, such as abortion, euthanasia and charitable donations: no one has a well-rehearsed and explicit moral argument for such cases, and for all the cases we create, neither the law nor religious scripture provides any guidance.

For example, if five people in a hospital each require an organ to survive, is it permissible for a doctor to take the organs of a healthy person who happens to walk by the hospital? Or if a lethal gas has leaked into the vent of a factory and is headed towards a room with seven people, is it permissible to push someone into the vent, preventing the gas from reaching the seven but killing the one? These are true moral dilemmas — challenging problems that push on our intuitions as lay jurists, forcing us to wrestle with the opposing forces of consequences (saving the lives of many) and rules (killing is wrong).

Based on the responses of thousands of participants to more than 100 dilemmas, we find no difference between men and women, young and old, theistic believers and non-believers, liberals and conservatives. When it comes to judging unfamiliar moral scenarios, your cultural background is virtually irrelevant.

The second deals with the reasons of moral atrocities in the world:
If this code is universal and impartial, then why are there are so many moral atrocities in the world? The answer comes from thinking about our emotions, the feelings we recruit to fuel in-group favouritism, out-group hatred and, ultimately, dehumanisation.
...

Here lies the answer to understanding the dangers of nurture, of education and partiality. When we fuel in-group biases by elevating and praising members of the group, we often unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, denigrate the "other" by feeding the most nefarious of all emotions, the dragon of disgust.

We label the other (the members of the out-group) with a description that makes them sub-human or even inanimate, often parasitic and vile, and thus disgusting. When disgust is recruited, those in the in-group have only one way out: purge the other.

But there is much room for flexibility:

The good news about the psychology of prejudice, of creating distinctive classes of individuals who are in the tribe and outside of it, is that it is flexible, capable of change and — viewed from an evolutionary perspective — as abstract and content-free as the rules that enter into our moral grammar.

All animals, humans included, have evolved the capacity to create a distinction between members of the in-group and those in the out-group. But the features that are selected are not set in the genome. Rather, it is open to experience.

For example, we know from studies of child development that within the first year of life, babies prefer to look at faces from their own race to faces of a different race, prefer to listen to speakers of their native language over foreigners, and even within their native language prefer to listen to their own dialect. But if babies watch someone of another race speaking their native language, they are much more willing to engage with this person than someone of the same race speaking a different language.

These social categories are created by experience, and some features are more important than others because they are harder to fake and more indicative of a shared cultural background. But, importantly, they are plastic. Racial discrimination is greatly reduced among children of mixed-racial parents. And adults who have dated individuals of another race are also much less prejudiced. On this note, moral education can play a more nurturing role by introducing all children, early in life, to the varieties of religions, political systems, languages, social organisations and races. Exposure to diversity is perhaps our best option for reducing, if not eradicating, strong out-group biases.

But he does back away from purely biological basis for morality and for good reasons:

Lest there be any confusion about the claims I am making, I am not saying that our evolved capacity to intuitively judge what is right or wrong is sufficient to live a moral life. It is most definitely not and for two good reasons.

For one, some of our moral instincts evolved during a period of human history that looked nothing like the situation today. In our distant past, we lived in small groups consisting of highly familiar and often familial individuals, with no formal laws. Today we live in a large and diffuse society, where our decisions have little-to-no impact on most people in our community but with laws to enforce those who deviate from expected norms. Further, we are confronted with moral decisions that are unfamiliar, including stem cells, abortion, organ transplants and life support. When we confront these novel situations, our evolved system is ill-equipped.

