Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Wonderful Session with Lahore Astronomical Society (LAST)

by Salman Hameed

LAST members after the meeting

These are tough times in Pakistan. But there are positive things taking place as well. I have written on several occasions about the burgeoning astronomy scene in Pakistan - in particular in Lahore and Karachi (for example, see this post from early this year: Public Astronomy Flourishing in Pakistan). It was therefore an absolute pleasure to finally attend a LAST meeting last week and to visit Umair Asim's wonderful Zeds Astronomical Observatory. I also gave a talk to the astronomy group and it was titled From the Large to the Very Large: Finding Our Place in the Cosmos. Here are my quick thoughts (I'm in Pakistan on a family trip for a few days and computer time has been limited):

Umair's observatory is really good. It was cloudy that night - and later blindingly foggy. Observations were therefore impossible. But he have me a short tour of the observatory on top of his house that hosts a 14-inch Celestron telescope. Right next to the dome is a comfortable control (warm in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer time) from where he can control the telescope and does image processing. There was a couch that can also serve as a bed on long observing nights. Umair told me that this control room also becomes a place for midnight (more likely 2am) philosophical musings for astronomers using the telescope. I can totally see that. The observatory is located in Lahore - so light pollution is high. But he can still get quite good results and can push the seeing to 4-5". Plus, LAST organizes observing sessions, both for the public and for its members, in areas with darker skies (see some of their activities here). I did not get a chance to see the new H-alpha telescope to observe the Sun - but if you have a chance, go here and see the spectacular images taken by the telescope. Oh and did I mention that the whole observatory is powered by solar power? "Going completely green" was one of the things Umair announced at the beginning of the meeting along with an impressive list of activities that LAST accomplished just in the month of December.

The meeting and my talk was set outside (yes, there was a running joke about the wedding shamiana and wedding chairs). It was cold, but 50-60 members showed up. There were artists, musicians, photographers, science students, a yoga teacher, physicists, - all united by their love of astronomy. It was easy to geek out over discussions on f-ratios, ccd imagers, and exposure times. This enthusiasm was also visible in the Q & A - both during and after my talk. Just to give you an idea, the session lasted close to two and a half hours and most of the audience stayed there even as a thick fog outside was beginning to envelop the area. The quality of questions was outstanding: Relativistic effects on light, the possibility of variable physical laws in the universe, the impact of galaxy recession on H-alpha filters we use, etc. Oh - and of course, the reality of supermassive blackholes as depicted recently in Interstellar. Noteworthy also was an absence of any religious questions. This was surprising as I'm used to fielding statements or leading questions about miracles or other claims about astronomy in public talks. In fact, just the night before, I had such an experience at a family dinner. But I'm delighted that people mostly stayed on science at the LAST meeting.

I think I would be doing a disservice by not mentioning the return drive home. Umair gave me a ride back in a blinding fog. The visibility was zero - and I mean "zero". In fact, initially we kept on trying to clean our windows, but it turned out that they were clean  - the fog outside was hugging the windshield. I have never seen such a fog before. I'm glad that everyone on the road was driving at 10 km/hour. My brother was trying to give us directions for home by following some landmarks. He would ask, "What do you see on your left?" My answer was the same - "we can't see ANYTHING". We got lucky with the turn and ended up at the right place. But this was certainly an added adventure for the night.

Here are some pictures:
 Umair highlighting LAST activities in the month of December

I'm here wasting time with the opening slide

Hustle and bustle before the start of the meeting

 Here is a daytime picture of Umair's observatory (left) and the control room (right)

An example of LAST pubic outreach

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Celebrating human evolution and religion in Ethiopia

by Salman Hameed

Biological evolution is a subject often at the center of science and religion debates. On the one hand, it seems logical that an idea that removes one aspect of human uniqueness may cause tension amongst some religions. On the other hand, such a tension is not necessary nor has always been the case. Even in late 19th century and early 20th century, biological evolution - including that of humans - was more or less accepted in Europe without much controversy. It might have been the case in the US too if not for specific circumstances linked with the Fundamentalist movement of the 1920's and the 1925 Scopes 'Monkey' trial that led to the creation of anti-evolution movement here. Even then, it may not have mattered that much, but the merging of this anti-evolution movement with the new  Christian right in the 1970s brought the topic fully into identity politics. Furthermore, the dominant form of creationism in the US evolved (ha!) from old-earth creationism to the idea of an Earth only a six to ten thousand years old. Since creationism cases in the US have received so much attention - and continue to do so - that we forget that this is not necessarily the default conflict position everywhere else in the world.

