Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pew Survey on Muslim attitudes regarding human evolution

by Salman Hameed

Earlier today, the Pew Forum has released a survey of Muslims in 39 countries. The report is titled The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society and provides a fascinating look into the complex ways Muslims are negotiating the modern world (thanks to Neha Sahgal!). In the past couple of years I have written several posts that have utilized the Pew data about Muslims. You should check out
Pew Study: Mapping the Global Muslim Population
Importance of religion for Muslims and their religious practice
Pew global religious landscape: Young Muslims and the unaffiliated
How the Muslim world sees American science and the drones
Pew Survey: Mahdi, Jesus, devotional dancing and sorcery

What does the new report says? Well, a lot of focus will be on opinions on sharia, opinions on women's rights, and extremism etc. I will also have later posts on that. But let me focus here on the question on human evolution. In 22 countries, Muslims were asked if they think that humans and other living things have a) Always existed in present form, or b) Evolved over time.

Here are the results:

Several things to comment here.
1) Interestingly, most Muslims around the world (median 53%) agree with the statement that humans and other living things have evolved over time. There is a large variation amongst countries, with Muslims in Kazakhstan (79%) and Lebanon (78%) having the highest levels of evolution acceptance and Iraq (27%) and Afghanistan (26%) having the lowest rates.


2) In 13 of 22 countries, more than half of respondents accept human evolution. On the other hand, in only four countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Indonesia) do more than half of the respondents reject human evolution (for good measure, we can throw in Turkey in this as well, with 49%). 

3) Pakistan has the most undecided population, with 30% accepting human evolution, 38% rejecting it, and 32% undecided.

4) There are some fascinating variations within the same geographical regions. For example, Morocco has a higher human evolution acceptance rate (63%) than Tunisia (45%); Iraq's acceptance is low (26%) compared to Jordan (52%), Palestinian territories (67%), and Lebanon (78%). And Bangladesh has a higher acceptance rate (54%) compared to Pakistan's at 30%. On the flip side, Malaysia (37%) and Indonesia (39%) are almost identical - something that we have also found in these two countries in  our oral interviews of Muslim physicians and medical students. 

What is causing these differences? Well, we can look at some other indicators to make some sense of it. The Pew survey also included a question about science and religion. In particular, if Muslims see a conflict between science and religion. Here are the results: 


It seems that most Muslims do not see a conflict between science and religion. This is not surprising as there exists a strong narrative of science and Islam harmony since the late 19th century. So does the variation in science and religion attitudes explain the variations in evolution acceptance rates within the same geographical region? Well, it may possibly work for the case of Tunisia and Morocco (42% of Tunisians think there is conflict between science and religion, compared with only 18% of Moroccans) if one believes that the conflict idea leads to a greater rejection of evolution. But then the opposite is true for the case of Bangladesh and Pakistan, where more Bangladeshis see a conflict between science and religion, but also have a higher level of acceptance of human evolution compared to Pakistan.

And if you are looking for even more variety, you can look at southeast asia, where less than a third of respondents in Thailand (26%), Indonesia (26%), and Malaysia (30%) see a conflict between religion and science, but more than half of Muslims in Thailand (55%) accept human evolution, compared to Indonesia (39%) and Malaysia (37%). Similarly, only a handful of respondents in Jordan, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories see a conflict between science and religion, but only 26% of Iraqis accept human evolution, compared to 52% and 67% of Muslims in Jordan and the Palestinian territories, respectively. 

So what is the grand lesson from all this? Well, it seems that not only is there diversity in human evolution responses of Muslims around the world, but there is also diversity in evolution acceptance and its relation with science and religion perceptions.

5) It seems like the global median acceptance for Muslims is higher than that of Muslims in the US:

On first glance, it may seem that Muslims in the US are being impacted by the American flavor of creationism. Well, may be. There a number of Muslim countries with acceptance rates similar to the US - and may simply be due to some other internal factors. But this is an interesting question and we definitely intend to look into it a bit more. By the way, here is the distribution of evolution acceptance in the US based on religion: 

6) This is probably just a coincidence, but the lowest levels of evolution acceptance is found in Afghanistan (26%), Iraq (27%), and Pakistan (30%). Hmm. Interesting. These are the three countries with substantial recent US military intervention. 

7) Religious observance is correlated only with countries in Southern-eastern Europe: 
In countries surveyed in Southern and Eastern Europe, more religiously observant Muslims are less likely to believe in evolution. In Russia, for example, 41% of Muslims who pray several times a day believe in evolution, compared with 66% of those who pray less frequently. Significant gaps also appear between more and less devout Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina (-19 percentage points) and Kosovo (-14). Views on evolution do not differ significantly by religious commitment in the other regions surveyed.
Again, this is something that needs to be further investigated. But it is possible that the issue of evolution may have become inter-twined with the religious identity of Muslims in souther-eastern Europe. But it is important to note that acceptance or rejection of evolution is not correlated with religious observance in much of the Muslim world.

Fascinating!

I will post more from the Pew report in the coming days. In the mean time, you can find the full report here.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mars triple treat: A fascinating book, an article, and a reality show proposal for a one-way trip

by Salman Hameed

A few things for Sunday.

