Sunday, January 26, 2014

Go and see the new documentary "The Square"

by Salman Hameed

Yesterday was the third anniversary of the start of the Egypt uprising against Mubarak. The Arab Spring has certainly gone in a winter mode in Egypt - in fact, in most places, with the possible exception of Tunisia. I'm still surprised/shocked/aghast at the success of the Egyptian military in its coup and its counter-revolution. However, we are in the middle of the events. Three years is a very short time to judge - let alone the last six months that the Egyptian military has been in power. Indeed, the recently deceased distinguished historian, Eric Hobsbawm, had seen parallels of Arab Spring with the 1848 European revolutions and had this to say in December 2011:
"It reminds me of 1848 - another self-propelled revolution which started in one country then spread all over the continent in a short time." 
For those who once crowded Tahrir Square and are now worried about the fate of their revolution, he has a word of comfort. 
"Two years after 1848, it looked as if it had all failed. In the long run, it hadn't failed. A good deal of liberal advances had been made. So it was an immediate failure but a longer term partial success - though no longer in the form of a revolution."
And, of course, we have to take into account the similarities and differences between the different countries experiencing the uprisings (as was the case in 1848):
Not enough notice has been taken, he says, of the differences between Arab countries in the throes of mass protests. 
"We are in the middle of a revolution - but it isn't the same revolution." 
"What unites them is a common discontent and common mobilisable forces - a modernising middle class, particularly a young, student middle class, and of course technology which makes it today very much easier to mobilise protests."
All of this brings me to an amazing new documentary, The Square. It has been very well received in the festival circuit and now has also been nominated for an Oscar in the best documentary category. We decided to watch it yesterday - on the 3rd anniversary of the Egyptian uprisings. The film is bitter-sweet. It sweeps you into the middle of the revolution in Tahrir Square and allows you to experience the events through the lens of a few participants - most of them on the liberal end - but one also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The film follow these characters through the start of protest gatherings in January 2011, through the struggles of getting Mubarak to resign and the military to cede power, to the election of Mori and his ouster in summer of 2013. And yes, the protestors - and the film makers - keep on going back to Tahrir Square!

It was absolutely amazing to watch the initial idealism and euphoria when Mubarak stepped down. I remember that we were all following events in Egypt with rapt attention during that time. But, then, as The Square documents, there was a long struggle to get the military to cede power with abundant ebbs and flows. This was also time of growing tensions between liberal protestors and the Brotherhood. The
film allows us to see the evolution of positions of the characters it was following along with their relationships with each other. In particular, it is fascinating and instructive to see the protagonist, Ahmed, and his conversations with Madgy, the member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Interestingly, we don't get to see much of the backstories of main characters, except for Magdy - perhaps appropriate, as the Brotherhood is the only one with a long history amongst the protesters.

The film is beautifully shot. Yes, it follows the chaos and turmoil of mass protests, but it has ample sensitive moments to create an intimate portrait of life with these protestors (the filmmakers had over 1600 hours of footage to work with!). The film is directed by Ebgytian-Ameircan Jehan Noujame, who was also behind the fantastic documentary, Control Room, about the perception of US invasion of Iraq through the lens of Al Jazeera. After watching The Square, please also check out Control Room.

Here is the trailer for The Square which you can stream from Netflix (by the way, if you end up confusing this movie with a fictional film, The Square - well watch that too. It is a well-made Australian thriller).

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Internet fatwas as new religious authority?

by Salman Hameed

There are a lot of online fatwas sites, and there is also no shortage of offline fatwas as well. Of course, weird fatwas grab all all the attention: a fatwa banning Pokemon in Saudi Arabia,  adult breastfeeding as way around sex segregation, etc. But of course, there are far more fatwas that are not that news-worthy. The growth of online fatwas has also been driven by Muslim minorities in Europe and the US, where they have broader access to the internet, but not necessarily a local religious authority.