It is in this context, it is wonderful to see this article by Amy Maxmen on Ethiopia which highlights the way Ethiopians celebrate religion as well as the story of human evolution as uncovered by archaeologists:
A distinguishing feature of Ethiopia is that both religion and science are bred in its bone,
and the union doesn’t seem to be a matter of either side compromising. A mosaic at the museum’s entrance pictures Lucy, our famous human-like ancestor from over 3 million years ago, and an Orthodox Christian cross. Soon the Ethiopian government will open The Human Origin Museum, devoted to our evolution. 
Generally speaking, Ethiopians are devout Christians or Muslims, and they’re quick to note the holy and historical sites that occur throughout the nation. Both the Old and New Testaments name Ethiopia several times. It is said that the grandson of Noah (of Ark fame) moved to a city in the north of the country, Axum. Today, the Ark of the Covenant—which contains tablets inscribed with Moses’ Ten Commandments—is purportedly locked within Axum’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Another name for Ethiopia, Abyssinia, occurs in the Qur’an. It is said that the prophet Muhammad advised his disciples to escape persecution in Mecca by fleeing there, where the Christian ruler of Axum welcomed Muslims with open arms. Ethiopian Jews allegedly descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. And Rastafarians regard Ethiopia as their homeland. 
Ethiopia is also a holy land to paleontologists and evolutionary biologists. In addition to Lucy, 10 other species of hominid (members of our tribe that date back 6 million years) have been discovered in the country. Many of them were found buried west of Axum, in an arid region called the Afar, which rests at the intersection of three enormous tectonic plates that float above the Earth’s molten core. An Ethiopian paleoanthropologist, Zeresenay Alemseged, told me that during celebrations, the leader of the Afar begins ceremonies with a religious prayer, and then welcomes everyone to the cradle of humankind.
I was also asked some questions for the article, and I'm quoted for the US situation:
“More often than not, accepting or rejecting evolution has become a matter of identity,” said Salman Hameed, a professor of integrated science and the humanities at Hampshire College. “If you are a member of the new Christian right, you are often against human evolution, against abortion, against global warming.” In other countries—such as Ethiopia—evolution does not carry the same historical baggage. 
Because evolution is included in a package deal of beliefs in the U.S., conversations for or against it become quickly heated. “If I think that accepting human evolution means rejecting God, my gut reaction might be to reject evolution because rejecting my religion is grave,” Hameed said. Rather than engage in futile debates, Hameed would prefer discussions about why a person feels the way they do. “Otherwise, it just amounts to us-versus-them, to idiot-calling on either side,” he said. That’s a shame because ultimately we’re all united in the same obsession: the tale of our creation.
Read the full article here. But the best part is this short (4 minute) video linked with the article:

P.S. One of the reader's on the article described me in a fascinatingly amusing way - and I have to quote it below: 
“If I think that accepting human evolution means rejecting God, my gut reaction might be to reject evolution because rejecting my religion is grave,” Hameed said. 
And there's the problem. Hameed is a fully rational human walking around with a little burning nugget of insanity carried inside his brain, lovingly wrapped in impervious walls of rationalization.
Love it!

Mapping the damage to Syrian Archaeological sites

by Salman Hameed

From Science: This map is based on satellite data and shows locates sites of damage

The civil war in Syria and surrounding areas is also taking its toll on archeological sites. Last week's issue of Science has an article that used satellite imagery to assess some of the damage. And it is not just ISIS that is responsible for the damage - though they are the ones intentionally going after Shia, Christian or Yazidi sites. But the most extensive damage is simply through the actions of the military:
The Islamic State group has emerged as a particular threat, making concerted efforts to destroy the sacred sites of groups it views as heretical. The group has publicized its intentional destruction of dozens of sacred sites online or in its glossy magazine, Dabiq. “A soldier of the Islamic state clarifies to the people the obligation to demolish the tombs,” states one caption in a recent issue that includes images of exploding shrines. 
“It is all very choreographed,” Danti says. He adds that the biggest spike in destruction took place in May, with nearly 20 sites demolished, followed by a half-dozen or so incidents each month thereafter. Almost half of the destroyed sites are associated with Shia Muslims, while the remainder are places sacred to Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam, as well as Christians and Yazidis, an ancient ethnic group centered in northern Iraq. More than 15% are statues and buildings predating Islam; images on the Internet, for example, show a yellow front loader toppling and pulverizing two massive black stone lions dating to the 9th century B.C.E. in the Islamic State provisional capital of Raqqa in northern Syria. 
But researchers say that even more damage to archaeologically important sites stems from military action by all parties in the conflict, including the Syrian government and perhaps Iraqi and U.S. forces. “There is a lot of damage from military garrisoning,” says Jesse Casana, an archaeologist at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, who is part of the ASOR team and has been closely examining dozens of Syrian sites. Tells, remnants of ancient settlements that dot the Syrian and Iraqi landscape, offer high ground for military units, which wreak havoc with heavy equipment as they fortify the sites. Archaeologists also fear that the warring forces are heavily mining strategic tells, creating a daunting threat for future excavators. 
In October, Kurds captured Tell Shair, a site near the hotly contested Syrian town of Kobane. Images taken by the victors showed that the ousted Islamic State group fighters had dug trenches 2 to 3 meters deep on the mound, devastating the upper layers of the millennia-old settlement. The images also showed signs of bomb craters, possibly from U.S. raids—in the first half of October alone, the U.S. military reported conducting more than 135 airstrikes in the area. A Defense Department advisory group provides data to the U.S. military on important cultural heritage monuments so it can limit bomb damage. But whether such protection extends to smaller sites such as Tell Shair is unclear, several U.S. archaeologists say.