Article: Last week's New Yorker had a fascinating and well written article by Burkhard Bilger on our changing perceptions of Mars. While it centers on two figures associated with the Curiosity rover, it starts with a longer overview. What struck me was the fact that some people not only imagined "canals" on Mars in the 19th century, but also saw the Hebrew word for Almight - Shajdai spelled out on the surface of Mars. I guess we shouldn't have been surprised then at the later claims of Face on Mars (these are all a result of human propensity to see patterns where none exist - known as Pareidolia). Here is the beginning of the article:
There once were two planets, new to the galaxy and inexperienced in life. Like fraternal twins, they were born at the same time, about four and a half billion years ago, and took roughly the same shape. Both were blistered with volcanoes and etched with watercourses; both circled the same yellow dwarf star—close enough to be warmed by it, but not so close as to be blasted to a cinder. Had an alien astronomer swivelled his telescope toward them in those days, he might have found them equally promising—nurseries in the making. They were large enough to hold their gases close, swaddling themselves in atmosphere; small enough to stay solid, never swelling into gaseous giants. They were “Goldilocks planets,” our own astronomers would say: just right for life. 
The rest is prehistory. On Earth, the volcanoes filled the air with water vapor and carbon dioxide. The surface cooled, a crust formed, and oceans condensed upon it. In hot springs and undersea vents, simple carbon compounds bubbled up to form amino acids and peptides. The first bacteria moved through the ooze; then came blue-green algae, spreading across the planet like a watery carpet, drinking in sunlight and exhaling oxygen, giving breath to everything that came after. Geologists call this the Great Oxygenation Event—the most momentous change in the planet’s history. It seems inevitable now: life’s triumphant march toward complexity, toward us. But like most creation stories this one is also a cautionary tale. It has both a Heaven and a Hell. 
In 1877, when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli drew the first detailed map of Mars, he imagined the planet as an earthly paradise. He labelled one region Eden, another Elysium, others, on later maps, Arcadia and Utopia. Peering through his telescope on the roof of the Palazzo di Brera, in Milan, Schiaparelli had seen what looked like oceans, continents, and water channels swim into view. “The planet is not a desert of arid rocks,” he wrote. “It lives.” And his successors often took him at his word: the sharper their telescopes, the blurrier their vision. They saw mountains of ice and rivers of snowmelt, William Sheehan writes in his 1996 book, “The Planet Mars: A History of Observation and Discovery.” They saw fertile oases and a moss-green equator. They saw an irrigation system so linear and “trigonometric,” as the astronomer Percival Lowell put it, that it could only be the work of a highly intelligent race. Some even saw a Hebrew word for Almighty—Shajdai—spelled out on the planet’s surface. “True, the magnitude of the work of cutting the canals into the shape of the name of God is at first thought appalling,” the San Francisco Chronicle noted in 1895. “But there are terrestrial works which to us today seem no less impossible.” 
By the time humanity got its first closeup view of Mars, a little less than a century after Schiaparelli mapped it, the planet had come to seem like a second, more exotic Earth. Books like “The Martian Chronicles” described a place of eerie desert grandeur, inhabited by slender, tawny beings given to strange hallucinations—Taos without the tourists. And though infrared studies suggested that its surface had seventy times less water than Earth’s driest desert, biologists still hoped for the best. “Given all the evidence presently available, we believe it entirely reasonable that Mars is inhabited with living organisms and that life independently originated there,” a study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded in March, 1965. 
The search for life on Mars is now in its sixth decade. Forty spacecraft have been sent there, and not one has found a single fossil or living thing. The closer we look, the more hostile the planet seems: parched and frozen in every season, its atmosphere inert and murderously thin, its surface scoured by solar winds. By the time Earth took its first breath three billion years ago, geologists now believe, Mars had been suffocating for a billion years. The air had thinned and rivers evaporated; dust storms swept up and ice caps seized what was left of the water. The Great Desiccation Event, as it’s sometimes called, is even more of a mystery than the Great Oxygenation on Earth. We know only this: one planet lived and the other died. One turned green, the other red.
Book: Linked with the 19th century fascination with Mars and the discovery, here is an NPR review of a fiction novel set in Egypt. Equilateral by Ken Kalfus has a great premise and it is on my reading list:
The real-life premise is this: In the late 19th century, astronomers spotted what they thought were canals on Mars. Many of those astronomers theorized that, therefore, there must be life on the red planet. Kalfus' fictional astronomer, Sanford Thayer, is an Englishman who's obsessed with the dream of contacting the Martians. Thayer has
launched an internationally funded project to carve out an enormous equilateral triangle — 300 miles to each side — in the Western deserts of Egypt. Once it's dug out, the triangle will be filled with petroleum. Here's how Kalfus' somewhat pompous omniscient narrator describes the rest of the plan: 
"[S]ometime before dawn on June 17, 1894, at the moment of Earth's most favorable position in the Martian sky, the petroleum pooled in the trenches on each Side of the Equilateral will be ignited simultaneously, launching a Flare from the Earth's darkened limb that across millions of miles of empty space will petition for man's membership in the fraternity of planetary civilizations." 
Throughout the opening chapters of his novel, Kalfus is so captivated by his own fictional fantasy of that giant triangular 19th century greeting card flashing into space that he's content to just elaborate on the details. He describes how 900,000 native workers toil deep in what Thayer calls "the Great Sand Sea"; those workers are under strict command not to deviate one inch in their digging lest the Martians mistakenly think that a geometrically imprecise triangle is a natural, rather than a man-made, phenomenon. That's why, when the workers stumble upon the tip of a buried pyramid as they're digging a 40-foot trench on one side of the Equilateral, Thayer orders them to bury the pyramid again and pour the pitch over it. At this point, we readers begin to catch on that Thayer, in the fine literary tradition of Englishmen abroad, has stayed out in the midday sun too long. 
The great lure of Kalfus' kooky novel, at first, lies in its central premise: The book even contains diagrams to help readers visualize the growing triangle and the astronomical glide of Mars and Earth relative to the sun. We feel the blistering heat and the invasiveness of little "daggered" grains of sand that scratch the eyepieces of Thayer's telescopes, even when they're carefully packed away in Chinese cedar cabinets. Given that this is a novel preoccupied with geometrical design, it makes sense that the main characters here — Thayer, his lovelorn secretary, his solicitous native servant, and the practical British engineer on the project — drift closer and further from each other in shifting triangulated alliances. But halfway through this little book, a more ambitious theme begins emerging. Without giving the startling particulars away, I'll just say that violence erupts in the desert, stirring up a veritable sandstorm of troubling philosophical questions, all of them having to do with whether or not we Earthlings even have the right to think of ourselves as embodying "intelligent life."

