Thursday, September 29, 2011

Room for diversity in Pakistan - including for atheists

by Salman Hameed

Pakistan is an incredibly diverse society. I have encountered people who are surprised to find that there are Hindus, Christians, Parsis (Zoroastrians) there, along with Muslims of many different shades. The problem is that it also has its share of puritans there, who want to create a monolithic society in its own specific image. This is still a minority population - though it has been gaining ground for the past couple of decades. But if we are looking for a transition to the modern world, then we have to embrace the differences. Recently there have been a number of articles in the english newspapers in Pakistan arguing for more tolerance. Some of these were triggered by Pakistan government's unfortunate efforts in the UN, on behalf of the OIC, against protecting basic rights for gays, lesbians and transgender people.

But then, as if to be in an argument itself, Pakistan also produced an excellent new film, Bol, that addresses some of the taboo topics associated with sexuality in the society. I had a chance to see it on my last to Pakistan and liked it very much. The second half of the falters a bit, but its first half is emotionally powerful and deals with local transgender issues. It also questions the escapist and often fatalistic reliance on God in a conservative society like Pakistan. If you get a chance, do see it (see the trailer here).

Just when we settle down for such stories, we then hear about students from Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), beating up students of philosophy at Punjab University. What? Philosophy students? C'mon.

If a larger scientific culture is to emerge from Pakistan, tolerance of other view points have to be the starting point. This tolerance is not just for intellectual matters, but also for differences in faith, sexuality, and ethnicities. It is the feeling that one can say and discuss things without repercussion. The media in Pakistan has become more open to taboo subjects, but it remains to be seen if this is presented as sensationalism or as part of a responsible dialogue. Like everything else, currently it is a little bit of both.

Adding to the tapestry of Pakistan's diversity, is now a group called Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics (PAA). Atheism has never really been an issue in Pakistan - but then there has never been a large explicitly atheist identifiable group either. Some of the earlier socialist (and even communist)  groups in Pakistan, both student and political, have served as a base for some of the less religious as well as those favoring a strongly secular state. PAA is also talking about separation of state and religion, but its primary emphasis appears to be more on identity and raising awareness than politics.

Lets hope we celebrate differences instead of exploiting them.


Shajia said...

Another great commentary, Salman. I came across Irtiqa after attending the Belief in Dialogue Conference in Sharjah. It's a pleasure reading it. Please keep it up!

Akbar said...

In the article, 'A long slow painful process' on their website, the author has noted,
'While it is not proven yet, the science of Astronomy has so far revealed that ours is most likely a perpetual, eternal, infinite Universe.'

Actually it is not. Universe is neither perpetual nor infinite. It had a beginning and it has an end. There is no escape from The Second Law of Thermodynamics infortunately. Why can't the religious pundits and atheistic demagogues at least spare astronomy in propagating their nonsense gibberish of their sick mentalities.
And why the weightless logics on their website were found worth mentioning is anyone's guess.

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks Shajia for reading the blog and for your kind words!

Akbar said...

Oh, I forgot to mention that it is a great commentary though :-)

Faisal Irshad said...

@Akbar "Universe is neither perpetual nor infinite. It had a beginning and it has an end. There is no escape from The Second Law of Thermodynamics "

I haven't read the article yet but if you mean to say that the existence of life in the universe is not eternal due to Secon Law of Thermodynamics then i agree with you for our universe. However, if the multiverse concept is strenghtend by evidence in the future then we can say that the universe and life are to exist indefinitely in the future. Moreover,since the current expansion rate of our universe is increasing, there will be a universe in the future but all the particles of matter might decay and breakup to more fundamental units, hence making the universe inhospitable to life as we know it but we can not say that the universe won't exist.

In the end i would like to commend Salman for bringing up the issue of freedom of speech in Pakistan and implying it to the impediment of progress.

Salman Hameed said...

Yes, as far as we currently know, the universe is going to expand forever and probably would not care about the inhospitality of life :)

Similarly, the idea of eternal inflationary universes is usually accepted due to the widespread acceptance of the earlier phase of inflation soon after the Big Bang. There is no external proof of other inflationary universes, but the dominant view is that it would be odd if that is not the case (from Guth etal).

And astronomers so far don't know if the universe is finite or infinite. You can have a Big Bang - and yet have an infinite universe (from this perspective, big bang happened at infinite locations, and the space has been expanding in infinite locations). Astronomers have been testing use the Cosmic Microwave Background, and early hints are that the universe is finite (though much much much bigger than the observable universe), but this is still not confirmed yet.

So here is how I would rate the three claims:
a) Perpetual: Possibly (comes out of predications of inflationary cosmology)
b) eternal: Most likely (from accelerating universe)
c) infinite: Don't know. Preliminary results hint at a finite universe, but this is not a settled issue. The statement becomes true if we follow a) and what most astronomers assume are eternal inflationary universes everywhere.

Akbar said...

@Faisal Irshad: Firstly the second law does not predict that the Universe is finite. It only suggests that in a closed system, energy can never flow against the gradient whatsoever. One outcome is that the universe did have a beginning for sure. If we are to presume the existence of 'multiple universes', actually these combined together make the universe we will be talking about in future. The concept of many universes will not hold then.
Whether there are parallel universes or if string theory finds a ground, there is no escape from the second law.
The common misconception about the (very vague and highly speculative) idea of multiple universes is that they are 'floating' in a common set of coordinates of space and time. However, when we talk about a universe, it not only encompasses the space but also time, and all this is within the finite confines of a universe, i.e. there is no space or time outside the universe. So if there may be many universes, they are not separated by space or are in a contemporary reltion with each other, as the limits of space and time are confined to this very definition of a universe that we know and understand. So the presence of 'many universes' at the same time does not mean anything, so does the presence of universes one after another, as they wouldn't be bound together by any 'common' frame of reference in relation to space and time. Salman can explain better, he is a pro.