Thursday, May 29, 2014

Telescope at a madrassa and students in bombed out schools in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

There are a number of awful news around Pakistan in the last couple of weeks - especially around the use of the Blasphemy Law (see the next post coming up). But in the midst of it, there are also some bright spots. I have noted on several occasions the rise of public astronomy in Pakistan. Umair Asim in Lahore, with the help of Lahore Astronomical Society and Khwarizimi Science Society, has been tireless in his efforts to bring telescopes to as many people as possible (just see his public outreach page here). I haven't been to Lahore in 8-9 years, but looking at these activities, I will have to take the opportunity to attend one of these telescopic sessions on my next visit to Pakistan.

I wanted to highlight Umair's latest experience of inviting madrassa students to view the Sun through a telescope. This is interesting as madrassas are often in the news usually for something bad. Furthermore, almost all madrassa students in Pakistan belong to lower socio-ecomomic and often forgotten class. This is how Umair described his experience:
This was one of the most memorable outreach session for me. The students of a Madrassa literally came running to the solar telescope as soon as they saw an odd looking machine near their mosque. 
First i gave them the solar glasses. Now just look at them smiling with these on their faces :) I gave them all the glasses i had in my car and requested  to take these to their homes and show their class fellows, siblings and parents. Next they saw the sun through the halpha telescope. Everyone just glued himself with the eyepiece; i was requesting for others' right to see the sun. 
Nothing was planned there. I actually went to see my friend and when we ordered the food, the thought came to my mind. There is a Madrassa right there so why not show the kids the wonders of the universe. Wherever i go, my halpha telescope is always in my car trunk. So there i was, showing them the 'fire' on the sun and how much they got excited is beyond the words i can write.
Here are some pictures from the event:

Then Al Jazeera English published a series of pictures of students in the north-western parts of Pakistan attending bombed out schools. These schools have been a constant target for the Taliban (most often the Pakistan Taliban - TTP), and over 450 have been bombed so far (usually - and thankfully - with no students inside). These pictures are interesting because it shows that kids still want to go to school, and it all shows the conditions of their educational environment. Here are two pictures from the collection: 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Islamophobia, Satanism, and freedom of religion

by Salman Hameed

I think Michael Muhammad Knight is one of the most interesting Muslim writers out there. He is prolific, insightful, and provocative. I was introduced to him through the film adaptation of his novel, The Taqwacores (see the trailer here). His novel also inspired the movement of Punk Islam, depicted in the documentary film The Taqwacore [it features a Pakistani punk band, The Kominas].

In any case, he has a fascinating article about on the fracas about Harvard canceling a planned Satanic mass by the Satanic Temple. Knight links this to the issue of freedom of religion and argues - successfully, I think - that Muslims should support Satanists in this instance. His key points are about the lopsided power relations regarding big religions versus small religions. I have sympathies with this as I teach about UFO religions (Raelians, Scientology, Unarians, etc) in one of the classes, and they face similar issues of ridicule from the press and from members of other religions. In any case, here is Knight:
Following Catholic uproar, a proposed Satanic mass at Harvard has been canceled. The mass was going to be put on by the Satanic Temple, the group who also has plans to plant a Baphomet figure on the front lawn of the Oklahoma Statehouse. Despite the fact that the Harvard Extension School Cultural Studies Club dropped its sponsorship, the group still managed to have an unsanctioned "black mass" at Harvard Square's Hong Kong restaurant and lounge. What bothers me the most about the official quashing of the Satanic Temple's mass by Harvard is that it is being hailed as a victory for religious tolerance—it's not. Instead, it's a case of a small group getting bullied into submission because it offended a big religion. 
In an editorial for the Harvard Crimson, Francis X. Clooney, Harvard professor and director of its Center for the Study of World Religions, expresses concern for what he calls this proposed “disconcerting incident.” He presents the elements in satanic ritual that invert and “blaspheme” Catholic sacraments as a potential slippery slope, asking, “What’s next? The endeavor ‘to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices’ might in another year lead to historical reenactments of anti-Semitic or racist ceremonies… or parodies that trivialize Native American heritage or other revivals of cultural and religious insult.” 
Clooney’s nightmare scenario ignores one important question, that of institutional privilege: While racism is an oppressors’ power play that always moves from the top down, Satanism critiques a target immeasurably more powerful than itself. For Catholics at Harvard to complain about Satanists offending them is like white people complaining about Louis Farrakhan’s “reverse racism.” 
In addition to his positions at Harvard, Clooney is also a Cat holic priest. I know the history of Catholicism in America, and am sure that Clooney does as well. There was a time when Catholics were persecuted, reviled, and marked as the definitive “un-American” religion. Within the developing field of religious studies, the privileged position of liberal 19th-century Protestantism as “real” religion in its most evolved form also led to unfair anti-Catholic prejudice within the academy. Catholicism has struggled in the United States for recognition both as authentically Christian and authentically American.  
Michael is not the first one to draw parallels to treatment of US Catholics in the 19th and early 20th centuries to that of Muslims today, but he then does a fine job of connecting to the larger issue of religious pluralism:
Times have changed, so I’d like to tell Dr. Clooney how the American religious landscape looks in 2014. Dr. Clooney, I am a Muslim. As a Muslim in the cliché context of “post-9/11 America,” I encounter anti-Muslim discourses that use the same arguments that you have employed against Satanists. In more than one American city, Islamophobes have opposed the establishment of mosques by claiming that Muslims are intolerant and incapable of coexisting with other communities, or even that Islam is not a “real” religion and therefore cannot be entitled to the same defense of its freedoms. In the case of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” people argued against the presence of a Muslim community simply on the basis that it would hurt their feelings.  
As a Muslim, I have to support the Satanists. Public revulsion of Muslims in this country is so popular that I have no choice but to stand with religions that are marked as ugly, offensive, and intolerant. Rather than join the anti-Satanist outrage and try to convince Christians that Muslims deserve to be included as “children of Abraham” or whatever, I would suggest that Muslims take a radical stand on behalf of the religious freedoms that we claim for ourselves. The people who wish to insult Muslims are not members of ridiculed fringe groups. They are not just isolated Qur’an-burning pastors, but extraordinarily well-funded and networked activists. Islamophobia is so mainstream that as Muslims, we must support freedom for all marginalized religions, because too many people have marginalized us. 
I have no doubt that in his commitment to religious pluralism and interfaith understanding, Clooney supports the inclusion of Muslims as full participants in American life. His work in comparative theology, which focuses on dialogue between Catholicism and Hinduism, reveals great insight as to how we can be enriched by traditions that are not our own. Unfortunately, the projects of interfaith dialogue tend to privilege old religions over new ones, and big ones over small ones. Christian-Muslim dialogue, for example, isn’t typically going to invite Mormons or Ahmadiyya to the table.  
Ah. I think it is great that he brings in Mormons and the Ahmadiyya to the conversations as well. In fact, he goes onto to give specific example of how the Five Percenters have been denied their religious rights in prison (Knight, I think, was a Five Percenter himself for a while):
In his treatment of Satanic mass, Clooney’s playing an authenticity game in which privileged religions get to name the terms by which something counts as “religion,” and respect for the sacred thus means respecting what privileged religions mark as sacred. I have seen this game played with destructive consequences for the Five Percenter community. In US prisons, Five Percenters have been historically denied the freedoms of conscience and assembly that are routinely protected for adherents to other traditions. 
Warith Deen Mohammed, one of the most important Sunni leaders in American Muslim history, endorsed the prison industry’s characterization of Five Percenters as a “dangerous” and “corrupt” group. Incarcerated Five Percenters have been thrown into solitary confinement for no other reason than their personal conviction. Their right to assemble has been taken from them and the lessons that they study have been designated as contraband. Outside of the prison system, Five Percenters have been occasionally denied the right to change their legal names to Allah, with at least one judge stating that for a man to name himself Allah is inappropriate and even blasphemous. 
In prejudice against Five Percenters from both Muslims and non-Muslims, broader US Islamophobia, and Clooney’s attack on the Harvard black mass, we find the same mistake: A general failure to ask these people what their outrageous, offensive beliefs, and behaviors actually mean to them. Reducing the Satanic mass to a parody of the Catholic mass, he assumes that the Satanists involved must have no personal conviction that might endow the act with meaning, and discusses the act without any engagement of the human beings for whom it matters.  In his editorial, they remain faceless, nameless, and voiceless.…
What Clooney and Faust miss is that some of us find claims of Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation from eternal torture to be incredibly offensive. Any tradition whose advocates promise to be exclusive possessors of the capital-T “Truth” is going to bother someone. Should all religious discourse that claims supreme truth-making power over other religions disappear from the public? I get that Harvard Divinity School’s preferred religiosity tends to go soft in this regard: At Div School, folks don’t go much for the hellfire talk or claims of superiority. Maybe there’s a Div School version of Satanism that Clooney could go for. Or not, but who cares—Clooney’s personal taste does not provide the measurement of Satanism’s legitimacy.  
It would be great if religions can always play nice. When they can’t, I am less concerned with Satanism’s alleged power to make Harvard unsafe for Catholics than the problem of big and powerful religions enforcing their privilege by stomping on small and powerless ones. This is where Clooney gets it wrong in a big way. There has never been—and I am guessing that there will never be—an openly self-identified Satanist with Clooney’s institutional power at Harvard. Because I care about religious freedom not only for the center, but also the margins, count this Muslim with the Satanists.  
I agree with Knight on this. Count me in as well!

