Saturday, November 28, 2015

Pew poll on Muslim views on ISIS

by Salman Hameed

After the Paris attacks, the nonsensical chorus of "why don't Muslims condemn ISIS" has grown even louder. To make things worse, even when there is a report on such opposing voices, the story is framed in a way to further aggravate the problem. This was the NYT story with the headline From Indonesia, a Muslim Challenge to the Ideology of the Islamic State and the story almost gives the impression that "finally" someone in the Muslim world (yes - all that "monolithic" entity!) is standing up to ISIS. And of course, the NYT conveniently forgets that Iran has been actively fighting ISIS for a while, and that several other Muslim countries are engaged in fighting the Islamic State as well (even when it is politically complicated, as is the case with Turkey). With all that in context, here are the views of Muslims in 11 countries:


This is not much of a surprise. The ideological battle is actually not with ISIS - but with those who are using ISIS to make simplistic statements as "ISIS is Islamic", etc. By the way, it is interesting that 62% of Pakistanis don't have an opinion on ISIS. I don't know why this is the case. It is quite possible that people genuinely don't know about ISIS - it is after all far from Iraq/Syria/Libya and when it comes to violence against civilians, there are local groups (such as the various flavors of Taliban or the LeT) that are of bigger concern. Furthermore, through Pakistani lens, ISIS may be seen as anti-US, and that may balance out its savagery (yes - opinion of US in Pakistan is quite low). In case you are wondering about religious affiliations, here is the division:


This follows more or less to the country's trend, irrespective of religion. Therefore, it is not that surprising that 5% of Christians in Burkina Faso or 6% Buddhists in Malaysia have a favorable view of ISIS. But Nigeria is one exception here - but again, this may possibly be due to Boko Haram's connection to the group.

In any case, polls like this do not capture the complexities on the ground. Nevertheless, they sometimes do give a broad brush picture what is going on. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

A new intellectual biography of Ibn Khaldun

by Salman Hameed

As with many medieval Muslim thinkers, either Ibn Khaldun is ignored or his words are over-interpreted. If you are interested, there is a new book out called The Orange Trees of Marrakesh: Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Man by Stephen Frederic Dale. Here is a review by David Bahr:
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) is your favorite historian’s favorite historian and chances are you have never heard his name. Though his principal work, the Muqaddimah (literally the “introduction”), has been pronounced “the most comprehensive and illuminating
analysis of how human affairs work that has been made anywhere” by Arnold Toynbee, there are relatively few studies devoted to his philosophic science of history. It is thus a most welcome bit of fortune when a rare book on Ibn Khaldun is published, and more welcome still to discover the book—The Orange Trees of Marrakesh by Stephen Frederic Dale—is an intellectual biography geared toward the non-specialist. 
Mr. Dale’s book is important for two reasons. First, it takes pains to place Ibn Khaldun in his historical context. Raised in intellectual, upper class North Africa, Ibn Khaldun became a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence while simultaneously nurturing an interest Greco-Islamic philosophy. Like his two contemporaries, Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas (themselves both influenced by both Greek and Islamic philosophy), Ibn Khaldun’s writing is crucial for understanding the tension between reason and revelation so important to the vitality of the West. Second, Dale’s robust presentation of Ibn Khaldun’s thought, especially as encountered in his Muqaddimah, builds the case that his political insights should be rated alongside Aristotle, Montesquieu, Smith, and Durkheim. 
Here is a bit more about Ibn Khaldun and why his work almost disappeared for a few hundred years:
To give a sense of Ibn Khaldun’s approach to history in the Muqaddimah here are the somewhat ambitious standards he sets himself: 
"Know the principles of politics, the … nature of existent things, and the differences among nations, places, and periods, with regards to the ways of life, character qualities, customs, sects, schools and everything else. His goal must be to have complete knowledge of the reasons for everything happening and be acquainted with the origin of every event. Then, he must check transmitted information with the basic principles [of nature and accident] he knows." 
Ibn Khaldun pursued two goals. He developed a new science of philosophic history and applied this same methodology to interpret the flux of North African and Andalusian history. What results is an immense work of learning that was the first to “analyze the nature of societies in a synchronistic study” rather than a “traditional narrative of events.” An apt moniker for Khaldun might be (and has been) the “Montesquieu of the Arabs,” though as Dale notes, it is more precise to affirm the reverse. 
Part of Ibn Khaldun’ story, usefully pursued by Dale, regards his disappearance from the intellectual world stage. As Dale notes, not one scholar either in the Islamic world or in Europe embraced Ibn Khaldun’s historical methodology. Not only did Ibn Khaldun lack the institutional support to disseminate his ideas, but the Muqaddimah is a notoriously difficult text, presupposing a deep background in Greek thought that would not have been available to the average man in the Arab world. A long lasting consequence of these difficulties was that Europe did not gain exposure to Ibn Khaldun until the late 17th century, and he only became widely known after the 19th. Today, Ibn Khaldun and the Muqaddimah are seen more as “an exotic product of a foreign civilization, rather than as an important milestone in an intellectual tradition that linked Greeks with Muslims and Europeans in a common philosophic culture. 
Read the full review here.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Germany steps forward with fellowships for refugee scholars

