Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Talk at McGill University this Friday on Islamic Creationism in Europe

by Salman Hameed

I think it is not cold enough down here in Amherst. It was 8F last night and the temperature stayed well below freezing all day today. To search for some cooler weather, I will be heading up north to Montreal to give a talk at McGill University's Centre for Islam and Science. There are some fantastic people at the center (or centre) and I'm looking forward to seeing our old friends Anila Asghar and Ehab Abouheif and to meet Jamil Ragep for the first time. If you are in the Montreal area, come to the talk.


Here is the title and other information about the talk:

Friday, March 27, 4:30 pm
Arts Building, Room W-120
853 rue Sherbrooke Ouest
Montreal, QC H3A 0G5

Islamic Creationism in Europe:
Biological Evolution in Service of the “Clash of Civilizations” Narrative

There is an urgent need to understand the dynamic of cultural interactions that define Muslim minorities in Europe. Gender-related issues and radicalization of Muslims are two topics that frequent the headlines. But now science is also becoming one of the contested issues. For example, a rejection of biological evolution is increasingly being used by the media and the far-right groups in Europe to paint Muslim minorities as outsiders that threaten European education system. Furthermore, Muslims are often treated in a unitary manner with an assumption that evolution rejection is their default religious position. Conversely, many Muslims in Europe are embracing this rejection of evolution as an identity marker for being a Muslim. While religious objections to evolution are indeed at play in some cases, our understanding for the rise of Islamic creationism should also take into account socio-economic disparities and their impact on education for Muslim minorities in Europe. A nuanced understanding of this dynamic may benefit those who support both the propagation of good science and favor cultural pluralism, and may also provide an insight into more politically charged subjects such as debates over free speech and women’s religious attire in Europe.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Three excellent lectures by John Hedley Brooke on Galileo, Darwin and Einstein

by Salman Hameed

If you are at all interested in the history of science and religion, then you should definitely spend some time listening to these three lectures by John Hedley Brooke. These will be your three hours very well spent. He is the author of a seminal book on the topic titled Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. I have had a chance to meet him couple of times and it has always been an absolute pleasure.

Here are the three lectures that Brooke gave at the University of Edinburgh last month:

Galileo: Nature as mechanistic creation


Darwin: From nature as machine to nature as historical process


Einstein: Nature recreated

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The killing in Bangladesh for unbelief and in the US for a particular belief

by Salman Hameed

Avijit Roy with his wife

A few weeks ago, an American-Bangladeshi atheist blogger, Avijit Roy, was hacked to death in Dhaka. He and his wife were returning from a Book Fair where he had his own book reading. This is a continuation of troubling attacks on secular bloggers and writers in Bangladesh (see my post from 2013: Standing with Bangladesh's secular bloggers!). Here is an excellent article by Raza Rumi on this murder and the growing religious intolerance in the secular Bangladesh. Raza brings a unique perspective, as he himself had to leave Pakistan after he was attacked by gunmen last year:
This incident left me deeply disturbed. As someone who was also subjected to (missed) bullets in 2014, Roy’s murder brought back memories of my close brush with death, subsequent exile and the fear of returning to my own country, Pakistan. Like Roy and many others, Islamist extremists found my views unacceptable to the extent that physical elimination was the only answer. I miraculously escaped the assassination attempt, but my driver was killed and another companion was injured. 
While a few gunmen were arrested, the trial lingers on. But from my experience as an analyst, Pakistani courts seldom punish attackers, and the masterminds are never apprehended or brought to book. 
I had never met Roy, but I was aware of his powerful work. It is not easy to profess atheism when you belong to a Muslim country. Roy lived in the United States and ran a blog called Mukto Mona, (free mind), and he was vocal in opposing religious bigotry and intolerance. While he remained in the relatively safer climes of the US, he was still part of the discourse in Bangladesh, and this is why he was a threat to Islamist extremists. 
He received regular threats on social media — an irony of the ostensibly postmodern 21st century. The online store that sold Roy’s books was also harassed, and later it stopped displaying them altogether. In 2014, an Islamist said that Roy would be killed when he returned to his native country. 
So the doomed blogger had gone back to Bangladesh for his book promotion when extremists found the right opportunity to attack and kill him. His latest book, Bishwasher Virus (The Virus of Faith), says it all.
One can disagree with the approach that some atheists take to matters of faith, but it is utterly disconcerting to note that the space for such ideas is shrinking in Muslim countries. And Bangladesh is no Saudi Arabia or even Pakistan. Its liberation in 1971 from Pakistan was an act of defiance to preserve the political and cultural rights that the so-called Islamic Republic of Pakistan was trying to suppress. For Bangladesh to become more like Pakistan is even more tragic. 
Unfortunately, the trends all point to Bangladesh using more and not less religion in politics:
For decades, Bangladeshi governments, like their nemesis in Pakistan, have appeased religious passions. A clear case is that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina covers her head. There is no Quranic injunction for women to wear a hijab (headscarf). This was true for Pakistan’s slain prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who also demonstrated similar acquiescence to religious fervor by not only covering her head with a scarf, but also donning Islamic rosary beads to prove piety and credentials of being a devout Muslim. 
Media freedoms have also been under threat as the incumbent Bangladeshi government has, on occasions, tried to muzzle critical commentaries on elections and the democratic evolution. But surely the religious opposition to free-thinking remains the most serious challenge, leading many to leave the country and not return. Taslima Nasreen, a writer, has been in exile for decades, scared of the radicals back home. Ironically, she is blamed for being too “extreme” in her views. 
I had always admired Bangladesh as a secular nation and even wrote about its cultural and intellectual space. Sadly, it is only following the country it left behind in 1971: Pakistan. But when it comes to religious bigotry, few Muslim countries are safe for writers, bloggers and those who challenge extremist interpretations of Islam. 
I am afraid of returning home to Pakistan. I was lucky to have narrowly escaped the fate of Roy and perhaps will not be as fortunate next time. The Taliban affiliate that tried to kill me number in the thousands, are well-organized and entrenched. Their level of intolerance is such that I am not even an atheist, yet I am a target. 
I mourn Roy’s loss and also lament the state of exile that pernicious extremist ideologies have forced me into.
Read the full article here.