The second reason is that living a moral life requires us to be restless with our present moral norms, always challenging us to discover what might and ought to be. And here is where nurture can re-enter the conversation. We need education because we need a world in which people listen to the universal voice of their species, while stopping to wonder whether there are alternatives. And if there are alternatives, we need rational and reasonable people who will be vigilant of partiality and champions of plurality.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Blogging from Pakistan: Hoodbhoy counterpunches Alam

If you are looking for a thorough dressing down of an academic, well...here is a good example (tip Uwe Vagelpohl). The issue of how Pakistan should see American presence in Afghanistan is, justifiably, complex and divisive. A favorite strategy to dismiss arguments these days is to accuse the other side (those arguing for US presence) to be on the American payroll. This way one doesn't have to waste time actually engaging with any of the arguments. So a Northeastern economist, M. Shahid Alam, took some cheap shots at those who are arguing for the presence of US troops in Afghanistan: Native Orientalists at the Daily Times. Amongst those he lined up, included Pervez Hoodbhoy. Now Pervez has written a fitting and entertaining response to Alam, also in CounterPunch. For full disclosure, I'm firmly in Pervez's camp not only because I have tremendous respect for his work in physics, his science popularization, his anti-nuclear efforts and for his human rights work in Pakistan, but also because I happen to agree with his position on the current need for American troops to stabilize Afghanistan (a problem partly created by the US when they recklessly abandoned the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union). Not to spoil your pleasure, here is an uninterrupted full response: The Confessions of a Groveling Pakistani Native Orientalist
Hear ye, Counterpunch readers! The victory of Native Orientalists - the ones which the late Edward Said had warned us about - is nearly complete in Pakistan. It has been led by "the minions of Western embassies and Western-financed NGOs and includes the likes of "Ahmad Rashid, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Najam Sethi, Khaled Ahmad, Irfan Hussain, Husain Haqqani, and P.J.Mir". Thus declares Mohammad Shahid Alam, a professor of Pakistani origin who teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachussetts. [Counterpunch, 2 Dec 2009]

I ought to be thrilled. Now that I am a certified foreign-funded agent/orientalist/NGO-operator who "manages US-Zionist interests", a nice fat cheque must surely be in the mail. Thirty six years of teaching and social activism at a public university in Pakistan - where salaries are less than spectacular - means that additions to one's bank balance are always welcome.

But what did I do to deserve this kindness? My sole interaction with the good professor was in mid-2008, when we shared the speaker's podium at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. Sadly, it was not terribly pleasant.

But then these are not pleasant times. There is carnage in the streets. Blood flows down the gutters and body parts are strewn in bazaars and markets. Suicide bombers have also targeted mosques, funerals, and hospitals. The internet is filled with videos of Pakistan army soldiers being decapitated, pictures of separated heaps of limbs and heads of Shiites, and women writhing under the blows of heavy whips and chains.

The Taliban, mostly from the mountains of Waziristan and other tribal areas of Pakistan, are not particularly shy to broadcast such achievements. For example, their decapitation movies - culminating in heads being stuck upon poles and paraded around town - are watched for free by kids. On 15 February 2009, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan announced a ban on all female education and, at last count, 362 schools have been blown up in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Curiously, these very people also happen to be the heroes of Professor Alam. This self-described "anti-imperialist" and "anti-Zionist" migrant to the heart of imperialism tends to become breathless in his celebration of the brave Taliban "resistance fighters". At the meeting I mentioned above, he received ecstatic approbation from a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Khurshid Ahmad, who chaired the meeting. This praise is also apparent in what the professor writes:

"Yet, in one corner of Pakistan, resistance comes from the sons and daughters of the mountains, yet uncontaminated by western civilisation, firm in their faith, clear in their conviction, proud of their heritage, and ready to fight for their dignity. They stood up against the Soviet marauders: and defeated them. Today, they are standing up again, now against the American marauders and their allies." [Pakistan's Mercenary Elites, by M. Shahid Alam]

Unless the professor is physically infirm, may I suggest that he head for the mountains of Waziristan to help the Pakistani Taliban movement? Or give a helping hand to Al-Qaida, an organization also known for its benevolence? To be sure, he may miss the free lunches the American taxpayer provides to him, but surely there must be satisfaction to be had in strapping a madrassa lad with explosives aimed at a Pakistani bazaar - especially one frequented by unveiled women and brides-to-be.

Politeness aside, I do take serious personal offence on just one matter in his outbursts against the opponents of Al-Qaida and the Taliban. This is when the good professor invokes the name and authority of Edward Said, author of "Orientalism", in condemning me and my colleagues in Pakistan.