by Salman Hameed

This is an excellent initiative to help scholars who are threatened by war or prosecution in their own countries. This program is jointly sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the German Foreign Office. Here are the details:
The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Federal Foreign Office are jointly planning a new programme to support researchers who are threatened by war and persecution in their own countries and are seeking sanctuary in Germany: the Philipp Schwartz Initiative will provide German universities and research institutions with the means to host foreign researchers for a period of two to three years so that they can continue their work. In 2016 and 2017 respectively, approximately 20 researchers should benefit in this way. The final figures will depend on the financing, which is currently under discussion. 
The Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced the initiative in June, saying “By becoming actively involved today, we are, in a small way, repaying other countries for what they did for German researchers decades ago.” 
“We want to send a signal about the openness of German science. We intend to help people who can benefit our science system but who will be desperately needed in their own countries when it comes to rebuilding them in the hopefully not too distant future,” said Helmut Schwarz, the President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. 
A further objective of the Philipp Schwartz Initiative is to generate a consciousness in Germany for the situation of researchers who have experienced displacement. With the help of information events, conferences and advisory services – provided, amongst others, by experienced organisations like the Scholars at Risk Network and the Scholar Rescue Fund – German universities and research institutions will be able to acquire and share information on the ways in which they can help. 
The programme is named after the Jewish pathologist Philipp Schwartz who had to flee Germany from the Nazis in 1933 and subsequently founded the “Notgemeinschaft deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland” (Emergency Society of German Scholars Abroad).
More information about the initiative here.

Also this earlier post on University Education for Syrian and Other Refugees.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Nature's map of Chinese Science Collaborations

by Salman Hameed

In terms of scientific research output, China is now just behind the US (in terms of "high-quality science" as defined by the journal Nature and that takes into account articles from 68 natural science journals).  Just this past week, Nature Index published a fascinating map of Chinese science collaborations, and it is clear from it that it is becoming a global science superpower:
After more than a decade of strong investment in research and higher education, China is becoming an important partner for the scientific powerhouses of North America and Europe, and a growing hub for international collaboration. Mapping the many Chinese international collaborations in the Nature Index (see 'China's global network') demonstrates the extent to which Chinese scientists have become innovative contributors to, and leaders of, many international scientific communities. 
Like many nations, China's biggest collaborator in the Nature Index is the United States, the biggest index contributor overall, with a collaboration score more than five times that of its next strongest collaborating country, Germany (See 'China's closest links'). For China a contributing factor is the large number of Chinese researchers who have spent time in the global science superpower. A large diaspora of Chinese-heritage scientists around the world, particularly in the United States, have forged bonds between researchers in China and elsewhere.
Here is the map of articles from 2014 (you can click on the figure to enlarge it):



I am surprised at the relatively small levels of collaborations with both India and Pakistan. And stranger still, Saudi Arabia is the 12th largest collaborator (though, much of that collaboration is driven by Chinese researchers - but still, interesting). Here is the map of Chinese international collaborators:

Perhaps, most importantly, Nature Index reveals that Chinese collaborators are not just getting their names on the papers, but are major contributors to the papers (and skewed towards China in the case of UK):

