Monday, February 24, 2014

Egyptian government crackdown on academics

by Salman Hameed

The government of Egypt is being absolute in quashing any dissent. In particular, it has - so far - been successful in treating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group in its entirety, and to prosecute anyone who has any sympathies with the group. I doubt that this kind of absolutism will last more than a few years. In the mean time, however, people are paying a high price. And worse, even those people who study Egypt are not safe either:
The indictment here of a well-known professor on charges of espionage has sparked new concerns about academic freedom in Egypt. The military-backed government is carrying out a widespread crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that until last year governed the country. Some political scientists say they can no longer speak freely for fear of being accused of supporting the Brotherhood. 
That is what Emad el-Din Shahin, a professor of public policy at the American University
in Cairo, said happened to him. Mr. Shahin, editor in chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics and a former visiting professor at Harvard University and the University of Notre Dame, is a defendant in what prosecutors have dubbed “the greatest espionage case in the country’s modern history.” 
Mr. Shahin’s co-defendants are mostly senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including former President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by the army following mass protests last summer. Among the specific charges against the professor are espionage, leading an illegal organization, providing a banned organization with information and financial support, calling for the suspension of the constitution, preventing state institutions and authorities from performing their functions, harming national unity and social harmony, and trying to change the government by force. 
Fortunately, Shahin was out of the country at the time, and may not be young back in the foreseeable future. In the mean time, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has also drafted a letter in support of Emad Shahin. But he is not the only one and academics now have to think twice before visiting Egypt:
Last year two Canadian academics were detained for nearly two months after being accused by Egyptian prosecutors of “participating with members of the Muslim Brotherhood” in an attack on a police station. While neither is a political scientist, their case showed the risks facing visiting professors. 
Mr. Shahin’s case has drawn the most public attention, but other academics also face prosecution for public statements. Amr Hamzawy, a professor of political science, also at the American University in Cairo, has been charged with “insulting the judiciary” for a post on Twitter criticizing a court ruling. Mr. Hamzawy has played a prominent political role in the last three years, winning a seat in Parliament and leading a liberal party. He has also criticized the military’s ouster of Mr. Morsi last summer and the crackdown on Islamists that has left more than 1,000 dead and tens of thousands in prison.
What a shame! Read the full story here

Chatting about astronomy on PTV World

by Salman Hameed

When I was in Pakistan this past December, I had a chance to participate in a morning chat show on PTV-World. The video is now available for the show (thanks to Nabeel Tirmazi for that) and I have embedded it below. One thing to note: regardless of the topic, it is almost impossible not to talk about religion in Pakistan. Therefore, you will see that this topic came up repeatedly in the conversation. That said, it is good to see that there was also a genuine interest in astronomy amongst the hosts of the show and that we talked about comets, nuclear fusion, and Mars at breakfast time. I'm a proponent of keeping science and religion separate (Stephen Jay Gould's Non-overlapping Magisteria - NOMA) and I tried to make the case here as well. However, it was funny that the guest who followed me, straight-away launched into saying that religion and science are the same things. But not only that, he went to make a reference to Mecca being at the center of the world (for my critique of that, see Why are Muslims calling to replace GMT with Mecca Time?).

In any case, I enjoyed the conversation. In fact, our astronomy discussion continued for another hour after the show. I hope PTV-World brings in more science programs.

Here is the video (it is in English):


World This Morning-Dr. Salman Hameed & Dr... by worldthismorning

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Heading over to Creighton University

by Salman Hameed

The Kripke Center at Creighton University, Omaha, is holding a two day symposium on Religion and the Sciences: Opportunities and Challenges on Feb 21-22. Here is the description of the symposium:
Scholars in many fields of religious and theological studies have used the sciences to address a number of issues and attempt to answer a variety of questions with which they
are confronted. This symposium will explore the intersection of religious/theological inquiry with the social and natural sciences and how religion scholars use the sciences to address issues of human sexuality, cosmology, the environment, social ethics, epistemology, and others.
If you are in Omaha and are interested in the topic, join us there. You can find the schedule of the symposium along with the titles of talks here. The Kripke Center also published the Journal of Religion and Society.

I'm excited to be visiting Creighton again. My friend/collaborator, Tracy Leavelle, is the chair of the history department there, and he will be presenting his Hawai'i work at the symposium. In addition I'm hoping that Jon Calvert - also in the history department at Creighton - will also attend the symposium. I highlighted his excellent biography of Sayyid Qutb a few years back, and also his thoughtful talk on the history and politics of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood from last June.

