Monday, July 29, 2013

Secularizing the Burqa and a Star Wars Hijab

by Salman Hameed

I'm certainly entertained by the idea of a burqa (or burka) as a superhero cape. This was bound to happen. Already in Pakistan, I had heard of the "ninja-burqa". So here comes this new animated series in Urdu, Burka Avenger. I think it is a fantastic idea and, in it, there is an interesting secularizing of the burqa: the teacher doesn't take the burqa for religious reasons, but rather to beat-up the bad guys (not to mention that he bad guys seem to have at least similarities with the Taliban and their position regarding female education). Oh well, here is a trailer in English (the series is in Urdu):


Burka Avenger Trailer from Aaron Haroon Rashid on Vimeo.

Of course, there is also a precedence of Muslim superheroes in the series The 99 (see earlier post, Sharia-compliant superheroes). But Burka Avenger comes with its own Pakistani flavor. Here is a brief description of the key plot lines and a good sense of humor in the show:

The series is set in Halwapur, a fictional town nestled in the soaring mountains and verdant valleys of northern Pakistan. The Burka Avenger's true identity is Jiya, whose adopted father, Kabbadi Jan, taught her the karate moves she uses to defeat her enemies. When not garbed as her alter ego, Jiya does not wear a burka, or even a less conservative headscarf over her hair. 
The main bad guys are Vadero Pajero, a balding, corrupt politician who wears a dollar sign-shaped gold medallion around his neck, and Baba Bandook, an evil magician with a bushy black beard and mustache who is meant to resemble a Taliban commander. 
Caught in the middle are the show's main child characters: Ashu and her twin brother Immu and their best friend Mooli, who loves nothing more than munching on radishes in the company of his pet goat, Golu. 
In the first episode, Pajero wants to shut down the girls' school in Halwapur so he can pocket the money that a charity gave him to run it. He finds a willing accomplice in Bandook, whose beliefs echo those of the Taliban and many other men in conservative, Islamic Pakistan. 
"What business do women have with education?" says Bandook. "They should stay at home, washing, scrubbing and cleaning, toiling in the kitchen."
Bandook padlocks the gate of the school and orders the crowd of young girls outside to leave. Ashu steps forward to resist and delivers a defiant speech about the importance of girls' education – perhaps marking her as a future activist. 
"The girls of today are the mothers of tomorrow," says Ashu. "If the mothers are not educated, then future generations will also remain illiterate." 
Bandook is unmoved, but the Burka Avenger appears and fights off the magician's henchmen with martial arts moves reminiscent of the movie The Matrix. Using his magical powers, Bandook disappears in a puff of smoke. The Burka Avenger hurls a flying pen that breaks open the padlock on the school's gate as the children cheer. 
The show, which is slickly animated using high-powered computer graphics, does a good job of mixing scenes that will entertain children with those that even adults will find laugh-out-loud funny. 
In one episode, Bandook builds a robot to take over the world's major cities, including London, New York and Paris. As he outlines his dastardly plan with a deep, evil laugh, one of his minions butts in and says, "But how will we get visas to go to all those places?" – a reference to how difficult it can be for Pakistanis to travel, given their country's reputation.
And while we are on the subject of mixing religious garbs with entertainment, here is a highly entertaining tutorial video of how to make a Princess Leia Hijab:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Bradley Manning, Saturn, and the Pale Blue Dot

by Salman Hameed

NASA has just released a spectacular image of the Earth - from Saturn (yes, yes, it is the dot below the rings). The photograph is taken by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft that is currently orbiting Saturn, about 900 million miles away (our Sun is only 93 million miles from the Earth!). More below - but first I want you to just enjoy this stunning image:


The Saturn in this picture is blocking the Sun, and therefore allowing the spacecraft to take the picture of our home world. In addition, Saturn's rings are beautifully lit here. This is part of a larger mosaic image that includes most of Saturn and it will be released at a later date. This image, of course, is a reminder of the photograph taken by Voyager 1 in 1990, made particularly famous by Sagan's reflection on The Pale Blue Dot.

But while we are on the subject of our humbling experiences, I want to point out that Bradley Manning, the source behind the Wikileaks documents, is now going through his court martial. That he leaked the documents is not in doubt, and he has already pleaded to offenses that can place him in jail for 20 years. However, the judge refused to drop the highly dubious charge of aiding and abetting the enemy, and that is a shame.