And back here in the US, there are increasing number of cases where Muslims are being attacked - well for being looking like Muslims. You probably have heard of the murder of three students in Chapel Hill. But there are other cases that have not gotten much news. For example, just two nights ago, 18 bullets were fired at Abdul's house - also in North Carolina, and one of those hit the thigh of his sleeping wife:
According to the Charlotte Observer, the attack took place in eastern Mecklenburg County, just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. The home of Abdul, a Muslim man who asked the paper not to publish his last name, was riddled by as many as 18 bullets in the middle of the night. Most of the shots hit the fence, but one bullet traveled through Abdul’s bedroom window and struck his wife in the thigh while she was sleeping. Abdul said she woke up bleeding and screaming before being taken to a nearby hospital, where she is currently awaiting surgery while recovering in the intensive care unit. None of the other occupants of the house — which included Abdul, his mother, and his two children — were injured in the attack. 
Police are looking for multiple suspects near the neighborhood, which reportedly has only had infrequent break-ins in recent years. Officers initially reported that the incident was being treated as a random shooting, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Capt. Chuck Henson noted at a news conference Tuesday morning that police won’t know if it was hate crime until they make an arrest.
And then just two weeks ago, an Iraqi guy was shot dead in Dallas just outside his apartment, while he was taking pictures of snow:
In the quiet moments before Ahmed Al-Jumaili died, he and his wife stepped out of her family's apartment, in a small complex in a suburb of Dallas, to photograph the first
snowfall he'd ever seen. 
Al-Jumaili had hesitated to leave his home in Iraq, but his wife had urged him to come to the US, where he'd be safer. She'd gone ahead to Dallas not long after their 2013 marriage, but he stayed in Iraq to work and save for their new life. Finally, last month, he followed her to Texas, where she had family, and left behind the chaos of Iraq. 
On Thursday, the last night of his life, three and a half inches of snow fell on Dallas, the most since 1942. It was almost midnight when he and his wife stood outside to take photos of this new sight, in the country that was to be his new home. As they lingered, what residents would later describe to police as two to four men, moving on foot, entered the small complex. One or more of the men raised a rifle and shot Al-Jumaili. Police would later find bullets lodged in nearby cars as well. He died a few hours later at a nearby hospital; he was 36 years old and had been in the US for three weeks. 
Neither police nor Al-Jumaili's family are yet claiming a motive, but focus has naturally fallen on the growing trend of violence against Muslims in the United States. Dallas Police Major Jeff Cotner said police considered hate crime a "possibility." A local Methodist pastor, as well as a representative from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have both said the local community already fears as much. 
And yet Al-Jumaili's killing has received strikingly little attention, other than a few mostly brief media reports, and the statements of faith leaders in Dallas hinting at a climate of hostility toward Muslims there.
Vox's article does a good job of placing it in the larger context of openly hateful commentaries against Islam and Muslims that may now be leading to growing violence against Muslim minorities as well:
The rise of ISIS in the Middle East, and attendant media coverage, has coincided with Islamophobia's growing acceptance in mainstream American discourse. 
Media outlets, particularly on TV, are increasingly promoting overt bigotry against Muslims, stating over and over that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that peaceful Muslims are somehow to blame for ISIS. Hateful stereotypes are treated as fair game; the question of whether Muslims are somehow lesser human beings is raised as a valid or even necessary debate. 
The politics of Islamophobia are ascendent as well. These attitudes initially spiked after President Obama's election — a continuation of the dogwhistle politics that Obama is a secret Muslim, or at least suspiciously un-hostile toward Islam — but are now resurfacing. State legislatures are passing laws banning "sharia" or "foreign law," a barely-veiled expression of official legislative hostility to Islam and to Muslim-American communities. 
Elements of the Republican party have been hijacked, at state and national levels, by a fringe group of anti-Muslim activists who see Islam itself as a threat. While some leading Republicans resist their agenda, others embrace it; Louisiana Governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal has falsely claimed that Muslims in the UK have set up "no-go zones" that police refuse to enter and where sharia law prevails, and that Muslim immigrants coming to the US are an "invasion" and "colonization."
Read the full Vox article here.