If I get a chance, I will try to post from the symposium as well.

In the mean time, this is what I'm leaving behind in Amherst:




Okay, okay, it can be pretty as well. But still…Enough already! By the time I get back on Saturday, there better be spring here:



Monday, February 17, 2014

Alan Lightman on seeking permanence in our universe (or in other universes)

by Salman Hameed

Alan Lightman is one of my favorite writers. He used to be an accomplished astrophysicist and now he is an outstanding writer. His new book is titled The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. It is a collection of his essays and I haven't had a chance to read it yet. But he is a thoughtful writer and it is always a pleasure to read him. Here is a taste of it in the Wall Street Journal where Lightman ponders the search for meaning in an ephemeral universe:
I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and
revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago? 
The evidence seems overly clear. In the summer months, mayflies drop by the billions within 24 hours of birth. Drone ants perish in two weeks. Daylilies bloom and then wilt, leaving dead, papery stalks. Forests burn down, replenish themselves, then disappear again. Ancient stone temples and spires flake in the salty air, fracture and fragment, dwindle to spindly nubs, and eventually dissolve into nothing. Coastlines erode and crumble. Glaciers slowly but surely grind down the land. 
What about our sun and other stars? Shakespeare’s Caesar says to Cassius: “But I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.” But Caesar was not up on modern astrophysics. The North Star and all stars, including our sun, are consuming their nuclear fuel. After which they will fade into cold embers floating in space or, if massive enough, bow out in a final explosion. Our sun, for example, will last another five billion years before spending its fuel. Then it will expand enormously into a red gaseous sphere, enveloping the earth, go through a serious of convulsions, and finally settle down to a cold lifeless ball. One by one, the stars in the sky will wink out. In the distant future, space will be black.
Ultimately, he finds permanence in the idea of multiverses:
For the religious, there is God and the immortal soul. But for those of us who, like me, do not believe in any divine substance lying outside the material universe, there is one last possibility for something eternal. Recent ideas in physics suggest that our universe may be only one of a staggering number of universes, constantly emerging out of the hazy probabilities of quantum mechanics, existing for a limited period of time like our universe and then passing away. After which new universes would be born, in an endless cycle of birth and demise. Most of these other universes would be very different from ours. Some would have 17 dimensions of space. Some would have planets and stars, like our universe, while some might contain only a diffuse cloud of energy. Some few might harbor life, while most would not be endowed with the special conditions needed for life. Even though we in our universe could have no contact with these other universes, we might consider ourselves part of a super family of universes, a vast cosmic chain of being stretching back into the infinite past and forward to the infinite future. In this way, the tiny flash of our individual lives, the passing of the human generations and the millennia, the fading of our sun, and finally the demise of our entire universe could be given a much larger meaning, a place in an infinite and eternal tapestry of unfolding worlds.
I'm a bit surprised that he so quickly excluded our own universe from permanence. All evidence so far suggests that our universe will expand forever, and even if all the stars turn into white dwarfs, neutron stars or black holes - well - you will still have all these stellar remnants part of the universe - forever! Not to mention that even after all the stars are dead in the universe and there are no new stars forming (don't worry, that will not happen for a very very very long time), there will still be unused low density gas clouds, orphaned planets and moons, and comets and astroids, floating in such an inert universe. I think it is quite permanent.

This is just fun nit-picking. The essay is wonderful and you can read the full article here

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A fantastic new initiative in Pakistan: Eqbal Ahmad Centre for Public Education

by Salman Hameed

Pervez Hoodbhoy has launched a new project for public equation in Pakistan. It hosts essays, short videos about science, documentaries, and videos on physics concepts, and many of the videos are both in Urdu and english. Here is the goal of Eqbal Ahmad Centre for Public Education (EACPE)
EACPE seeks to foster the use of science and reason to understand nature and society and so better enable citizens of Pakistan to participate fully in the political, social, economic, and cultural life of their society; to exercise their democratic rights and responsibilities; to value human rights, democracy and the rule of law; to promote cultural and religious diversity; to raise awareness of global issues and the natural environment; and to advance the goals of international peace and justice.

The immediate aim is to produce and promote, equally in Urdu and English, 6-10 minute videos on important social, political, and scientific issues. One new video will be uploaded every week (see website).