Why do I bring up Bradley Manning in a post about this image? I recently watched a fantastic documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks directed by Alex Gibney. One half of the film focuses on Julian Assange. But the more interesting part of the film talks about Bradley Manning, his background and why he leaked the documents. And guess what? One of his inspirations was Sagan's reflections on the Pale Blue Dot. He did not like what the US government was doing in Iraq (and in other parts of the world) and he wanted to make public some of the horrendous actions of the government (for example, the first leaked video showed a US operation in Iraq in 2008 that killed a Reuters journalist)  in the hopes of  making this a better planet.

Once you have appreciated the above image, do check out We Steal Secrets and follow the ongoing trial of Bradley Manning. His is a heartbreaking story, and it is unconscionable that he was placed in a solitary confinement and forced to sleep naked in a small cell for almost a year - a treatment that the UN special rapporteur on torture found "cruel, inhuman and degrading".

I will leave you with Sagan's voice more directly:


The Pale Blue Dot - Carl Sagan from David Beaver on Vimeo.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Mormon skepticism and a Ghanan "devil" priest in Bronx

by Salman Hameed

There were two fascinating stories in yesterday's NYT. One talked about the path to doubt of a Mormon church leader and another addressed a "devil" priest from Ghana who is now living in Bronx. The internet plays an interesting role in both of these stories. In the case of the former, the internet led to sites that highlighted inconsistencies in the official Mormon Church stories. In the latter case, the Ghanan priest used social media to expand his reach and modernize his religion:
Renowned as a healer, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam claims to treat everything from curses to impotence. But he is best known for his ambitious efforts to modernize the indigenous West African religion dominant before Christian missionaries began arriving in great
numbers in the mid-19th century. 
So why was Ghana’s most feared fetish priest living inconspicuously in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx? 
In West Africa, traditional priests — often called fetish priests — have historically preferred secrecy and seclusion, carrying out their ancient rituals inside mud huts in remote areas. And since 1992, when a democratic constitution was approved in Ghana, traditional religion has come under increasing attack from a new generation of Pentecostal pastors, who use television, radio and the Internet to deride its rituals as devil worship. 
In a clever reversal, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam has adopted these same platforms to promote traditional religion. His outsize public persona and his cosmopolitan credentials make the case that the old spiritual practices are compatible with being a modern African.
And here he makes a fascinating statement:
“In Africa, traditional religion has always been considered extremely local, while Christianity was seen as a way of joining the larger world,” said Birgit Meyer, a professor of religious studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who conducted research in Ghana for 25 years and has written about Mr. Kwaku Bonsam. “But by using Facebook and YouTube and finally residing in New York City, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam shows that traditional religion can also go global. He’s making it fashionable, in other words.”
But I also found this part of the story interesting where the gods themselves are contested and appropriated:

“In African culture, when people experience a crisis, they often put their Christian beliefs aside and consult traditional priests,” he said. “They won’t usually admit it, of course, because that destroys their Christian credibility.” 
It was a similar situation that made Mr. Kwaku Bonsam famous, said Frederik Lamote, a professor at University College Brussels who wrote part of his doctoral thesis on him.
On April 2, 2008, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam stormed into the church of Collins Agyei Yeboah, a popular Pentecostal pastor in Kato, another southern town. Accompanied by a crew of policemen and reporters, he accused Pastor Yeboah of secretly soliciting the help of his traditional gods and then failing to properly compensate him and the gods for their services. Mr. Kwaku Bonsam claimed the gods had given him two choices: to retrieve the idol he had given the pastor, or to die at 6 p.m. that day. “Do you want the gods to kill me?” he asked Pastor Yeboah. 
In YouTube videos of the episode, viewed hundreds of thousands of times, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam went on to say that 1,600 pastors from around the country had visited him requesting juju spirits to help build their churches. The idol is eventually retrieved from behind Pastor Yeboah’s church and after a lengthy interrogation, the pastor is led away by the police. In the video, he angrily defended himself by saying that he had indeed consulted Mr. Kwaku Bonsam, but that the powers he had given him didn’t work. 
The success of Pentecostalism in West Africa, with its exorcisms and speaking in tongues, depends heavily on its resonance with traditional religion. But by showing that a well-known pastor had explicitly relied on juju spirits, said Professor Meyer, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam “affirmed widespread rumors that pastors had secret spiritual resources.” His popularity soared in response.        

This is absolutely fascinating and a very smart move on his part.

Oh and here he is at the Miss Ghana-USA pageant last month:


Read this story here.