It is just fascinating to see the stunning rise of China in the last decade or so in almost all spheres of life. You can read the full report here (you may need subscription to access it). 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Young Iraqis promoting science, evolution, and broader scientific thinking

by Salman Hameed


When it comes to Iraq, certain type of stories dominate the news media. They are mostly about violence, political issues, or sectarian strife. Or they focus on cultural issues (see for example see this documentary about a Iraqi Heavy Metal band). It is therefore wonderful to hear about a couple of Iraqi groups promoting science. From Niqash.org (H/T juancole.com): 
One of the most unique groups in this category is made up of young men and women who are fierce promoters of science as a partial answer to their community’s sectarian conflicts. The group is called Real Sciences and works together with another associated group called the Iraqi Translation Project. Both groups have their own websites and they also have popular Facebook pages – boasting over 130,000 Likes from fans altogether - and they regularly post translations of popular scientific articles on everything from why human beings enjoy running to how cavemen used their hearing to, most recently, the apparent presence of waterways on the planet Mars. 
Here are the websites of Real Sciences and Iraqi Translation Project. These sites look quite good and all of this is really laudable. But when I hear about people getting threats for talking about evolutionary theory, I become a little bit more skeptical. For example, here is the paragraph on this topic:
The group's translators often venture into fields not common among local Arabic readers such as the subject of evolutionary psychology. They also often cross red lines when topics touch on creationism versus Darwin's theory of evolution. One member has translated many important books by authors like British philosopher A.C. Grayling, US particle physicist and religious sceptic Victor Stenger, and US historian and noted atheist Richard Carrier. But he cannot be credited for his translations because he would be in danger; he uses an alias.
Lumping evolution with prominent atheist activists like A.C. Grayling, the late Victor Stenger, and Richard Carrier is problematic. Let me be clear here. I don't think they should be getting any threats - and they should be absolutely free to write about atheism as well. But unless you are in ISIS territory (but then they banned mathematics and social studies along with evolution) or are linking evolution to atheism, the reaction to evolution is usually not that strong. In neighboring Iran, evolution certainly is not an issue. But then I don't know much about Iraq, and evolution may indeed be a "red line"...but I will keep a grain of salt with me. Back to the article:
The group (Real Sciences) was formed in 2012 because the members’ passion for science was not being fulfilled by the local market. The Iraqi book market predominantly sells religious books, which often promote hatred and sectarianism, books about Communism and old pan-Arab style books with nationalistic leanings. There are not many science books or magazines available at Mutanabi Street, Baghdad's famous street of book sellers, which pretty much represents what is available in Iraq; if you can't find it on Mutanabi Street, you won't find it elsewhere in Iraq. 
With the occasional exception, the scientific magazines and books for sale on Mutanabi
Street were either very scarce or mostly outdated. In 2011 the Real Sciences group was formed, with less than five people at that stage. In 2013, some of the group members with a better command of English started the Iraqi Translation Project, volunteering to translate important scientific materials and promoting scientific breakthroughs via social media. Today the two groups work in parallel even though they no longer share members and are independent of one another.
Members of the Real Sciences group and the Iraqi Translation group helped immensely with the preparation of this populist initiative, volunteering not only their time and effort but also their personal libraries, only to find themselves sidelined by other members of the group later on. 
Security threats are the main problem hindering the group’s progress on the ground today, says Atheel Fawzi, one of the Real Sciences group’s Baghdad-based founders. In fact, many of the group members have left the country over the years even while their presence on social media is still very strong. 
“While the group’s members were effective contributors at many independent and government-sponsored conferences and events, the fear of personal prosecution and the exodus of many of our valuable friends in the group were what stopped us from organizing ourselves into a registered NGO,” Fawzi explains.
Read this fascinating article here

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

University Education for Syrian and Other Refugees

by Salman Hameed

As expected, things have gone south after the Paris attacks, and sane conversations have taken a hit. This is particularly true of anything about refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Now 25 Republican governors - including that of Massachusetts - are trying to block relocation of Syrian refugees to their respective states. If you are wondering how many Syrian refugees have been accepted so far by the US? According to the NYT, that number is just 1900 over four years! And if you want to see how low things are, some of the Republican candidates (Jeb!) want to select (or deselect) refugees based on their religion.