Interviews of prominent Pakistani scholars and commentators will be undertaken at the next step.  
Of additional note, Eqbal Ahmad taught at Hampshire College. I did not get a chance to meet him (he died in 1999, and I joined Hampshire in 2005), but I have had the opportunity to learn about him through other faculty members (and with Pervez) who knew him well. And of course, through his writings. The most prestigious lecture at Hampshire College is named after him: Eqbal Ahmad Annual Lecture Series. The vision of this new project fits neatly with the views of Eqbal Ahmad.

Lets make EACPE a success!

Here is a sample video in Urdu: How will our universe end?: 

IVF centers flourishing in Iran

by Salman Hameed

A year ago, I had posted about the stunning decline in fertility rates in much of the Muslim world. This will have a profound social impact in the next few decades. But in the article, Iran was singled out as its birth rate has now fallen below the level it requires to replace its current population. With that in context, here is a Foreign Policy article on the growing number of IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) centers in Iran. The article is interesting and yet the tagline unnecessarily brings up the fear factor of neighboring Sunni Muslims. Here is the title: How the supreme leader's revolutionary acceptance of 
cutting-edge fertility treatments 
is changing lives in Iran -- and unsettling the deeply conservative 
Sunni Middle East. Can we talk about Iran as Iran or do we always have to place it in a Sunni vs Shia context?

In any case, the interesting point here is not that IVF is popular and that it is allowed within a religious framework. Numerous Muslim countries have IVF centers and - even if the topic is considered a bit taboo - couples have been using the technique. But it is the permissibility of third-party egg or sperm donation in Iran that is pleasantly surprising. It is only a matter of time when it will be widely accepted, but Iran is certainly leading the Muslim world on this front. One of the reasons for that is a 1999 fatwa from Ayatollah Khamenei that gave green light to third party donations. From the article:
Iran's first in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinic opened up in Yazd, a desert city in central Iran, more than 20 years ago. It immediately found itself inundated with clients. By the mid-2000s, it was so popular that lines stretched out the door. Couples who had traveled from rural areas would camp outside in hopes of getting an appointment. More clinics soon
opened in Tehran and across the country. 
IVF quickly gained acceptance in other parts of the Middle East, but physicians ran into religious restrictions prohibiting more advanced forms of fertility treatment. Standard IVF involves fertilizing an egg with sperm in a laboratory and then returning the embryo into the womb, a process requiring that both the egg and sperm of the respective partners be viable, which is not always the case. The next step in treating infertility requires a third party -- that is, an egg or sperm donor from outside the couple. In Islam, the ethics of such treatment are murky: Patients initially worried they might be committing adultery or that children born of such unions would be illegitimate.  
But childless couples continued to demand a way to conceive. In Iran, medical specialists set about finding a religious solution, seeking the support of sympathetic mujtahids (clerics qualified to read and interpret the Quran). The Shiite tradition of reinterpreting Islamic law was central to the clerics' willingness to go along -- in stark contrast to Sunni jurisprudence's focus on scholarly consensus and literal readings of the Quran, which has meant few fresh legal rulings on modern matters. Although, to Westerners, Iran's Shiite clerics might appear reactionary, they are downright revolutionary when it comes to bioethics. In recent years, they have handed down fatwas allowing everything from stem-cell research to cloning.  
And here is the bit about the 1999 fatwa:
In 1999, Khamenei issued his landmark fatwa making third-party sperm and egg donation permissible. "Both the egg donor and the infertile mother must abide by the religious codes regarding parenting," the ayatollah decreed, setting out the various conditions that made the act permissible before God. Through Khamenei's edict, the Islamic Republic had made clear at the highest level that the state was ready to sanction Iranians' efforts to make babies -- whatever it took. 
But here is a fascinating bit. Even though Khamenei issued the fatwa, Iranian legislators overruled him. This is interesting as Iran is often presented as 1-dimensional country under the sole dictates of the Supreme Ayatollah. Again from the article:
In some ways, fertility treatment may be the rare area where the Iranian regime has moved forward before society is ready. Although legislators approved embryo donation, they overruled Khamenei on sperm donation, banning the procedure in 2003. As a result, the practice was pushed underground, and those clinics that quietly offer the treatment are vulnerable to prosecution. Sara Bamdad, a researcher in Shiraz who conducted a survey on public attitudes about assisted reproduction, found that only 34 percent of respondents approved of egg donation. "Lawmakers should be thinking about the future and what is going to happen to these children when they're older," says Bamdad. "If a society can't accept a child that's born of assisted reproduction, then there'll be so many problems in the future."
And this plays into the issue of family law:
Iran's legal system has yet to catch up with the implications of third-party fertility treatments. Under Iran's Islamic family law, babies born of sperm or egg donation fall into the legal category of adopted children and stepchildren, who are not permitted to inherit property from non-biological parents. Couples thus must find alternative ways to put aside assets to provide for these kids, and the rights and responsibilities of biological parents (the egg or sperm donors, who are meant to remain confidential but whose identities are sometimes disclosed in practice) remain unclear. 
Read the full article here. Also see this article on IVF clinics in Pakistan and a health tourism IVF ad for Turkey

