Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A fascinating interview of Saba Mahmood on religious minorities in the Middle East

by Salman Hameed

The issue of minority rights in Muslim societies is often in the news these days. Plight of minorities sometimes show up on Irtiqa, as that is one of the countries that I am most familiar with. The state sanctioned persecution of Ahmadis, in particular, is hard to ignore. A new book by anthropologist Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, looks at minority rights in the middle east - with a focus on Egypt - and challenges some of the conventional thinking about secularism. Here is her book blurb:
The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region. Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil
equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains. 
Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.
If you have an hour and a half and are interested in a detailed discussion of this topic, then please listen to this excellent interview of Saba Mahmood by Sherali Tareen as part of New Books in Islamic Studies podcast. All of the discussion here is fantastic but I was struck by two things in particular. First, that the issue of state neutrality towards religion in a secular state can be problematic when (and that is always the case) when cultural norms already favor a dominant religion (this discussion is around 48 minutes in). This was, of course, quite apparent with the recent Christmas holidays. Second, Saba Mahmood provides a fascinating example of the official status of Bahai'i faith in Egypt European Court of Human Rights especially regarding Muslim minorities. For example, the French ban on Muslim veil was upheld on a very similar reasoning (i.e. there is a freedom to believe but the public expression in the form of wearing the veil contradicts the national secular norm). So ultimately, the structure of the arguments is the same for the states to intervene in regulating the lives of minorities (she also looked at Greece with its Greek Orthodox religion).
(this discussion starts around 1 hour mark) and their right to display their religion. The state regulated Bahai'i faith by saying that they are free to believe in their faith as citizens of Egypt but not to a public express their religion. And this public expression included public prayers or their places of worship or even on a identification of their religion on the national identification card. So there is freedom of religion but the state has the right to regulate any public expressions that can go against the identity and norms of the state - and because Egypt's identity is Muslim, they can regulate Bahai'i expressions as they are not considered Muslims within the Egyptian state. But here is the twist (at 1:05): Saba Mahmood finds a parallel reasoning in the

You should listen to the whole interview to get the full gist of the arguments. For a broader history, listen to 10 minutes to 41 minutes, and for the discussion mentioned above, check out 48minutes to 1:10.

Here is the link to the interview again. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher" - A science fiction novel and a concept music album from Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Occasionally you run into a project that completely blows you away (in a good way! Homeland Security is watching so one has to clarify things). Here is one such project by music producer Zohaib Kazi: Ismail ka Urdu Sheher. It is science fiction novel and a concept album - and now it also has an animated video to go along with this. I haven't had a chance to get a hold of the novel, but here is the premise:
The story of Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher draws on science fiction to narrate the journey of a futuristic Earth's Large Hadron Collider experiment whose repercussions have had a ripple effect on the fabric of the universe, challenging the very existence of a distant planet. Ismail Alset, who is the foremost scientist of that world, stands clueless and follows 'breadcrumbs' in hope to find answers to the calamity, a journey which will lead to bigger revelations about the universe and his personal life.
You can watch the animated video Wake up/Jaago here (I couldn't embed it here - but it is definitely worth a trip to the land of Facebook). The video itself is a product of several years and was "was produced through stop motion rotoscope process, comprising over 5000 digitally hand drawn frames".

Here are two other videos from album - and both are moody, haunting, and spectacular. Here is chapter 4,  Kinara - 'Supnoon ka Sheher' (As described in the beginning, Kinara is the financial and technological capital of the distant planet Elaan):
Kinara 'Sapnon ka Sheher' by Zohaib Kazi feat. Omran Shafique and Sara Haider from Zohaib Kazi on Vimeo.

And here is chapter 3, Black Coffee - 'Khwabon mein':
Zohaib Kazi - Black Coffee feat. Abbas Ali Khan, Omran Shafique and Sara Haider from Zohaib Kazi on Vimeo.

You can listen to five tracks from Ismail ka Sheher here.

Also, I was not aware of Zohaib Kazi's E.P from 2012: Butterfly in Space. The last song there, Cosmic Orchestra, is set to Carl Sagan's words on the Pale Blue Dot.

All of this made my day today - and thanks to Zakir Thaver for pointing me to this work. Zakir himself is busy giving finishing touches to his ambitious documentary about Abdus Salaam

Monday, December 21, 2015

Positive Nature editorial on nascent German efforts to to incorporate Syrian refugees into the education system