Read the full article here. On a somewhat related topic, here is an earlier post Moral Outrage: Burning of the Quran versus Free Speech

A Task Force for Science Teaching in the Muslim World

by Salman Hameed

Last week, a Task Force was launched focused on the teaching of science in the Muslim world. Below is the poster for it that also lists the people involved. This looks like an interesting endeavor that will address, among other things, the role of universities in scientific progress and innovation, university culture, and issues of academic freedom. There are some good people involved in the project, including Nidhal Guessoum, Adil Najam, Michael Reiss, and Athar Osama (he is not mentioned here, but is part of the team behind the Task Force). Looking forward to their thoughts on science education in the Muslim world.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

An excellent lecture on myths associated with history of science

by Salman Hameed

Two weeks ago I had a chance to visit Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Lovely campus with a lot of history. Unfortunately, I missed by a week a chance to a attend a wonderful history of science conference organized by Nicolaas Rupke. The conference in some ways is a follow-up to an excellent collection of essays titled Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about  Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers and published by Harvard University Press in 2009. If you are interested in the topic of science and religion (and I'm assuming you are, since you are here on Irtiqa), then you should definitely own a copy of this book. The 'sequel', as Nicolaas Rupke calls it, was a conference titled Newton's Apple and Other Historical Myths about Science that took place last week at Washington & Lee University (you can download the pdf program of the conference here).

I'm sure that the resulting volume will be excellent as well. In the mean time, you can enjoy the keynote address by John L. Heilbron of the University of California, Berkeley. It takes on notion of myth and talks about not only scientific myths, but also those that are a part of the scholarship of history of science. This is an excellent talk, but it is too bad that there was no Q/A session afterwards, as I could see some spicy exchanges about some of the statements in the talk. Nevertheless, you should definitely check out discussion on science and religion about 15 minutes into the talk, where after discussing the gross historical misrepresentations of the topic, John Heilbron takes an interesting position that science and religion are (should?) always potentially at odds with each other, and he goes on to explain why he thinks that and why that might even be a good thing. He then provides some interesting examples of myths from history of science before spending a considerable amount of time on the myth associated search for the ultimate physical theory (Theory of Everything). Hold on. But myth is not simply a false story - and that is one of the points he wants to stress.

If you have an hour, this is a worthwhile lecture to listen to. Enjoy.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Freedom of religion, but not atheism, in Indonesia

by Salman Hameed

There are increasing number of atheism stories coming out from the Muslim world. In some cases it is about someone's proclamation as an atheist (see the case in Indonesia below), in others it is about the government or political groups silencing opponents by calling them atheists (see for example, the riots in Bangladesh last year). But doubters of all shades (from deists to hardcore atheists) have always been present in all societies, and Muslim countries are no exception. The sudden increase of such stories is probably due to a combination of reasons. On the one hand, you have the globalization of religion-atheism debate (one can be a participant is this debate from a computer anywhere in world) and a related increase in the number of people who declare themselves to be atheists. In the debate over self-expression in many parts of the Muslim world, the declaration of atheism then becomes one of the battles in deeply religious societies. On the other hand, the social upheavals (and political turmoil in many cases) of the past few years are leading to intolerance towards religious minorities (including those of different Muslim sects) and atheists boogeymen (for example, see Egypt). In addition, such stories become a rallying cry for fundamentalists (see the case of Saudi Arabia) as well as a good material for newspapers in the West (see again the case of Saudi Arabia, but also see a US example).