Here is a map of the site of an ancient Roman city and the holes dug by looters are apparent:

From Science: This is a December 2012 image of Apamea in Syria and the inset shows the holed dug in by the looters
Casana is also using satellite photos to track another major source of damage: looting. At the important classical city of Apamea outside Hama in western Syria, for example, areas largely undisturbed in images from 2011 are pocked with large holes in 2012—holes big enough to suggest that they were dug by heavy machinery such as backhoes rather than shovels. Looting has since spread across the site in what looks like a “very organized fashion,” Casana says. The Syrian government built a major military garrison, complete with bunkers and artillery emplacements, at the site of the former tourist restaurant at Apamea. “This strongly implicates the military as complicit or participating in looting,” Casana adds. At another tell nearby, the looting holes are located within a few meters of military tents. 
Classical sites like Apamea and Bosra, an ancient city in southern Syria that has also suffered significant damage, are more prone to looting than older sites because their artifacts are more sought-after on the international market. Archaeologists have observed a massive expansion in looting between August 2013 and April 2014 at Dura-Europos, a sprawling Roman-era city on the Euphrates in Syria. But Bronze Age cities like Ebla in the west—damaged by a Syrian government military garrison—and Mari, which is under the Islamic State group's control, are not immune. “There are rumors that armed groups are undertaking the work,” ASOR's Branting says about Mari. Other reports suggest that the Islamic State group is profiting from the business, possibly by exacting a tax as well as by overseeing looting operations. But Danti adds that most looting appears to be the work of desperate Syrians attempting to survive in a devastated economy.
I guess this is another price of war. You can read the full article here (you may need subscription to access it).

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Jail time for a Turkish astrophysicist for blocking headscarf students

by Salman Hameed

Astrophysicist Pekünlü photographed while taking pictures of women wearing headscarfs

This is a fascinating story that provides some insight into the changing political landscape in Turkey. An astronomy professor has been sent to jail for 25 months for repeatedly blocking students wearing headscarves from entering the faculty building where he worked. Until recently (2010), headscarves were banned in Turkish public universities - and I think that such a ban was atrocious. Now, this professor, Esat Rennan Pekünlü, is accused of violating the rights of students as well as their privacy (he also took photographs of headscarved students - but he himself got photographed doing all that as well - see the picture above) by preventing their access to the building. While I wholeheartedly agree that this professor is a schmuck, a 25 month sentence seems a bit harsh and I'm sure there is more to the story than is in the news. Nevertheless, it is good to see some basic defense of rights being taken seriously. Here is the story from World Bulletin
The Supreme Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court's decision to sentence a Turkish professor from Ege University to over two years in prison because he repeatedly blocked headscarved women from entering the faculty building where he worked. 
The İzmir 4th Criminal Court of First Instance last year convicted the professor of violating the privacy of Fatma Nur Gidal -- one of the women he prevented from entering the building and the plaintiff in the case -- as well as violating her right to access to education. 
The professor, Esat Rennan Pekünlü, from the university's department of astronomy and space sciences, was caught on camera in May taking photographs of headscarved students and preventing them from entering the building. 
The Higher Education Board (YÖK) lifted a ban on the wearing of the Muslim headscarf on university campuses in 2010. However, some universities continue to impose the notorious ban. Opponents of the ban, including conservatives and many liberal intellectuals, think that such a ban contravenes fundamental rights as it deprives some citizens of their right to education. 
Pekünlü was captured by cameramen of the Cihan news agency while he was standing at the door of his faculty building and taking photos of headscarved students. Cameramen had arrived at the faculty after some students tipped them off that the professor was violating the rights of women wearing headscarves at their university.
And no - not all astrophysicists are like this.

Nature blogs also mention that there is a petition by eight academic institutions in Pekünlü's defense: 
A group of eight academic organizations released a statement in support of Pekünlü, raising concerns about the fairness of the trial and framing it as an attack against secular academicians. They wrote that his case should have been handled by an administrative rather than a criminal court. Moreover, Pekünlü cannot avoid prison by paying a fine, since he has been sentenced to 25 months of jail. Under Turkish law, sentences of up to 24 months can be avoided by paying a fine.
Also this BBC story: Quite End to Turkey's College Headscarf Ban.

Friday, December 05, 2014

A new book on atheism in the Middle East

by Salman Hameed

About a year ago, I had a post about growing open atheism in Egypt where I pointed to a possible trend in increasing self-expression, including in the domain of religious beliefs. Among the various factors contributing to it, university education and the exposure of other ideas via the internet and social media are perhaps the most important ones. It is the notion of "personal religion" that is, perhaps, allowing the possibility of more open atheistic and/or agnostic stances in contemporary Muslim societies (also see this earlier post about secular bloggers in Bangladesh and a backlash against them orchestrated by Jammat-e-Islami). There is a fascinating subject and Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East by British journalist, Brian Whitaker, directly deals with this topic. Here is a review from Muftah:
Since the start of the Arab Spring, atheism has become a growing social phenomenon in
the region, with an increasing presence on social media outlets. In his timely book, Arabs without God, Brian Whitaker, British journalist and former Middle East editor at The Guardian, explores this rarely studied but recurrent phenomenon in the Arab world. Juxtaposing the new wave of atheism with existing social and political discourses in the region, Whitaker highlights the complexities of this intellectual revolution, while also presenting possible solutions for its accommodation in a part of the globe known for its religiosity.
There is an interesting claim that the path to atheism for many in the Middle East may different than the usual path to atheism in "West":
In contrasting the journey taken by Arab atheists with those of their Western counterparts, Whitaker highlights the disenchanting personal experiences Arab non-believers have undergone in rejecting a God in which state and society has told them they are required to believe. According to Whitaker, the road toward non-belief for Arab atheists is usually a slow one with little basis in the “science-versus-religion debate” prevalent in the West. Instead, the journey for Arab atheists is often grounded in the “apparent unfairness of divine justice,” in questions like why do bad religious people go unpunished (either by the cosmos or society) while good non-believers are not spared? 
As Whitaker shows, in religious societies, questioning “divine fairness” does not only pose a challenge to community ethos or state authority. By exercising their right to “offend, shock and disturb” societal norms, Arab non-believers also experience an inner struggle. Whitaker describes this experience as a two-step process. First, in their journey toward atheism, individual Arabs often recount the constant reminders and warnings, received from an early age, about an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God whose punishment for disbelief and non-conformity is inevitable in this life and the hereafter. Second, many non-believers find solace away from this narrative in literary works on existentialism, morality, and religion written by Western as well as Arab philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Abd al-Rahman Badawi, and Albert Camus. For these individuals, these works help transform personal doubts into a grander theoretical inquiry into the nature of religion and God.
I don't know the empirical accuracy of the claim, but it is nevertheless a fascinating claim. I wonder if we will see a similar difference within western societies based on socio-economic status with a similar conception of God. But Whitaker goes on to provide a broader history of Arab and Muslim freethinkers as well:
In perhaps the most engaging chapter of “Arabs without God,” Whitaker provides a revealing historical account of Arab and Muslim free-thinkers. Representing an often purposefully ignored aspect of Arab history and religion, these individuals challenge preconceived notions about Muslim states and societies as always fundamentally intolerant of criticism. Whitaker traces waves of atheism throughout Islamic history and briefly highlights the golden age of intellectual reform, through Islamic thinkers like Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri, and Omar al-Khayam, who proclaimed their non-belief at various points. Whitaker emphasizes that, other than Rawandi, these individuals were not necessarily labeled atheists, but instead described as free-thinkers or heretics. 
As the author also argues, in expressing their doubts about the prophetic tradition and the divine, these philosophers as well as others, did not necessarily eschew a belief system for shaping their lives and aiding them in rationalizing and interpreting the world and their own actions. Rawandi and Abu Bakr al-Razi, another respected ninth century scholar, criticized Islam but also believed reason was a sufficient source for the “knowledge of good and evil.” Indeed, both then and now, Arab atheists have offered humanism as a counter-argument to organized religion, substituting a morality shaped by religious tenets with one guided by human reason.
By the way, if you are interested in this history, you should also check out Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History. One of the chapters in there is devoted to Muslim freethinkers. But back to the present, Whitaker documents other reasons for turning away from religion as well, in particular, social alienation:
Social alienation also drives some Arabs, especially women and homosexuals, to reject religion. In his book, Whitaker navigates the ways in which patriarchy, familial discrimination, as well as social marginalization, push women and homosexuals away from their religion. 
On their road to non-belief, women and homosexuals each develop a unique set of characteristics, expressing their private feelings within tightly guarded circles of trust while mirroring social expectations in public. For example, Whitaker’s book contains examples from ex-Muslim women and homosexuals who felt comfortable sharing their non-belief with selected immediate family members, while continuing to superficially display their religious affiliations. 
Whitaker attributes this unique identity formation to two things. The first has to do with the “comfort factor,” which encourages those who are insecure to seek religion, or the pretense of religion, for protection from harassment or persecution. The second has to do with “faith plasticity,” which involves “reshaping orthodox concepts of God and faith to fit their needs.” 
Although Whitaker does not explicitly claim that women’s subjugation is fueled by forces other than religion, he does not shy away from emphasizing the twisted effects patriarchy has on their daily lives. In male-dominated societies, like those in the Arab world, a woman’s piety, virtue, and family honor is assessed through her outward demonstrations of religiosity. Nonconformity and deviation from strict religious practices are automatically linked to negative portrayals of female chastity and virtue, thus paving the way toward “popular association[s] of atheism with immorality.” This social stigma serves to deter women from questioning religious codes of conduct, including the ultimate belief in God and religious forms of dress.
But this is all the more relevant for LGBTQ communities in the Middle East:
For their part, Arab LGBTQ communities endure constant persecution and harassment by state agencies, as well as private citizens who adhere to mainstream Islam. For some LGBTQ Arabs, things are further complicated by doubts about prevailing religious belief systems. Some of these individuals chose to pursue this “double-coming-out.” Other atheist homosexuals in the Arab world, however, continue to weigh their options as to which identity – atheist or homosexual – is less risky for them to publicly assume. 
Interestingly, Whitaker shows that some agnostic Arab homosexuals find solace within a middle ground of spirituality. This is not an outright rejection of faith, but rather a step toward distancing themselves from organized religion, which allows them to construct their distinctive personal identities while maintaining the minimum religiosity required by society. 
In tackling complex issues of gender and sexuality in relation to religion, Whitaker has undertaken the difficult task of mapping the region’s multifaceted atheist sub-groups based on gender and sexuality. Although he does not address the compounded problems faced by atheist LBT feminist groups, the author certainly challenges perspectives that dismiss the affects individual experiences have on the journey toward disbelief.
Atheism in the contemporary Muslim societies is a relatively unexplored topic and it is great to see a book about it. You can read the full review here

Thursday, December 04, 2014

A new paper on Islamophobia and Islamic Creationism in Europe

by Salman Hameed

I have a new paper out in Public Understanding of Science that looks at the context for Islamic creationism in Europe. In particular, the focus is on the way evolution-rejection may be becoming a marker of identity amongst Muslim minorities in Europe and how media coverage is further polarizing the narrative, particularly in the UK. This is all the more relevant as a new study has shown that in the UK, Muslim men were "up to 76 per cent less likely to have a job of any kind compared to white, male British Christians of the same age and with the same qualifications. And Muslim women were up to 65 per cent less likely to be employed than white Christian counterparts".

Here is the abstract of my paper from Public Understanding of Science (you can get a pdf here):
Islamic creationism has been noted as a serious concern in Europe. There have been reports of boycotts of university evolution lectures and, in one extreme case, even a threat of violence. While religious objections are indeed at play in some cases, our understanding of the rise of Islamic creationism should also take into account socioeconomic disparities and its impact on education for Muslim minorities in Europe. Furthermore, the broader narrative of rejection of evolution in Europe, for some Muslims, may be bound up in reactions to the secular culture and in the formation of their own minority religious identity. On the other hand, the stories of Muslim rejection of evolution in media end up reinforcing the stereotype of Muslims as “outsiders” and a threat to the European education system. A nuanced understanding of this dynamic may benefit those who support both the propagation of good science and favor cultural pluralism.
I will highlight the last section of the paper that talks about perceptions of the controversy over Islamic creationism in Europe. But if you want to look at broader scio-economic context, then read the full paper. The last section here uses the example widely disseminated newspaper coverage about apparent Muslim student walkouts from evolution classes and what that tells us about identity politics and media in the UK:

4. Perceptions of the controversy over Islamic creationism in Europe 
The controversy over evolution feeds into a broader European narrative. On the one hand, many Europeans see Muslim practices as a direct challenge to their traditional values, while at the same time, many Muslims in Europe feel that they are being forced to assimilate at the cost of their religious beliefs[1]. This makes the challenge of addressing Islamic creationism in Europe perhaps one of the most complex issues related to science education. 
 In order to address Islamic creationism in Europe, we have to start by asking what do “evolution” or “Darwin” means for various Muslim minorities in Europe? What is it that is being rejected? As laid out above, for a number of Muslims, “evolution” or “Darwin” may simply stand for secularism, which they may perceive as an attack on their Islamic identity. For some, it may stand for racism as they conflate evolution with ideas of social Darwinism. From the limited studies that are available, we also know that some European Muslims accept microevolution but reject macroevolution, some accept animal evolution but reject human evolution, and some accept all of evolution (Koning 2006; Clement 2013; Elsdon-Baker 2014). These responses may be correlated with different education backgrounds and social classes, and education strategies must take this diversity into account.  
Unfortunately, the media coverage of evolution controversy involving Muslim minorities only reinforces the stereotypes. In UK, for example, a Daily Mail headline declared “Atheist Richard Dawkins blames Muslims for ‘importing creationism’ into classrooms” (Macrae 2008). Similarly, a headline in The Guardian referred to the former director of education at the Royal Society and Anglican priest, Michael Reiss, when stating that “Migration is spreading creationism across Europe, claims academic” – a not so subtle reference to the Muslim minorities (Butt 2009). The article goes on to quote Reiss, “What the Turks believe today is what the Germans and British believe tomorrow. It is because of the mass movement of people between countries.” 
Such stories not only treat Muslims as a monolithic entity and outsiders, but also create a narrative that the default Muslim position is a rejection of evolution. The framing of these stories portray Muslim immigrants as a threat to the European education system. This leads to the further marginalization of the Muslim minority which sees this as a threat to assimilate. Furthermore, it is only considered news when Muslim students reject evolution. Once a stereotype of a Muslim position on evolution has been created, it is easy to report stories with the same framing.  
Perhaps the most egregious example of this comes from November 2011. In an interview with The Times, the British evolutionary biologist Steve Jones mentioned that he used to get mostly Christian creationists, but now some Muslim students were boycotting his evolution classes: “It is a minority of students ... but [the problem] is definitely there and it is definitely growing” (Grimston 2011). The popularity of this article in mass media is instructive. The headline of the Times article itself was “Muslim Students Boycott Lectures on Evolution”. The Global Mail reported on it with the headline “Muslim Medical Students Boycotting Lectures on Evolution…because ‘it clashes with the Koran’.” It was picked up and reported by the BBC and Al Jazeera, by numerous international newspapers, and was the topic on various blogs on the internet with the same headline.  
Note that this was an anecdote from Steve Jones and he mentioned a “minority” of Muslim students. In fact, in a follow up article for The Telegraph, Steve Jones explicitly stated that at “University College London we have numbers of Islamic students, almost all dedicated, hard-working and able. Some, unfortunately, refuse to accept Darwin’s theory on faith grounds, as do some of their Christian fellows” (Jones 2011). But the headlines give the impression that Muslim medical students are en masse walking out of classes. This is perhaps what comedian Stephen Colbert calls Truthiness: “it doesn’t have to be true, but it just has to feel true.”  
These stereotypes also play into the hands of the extremes. The Steve Jones story was highlighted by several right-wing anti-Muslim websites, such as Jihad Watch, Atlas Shrugs, and Islam versus Europe: Where Islam spreads, freedom dies, as an example of the threat of Muslim presence in the West (Figure 2) [Please note that this figure was replaced by its text in the published paper].

Figure 2: A screenshot of coverage of Steve Jones story on Jihad Watch
On the flip side, the organization of Harun Yahya cited this as an example of a growing tide of students now supporting his anti-evolutionary ideas, and used it to reinforce his own narrative (Figure 3)[Please note that this figure was replaced by its text in the published paper]. 
Figure 3: A screenshot of Steve Jones story on the website of Harun Yahya
The reality, in fact, is more complex even for those students who may have sympathies with the views of Harun Yahya. I recently interviewed one of the organizers of the 2008 UCL event that hosted two speakers from Harun Yahya's organization. She is a medical student and a second-generation immigrant from Pakistan. At the time of the event she did not know much about Yahya’s organization but had the impression that they represented the Islamic view on evolution. However, she was disappointed at the unsophisticated level of talk and believed that “the organization [of Harun Yahya] was very bad at presenting the facts of evolution in a scientific manner”. In fact, she was shocked when she found out a couple of individuals from her organization liked the talk. Ultimately, however, she was disappointed for the non-Muslims that had attended the talk: 
[Be]cause of the press coverage it drew in a…big audience and the audience were very disappointed. They were like, it doesn’t make any sense…their arguments don’t make any sense, and so a lot of non-Muslims came as well, and they were disappointed. I…brought some people and friends as well and…overall everyone was quite disappointed. But there were a few people that loved it. It was very mixed but a majority of people thought the talk went badly. Badly enough that when they tried to redo a talk by the same organization, but these were people who hadn’t been there when the first talk done, we kind of pushed for it to never be done again at UCL.
Perhaps this student is not an ideal candidate for Islamic creationism. She is well educated and could easily see through the relatively crude form of creationism presented by Harun Yahya’s group. Her desire to invite Harun Yahya's group was less motivated by epistemological concerns but had more to do with the idea of defending Islam. During the interview, I also asked her about her own personal views on evolution: she accepts microbial evolution and animal evolution, but has trouble accepting human evolution. When asked if there can ever be sufficient evidence to convince her of the reality of human evolution, she left the door open by saying “I think it is important to keep an open mind, and I think it is important if there is evidence to look at it objectively because you should use your brain and your faculties to understand the evidence that is put in front of you.”           
The student above is a good example of a smart and educated person who is navigating a complex cultural landscape involving science, religion, and social identity. She was seeking a Muslim voice – not necessarily a creationist one – to speak out on evolution, and Harun Yahya was the only alternative available to her. It is quite clear then that the efforts to communicate evolution will not be successful if it is perceived as another effort by the state to “assimilate” Muslims into the European culture. 
A criticism from outside, even if there is diversity of opinion on the matter, can be seen as an attack on the whole community. Kabir (2012) noted such a reaction in response to negative comments about niqab by British politician, Jack Straw, even though only a minority of Muslim women takes the niqab. In fact, some of her interview subjects pointed out instances where Muslim women started taking the niqab in response to this particular controversy. The media and the politicians, Kabir writes, were powerful agents that reinforced a negative Muslim stereotype (p. 162).

A recent panel discussion in London featured Muslim theologians and biologists explicitly discussing the question of evolution’s place in Islam. Organized by the British-based Deen Institute, this intra-faith discussion had a provocative title, “Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution”?  The panelists included two biologists, two theologians, and a spokesperson for Harun Yahya. Even with a steep entry charge, the hall was capacity full at 850 people, comprising mostly of a Muslim audience. The two Muslim biologists on the panel defended the science of evolution (including human evolution) and eloquently explained the way they reconciled their religious faith with biological evolution. Even amongst the two theologians, one accepted all of evolution including that of humans, and the other drew the line at human evolution (Hameed 2013). The audience, judging from the reaction to the panel discussion, was interested in the topic and seemed to represent a full spectrum of views on evolution and its place in Islam.  
An event such as this belies the common portrayal of Islamic creationism in Europe. In fact, the usual construction of evolution as a contested and antagonistic cultural marker benefits Islamic creationists as well as anti-Muslim groups in Europe. A nuanced understanding of this dynamic – one that resists this and its polarizing narrative - may benefit those who support both the propagation of good science and favor cultural pluralism.
You can find the pdf of the paper here

Saturday, November 29, 2014

SSiMS talk on Monday by Stefano Bigliardi: "My Quest for Islam and Modern Science: Challenges, Results and Prospects"

by Salman Hameed

Our next SSiMS talk is on Monday by Stefano Bigliardi. He will be talking about his book, Islam and the Quest for Modern Science, in which he interviews various contemporary Muslim figures who are all approaching Islam and modern science from different perspectives. Here is the title and abstract for Stefano's talk:

My Quest for Islam and Modern Science: Challenges, Results and Prospects 
by Dr. Stefano Bigliardi
Tec de Monterrey, Campus Santa Fe, Mexico City, Mexico.

Monday, December 1st at 4:00pm in East Lecture Hall, Franklin Patterson Hall (FPH) 
Hampshire College

Abstract: Drawing upon the research that resulted in his monograph, Islam and the Quest for Modern Science (Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, 2014), Bigliardi will describe the complex landscape of the contemporary debate over the harmony of Islam and science. He will discuss the definition of the so-called “new generation”, i.e., a group of authors with a strong background in the natural sciences who seemingly refuse to find “scientific notions” in the Qur’an as well as any “Islamization” of the scientific method, while they accept biological evolution.

Biographical Statement: Bigliardi obtained a PhD in Philosophy of Science (2008) at the University
of Bologna in a joint supervision with the University of Konstanz (Germany) with a thesis about the concept of belief. His postdoctoral research complemented a Western/ analytical philosophical outlook with the study of Islam. His project was supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the University of Konstanz, Germany. He later joined the faculty of CMES (Center for Middle Eastern Studies) at Lund University, where he served as a researcher and a lecturer. He currently serves as a philosophy teacher at Tec de Monterrey, Campus Santa Fe, Mexico City.

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

Friday, November 28, 2014

A nice article in Nature on the 50th anniversary of Salam's Centre for Theoretical Physics