Reality Show: Who knows when a human mission top Mars will ever take place. However, it seems that the chances for an earlier mission have gone up because of Mars One - a non-profit group. The Idea is to make a reality show of the first explorers on Mars - and we will all pay big bucks to see them prepare and then travel - one way - to Mars. The idea of a one-way travel to Mars has been around for a while and I see it as quite reasonable. After all, (some) humans have always been explorers and this will be a continuation of that tradition. Here is a bit about the idea:
But Mars One stands apart in very important ways: First, it will strive to be self-financed by selling the astronaut selection process, launch and landing as a reality television show. Second, the lucky winners will live out their lives in an inflatable habitat on another planet.
"If somebody's an outdoors person who says, 'I need my mountains, I need to smell the flowers,' then it's not the mission for him," says Norbert Kraft, the group's chief medical officer. 
Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp says that the idea of selling the trip as prime-time television really seemed doable after he saw the revenue numbers from the London Olympics. That event garnered more than $4 billion in just over three weeks, he says. With that in mind, the mission's $6 billion price tag "is actually a bargain." 
In fact, there will be a lot more to watch than the launch and landing. Even today, visitors to the Mars One website can check out public videos from applicants and vote on who they like the most. Those liked more will be more likely to go on to the next round of astronaut selection. Future rounds will be televised: Participants in each nation will square off against each other with only a single participant making his or her way to years of training. That final round will be an internationally broadcast show in which six teams of four vie for the chance to get voted off of Earth.
Here is the call for applicants:


Enjoy!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Gallup: Drones on others are fine - but not on us!

by Salman Hameed

Here is the least surprising hypocritical poll result: Almost two-third of Americans feel that it is okay for the US government to launch airstrikes against suspected terrorists in other countries. But only 13% say that the drone strikes are okay if the suspect is a US citizen living in the United States. I'm sure that this number would go up if it is known the suspect is a Muslim! (actually, this is not a joke. This is probably true).

Here is the Gallup poll:

And don't worry. While the Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on anything, there is a bipartisan support for this particular drone view (yay - for bipartisanship!). Here is the same question on party-lines (Democrats come off slightly better):


Two somewhat related things. First, for your entertainment purposes, watch this painful Daily Show segment about the Fox's reaction of the Boston marathon bombing suspects' religious identity: "ban Muslim students from entering the US"; "wiretap mosques"; and of course from the incomparable Ann Coulter: "jail time for wearing hijab". Can anyone get away with saying this kind of stuff about any other ethnic or religious group?

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Second, here is a fantastic article on the reasons why the US-Pakistan relations took a nose-dive in the last couple of years. Here is Mark Mazzetti's article, How a single spy helped turn Pakistan against the United States. I highly recommend this article as it gets the situation in Pakistan. But Mark Mazzetti has been writing about the increasing militarization of the CIA - and that Pakistan is the test case for its new role. I haven't read his book, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the End of the Earth yet, but it looks fantastic and it has long sections on CIA's war in Pakistan.

In any case, here are some highlights from the NYT article which primarily about the Davis Affair in Lahore:
A city once ruled by Mughals, Sikhs and the British, Lahore is Pakistan’s cultural and intellectual capital, and for nearly a decade it had been on the fringes of America’s secret war in Pakistan. But the map of Islamic militancy inside Pakistan had been redrawn in recent years, and factions that once had little contact with one another had cemented new alliances in response to the C.I.A.’s drone campaign in the western mountains. Groups that had focused most of their energies dreaming up bloody attacks against India were now aligning themselves closer to Al Qaeda and other organizations with a thirst for global jihad. Some of these groups had deep roots in Lahore, which was why Davis and a C.I.A. team set up operations from a safe house in the city.
So the CIA's drone campaign has united disparate militant groups against the US. Talk about unintended consequences.