by Salman Hameed

Last month I had posted about fellowships for refugee scholars by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany. This week's Nature has an editorial that lauds German efforts in this direction and highlights the potential benefits both to the country's scientific endeavor as well as in countering the rising xenophobia:
To integrate hundreds of thousands of traumatized, mostly Muslim, war refugees into Western society is a massive social challenge. But, contrary to what some critics seem to assume, early signs show that the young refugees — and under-25s make up around half of the influx — will not be inclined to accept social welfare and sit back idly for long. 
Robbed of their hopes and dreams at home, many will grasp the opportunities offered.
And many will be eager to learn. If admitted into Germany’s well-oiled education and science system (and into its booming labour market at large), they can be a boon rather than a burden to the country’s knowledge-based economy. 
German universities and science organizations are aware of the responsibility to these displaced people and the opportunity they represent. The messages they send in favour of openness and plurality — defining features of any honest science — are laudable at a time when xenophobia is on the rise elsewhere. 
Thanks to several programmes and initiatives launched by the German science community in recent months, refugee students can access university education and doctoral-research opportunities, and qualified refugee scientists and scholars can participate in advanced science at research institutes across Germany. These initiatives are much-needed and deserve every respect.
Another article in the same issue highlights the role social scientists can and are playing in helping with the refugee crisis:
Social scientists studying the flow of refugees into Germany want to discover something themselves: how many of the incoming people are, like Khamis, well-qualified, motivated and eager to learn — a boon for the economy. These migration researchers say that Germany has become a case study in the difficulties of suddenly integrating a large group of culturally diverse foreigners into a society; the nation has registered nearly one million asylum-seekers this year, more than half of them from Syria. It is the highest such influx in Western Europe. 
After a short-lived wave of hospitality in September, when chancellor Angela Merkel promised that Germany would be a welcoming host to the persecuted, many citizens and some right-leaning politicians have begun to voice concerns, painting a picture of a Muslim-dominated parallel society of poorly trained recipients of social welfare. 
Research may be able to counter the rising tide of xenophobia and aid the urgent process of resettling refugees by revealing more about migrants’ skills and cultural values, says David Schiefer, a Berlin-based psychologist with a German advisory body on migration and integration who is planning interviews with refugees. “We need to give these people a voice,” he says.
An extensive program and set of resources devoted to this would be extremely valuable:
In a strategy paper seen by Nature, a group from seven Max Planck institutes, in response to a call for research ideas by the society’s president, Martin Stratmann, has outlined a variety of research needs around humanitarian migration, from international law and human-rights issues to health and gender studies. 
Marie-Claire Foblets, director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, plans to ask a culturally diverse group of refugees — including guest students at the University of Halle-Wittenberg — for accounts of their lives and experiences. Other questions, such as those concerning refugees’ citizenship and civil rights, the potential lure of extremism, and the fate of children who might be staying with radicalized parents, will require the involvement of law experts, criminologists, educators and others, she says.
Read the full article here (you may need subscription). 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Deciphering the Indus Script