Edward was my mentor and hero, the man who wrote a highly positive blurb displayed prominently on the backside of my book on Islam and science. He was also the closest friend of Eqbal Ahmad - my guru and dearest friend. With Eqbal, many were the pleasant evenings that we spent at Edward's apartment on Riverside Drive, New York. When Eqbal died, Edward and I were both lost in grief. When Edward died in 2003, I defended him against a poisonous article published the next day in the Wall Street Journal by a notorious Islamophobe, Ibn Warraq.

So cut it out, professor! Edward Said does not belong to the jihadists and their declared supporters - like you. He and Eqbal loathed their primitivism and utter ruthlessness, as well as their desecration of Islam. Please do not press him into your service.

On the contrary, Edward belongs to those of us on the Left who have worked for the Palestinians and their right to the lands on which they once lived, who keep fighting for justice and democracy in Pakistan, and who fervently opposed America's immoral invasion of Iraq in the streets of Islamabad and elsewhere. Edward was a supreme secular humanist who would have no truck with fanatics of any faith.

I do not know all the "native orientalists" and "brown sahibs" that the professor lists. Perhaps he secretly hopes that they shall receive appropriate attention from jihadist groups. But I do know some of these "traitors" - and they are among the finest people around. A couple, in their youth, had fought against the Pakistan Army in the mountains of Baluchistan. Others have stoutly defended religious minorities and worked to protect civil rights, democracy, and human values.

Professor Alam: be assured that once the expected cheque arrives, I shall be happy to send you a one-way ticket from Boston to Peshawar, from where you will easily find your way to Waziristan with help from your friends there. It shall be no less than business class, in appreciation of the services you render to your cause.

----------------
Pervez Hoodbhoy is chairman and professor at the department of physics, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

Religion, a la carte for Americans

Last week The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report that shows that many Americans mix religions and add new Age spirituality and the paranormal to their religious worldview. For example, 20% of Protestants and 28% of Catholics believe in reincarnation. But this again shows that one can easily construct and live happily with contradictory worldviews. Perhaps, the same can be said for rejections. This is not in the survey, but I can see how educated individuals and users of medical science (such as physicians) reject evolution for religious reasons and yet be totally fine in accepting results about micro-evolution dealing with bacteria and viruses. There may be a flip side to this a la carte acceptance.

But I digress. Lets get back to these fascinating Pew Survey results which, perhaps, are best summed up by Charles Blow in the NYT:
The report is further evidence that Americans continue to cobble together Mr. Potato Head-like spiritual identities from a hodgepodge of beliefs — bending dogmas to suit them instead of bending themselves to fit a dogma. And this appears to be leading to more spirituality, not less. Cue the harps, and the sitars, and the tablas, and the whale music.
I like the sound of "Mr Potato-Head-like spiritual identities". You can find the Pew report here and here is the summary of their findings:

The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories. A new poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination -- even when they are not traveling or going to special events like weddings and funerals. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizeable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts.

One-third of Americans (35%) say they regularly (9%) or occasionally (26%) attend religious services at more than one place, and most of these (24% of the public overall) indicate that they sometimes attend religious services of a faith different from their own. Aside from when they are traveling and special events like weddings and funerals, three-in-ten Protestants attend services outside their own denomination, and one-fifth of Catholics say they sometimes attend non-Catholic services.

Also, if you are interested in political associations, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe in ghosts and consult psychics (tip Lee Specter).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Blogging from Pakistan: Atran on Afghan-Pakistan problem

Since I'm visiting Pakistan these days, the focus of my postings may tip towards issues related to the area. Quite timely, last Sunday's NYT contained an interesting article by Scott Atran on how to deal with Al Qaeeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His main argument is that the US should learn from the recent successes in Indonesia and follow the model aimed at localized efforts. In particular, to take into account local cultural practices - rather than morphing everything into a global ideology. Therefore, he argues that increasing the number of troops may not help - and instead, less may be more. I find the recent Obama's decision to increase troops to be the least bad option, but Atran's article does raise interesting issues. Here are some of the key points from his article:

Talking about successes on the Indonesian front, he looks at the reasons why Al-Qaeeda like groups bond together and offers three key factors:

What binds these groups together? First is friendship forged through fighting: the Indonesian volunteers who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan styled themselves the Afghan Alumni, and many kept in contact when they returned home after the war. The second is school ties and discipleship: many leading operatives in Southeast Asia come from a handful of religious schools affiliated with Jemaah Islamiyah. Out of some 30,000 religious schools in Indonesia, only about 50 have a deadly legacy of producing violent extremists. Third is family ties; as anyone who has watched the opening scene from “The Godfather” knows, weddings can be terrific opportunities for networking and plotting.

Understanding these three aspects of terrorist networking has given law enforcement a leg up on the jihadists. Gen. Tito Karnavian, the leader of the strike team that tracked down Noordin Top, told me that “knowledge of the interconnected networks of Afghan Alumni, kinship and marriage groups was very crucial to uncovering the inner circle of Noordin.”

So what about Pakistan & Afghanistan?

So, how does this relate to a strategy against Al Qaeda in the West and in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Al Qaeda’s main focus is harming the United States and Europe, but there hasn’t been a successful attack in these places directly commanded by Osama bin Laden and company since 9/11. The American invasion of Afghanistan devastated Al Qaeda’s core of top personnel and its training camps. In a recent briefing to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Marc Sageman, a former C.I.A. case officer, said that recent history “refutes claims by some heads of the intelligence community that all Islamist plots in the West can be traced back to the Afghan-Pakistani border.” The real threat is homegrown youths who gain inspiration from Osama bin Laden but little else beyond an occasional self-financed spell at a degraded Qaeda-linked training facility.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq encouraged many of these local plots, including the train bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. In their aftermaths, European law and security forces stopped plots from coming to fruition by stepping up coordination and tracking links among local extremists, their friends and friends of friends, while also improving relations with young Muslim immigrants through community outreach. Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have taken similar steps.

And this is how he forms his strategy:

Now we need to bring this perspective to Afghanistan and Pakistan — one that is smart about cultures, customs and connections. The present policy of focusing on troop strength and drones, and trying to win over people by improving their lives with Western-style aid programs, only continues a long history of foreign involvement and failure.
...

Now we need to bring this perspective to Afghanistan and Pakistan — one that is smart about cultures, customs and connections. The present policy of focusing on troop strength and drones, and trying to win over people by improving their lives with Western-style aid programs, only continues a long history of foreign involvement and failure. Reading a thousand years of Arab and Muslim history would show little in the way of patterns that would have helped to predict 9/11, but our predicament in Afghanistan rhymes with the past like a limerick.

A key factor helping the Taliban is the moral outrage of the Pashtun tribes against those who deny them autonomy, including a right to bear arms to defend their tribal code, known as Pashtunwali. Its sacred tenets include protecting women’s purity (namus), the right to personal revenge (badal), the sanctity of the guest (melmastia) and sanctuary (nanawateh). Among all Pashtun tribes, inheritance, wealth, social prestige and political status accrue through the father’s line.
...

Afghan hill societies have withstood centuries of would-be conquests by keeping order with Pashtunwali in the absence of central authority. When seemingly intractable conflicts arise, rival parties convene councils, or jirgas, of elders and third parties to seek solutions through consensus.

After 9/11, the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, assembled a council of clerics to judge his claim that Mr. bin Laden was the country’s guest and could not be surrendered. The clerics countered that because a guest should not cause his host problems, Mr. bin Laden should leave. But instead of keeping pressure on the Taliban to resolve the issue in ways they could live with, the United States ridiculed their deliberation and bombed them into a closer alliance with Al Qaeda. Pakistani Pashtuns then offered to help out their Afghan brethren.

American-sponsored “reconciliation” efforts between the Afghan government and the Taliban may be fatally flawed if they include demands that Pashtun hill tribes give up their arms and support a Constitution that values Western-inspired rights and judicial institutions over traditions that have sustained the tribes against all enemies.
In fact, he seems to be in support of Pakistan's strategy of dealing through local jirgas:

Pakistan has long preferred a policy of “respect for the independence and sentiment of the tribes” that was advised in 1908 by Lord Curzon, the British viceroy of India who established the North-West Frontier Province as a buffer zone to “conciliate and contain” the Pashtun hill tribes. In 1948, Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, removed all troops from brigade level up in Waziristan and other tribal areas in a plan aptly called Operation Curzon.

The problem today is that Al Qaeda is prodding the Pakistani Taliban to hit state institutions in the hopes of provoking a full-scale invasion of the tribal areas by the Pakistani Army; the idea is that such an assault would rally the tribes to Al Qaeda’s cause and threaten the state. The United States has been pushing for exactly that sort of potentially disastrous action by Islamabad. But holding to Curzon’s line may still be Pakistan’s best bet. The key in the Afghan-Pakistani area, as in Southeast Asia, is to use local customs and networks to our advantage. Of course, counterterrorism measures are only as effective as local governments that execute them. Afghanistan’s government is corrupt, unpopular and inept.

Besides, there’s really no Taliban central authority to talk to. To be Taliban today means little more than to be a Pashtun tribesman who believes that his fundamental beliefs and customary way of life are threatened. Although most Taliban claim loyalty to Afghanistan’s Mullah Omar, this allegiance varies greatly. Many Pakistani Taliban leaders — including Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed by an American drone in August, and his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud — rejected Mullah Omar’s call to forgo suicide bombings against Pakistani civilians.

But the Taliban in Pakistan did spread outside of the tribal belt and into Swat - considered as part of the Pakistan mainland. I'm not sure if this was a retaliation against a government intrusion into the tribal areas was the primary motivation since, at the time, Pakistan army had not seriously undertaken military operations in the tribal belt (things have changed now). The expansion, to me, seemed to have been a momentum issue after some of the Taliban groups had secured power with ease over other local groups in the tribal belt. An expansion into the other parts of Pakistan would have seemed like the next logical step to them. Thus, this may not fall so neatly into Atran's thesis.

Unlike Al Qaeda, the Taliban are interested in their homeland, not ours. Things are different now than before 9/11. The Taliban know how costly Osama bin Laden’s friendship can be. There’s a good chance that enough factions in the loose Taliban coalition would opt to disinvite their troublesome guest if we forget about trying to subdue them or hold their territory. This would unwind the Taliban coalition into a lot of straggling, loosely networked groups that could be eliminated or contained using the lessons learned in Indonesia and elsewhere. This means tracking down family and tribal networks, gaining a better understanding of family ties and intervening only when we see actions by Taliban and other groups to aid Al Qaeda or act outside their region.

An interesting view point. Read the full article here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hey - why steal fingers in the first place?

I'm en route to Pakistan - and saw that folks at Science & Religion Today had asked the followup question to the news of the reunification of Galileo's fingers:

Why would somebody steal Galileo's fingers?
Here is the answer from Bruce Hood (his fantastically reviewed book, SuperSense is on my reading list):

People venerate the mortal remains of the dead. If you think about ritualistic funeral practices around the world, most cultures (but not all) treat the corpse with dignity. Paradoxically, people who believe in the soul and spirits are also inclined to believe in the supernatural “essence” of body parts and bones.

As far as the recent theft is concerned, I don’t think that there is anything intrinsically important about Galileo’s fingers other than the fact that one of his fingers had previously been removed and made into a relic that is currently on display in the Museum of the History of Science in Florence. Another finger relic that seems more appropriate is St. Thomas’ doubting finger, that St. Helena allegedly brought to Rome from Jerusalem, housed in the Chiesa di Santa Croce. Otherwise, people value material objects (sports memorabilia) that have an intimate connection with those they venerate, and what could be more intimate than a body part?