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The problem of camels in the book of Genesis

by Salman Hameed

It seems that camels pose a historical problem for some of the accounts in the book of Genesis. It seems that camels were domesticated in the region decades/years after some of the Biblical events involving camels were supposed to have taken place. Is it a big deal? It depends on how you use Genesis. The creation accounts in Genesis often show up in evolution debates. Critics point to the contradictory stories in Genesis 1 and 2. I think such criticism misses the point - and just like the anachronism of camels in Genesis, such criticism tries to read the Genesis account of creation as if it is a scientific description. But far more embarrassingly, people like Ken Ham and his organization, Answers in Genesis, indeed read Genesis as a scientific book and make a mockery of common sense by claiming that the universe/world is 6000 years old.

The camel story, however, has to do with more immediate historical events. Again, if your emphasis is on the larger message of Genesis, then this should not matter to you as well. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing connection of science and religion:
There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place.
Camels probably had little or no role in the lives of such early Jewish patriarchs as Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, who lived in the first half of the second millennium B.C., and yet stories about them mention these domesticated pack animals more than 20 times. Genesis 24, for example, tells of Abraham’s servant going by camel on a mission to find a wife for Isaac. 
These anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history. These camel stories “do not encapsulate memories from the second millennium,” said Noam Mizrahi, an Israeli biblical scholar, “but should be viewed as back-projections from a much later period.”
Dr. Mizrahi likened the practice to a historical account of medieval events that veers off to a description of “how people in the Middle Ages used semitrailers in order to transport goods from one European kingdom to another.” 
For two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, the anachronisms were motivation to dig for camel bones at an ancient copper smelting camp in the Aravah Valley in Israel and in Wadi Finan in Jordan. They sought evidence of when domesticated camels were first introduced into the land of Israel and the surrounding region. 
The archaeologists, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the earliest known domesticated camels in Israel to the last third of the 10th century B.C. — centuries after the patriarchs lived and decades after the kingdom of David, according to the Bible. Some bones in deeper sediments, they said, probably belonged to wild camels that people hunted for their meat. Dr. Sapir-Hen could identify a domesticated animal by signs in leg bones that it had carried heavy loads. 
The findings were published recently in the journal Tel Aviv and in a news release from Tel Aviv University. The archaeologists said that the origin of the domesticated camel was probably in the Arabian Peninsula, which borders the Aravah Valley. Egyptians exploited the copper resources there and probably had a hand in introducing the camels. Earlier, people in the region relied on mules and donkeys as their beasts of burden.
Read the full story here.

On a similar note, also check out this NOVA episode from a few years ago on The Bible's Buried Secrets. It does a nice job of highlighting research methodologies in history and archaeology that are finding accuracies and inaccuracies in the Biblical accounts. The ending is a bit bleh….but the beginning is good, and then there are some excellent segments on the Exodus, the Canaanite cities, and the search for the YHWH. Here is the whole show - almost two hours: 