Here is an interesting 2007 paper by Vit Sisler on The Internet and the Construction of Islamic Knowledge in Europe, published in the Journal of Law and Technology. Here is the section on authority, and I find the last paragraph about the increasing influence of European Muftis in the larger Muslim world fascinating (but of course, there is competition from the traditional authorities gaining ground on the internet):
The Internet has highlighted the marginalized groups and minority opinions in contemporary Islam, especially in the beginning, when established traditional authorities were not present. Some scholars have noted that there are a disproportionately high number of Internet sites which can be described as Salafi, i.e. having clear inclinations to the salafiya movement.[20] Moreover, until recently the Internet was providing an effective space for dissenting opinions that had limited or no access to other forms of mass media (like in the cases of Iranian scholar Hussein Ali Montazeri or Egyptian and Saudi Arabian opposition movements).[21] In most cases the messages of the marginalized or dissenting groups have been presented as purely Islamic, with no reference to orthodox or majority opinion. 
Over time, the so-called traditional authorities have invaded cyberspace and struggled to regain the authority they have allegedly lost. For example, the Al-Azhar library is now online with a huge database of fatwas and other religious texts. Even in Iran clerics have been encouraged by the state to set up their own weblogs, and the religious militia is operating their own Islamic cybercafés with protected, i.e. filtered, content.[22] Rather than favoring minority discourses, the Internet has created a new media ecology in which various interpretive authorities, both minority and majority, compete for audiences. 
Another aspect connected to the question of authority could be described as the "privatization" and "individualization" of Islam. Again this is particularly evident among the younger generation of Muslims, who search the Internet for different views and opinions, discuss them in both in online and off-line environments, and then select those most fitting to their own views. The same selective approach is often applied towards the sacred texts - the holy Quran and Sunna. The reasons for this phenomenon are variegated, most frequently cited are the impact of secular education in Western societies and the disintegration of traditional social enforcement frameworks. Be this as it may, the vehicle contributing to this phenomenon is undeniably also the Internet. 
The last impact of the Internet on the construction of interpretative authority is manifested by the fact that more and more Muslims from Islamic countries are seeking answers via the Internet from the European-based muftis. The case of Islamonline is again significant - in its database of fatwas we can find thousands of inquiries allegedly submitted from African or Middle Eastern countries. This constitutes a unique and in our modern history quite new situation - the European muftis are, at least in some cases, becoming interpretative authority for the Islamic world.[23]
You can access the full article from the Digital Islam site (Vit is also the Editor-in-Chief of Digital Islam). Here is the abstract:
Muslim communities in Europe vary greatly in regards to their ethnic origin and geographical location as well as their religious and cultural backgrounds. From Muslims in the Balkans, settled in the area for centuries, to the first-generation immigrants of Asian or African Muslims in the Western Europe, these communities live in a legal and political framework where the Islamic law is not recognized as a legitimate source of law and thus is not applied by the state authorities. According to some scholars, the specific conditions in European Muslim communities contribute to a series of social and political changes, briefly referred to as the ‘privatization’ and ‘individualization’ of Islam. Given the distinctive character of the Islamic decision making process, a new paradigm has emerged in the construction of Islamic knowledge and interpretative authority. Within this new paradigm established ‘traditional’ authorities operate in coexistence with Internet based muftis, online fatwa databases and individual Islamic blogs. The Internet arguably holds the potential to reshape inequities in the distribution of information tied to other forms of mass media. This paper examines how, and if ever, the Internet Islamic sites after several years of operation change the process of decision making and construction of Islamic knowledge within European Muslim minorities.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Pew report on religious hostilities in the world: 185 countries have at least some issues

by Salman Hameed

There is good news and bad news in the new Pew report on religious hostilities around the the world. The bad news is that such hostilities are at a six-year high. The good news - well - is that this doesn't have to be the case as evidence from six years ago. Okay - the Pew report didn't exactly put it this way:
The share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. A third (33%) of the 198 countries and territories included in the study had high religious hostilities in 2012, up from 29% in 2011 and 20% as of mid-2007. Religious hostilities increased in every major region of the world except the Americas. The sharpest increase was in the Middle East and North Africa, which still is feeling the effects of the 2010-11 political uprisings known as the Arab Spring.1 There also was a significant increase in religious hostilities in the Asia-Pacific region, where China edged into the “high” category for the first time. 
The share of countries with a high or very high level of government restrictions on religion stayed roughly the same in the latest year studied. About three-in-ten countries in the world (29%) had a high or very high level of government restrictions in 2012, compared with 28% in 2011 and 20% as of mid-2007. Europe had the biggest increase in the median level of government restrictions in 2012, followed closely by the Middle East-North Africa – the only other region where the median level of government restrictions on religion rose.
Here is the map of the world regarding religious hostilities:

And they find that there are 185 countries where religious groups were harassed:

Two comments here: First, you should know that the UN membership is 192. So I'm curious to know about those 7 countries where no religious groups were harassed. Second, I'm glad to see that not only "atheists" are included in the numbers, but so are members of new religions. Wait - so again. Who are those 7 countries that did not bother religious or atheistic group??