And here is a flavor of the way CIA's militarism has trumped diplomacy of the State Department. This is chilly:
The Davis affair led Langley to order dozens of covert officers out of Pakistan in the hope of lowering the temperature in the C.I.A. – I.S.I. relationship. Ambassador Munter issued a public statement shortly after the bizarre court proceeding, saying he was “grateful for the generosity” of the families and expressing regret for the entire incident and the “suffering it caused.” 
But the secret deal only fueled the anger in Pakistan, and anti-American protests flared in major cities, including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. Demonstrators set tires ablaze, clashed with Pakistani riot police and brandished placards with slogans like “I Am Raymond Davis, Give Me a Break, I Am Just a C.I.A. Hit Man.” 
The entire episode — and bin Laden’s killing in Abbottabad later that spring — extinguished any lingering productive relations between the United States and Pakistan. Leon Panetta’s relationship with General Pasha, the I.S.I. chief, was poisoned, and the already small number of Obama officials pushing for better relations between Washington and Islamabad dwindled even further. Munter was reporting daily back to Washington about the negative impact of the armed-drone campaign and about how the C.I.A. seemed to be conducting a war in a vacuum, oblivious to the ramifications that the drone strikes were having on American relations with Pakistan’s government. 
The C.I.A. had approval from the White House to carry out missile strikes in Pakistan even when the agency’s targeters weren’t certain about exactly whom they were killing. Under the rules of so-called “signature strikes,” decisions about whether to fire missiles from drones could be made based on patterns of activity deemed suspicious. For instance, if a group of young “military-age males” were observed moving in and out of a suspected militant training camp and were thought to be carrying weapons, they could be considered legitimate targets. American officials admit it is nearly impossible to judge a person’s age from thousands of feet in the air, and in Pakistan’s tribal areas, adolescent boys are often among militant fighters. Using such broad definitions to determine who was a “combatant” and therefore a legitimate target allowed Obama administration officials at one point to claim that the escalation of drone strikes in Pakistan had not killed any civilians for a year. It was something of a trick of logic: in an area of known militant activity, all military-age males could be considered enemy fighters. Therefore, anyone who was killed in a drone strike there was categorized as a combatant. 
The perils of this approach were laid bare on March 17, 2011, the day after Davis was released from prison and spirited out of the country. C.I.A. drones attacked a tribal council meeting in the village of Datta Khel, in North Waziristan, killing dozens of men. 
Ambassador Munter and some at the Pentagon thought the timing of the strike was disastrous, and some American officials suspected that the massive strike was the C.I.A. venting its anger about the Davis episode. More important, however, many American officials believed that the strike was botched, and that dozens of people died who shouldn’t have. 
Other American officials came to the C.I.A.’s defense, saying that the tribal gathering was in fact a meeting of senior militants and therefore a legitimate target. But the drone strike unleashed a furious response in Pakistan, and street protests in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar forced the temporary closure of American consulates in those cities.
Munter said he believed that the C.I.A. was being reckless and that his position as ambassador was becoming untenable. His relationship with the C.I.A. station chief in Islamabad, already strained because of their disagreements over the handling of the Davis case, deteriorated even further when Munter demanded that the C.I.A. give him the chance to call off specific missile strikes. During one screaming match between the two men, Munter tried to make sure the station chief knew who was in charge, only to be reminded of who really held the power in Pakistan. 
“You’re not the ambassador!” Munter shouted. 
“You’re right, and I don’t want to be the ambassador,” the station chief replied. 
This turf battle spread to Washington, and a month after Bin Laden was killed, President Obama’s top advisers were arguing in a National Security Council meeting over who really was in charge in Pakistan. At the June 2011 meeting, Munter, who participated via secure video link, began making his case that he should have veto power over specific drone strikes. 
Panetta cut Munter off, telling him that the C.I.A. had the authority to do what it wanted in Pakistan. It didn’t need to get the ambassador’s approval for anything. 
“I don’t work for you,” Panetta told Munter, according to several people at the meeting.
But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Munter’s defense. She turned to Panetta and told him that he was wrong to assume he could steamroll the ambassador and launch strikes against his approval. 
“No, Hillary,” Panetta said, “it’s you who are flat wrong.” 
There was a stunned silence, and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon tried to regain control of the meeting. In the weeks that followed, Donilon brokered a compromise of sorts: Munter would be allowed to object to specific drone strikes, but the C.I.A. could still press its case to the White House and get approval for strikes even over the ambassador’s objections. Obama’s C.I.A. had, in essence, won yet again.         
Read the full article here

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

New book on Ibn al-Nafis' work on pulmonary transit of blood

by Salman Hameed

For those interested in history of science, there is a new book coming out on the work of Ibn al-Nafis: Science and Religion in Mamluk Egypt: Ibn al-Nafis, Pulmonary Transit and Bodily Resurrection by Nahyan Fancy. Here are the details:

The discovery of the pulmonary transit of blood was a ground-breaking discovery in the history of the life sciences, and a prerequisite for William Harvey’s fully developed theory of blood circulation three centuries later. This book is the first attempt at understanding Ibn al-Nafis’s anatomical discovery from within the medical and theological works of this thirteenth century physician-jurist, and his broader social, religious and intellectual contexts. 
Although Ibn al-Nafis did not posit a theory of blood circulation, he nevertheless challenged the reigning Galenic and Avicennian physiological theories, and the then prevailing anatomical understandings of the heart. Far from being a happy guess, Ibn al-Nafis’s anatomical result is rooted in an extensive re-evaluation of the reigning medical theories. Moreover, this book shows that Ibn al-Nafis’s re-evaluation is itself a result of his engagement with post-Avicennian debates on the relationship between reason and revelation, and the rationality of traditionalist beliefs, such as bodily resurrection. 
Breaking new ground by showing how medicine, philosophy and theology were intertwined in the intellectual fabric of pre-modern Islamic societies, Science and Religion in Mamluk Egypt will be of interest to students and scholars of the History of Science, the History of Medicine and Islamic Studies. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Two excellent articles on Boston Bombings

by Salman Hameed

By now you have been saturated about the causes for last week's bombings. And yes - things are more much more complicated than "Islam is the motivation for bombings". I would like to point you to two articles that provide a nuanced analysis of the reasons why some young Muslims living in western Europe or in the US turn to violence. The first article is by Olivier Roy - who I think is one of the most interesting thinkers on the topic of Islam and globalization. If you have a chance, you should definitely read Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. The second article is by Scott Atran. He also has been fantastic work investigating the reasons for radicalization amongst younger Muslims. He was also our speaker for our Science and Religion Lecture Series at Hampshire College and you can see the video of his talk For Friend and Faith: The Paths and Barriers to Political Violence.