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Hitler taken down by Lollywood Heroes - Pakistani Science Fiction Week

by Salman Hameed

I have previously pointed to this excellent Islam and Science Fiction website run by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad (who is also responsible for designing the Irtiqa banner). His website is celebrating Pakistani science fiction, and started off with a Lollywood alternative history movie where Hitler not only survives World War II, but escapes to Pakistan, gets married there, and even ends up having a son.   I have not seen the film, though now I'm quite tempted by it. Here is the description from the Islam and Science Fiction website:
Lets start the first day of Pakistani Science Fiction with alternate history. There are movies
which are bizarre and then there are movies which lie at the border of being bizarre and being socially conscious.  The film was released in 1986 and starred leading actors of Pakistani Cinema at the time: Mustafa Qureshi, Sultan Rahi and Anjuman. It was directed by Idrees Khan who was otherwise known to have mostly made movies with socially conscious theme. The premise of the movie is that after his defeat in the Second World War Hitler did not commit suicide but disguised himself and fled to Pakistan. Hitler married a local Pakistani woman and has a son. Not only that but the United States was not responsible for using atomic weapons against Japan but rather it was Germany under Hitler that used these weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although it is never explained why would Germany want to do that.
Now how can you go wrong with that. Check out this and other entries as part of Pakistani Science Fiction week

Syrian Science Refugees

by Salman Hameed

There is no end in sight for the conflict in Syria. The scale of displacement of people both within Syria and outside is enormous. Not surprisingly, the academic community has also been impacted by the civil war. A recent news item in the journal Science that suggests that there is a concerted effort to provide a year-long fellowships to several of the Syrian scientists:
As violence in Syria escalates and the regime increasingly targets academics, an international effort to support Syria's beleaguered scholars with visas, fellowships, and guest appointments is gaining momentum. The Institute of International Education (IIE) in
New York City has handed out 43 yearlong academic fellowships to displaced Syrians since the current conflict began. Now, it is appealing for funds, and for safe havens to step forward. Several hundred European universities have pledged to take at least one student, and the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation of New York has chipped in $500,000 for fellowships, which provide up to $25,000 to scholars. But "the need is 10 or 100 times what any of us are able to raise," says IIE President Allan Goodman. 
As Syria's civil war drags into a third year, reports of interrogations and torture of professors are becoming commonplace. Dozens have been kidnapped for ransom or assassinated. University students are detained at checkpoints and conscripted to fight for the regime or for rebel groups. About 30% of Syria's professors have left the country, including many of the best, says Amal Alachkar, a neurobiologist from the University of Aleppo now at the University of California, Irvine. Some have ended up in refugee camps, while others have vanished. "Higher education, especially research, is collapsing," she says.   
Many professors and students flee without passports across the porous borders to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where they often end up in refugee camps. That poses a fresh challenge for IIE: "How do you deal with professors in camps who can't travel to another country?" Goodman asks. To keep the intellectual fires burning, IIE is exploring how to provide materials for 3-week courses that could be taught by scholars in the camps while they await placement in Europe or the United States, Goodman says: "Something they can do other than sit in their tent and worry about how bad things are." 
The attack on academics, it seems, was quick:
Conditions in Syria deteriorated much faster than they did in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, Goodman says. "What's different about Syria is that universities were targeted right away, professors were threatened right away. The regime knew who their opponents were and instantly targeted them," he says. "The immediacy of attacking education really hasn't happened in any other place." 
In some ways, Syrian academia had thrived under President Bashar Assad, who took power following his father's death in 2000. University enrollments rose and professors were encouraged to set up labs. But campuses have always been infested with security and intelligence agents, and "informers are everywhere," Alachkar says. Regime loyalty, evidenced by membership in the ruling Ba'ath Party and overt patriotism, became the litmus test for faculty advancement, Alachkar says.  
Students were taught to not question authority, but in the spring of 2011 they started to protest openly on many campuses. Alachkar says she encouraged her students to express themselves peacefully. "I was not brave enough to ignite it, but I was waiting for that moment," she says. Syrian intelligence caught wind of her activism and interrogated her that March. It was early in the uprising, and "they didn't want to make a big fuss," she says. "They said, 'We'll let it go this time, but be careful.' " 
That July, however, a fellow Aleppo professor, Jamal Tahhan, was arrested and detained for 5 months after forming a committee to document peaceful protests; Alachkar says he was tortured. She got the message. Less than a year after getting her neuroscience lab in Aleppo up and running, she shuttered it and left Syria. Aleppo's cancer research unit, which Al-Mayhani had helped found, also closed after his departure. In mid-2012, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas pulled out of Aleppo, its former grounds looted and "now a war zone," says Ahmad Sadiddin, an agricultural economist from Damascus who with an IIE grant found refuge at the University of Florence in Italy. 
Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access the full text).

If you want to follow what is happening in Syria, follow this link to Jadaliyya's page on Syria.