From Avijit in Bangladesh to Ahmed in Dallas, we have to take a stand against bigotry - independent of belief or disbelief. This may seem obvious, but sometimes popular narratives dilute some of the murders. This is all the more important as it looks like that the conditions are going to get worse - perhaps far worse - before they get better. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

On the issue of letter to Iran by Republican senators...

by Salman Hameed

It would be easy laugh at the provocative actions of almost all of Republican senators regarding Iran. Their Open Letter to Iran was of course condescending. They want war. And they want war with an unequal adversary - preferably one that doesn't have a nuclear weapon. And they are not exactly alone. Here is an opinion piece in Washington Post titled War with Iran is probably our best option. And look how easy its going be:
Wouldn’t destroying much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure merely delay its progress? Perhaps, but we can strike as often as necessary. Of course, Iran would try to conceal and defend the elements of its nuclear program, so we might have to find new ways to discover and attack them. Surely the United States could best Iran in such a technological race.
Much the same may be said in reply to objections that airstrikes might not reach all the important facilities and that Iran would then proceed unconstrained by inspections and agreements. The United States would have to make clear that it will hit wherever and whenever necessary to stop Iran’s program. Objections that Iran might conceal its program so brilliantly that it could progress undetected all the way to a bomb apply equally to any negotiated deal with Iran.
Absolutely disgusting call for war. In fact, all this rhetoric and a very different reaction to Russia's actions in Ukraine can only lead countries to having nuclear weapons - at least those countries that are adversaries of the US. I can usually make a blanket statement that I'm against nuclear weapons. But the recent US actions on non-nuclear states have caused tremendous casualties. In a world where no nuclear country is going to give up their arms, it may be worth reevaluating the calculus of war prevention by having nuclear weapons. The problem is that with the proliferation of weapons, it is almost certain that the weapons are going to be used at some point or that there is going to be an accident. In an ideal world, we will have a system that prevents bullying of non-nuclear nations by nuclear countries. Ah - but then we don't live Gene Roddenberry's universe.

And yes, it is unclear whether to laugh or cry when the leader of anti-negotiations (and pro war) Republican senator, Tom Cotton, says that "Iran already controls Tehran". But then these are the people in the upper echelon of power.

For a more sobering look, here is an excellent discussion over Iran's nuclear program on Democracy Now. Hillary Mann Leverett makes two interesting points. One, that Obama has not made an effort to sell the nuclear negotiations as in America's own best interest. In this vacuum, conservative hawks can fill the space as Iran getting its way. Second, and something that I didn't know, that Israel used to oppose sanctions against Iran in the 1980s. It changed its stance after the degradation of Iraqi military. Also, hear Ali Gharib talk about Cotton - the Republican senator spear-heading the anti-negotiation effort in the US congress.