And here is the story of the Mormon church leader in Europe:
In the small but cohesive Mormon community where he grew up, Hans Mattsson was a solid believer and a pillar of the church. He followed his father and grandfather into church leadership and finally became an “area authority” overseeing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout Europe.  
 When fellow believers in Sweden first began coming to him with information from the Internet that contradicted the church’s history and teachings, he dismissed it as “anti-Mormon propaganda,” the whisperings of Lucifer. He asked his superiors for help in responding to the members’ doubts, and when they seemed to only sidestep the questions, Mr. Mattsson began his own investigation. 
But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble. 
Around the world and in the United States, where the faith was founded, the Mormon Church is grappling with a wave of doubt and disillusionment among members who encountered information on the Internet that sabotaged what they were taught about their faith, according to interviews with dozens of Mormons and those who study the church. 

And this is a particular problem for a young religion (but not too young to be media savvy):

 Every faith has its skeptics and detractors, but the Mormon Church’s history creates special challenges. The church was born in America only 183 years ago, and its founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, and his disciples left behind reams of papers that still exist, documenting their work, exposing their warts and sometimes contradicting one another.
“The Roman Catholic Church has had 2,000 years to work through the hiccups in its history,” said Terryl L. Givens, a professor of English, literature and religion at the University of Richmond and a Mormon believer. “Mormonism is still an adolescent religion.” 
Mr. Givens and his wife, Fiona, recently presented what they called “Crucible of Doubt” sessions for questioning Mormons in England, Scotland and Ireland. Hundreds attended each event. 
“Sometimes they are just this side of leaving, and sometimes they are simply faithful members who are looking for clarity and understanding to add to their faith,” said Mr. Givens, who hosted a similar discussion in July in Provo, Utah, and has others planned in the United States. The church is not sponsoring the sessions, Mr. Givens said, but local bishops give their permission. 
Here is the NYT video of the interview



Saturday, July 20, 2013

Saturday Video: Italo Calvino's short story "The Distance of the Moon"

by Salman Hameed

For your trippy Saturday experience, here is an interesting choice of animation for Italo Calvino's short story, The Distance of the Moon [about 8 minutes long] (tip from Open Culture). This is one of the stories from his collection, Cosmicomics. The basic premise of the Moon being closer to the Earth soon after its formation is actually scientifically correct (though definitely not as close as it is in the story :)). The Moon is indeed moving away from us every year, but an incredibly slow pace of an inch and a half per year. No need to worry about losing the Moon soon. In any case, enjoy the story:


You can also listen to the full story in the voice of Liev Schreiber (an alum of Hampshire College!) on Radiolab (about 40 minutes long):

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Brazilian religious landscape

by Salman Hameed

There is a new Pew report out that looks at Brazilian religious landscape. Brazil has has the largest Roman Catholic population (123 million) but Protestants and the unaffiliated have been making grounds for the past couple of decades. Here are the religious affiliations in Brazil:


And by numbers here:
The Pew report also looked at religious affiliations with respect to age, gender, education and urban-rural divide. Interestingly, the differences are not that significant for most categories. For example, here is the distribution with respect to age:

There is a slight age factor in the Unaffiliated group. But compare this with the US, where the age-divide is much more pronounced with this group. Here are the unaffiliated in the US:


The urban-rurual divide, however, is more pronounced in the comparison of urban and rural Brazilian populations. By the way, a staggering 84% of Brazilians live in urban areas. In any case, here is the distribution with respect to various religions:
Read the full report here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Irtiqa Conversation: Mohammed Yahia on Science, Democracy, and the Unfinished Revolution in Egypt

by Salman Hameed

There is a lot going on Egypt right now and much of it is deeply troubling. Yesterday, I had a chance to have a conversation with Mohammed Yahia, the editor of Nature Middle East. He lives in Cairo and, inHouse of Wisdom blog. I don't want to spoil the interview, but I do want to say that he represents the new generation of young, dynamic, and electronically connected Egyptians, and is wonderfully eloquent about the hopes and fears regarding the future of his country. As per the complexity, he participated in anti-Mubarak rallies, then he voted for Morsi (not in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, but to keep the military backed candidate out of power), participated in anti-Morsi rally, and feels that the current army crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood counterproductive. Hope some of this complexity comes out in our conversation.
addition to his day job, he has been actively participating in political demonstrations of the past two years. I first met him in December, 2010 (about 2 months before the Jan 25th overthrow of Mubarak) and we had a great conversation about the political situation in Egypt at the time. I wanted to get his take on the current political situation as well as the status of science projects in Egypt. He also runs the wonderful

Here is the video of our conversation (about 30 minutes long):

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Saturday Video: "Blind Spot" - a short sic-fi film

by Salman Hameed

Here is a nicely executed short film (about 6 minutes long). I don't want to spoil the film, but I have to say that the basic premise works because this is something that we have all experienced at one time or another.