Here is the original link.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

In Pakistan for the next two weeks

I will be in Pakistan until the end of December. In terms of violence, this year has been particularly bad (and that is saying something) - and the prevalence of conspiracy theories over there makes the situation even more depressing. I will post more about it in the next few days. While in Pakistan I'm giving an astronomy talk to commemorate the International Year of Astronomy (IYA). The title of the talk is Humans in the Cosmos: How 400 years of telescopes have changed the way we look at ourselves. There are three conformed dates and please join us if you are in the area:

Friday Dec 18 at 2:30pm: Physics Department, Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU), Islamabad
Tuesday Dec 22 at 10am: Agha Khan University (AKU), Karachi
Tuesday Dec 22 (in the evening): The Second Floor 2.0 (T2F 2.0), Karachi
(I gave a talk on Origins at the old T2F last year and it was a lot of fun - looking forward to being at the new T2F).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new Solar telescope?

There is enough controversy over observatories on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. This is a complex issue and all sides have been engaged in tough negotiations. For optical and near-infrared astronomy, it can be argued, that Mauna Kea is perhaps a unique location. Therefore it wasn't much of a surprise when the it was picked as the preferred site for the Thirty Meter Telescope. But right on the heels of this decision, we get the news that the National Science Foundation has selected the top of Haleakala on neighboring Maui as the site for the largest optical solar telescope. Some of the issues on Maui are the same as on Mauna Kea: religious, cultural, and environmental. And like Mauna Kea, the $300 million solar telescope (The Advanced Technology Solar Telescope - ATST) is also expected to create 35 full-time jobs for mostly locals and inject $18 million annually in Maui's economy. But...it will also require a large structure on a mountain much smaller than Mauna Kea. The telescope structure is expected to be about 140 foot above ground (see specifications at the telescope FAQs) and, as you can imagine, it will be quite prominent on the island. Yes, there are other telescopes already on the mountain, but none has an observatory structure quite as big as this proposed telescope. While the site has been picked, the project still has to be get an approval from the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR).

So how do I feel about the project? I can see why the University of Hawaii would want to have the telescope built over there. It will bring in investment and prestige to the university, in addition to grant money as a result of the telscope. But I think this is a short-sighted decision and can possibly even have negative impact on negotiations taking place on Mauna Kea. It is not always about legal matters and economics alone. Building a long-lasting trust with the local community is equally important. Otherwise, these projects will be mired in more and more lawsuits. I may be missing something here, but how essential is Maui for solar observing? It is quite likely better than Big Bear Lake, California and the Spanish Canary Islands (the two other finalists) - but by how much? Is the improvement we will be getting really worth an additional entanglement with environmental issues and the local Hawaiian culture? I really hope that the NSF weighed on these issues properly and also took any potential backlash on Mauna Kea into account. Personally, I would have advised NSF to pick a site other than Maui.

Here is more information about the decision from The Maui News:
The federal government's Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, a highly controversial project to study the sun that's $23 million in planning and 10 years in the making - so far - will receive the money it needs to be built atop Haleakala.

After the completion of a long-awaited environmental impact statement this summer, National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement officially selected Haleakala last week as the site of the planned 143-foot-tall telescope and funded the $300 million project, according to a decision made public in Tuesday's Federal Register.

A slew of contractors will build the telescope over the next seven years on a half acre within the University of Hawaii's Science City, a cluster of observatories near the summit, said UH Institute of Astronomy Assistant Director Mike Maberry on Wednesday.

However, Maberry said the state Board of Land and Natural Resources still needs to vote on the project in the coming months before it can move forward. Nevertheless, he said he expects construction most likely to begin in the fall of 2010.

"This will allow for the greatest advancement in our understanding of the star that allows life to exist on our planet," Maberry said.

However, the project's opponents, including Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., said the telescope is unnecessary, ugly and extremely disrespectful to the Hawaiian culture. Haleakala is considered a sacred place, in part, because monarchs were buried nearby.

"Now the battle starts," said Maxwell, a 72-year-old with failing health who learned about the decision Wednesday via e-mail from the National Park Service. "It's not over. Native Hawaiians should gather with me, and we will all lay our bodies down in front of the tractors. This will be my last stand.