Here is first an intro of Olivier Roy's work in The New Republic:
Roy’s view is relevant in understanding the alleged Boston marathon bombers. A decade ago, Roy was pointing out that al Qaeda was drawing many of its recruits from Western Europe rather than from Saudi Arabia or Palestine or Pakistan. He saw al Qaeda as a product of the failure of Arab nationalism and Marxism-Leninism to establish viable popular societies. Its tactics and outlook derived from the Red Army Faction or Red Brigades or the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine rather than from the Koran or from religious factions within Islam. Al Qaeda, Roy wrote in The Illusions of September 11, is “a junction of a radicalized Islam with a shrill anti-imperialism reshaped by globalization.” 
Accordingly, Roy rejected the idea that al Qaeda’s adherents in Europe were simply products of Islam and that their motivation should be seen as religious. Instead, he believed, they sought what he called an “imaginary Ummah,” a radical community of belief that was not strictly speaking part of the ordinary world of Islamic belief. That’s where I thought Roy’s analysis might be relevant to understanding Boston and the Tsarnaev brothers. 
It seemed to me that the suspected brothers could be understood as further extensions of Roy’s thesis. Like the Fort Hood terrorist, Nidal Malik Hasan, they don’t appear to be products of organized religion or organized politics. They represent, in effect, the reductio ad absurdum of al Qaeda’s global politics, which never had a realistic objective to begin with. A new caliphate? With Hasan or the Tsarnaevs, the act itself becomes the objective – an awful theaterical spectacle in which the terrorists are directors and stars.
And here is the direct response from Roy Olivier:
I wanted to ask you about the two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who allegedly set off the two bombs at the Boston Marathon.  In your book, Globalized Islam, you recounted how many terrorists who act in the name of Islam were brought up in Western Europe rather than in the Middle East and who are often provoked by events outside the Middle East. Are these two brothers, who were largely raised in the United States, more evidence for your thesis? 
Yes, my idea from the beginning was that Al Qaeda and the people who used the mark of Al Qaeda were not really concerned with the core—with the Middle East, the Middle East of Palestine. They were more concerned by the periphery of the Middle East than the core of the Middle East. They were usually more concerned with Bosnia and Afghanistan, Chechnya at the end of the ‘90s; it is now Mali, Mauritania and Yemen, which is the only place where they are strong. Most of these guys have a global trajectory, they were born in one place, they go to fight somewhere else. These guys were born in Kyrgyzstan, they went to Dagestan, they speak Russian, they came to the United States very young,  they were educated in the United States, they speak English without an accent and so on. 
And they seemed to have discovered Islam in the United States rather than in Dagestan or Kyrgyzstan? 
Same thing with Mohammed Merah, the killer in Toulouse last year. They are self-radicalizing in a Western environment.
And this is the key point:
In your book, and also in your previous book on political Islam, you describe a transition from the nationalist and Marxist-Leninist movements in the Middle East after World War II to a stateless movement like Al Qaeda. Now we have something beyond that, where the terrorists may not even belong to, or be under orders from a specific group, but may only have been influenced by a radical preacher they heard. I am thinking of the Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan who killed thirteen people at Fort Hood in 2009. 
Yes, globalization and individualization are the two terms. Instead of organization, they connect through the Internet. They connect to a virtual Ummah not to a real society. For instance, most of them didn’t socialize in a Western community. They may have gone to mosques, but they were never an integral part of a congregation, they have no real life, social life. Their social life is through the Internet, all of them.
Read the full article here.

Scott Atran, overall, gives the same reasons. However, he is also concerned about the over-eaction of the media and the US. Here he is writing in Foreign Policy:
Under sponsorship by the Defense Department, my multidisciplinary, multinational research team has been conducting field studies and analyses of the mental and social processes involved in radicalization at home and abroad. Our findings indicate that terrorist plotters against Western civilian populations tend not to be parts of sophisticated, foreign-based command-and-control organizations. Rather, they belong to loose, homegrown networks of family and friends who die not just for a cause, but for each other. Jihadists pretty much span the population's normal distribution: There are very few psychopaths and sociopaths, few brilliant thinkers and strategists. Jihadi wannabes today are mostly emerging adults in transitional stages of their lives -- students, immigrants, in search of jobs or companions -- who are especially prone to movements that promise a meaningful cause, camaraderie, adventure, and glory. Most have a secular education, becoming "born again" into the jihadi cause in their late teens or 20s. The path to radicalization can take years, months, or just days, depending on personal vulnerabilities and the influence of others. 
Occasionally there is a hookup with a relative, or a friend of a friend, who has some overseas connection to someone who can get them a bit of training and motivation to pack a bag of explosives or pull a trigger, but the Internet and social media are usually sufficient for radicalization and even operational preparation. 
The result is not a hierarchic, centrally commanded terrorist movement but a decentralized, self-organizing, and constantly evolving complex of social networks based on contingent adaptations to changing events. These are no real "cells," but only clusters of mostly young men who motivate one another within "brotherhoods" of real and fictive kin. Often, in fact, there is an older brother figure, a dominant personality who mobilizes others in the group. But rarely is there an overriding authority or father figure. (Notably, for these transitional youth, there's often an absence of a real father). 
Some of the most successful plots, such as the Madrid and London bombings, are so anarchic, fluid, and improbable that they succeeded in evading detection despite the fact that intelligence and law enforcement agencies had been following some of the actors for some time. Three key elements characterize the "organized anarchy" that typifies modern violent Islamic activism: Ultimate goals are vague and superficial (often no deeper than revenge against perceived injustice against Muslims around the world); modes of action are decided pragmatically on the basis of trial and error or based on the residue of learning from accidents of past experience; and those who join are not recruited but are locally linked self-seekers -- often from the same family, neighborhood, or Internet chat room -- whose connection to global jihad is more virtual than material. Al Qaeda and associates do not so much recruit as attract disaffected individuals who have already decided to embark on the path to violent extremism with the help of family, friends, or a few fellow travelers. 
And here is the possible reason for their radicalization:
 Like the young men who carried out the Madrid and London attacks, most homegrown jihadi plotters first hook up with the broad protest sentiment against "the global attack on Islam" before moving into a narrower parallel universe. They cut ties with former companions who they believe are too timid to act and cement bonds with those who are willing to strike. They emerge from their cocoon with strong commitment to strike and die if necessary, but without any clear contingency planning for what might happen after the initial attack. 
For the first time in history, a massive, media-driven political awakening has been occurring -- spurred by the advent of the Internet, social media, and cable television -- that can, on the one hand, motivate universal respect for human rights while, on the other, enable, say, Muslims from Borneo to sacrifice themselves for Palestine, Afghanistan, or Chechnya (despite almost no contact or shared history for the last 50,000 years or so). 
When perceived global injustice resonates with frustrated personal aspirations, moral outrage gives universal meaning and provides the push to radicalization and violent action.
But the popular notion of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance. This is the dark side of globalization. 
And of course, this also reminded me of Mohsin Hamid's wonderful book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (the film version by Mira Nair is being released in the US next week).