All that said, the Indonesian atheism case is troubling but it also highlights some of the tensions of adjusting to the modern world. Here is a case of an Indonesian who struggled with his faith, became an atheist, commented on a Facebook page started by Indonesians living in the Netherlands, and went to jail for 19 months on the charge of "inciting religious hatred". From yesterday's NYT:
Growing up in a conservative Muslim household in rural West Sumatra, Alexander Aan
hid a dark secret beginning at age 9: He did not believe in God. His feelings only hardened as he got older and he faked his way through daily prayers, Islamic holidays and the fasting month of Ramadan. 
He stopped praying in 2008, when he was 26, and he finally told his parents and three younger siblings that he was an atheist — a rare revelation in a country like Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. They responded with disappointment and expressions of hope that he would return to Islam. 
But Mr. Aan neither returned to Islam nor confined his secret to his family, and he ended up in prison after running afoul of a 2008 law restricting electronic communications. He had joined an atheist Facebook group started by Indonesians living in the Netherlands, and in 2011 he began posting commentaries outlining why he did not think God existed. 
“When I saw, with my own eyes, poor people, people on television caught up in war, people who were hungry or ill, it made me uncomfortable,” Mr. Aan, now 32, said in an interview. “What is the meaning of this? As a Muslim, I had questioned God — what is the meaning of God?” He was released on parole on Jan. 27 after serving more than 19 months on a charge of inciting religious hatred.
And here is the bit where freedom of religion is well, not exactly freedom of religion:
Indonesia’s state ideology, Pancasila, enshrines monotheism, and blasphemy is illegal. However, the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and speech, and the country is 16 years into a transition from authoritarianism to democracy. 
But Mr. Aan’s case is one of an increasing number of instances of persecution connected to freedom of religion in Indonesia in recent years. Although Indonesia has influential Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities, every year there have been hundreds of episodes, including violent attacks, targeting religious minorities like Christians and Shiite and Ahmadiyah Muslims, as well as dozens of arrests over blasphemy against Islam. Numerous churches have been closed for lacking proper permits.
All of this is tied to experimentation with a new media as well as with a new democracy:
“It’s funny — we say we have freedom of expression, but it’s only up to a certain point,” said Enda Nasution, an Indonesian blogger. “I think we are absorbing all of these new norms, and with the Internet, we are experimenting with what we can and can’t do. Atheism is a no-no, it seems.” 
Christian groups and religious and human rights advocates say that rising religious intolerance is also linked to the efforts to promote regional autonomy in Indonesia in 1999 as part of the country’s transition to democracy after three decades of highly centralized, authoritarian rule under President Suharto. 
More than half of Indonesia’s 491 provincial districts have enacted various bylaws inspired by Islamic law, or Shariah, in recent years. 
“So much power was given to local authorities, and in many cases — in particular in regions where Muslim organizations dominated — there were violations against religious freedom, and freedom, for example, for someone to say they are an atheist,” said Theophilus Bela, secretary general of the Indonesian Conference on Religions for Peace, a nongovernmental organization focused on interfaith dialogue.
I still think that all of this is an adjustment phase towards a broader acceptance of global religious plurality (hmm…yes, seeing the glass at a 50% level), and we are seeing the expected bumps on the road. This won't comfort people like Aan, who unfortunately, are paying the price simply for their beliefs (or lack thereof).

Read the full story here

Friday, May 02, 2014

Postdoctoral Fellowship opportunity in Science and Islam at Hampshire College

by Salman Hameed

We are looking for a postdoctoral fellow in Science and Islam at Hampshire College. It is a one-year position and the the postdoc will spend half her/his time on the proposed project (see below) and the other half to her/his own research. Yes, ABD's are welcome to apply. Here is the full announcement:

Postdoctoral Fellow in Science and Islam:
The Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS) at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts, invites applications for a one-year postdoctoral fellowship under the general category of Science and Islam. The fellow will spend half their time developing a categorization scheme to evaluate the quality of content in online Islam and science videos. A team of scholars in fields of history, religious studies, and natural sciences, will serve as advisors for the project. The fellow will also have half-time to dedicate to her/his own research, and there are no associated teaching responsibilities. The fellowship award provides an annual salary of $55,000, plus benefits. A PhD. with an emphasis on Islam and/or Muslim societies in fields such as religious studies, history, Middle Eastern Studies, science and religion, philosophy, or sociology, is desirable. The start date is expected to be July 1, 2014. The fellowship is funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
Hampshire is committed to building a culturally diverse intellectual community and strongly encourages applications from women and minority candidates.
Please submit a letter of interest that describes your qualifications and interest in the project, a CV, and two letters of recommendation at 
No hard copies will be accepted. Review of applications will begin May 9, 2014.
Inquiries may be addressed to Dr. Salman Hameed (Director of the Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies) at
Hampshire College is an equal opportunity institution, committed to diversity in education and employment.