Enjoy!


Blind Spot from Matthew K. Nayman on Vimeo.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Malala's speech to the UN

by Salman Hameed

What a powerful address! Listen to the bit starting from 2:50 and it is hard not to be inspired by her determination. She has just turned only 16, but she has a commanding presence.

Enjoy! [Part of the transcript below the video]


Here is part of the transcript of her speech:

Dear friends, on 9 October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born. 
I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. And my dreams are the same. Dear sisters and brothers, I am not against anyone. Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion I have learned from Mohammed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. 
This is the philosophy of nonviolence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother. This is what my soul is telling me: be peaceful and love everyone. 
Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when we were in Swat, the north of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns. The wise saying, "The pen is mightier than the sword." It is true. The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. This is why they killed 14 innocent students in the recent attack in Quetta. And that is why they kill female teachers. 
That is why they are blasting schools every day because they were and they are afraid of change and equality that we will bring to our society. And I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist why are the Taliban against education? He answered very simply by pointing to his book, he said, "a Talib doesn't know what is written inside this book." 
They think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would point guns at people's heads just for going to school. These terrorists are misusing the name of Islam for their own personal benefit. Pakistan is a peace loving, democratic country. Pashtuns want education for their daughters and sons. Islam is a religion of peace, humanity and brotherhood. It is the duty and responsibility to get education for each child, that is what it says. Peace is a necessity for education. In many parts of the world, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan, terrorism, war and conflicts stop children from going to schools. We are really tired of these wars. Women and children are suffering in many ways in many parts of the world.
Read the full speech here.

Nuclear nonproliferation and Iran's nuclear medical reactor

by Salman Hameed

I'm catching up on back issues of Science and Nature. Here is the news story about the concerns of a nuclear medical reactor in Iran. Now, I have said this multiple times - but here it is again. Nuclear weapons are, of course, awful and should not be pursued by any nation (see . At the same time, it is hypocritical of nuclear powers to place their opposition to Iranian nuclear program in any sort of ethical/moral or even security context. This is particularly true of the US, which has increased its funding for nuclear weapon facilities just this current year (see the link in this earlier post).

Here is a piece from Science (Jun 21st):

If all goes to plan, Iran next year will switch on a facility that gives nuclear nonproliferation analysts goose bumps: the Arak heavy water reactor in the central province of Markazi. Iranian officials have long stated that a chief aim of the fission reactor, known as the IR-40, is to make radioisotopes for medicine. But it also will yield something far more troubling: about 10 kilograms of plutonium a year, enough for one or two atomic bombs. 
Locked in a standoff with the United States and allies over its nuclear ambitions, Iran has steadfastly averred that the objectives of its sprawling nuclear program are peaceful: to generate electricity and produce radioisotopes for industry and medicine. But what if Iran didn't need the controversial IR-40 to make medical isotopes? A new report by nuclear specialists highlights that possibility, laying out alternatives that avoid uranium and production of plutonium, the fissile material in nuclear bombs. 
Medical isotopes are a ripe topic for diplomacy. In remarks on 17 June reported by Fars News Agency, Iran's President-elect, moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani, said that his nation is prepared to "increase transparency" of its nuclear program and "enhance mutual confidence [-building] between Iran and other countries." One confidence-building measure, diplomats say, might be expanding medical isotope production via ways that don't facilitate making bombs. If U.S. negotiators "can sell the idea of Iran participating in advanced nuclear technologies [that steer clear of fissile material], then maybe you've got something," says Mark Jansson, special projects director at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. 
Radioisotopes are widely used in medical imaging and cancer treatment. Considered a dividend of nuclear technology, they were an important reason that nuclear powers in the 1950s and 1960s promoted the construction of research reactors around the world. However, many medical isotopes are made in reactors that use highly enriched uranium (HEU), which contains at least 20% of the fissile isotope uranium-235 (U-235)—enough to be "weapons ready." So arms control advocates are loath to see HEU-powered reactors spread, and have successfully shut down some located in unstable regions. 
In Iran, technicians already make medical isotopes in an aging reactor that uses uranium enriched to 19.75% U-235—a hair below bomb-grade. The IR-40 would replace that reactor, but use natural uranium, which is mostly U-238, and not HEU. That worries arms control specialists because bombarding natural uranium with neutrons turns out to be a very efficient way to generate plutonium. 
Several alternative methods of generating desired medical isotopes would make it harder for would-be proliferators to lay hands on weapon-grade fissile material, argues the 13 June report from the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy of AAAS (publisher of Science). The technical approaches include an expanded reliance on cyclotrons or spallation neutron sources. High demand for short-lived isotopes used in positron emission tomography, coupled with technical advances in miniaturizing accelerators, has driven down costs. "Accelerator technology is far less expensive and more capable than in the past," write authors Derek Updegraff and Seth A. Hoedl, analysts at AAAS.                  
...
If nonproliferation is the objective, cost may not be a showstopper. In the wake of last week's Iranian elections, U.S. officials hope to revive nuclear talks, which broke down in April. Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator in Iran's talks with the West, has not signaled any major policy shift. And the window for a deal on IR-40 may be closing. After Iran has spent 10 years planning the facility, "it will be hard to convince them to walk away" from the reactor, Jansson predicts. But proliferation risks could be reduced, he notes, by fueling it with low-enriched uranium, which would yield less plutonium. 
Whatever happens with IR-40, the long-term implications of alternative isotope technology are broader than Iran, says Pierce Corden, a disarmament expert and visiting scholar at AAAS who initiated work on the report. "There may be other problematic situations in the future," he says.                   