Here is Atran again:
Take Faisal Shahzad, the would-be bomber of Times Square in 2010, or Maj. Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009. Both were apparently inspired by the online rhetoric of Anwar al-Awlaki, a former preacher at a Northern Virginia mosque who was killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011. Although many commentators leapt to the conclusion that Awlaki and his ilk deviously brainwashed and recruited Shahzad and Hassan, in fact they sought out the popular Internet preacher because they were already radicalized to the point of wanting further guidance to act. As Defense Department terrorism consultant Marc Sageman notes: "Just like you saw Major Hasan send 21 emails to al-Awlaki, who sends him two back, you have people seeking these guys and asking them for advice." More than 80 percent of plots in both Europe and the United States were concocted from the bottom up by mostly young people just hooking up with one another. 
Especially for young men, mortal combat with a "band of brothers" in the service of a great cause is both the ultimate adventure and a road to esteem in the hearts of their peers. For many disaffected souls today, jihad is a heroic cause -- a promise that anyone from anywhere can make a mark against the most powerful country in the history of the world. But because would-be jihadists best thrive and act in small groups and among networks of family and friends -- not in large movements or armies -- their threat can only match their ambitions if fueled way beyond actual strength. And publicity is the oxygen that fires modern terrorism. 
Read the full article here.

SSiMS talk on Evolution in Middle Eastern Education Policy tomorrow at Noon

by Salman Hameed

The Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) and the School of Cognitive Science at Hampshire College are hosting a lunch talk tomorrow (Wednesday) by Elise K. Burton. Join us if you are in the area. Here are the details of the talk:


Evolution in Middle Eastern Education Policy: The View from Iran, Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia
by Elise K. Burton, PhD candidate at Harvard University

Abstract: To date, much research on the reception and teaching of evolutionary theory in Muslim societies has assumed that religious attitudes take precedence in determining whether and how evolution is publicly accepted, rejected, or taught in schools. A corollary of these assumptions has been that countries governed on Islamic theocracy models would be more averse than "secular democracies" to including evolution within their national curricula. But are Islam and secularism always the right categories of analysis? A comparative study of science education policy in Middle Eastern states found that neither Islam as a state religion, nor the level of state religiosity, was sufficient to predicting the treatment of evolution within national science curricula. These results call for a nuanced understanding of the position of science in Muslim-majority states today, and understanding that incorporates historical, political and sociological contexts alongside theology, belief, and culture.

Biographical statement: Elise K. Burton is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern Studies & History at Harvard University. Her dissertation research examines the history of human biology research and its relationship to ethnic nationalist politics in 20th century Iran, Turkey, and Israel.

In the Adele Simmons Hall (ASH) Lobby at Hampshire College.      
A light lunch will be available at noon.



Sunday, April 21, 2013

Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) and a Washington imam for gay marriage

by Salman Hameed

Globalization and modernity are bringing issues of freedom of speech and religious freedom to the forefront everywhere, including in Muslim societies. There is and will be an intense debate about the shaping of "the" Islamic response to these changes. However, as has been the case historically, we are going to see a variety of responses. The focus in much of the discussions will be on the nature of faith - public versus private. The new trend of using "insult to Islam" to persecute a broad range of opposition - from non-orthodox sects to atheism - is one of the battlegrounds on the nature of contemporary faith in Islam. The issue of homosexuality, certainly, is another location where we are doing to see an intense debate over the meaning of faith in the 21st century. But even apart from such hot-buttion topics, Muslims are taking diverse stands on a whole variety of issues. Can and should women lead men in prayers? Is it necessary to sacrifice animals for Eid al Adha? And of course, then we have also Punk Islam - and all bets are off with punk!

In the US, there is now group called Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV). They are being equated with Reform Judaism and with Unitarian Universalism. They have nine chapters so far and I think they are have a tremendous potential to grow and to address some of the contemporary issues in religion and society. Perhaps, most importantly, they provide an inclusive umbrella to Muslims with diverse values. This is how they define their mission:
Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) is an inclusive community rooted in the traditional Qur’anic ideals of human dignity and social justice. We welcome all who are interested in discussing, promoting and working for the implementation of progressive values — human rights, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state — as well as inclusive and tolerant understandings of Islam. 
It is absolutely refreshing to see the presence of such a group!

One of their members is an Imam in a mosque in Washington, D.C. He is gay and supports gay marriage in the US. This is phenomenal! About a year ago, I had a post about a French imam who supervised the wedding of two Muslim men. I thought at the time that this cannot be the only place incident of this nature, when there already are Muslim LGBT groups (such as The Muslims Alliance for Gender and Sexual Diversity) and outspoken activists like Irshad Manji.

The Washington Imam's support for gay marriage fits perfectly in this context. It is also a nice contrast to the low-level of discourse (predominantly from the Republicans) on gay marriage in the US. Here is the story from the Washington Post:

Imam Daayiee Abdullah arrives by bus, sweaty and lugging a green bag stuffed with a
Koran, two books of poetry by Persian mystic Rumi and three Islamic prayer rugs. Tonight, he’s speaking to a room full of young, gay activists and progressives after a screening of the documentary “I Am Gay and Muslim” at the Human Rights Campaign’s bright white Equality Center in downtown Washington. 
But when the openly gay imam takes the stage, he stuns even this audience.
“I think we’re at the start of a movement: a more inclusive Islam in America,” says Abdullah, who runs Washington’s Light of Reform mosque and is thought to be the only publicly gay Muslim leader in the Western Hemisphere. 
“So if you have any same-sex marriages,” he says with a soft smile and a shrug, “I’m available.”
Some young Muslims in attendance mumble, “Wow!” and “Seriously?” 
As more states legalize same-sex marriage, it’s easy to forget that segments of society, particularly in immigrant communities, regard homosexuality as a potentially deadly secret — one rarely revealed to relatives in places like Sudan or Saudi Arabia, where being gay can be punishable by death. 
For many gay immigrants, the values of their adopted and native countries are at odds. The gay Muslim Americans who live relatively public lives in the Washington area are a case in point. They date openly, and are often out at work, but when it comes to getting married, they don’t dare share the news with family back home, who could become targets of abuse or economic boycotts — and even jailed — if it became common knowledge. 
Abdullah, an African American convert to Islam who is part of a national network of progressive Muslims, is the keeper of their secrets. He quietly helps gay Muslim couples get married, counseling them beforehand and keeping the ceremonies low-profile.
Read the full article here.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Saturday Video: Robert Hazen on "The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins"


by Salman Hameed

For your Saturday, here is a fantastic talk by Robert Hazen on how to think about the questions of the origins of life on Earth. There is a good chance that we will know about the origins of the life within the next decade or two. The strength of the talk, however, lies in the fact that it show how to break-up a larger question into a series of smaller steps and then how to test those hypotheses. Also check out this excellent Teaching Company course, Origins of Life, also by Robert Hazen.