But who is top-seed? Well, Pakistan has successfully defended its top position (so we can cross-out Pakistan as one of the 7 harassment-free countries :) ). This is not that much of surprise as we see institutional discrimination in the case of Ahmadis and the exploding Shia-Sunni violence:

Interestingly, Pakistan is quite low in government restrictions on religion (and this is despite Ahmadi discrimination being enshrined in the constitution):

And then finally, here is a nice way to see the evolution of religious hostilities and restriction over the last six years. In particular switch between 2008 and 2012 to see how things have changed over the past few years:

Read the full report here.

Monday, January 13, 2014

An opera about Mukhtaran Mai

by Salman Hameed

In 2002, Mukhataran Mai stood up to her perpetrators after being gang-raped in a village in Pakistan as a punishment for her brother's offense. Against all sorts of threats, she took her case all the way to the Supreme Court (unfortunately, the 5 out 6 men were acquitted for 'insufficient evidence' in 2011). I heard her speak in Boston back in 2005 and she came off as exceptionally confident. Unfortunately, just like the recent case of Malala, as soon as her plight became international, there was a backlash in Pakistan. The problem is that, when it comes to women, such cases get appropriated by the "West" in the name of rescuing them, and the ensuing backlash is equally problematic. If you are not familiar with this paper, you should definitely check out Do the Muslim Women Need Saving? (pdf) by Lila Abu-Lughod (she also has a new book out with the same title). Any way, I may have another post on this at another time.

But, here I wanted to point out this opera about Mukhtaran Mai called Thumbprint. It is playing in New York till January 18th. There are some sound clips in this NPR story, and it sounds really interesting as it takes Western operatic styles and mixes it with Indian ragas and Pakistani qawwali devotional songs. However, what struck me here was the name of the opera - Thumbprint - which has a direct connection to education (yes, read it still with the caveats from Abu-Lughod in mind):
The title of Thumbprint comes from a pivotal moment in Mukhtar Mai's story, when she goes to the police to report the rape, says librettist Susan Yankowitz. 
"When she's there, she realizes she does not know how to sign her name to the document. And it has never really occurred to her that this was a disadvantage, in any way, that this was a problem! But in the context of the police and the judge and a court, she understands how important it is. She does sign the document with her thumbprint. And, in doing so, she understands the power and importance of education," Yankowitz says.

You can find more information about the show here.

This bit about literacy is interesting. A few years ago Werner Herzog had this amazing (and sad) documentary Into the Abyss (if you haven't seen it, you should definitely check it out). The film centers on Herzog's conversations with a person on death row, and those who are impacted by his crime, and those that will (and do) do the execution (I'm getting side-tracked here, but the prologue with the priest who is going to read the last rites amazing! See it here). In any case, during the course of an on-camera interview, Herzog learns that his interview subject (a friend of the guy on death-row) learned how to read while he was in prison - and now he can read newspapers, etc. In a typical Herzogian manner, Herzog starts asking him about what it feels like to be able to read? How does he about the opening of this new world? It was totally an aside, but such an awesome question.

I know that Mukhtaran Mai started schools - and that she herself was also learning to read and write. I don't know if she can read now or not - but she will be a fantastic person to ask Herzog's question. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

New NOVA episode on extrasolar planets

by Salman Hameed

This is an excellent NOVA episode and it will get you upto date - well almost - on extrasolar planets. But I like the fact that they speculated on the possible types of lifeforms that may exist on some of these worlds.

Check out this NOVA:

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Exploring Ibn-Sina, Wormholes, and Technological Singularity: 3 films to look for in 2014

by Salman Hameed

The year has just started, but there are a number of films that look interesting from the perspective of science and religion (loosely speaking). Just to mix it up, I have also added a play at the end as well (thanks to Nature for pointing me in that direction).

First, there is the film adaptation of The Physician by Noah Gordon. The novel was released in 1987 and has been a huge hit in Europe, but not in the US. Now a German production company is behind the cinematic adaptation, and the movie includes, among others, Ben Kingsley and Stellan Skarsgard. The movie is set in 11th century and the story revolves around a surgeon's apprentice in England who travels to Persia looking for one of the best known physicians at the time, Ibn Sina (played by Ben Kingsley). Here is a bit from an interview with the author, who also co-wrote the screenplay:
One of the main themes in both the book and the film is the contrast between eleventh-century medieval England and the Persia of the day, which was both scientifically and culturally very advanced. During this period, Greco-Roman medicine almost died out in Europe: there were no doctors and no hospitals, only so-called barber surgeons with a limited understanding of the healing arts. At the same time, in Persia, there were
accomplished doctors who were practising and becoming pioneers in their field. It was a golden age of medicine: Persia had a well-developed hospital infrastructure, as well as medical schools. 
"Personally, I like the fact that the film portrays a world in which Europe is actually the backward region, and the Orient and Arabia are where you find high culture," says Stölzl. Nowadays, he adds, we tend to regard the Arab countries as being stuck in the Middle Ages: it would do us good to be reminded of how much of our own culture and the things we think of as progress actually come from Arabia. "Be it mathematics or philosophy, there are so many things that we think of as being a normal part of our civilisation that actually came from the Islamic world," Stölzl points out. He hopes the book and the film might teach people to acknowledge the achievements of the Arab world, and respect it accordingly.
The movie has been released in Europe, but I have not seen any release date for the US. Here is the trailer for the film:

Another film that grabbed my attention is Transcendence. It deals with the idea of technological singularity - "the moment when advances in artificial intelligence tip humanity into a radical new mode of being". The movie is directed by Wally Pfister, who was the cinematographer for Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy - so if nothing else, we can at least expect a moody, broody sci-fi. Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, and Morgan Freeman are part of the film, which is set for release on April 18th. Here is the trailer:

And then we have Christopher Nolan's new film, Interstellar. I was disappointed with Dark Knight Rises. However, we know that he can make outstanding films (Memento, The Prestige, Inception), and the premise of Interstellar looks promising: a set of explorers use a newly discovered wormhole to journey to other stars. Wormhole was, of course, used by Carl Sagan for his book, and then the movie, Contact. Physicist, Kip Thorne, had advised Sagan on the theoretical ideas regarding the possibility of wormholes, and he is again advising Nolan for Interstellar. This sounds really exciting. On top of that, I think Alfonso Cuaron has really upped the anty with Gravity on what can be filmed with existing technology. The movie is set to release in November (nooooo - we have to wait for so long…). Here is a teaser trailer:

All of this is very exciting. But then London will also see the premiere of a play titled The Valley of Astonishment by Peter Brook. Here is the description of the play whose title is inspired by a 12th century sufi poem by Farid Attar, The Conference of the Birds:
Imagine a world where every sound has a colour. Where every colour has a taste. Where The Valley of Astonishment is a kaleidoscopic journey into the wonders of the human brain, inspired by years of neurological research, true stories and Farid Attar’s epic mystical poem The Conference of the Birds.
the number 8 is a fat lady. This breathtaking new play explores the fascinating experiences of real people who see the world in a radically different light. 
Hope you get to see at least some of these.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Saturday Video: "Why Do I Study Physics"?

by Salman Hameed

A nice short animation by physics and animation student Shixie (Xiangjun Shi). Enjoy.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

An analysis of religiosity and social attitudes of Muslims in the UK

by Salman Hameed

Here is an interesting recent paper that not only looks at the religiosity and social attitudes of Muslims in the UK, but also tries to locate the source(s) of the differences between minority Muslims in a  majority Christian country: Are Muslims a Distinctive Minority? An Empirical Analysis of Religiosity, Social Attitudes, and Islam by Valerie A. Lewis and Ridhi Kashyap in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR). [Unfortunately you do need subscription to access it. If you want to read the full article, drop me an email and I can send you a copy]

So what do they find? Well, they find that British Muslims are more religious and more conservative in social attitudes than their non-Muslim counterparts:
In this study we principally addressed two questions: How religious are British Muslims across different measures of religiosity? To what extent can religiosity and disadvantaged socioeconomic factors explain Muslims’ attitudes on gender, abortion, and homosexuality? Using new data we find that Muslims are indeed more religious than other Britons. Religious adherence among Muslims remains strong across a range of measures, involving both practice and belief. Compared to other religiously affiliated Britons, Muslims attend services more, pray more, read scripture more, are more likely to believe in God, and report more salience of religion to daily life and identity. Even as the levels of Christian belief and practice have dwindled in Britain (Voas and Crockett 2005), it appears that Muslim religious identity, belief, and practice remain strong. 
In addition to being more religious than other Britons, our data indicate that Muslims are more conservative than other Britons across the range of social attitudes: gender roles in a family, divorce, premarital sex, several cases of abortion, homosexuality, and gay marriage.
Okay - so this is not that surprising. But then, here is the interesting part:
Upon disentangling the effects of religiosity and socioeconomic factors in explaining conservatism among Muslims on attitudes of gender and sexual liberalism, we find that religiosity among all Britons, whether Muslim or Christian, is related to more conservative social attitudes on sex and gender. This finding indicates that there is less distinctive about Muslims qua Muslims on gender and abortion attitudes; in fact, Muslim social attitudes on several measures resemble those of other religious people more generally. This suggests that the distinction between the religious and nonreligious is more salient to social attitudes than distinctions between different religious groups. As a contribution to an ongoing sociological debate, our analysis suggests that those who are more religious, regardless of religion, tend to hold more conservative moral and social attitudes, but the extent of the impact of religiosity varies on different issues. These findings support findings in contexts such as the United States that suggest religiosity rather than any one religious tradition is correlated with conservative social attitudes (Putnam and Campbell 2010).
However, two factors buck this trend: premarital sex and attitudes towards homosexuality (though, interestingly, not towards civil unions).

Here is are two nice graphics that summarize their results (including normalizations):

The question about abortion uses the following three situations: The three situations asked of respondents are if a woman's health is endangered, if a couple cannot afford any more children, and if a woman decides on her own she does not wish to have a child.

There is a lot more entanglement between minority issues and socioeconomic factors, but I appreciated the way these authors have approached this topic. And yes, their sample size is small (close to 500 Muslims) and mostly made up of South Asians, nevertheless, this provides a way for a deeper analysis.

Lewis and Kashyap (2013), Are Muslims a Distinctive Minority? An Empirical Analysis of Religiosity, Social Attitudes, and Islam, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Volume 52, Issue 3, pages 617–626, DOI: 10.1111/jssr.12044)

And of course, if you want to understand some of these issues through films, try Beautiful Launderette or My Son the Fanatic - both by Hanif Kureishi. Here is the trailer for My Son the Fanatic:

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

A pediatrician awarded $1 million prize to work in Rohri Goth, Karachi

by Salman Hameed

The first Caplow Children's Prize, has been awarded to Dr. Anita Zaidi to work in Rohri Goth - one of the fishing villages near Karachi. This is fantastic and hope it can turnaround the village's high infant mortality rate. From NYT:
 Dr. Anita Zaidi, one of the first doctors trained by Pakistan’s Aga Khan University and who has additional degrees from Duke and Harvard, beat 550 other entries, including those from major charities like Doctors Without Borders. 
The neighborhood she plans to help, Rehri Goth, is a fishing village facing a mangrove swamp. Even though it is within the borders of Pakistan’s financial capital, one of the world’s largest cities, its residents are so poor and so cut off from medical care that 11 percent of local children die before age 5 — usually during birth or in the first month after it. 
“The population lives in scattered clusters and is very poorly linked to public transport,” Dr. Zaidi said. Most cannot afford any kind of private transportation, so mothers are forced to give birth at home. If a crisis like obstructed labor or hemorrhage develops, little can be done. 
“Many people don’t realize the huge role that good maternal care at the time of delivery has in saving children’s lives,” she added. 
With the prize money, she will train midwives and set up a transportation network to get mothers in birth crises to hospitals. She will also try to change prejudices that some families harbor against hospitals, and get food and vitamins for mothers and vaccines for children.

Read the full story here