Read previous posts on Iran's nuclear program:
Boneheaded US sanctions on reviewing Iranian science manuscripts
The Sacred Value of Iranian Nukes
Scientists must speak up against assassinations of scientists
Oped on Iran's nuclear program
A photo-tour of an Iranian nuclear plant
More restrictions for Iranian-born scientists - The Dutch edition

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Some reflections on the Ring Nebula

by Salman Hameed

I have a short article in the Magazine section of today's Pakistan Express Tribune. It focuses on the Ring Nebula - one of the most popular objects for amateur astronomers. Here is the image of the nebula from the Hubble Space Telescope:


Here is the article:
Anticipating a glorious death of our Sun  
All good things come to an end. Even the lives of stars. Located 2,300 light years away, the Ring Nebula (right) is a gorgeous announcement of the demise of a star that shone brightly for ten billion years. 
Now all that is left is a small white nucleus surrounded by gases that once were part of the star itself. Some of these gases will one day be part of another star. This is cosmic recycling at its best. 
While beautiful, this stage is temporary for the star. Most of the gases we see in the Ring Nebula were expelled only a few thousand years ago. The star at the time had bloated into a red giant and subsequently lost much of its outer material to space, leaving behind a central core about the size of the Earth. This core is called a white dwarf and is one of the densest objects in the universe. Here on Earth, a teaspoon of white dwarf material would weigh as much as a car. 
Made up mostly of Carbon and Oxygen, the white dwarf is extremely hot — about twenty times hotter than the surface of our Sun. It is the light from this white dwarf that is making some of the gases glow in the Ring Nebula. However, it does not have any energy source within, and from now on it will slowly cool down for eternity, becoming dimmer and dimmer each passing year, eventually — no longer detectable in visible light. This is the final stage — the corpse of a star that shone for ten billion years. 
This is the fate that awaits the Sun as well. Our star has been a stable source of energy for the past four-and-a-half-billion years. Algae, rodents, ferns, seagulls, ants, humans — they have all been dependent on this supply of energy. Quite amazingly, humans have figured out that our Sun will run out of its supply of fuel in another 5 billion years or so. No need to worry about it tomorrow morning. But if humans — or some form of their descendants — are to survive on scales of billions of years, then journeys to other stars will have to be undertaken. Whatever happens to us, our Sun’s last rites will also include a beautiful nebula followed by the forever cooling of its white dwarf. 
What about life around the star that formed the Ring Nebula? We have not detected any planets there as yet and we certainly have no idea if there ever was any life, let alone intelligence, out there. However, if there were any worlds inhabited by complex, intelligent beings, then I hope they had stumbled upon science, figured out the impending death of their star, and made alternative plans. They may have implemented mass-evacuation to another planet around a nearby star system. They may have left a billion years before the death of their star. The beauty of Ring Nebula may now be bitter sweet as they watch the demise of their original home star. Or maybe this life form never developed the ability to leave its solar system. Then most likely all of this life is now gone — just one of many mass extinctions that must happen quite often in the universe.
---------------------

I did not talk about it in the article, but there is another spectacular image of the Ring Nebula that combines observations of Hubble Space Telescope with that of the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Chile (see the image below). Here you can see wispy hydrogen gas (red) that surrounds the Ring Nebula. It is the result of earlier ejection of gas from the star.