Here is the video of his lecture at Hampshire College. Enjoy!



Here is the Question and Answer session:

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Thirty Meter Telescope approved on top of Mauna Kea

by Salman Hameed


I have regularly provided an update on the controversy over telescopes on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii (see here for links to earlier posts). The central issue has been the proposed construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the volcanic mountaintop held sacred by some groups of Native Hawaiians, and hosts flora and fauna on the candidate list of endangered species. After numerous rounds of permissions, the TMT has been given the final go-ahead:

Hawaiian officials have granted a permit for the planned Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to proceed atop the sacred mountain of Mauna Kea, project officials announced on 13 April. 
The move clears the way for construction to start, as early as April 2014, atop the 4,200-metre-high summit. Thirteen telescopes already dot the mountain, but the TMT would be the largest of them by far. The biggest optical telescopes now atop Mauna Kea are the twin 10-metre Keck telescopes. 
Development on the mountain is a sensitive subject in Hawaii. In 2011, the state’s board of land and natural resources granted a conditional permit to construct the TMT. Opponents pursued a contested case hearing under a board officer. The new decision confirms the original permit granting and moves the TMT forward for good.
Of course, this is tricky subject. On the one hand, this is good for astronomy and the economy of the island. But this comes at the expense of others who feel marginalized in this matter. The TMT folks, it seems, did make an effort to reach out and hold regular town hall meetings to at least listen to the grievances of the local community. However, the history of the US involvement in Hawaii is so messy  that it is unlikely that the issue can ever be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Indeed, the opponents of the telescope have vowed to keep on fighting - but I think the game is over on this matter:

One of the leading groups opposed to building the world's largest telescope at the summit of Hawaii's revered Mauna Kea volcano vows the fight against the space exploration site is far from over, despite a state panel's vote last week in favor of the project. 
"We're not going to go away because of one bad ruling," Nelson Ho, co-chair of the Mauna Kea Issues Committee from the Sierra Club's Hawaii Chapter, told Latinos Post. "We're in the early rounds of the boxing match and this is a twelve-rounder." 
Hawaii's Board of Land and Natural Resources approved plans for the so-called Thirty Meter Telescope, a collaboration between the University of California system, the California Institute of Technology, or, Caltech, and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy. China, India and Japan have also joined the effort as governmental partners. 
According to a report in the Associated Press, the telescope's primary mirror would measure nearly 100 feet (30 meters) long and be able to collect data from an area nine times greater than that scanned by the largest optical telescopes used today.
The Thirty Meter Telescope's images would also be three times sharper than anything currently captured. 
That improved range and strength would help researchers see an estimated 13 billion light years away. 
The next procedural step for the group spearheading the TMT project is to negotiate a sublease for the site with the University of Hawaii, which itself leases the summit area from the state. 
The Sierra Club and a handful of other environmental and Native Hawaiian culture organizations assert the TMT will severely damage the area atop the volcano, which Native Hawaiian traditions hold as sacred, a gateway to the afterlife that once only high chiefs and spiritual leaders were allowed to visit. 
At least one ancient burial site is confirmed on the mountain, which naturalists also say is one of the last pristine environments in Hawaii, let alone the world.
When it was planning the since-abandoned Outrigger Telescoping Project on Mauna Kea in the early 2000s, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration completed a study of the environmental impact of astronomical research facilities on the area, which in part concluded, "From a cumulative perspective, the impact of past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future activities on cultural and biological resources is substantial, adverse and significant." 
Read the full article here.

If interested, you can find earlier posts on the topic here:


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Is gender segregation the new wedge issue in UK?

by Salman Hameed

The organization of Turkish creationist, Harun Yahya, is apt at creating controversies in Europe. Be it ads on buses, anti-evolution lectures on campuses, or the mailing of an 800 page creationist tome to public schools in France, Switzerland, etc. The reaction in the media is also predictable: Muslims in Europe are considered backwards and a problem for the broader education system, and Harun Yahya is labeled as the leading proponent of Islamic creationism. This is a win-win situation for Harun Yahya and for those who want to paint Muslims as a problem for Europe as both validate each other's extreme viewpoints.

Now we have Hamza Tzortzis - and his organization Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA). The purpose of the organization is proselytization. Up until a few months ago, I had not even heard of Tzortzis. But then first I heard of the controversy surrounding his "debate" with Pervez Hoodbhoy in Lahore, where Pervez walked out when Tzortzis started accusing Pervez of "hating the Muslim world" (you can watch the YouTube of the whole event here. You will notice that there is not much dialogue, as Tzorzis' goal is simply to incite and provoke. Pervez walks out towards end after Tzortzis' incendiary comment. You can find the incident at around 1:47:30 and after).