Fourth episode of SkA: Exploring baby solar systems to search for our own origins (Urdu)

by Salman Hameed

It has been a lot of fun doing this series. So here is the continuation of our Urdu series, Science ka Adda (Cafe Scientifique). In this fourth episode, we look at the discovery of a "protoplanetary disk" around a young star named HL Tau. This star is only a million years old - a blink of an eye in cosmic timescales - but it can tell us a lot about the origins of our own solar system some four and a half billion years ago. Here it is:


Jim Al-Khalili on Ibn al-Haytham's "Book of Optics"

by Salman Hameed


I didn't know this is the International Year of Light (IYL 2015). In one way we can celebrate IYL by celebrating astronomy. With the exception of landers and rovers, all of our information comes through light - and even with rovers, the communication is through light. Nevertheless, as part of IYL (I think), Nature published this pieced by Jim Khalili on al-Haytham's Book of Optics (unfortunately, Jim starts the article by declaring him to be a physicist - which is anachronistic):
The greatest physicist of the medieval era led a life as remarkable as his discoveries were prodigious, spending a decade in prison and at one point possibly feigning mental illness to get out of a tight spot. Abu Ali al-Hassan ibn al-Haytham (Latinized to Alhazen) was born in Basra, now in southern Iraq, in AD 965. His greatest and most famous work, the seven-volume Book of Optics (Kitab al-Manathir) hugely influenced thinking across disciplines from the theory of visual perception to the nature of perspective in medieval art, in both the East and the West, for more than 600 years. Many later European scholars and fellow polymaths, from Robert Grosseteste and Leonardo da Vinci to Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, were in his debt. Indeed, the influence of Ibn al-Haytham's Optics ranks alongside that of Newton's work of the same title, published 700 years later.
And of course, whether true or not, you have to recount the story of his "mental illness":
As a young man, Ibn al-Haytham received an excellent education and was widely noted as a mathematical and scientific prodigy. Frustrated by his administrative duties working in a government post in the vast Islamic Empire — which at the time stretched from India to Spain — he was sacked owing to real or, as some speculate, faked mental illness. 
Sometime during the first decade of the new millennium, he proposed an ambitious project to dam the Nile. He was invited to Egypt by the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi'amr Illah. However, on seeing the scale of the task, Ibn al-Haytham quickly realized that it was beyond him. He was promptly imprisoned in Cairo for wasting the caliph's time. 
Far from cowing him, the decade of imprisonment granted Ibn al-Haytham the seclusion to think and write, particularly on optics. After his release around the year 1020, he began working at a prolific rate, carrying out a series of famous experiments on the nature of light. For example, using a camera obscura, he proved that light travels in straight lines; he also mathematized the fields of catoptrics (reflection of light by mirrors) and dioptrics (refraction of light through lenses). This huge body of experiment and theory culminated in his Book of Optics.
Here are the specifics of his Book of Optics:
This treatise can be regarded as a science textbook. In it, Ibn al-Haytham gives detailed descriptions of his experiments, such as exploring how light rays are reflected off plain and curved surfaces. He includes the apparatus he used, the way he set it up, the measurements and his results. He then uses these observations to justify his theories, which he develops with geometrical models. He even urges others to repeat his experiments to verify his conclusions. Many historians of science consider Ibn al-Haytham to be the first true proponent of the modern scientific method. 
The work can be roughly divided into Books I, II and III, devoted to the theory of vision and the associated physiology of the eye and the psychology of perception; and Books IV to VII, covering traditional physical optics. The work's most celebrated contribution to science is its explanation of vision. 
At that time, scholars' understanding of the phenomenon was a mess. The Greeks had several theories. In the fifth century BC, Empedocles had argued that a special light shone out of the eye until it hit an object, thereby making it visible. This became known as the emission theory of vision. It was 'refined' by Plato, who explained that you also need external light to see. Plato's student Aristotle suggested that rather than the eye emitting light, objects would 'perturb' the air between them and the eye, triggering sight. 
Other philosophers around this time, including Epicurus, attempted a form of 'intromission theory' of vision (light entering the eye from outside), but it was Plato's theory that was given a mathematical basis by Euclid, who described light rays emerging in a cone from the eye. Several centuries later, Ptolemy expanded on this idea. 
Early Islamic scholars such as al-Kindi and Hunayn ibn Ishaq favoured a combined emission–intromission theory. They posited that the eye sends out light to the observed object, which then reflects the light back into the eye. 
It took the genius of Ibn al-Haytham to finally resolve the issue. He argued that if we see because rays of light are emitted from the eye onto an object (Plato and Euclid's 'sight rays'), then either the object sends back a signal to the eye or it does not. If it does not, how can the eye perceive what its rays have fallen on? Light must be coming back to the eye, and this is how we see. But if so, what use is there for the original rays emitted by the eye? The light could come directly from the object if it is luminous or, if it is not, could be reflected from the object after being emitted by another source. Rays from the eye, decided Ibn al-Haytham, are an unnecessary complication. 
He also went further than anyone before in trying to understand the underlying physics of refraction. He argued that the speed of light was finite and varied in different media, and he used the idea of resolving the path of a light ray into its vertical and horizontal components of velocities. He carried out all his work geometrically, and introduced many new ideas, such as the study of how the atmosphere refracts light from celestial bodies.
Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access it). You can also read more about al-Haytham on IYL 2015 website