by Salman Hameed

Fifty years ago, Abdus Salam and Italian physicist Paolo Budinich established the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. One of the main goals of the centre was to help physicists from third world countries. Last week, Nature had a wonderful article about the influence of ICTP and it used the example of Narayan Adhiskar of physics department at Tribuvan University (TU) in Nepal. There are parts of the story that will feel quite familiar to Pakistan and other countries in the developing world:
The dust in Kathmandu cloaks everything. It carpets the streets with a dingy layer. Women cutting waist-high grass are wearing face masks to keep it out. And it settles on the dilapidated buildings of Tribhuvan University (TU) — the biggest scientific establishment in Nepal. 
Narayan Adhikari, however, has managed to stay clean. Clad in an impeccable white shirt and black trousers, he adds his motorbike to a collection of some 20 others parked haphazardly in front of a 3-storey building, the university's physics department. Before entering his tiny lab, the 44-year-old researcher removes his shoes to keep the dirt out. In the lab are a dozen desktop computers, which the department received in 2009 — before that, there were none. Power blackouts happen every day, lasting for up to 16 hours, and the Internet connection works “maybe one day a month”, Adhikari says. 
Despite this, for the past eight years Adhikari and his students have been producing a stream of theoretical-physics papers on the properties of materials such as atom-thick graphene. It is a rare — if not unique — achievement for a physics lab in Nepal, and Adhikari's contributions are also helping to build up his department as a whole, by boosting the number of PhD students being trained there. “Doing physics in a country like Nepal is a real challenge,” he says. 
Adhikari's accomplishments are rooted in more than his own determination and wit; they also draw on support from the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), an organization based a world away in the picturesque Italian seaside town of Trieste. Set up in 1964 by Pakistani physics Nobel laureate Abdus Salam and Italian physicist Paolo Budinich, it aims to advance theoretical physics in the developing world. Salam, who died in 1996, wanted the centre to be “a home away from home” for researchers from the poorest regions of the world. After they passed through the ICTP's programmes of training and research, he hoped that alumni would establish scientific communities in their home countries, rather than settling abroad as so many scientists did. Adhikari, who completed the ICTP's one-year postgraduate-diploma programme in 1998, is one of the institute's success stories. 
Adhikari is hardly the only one. In the 50 years since it was established, the ICTP has trained more than 100,000 scientists from 188 countries through its workshops and courses. Researchers who studied there have contributed to major discoveries in fields ranging from string theory and neutrino physics to climate change, and have racked up a trophy cabinet of academic prizes, including shares in a pair of Nobels. Most physicists credit the institute with stemming the brain drain and bolstering academia in the developing world. The institute is “widely admired”, says Martin Rees, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, and former head of the Royal Society in London, who hopes that it will “inspire the creation of similar institutions covering other scientific fields”.
Here is a graphic showing that most people who get diplomas from ICTP ends up with a PhD and other degrees in the field:

The Nature article also provides a background of the founding rationale for ICTP:
The seeds of the ICTP were planted after the Second World War, when physicists including Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr championed the concept of a United Nations-backed centre to promote peaceful nuclear-physics research. Initially, this led to the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But
for Abdus Salam, a science prodigy from Pakistan who had been made a physics professor at Imperial College London by the age of 31, that was not enough. 
Speaking to the IAEA's General Conference in 1960, he outlined his idea for an IAEA-backed organization that would promote theoretical-physics research in the developing world and bridge East and West in the cold war. In the audience was Paolo Budinich, head of physics at the University of Trieste, who shared the dream. The two men initially encountered resistance to the idea of building a new centre; critics argued that it would be easier and cheaper for developing-world physicists to visit existing labs in the developed world. But Salam and Budinich won the argument, not least after they secured the financial backing of the Italian government and the support of the IAEA and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). They chose to locate the centre in Trieste, which was politically symbolic because it sat right next to the Iron Curtain that divided East and West. 
When the institute opened in 1964, it rapidly established itself as a place for high-level research and training, welcoming scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain and from farther afield. The centre, which initially offered scientists a two-to-three-month grant to work in Trieste, “was like a source of oxygen to Third World scientists”, says Abdelkrim Aoudia, a geophysicist from Algeria who works at the ICTP. 
Even in the institute's early days, many Nobel laureates served as visiting professors. When, in 1979, Salam shared a Nobel prize with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for the unification of electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force, the organization's prestige skyrocketed. Speaking at the anniversary celebrations, Salam's son Ahmad, an investment banker at EME Capital in London, wiped away tears as he remembered the sacrifices his father made while he set up the centre — not least spending little time with his children. “He had a much bigger mission in life,” said Ahmad. 
Today, around 2,500 developing-world scientists visit the ICTP each year. About 50 of these enrol in the one-year diploma, an intense predoctoral education programme taught by experts from around the world. (The institute identifies students through both an application process and the recommendations of researchers and teachers.) Many of the rest — including Adhikari — are part of the Associates Scheme, which supports scientists from developing countries to make regular visits to the ICTP, where they network and update their skills. What makes the institute successful, say those involved, is its focus on nurturing talented scientists and keeping them connected to the international community, while encouraging them to continue research at home.
That approach is working, says Fernando Quevedo, the ICTP's director. Three-quarters of the students who have completed the diploma programme have received PhDs, or are working towards them, and more than half of those who complete PhDs go back to their home countries (see 'Sticking with science'). More than 90% of associates remain in their home countries for their careers. Some, inevitably, do end up abroad, but even in those cases, the ICTP often claims success. One of the world's leading string theorists, Argentinian Juan Maldacena, who works at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, attributes his achievements in part to the ICTP, because of the training that he and his master's supervisor received at the centre.
The article is behind the paywall. If you have access, you can read it here.

But of course, you should know that there is a wonderful new documentary on Abdus Salam is in the works.The filmmakers are close to the finish line. If you can help in getting the film finished - then please do. This is worthy project! Here is the fundraising trailer:

Abdus Salam Docufilm - Fundraising Teaser (2014) from Kailoola Productions LLC on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

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

by Salman Hameed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ferdowsi's 11th century epic Shahnameh in illustration

by Salman Hameed

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

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

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

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

Siavosh marries the Turanian commander's daughter

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