Now the Ring Nebula has been studied for centuries (it was identified in the late 18th century). However, these new images allow astronomers to understand the three-dimensional aspect of the nebula and indeed, the central part is nebula is more like an American football (or a rugby for those living in other parts of the world) - but we just happen to be seeing it from the top. This is not surprising as most objects like this have very complex structures. You can read the NASA press release here. Also, here is a short video that use animations to show the shape of the Ring Nebula:



Enjoy!

Friday, July 05, 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A Collection of articles on the Egyptian coup

by Salman Hameed


The Egyptian coup was already bad. Yes, Morsi's actions were getting worse by the day and there were extraordinary (really extraordinary!) protests out in the streets. Nevertheless, military's intervention dials back the clock - even when backed by the public. In Pakistan we have seen such coups and none of them have ended well in the long run. Just to make things just a bit worse, the army has arrested the head of the Muslim Brotherhood along with Morsi's aides, has shut down television stations owned by the Brotherhood, and has opened fire on pro-Morsi protestors. One positive action was that the announcement of Morsi's overthrow was accompanied with the sight of disenfranchised minority leaders standing along side the general. But this may turn out to be a fig leaf if the army stays in power or if it pulls strings from behind the scenes to keep Muslim Brotherhood from political participation. I'm not a fan of Brotherhood politics, but their participation in the electoral process is essential. Lets see how things shape up and wishing well to our friends in Egypt.

In the mean time, here are a few articles on the current Egyptian situation (also for broader context, see this lecture by John Calvert that I posted a few weeks ago on the history and politics of the Muslim Brotherhood).

Good Articles:
Downfall in Cairo by Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy (tip Amel Ahmed) (you will probably need a subscription to access it):
Nobody should celebrate a military coup against Egypt's first freely elected president, no matter how badly he failed or how badly they hate the Muslim Brotherhood. Turfing out Morsy will not come close to addressing the underlying failures that have plagued Egypt's catastrophic transition over the last two and a half years. The military's intervention is an admission of the failure of Egypt's entire political class, and those now celebrating already probably know that they could soon rue the coup. 
This new uprising certainly upends what U.S. policymakers considered to be their best efforts to support a shaky democratic transition. Few in Washington are sorry to see Morsy go. But few believe that this process, a mass uprising culminating in a military coup, will restore stability or lead to a more democratic outcome. The Muslim Brotherhood performed atrociously in power, but the real problem was always the weakness and illegitimacy of the political institutions. If the coup and uprising solve the first at the expense of the second, then the political reset will fail....What now? There remains a very real, urgent risk of major violence and further political or even state collapse, of course. But even if the worst is avoided, Egypt faces a real risk of becoming trapped in an endless loop of failed governments, military interventions, and popular uprisings. The very idea of democratic legitimacy has taken a severe beating, and the coming constitutional reforms and new elections will not pass easily. Building real consensus behind genuinely democratic institutions has to remain the guiding light for U.S. policy and the Egyptian political class, no matter how difficult this appears. 
That means finally establishing political rules and institutions that can end the pervasive uncertainty and fear that have dominated the entire transition. Egypt's transition has been profoundly handicapped by the absence of any settled, legitimate rules of the game or institutional channels to settle political arguments. The procedural and substantive legitimacy of every step in the transition has been deeply contested, from the initial March 2011 constitutional referendum through the constitutional assembly and elections. The Supreme Constitutional Court's dissolution of parliament on the eve of the presidential election left the new government with no legitimate legislative branch other than the weak Shura Council for which few had bothered to vote.
On a more pessimist side, here is Shadi Hamid in NYT, Demoting Democracy in Egypt
 The Brotherhood’s fall will have profound implications for the future of political Islam, reverberating across the region in potentially dangerous ways. One of the most important political developments of recent years was the decision of Islamist parties to make peace with democracy and commit to playing by the rules of the political game. Leaders counseled patience to their followers. Their time would come, they were told. 
Now supporters of the Brotherhood will ask, with good reason, whether democracy still has anything to offer them. Mr. Morsi’s removal will breathe new life into the ideological claims of radicals. Al Qaeda and its followers have long argued that change can’t come through the democracy of “unbelievers”; violence is the only path. As the Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri once said, “What is truly regrettable is the rallying of thousands of duped Muslim youth in voter queues before ballot boxes instead of lining them up to fight in the cause of Allah.” 
Al Qaeda’s intellectual forebears emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, and were shaped by events that bear an eerie similarity to those of this week. In 1954, a popularly backed Egyptian Army moved against the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting thousands and dismantling the organization. Prison had a radicalizing effect on Sayyid Qutb, a leading Brotherhood ideologue, who experienced torture at the hands of his captors before being executed in 1966. Many of Mr. Qutb’s followers later left the Brotherhood’s embrace and went their own way, setting up militant organizations that would begin perpetrating acts of terrorism. 
In 1954, no one could have guessed that the brutal crackdown against the Brotherhood would set in motion a chain of events that would have terrible consequences for the region and America. 
The events of this week could have similarly profound implications. In the hours after Mr. Morsi’s ouster, the new military leadership suspended the Constitution, shut down at least three Islamist television stations, and, more ominously, issued arrest warrants for at least 300 Brotherhood members. Prominent liberal voices are calling for “dissolving” the Brotherhood and holding what would amount to dubious show trials.

In the mean time, here is an article in the NYT arguing in favor of the coup: A Coup, but Backed by the People by Sara Khorshid: 
Yes, this is a military coup. But without people power, no change could have taken place. I hold on to a hope that Egyptians have learned a lesson from the past two and a half years, that they will ensure that this new “transitional period” will be a time for laying the groundwork for true democracy. 
We must avoid the sort of vague legal roadmap established by the military after Mr. Mubarak’s departure, which left us in constant dispute over the allocation of powers among the branches of government. That plan was supported by the Muslim Brotherhood because it helped them take power. And the military temporarily aligned itself with the Brotherhood because it was then the most powerful political force. 
I hope that the military has sided with the people this time because it has realized that the people are the more powerful force. One priority now is to oppose any violation of the rights of Brotherhood members and their families. 
Am I certain that this second round will lead Egypt to true democracy? No. But whoever rules Egypt next will be aware of the fate of rulers who lose the faith and support of the Egyptians. 
We are back at square one. We have paid a high price for it the past two and a half years, but democracy is worth it.
Here is an article that looks at the future of the Muslim Brotherhood - Where Does the Muslim Brotherhood Go From Here: Reckoning with Morsi's Failure by Nathan Brown in The New Republic (tip from Leyla Keough)
In studying Islamist movements over the last decade, I generally found that the most rewarding time to speak to leaders was about a year or so after an election. During the heat of the political battle, they made decisions like most politicians do (on the fly, often overreacting to yesterday’s headlines) and spoke like most politicians do (providing glib spin than reflective analysis). But at calmer moments, they spoke less like politicians and more openly. And there was a reason why: The movements prided themselves (justifiably) on an ability to learn. 
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its sister organizations represent the most successful non-governmental organizations in Arab history. No other movements have been able to sustain, reinvent, and replicate themselves over so much time and space. And there are two secrets to that success: a tight-knit organizational structure that rewards loyalty and the ability to adjust and adapt. 
And those two features led to the experiment with political Islam that is now in such grave crisis. The organizational tightness of the Brotherhood made it more able than any other potential opposition force to organize for campaigns: In many countries, they were the only political party worthy of the name (even in places where they were banned from calling themselves a party). And their adaptability allowed them to take advantages of the cracks and openings that appeared in Arab authoritarian orders over the past few decades.
When the uprisings of 2011 occurred, the Egyptian Brotherhood had become sufficiently adept at the political game that it hit the ground running far faster than any possible competitor. And the organization had also evolved over the past couple decades to place politics at the center of its agenda. Founded as a general reform movement that carried out charity, self-improvement, education, mutual assistance, preaching, and politics, the Brotherhood had become a primarily political creature. 
But just as its political project seemed poised to realize full success, it suddenly and ignominiously collapsed. The immediate reaction among its members will be to complain that the Brotherhood was cheated. And in a sense it was, but complaint will not substitute for reflection forever. What will be the movement’s more studied reaction? In a conversation two months ago with a Brotherhood leader Amr Darrag, I made a bold prediction that in ten years, the organization will regret having sought the Egyptian presidency in 2012. He politely disagreed. In retrospect we were both wrong: The regret will likely set in over the next several months.
...
Which lesson will the Brotherhood learn, and how will it apply them? The organization first needs some time to think, and it is not yet clear how the disparate coalition that has destroyed the Morsi presidency will react to the Brotherhood’s continued role. In this respect, it would be wise for those who are now victorious in Egypt to remember that the issue is not only what the Brotherhood learns; the issue is also what Islamists are taught.
Bad and Ugly articles: 
But hold on. We can't leave here without pointing out two articles that fall under the category of Bad and Ugly: 
Here is David Brooks in NYT that defends the coup and uses a broad brush for the entire region: 
It’s no use lamenting Morsi’s bungling because incompetence is built into the intellectual DNA of radical Islam. We’ve seen that in Algeria, Iran, Palestine and Egypt: real-world, practical ineptitude that leads to the implosion of the governing apparatus. 
The substance people are right. Promoting elections is generally a good thing even when they produce victories for democratic forces we disagree with. But elections are not a good thing when they lead to the elevation of people whose substantive beliefs fall outside the democratic orbit. It’s necessary to investigate the core of a party’s beliefs, not just accept anybody who happens to emerge from a democratic process. 
This week’s military coup may merely bring Egypt back to where it was: a bloated and dysfunctional superstate controlled by a self-serving military elite. But at least radical Islam, the main threat to global peace, has been partially discredited and removed from office.
Oh and of course, they are inhabit a culture of death (talk about quote mining and ignoring the long history):
It has become clear — in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere — that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. Many have absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets. They have a strange fascination with a culture of death. “Dying for the sake of God is more sublime than anything,” declared one speaker at a pro-Morsi rally in Cairo on Tuesday. 
As Adam Garfinkle, the editor of The American Interest, put it in an essay recently, for this sort of person “there is no need for causality, since that would imply a diminution of God’s power.” This sort of person “does not accept the existence of an objective fact separate from how he feels about it.” 
But wait. The title of the ugliest article goes to the Wall Street Journal. The article (is it an editorial?) uses Chilean dictator Pinochet as a positive example for Egypt! No seriously. Here is the last paragraph from After the Coup in Cairo
Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy. If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi's fate.
There you have it folks. Egypt will be lucky if it gets its own set of the Disappeared. What rubbish!