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Saturday Video: Evolution via They Might Be Giants and The Simpsons

by Salman Hameed

On a lighter note of evolution, here is My Brother the Ape by They Might Be Giants (By the way, my 22 month old son loves this - and so begins the indoctrination :) ):


And while we are on the topic, here is evolution of Homer Simpson from the intro of a Simpsons episode: 

Friday, March 06, 2015

A somewhat strange opinion piece in Nature on Muslims and science

by Salman Hameed

Last week's Nature has an opinion piece by Indonesian science journalist, Dyna Rochmyaningsih.
The title of the piece is Focus on political Islamic groups to boost science. One of her key points - which I think is largely correct - is that science promoters should not ignore Islamist groups as they hold influence in some societies. She goes further and makes an excellent point that it is important to understand how political and ideological groups influence views about science:
Rather than reconciliation, it is important to monitor and understand the way in which political and ideological groups influence how young Muslims view science.
All well and good, and this is something that we are trying to do at SSiMS (Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies) at Hampshire. But there are some serious problems with the piece as well. For example, she -paints a picture that blurs the line between ISIS, European terror attacks, and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. This is how her article starts:
Recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the continued activity of the jihadist group ISIS in the Middle East have thrown the spotlight firmly back on radical Islam. Some studies blame the Muslim world's poor and unstable economies for the spread of this fundamentalism. Presumably then, improving the economy could help Muslim societies to tackle these radical movements. 
Science can play a big part in this economic development, as it has in other places. But because some Muslims see a conflict between science and their faith, the philosophical question of how to reconcile the two is at the heart of many efforts to advance scientific development in the Muslim world.
And here is the place where she brings in the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbut Tahrir:
The radical Islamists of ISIS see science as an attribute of their enemies. They have denounced the great Medieval Muslim scientists Ibn Sina and Ibn al-Nafis as heretics and atheists. It is clear that such rhetoric — if influential — will hold back scientific development in Muslim countries. 
Here in Indonesia, for example, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizbut Tahrir have a strong presence in high schools and universities, and this gives them profound influence on young Muslims' views of the world, including science. 
The influence is not all negative to science. The Muslim Brotherhood, although hostile to evolution, encourages talented scientists to develop their careers and helps to place them on postgraduate courses overseas, typically in Japan. Many of these people return to Indonesia as university lecturers.
I think this would be a fine line of argument. But by bringing in ISIS, it presents a picture not that different from Fox News or the one argued by General Sisi. This is a shame as I think she is making an important point. Another weird part is that she is writing this piece in response to a task force that just met in Turkey, where an Islamist government is in charge. The problem is that she is placing all Islamist groups under one banner when their attitudes and approaches to science may be completely different. Not to mention that European attacks have a very different context than what is taking place in Indonesia, and that is different from what is taking place in Turkey or in Mali. In the current political environment, such conflations are deeply counter-productive.

Plus, the use of science in her article is just too broad. In general, the attitude is positive in various parts of the Muslim world. Here is the Pew survey on this from 2013:

Indonesia and Iraq - two places mentioned in her article - both seem to have a broad support for science. Of course, the issue comes in with specific issues, like evolution or other questions of origins. Dyna's solution is to inculcate scientific thinking before they are exposed to political ideas:
Reconciliation is an individual process, and something that is intangible in the realm of policy-making. By contrast, hard-line groups can influence whole societies. To capitalize on this influence, we might need to reform science education in primary schools in the Muslim world, and teach young people to think for themselves before they are exposed to political ideas.
I don't know but something doesn't seem right here as politics is always embedded in the system. Plus, she now brings in the term "hard-line groups" and claims that they can "influence whole societies". Since she has been talking about political Islamist groups, my assumption is that "hard-line groups". What makes them "hardline" compared to say General Sisi or the secularists of Turkey in the not so distant past?

But I do agree with Dyna that the key here is the promotion of critical thinking more than anything else, and such critical thinking may lead us to see not only science but also culture in a nuanced and complicated way. In addition, we do not want students to grow up apathetic to politics (this is what General Zia in Pakistan tried to do in the 1980s). The full narrative of Arab Spring - and other equivalent springs in non-Arab Muslim countries - is yet to be written, and the ability to think critically and for oneself, will be crucial.

Read the full article here (you will need subscription for full access).