"There's enough junk up there already to completely annihilate the spirituality of Haleakala," he said.

Read the full story here. Also see a recent post about Mauna Kea here. Plus, here is the official Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) website, and here is one, Kilakila Haleakala, that is opposed to the proposed solar telescope.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The media coverage of Harun Yahya

Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya - see his Miami Vice pic on the right) interviews show up regularly in western newspapers. The content doesn't matter, Yahya loves any publicity in the western press and these articles show up as a centerpiece on his website (click here for his website that spins these article in positive light. The picture above is from his website). He presents this as evidence that he is important enough to be covered by all these newspapers. He frames the criticism of his crude creationism, his fascination with free masons, and his talk of end-of-days & the return of Mahdi as simply standing up to the West. The problem is that many of these articles present his ideas as the only version of Islamic Creationism - and this further legitimizes Yahya's position. Here are some reasons why Yahya's brand of creationism is more accessible to journalists from the West: Yahya has borrowed heavily from US creationists (with modifications for the Muslim world), his books and his website are available in english, and Istanbul, where he resides, may not even seem much different from other European cities [Not to mention that Yahya also offers to fly western journalists if they will interview him].

The problem is that it oversimplifies the complex reaction to evolution in the larger Muslim world. The picture is by no means rosy. But, to isolate the reaction to Yahya is like creating a profile of a typical Muslim by spending all of your time in Istanbul. Sure, you will get a profile - but it will be a mistake to call it the profile. [Nothing wrong with Istanbul - I love it! I'm making a different point here :) ]

Here are two examples where Yahya is covered. While they both mention his legal troubles, neither brought up the egregious errors in his Atlas of Creation. The specific are not important. What is important to highlight is the nature of these mistakes - mistakes that even a high school kid will be ashamed to make. In any here is a report from Australia:

And here is an article by Steve Paulson in Slate. In fact, Steve is aware of some of the pitfalls associated with covering Yahya:

By now my head was spinning—just where could I take this interview?—but I kept wondering why Oktar would bother doing interviews with Western journalists like me. Just how would he benefit from this coverage? I got the answer once I asked him to assess his own influence. With the publication of Atlas of Creation, Oktar claimed that "Darwinism had come to an impasse for the first time in history." He then pulled out a loose-leaf notebook filled with clippings from major European newspapers and magazines and proceeded to quote from them: Liberation had referred to "the book that created a great panic", Stern had likened his book to thunder, and La Stampa had run the headline "Farewell Darwin." The lesson was clear, according to Oktar; most Europeans had lost their belief in Darwinism.

So this was it: Any publicity, no matter how bad, would confirm Harun Yahya's status as a global player in the evolution wars. Taner Edis, a Turkish-American physicist who tracks Islamic creationism, told me later: "Anything you write about Harun Yahya will eventually be quoted in Harun Yahya's own literature and his own Web site. Whether it's distorted or not, inevitably, it will be presented as 'hey, the Darwinists are on the run.' "

No doubt the same will happen with this article. So would we be better off simply ignoring Harun Yahya? Probably not. Yahya has already grabbed the spotlight, not just in Turkey but in Muslim communities around the world. His organization is adept at filling the vacuum where support for evolution is weak, and many scientists in Islamic countries are now wary of defending evolution.
Yes, and articles like this may be helping them fill this vacuum (ok - this may be a bit too harsh - but this is indeed how Yahya spins this coverage). If we do cover Yahya, it is important that we focus on how really bad his science is (Dawkins did this wonderfully here) - and that he only represents a particular context in the larger Muslim world [to be fair, Paulson did bring up Turkish politics when addressing Yahya's creationism]. What is important is to highlight that there are varieties of responses to evolution in the Muslim world - some accept evolution, many reject it. One may have to travel a bit farther than Istanbul to see the full spectrum of Muslim reactions to evolution.

Also see earlier posts:
Yahya still desperately seeking attention
The evolution of Harun Yahya's "Atlas of Creation"
Dawkins shreds Yahya's Atlas of Creation
Internet and the spread of Islamic Creationism
Harun Yahya and the arts