by Salman Hameed

This is one of the few undeciphered languages left in the world. A few weeks ago, Nature had a nice overview of the status of decipherment:
The Indus civilization flourished for half a millennium from about 2600 bc to 1900 bc. Then it mysteriously declined and vanished from view. It remained invisible for almost 4,000 years until its ruins were discovered by accident in the 1920s by British and Indian archaeologists. Following almost a century of excavation, it is today regarded as a civilization worthy of comparison with those of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as the beginning of Indian civilization and possibly as the origin of Hinduism. 
More than a thousand Indus settlements covered at least 800,000 square kilometres of what is now Pakistan and northwestern India. It was the most extensive urban culture of its period, with a population of perhaps 1 million and a vigorous maritime export trade to the Gulf and cities such as Ur in Mesopotamia, where objects inscribed with Indus signs have been discovered. Astonishingly, the culture has left no archaeological evidence of armies or warfare. 
Most Indus settlements were villages; some were towns, and at least five were substantial cities (see 'Where unicorns roamed'). The two largest, Mohenjo-daro — a World Heritage Site listed by the United Nations — located near the Indus river, and Harappa, by one of the tributaries, boasted street planning and house drainage worthy of the twentieth century ad. They hosted the world's first known toilets, along with complex stone weights, elaborately drilled gemstone necklaces and exquisitely carved seal stones featuring one of the world's stubbornly undeciphered scripts.
The Indus script is made up of partially pictographic signs and human and animal motifs including a puzzling 'unicorn'. These are inscribed on miniature steatite (soapstone) seal stones, terracotta tablets and occasionally on metal. The designs are “little masterpieces of controlled realism, with a monumental strength in one sense out of all proportion to their size and in another entirely related to it”, wrote the best-known excavator of the Indus civilization, Mortimer Wheeler, in 1968. 
Of course, contemporary politics is not too far from these conversation:
In the 1990s and after, many Indian authors — including some academics — have claimed that the Indus script can be read in a form of early Sanskrit, the ancestral language of most north Indian languages including Hindi. In doing so, they support the controversial views of India's Hindu nationalist politicians that there has been a continuous, Sanskrit-speaking, Indian identity since the third millennium bc. 
Whatever their differences, all Indus researchers agree that there is no consensus on the meaning of the script. There are three main problems. First, no firm information is available about its underlying language. Was this an ancestor of Sanskrit or Dravidian, or of some other Indian language family, such as Munda, or was it a language that has disappeared? Linear B was deciphered because the tablets turned out to be in an archaic form of Greek; Mayan glyphs because Mayan languages are still spoken. Second, no names of Indus rulers or personages are known from myths or historical records: no equivalents of Rameses or Ptolemy, who were known to hieroglyphic decipherers from records of ancient Egypt available in Greek. 
Third, there is, as yet, no Indus bilingual inscription comparable to the Rosetta Stone (written in Egyptian and Greek). It is conceivable that such a treasure may exist in Mesopotamia, given its trade links with the Indus civilization. The Mayan decipherment started in 1876 using a sixteenth-century Spanish manuscript that recorded a discussion in colonial Yucatan between a Spanish priest and a Yucatec Mayan-speaking elder about ancient Mayan writing.
But progress has been made:
Indus scholars have achieved much in recent decades. A superb three-volume photographic corpus3 of Indus inscriptions, edited by the indefatigable Asko Parpola, an Indologist at the University of Helsinki, was published between 1987 and 2010 with the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; a fourth and final volume is still to come. The direction of writing — chiefly right to left — has been established by analysis of the positioning of groups of characters in many differing inscriptions. The segmentation of texts containing repeated sequences of characters, syntactic structures, the numeral system and the measuring system are partly understood. 
Views vary on how many signs there are in the Indus script. In 1982, archaeologist Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao published a Sanskrit-based decipherment with just 62 signs4. Parpola put5 the number at about 425 in 1994 — an estimate supported by the leading Indus script researcher in India, Iravatham Mahadevan. At the other extreme is an implausibly high estimate6 of 958 signs, published this year by Bryan Wells, arising from his PhD at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 
Nevertheless, almost every researcher accepts that the script contains too many signs to be either an alphabet or a syllabary (in which signs represent syllables), like Linear B. It is probably a logo-syllabic script — such as Sumerian cuneiform or Mayan glyphs — that is, a mixture of hundreds of logographic signs representing words and concepts, such as &, £ and %, and a much smaller subset representing syllables. 
As for the language, the balance of evidence favours a proto-Dravidian language, not Sanskrit. Many scholars have proposed plausible Dravidian meanings for a few groups of characters based on Old Tamil, although none of these 'translations' has gained universal acceptance.
I am also surprised that the pace of excavation has slowed down in the last few decades. This is really too bad. And I had not heard about Ganweriwala before reading this article:
On the ground in Pakistan and India, more inscriptions continue to be discovered — although not, as yet, any texts longer than 26 characters. Unfortunately, less than 10% of the known Indus sites have been excavated. The difficulty — apart from funding — is the politically troubled nature of the region. Many of the most promising unexcavated sites lie in the Pakistani desert region of Cholistan near the tense border with India. One such is the city of Ganweriwala, discovered in the 1970s and apparently comparable in size with Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. 
If these sites, and some others within Pakistan and India, were to be excavated, there seems a reasonable prospect of a widely accepted, if incomplete, decipherment of the Indus script. It took more than a century to decipher the less challenging Mayan script, following several false starts, hiatuses and extensive excavation throughout the twentieth century. Indus-script decipherers have been on the much barer trail — older by two millennia — for less than a century, and excavation of Indus sites in Pakistan has stagnated in recent decades.
Fascinating stuff. Read the full article here

Friday, December 04, 2015

Construction permit rescinded for the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea

by Salman Hameed

This is quite astonishing! The battle over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope has been going on for years and I did not think that the opponents of the telescope had much chance of victory. But earlier this year, protestors blocked the road to Mauna Kea summit, thus halting the start of TMT construction. This resulted in arrests and it seemed like it was only a momentary delay. But somehow the protestors kept the momentum going and the Hawai'i Supreme Court decided to revisit the issue of construction permit. The construction was again set to begin two weeks ago, but the court halted it until its verdict on the issue. And now the verdict is in - and the court has rescinded the construction permit for the telescope:

The Board of Land and Natural Resources (Board) issued the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo (UH) a permit to construct a 180-foot high astronomical observatory within a conservation district on Mauna Kea over the objections of Native Hawaiians and others, who sought a contested case hearing to fully assess the effects of the project prior to making a decision of whether to issue the permit. Instead, the Board approved the permit but included a condition that, if a contested case proceeding was initiated, then construction could not commence until the Board conducted such a hearing. The Board’s procedure of holding a contested case hearing after the permit has already been issued does not comply with our case law...nor with due process under the Hawaiʻi Constitution
You read the full decision here. I will have more to say on this. But I think this is the right decision. I think astronomers (not all!) were/are on the wrong side of history on this one. There was a lot of feet dragging and most of the "compromises" made by astronomers  were minimal - and only after a lot of protests. The runner-up site for TMT was Atacama desert in Chile. I think that is the place for TMT!

In the mean time, here is a NASA image of Mauna Kea from the International Space Station taken on Nov 1 and released just a couple of days before the court decision (!): 

From the NYT article about the recent decision: 
With the court’s ruling, the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corporation and its board will have to start the permit process over — or, in the words of Deborah Ward, one of those who had challenged the permit in court, “take their toys and play in another sandbox.” 
In a Twitter message, the telescope consortium said, “This is not a judgment against T.M.T., but rather against the state’s process in granting the permits.” 
Later, Henry Yang, chairman of the telescope’s board, said in a statement: “T.M.T. will follow the process set forth by the state, as we always have. We are assessing our next steps on the way forward.” 
The telescope board is scheduled to meet again in February but could convene earlier.
Full article here
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