Then last month iERA made it in the news big time. At UCL Hamza Tzortzis debated Lawrence Krauss on the topic of "Islam or Atheism: Which makes more sense"? As you can guess from the title, propelled the event into newspapers. The organizers (iERA had rented the room at UCL) decided to have the event gender segregated (or at least divide it in three groups: men, women, and coed) - and that propelled Krauss to initially walkout from the event and Richard Dawkins to weigh in, "Isn't it really about time we decent, nice, liberal people stopped being so pusillanimously terrified of being thought 'Islamophobic' and stood up for decent, nice, liberal values?", and called the segregation as "sexual apartheid".  Now, I'm not a fan of gender segregation either, but this is going a bit too far (there is a series of recent articles on the Islamophobia of the New Atheists, and I will be posting on it in the next day or so. In the mean time, you can read Glenn Greenwald's article here: Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus). The UCL ended up banning iERA from hosting events on campus because of their forced gender segregation policies.
the point of these debates is to rile up the base on both sides. But then, a controversy

But now University of Leicester is also investigating an event for gender segregation. The rest of the story is a bit murky for me. The event happened on February 20th (though some reports say that this was related to an event in March) but has been brought to attention by an article in the Guardian just yesterday. It is now covered all over the internet. This is what the article said:

The University of Leicester has launched an investigation into gender segregation at a public lecture held by its student Islamic society. 
The talk, entitled Does God Exist?, featured a guest speaker Hamza Tzortzis as part of an Islamic Awareness week. Seating at the event was segregated, with different entrances into the lecture theatre for men and women. 
It follows news that a London university, UCL, has banned an Islamic organisation from campus after concluding that it attempted to impose segregation at a debate which also featured Tzortzis. 
In Leicester, more than 100 students attended the segregated event, which took place last month. A photograph passed to the Guardian shows signs put up in a university building, directing the segregation. 
A message on the group's website says: "In all our events, [the society] operate a strict policy of segregated seating between males and females." The statement was removed after the Guardian contacted the society. 
A spokesman for Leicester said: "The University of Leicester does not permit enforced segregation at public events. The university will investigate whether entrances to the hall for this event were segregated by the society and will ensure there is no recurrence of this.
"The University will not interfere with people's right to choose where to sit. If some people choose to sit in a segregated manner because of their religious convictions then they are free to do so. By the same token, if people attending do not wish to sit in a segregated manner, they are free to do so." 
He added: "To our knowledge, no-one was forced to sit in any particular seat. If there is evidence of enforced segregation, that would be a matter the university and students' union would investigate." 
But a Leicester student told the Guardian he believed segregation was common practice at the society's events to avoid offending those with strong religious beliefs.
So reading all this, there a couple of things that come to my mind. Just from this news item, we don't even know if the event violated the university policy or not. But it has already become a big news and commentaries have already implicated Islam - and not even just some Muslims (here is Jerry Coyne's post on this: "Okay, Peter Hitchens, Glenn Greenwald, et al.: do you really think that Islam is no more pernicious than other faiths?"). Some of it reminds me of the way the rejection of evolution by some Muslims (and even that was an anecdotal side-remark by biologist, Steve Jones) became a major story (see an earlier post on this here). But on the flip side, I can also see a group like iERA imposing gender segregation at their events. This matter can serve as a clear boundary against the dominant culture. When the media and the blogs conflate this position with Islam's, the iERA cam then become a default spokesperson. The cycle is then complete. In many ways, this is how Harun Yahya came to represent the Islamic position on evolution - at least in media coverage in Europe.

But I hope that the voices that that drive these debates are those that are between the likes of Hamza Tzortzis and the New Atheists.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The role of Al-Azhar University in shaping reproductive policies


by Salman Hameed

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting short piece that points to the International Islamic Centre for Population Studies and Research at Al-Azhar University (tip from Laura Sizer). In some ways, it is a good sign that Al-Azhar has taken a progressive stance on issues like population control, stem cells and in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Compared to this, the Catholic Church seems to be set in the medieval times. But on the other hand, I also feel that it is a problem that all of these issues have to be filtered through religious scholars. Indeed, the same university went against the donorship of sperm and eggs for reproduction. Nevertheless, we can applaud the positive steps while being on guard against any regressive actions:

Gamal Serour, founder of the International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research, is well practiced at this balancing act. 
Dr. Serour, who is also a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, views his position within al-Azhar as ideal for "overcoming religious obstacles to the improvement of women's health." 
When he founded the center, in 1974, many Egyptians believed that contraception was forbidden by Islam, and that family planning was a Western conspiracy to weaken Muslim nations, he says. 
"Everybody used to look at this center as the center of kuffar, nonbelievers," Dr. Serour says. It was "the center which is implementing the policies of the West, the center which is working to limit the population growth of the Muslim world." 
But "when we gradually produced the information and told people what problems we have, ... you will not believe me, but our religious leaders were much more progressive than we reproductive-health physicians." 
Scholars of religion at al-Azhar embraced the principles of family planning and approved most forms of contraception (permanent ones, like vasectomies, are allowed only in cases of medical necessity). They declared stem-cell research and in-vitro fertilization to be in accordance with Islam. On the other hand, they forbade surrogacy and donations of sperm and eggs. 
"People in Egypt and the Muslim world, ... religion plays an important role in their life," says Dr. Serour. "You have to be knowledgeable about this. You cannot escape from it, because people ask you: Is it haram [forbidden] or halal [permitted]?" 
Rather than viewing the religious framework at al-Azhar as a constraint, Dr. Serour argues that it has bolstered the effectiveness and reach of his work. The population-studies center is among the university's most active research institutes. It operates a clinic for the surrounding neighborhood; carries out training for doctors and outreach to imams; holds clinical trials supported by pharmaceutical companies; and sponsors regional conferences.

And it seems that Dr. Serour is also aware of the potential challenges:
For the time being, Dr. Serour isn't worried that Islamist fundamentalists who might be hostile to his work—many regularly inveigh against the teaching of reproductive health—will gain control of the campus. 
"If they got ahold of al-Azhar University, and the al-Azhar institutes, and the office of the grand imam of al-Azhar, there might be a change in policy," he says. "Not because al-Azhar is doing something against Islam," but because they are misinformed about reproductive health and about religious teachings. The only way to change their views, he says, is to educate them. 
Read the full article here.