In any case, hope these will give some sense of the happenings in Egypt.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

The growth of the non-religious is seen as a negative by most Americans

by Salman Hameed

Religion (or non-religion) is a matter of personal belief. But there is a common misconception that morals are tied only to religious beliefs [In case, you are interested, here is an excellent piece by Frans de Waal in the NYT that debunks this particular notion: Morals without God?. On the level of societies you can check out Societies without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment, and for possible causal connections on religiosity, you can check our friend Tom Rees' paper Is Personal Insecurity a Cause of Cross-National Differences in the Intensity of Religious Belief?]. One only has to look around to see that humans are quite capable of doing bad with or without religion. Though to be fair, the same goes for the good as well. Nevertheless, the Pew Forum has a new poll out that shows that most Americans think that the growth of nonreligious is a bad thing for the society as a whole, and these views may be shaped by the confusion about the connection between morality and religion:


And, of course, this view is dependent on one's own religious affiliation (or non-affliliation):

Actually it is interesting that almost half of all Hispanic Catholics - the largest amongst the religious denominations identified - think that the growth of nonreligious does not make any difference. I think, at the very least, it should not matter, In fact, a greater diversity of beliefs (including non-belief) would possibly be a good for the society as more people will come in contact with a whole array of views that they do not share. In case you were wondering, the Pew poll was in response to the rising number of Americans who do not identify themselves with any religion (see my earlier posts here and here):


You can read Pew report on the rising number of religiously unaffiliated here and the latest report on the reaction of Americans here.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The underbelly of US journalism and Glenn Greenwald's talk on Snowden


by Salman Hameed

It is a shame that the Obama administration is getting dirtier and dirtier. Just today, the NSA chief James Clapper, admitted to lying to the Congress. If this was being done by George W. Bush, liberals in the US would have been out in the streets protesting. But when 'our own' guy is doing this - and worse - then it is justified that he must have had good reason to take this action. In many ways, this is what has made Obama administration far more damaging for civil liberties. Now it also seems clear that the US will go to any lengths to make an example of any whistleblowers.  Shamefully, now France, Portugal, and possibly Italy are complicit in it as well - as the plane of Bolivian President was diverted to Austria on the suspicion that Snowden was onboard (France, Portugal and Italy blocked their airspace). This is bullying of the highest degree. How come I'm missing the Cold War?

In the mean time, here is a talk by Glenn Greenwald from a few days ago. The last part of the talk is important where he discusses the nature of coverage of the Snowden Affair in major news sources. Not explicitly mentioned in his talk, but this complicity of news organizations and the White House was what created the false case for the Iraq war and is now being used for drumming up anti-Iranian sentiments as well. The talk is worth watching (just be warned of a very enthusiastic intro - but then it is  interesting, including opening remarks by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill  - who recently made the documentary, Dirty Wars):



Also, here is a segment from Chris Hayes on MSNBC on the coverage of leaks by journalists. It is also worth watching (about 9 minutes long):


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