But there are other serious issues as well. The civil war in Syria has displaced millions of people, including those who were in colleges and universities. To gain any kind of stability in the future, it is vital that they get higher education. The prospects of reasonable jobs will be even slimmer without these opportunities. This is not just a moral issue (though that should be enough to act), but it is also about the stability of both the Middle East as well as the larger world. A few weeks ago, Nature brought up this issue:
Human-rights organizations are calling on universities and governments worldwide to invest more in the education of the hundreds of thousands of student refugees who are
Syrian refugees in Istanbul. Image from Nature
fleeing war-torn regions of the Middle East. 
They warn that the countries in conflict risk losing a future generation of scientists, engineers, physicians, teachers and leaders — and that university-aged refugees who have found shelter elsewhere represent a crucial opportunity to reverse some of the lost intellectual capital. “Each scholar and student that we lose now deepens the challenge of restoring the region when the violence eventually subsides,” says Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, a human-rights group headquartered in New York City. 
Quinn also cautions that allowing an educational void to develop in the Middle East could create a fertile recruiting environment for radical militias and terrorists. “It is deeply in the interest of Europe and the West to protect and invest in the intellectual capital of the region,” he says. “The failure to invest massively is foolishly shortsighted.”
Here are some numbers for refugees:
Conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as in Libya and other North African countries, have led to a record number of refugees. By the end of 2014, 60 million people worldwide were seeking refuge either in safer parts of their countries or abroad, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That is the highest number ever recorded, and almost double the 37.5 million displaced individuals a decade earlier. 
Syria, which had a population of nearly 21 million before the ongoing conflict there began four years ago, has produced the most refugees, with 7.6 million people displaced internally and a further 4 million forced to flee the country. Around 10% of those people are of university age, estimates James King, who is a senior researcher at the Scholar Rescue Fund, part of the Institute of International Education (IIE), a non-profit, educational-exchange organization in New York City. 
Yet the university system in Syria has all but collapsed, and few of the young people who have left the country are receiving higher education. Of those refugees who fled abroad, most have found temporary shelter in neighbouring countries — Turkey is hosting some 1.8 million, Lebanon 1.2 million and Jordan 630,000 — but only around 5% of the university-aged refugees in these countries are enrolled at local institutions, according to a March report funded by the European Commission (see go.nature.com/9ljpbl). 
Before the conflict began, 26% of young adults in Syria were receiving tertiary education. That leaves hundreds of thousands of people who would normally be attending university going without.
Of course there are other challenges as well. Places like Turkey have pressure to accommodate their own qualified graduates. Then there are challenges of language in another country. Plus, many of the refugees don't have the documents to show their prior academic records. All of this is not even counting the daily struggle of survival as a refugee in another country, and if they can even afford to go to a university - both in terms of time and money.

There are some good signs regarding this:
Scholarships are available. The IIE-led Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis, a network of higher-education institutions worldwide that was created in 2012, has provided US$4.5 million to support 333 Syrian students, including 158 scholarships to attend universities in Western countries. At least 20 similar initiatives also offer scholarships to institutions across the globe. However, demand far outstrips supply: these combined efforts have been able to provide only around 7,000 students with some form of tertiary education. 
Allan Goodman, president and chief executive of the IIE, notes the sheer scale of the crisis. “No organization or country is set up to deal with it,” he says, “The only thing we can do is — one by one, family by family, scholar by scholar, student by student — try to help individuals.” 
He also says that humanitarian efforts have tended to focus on saving lives and relieving misery among those fleeing conflict. “Education is the orphan of all these crises,” he says. “People are so concerned about food, water, shelter and other basics, and we haven’t thought enough about education.” The 1.5% of global humanitarian aid that goes to education, meanwhile, is spent largely on primary and secondary schooling, not higher education, which traditionally has been seen as a luxury. 
There are signs that attitudes are changing. In May, the European Union’s trust fund for the Syrian crisis committed €12 million (US$14.5 million) to assist 20,000 Syrian refugees in obtaining higher education through scholarships and other means. As the European Commission report notes, however, scholarships cannot meet the enormous need, which would amount to billions, not millions, of euros. 
It would be more cost effective to provide direct financial aid to universities in the countries with the most Syrian refugees, the report states
You can read the full article here (though you will need Nature subscription).

Now reading all this, please ponder on some of the thoughtless comments of several of the Republican governors and Presidential candidates regarding refugees. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

New Science ka Adda video: Urdu Floating at the Edge of Our Solar System

by Salman Hameed

We have been creating Science ka Adda videos in Urdu for the past 10 months. We are still experimenting and working on the format. In this episode, we have a new title sequence as well as English subtitles. This is the work of a team of some fantastic Hampshire College students that have been working with me. Here is the video: